Why India Missed The Scientific Revolution



If many Indian sciences and technologies were the most advanced in the pre-modern world, the question arises as to why the scientific revolution and the industrial revolutions took place in Europe and not in India.

In previous columns I have spoken of a few lesser known scientific achievements of ancient India, and there are other great contributions not only in abstract theory but also in empirical sciences (such as medicine and metallurgy). Indians were also good at the design of scientific instruments and mechanical contraptions (yantras) for entertainment as well as use in warfare.

Careful experiments underlie the pharmacology of Āyurveda. India was also very advanced in smelting of metals, casting of huge sculptures, fireworks, and gunpowder. For example, Damascus steel, used for manufacture of the best blades during the Middle Ages, used wootz steel imported from India. India was the first in designing retorts, which could control distillation of a volatile metal such as zinc. In medieval times, zinc was produced in industrial scale.

India is also a land of the most subtle wisdom. In the middle of the last century, the great German historian of art, Heinrich Zimmer, says this in his Philosophies of India:

We of the Occident are about to arrive at a crossroads that was reached by the thinkers of India some seven hundred years before Christ. This is the reason why we become both vexed and stimulated, uneasy yet interested, when confronted with the concepts and images of Oriental wisdom.


But if many Indian sciences and technologies were the most advanced in the pre-modern world, the question arises why the scientific revolution that started in the 17th century, and the industrial revolutions that began two centuries later, took place in Europe and not in India. I think that the vexing and the uneasiness that Zimmer mentions indirectly refers to this question.

One must recognize that science is a social process within a larger ecosystem of which the university is an important part. Originally, the medieval European university was to train the clergy in canonical law, theological discussion, and religious administration. The European discovery of the Americas was one of those unique historical events that brought in tremendous wealth, looted from the Aztecs and the Incas, which made it possible to invest in knowledge for its own sake. Intense competition amongst the colonial nations led to a race to develop superior time-keeping and other instruments for navigation and war.

The study of other fields emerged out of a need to understand colonized nations, their history and culture, and eventually to human sciences. The modern university evolved to train officers to manage Europe’s colonies across the globe and to take care of and operate machines and engines used in factories, on ships, and trains.

India had universities much before Europe, but they were for religious training of Buddhist monks and nuns. For broad sciences, the scholarship was done within families that were patronized by the king or princes. For example, the scientists of the great Kerala School of mathematics and astronomy, that anticipated many results of Newton and Laplace, were mostly related by blood. The School declined with the fall of the Vijayanagara Empire.

I think it is wrong to speak of Nalanda, which was burnt down around 1200, as similar to the modern university. Nalanda was a Buddhist institution devoted primarily to religious subjects. To the best of my knowledge, not one of the great Indian mathematicians or astronomers was Buddhist or associated with one of the many Buddhist universities. Not one in 1500 years!

One can ask if Nalanda had not been destroyed, would it have been able to modernize and compete just like the Russian and the Central European universities caught up with English, Spanish, and Italian universities. My answer is “no” based on how Tibetan or Chinese monasteries, which were never occupied by the colonial powers, have been unable to consider non-religious subjects.

Economists agree that India produced nearly 25 percent of the world’s economic output around 1700 and by the time the British left its share had plummeted to 4 percent. Britain used India to dump its industrial output. In the process, it destroyed India’s banking institutions, and ensured that capital was not available to create factories that would have competed with Britain’s. If one were to accept the proposition that scientific development trails technological development, Britain’s stranglehold over India ensured that the Industrial Revolution did not find a home in India as it did in other lands of Europe.

Britain’s rule of India is one of the worst periods of impoverishment of an entire people. This rule was facilitated by India’s Arms Act of 1878, which gave the British in India the right to carry firearms but prevented Indians from doing so, unless they were granted a license by the colonial government. Writing about it, Mahatma Gandhi said:

Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest.

But not all the blame goes to Britain. Indian culture itself internalized certain attitudes that prevented a proper intellectual challenge to the British Rule. In this I would place the privileging of Vedānta over Vaiśeṣika as a contributing factor. Before, I am misunderstood, let me say that each of the six darśanas is an amazing window on reality. But for the sake of harmony, a society must have a proper balance between these perspectives. A society needs balance just like the individual in the balance between the doṣas of Ayurveda. To speak in modern terminology, one needs a balance between the heart and the mind, or yin and yang, or body and spirit.


The six darśanas (complementary views) are like the windows in the magic cube pictured above that helps one intuit the transcendent self. One can imagine oneself in space in this cube where the window in each wall presents a different picture of reality.

There are three sets of paired views. First, atomic perspective on logic (nyāya) and matter (vaiśeṣika); second, analysis and synthesis of creation at the physical (sāṅkhya) and psychological levels (yoga); third, analysis of lived life (mīmāṃsā) and the cosmos (vedānta). Each of these views has its paradoxes that prepares for the intuitive leap to the next insight in the ladder of understanding. Partial understanding obtained from the darśanas may appear contradictory, but that is how one prepares for deeper intuition.

The Vedas stress the need for the balancing of the outer and the inner. Īśa Upaniṣad 9 warns:

अन्धं तमः प्रविशन्ति येऽविद्यामुपासते ।
ततो भूय इव ते तमो य उ विद्यायाँ रताः ॥९॥

Into blind darkness fall those who worship materiality.

Into even greater darkness fall who are absorbed only in the spirit. (IU 9)

It is perfectly fine for any number of people to be charmed by the beauty and the soaring wisdom of Vedanta. But couldn’t one Indian physicist have taken up the study of Vaiśeṣika in the last hundred years, if only for the sake of understanding its history?


Sad Sardesai, Happy India


writing this in response to Rajdeep Sardesai’s lament that begins with the famous Javed Akhtar song from SilsilaYeh kahan aa gaye hum…in terms of what a vitriolic atmosphere we have gotten ourselves into in the country.

As of now, 40 odd literary and scholarly figures of ’eminence’ have returned their official awards in protest of the alleged attack on freedom of expression.

Narendra Modi

These literary and scholarly figures claim in national and international forums and publications that free thinking is being curtailed in the country ever since the new, mostly BJP-dominated government came to power in New Delhi. They claim that the government, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with his sustained silence over the Dadri killing and attacks on rationalists, liberals and secularists, tacitly condones the rapidly rising voices of intolerance in the country.

If you believe this crop of journalists, writers and intellectuals, during the days of the Congress and the UPA (and even during the pre-NDA-1 era) we had a vibrant society imbued with the radiance of pluralism, tolerance, communal harmony and freedom of speech. People were not attacked. Monuments were not vandalised. Religion was not the subject of conflict and religious books were not desecrated. Eating cow was as simple as having your evening dose of paani-puri from the roadside vendor.

In every sphere of civilisational propensity, we were constantly setting examples for the world to follow. Farmers never committed suicides. People never died of hunger. Farmlands were never usurped by industrialists and landlords. Politicians behaved as if they were living in the Satya Yuga.

Corruption? Nobody knew the expression back then. Remember that highly emotional, tear-inducing Rafi song Ab koi gulshan na ujde ab vatan azaad hai (let not be a garden ravaged now that the country is free of foreign rule)? The philosophy of the song was actually visible in the country with all-round prosperity, justice, lawlessness and bubbling human health.

And even if things turned shitty on weekly basis, just the fact that there was a “secular” government perched at the Center, according to Sahitya Kala Award Returnee Nayantara Sahgal, we could do with a few massacres here and a few genocides there every few years.

As this particular lump of journalists, intellectuals and writers indulge in a vicious rabble rousing exercise, Sardesai attributes the current air of intolerance to the powers that be that have come to exist after the 2014 general election results.

He feels sad that the people of his ilk are not allowed to outrage selectively (he actually mentions that if you can believe it, if you don’t, just read what he has written).

It breaks Sardesai’s heart when a much-loved and appreciated artist like Naseeruddin Shah’s nationalistic credentials are doubted merely because he finds Pakistan much more tolerant compared to India.

Ghulam Ali

He goes into a depression when the ghazal singer Ghulam Ali is not allowed to perform in Mumbai. He questions the idea of India when Sudheerendra Kulkarni’s face is blackened by the Shiv Sainik’s for helping the person who helped the Pakistani government orchestrate the Kargil attack, launch a book in Mumbai.

His salivary glands go into tizzy the moment someone says “steak” or “beef” while beef-ban slogans are being raised to deny him the blood-dripping gormandizing pleasures.

Modi Bhakts on social media are constantly using the needle of his own moral compass to prick him at all sorts of uncomfortable places.

Yes, indeed, in India these days it is a sad state of affairs. Phony intellectuals and writers are constantly being harangued. For decades they had reigned supreme over the affairs of academia, cultural firmament of the country, journalistic fiefdoms and intellectual cabals. While their papas, chachas, tayas, mamas, uncles, aunties this-in-law and that-in-law clung to high profile bureaucratic postings and political portfolios, these intellectuals could lay waste the entire country through misrepresenting history and blaming Hindus for every lack of progress and civilisational signs.

There is a mind-boggling web of interconnectedness that relates one intellectual-journalist-writer-politician-bureaucrat with another intellectual-journalist-writer-politician-bureaucrat. Here is a sample:

Suzanna Arundhati Roy is neice of Prannoy Roy (CEO of NDTV)
Prannoy Roy is married to Radhika Roy
Radhika Roy is sister of Brinda Karat (CPI(M))
Brinda Karat is married to Prakash Karat (CPI(M) — General Secretary)
CPI(M)’s senior member of Politburo and Parliamentary Group Leader is Sitaram Yechury.
Sitaram Yechury is married to Seema Chisthi.
Seema Chisthi is the Resident Editor of Indian Express

Barkha Dutt works at NDTV
Rajdeep Sardesai was Managing Editor at NDTV
Rajdeep Sardesai is married to Sagrika Ghose
Sagarika Ghose is the daughter of Bhaskar Ghose.
Bhaskar Ghose was Director General of Doordarshan.
Sagarika Ghose’s aunt is Ruma Pal.
Ruma Pal is former justice of Supreme Court.
Sagarika Ghose’s other aunt is Arundhati Ghose.
Arundhati Ghose was India’s permanent representative/ambassador to United Nations.

Karan Thapar’s mama (mother’s brother) is married to Nayantara Sahgal who recently set the award-returning ball rolling.

Here is a complete compilation of all these usual suspects who have affiliations and relations with each other. It’s almost like a big Italian (the sorts we see in Hollywood movies) mafia family.

This nexus has been quite old and it came into existence during and after the British rule and if you dig deeper, you can safely assume that this nexus existed even during the Mughal rule.

If you read recent books by Kuldip Nayar, Tavleen Singh and Sanjaya Baru you will find almost every high-profile person in the Congress-Communist establishment related to each other whether it is in politics or bureaucracy or journalism.

Sanjaya Baru

Communists and socialist regimes (the Congress-types) are very adept at creating long-lasting systems to monitor and mold people’s minds and this is what this crop of writers, historians and intellectuals are used for. They are the wheels and nuts and bolts of the massive engine of corrupt and repressive regimes. They misrepresent the history of the country. They keep people misinformed. They are constantly covering up for the inefficiencies of the establishment. They are perpetually promoting each other to sustain themselves as well as the system that sustains them. They closely monitor the intellectual and scholarly happenings in the country. They hold the education system in their clutches.

Through articles, stories, editorials, books, essays, plays, movies, dramas and poetry, they brainwash people into believing that whatever is wrong with the country is beyond anybody’s control and we should be happy about the way things are and any sort of change would be destructive and catastrophic.

And even if someone or something is to be blamed, it is the people themselves (in India’s case, the Hindus and their way of living)

The system has worked well for them. They award each other. They promote each other. They get married to each other. The bear each other’s progeny even without getting married to each other for that matter.

They recommend each other’s kids in case they want to go abroad and study. Government postings are obtained easily. People get jobs in the embassies in the much-coveted countries.

Government bungalows are allocated to them with all the resources at their beck and call at the expense of the exchequer. Memberships to elite clubs are available to them either free or at throwaway prices.

Journalists get direct access to top-level politicians for writing friendly articles or for looking the other way. They get residential and commercial properties dirt-cheap. They get tax benefits. Their foreign visits are sponsored. Their “scholarly” papers are published in reputable journals in India as well as abroad. Connections are used to get jobs and get access to resources that are never available to the common man and woman. The sordid list is endless.

Merit isn’t really important. You just need to be related to someone. The babus (bureaucrats) of the Indian government are notorious for not working and creating obstructions in the ways of those who want to work.

This is a carefully developed system. You see, if a few work, people have something to compare. Then those who don’t want to work also have to work and unfortunately in our country, the number of people who don’t want to work are thousands of times more than people who want to work.

And so, a culture of non-work, non-performance and overarching mediocrity has been systematically maintained, especially to keep things easy for those who have been surviving on this behemoth system.

A good example of not-having-to-work are our TV news channels. Do you ever see them covering important news? They are more interested in what Sakshi Maharaj has to say than what Russia is doing in Syria or what is China doing to increase its military and economic clout in the Security Council.

Have you ever come across a debate on India’s foreign policy or any other major event taking place in the world? Are significant ground level news covered? Never.

Rohit Sardana

Recently in a TV debate (I must confess that Zee TV has begun to distance itself from the louts that you normally come across on TV) discussing why “eminent” writers and intellectuals are returning their awards, the firebrand journalist Rohit Sardana asked one of the panelists if, during the previous decades even one book has been written by the so-called eminent writers that the youngsters of India can proudly claim that yes, an Indian author has written this book? None of the panelists could cite such a book.

Safely wedged between mediocrity and peer support, these writers and intellectuals have been sustaining themselves on government grants, meaningless postings and a tight control over whose books are published and whose books are purchased for schools and colleges.

Alternative views are throttled, and even if somehow those alternative views manage to get published, every forum is used by these “eminent” intellectuals and writers to trash those alternative views and label them as “Hindutavadi” and communal.

So yes, since this cozy nexus is being threatened by either another nexus close to the new government or by the government itself, it’s pulling no punches to cling at the last straws.

For more than a decade this nexus fought tooth and nail to prevent Narendra Modi from assuming power in Delhi because they knew that if the system that sustained them lost power, they would too. Unfortunately for this coterie, Narendra Modi couldn’t be stopped and consequently, it is feeling threatened.

It is necessary to dismantle this coterie because it has a tight grip over many institutions of the country.

It’s not just literary organisations that they control. It is a big racket consisting of bureaucrats, business persons running Ponzi schemes, judges of various hues, social activists, politicians, artists, journalists and even some people in the armed forces.

They outrage selectively. They prop one community against another. They encourage divisive politics. They pitch castes and communities against each other. They deride traditional Hinduism because they know its inherent strength can empower the common folks in case this strength percolates among the masses.

They help the vested interests in minority communities to interminably play the victim card and demonise the majority community.

In case a favourable government (a Congress-Communist combo) is not ruling the country, they flood the foreign press with anti-government articles claiming how relentless anti-people campaigns are being run and human rights are being violated and people are being attacked and killed for exercising freedom of expression and whatnot.

Propaganda is their strength, it is their main weapon, and they are using this weapon to the hilt.

It is important to dismantle this coterie because it shapes the mind of the nation. They have a tight control over the academia. They decide which history, political science and literature books our children read in schools and universities.

They decide mostly which books should be available in public libraries. They decide what sort of articles, essays and opinion pieces should be published in newspapers and magazines.

During TV debates they decide who should be able to speak and whose opinion must be buried under the din. They decide which intellectuals are to be pushed forward and which must be held back.

This tight grip is being loosened. A different government with a different mindset and perhaps with its own coterie is in charge of the affairs.

The foundations of the ivory tower have also been weakened by the rise of the Internet where people can easily question these haloed intellectuals.

People can now clearly see through the one-sided agenda these writers and intellectuals have been running, practically unchallenged, ever since the British left.

People are pissed off, understandably. They are no longer in a mood of tolerating biased outrages. They no longer want to be driven up against the wall for no reason. They don’t like it when their religious practices are mocked at while even intolerant religious practices of other religions are tolerated and even promoted.

They no longer want to live like second-class citizens in their own country the way it used to happen during the Mughal and British rules.

People like Rajdeep Sardesai have benefited hugely from the above-explained coterie. They have enjoyed the connections. They have lived affluent lives due to the connections. They have followed luxurious lifestyles while thrusting socialism down people’s throats and forcing them to live in poverty and scarcity.

And now, since this system is feeling threatened, these people are feeling bad. Their “good old days” seem to be a thing of the past.

You will often come across them reminiscing about the days when they could express themselves without being challenged or questioned.This a new world for them.

In this new world, it is difficult for them to survive because during the easy times, during the “good old days” they never had to even try to rise above their mediocrities. Mountains of goodies were theirs for the asking.

Remember how we miss our childhoods? Those carefree days when there was no worry for earning a livelihood or going through the day-to-day challenges of the world? These people are going through the same phase.

And so, you find Rajdeep appreciating the melancholic meaning of “Yeh kahan aa gaye hum…

Amrit Hallan is a professional content writer who generally minds his own business, but when he strongly feels about particular issues, he likes to take on the mantle of a journalist and a commentator.