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India: Origin and Development
Country Study > Chapter 6 > Character and Structure of the Economy > Science and Technology > Origin and Development

ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT


Indian scientific research and technological developments since independence in 1947 have received substantial political support and most of their funding from the government. Science and technology initiatives have been important aspects of the government's five-year plans and usually are based on fulfilling short-term needs, while aiming to provide the institutional base needed to achieve long-term goals. As India has striven to develop leading scientists and world-class research institutes, government-sponsored scientific and technical developments have aided diverse areas such as agriculture, biotechnology, cold regions research, communications, environment, industry, mining, nuclear power, space, and transportation. As a result, India has experts in such fields as astronomy and astrophysics, liquid crystals, condensed matter physics, molecular biology, virology, and crystallography. Observers have pointed out, however, that India's emphasis on basic and theoretical research rather than on applied research and technical applications has diminished the social and economic effects of the government's investments. In the mid-1990s, government funds supported nearly 80 percent of India's research and development activities, but, as elsewhere in the economic sector, emphasis increasingly was being put on independent, nongovernmental sources of support.

India has a long and proud scientific tradition. Nehru, in his Discovery of India published in 1946, praised the mathematical achievements of Indian scholars, who are said to have developed geometric theorems before Pythagoras did in the sixth century B.C. and were using advanced methods of determining the number of mathematical combinations by the second century B.C. By the fifth century A.D., Indian mathematicians were using ten numerals and by the seventh century were treating zero as a number. These breakthroughs, Nehru said, "liberated the human mind . . . and threw a flood of light on the behavior of numbers." The conceptualization of squares, rectangles, circles, triangles, fractions, the ability to express the number ten to the twelfth power, algebraic formulas, and astronomy had even more ancient origins in Vedic literature, some of which was compiled as early as 1500 B.C. The concepts of astronomy, metaphysics, and perennial movement are all embodied in the Rig Veda, their Indian origins are a source of national pride.

Technological discoveries have been made relating to pharmacology, brain surgery, medicine, artificial colors and glazes, metallurgy, recrystalization, chemistry, the decimal system, geometry, astronomy, and language and linguistics (systematic linguistic analysis having originated in India with Panini's fourth-century B.C. Sanskrit grammar, the Ashtadhyayi). These discoveries have led to practical applications in brick and pottery making, metal casting, distillation, surveying, town planning, hydraulics, the development of a lunar calendar, and the means of recording these discoveries as early as the era of Harappan culture (ca. 2500-1500 B.C.; see Harappan Culture, ch. 1).

Written information on scientific developments from the Harrapan period to the eleventh century A.D. (when the first permanent Muslim settlements were established in India) is found in Sanskrit, Pali, Arabic, Persian, Tamil, Malayalam, and other classical languages that were intimately connected to Indian religious and philosophical traditions. Archaeological evidence and written accounts from other cultures with which India has had contact have also been used to corroborate the evidence of Indian scientific and technological developments. The technology of textile production, hydraulic engineering, water-powered devices, medicine, and other innovations, as well as mathematics and other theoretical sciences, continued to develop and be influenced by techniques brought in from the Muslim world by the Mughals after the fifteenth century.

The practical applications of scientific and technical developments are witnessed, for example, by the proliferation of hundreds of thousands of water tanks for irrigation in South India by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although each tank was built through local efforts, together, in effect, they created a closely integrated network supplying water throughout the region. The science of metallurgy led to the construction of numerous small but sophisticated furnaces for producing iron and steel. By the late eighteenth century, it is estimated that production capability may have reached 200,000 tons per year. High levels of textile production -- making India the world's leading producer and exporter of textiles before 1800 -- were the result of refinements in spinning technology.

Several millennia of interest in astronomy in India eventually resulted in the invention and construction of a network of sophisticated, large-scale astronomical observatories -- the Jantar Mantars (meaning "house of instruments") -- in the early eighteenth century. Constructed of stone, brick, stucco, and marble, the Jantar Mantar complexes were used to determine the seasons, phases of the moon and sun, and locations of stars and planets from points in Delhi, Mathura, Jaipur, Varanasi, and Ujjain. The Jantar Mantars were designed and built by a renowned astronomer and city planner, Sawai Jai Singh II, the Hindu maharajah of Amber, between 1725 and 1734, after he been asked by Mohammad Shah, the tenth Mughal emperor, to reform the calendar. These complexes had the patronage of the Mughal emperors and have long attracted the attention of Western scholars and travelers, some of whom have found them anachronistic in light of the use of telescopes in Europe and China more than a century before Jai Singh's projects. As United States scientist William A. Blanpied has pointed out, Jai Singh, who subscribed to Hindu cosmology, was aware of Western developments but preferred to perfect his naked-eye observations rather than concentrate on precise calculational astronomy.

The arrival of the British in India in the early seventeenth century -- the Portuguese, Dutch, and French also had a presence, although it was much less pervasive -- led eventually to new scientific developments that added to the indigenous achievements of the previous millennia.

Western education and techniques of scientific inquiry were added to the already established Indian base, making way for later developments. The major result of these developments was the establishment of a large and sophisticated educational infrastructure that placed India as the leader in science and technology in Asia at the time of independence in 1947. Thereafter, as other Asian nations emerged, India lost its primacy in science, a situation much lamented by India's leaders and scientists. However, the infrastructure was in place and has continued to produce generations of top scientists.

One of the most famous scientists of the pre- and postindependence era was Indian-trained Chandrasekhara Venkata (C.V.) Raman, an ardent nationalist, prolific researcher, and writer of scientific treatises on the molecular scattering of light and other subjects of quantum mechanics. In 1930 Raman was awarded the Nobel prize in physics for his 1928 discovery of the Raman Effect, which demonstrates that the energy of a photon can undergo partial transformation within matter. In 1934-36, with his colleague Nagendra Nath, Raman propounded the Raman-Nath Theory on the diffraction of light by ultrasonic waves. He was a director of the Indian Institute of Science and founded the Indian Academy of Sciences in 1934 and the Raman Research Institute in 1948.

Another leading scientist was Homi Jehangir Bhabha, an eminent physicist internationally recognized for his contributions to the fields of positron theory, cosmic rays, and muon physics at the University of Cambridge in Britain. In 1945, with financial assistance from the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, Bhabha established the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bombay.

Other eminent preindependence scientists include Sir Jagadish Chandra (J.C.) Bose, a Cambridge-educated Bengali physicist who discovered the application of electromagnetic waves to wireless telegraphy in 1895 and then went on to a second notable career in biophysical research. Meghnad Saha, also from Bengal, was trained in India, Britain, and Germany and became an internationally recognized nuclear physicist whose mathematical equations and ionization theory gave new insight into the functions of stellar spectra. In the late 1930s, Saha began promoting the importance of science to national economic modernization, a concept fully embraced by Nehru and several generations of government planners. The Bose-Einstein Statistics, used in quantum physics, and Boson particles are named after another leading scientist, mathematician Satyendranath (S.N.) Bose. S.N. Bose was trained in India, and his research discoveries gave him international fame and an opportunity for advanced studies in France and Germany. In 1924 he sent the results of his research on radiation as a form of gas to Albert Einstein. Einstein extended Bose's statistical methods to ordinary atoms, which led him to predict a new state of matter -- called the Bose-Einstein Condensation -- that was scientifically proved in United States laboratory experiments in 1995. Prafulla Chandra Ray, another Bengali, earned a doctorate in inorganic chemistry from the University of Edinburgh in 1887 and went on to a devoted career of teaching and research. His work was instrumental in establishing the chemical industry in Bengal in the early twentieth century.

At the onset of independence, Nehru called science "the very texture of life" and optimistically declared that "science alone . . . can solve problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening customs." Under his leadership, the government set out to cure numerous societal problems. The Green Revolution, educational improvement, establishment of hundreds of scientific laboratories, industrial and military research, massive hydraulic projects, and entry into the frontiers of space all evolved from this early decision to embrace high technology.

One of the early planning documents was the Scientific Policy Resolution of 1958, which called for embracing "by all appropriate means, the cultivation of science and scientific research in all its aspects -- pure, applied, and educational" and encouraged individual initiatives. In 1983 the government issued a similar statement, which, while stressing the importance of international cooperation and the diffusion of scientific knowledge, put considerable emphasis on self-reliance and the development of indigenous technology. This goal is still in place in the mid-1990s.

Data as of September 1995




Last Updated: September 1995


Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for India was first published in 1995. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on Factba.se.

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