Seven Astonishing Ideas
Sulekha Columns, 22 March 2001
It was Herodotus who first spoke of the idea of the wonders of the ancient world. He was, of course, talking only of monumental art. There is a list of the wonders from the Greek world that was compiled in the Middle Ages. This list has the great pyramid of Giza, the hanging gardens of Babylon, the statue of Zeus at Olympia, the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the colossus of Rhodes, and the lighthouse of Alexandria. Only one of these seven survives.
There are other lists too that are not Greek-centric. We have marvels of art and architecture from China, Mexico, Europe, Peru, Iran, India, Indonesia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and other countries. Not all of these marvels are in a good state of repair. Some are under the threat of destruction. Three of the most magnificent creations were lost in Afghanistan just a few weeks ago.
But here I don't wish to speak of wonders of stone and metal. Rather, I wish to propose a list of the 'Seven Wonders of the Ancient Mind'. These are revolutionary and astonishing ideas that have had a lasting influence on the world. Not surprisingly, it is hard for us to place these ideas in context. For most of them, we cannot name the originator.
Such lists are subjective, and mine is no exception. I had to leave out many obviously impressive ideas, such as airplanes, space travel, weapons that can destroy the world, embryo transplantation, multiple babies from the same embryo, space travel, and so on — from just the Mahabharata and the Puranas. (Lest I be misunderstood, we are not speaking of real planes, bombs, and biotechnology, but rather of the conception of their possibility.)
The ideas that I chose are perhaps more fundamental than those above that I left out. Ultimately, I used the criterion of not just originality, but continuing relevance and sheer improbability of the thought of it in the ancient world.
Here's my list of the seven most astonishing ideas:
1. An Extremely Old Universe:
The idea that the universe is very old is quite startling, when one notes that humanity's collective memory doesn't go further than a few thousand years. The Puranas speak of the universe going through cycles of creation and destruction of 8.64 billion years, although there are longer cycles as well. The figure of 8.64 billion years is about right based on current astrophysical estimates. The revolutionary nature of this idea becomes clear when one notes that only a couple of hundred years ago the dogma in most Eurasia was that the world was created in 4004 BC.
2. An Atomic World and the Subject/Object Dichotomy:
According to the atomic doctrine of Kanada, there are nine classes of substances: ether, space, and time that are continuous; four elementary substances (or particles) called earth, air, water, and fire that are atomic; and two kinds of mind, one omnipresent and another which is the individual. This system also postulates a subject/object dichotomy, which is a part of the systems of Sankhya and Vedanta as well. In these systems, the conscious subject is separate from the material reality but he is, nevertheless, able to direct its evolution. The atomic doctrine of Kanada is much more interesting than that of Democritus.
It is the recognition of the subject/object dichotomy that led to the creation of modern physics.
3. Relativity of Time and Space:
That space and time need not flow at the same rate for different observers is a pretty revolutionary notion. We encounter it in Puranic stories and in the Yoga Vasishtha. Obviously, we are not speaking here of the mathematical theory of relativity related to an upper limit to the speed of light, yet the consideration of time acting different to different observers is quite remarkable. To see the significance of this idea a couple of thousand years ago, note that modern relativity theory was forced upon scientists a hundred years ago by certain equations related to the transmission of electromagnetic waves.
Here's a passage on anomalous flow of time from the Bhagavata Purana:
Taking his own daughter, Revati, Kakudmi went to Lord Brahma in Brahmaloka, and inquired about a husband for her. When Kakudmi arrived there, Lord Brahma was engaged in hearing musical performances by the Gandharvas and had not a moment to talk with him. Therefore Kakudmi waited, and at the end of the performance he saluted Lord Brahma and made his desire known. After hearing his words, Lord Brahma laughed loudly and said to Kakudmi, "O King, all those whom you may have decided within the core of your heart to accept as your son-in-law have passed away in the course of time. Twenty-seven chaturyugas have already passed. Those upon whom you may have decided are now gone, and so are their sons, grandsons and other descendants. You cannot even hear about their names."
There are other stories, less dramatic, where an observer returns from a journey to another loka, and finds that people he loves have aged many more decades than he has.
4. Evolution of Life:
The Puranas have a chapter on creation and the rise of mankind. It is said that man arose at the end of a chain where the beginning was with plants and various kind of animals. Here's the quote from the Yoga Vasishtha: "I remember that once upon a time there was nothing on this earth, neither trees and plants, nor even mountains. For a period of eleven thousand years the earth was covered by lava. In those days there was neither day nor night below the polar region: for in the rest of the earth neither the sun nor the moon shone. Only one half of the polar region was illumined. Apart from the polar region the rest of the earth was covered with water. And then for a very long time the whole earth was covered with forests, except the polar region. Then there arose great mountains, but without any human inhabitants. For a period of ten thousand years the earth was covered with the corpses of the asuras who roamed the world."
Vedic evolution is not at variance with Darwinian evolution but it has a different focus. The urge to evolve into higher forms is taken to be inherent in nature. A system of an evolution from inanimate to progressively higher life is clearly spelled out in the system of Sankhya. At the mythological level this is represented by an ascent of Vishnu through the forms of fish, tortoise, boar, man-lion, the dwarf, finally into man. Aurobindo has argued that this evolution of intelligence is still at work.
5. A Science of Mind, Yoga:
Yoga psychology, described in the Vedic books and systematized by Patanjali in his Yoga-sutras is a very sophisticated description of the nature of the human mind and its capacity. It makes a distinction between memory, states of awareness, and the fundamental entity of consciousness. It puts the analytical searchlight on mind processes, and it does so with such clarity and originality that it continues to influence people all over the world.
Several kinds of yoga are described. They provide a means of mastering the body-mind connection. Indian music and dance also has an underlying yogic basis.
6. Binary Number System, Zero:
A binary number system was used by Pingala (450 BC, if we accept the tradition that he was Panini's brother) to represent meters of songs. The structure of this number system may have helped in the invention of the sign for zero that, I believe, took place around 50 BC - 50 AD. Without the binary system, the development of computers would be much harder; and without a sign for zero, mathematics would have languished. It is of course true that the binary number system was independently invented by Leibnitz in 1678, but the fact that the rediscovery had to wait almost 2,000 years only emphasizes the originality of Pingala's idea.
7. A Complete Grammar, Limitation of Language:
The Ashtadhyayi is a grammar of the Sanskrit language by Dakshiputra Panini (450 BC) that describes the entire language in 4,000 algebraic rules. The structure of this grammar contains a meta-language, meta-rules, and other technical devices that make this system effectively equivalent to the most powerful computing machine. No grammar of similar power has yet been constructed for any other language since. The famous American scholar Leonard Bloomfield called Panini's achievement as "one of the greatest monuments of human intelligence."
The other side to the discovery of this grammar is the idea that language (as a formal system) cannot describe reality completely. This limitation of language, the rishis tell us, is why the Truth can only be experienced and never described fully!
If readers, who have diligently read their schoolbooks on India, are surprised that they haven't been told of these ideas before, the fault is of the books they have used. Such books are as worthless as would be books on America, two hundred years from now, that describe only matters of conflict between race, language, and gender, ignoring completely the achievements of science, art, and imagination.
For items 1, 6 and 7, see the following edited volume: T.R.N. Rao and S. Kak (editors), Computing Science in Ancient India, Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, 2000.
For 2-4, see B. Seal, The Positive Science of the Hindus, Motilal Banarsidass, 1985; W. Moore, Schrodinger: Life and Thought, Cambridge University Press, 1989. Also see arXiv.org .
For 5, see G. Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition, Hohm Press, 1998.