In ancient India the Vedic religion permeated every aspect of the culture, including philosophy and the sciences. Through the Brahmin or priestly caste, Vedic knowledge has remained the central feature of Indian thought. Religion and philosophy don’t compete: philosophical wisdom has the status of religious truth. Students had to gain a deep knowledge of the Vedic mantras and the correct Sanskrit phonetics before going on to participate in philosophical discussions at a pursed or academy. Orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy hold that the Vedic texts are the ultimate authority.
One of the great wellsprings of mystic philosophy is the Upanishads, the oldest of which are deemed to be Vedic. They promote the notion of an all-pervading, universal One, in which there is no split between matter and spirit (no dualism). But the Vedic texts and the Upanishads themselves offer more than one path: either striving to make this life better, or renouncing society to seek Enlightenment.
Butt unorthodox ideas developed as well. Buddhism rejected the concept of atman (soul), but retained the notions of karma (retributive justice for past deeds) and the goal of moksha (liberation from reincarnation). Jainism holds to the concept of navu, the idea that there are many perspectives of reality, all of which are partially valid.
The challenges from Buddhism, and later Islam, spurred a shift in Hindu thought. Looking to turn the tide, the Keralan-born Hindu saint, theologian and philosopher, Shankaracharya (AD788-820) promoted nondualism and jnurm (the importance of knowledge) as a means to salvation, arguing that you should be free to pursue your own reasoning, as long as it doesn’t contradict the Vedic scriptures. His view was challenged by the Tamil Brahmin Ramanuja who, influenced by the southern bhakti cult (devotion to a personal god and rejection of Brahminic ritual), promoted the idea that while knowledge was one path to salvation, it was not the only path or even the most effective one.
While Islam and Hinduism are very different religions, Sufi mystics were important missionaries for Islam and used indigenous ideas such as yoga and fasting to spread the word.
In the 19th century the Bengali Ramakrishna and his disciple Vivekananda started a reform movement in Hinduism that acknowledged that other religions were striving towards the same goal as Hinduism.
Leading philosophers of the 20th century include Sri Aurobindo, who moved from political activism to the study of yoga, and, of course, Mahatma Gandhi, who took traditional ideas such as ahimsa (nonviolence) and remoulded them as tools in the struggle against British rule.
In the ancient era Indian philosophy and science crossed paths frequently. In about 600 BC the philosopher Kanada proposed the existence of an indivisible unit of matter he called purmunu (atoms). He believed that different states of matter (fire, water, earth) had different parmunit, and that purmanu join to become a divinka (molecule) with some of the properties of each.
The study of sciences such as mathematics, medicine and linguistics stretches back to Vedic times when the Aryan rituals were anthologised. The study of linguistics by the 4th-century BC Sanskrit grammarian Panini claims to be the first scientific analysis of an alphabet. Indian mathematics emerges from the 5th-century BC Shulvaszctrus, which examined geometry and algorithms. Also about this time a theory of numbers developed, which included the concepts of zero and negative numbers and the use of simple algorithms using placevalue notations. The concept of zero is in fact an Indian contribution to the world of mathematics that arrived in Europe via Arab traders.
About the same time as the Shulvasub•as were being penned, the great Keralan mathematician Aryabhara also concluded that the earth’s shadow was responsible for the waxing and waning of the moon and that the earth rotated on its own axis, while the moon rotated around earth. Aryabhara also came up with a value for pi. Brahmagupta, born in Gujarat in AD 598, collected and edited a work on astronomy and mathematics that was used for centuries. He also helped refine the concept of zero.
The classic works on Ayurvedic medicine, the Charak Samhita and the Su.rhrita were written in the 6th century BC. Surgeons such as Susruta were even experimenting with plastic surgery in this age.
In 1930 Sir Chandrasekhar Venkata Raman won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on how light changes when passing through transparent bodies (the Raman effect). Since Independence the government’s emphasis has been on space technology, nuclear power and electronics. The latter sowed the seeds for India’s increasingly important software industry. Some argue there has not been enough emphasis on ‘social’ sciences, a point reinforced in 1998 when Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize for Economics for his contribution to the field of welfare economics. Sen lives and works in the UK but was born in India, where few of his ideas have been effectively put into practice.