Isaac Newton the Thief and other Indian stories

I recently came across a post accusing Isaac Newton of having stolen the idea of gravity from the Indian sage Kanada of the Vaisesika school of philosophy.

This article rambled on about the so-called Kerala school of mathematics of the 14–15th centuries and how Newton stole their work on the calculus and garnered the credit for its invention. The article claims that Newton stole his laws of motion from Kanada of the Vaisesika school of philosophy. Some slokas which claim to be Kanada’s laws of motion were quoted. These appear to be clumsy translations of Newton’s laws into Sanskrit in order to establish the claim of prior publication by the Kalidasa Press in Ujjain, centuries before Gutenberg.

With the increasing rewriting of history to claim that Akbar lost the battle of Haldighati and that Porus defeated Alexander, this should not be surprising, but I still am. I am waiting next to read that we colonised Great Britain where the natives now speak Sanskrit and use Vedic maths and that the British are still upset about the resulting flow of bullion from England to India, resulting in the impoverishment of the UK and its consequent exit from the EU.

I first read about the Kerala school of mathematics in 2003 in an article on Indian mathematics by David Pingree, a US professor on the history of mathematics in Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The Kerala school consisted primarily of three related families of astronomers/astrologers who lived near Alwaye in Kerala and worked on infinite series in the 14–15th centuries. The seniormost was Madhava and the other contributors included his nephew Nilakanta. Their work on the summation of infinite series was similar to that undertaken by Taylor and McLaurin a century later in Europe, but stopped short of the invention of calculus, which required the genius of Isaac Newton, though credit for the invention of calculus today is shared with Gottfried Liebniz, whose notation is what we use today instead of Newton’s.

The reasons for India’s backwardness are not hard to seek. Learning was restricted to a particular class. While these were generally people of high intellectual capability, the lack of a broad base across the general population and the insistence that one stick to one’s ancestral calling meant that others could not contribute. For example in the case related, the Kerala school consisted of three related families who lived in with a radius of about 30 miles from each other and communicated only within the family. So until these manuscripts were discovered and translated, the contents were not known even to other mathematicians within Kerala, forget about India. The West, backward until the 15th century, saw a great explosion of knowledge after the Reformation resulting in people throwing off the shackles on learning imposed by the Catholic Church, the rise of Protestanism and the rise of mass education and publishing. The creation of learned societies like the Academie Francaise and the Royal Society created forums where new ideas could be debated and critiqued. Your social background did not matter. The French Revolution blew away the last vestiges of the feudal society and unleashed the power of the masses, though it also created Napoleon.

We in India failed to do that and to that we can attribute our scientific and educational backwardness. This enabled tiny European countries to colonise the once-glorious East. The ease with which these societies collapsed gave rise to the myth of the invincible white man and racism and the “Fair and Lovely” ads of today. On introspection, we find it easy to understand why we gave up so easily. Our societal contradictions made us weak, but we have refused to learn or do, rather tardily. We still harbour illusions of superiority and visions of a glorious past while living in an inglorious present. Hence the rewriting of history.

For those interested, here’s the article by David Pingree.

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