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The Story of Knowledge

by Shree Premendra Priyadarshi


Many people are writing here and there that Modern Civilisation is a product of Judeo-Christian tradition. This is totally false. In fact, modern philosophy and science are a delayed fruition of the tree that was ancient India or in other words Hinduism. On the other hand, Semitic religions did everything to suppress and destroy the development of knowledge especially science. In fact, if any thing is the final product of the Judeo-Christian tradition i.e. the Religion of Abraham, it is the Islamic fundamentalism. It sounds absurd to discuss religion while writing the history of knowledge. But unfortunately some religions have suppressed knowledge so much over the ages that the story cannot be complete without discussing it.

Up to the fifteenth century, Europe was in the Dark Age. Historians call this period as the Dark Age because there was no knowledge like mathematics, science, medicine etc. in Europe. Long back, there was a brief period of enlightenment in a limited part of Europe, i.e. Greece from sixth century BC for a few centuries by import of knowledge from India. This period is called the first awakening of Europe and the reappearance of knowledge in the 16th century is called the Renaissance. We will briefly review how science came to Greece from the East for the first time, then how it was destroyed and scholars killed by Romans, and then by the fundamentalist Christians and finally Muslim invaders. And how knowledge survived and finally reached the West.


India has been the birthplace of science over ages. Takshashila University (in Pakistan now) was a great centre of learning where students from Iran and further west came to study. In the first millennium BC, Iran was highly Indianized and could be considered an expansion of Indian culture and civilisation. At the western fringe of it was Asia Minor, modern Turkey, which was a place of interaction between Greeks and Iranians (Turks did not live there then). In the 6th century BC, Iran expanded its boarders to include Assyria, Babylon, whole of Asia Minor and major parts of Greece. Egypt also fell to Iran soon after. Thus while Iran was engaged in expansion on its western boarders, its eastern part was in peace , continuously receiving Indian knowledge and religion. Zoroaster, fifth century BC, lived in the eastern reaches of Persia, not far from India, and his belief to wage war on evil ,and the idea of constant struggle between good and bad , light and darkness, is believed by the scholars of history of theology, to be Indian (Upanishadic) in origin. Monotheism had reached a full development in the Upanishad literature in India, from which Zoroastrianism, Judaism , and also Akhenaton of Egypt (1350 BC) had borrowed it. Upanishadic knowledge did after the death of its only patron Akhenatan. Mithraism was another branch of Vedic religion which spread widely over Iran, South Europe and Egypt. Mithra is a Vedic God (the Sun-God). Mithras celebrated the birthday of God (Sun) on the 25th December which became adapted by the Christians as the date of birth of God (Jesus). These religions of Indian origin in Middle East, introduced the principle of righteousness and monotheism to Judaism and Christianity and thereby to Islam later. Hence the ethical monotheism, the back bone of Judaism, Christianity and Islam found its origin in Hinduism.

Apart from these, Indian wandering monks travelled the breadth and length of this whole area. From Western sources we know that in the third century BC, a big Indian community lived at Alexandria in Egypt with their Vedic sannyasins as well as Buddhist bhikshukas. Indian sea- traders also dominated the sea -trade up to the period of rise of Islam. It was under this background that the Indian religions, philosophies and science travelled to the West to enlighten it in the ancient times.

It is also relevant to clarify here that the central dogma of Hinduism is knowledge. It believes that knowledge of truth is the ultimate goal of life. Hinduism encourages its followers to seek out the truth. Hinduism also recognises that although there is only one absolute truth, because of limitations of human sense organs and mind , truth may be conceived differently by different individuals under different circumstances. Therefore tolerance for differing opinions was preached. Tolerance for difference of opinion is the first requirement for growth of knowledge in any society. The sages said knowledge is relative. Thus Hinduism gave the theory of Relativity for the first time and also tried to formulate a unified field theory in the field of Physics, in the form of the theory of Brahman for the first time. Law of cause and effect was doctrinated, excluding Divine Will out of the chain of cause and effects and karma, not the fate was responsible for what people got in their lives. The doctrine of Karma making people responsible for their acts and denial of the doctrine of divine will and fate were the first seeds of modern attitude and scientific temper. Truth was considered a subject of investigation, not of belief. Every cause has an effect and this effect becomes a cause or another effect. The Universe (samsara) is but total of the complex system of causes and effects flowing in time. Hindu religion encouraged people to know and experience God rather than to believe Him. Because of this investigative temper, India was ahead of all other nations in science and mathematics till her subjugation by Muslim conquest in the 12th century.

On the other hand, Jewish religion was based on the faith that only their God is real and all others false. Hence it was not only belief in one God but it was also a belief in correctness of only one religion. Christians also adopted the same attitude and Islam also asserted the same. Fighting the nonbeliever was considered a prime duty of the believers. The words of the God as revealed to the Prophet is final and anything contradicting them has to be destroyed. This gave the concept of heresy.


History of knowledge in Europe starts with Pythagoras. Pythagoras, in the 6th century BC was the first European(Greek) who brought Indian knowledge and mathematics to Greece in an organised way. He was the first European to convert completely to Hinduism also. Pythagoras was born around 560 BC, on Samos an island not far from the coast of the Asia Minor .His mother was probably a native of Samos but his father was probably a Phoenician. His life history was recorded from oral traditions a couple of centuries after his death, and even that information has survived only in fragments.

After studying the very best available in his country (music and gymnastics) he set out for more. He went to Egypt which had already received Indian Geometry through its contact with Indians as well as with Indo-Iranians and had then scholars teaching geometry and a bit of astrology. During his stay in Egypt, Egypt was invaded by Iran and he was brought to Iran as a captive , where he stayed at Babylon and other cities. Babylon was no more a Semitic city by that time, and it had been thoroughly Indo-Iranized in language, religion and knowledge at least a century earlier, when the Medes and the Persians thoroughly overran the country of Babylon, and it was now a part of Persian Empire and culturally a part of Indo-Iran. Probably, Pythagoras went to the Punjab and thence to the Himalayas as well. It thoroughly changed his life style and thinking. He permanently rejected the long Greek robes, and adopted trousers turning away from Ionian culture and identifying himself strongly with the East. Before Pythagoras, trousers were not known to Europe. Woollen trousers were worn by Indians living at high altitudes in the Himalayas, like people of Nepal, Laddakh, Tibet, Kashmir etc. (The statue of Indian king Kanishka, found in Afghanistan, is wearing a long double-breasted coat and trousers). Variants of trousers like pyjamas and shalwar were worn in the northern plains of Indo-Iran. The costume which Pythagoras introduced into the Europe was going to become the ethnic costume of the West!! Having lived twenty years in the east, he returned to Europe and settled in Croton, a Greek speaking town of South Italy. He formed an order of ascetics devoted to develop a sense of community with the help of religious injunctions and instructions. This was aimed to give the members a real insight into the concordant nature of universe. He preached that the world, like human society, was held together by the orderly arrangement of its parts, and it then became their clear duty to cultivate order in their own lives. He was now acting as an ambassador of Hinduism to the West. Pythagorians believed in transmigration of life through different life forms. His contemporary poet Xenophanes writes: “Pythagoras was once passing by when a man was beating a dog .He took pity on the animal and said, Stop it; Indeed it is the soul of a friend of mine; I recognised it when I heard its voice. Pythagoras was even able to recall the details of his own previous incarnations.” Pythagoras preached the essential unity and kinship of all forms of life which is the fundamental principle of Hinduism (and also of other later Indian religions. He preached non-violence and banned killing and eating animals in his order of ascetics. He was a firm believer in Karmic law and preached immortality of existence. The human body is temporary ,therefore one must purify the soul by abstaining from bodily pleasure. By these means soul would ultimately win release from the wheel of becoming and realise its true divine status. Pythagoreans believed that anyone who downgraded his life by immoral and impure acts will be born as animal in his next life. A particular type of sayings, he named akousmata (things heard) which were probably Greek translation of the shruti (Sk. Things heard). In his brotherhood, members were of two kinds. Acousmatics would visit him and seek guidance on how to lead a simple ,non-violent and virtuous way of life. Others called Mathematikoi lived inside the math (monastery) and studied the nature of reality more deeply. From mathematik is derived the word mathematics. Pythagorians studied and further developed the science of mathematics and philosophy which was brought to them from India by their great Guru.

The reaction started by Pythagoras resulted in a boom of scholarship in Greece and finally we find authorities like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Heraclides, Eratosthenes, Archemedes, Euclid etc. During this whole period transfer of knowledge from India to Greece was never interrupted. This may be assumed from the fact that whatever theory was given in India e.g. atomic theory, theory of micro-organism, theory of non-dualism, Brahman, atman, the five elements (the Greeks accepted only four, and did not include space ), medicine, the three doshas or whatever; it appears in Greek translation soon after. It was a good thing. A living and growing civilisation is always ready to find out and assimilate whatever valuable it notices in other civilisations.


After Alexander established the Hellenistic Empire comprising Egypt, Asia Minor, Iran, Bactria and North -West India (including Punjab and modern Afghanistan), the transfer of learning from India to Greece was very much increased. Alexander himself rounded up hundreds of Brahmin scholars and took them to Greece to increase the wealth of knowledge of his country. Tens of thousands of soldiers married Indo-Iranian women and took them to Greece. Trade routs and diplomatic channels were also established which would facilitate flow of knowledge from India to Greece. When Alexander came to India he was highly impressed by the Takshashila university in Punjab. Being inspired by that, Alexander also established a great university at Alexandria in Egypt. This was the first university ever built outside of India. In Alexandria, scholars from Greece, Iran, India and Egypt would come to study and to teach. A large number of Indian texts were translated into Greek and kept in the library at Alexandria.

Much later , Jesus Christ started his religion. Jesus was very much like an Indian ascetic. Like Hindu saints, he followed renunciation and practised celibacy, and preached non-violence. It is claimed that he had been to India and had received spiritual training in Indian tradition. Whatever be the fact, we find that many of the sayings and parables of Jesus, Pythagoras and the Upanishads are common. When Christianity was taking shape, that part of the world was inhabited by Hindus as well. When they converted to Christianity, they introduced many things to this new religion e.g. folding hands in Indian style whenever praying to God; ringing typical Indian style bells in the churches; introduction of a circular solar halo round the picture of Jesus etc. Practice of celibacy, renunciation of material life by the monks and asceticism adopted by Christian saints were Hindu influence on Christianity, because they are not found in other Semitic religions. But the vast majority of people who initially accepted Christianity were Jews. Therefore, they brought in with them the Old Testament(the Jewish scripture) and most of the beliefs and practices of the Jews. Therefore after the death of Jesus, Christians now believed , as the Jews did, that only theirs' is the right religion and only theirs' is the true God. Sorcery, miracle, witchcraft, mysticism, idol-worship, etc. are satanic acts and people accused to be involved in them would be killed. Raising any doubt or suggesting modification in religion was termed heresy, punishable with death. Fighting the non-Christians to convert or eliminate them was considered religious duty. This new religion was very anti-science, because science did not support what this religion preached.

Destruction of Greece and Demolition of Alexandria

In the third and second BC Rome rose up as a big power .Having no respect for knowledge, they destroyed much of Greek civilisation. They expanded their empire to include North Africa, Asia Minor and South Europe. Greek tradition of learning was disrupted in Europe, scholars killed, cities destroyed, although it continued in Alexandria in Egypt. A few Greek scholars escaped being killed in Europe as well, who continued their pursuit of knowledge although in a low profile up till the Byzantine period. It was Justinian, the Byzantine Emperor who in 529 closed the nine-hundred-year- old Academy of Plato in Athens and completely destroyed the last remains of Greek knowledge in Europe, claiming it was a hotbed of paganism and heresy. The scholars were killed or converted. Many of these Greek scholars, fearing for their lives and intellectual freedom fled to Persia, where they established a kind of Academy in exile.

In early fourth century Constantine who had already become Christian, acceded to Roman power. Christianity now became the state religion. Nonbelievers (non-Christians) were persecuted, burned and murdered by animated Christian mobs called zealots. Mathematicians, scientists and philosophers were particularly targeted. Europe was entering into an era called Dark Age with complete elimination of all the works of science, mathematics and philosophy. But University of Alexandria was surviving still in Egypt. In AD 389 Christian Emperor Theodosius ordered Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria to destroy all pagan monuments. Hindus were also called pagan by them. The Christian mobs burned the pagan scholars and the library. Even after this, many scholars survived and continued their work. One of these was Hyptia, a great scholar of mathematics, and one of the few female mathematicians in history. She was wise ,learned ,virtuous and beautiful. There was much mistrust among Christians, Jews and Pagans, but Hyptia taught everyone. She wrote commentaries on Euclid, Apollonius and on Arithmetica. She wrote books discussing new mathematical problems and solving old ones. She also wrote books on astronomy, compiled tables of positions of celestial bodies and designed several scientific instruments. It was a time of revival of Pythagorianism, the Greek form of Hinduism, as a Hellenistic (Greek) alternative of the rising tide of Christianity.

In AD 412, a fanatic Christian named Cyril became the patriarch of Alexandria and began the campaign to rid the city of both Jews and the Pythagorian scholars. Hyptia was asked to accept Christianity several times. But she always refused. That commitment cost her life. In AD 415, she was set upon a mob of Christian zealots, dragged from her carriage and beaten to death. In the account of a fifth century author: they stripped her stark naked: they raze the skin and rend the flesh of her body with sharp shells, until the death departed from her body: they quarter her body: they bring her quarters unto a place called Cinaron and burn them to ashes.... This is only one out of thousands of such atrocities which was going to finish scientific knowledge, as well Indian influence, from the West for a thousand years.

Even after such attacks, Alexandrian school was surviving for further two hundred years. This time it was Islam. Caliph Omar : In AD 642 Caliph Omar overran Egypt. Victorious Caliph ordered, those books that were contrary to Koran should be destroyed and furthermore those books that confirmed the Qoran were superfluous and they too must be destroyed. Manuscripts were used to stove the public baths. The University library was torched to ashes. The volume of manuscripts was so large that it kept on burning for six months. Needless to add that all the scholars were slaughters except those who embraced Islam. All over Egypt and Libya books were searched out and burned. As a result of this, the history and literature of Egypt was lost for ever ,only a fraction of it to be rediscovered later by the Europeans out of the Pyramids. Greek literature in Egypt was also lost and the same happened to Babylonian history.

Some of the Greek scholars of Alexandria who embraced Islam and survived, were able to smuggle some of the manuscripts to their homes. Later they translated these into Arabic language. These translations included Greek medicine (called Unani now), much of Greek philosophy e.g. Plato (Aflatoon), Aristotle (Arastu), Socrates (Sukrat) etc. It contained Alexandrian sciences as well as six of the original thirteen volumes of the mathematical text called Arithmetica, seven volumes of it being lost for ever. The Arithmetica was translated many centuries later into Latin.(Arithmetica, Elements, Surya Siddhanta and the Indian books on algebra, trigonometry, and arithmetic contained the basic knowledge which would later propel Europe into modern age.)

It is to be remembered here that all of Greek medicine ,all of Greek books of philosophy and science were already burned to ashes in Greece and Europe by Christian zealots. End of knowledge in the West was complete now.


In India , scenario was different. Science, mathematics, logic, philosophy, art, everything was growing at an unlimited pace. Religion's central dogma was knowledge, and experience, experiment and reasoning were accepted as very important means of obtaining knowledge . Arguments were encouraged in religious matters and religious philosophy and metaphysics had to be based on scientific knowledge. This scientific bias of Hinduism had led to growth of science much earlier in India from which Pythagoras and many other people of the West had been benefited over ages.

Earth is round was never disputed in India. So much so that you will find Varahavatar lifting the rounded earth on His tusks in many sculpture. You will find a lion (Lord Buddha) fighting with a dragon (Ignorance) which is holding a round earth by its tail, in many north-eastern Indian Buddhist icons. Every Hindu is aware of the metaphoric story of the demon king Hiranyaksha, who finding the earth as a round ball , seized it to play with it ; then Lord Vishnu had to kill him to save the earth. The law of conservation of matter and energy and the law of cause and effect were the two fundamental laws of Hinduism. Anybody not accepting these two laws would be considered a nastic. The agnostics and people who refuted the existence of God were considered equally respected as others. The religion or belief, was a matter of personal choice and could not be enforced on to anybody by either the State or the family or the society. Clergy and priests in Western sense did not exist. Priest would come to perform a rite only if an individual requested him . Needless to add that fatwa or religious decree kind of things were beyond imagination in India.

The last in the glorious tradition of scholars was Bhaskaracharya , who invented the gravitational force also. David E. Duncan writes in his book The Calendar, " After Brahmagupta, India continued to produce noted mathematicians, including Bhaskara (1114--1185), considered by mathematicians to be the most brilliant in his field anywhere during the twelfth century." At this period North India fell to Muslim invaders and Mohammed Ghouri established the Delhi Sultanate. All the great Indian Universities viz Taxilla, Nalanda, Odantapuri and Vikramashila were burnt down to ashes and all inmates killed by Muslim commanders propelling India into darkness. Scholars were hunted down and Indian system of education was abolished being replaced by Islamic Muderssas. All education needs state funding. Once state came under Muslim Rule, all indigenous knowledge vanished except Sanskrit Grammar, a bit of mathematics, logic, medicine and philosophy which were preserved by individual efforts of practitioners and scholars. To sustain their lives these chaps had to serve as priests in the households or face starvation Pressed under excessive land revenue and communal taxes(like jezia, birth tax, cremation tax) common people did not have enough money to donate to maintain the life of scholars. This led to further demoralisation of the scholars. Once the light of knowledge

was gone, ignorance and social evils embraced India from all sides. Even the books of History were burnt down and the India of 18th Century had no information about her pre-Muslim history. But many of the books dealing with religion, philosophy and history were taken to Sri Lanka, Burma, Tibet and China from which much of Indian History has been reconstructed by now. It is remarkable to note that once the Muslim Rule was gone from India in 1858, India immediately produced a great mathematician again (in 1887). David Duncan writes " In 1887 another mathematics genius was borne in India, Srinivasa Ramanujan, who tragically died at the age of 33." Ramanujan solved many disturbing mathematical problems although he never had any Western education.

Transfer of knowledge from India to Arabic language

Duncan writes in The Calender "In 773, some 250 years after Aryabhath's death, a delegation of diplomats from lower Indus River Valley arrived in the new Arab capital of Baghdad. Dressed in bright coloured silks, turbans and glittering gems, ... Arriving at last outside the gates of al-Mansur's (the founder of the Abbasid dynasty) magnificent city This particular delegation also brought with them an astronomer, ..Kanaka. An expert on eclipse, he carried with him a small library of Indian astronomical texts to give to the Caliph, including the Surya Siddhanta and the works of Brahmagupta(containing material on Aryabhata) . Nothing more is known about this Kanaka. The first known reference to him was written some five hundred years later by an Arab historian named al-Qifti.

According to al-Qifti, the caliph was amazed by the knowledge in the Indian texts. He immediately ordered them to be translated into Arabic and their essence compiled into a textbook that became known as the Great Sindhind (Sindhind is the Arabic form of the Sanskrit word Siddhanta )." Incidents like this were necessary " in order to bring the works of India into the sphere of the early Islamic scholars, whence they would travel to Christian Europe through Syria, Sicily and Arab controlled Spain. A version of the Great Sindhind would be translated into Latin in 1126. This was one of the dozens of critical documents that would contribute to the knowledge base needed to propel Europe into the modern age" Duncan adds.

The pre-Islamic Iran had Zoroasterian, Mithraic, Shaivite and Buddhist followers. These religions can be called Hindu or Hindu-like and were not against investigation of truth. Iran also had the privilege of being just adjacent to India. Therefore the knowledge was quite developed in Iran at the time of Islamic invasion When Iran fell to Islam, people accepted Islam but the undercurrent of Hinduism remained flowing here and there in the form of Sufism and Yoga-Mysticism. Early Sufis were quite vocal of their philosophy. They were persecuted and many killed by the orthodox Muslims. Many of the later ones adopted all the external features of Islam, but maintained Hindu ideas and attitude of tolerance in philosophy and teachings. The pre-Islamic Iran had a rich intellectual interaction with India, Greece and Alexandria. It had acted as a transmitter of Indian knowledge to Egypt for two millennia and to Greece for one millennium. When Justinian persecuted the Nestorian people, they had fled to Baghdad with sacs of Greek scientific texts in the sixth century AD.(Nestorian or Assyrian or Eastern Christians were the people who believed that Jesus was human as well as divine. After persecution they fled away to Iran,pre-Islamic Arabia and south India. Indian Nestorians became re-affiliated to the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century.) Although majority of the pre-Islamic literature had been destroyed in Iran by Muslim crusaders, some Pahlawi and Greek literature could survive and got translated into Arabic later.

It was at the time of the third Caliph that the capital of Islamic Empire was shifted to the Iranian city of Baghdad (in modern Iraq). After the initial phase of victories and overrunning other nations, which lasted about a century after the death of the Prophet, the Caliphs from al-Mansur onwards started showing interest in science and philosophy. These people had come out of the deserts of Arabia where few were literate, they brought little material culture to the ancient civilisations now under their sway. The initial reaction of the Muslims overrunning these civilisations was that of hatred for the infidel, causing large scale destruction of knowledge wherever Islam went. But credit should be given to the early Abbasid Caliphs, who transformed his people into a knowledge loving nation, although only for a few centuries.

The period of the reign of al-Mansur and his successors, Caliph Haroun ar-Rashid(786-809) and his son al-Mamun (809-833) was the time when Indian texts were brought to Baghdad in large scale and were translated into Arabic. They were studied along with the Arabic translation of the knowledge of the Greek Alexandrines and Nestorians which had escaped destruction by the army of Caliph Omar as well as surviving bits of Iranian scholarship. Eventually they were synthesised into the forms which would later reach Europe. Scholars, engineers, scientists and artists flocked to Baghdad and were honoured and well paid. Many came bearing manuscripts. This was a great era of translation. The project was made infinitely simpler when the first paper factory opened in aghdad in 794, using a process the Arabs earned from a Chinese prisoner captured during the 712 conquest of Samarkand , in modern Uzbekistan. This art would be passed on to Europe centuries later in the 12th century.

As the translations of Indian manuscripts began to stack up, al-Mamun ordered a museum and library complex to be built which was completed by 833 and became known as the House of Wisdom (Bait al-hikma). It was now only third in size in the world after the libraries of Taxila and Nalanda Universities. The Zero, decimal system, Indian numerals, astronomy, astrology, trigonometry, ayurveda, chemistry, everything even up to the Hindu dream-analysis, had now reached Baghdad, and the local Irani scholars were now in a position to formulate further theorums. Fascinated by Indian astronomy, Caliph al-Mamun ordered an observatory built in Baghdad in 829 and one soon after outside of Damascus.

Another less well known fact is that almost all of the scholars known as Arabic to the posterity were actually Iranian e.g. al-Khwarizmi, al-Biruni etc and some were Spanish but they wrote in Arabic, Arabic being the language of the Emperor. On the other hand not much intellectual activity was going on in Arabian peninsula, which was still the centre of Islamic religious activities.

The Indian ideas reaching Baghdad sparked off an intellectual evolution. When the Baghdadis came to know from the translations of the works of Aryabhata that the earth is a sphere of a diameter of 8316 miles, rotating on its axis, many of them believed it and wanted to measure it themselves too. Similar inspirations led to development of experimentation in the Abbasid people. It is a fact that the Arabs who were always engaged in expanding their frontiers into the Europe did never again invade India after initial victory over Sind and in Sind also, genocide and forced conversion was stopped soon. Was it partly because may be they developed a kind of respect for India? The word for mathematics in Arabic is Hindi sat meaning the 'Indian Art'. One of the greatest mathematicians in the Arabic empire was al-Khwarismi(full name , Abu Jafar Mohammed ibn Musa al-Khwarismi, 780-850) who was summoned to Baghdad in 820 by al-Mamun and appointed the 'first astronomer' and later the head of library. He led two scientific missions to India to meet scholars and collect manuscripts. Based on them he wrote a book 'Kitab al-jabr wa al-muqabalah'(Calculation by addition and subtraction, 'jabr' here is an Arbi-ised form of Apabhramsha language word 'jor' meaning addition, and not the Arabic word meaning 'difficult'; algebra is a short Latinised form of the word ).Later its Latin translation became a standard textbook of mathematics in European universities. He wrote out the oldest surviving ziz--set of astronomical tables-- surviving from the Indian charts brought to Baghdad by Kanaka. This ziz later made the journey to Spanish Cordoba and onwards to the rest of Europe where a Latin translation made in 1126 became one of the most influential works on astronomy in medieval Europe. These are to count just a few of the books al-Khwarismi wrote on mathematics ,the Indian art. In 825, al-khwarismi wrote on the concept of logarithm (this is a Latinised form of his nane itself), zero and positional notation system after learning them from the Indian texts especially Brahmagupta, in his book 'Algoritmi de numero Indorum' (this is the title of the Latin translation). This book (in its Arabic form, which unfortunately is not available any more) reached Spain (which was under Arab control at that time) where, in the 990's, Gerbert of Aurillac taught the Hindu numbers to his students, but it could not be very popular in Europe. In c.1100, an Englishman Robert of Chester visited Spain and translated al-Khwarismi's little book into Latin in 1120. This and other translations of al-Khwarismi inspired writing of several Latin textbooks on the 'new arithmetics' including description of the decimal system and positional notation. Still it took several more centuries before Europeans entirely abandoned Roman numerals despite their clumsiness and inferiority to Hindu numerals (D.208).

Another standout at Baghdad was al-Battani (c. 850-929), known in Europe as Albategneus who studied Indian astronomy and expounded trigonometric methods to show that that the distance from the earth to the sun varies during the year.

Half a century later another Irani (but known as Arab) astronomer, Abu ar-Rayhan Mohammed ibn Ahmed al-Biruni (call him al-Biruni; 973-1048) was born in central Asia. He extensively studied the Arabic translation of the Indian mathematics and astronomy and by the age of thirty, had written at least eight works. Most important of them was one in which he discussed arguments for and against the earth's rotating on its axis, taking up the debate of Aryabhata versus other Indian astronomers. He went to India with an invading Muslim army of Mehmood Gaznawi . There he learned Sanskrit and studied every ancient text he could find. He compiled his findings into a book called Kitab-ul-Hind (Kitab fi tahqiq ma li 'l-Hind). This offers a remarkably candid and critical analysis of Hindu mathematics and sddhantas as well as philosophy and religion. He wrote a note on Patanjali's Yogasutra, Bhagavadgita and Sankhyakarika. But he also seems to be under fear of fanatics and always writes in reference to what Indians believed. Like, the Indians believe that the earth is five billion years old which is wrong because the Islam says it was created only four thousand and five years back. But overall, he greatly admires Hindu genius and metempsychosis. He discusses in detail the Hindu concept of cycle of evolution and dissolution and re-evolution of universe. He also describes the Hindu concept of geography. He mentions, the Hindus describe an island which is diametrically opposite Rome on the globe. These ideas were later translated into Latin from which people like Columbus would gain inspiration to try reach India by going westward and that would lead to discovery of Americas.

Translation of Hindu Literature in India

Before Taxila, Nalanda, Odantpuri, Vikramshila and other Indian universities were burned down and their inmates killed by the Musliminvaders, much of Indian science (especially mathematics, astrology, medicine and philosophy ) had already been translated into Arabic.

The destruction of Indian literature was so extensive that no record of pre-Islamic history remained in India. In fact whatever systemic history of ancient India we know now was reconstructed by the Europeans with the help of the Indian historical books which survived mainly in Sri Lanka and to a lesser extent in China, Myanmar, Tibet etc. plus non-historical religious oriented puranas then archaeological remains and the Vedas and most extensively by imagination.

But still there were too many manuscripts scattered over the vast country which escaped destruction . These related mainly to philosophy and religion. Amir Khusraw was impressed by the depth of learning among Indians and their ability to speak any language. He greatly admired the Brahmanas for their ability to teach all subjects, who had devised the numerical system, written Kalila wa Dimma on the art of government and invented chess. Although a Muslim, chauvinist he admitted that the Hindus believe in the unity and eternity of God. Nakhshabi translated two Sanskrit texts. Following his conquest of Nogarkot in 1362 Firuz Shah Tughlaq acquired 1300 books from Jwalamukhi temple. He commissioned Sanskrit scholars to translate some of them into Persian. On the basis f the translation of works on physics and astronomy, 'Izzu 'd-Din Khalid Khani compiled the Dala 'il-Firuz Shahi. 'Abdu'l 'Aziz Shams Baha-i Nuri translated Brihatsamhita into Persian (it was earlier translated by al-Biruni into Arabic). Sultan Zaynu'l-'Abidin of Kashmir, Sultan Sikandar Lodi and several other Muslim rulers ordered the translation of various Sanskrit works into Persian with a view to enriching their language. Akbar established a translation bureau(the Maktab Khana) for translation of Sanskrit texts into Persian and Arabic. Yet more Sanskrit books were translated during Jehangir's period. Dara Shukoh translated Upanishads into Persian. Later Anquetil Duperron translated the Persian version into French and Latin. This Latin version influenced many intellectuals in Europe including German scholar Schopenhauer who found its study 'the solace to my life' and 'the solace to my death'.

Knowledge moves West

The Arabs ruled over a vast area from Indus to Spain in the eighth century when they started getting knowledge from India. As the Arabic schools were established all over the Abbasid empire to produce a regular supply of clergy and teachers, the Arabic version of Indian knowledge spread all over the empire. Caliph Abd ar-Rahman III (891--961), a patron of art and learning built a massive new library at Cordoba in Spain and filled it with a vast treasure trove of manuscripts brought from Baghdad. The library contained 400,000 volumes. By 976, Hindu numbers started appearing in modified form which were going to be the fore runners of modern International form of Indian numerals.

Some of the earliest translations of Arabic manuscripts into Latin were penned in northern Spain beginning in the mid-tenth century at the monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll. In the tenth century, Gerbert of Aurillac (c. 946--1003) learned the Indian counting system from the Moors of Spain who in 999, became the Pope Sylvester II. In 990s he taught the Hindu numerals to his students and monks. H e trekked to northern Spain to carry home Latin translations of Arab treatise on abacus and astrolabe. He encouraged adoption of this systems especially by merchants. Needless to say that the new numbers were going to revolutionise accounting which was essential for leading Europe into a successful mercantile community.

Another was Adelard of Bath (c.1075--1160). He journeyed by ship along the new eastern trade routes to the Crusader held coast of Syria, where he translated Euclid into Latin using Arabic translation of the riginal. Most prolific of all these early translators was the Italian Greard of Cremona (c.1114--1187). Fluent in Greek and Arabic, he was leading figure in the new 'College of Translators' set up by Spanish archbishop Raymond after the capture of Toledo (and its library). He rendered into Latin the Arabic texts by Galen, Aristotle, Euclid, al-Khwarismi and Ptolemy, among many others. Some of the works of the ancient Greeks were translated back to Greek from Arabic at this time.

We have already seen how al-Khwarismi's Algoritmi de numero Indorum was translated into Latin by an Englishman Robert of Chester living in Spain in 1120. .The Indian astronomical works as translated by al-Khwarismi was translated into Latin in Cordoba in1126. This brought Indian numbers, arithmatics , algebra and Astronomy to the Latin world. This contained the works of Aryabhata. Aryabhata's work contained fractions, quadratic equations, sums of power series, concept of version (1-- cos) , equations of imaginary numbers (square root of -- 1), etc. He wrote that the planets and the moon do not have their own light , but reflected the light of the sun. The earth rotated on its axis causing day and night and also round the sun causing year. Aryabhata gave the radii of planetary orbits in terms of orbit of earth/sun. His calculation of earth's diameter at 8316 miles was very accurate. Incredibly he believed that the orbits of planets are ellipse and not circles. He correctly explained the causes of eclipse of sun and moon. This is just to site a brief example of the nature of literature which was now in the hands of Europeans who had been counting with their fingers till that time. This was going to provide the knowledge base required for further scientific discoveries to Kepler, Copernicus and Newton.

The translation of Hindu-Arabic literature continued till the end of sixteenth century. Apart from Spain, and Italy, other centres of translation were Syria, Damascus, Palermo and Sicily. The Arab emirs governing Sicily imported texts from Baghdad and had a rich library there. A Christian, Roger Guiscard (1031--1101), son of a baron of Normandy, conquered Sicily in 1072 when he renamed himself Roger I, Count of Sicily. His son Roger II ruled over Sicily and southern Italy. These two Rogers and their successor, Frederick II encouraged translation of Arabic texts. Frederick was elected the Holy Roman Emperor in 1220. He surrounded himself from philosophers and sages from Baghdad and Syria ,dancing girls from India and Iran. His efforts introduced many Indian elements into the classical dance of the West.

Frederick founded the University of Naples in 1224 endowing it with a large collection of Arabic manuscripts .From Spain he brought a translator who created a Latin summary of Aristotle's biological and zoological works. The library was endowed with a large collection of Arabic manuscripts of ancient Greek and Indian scholars as well as commentaries of the Arab scholars on them. Copies of Latin translation were sent to universities in Paris and Bologna. . Frederick also led the Fifth Crusade to Palestine in 1228--1229 , successfully and recaptured Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth.

All these efforts brought back to Europe the works of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the Greek Medicine which were earlier destroyed from Europe by over zealous Christian zealots. It also brought to Europe the works of Indian genius in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, medicine, physics, chemistry, philosophy and music. Europeans learned the art of paper-making from the Arabs and printing press from the Chinese. In 1450s Gutenburg operated the first European printing press in Germany. The Europeans were very slow to absorb this much of knowledge and new type of numbers. Much of the work in universities and monasteries was limited to copying the manuscripts or to translating them. They were not able to use decimals until a Dutch mathematician Simon Stevin (1548--1620) explained the system in a book called La Thiende (The Tenth). After him, Magini and Christopher Clauvius used them in their works. It was Galileo in the late sixteenth century who for the first time tried to understand what was containd in the Latin translation of the Sindhind of Brahmagupta. Once he understood the theory of rotation of earth he had to suffer the persecution of the Church. In 1621, Bachet published the Latin version of Arithmetica from Arabic. By the year this time, the era of Europe's Dark Age was over. Understanding of science led to removal of Church's domination in everyday life. People were now able to work further on the subjects of science beyond the works of the Hindus which was presented to them after being translated twice-- first in Arabic and then in Latin. The decline of Christian faith coupled with rise of knowledge ushered Europe into all round development and they came in a position to dominate world. Now knowledge is quite established all over the world, except in a few pockets of fundamentalist ideologies.


  • 1. Margaret Wertheim,Pythagoras' Trousers, Fourth Estate Ltd , London, 1997, pp.17-24, 33-37.
  • 2. David E. Duncan, The Calendar, Fourth Estate, London, 1999, pp.150-210
  • 3. S.A.A. Rizvi, The Wonder That Was India, Part II,Rupa & Co, Bombay,1999, pp.251-257.
  • 4. A L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India, Part I, Rupa & Co, Bombay, 1999, pp.486-487.
  • 5. Simon Singh, The Fermat's Last Theoram, Fourth Estate, London, (destruction of Alexandria, and Arithmetica )
  • 6. Encyclopedia Britannica on website ; Majority of the topics and names discussed in this article occure in it.

Appendix I

Decline of Knowledge in the Arab World Baghdad was destroyed first by a civil war among the later Abbasids. Then in 1258 the invading Mongol army of Changhiz Khan destroyed it to the last brick. Although the Islamic Empire was reconstructed, the scientific temper of the Abbasids could never be restored to the Arabs. Later when Abdul Wahab started his movement, Muslims would look more and more into religious books rather than investigate truth in material world.

Appendix II

Why Indians did not pursue their quest of knowledge after 12th century? India had a several thousand years old tradition of education, research and training. After Delhi fell to the Turk rulers, the great Indian universities were demolished. Libraries were burnt down. The village schools spread all over the country got starved of funds. The Govt funds would now go to muderssas which would teach Koran and Arabic and Persian languages. Even the Indian texts on science and philosophy were translated into Arabic and Persian. Persian was maintained as the medium of instruction till the British took over the governance of India, so that Indians could not take benefit of education. A false allegation has been labeled to the Brahmanas that they were not imparting education to the masses. But the fact is that the Brahmanas themselves quickly got deprived of education and became ignorant within a few generation time after establishment of Turkish rule. Now Brahmana became a caste and lost the Varna character. As it became a non-sustainable vocation, teaching disappeared from the Hindu people. The few Brahmanas who had knowledge, freely imparted it even to the Muslims. Al-Biruni and Amir Khusaraw etc were taught Sanskrit language and literature without any consideration of caste or religion.

The Muslim rule converted Brahmanas into priest. This fact can be verified by carefully reading history. In pre-Muslim period we never find mention of a Brahmana who lived in a village doing puja-work (priest craft). They lived as scholars or teachers. They could attend a yajna done by a king as a respected guest. But such occasions were very infrequent. Abolition of education profession compelled the Brahmanas to adopt new professions. Some become village priests. But the majority of Brahmanas never adopted the degrading job of priests. Many Brahmanas who hated priest-craft became farmers like the Chitpawan, Anavil, Mohiyal, Nagar, Tyagi etc and survived on agriculture.

Appendix III

Conclusion : The knowledge has survived in spite of all odds against it. Not only in Science , but also in the field of Modern philosophy, West has borrowed heavily from India. Europe got all of Indian logic and philosophy through the channel of the Arabs, and earlier through the Neo-Platonians. Later when the British came to India they had first hand knowledge of Indin philosophy. Goethe, Schopenhauer and most of the German philosopher had studied Indian philosophy and most of them got influenced by it. They in turn influenced the other students of philosophy by their writings. The monism of Fichte and Hegel might never have taken taken forms they did if it had not been for Anquetil-Duperron's translation of the Upanishads and the works of pioneer Indologists. In English-speaking world the strongest Indian influence was felt in America where Emerson, Thoreau and other New England writers avidly studied much Indian religious literature in translation, and exerted immense influence on their contemporaries and successors, notably Walt Whitman" writes A. L. Basham.

The list of authors who admitted Indian influence on them is very big and includes such authors as Carlyle, Richard Jeffries, Edward Carpenter, Stephen Zwig, Romya Rolland, Jung, etc. Indian influence is visible on all the major authors of Existential school as well as the Humanistic school of philosophers.

At the moment the West is trying to understand the yoga, meditation and transcendental states. The concept of kindness to the animals, vegetarianism, universal brotherhood, tolerance for differing faiths, etc. are gradually becoming more and more popular. Ancient Indian thoughts preserves enormous potentialities for the future of humanity.

Appendix IV

A note on Arithmetica: Six volumes of Arithmetica which could survive were translated into Arabic. Many centuries later this Arabic text was translated into Latin. Nothing is known about its author except that he worked at Alexandria University and that the Latin version of his name is Diophantus. In Arabic it was something like Dwbnt. What was the actual name or country of birth of the author of Arithmatica, nobody knows. Arithmetica itself is a meaningless word in latin or Greek languages. But in Sanskrit, Arthamitica is a meaningful word meaning calculation (miti) of money matters (artha). It can be inferred that the author of the Arithmetica was an Indian mathematician teaching at Alexandria and this book was a Greek version of a compilation of Indian mathematics .His name was probably something like Devabhuti. This raises a grave question. Almost all of Greek literature was lost. The overwhelming majority of the literature known today to be of Ancient Greece is actually translation from Arabic. In a large number of them only information available about the author is his name. And these books describe the Indian philosophy in entirely unmodified form. Is it not possible that the Europeans who translated these Arabic texts did not discriminate between what had come into Arabic from India and what had come from Alexandria. There motive was definitely mala fide is clear from many other facts. They very well knew very name of the text itself(Algoritmi de numero Indorum ) that the decimal system and the new numbers were Indian . But they kept it secret from the masses who started calling them Arabic numbers. It was only after ancient Indian stone inscriptions containing those numerals predating Islam were found that the Europeans openly accepted the reality. Similarly, the Europeans including the Greek themselves are kept into darkness about the fact the Greek philosophy they are reading was actually translated from Arabic the original having been lost centuries before. These attempts are done in a very organised way to keep up the morale of their masses but not to let the morale of anyone else go up.

(c)Premendra Priyadarshi, 2000

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