An article by Indian historians D.P. Agrawal and L.V. Kendra, quoting Le Secret de l'Occident (see p.10 below) – a work supported by the New-Jersey-based hindu foundation Infinity Foundation.
Copy from the internet version May 05. Source.
The Secret of the West

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D.P. Agrawal
Lok Vigyan Kendra,
Almora 263601, India.
Joseph Needham spent the latter half of his long and productive life on the study and publication
of Chinese science and civilisation and produced monumental monographs. His books did a great
deal to explode the Eurocentric myth that Greece was the only source of all science and
knowledge. Owing to his efforts Chinese contributions to the history of science are well
recognised today. But he did find it a bit puzzling that despite the rich history of science in China
and India, why was it that modern scientific and industrial revolution took place in Europe and
not in India and China. Needham asked:
“With the appearance on the scene of intensive studies of mathematics, science, technology and
medicine in the great non-European civilisations, debate is likely to sharpen, for the failure of
China and India to give rise to distinctively modern science while being ahead of Europe for
fourteen previous centuries is going to take some explaining”.
Needham’s question has intrigued many generations of scholars and philosophers. It’s an
important question to ponder over, not so much as to arrive at some definite answers but it gives
an opportunity to all thinking Indians for introspection. We summarise below the ideas of Al-
Biruni, Udgaonkar, Narsimha, Kosambi, Rahman, D.P. Chattopadhyaya, Claude Alvarez, and
some other scholars. Towards the end we have discussed some of our ideas too.
Al-Biruni’s Views
Al-Biruni, the scholar-traveller who visited India around AD 1000, was very critical of the
Hindus on this score. Al-Biruni criticized the scientific theorems of Hindus and their
mathematical and astronomical literature. Udgaonkar argues that his harsh words were possibly
coloured to some extent by the arrogance of a person accompanying the conquering Mahmud.
Al-Biruni said that most of the ancient texts were composed in Slokas, rendering them rather
unintelligible. Al-Biruni had composed a treatise showing how far the Hindus were ahead of
them in science. He says, the Hindus composed their books in Slokas and if they wished in their
astronomical books to express some numbers of the various orders, they expressed them by
words. He tells us that Brahmagupta said, ‘If you want to write one express it by everything
which is unique as e.g. the earth, the moon; two by everything which is as e.g. black and white;
three by everything which is threefold, etc.’ Arabic and Urdu literature probably adopted this
from India. For instance, 786 symbolically expressed Bismillah-hir-Rahman-nir-Rahim.
From Al-Biruni’s views we also learn that India was far ahead of the west in science, maths and
astronomy but due to civilisational complacency further development came to a standstill. Al-
Biruni said that the Hindus were haughty, foolish, vain, stolid and self-conceited. According to
their belief, there was no other country on earth but theirs, no other race of man but theirs, and no
created beings besides them have any knowledge or science whatsoever that, their haughtiness

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was such that, if you told them of any science or scholar in Khurasan or Persia, they would think
you to be both ignoramus and a liar (Rahman 1996).
D.P. Chattopadhyaya’s Views
D.P. Chattopadhyaya (DPC), a well known scholar, has a plausible explanation for the slow
scientific progress in India. He thinks that the ability to swallow logical contradictions wholesale
left its stamp upon the Indian national character, noticed by modern observers, as also by the
Arabs and Greeks before them. The absence of logic, contempt for mundane reality, the inability
to work at manual and menial tasks, emphasis on learning basic formulations by rote with the
secret meaning to be expounded by a high guru and respect for tradition (no matter how silly)
backed by fictitious ancient authority had a devastating effect upon Indian science. For historical
descriptions of ancient Indian scenes and people, sometimes even for the identification of ruins,
we have to rely upon Greek geographers, Arab merchant travellers and Chinese pilgrims. Not
one Indian source exists of comparable value.
DPC explains that the vaidika and the pauranika modes of understanding and expression are
highly symbolic, mystical and often rhetorical. Many writers of the Indian as well European
tradition have pointed out the important distinction between the languages of mysticism, religion
and poetry, on the one hand, and those of logic and science, on the other. He cautions that it
would be wrong to suppose that mythical thinking has no structure in it. Without minimum
structure, hidden or inarticulate in character, myths of widely different and (spatially) separated
cultures would not have conveyed comparable or even strikingly similar messages/meanings.
DPC also wants us to critically assess if the sufi and bhakti spirit of resignation and
reconciliation, emotion and acceptance adversely affected critical temper and scientific research
in India during the second millennium. One of the reasons why science in India did not have a
career comparable to that of post-Renaissance Europe is often attributed to the rise of
devotionalism and mysticism as also indifference.
Rahman’s Views
A pioneer in the field of history and technology in India, A. Rahman in his article, A Perspective
of Indian Science of Tenth-Eighteenth Centuries takes a look at medieval Indian science.
Rahman says that most of the ancient texts were composed in Slokas, rendering them rather
unintelligible. Indians probably did so to conceal knowledge from the masses and maintaining
necessary control and power. Here he also brings in the caste system as being responsible for
limiting knowledge to a few.
Rahman elaborates on the interaction of Arab scholars with India and says that these scholars
were aware of the development of sciences in India through the work of Al-Biruni and others,
particularly in mathematics, astronomy and also in medicine and had also absorbed Greek
scientific tradition in terms of studying Greek texts, their translations, interpretation through
commentaries and analysis of problems. In contrast to Indian writings, the characteristic features
of Arab literature were:
• The use of unambiguous and refined language.
• Providing definition of terms used and giving illustrations.

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• Posing of problems and providing their solutions.
• Giving examples for students or readers to solve.
• Literature displaying Aristotelian logic and rationality based on Greek philosophy.
• Literature displaying the three-fold purpose of knowledge, that is, Religious needs,
agricultural requirements and meeting the everyday needs of life. In other words, Rahman
says it was essentially directed towards practical needs, that is, it was utilitarian.
• Acknowledging the works of predecessors and discussing different points of view, also
presenting views for or against a theory.
• Extending the base of knowledge to cover newer areas such as:
• Geography and history and writing of chronicles covering arts, crafts and various
practices in different fields.
o Geology, gemmology and development of instruments for the purpose.
o Detailed knowledge of animals and plants.
o Physics, specially optics, specific gravity, magnets, etc, and the concept of motion
and time. Development of instruments for measuring time.
• Compilation of catalogues, Zijes, checking tables, catalogues of other astronomers.
Development of instruments for the purpose.
• Translation of Sanskrit texts and familiarity with and adoption of many features from
Sanskrit traditions.
• Religious considerations often coming in the way of and suppressing scientific opinion.
Referring to the interaction between Arab, Persian and Sanskrit scholars, Rahman writes that
many books had been written combining these traditions, but an integrated unified tradition did
not emerge to create a base for further development of science.
Rahman enumerates the following reasons for the lack of development of science in India.
• During the period India remained an agricultural society, no new challenges came up to
create new knowledge to help solve new problems. The two major developments apart
from the field of arts and crafts were in the area of paper technology and the development
of military weaponry technology, but no theoretical development could take place.
• Scientific activity and knowledge, by and large, remained a preserve of the elite, while
arts and crafts remained with the less privileged groups.
• The pluralistic tradition of Hinduism, whereby different philosophies continued to co-
exist, as the faith failed to generate a unified pursuit of knowledge.
• Religious prejudices and linguistic arrogance may have also come in the way of evolution
of a single tradition.
• The philosophic and theoretical framework being different, the Vedic logic on one hand
and the Ptolemaic, the Euclidean and the Aristotelian logic on the other, became a major
block, since both were associated with religion. The pressure of the conservatives was too
much to discard the overall framework to create and develop a new integrated tradition.
• It also appears that two different processes continued to operate during the period: one
towards the integration of the two traditions, and the other at keeping them apart.
• Lack of institutionalisation of education was also a handicap.

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• Change of dynasties and kings with different approaches to knowledge even within a
dynasty also came in the way of continuous growth of institutions and spread of
knowledge within an institution.
Towards the end, Rahman wonders whether there could be a possibility of Indians developing a
unified base of science, incorporating new knowledge from Europe? He says that the literature of
the period and the efforts of Sawai Jai Singh indicate that development in this direction was
probable. However such an eventuality was disrupted by colonisation.
Udgaonkar’s Explanation
Udgaonkar has summarisd the views given by various scholars. These are listed with various
other proposed socio-cultural explanations which are as follows:
Other-Worldliness of Indian Culture: It is alleged that early Indian culture was otherworldly,
that it perceived the world as Maya or illusion, and that the conceptual world-worthlessness led
to a lack of interest among Indians in any worldly pursuits. It is said that the Indians were only
interested in the liberation of the soul as a goal, and not in studying the external world.
Udgaonkar points out that distortion of the word Maya is involved to some extent in the above
argument. He quotes Vivekananda who refers to Maya as 'one of the pillars upon which Vedanta
rests'.He, however, warns us that the word Maya is used incorrectly to denote 'illusion or
delusion or some such thing'.Udgaonkar says that the perceived other-worldliness of Indian
culture could not have been true for the majority of the population, India is also a land of
Kautilya’s Arthasastra, Vatsyayana’s Kama-Sutra and Indian merchants have been
entrepreneurial for thousand of years. Udgaonkar has also given the example of Jawaharlal
Nehru who remarked, 'Probably the Semitic culture, as exemplified in many religions that
emerged from it, and certainly Christianity, was far more other-worldly'.'Indian culture taken as
a whole',he further adds, 'never emphasised the negation of life, though some of its philosophies
did so; it seems to have done so much less than Christianity’. Nehru points out that 'in India, we
find during every period when her civilisation bloomed, an intense joy of life and nature, a
pleasure in the act of living, the development of art and music, literature, song and dancing,
painting and the theatre, and even a highly sophisticated inquiry into sex relation. It is
inconceivable that a culture or view of life based on other-worldliness or world-worthlessness
could have produced all these manifestations of vigorous and varied life. Indeed it should be
obvious that any culture that was basically otherworldly could not have carried on for thousands
of years. The confusion seems to have arisen from the fact that Indian thought was always laying
stress on the ultimate purpose of life.’
Suppression of Scientific Spirit: Ancient Indian medicine took a momentous leap from magico-
religious therapeutics to rational therapeutics some 2500 years ago. The early medical men were
looking for material, natural causes for diseases. The priests considered this natural cause and
effect approach to human ailments and their treatment subversive, and the Indian lawgivers were
obliged to denounce it as abject heresy. This led to the downgrading of practitioners of medicines
in social hierarchy.

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Udgaonkar however argues that the conflict between science and counter ideology was also
present in Europe in the Middle Ages. There was the inquisition, the burning at the stake of
nonconformist thinkers like Giordano Bruno, the trial and humiliation of Galileo. How does one
compare the conflict between science and counter ideology in India with that of Europe? Why
was it that counter ideology prevails in India, whereas Europe could get over its influence.
Refuting Chattopadhyaya’s argument, Udgaonkar asserts that medicine did thrive in India and
made advances and even spread outside India down to the 8th century. A Spanish Muslim quoted
by Chattopadhyaya himself says that in 1080 AD Indian medicine was the best in the world.
Conflict between Science and Religion: It is claimed that there was no conflict between
science and religion in India, unlike Europe, due to lack of hostility to science or to new ideas in
philosophy and there was no persecution of atheists in India.
Udgaonkar says that this was true only for the early times when there was complete intellectual
freedom, an example of openness being the Nasadiya sukta in the Rig Veda. Due to the
canonisation of scriptures in India, there was not much scope left for research and originality in
the sacred books, like Smritis and Puranas, which made it impossible for even outstanding
intellectuals like Brahmagupta to counter stories like those of Rahu, Ketu and the eclipse.
Udgaonkar enquires, “Is the view that there was no conflict between science and
religion/spirituality a modern view, or does it go back to ancient times?” He quotes from
Sankaracharya'scommentary on the Brhadararnyaka Upanisad: 'Nor are the Srutis (the Vedas)
supposed to have authority in matters which are contradicted by other means of knowledge, as
for instance, if they said, Fire is cold and wets things'.Did scholars or people at large accept such
thinking widely? During which epoch? When did the tradition of questioning, as in the
Upanisads and NyayaVaisesika and other texts, lose its vigour and a static view of learning of
the learned emerge?
All Knowledge is in the Vedas:
It is not uncommon to find the claims even today that the Vedas
are storehouses of all knowledge, spiritual and secular. Udgaonkar says that it will be useful to
know how old this kind of belief is in our cultural/philosophical history? When and how did it
get ascendancy? Such a belief if widely held, could lead to stagnation or even decline in science
and could, therefore, be an important factor inhibiting the growth of modern science in India.
Accommodating Conflicting Opposites: Indian tendency to accommodate conflicting opposites
have been mentioned as one of the causes of the declining scientific spirit. D.D. Kosambi has
observed: 'the "logic" advanced by the Brahmins took good care to avoid all reality. The end
result is seen in the philosophy of the great Sankara (AD 800), who threw out the proposition
that "A thing is either A or non-A", and viewed the universe as divided into metaphysical
categories upon several planes. The highest plane was, of course, of speculation about and unity
with eternal principles. Material reality did not exist. The philosopher was thus excused if he
joined the common herd on the plane of ritual observation. An oft-quoted example of this
tendency of accommodating the subjective with the objective and the material with the non-
material, as far as science is concerned, is that Brahmagupta wrote the popular myth about the
cause of eclipses (Rahu, Ketu and all that) along with his calculation in terms of the correct
astronomical explanation. Udgaonkar points out that such was the case in the West also for it is
well known that Newton while working on the Principia, was at the same time also spending a

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substantial fraction of his time on investigations in alchemy and theology. In spite of Gould’s
remarks that Whiston had descended through history as the worst example of religious
superstition and was viewed as an impediment to science, yet Newton greatly admired the book
New Theory by William Whiston (1696). So we cannot say that the tendency to accommodate
conflicting opposites did not affect development of science in the West at all and it affected only
the development of science in India.
Civilisational Complacency: Another line of reasoning puts the blame on the complacency that
the Indians had developed over a period of time: they began to think that they had attained the
highest knowledge that humans were capable of and progressively lost the questioning attitude
and openness to knowledge from other sources.
Udgaonkar says that the complacency or intellectual lethargy that had developed continued even
after the Mughals came to power. Jawaharlal Nehru refers to the curious fact that Akbar did not
take any interest in building sea power, though Vasco de Gama had reached Calicut, via Cape, in
1498, and established Portuguese sea power in the Indian Ocean. What is more, this lack of
interest continued even after the Portuguese started exacting toll from traders and from pilgrims
going to Mecca. He, or the 'jewels'in his court, also took no interest in printing though the
Jesuits presented him with a printed Bible. The Mughal army and the armies of other states in
India depended on foreign experts for their artilleries. Why did Akbar or anyone else not send his
own men abroad for training, or interest himself in the improvement of the artillery by
encouraging research work? Why did they not take interest in developing Indian clocks, though
imported clocks were very popular with the Mughal nobility? Udgaonkar says that the conceit of
Indians was not directly responsible for lack of scientific progress but it in consequence has
given rise to certain other factors, which probably let down the scientific revolution.
Social Rigidity: It is also alleged that the growing rigidity of caste system in India led to the
separation of the head from the hand. Theoretical and philosophical studies were the prerogative
of the Brahmins, whereas practical arts and crafts were relegated to the other lower castes.
Beside this, foreign travel was also banned in the 8
century, which is usually attributed to the
increasing rigidity of the caste system, and the ideas of purity and impurity.
Udgaonkar points out that Indian caste system has undoubtedly inhibited mutual reinforcement
of science and technology but it has been less rigid than is often thought, and social stratification
elsewhere in the world was not always more dynamic and flexible. As for relations between
science and religion, there indeed were clashes between rationalist and conservative views, such
as between Aryabhata and Brahmagupta (6th and 7th centuries CE) but the conflict never
reached the intensity of western violence in which Bruno was burnt at the stake for his irreligious
beliefs. We also need to recall that the great star of scientific revolution, Isaac Newton, wrote far
more words on theology than he ever did on science. Regarding the ban on foreign travels and no
cross fertilisation of ideas, Udgaonkar says that banning foreign travel could not but have had a
very adverse impact on the exposure to fresh ideas and new techniques, so essential for the
growth of science.
Effect of Invasions: The effect of successive invasions devastated and destabilised Indian
society which not only lost its prosperity but also lost centres of learning including their libraries.

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Al-Biruni describes the effect of Sultan Mahmud’s invasion ‘…Mahmud utterly ruined the
prosperity of the country, and performed there wonderful exploits, by which the Hindus became
atoms of dust, scattered in all direction, and like a tale of old in the mouth of people…. This is
the reason why Hindu sciences have retired far away from those parts of the countries conquered
by us, and have fled to places which our hand cannot yet reach …’
Udgaonkar says that the effect of centuries of unsettled conditions that prevailed before a multi-
religious composite culture could emerge, needs to be analysed dispassionately without allowing
either Hindu or Muslim chauvinism to distort the views.
Udgaonkar has discussed only socio-cultural parameters to Needham’s question whereas there
are several other aspects of Indian history of science and technology, which needed to be
discussed. Roddam Narasimha has given more importance to ideological or attitudinal factors to
answer the question why India failed to give rise to distinctively modern science while it had
been ahead of Europe for fourteen previous centuries?
Roddam’s Answer
Roddam does not seem to be convinced with the socio-cultural explanations summarised by
Udgaonkar. He found that the first difficulty with the socio-cultural explanations is that they do
not recognise the diversity of Indian civilisation, and in particular its philosophies. The second
difficulty he has observed with the socio-cultural explanation is that they ignored the presence of
strong scientific traditions in India at different periods in history. The third difficulty, which
Roddam finds is that for nearly fourteen hundred years after certain fundamental developments
in Greece, European science was stagnant; no great advances in terms of fundamental ideas were
made in what indeed have come to be known in Europe as the Dark Ages. This was incidentally
a period that was a classical age for India in spite of all the socio-cultural reasons given above.
He points out that the socio-cultural explanations may thus not be convincing but the Needham
question cannot be brushed under the rug. The question should be approached from a very
different perspective. Ideological or attitudinal factors which have been held responsible for
India’s inability to build on its early base, do not strike us as having the status of anything more
than speculations or prejudices, given the importance of the question being discussed. Therefore,
before asking why India and China did not give rise to modern science first, we need to ask how
the European Miracle happened. Second, we have to analyse the epistemological reason why the
Indian mathematical revolution did not lead to a corresponding distinctively modern scientific
The famous triple inventions – printing, gunpowder and magnet – changed the appearance of the
whole world; the first in letters, the second in warfare, and the third in navigation. And this
powerful trio came from China, as did silk and the clock escapement mechanism. Gombrich
points out that there were two important omissions in the list: one was the paper on which the list
was written which came from China and the other was numerals that listed them, which came
from India.
The inventions that occurred in Europe in the 16
century must, at least in part, have been
triggered and inspired by technological flood from the east from China, through West Asia.

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The second clue comes from mathematics. One of the most striking features of the scientific
revolution was the mathematisation of science. Galileo used mathematics; Newton’s great and
epoch-making book was titled Principia Mathemetica Philosophiae Naturalis (The mathematical
principles of natural philosophy). Where did this mathematics come from?
One can therefore argue that the long Dark Ages of Europe were broken with the help of
technical and mathematical inventions imported from the east. Europe came into contact with
these through the violent conflicts that took place with the Arabs during the Crusades.
Roddam has also elaborated the epistemological reason as to why the Indian mathematical
revolution did not lead to a corresponding distinctively modern scientific one. The Indic
approach basically was not that of model makers but of ingenious algorisers, and showed a deep
and studied distrust of axioms and physical models.
Mathematical Revolution in India: Roddam points out that what Europe acquired was the
algoristic or computational revolution that occurred in India. It started in 5
century CE,
heralded by the great figures of Aryabhata and Brahmagupta and was perfected by the
integration of zero into it. Various notations, algorithms, trigonometric sines, brief tables, etc,
were discovered here. Most of the mathematical solutions discovered in India now belong to the
western legacy, like second order interpolation formula which was invented a thousand years
before in India and is now called the Newton-Stirling formula.
The early centuries of the second millennium witnessed an extraordinary burst of new and
creative mathematics in Kerala (south India). Madhava (1340-1425 CE) discovered a series of
expansions for the trigonometric functions that were equivalent to the Maclaurin series of early
18th century Europe. He also computed for pi the 'approximate'value of 3.1415926536, to a
much greater accuracy than anything that had been achieved in any previous work. These, and
other developments, unleashed a new and unprecedented computational power that would
become a valuable tool in the pursuit of the exact sciences.
This algoristic mathematics, from India and the Islamic lands, combined with the classical Greek
penchant for axiomatised model-making (retrieved again through Islamic science) and a
technology empowered experimental philosophy, appear to have led to the revolution of the
'distinctively modern'science that Needham talks about. In retrospect, we can say that the
centuries around 1600 CE saw a remarkable series of episodes of cultural fusion from East and
West, resulting in the scientific (and later the industrial) revolution.
Roddam further states that the Needham question now rephrases itself to ask why the Indian
mathematical revolution did not lead to a corresponding 'distinctively modern'scientific one.
One reason is that the other ingredients of the scientific revolution - the idea of physical models
and the development of technology enabled experimental methods - did not obtain in India. It is
also likely that (unlike in Europe) no social, economic, or political pressure for it was felt in
India at the time: the spirit of Baconian domination over nature was (and indeed largely remains
to this day) alien to a culture that has always respected nature as bountiful rather than regarding
it as an adversary. The proposal here is that there were some fundamental philosophical reasons

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as well. It is clear from a reading of Eastern and Western scientific literature that, at the very
least, there are strong differences between different civilisations in the style in which they build
that organisation. These differences appear to reflect deep epistemological differences, in other
words differences in the philosophical approach to knowledge. For instance, if we compare two
approaches to geometry Sulba-sutras (7
century BCE) and Euclid (3rd century BCE), we will
find that Sutras are basically strings of concise, aphoristic statements, rules, or directions holding
a work or subject together (in western literature we could say that Wittgenstein'sTractatus is
written in the sutra style). Euclid, on the other hand, gives a collection of 'theorems'in geometry
derived from a set of definitions, postulates ('axioms'), and common notions. Similarly, if we
compare the two great astronomers Ptolemy (2
century CE) and Aryabhata (5
century CE),
Ptolemy proceeds with a basic physical/kinematic model in mind. The model is geocentric, and
the planets move in epicycles. Aryabhata also uses epicycle, but by splitting planetary motion
into a mean and rapid epicyclic fluctuation superposed over it. It is very likely that the basic idea
of epicyclic motion was borrowed from the Greeks. But the interesting point is that Aryabhata
does not set out or justifies any underlying physical or geometrical model at all, although he is
aware of physical concepts relating to eclipses, relative motion, and so on.
The conclusion that Roddam draws from this comparison is that the Greek ideal was to proceed
from axioms or models, through logical deduction, to theorem or result; the Indian ideal seems to
have been to proceed from observation, through algorithm, to validated conclusion.
Modern Science: Modern Indian science, which has very largely followed the western style, and
claims some very significant contributions in both theory and practice, still lacks innovative
model making. A fascinating exception would seem to be the work of S.N. Bose, whose
formulation of a new statistical model for the kind of particles that have now come to be known
as bosons was very much high science in the western spirit. Paradoxically, the Bose model was
really the outcome of a counting exercise, a calculation based on combinatorics, a subject with a
long history in classical Indian mathematics. Bose implicitly made fundamentally new and path
breaking assumptions in deriving his results, but did not seem aware that he had taken an
algoristic rather than axiomatic approach to the fundamental problem that he solved. Was this a
fusion of the Indian passion for algoristic procedures with western type model making and does
it demonstrate that behind very successful simple algorithms may lie simple and profound
physical models? But the very rarity of this kind of achievement shows the enduring power of
culturally determined patterns of thought. So too does the work of the mathematician Srinivasa
Ramanujan, who discovered brilliant new results but could rarely provide 'proofs'for them.
Roddam further asks, “Is it possible that the great pragmatic civilisations of the East misjudged
how far the quest for truth might go based on what they considered inadequate foundations?
Were their rules of inference too stringent, their pursuit of absolute truth so demanding, that they
missed the power and insight that could be gained from what they considered was a less
fastidious approach to knowledge - which (again mysteriously) turns out not only to be often
'correct'(as for instance with the heliocentric theory), but also to lend itself to such systematic
but astonishing enlargement of scope and power of self-correction? Could this not be part of the
reason for the great eastern failure noted by Needham?
Roddam concludes, the epistemological view that a culture takes may well depend on the

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physical and intellectual tools that it has. If the phenomenon is too complex and complicated
(e.g. meteorology, biology, social science), one is forced, even today, to resort to data analysis to
infer patterns, without the aid of axioms or models; if on the other hand, the phenomena are
simpler (physics, chemistry, aerospace science), it seems worthwhile to try to construct suitable
minimalist models or to discover the most parsimonious set of axioms, so that 'axiomatisation'
becomes a worthwhile goal, a feasible approach. Modern science will presumably go ahead
pursuing both paths simultaneously. It is, in the final analysis, a question of choosing the most
appropriate strategy to tackle any given problem with the physical and intellectual tools that one
happens to possess at a given point in time - as we continue with the long history of humankind's
attempt to organise the reality of nature.

Let us consider a few other views now.
David Cosandey
Le Secret de l'Occident (The Secret of the West) unveils an economic and political theory about
scientific and technological progress. The theory gives the reasons why the scientific and
industrial revolutions originated in the West, and not in the Middle East, India or China. It
succeeds in explaining the European "miracle" in the 2nd millennium as well as the Greek
"miracle" in antiquity. It unravels the causes for the decline and rise of India, China and the
Middle East across the centuries. Cosandey’s theory can be summarised as follows:
Debunking Traditional Explanations: Cosandey refuses the usual "internalist" explanations
for European inventiveness like religion, culture, genetics, climate, third-world abuse, Greek
heritage, etc. He says that none of these elements pretend to shed light on long-term European
success. He further explains that during some periods of time, China, India or the Middle East
led the way in science and technology and this does not fit well with the idea of an inherent
religious, cultural, ethnical superiority of the west over the east. One has to admit important
changes in those inherent abilities, which remain to be explained.
Economic and Political Theory: Cosandey further explains that for science and technology to
advance in a given civilisation, two conditions are required: a thriving economy and a stable
political division. That is, a rich and stable state system is needed. Western Europe enjoyed
growing trade and manufacturing, and was divided between long-lasting competitive kingdoms,
during the entire second millennium - that is why it succeeded the way it did.
In particular, the smart European scientific professional structure, the institutions that allowed
scientists to make a living while doing research in universities, royal academies, private
mathematical schools, etc, could come to life and survive, thanks to the existence of a wealthy
and stable western European state system.
In this context, the XVI-XVII century scientific revolution is interpreted as the outcome of the
economic boom and military revolution that western Europe underwent in the same period.
In the case of Middle East, India and China, whenever prosperity and stable divisions were there,
scientific knowledge flourished. In all other cases, (political unity, fast-changing boundaries
and/or economical doldrums), science recedes. Cosandey further explains that to get a clear

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picture, one must consider each period separately.
Coastline Shape Hypothesis: Cosandey explains why western Europe benefitted from
prosperity for such a long time? The main cause is the shape of its coastline. The western part of
the European continent is the only densely populated area on the Earth boasting many
peninsulas, gulfs, straits, inland seas, while still being, for the most part, an interconnected land.
Such an articulated coastline enhances trade, because the sea accessibility makes maritime
transportation easier. The sea route is much better than river or land transportation. Before
modern times, it was safer, quicker, freer and tremendously cheaper. Moreover, an articulated
coastline defines naturally limited core areas within which polities can live without much
disturbance – Britain, Ireland, Spain, France, Denmark, Sweden, Italy are regions well delimited
by the sea. The long-term stable political division stems from that advantage, as the sea is the
best possible boundary for a state. In mathematical terms, the quality of a coastline is measured
by Mandelbrot’s fractal dimension of the coastline. The higher the dimension, the better is the
shore articulation. Cosandey made some measurements on maps and obtained that Europe has a
fractal dimension of 1.46, much higher than China (1.26), India (1.14) and the Middle East
(1.13), which is significant because this figure can only take values between 1 and 2.
David Landes
Landes says, "If we learn anything from the history of economic development it is that culture
makes all the difference. . . what counts is work, thrift, honesty, patience, tenacity". Landes
explains that culture might include, in addition, such attitudes as willingness to challenge the
natural environment, which previously was the realm of the gods; rebel against ancient traditions
of how to make things; emulate the customs and techniques of otherwise despised foreigners;
and adopt a rational and mechanistic attitude toward the manipulation of natural forces we call
"production." These features determine technological creativity, and surely they are part of
"culture" no matter how defined. He further explains the tendencies in medieval religion in
which nature is subordinate to man and remarks that, while the old legends remained to warn
against cosmic insolence (in East), "the doers were not paying attention (in West)".
Karl Wittfogel
Civilisations whose agriculture was dependent upon large-scale waterworks for irrigation and
flood control were called "hydraulic civilisations" by the German-American historian Karl A.
Wittfogel in his book, Oriental Despotism (1957).
Wittfogel believed that such "hydraulic civilisations" – although neither all in the Orient nor
characteristic of all Oriental societies – were quite different from those of the West. He believed
that wherever irrigation required substantial and centralised control, government representatives
monopolised political power and dominated the economy, resulting in an absolutist managerial
state. In addition, there was a close identification of these officials with the dominant religion
and an atrophy of other centres of power. The bureaucratic network directed the forced labour for
irrigation projects. Among these hydraulic civilisations, Wittfogel listed ancient Egypt,
Mesopotamia, India, China and pre-Columbian Mexico and Peru. Wittfogel identified the
centralised and bureaucratic empire as the one blocking element for eastern science, technology
and economic development.

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Max Weber’s Views
Weber provided the specifics for the argument, with the details of the mechanism by which the
belief in a "calling" and in worldly asceticism developed, leading to modern capitalism. Weber
argued that these behavioural changes alone could not bring about modern capitalism, as it
required an "appropriate set of conditions" in the economic sphere. Weber falters when it comes
to explain the ancient Greek boom, the fast growth of northern Italy up to the Renaissance, or the
great times in other civilisations (in particular India: 300-700, China: 700 to -200 and 800-1300
CE). He thinks naively that people are, on an average, moved by abstract ideas and not by their
interests. Weber’s idea seems to confirm that people are likely to believe:
• Simplistic ideas in fields where the mass of information and interconnections apparently
makes the problem hopelessly difficult.
• Negative judgements about other people. It is so nice to feel superior.
Ziauddin Sardar
Passion for science isn'trestricted to the richer countries of the West. If people think otherwise,
it'sbecause colonialism did its best to stamp out every last vestige of indigenous research in the
East, says Ziauddin Sardar.
Ziauddin states that science and scientists in developing countries are not much different from
their counterparts in the West. There is nothing uniquely Western about the pursuit of knowledge
through deductive reasoning. All living cultures, however "backward" they may seem to the
European gaze, have an appreciation of logic, reasoning and empiricism. A culture that does not
value knowledge per se is a rare – and an extinct – beast. Cultural attitudes have nothing to do
with scientific progress or lack of it in the developing countries. The assertion that science
cannot develop in conformist societies is also false. Consider Japan, one of the most conformist
nations, yet with one of the most developed scientific structures in the world. Neither was the
European Renaissance unique. Many great civilisations have had their own versions – albeit in
the distant past in some cases. We now know that the quantity and quality of science in Islamic,
Chinese and Indian civilisations was truly mind-boggling. Historians of science now tell us that
there is hardly a culture that has not produced some significant science.
Ziauddin argues that Europe itself learned deductive reasoning and experimental method from
Muslim scientists. The European Renaissance would have been inconceivable without Islam: the
scientific works of Copernicus were based on the labours of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, a 12th-century
mathematician from Khorasan, Iran. Where would optics be without Ibn al Haytham, a physicist
and philosopher from 10th century Basra, Iraq. It's impossible to imagine mathematics today
without the 9th century founder of algebra, Al-Khwarizmi.
There are differences between science in the West and the developing world. Some of them are
historic; others have to do with the nature of modern science. But by far the most important
reason for this difference is colonisation, which destroyed indigenous science. Colonial powers
closed down colleges and universities, banned research and outlawed the practice of indigenous
science and medicine. In Indonesia, for instance, the Dutch barred local people from higher
education right up to the 1950s. Back in the colonising countries, the fruits of colonisation

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fuelled European Renaissance and provided the Industrial Revolution with all the capital it
needed. Sardar concludes by suggesting that science outside the West is held back by cultural
attitudes or lack of willingness to confront authority is to simply repeat the mistakes of too many
Our Suggestions
As we have seen above, there are no easy and simple answers to the Needham question. Such
social phenomena are multidimensional and therefore multi-causal. We would like to emphasise
simply on the negative roles of the Brahmins and the British.
There seems to be a deliberate attempt by the Brahmins to keep science as a monopoly of the
Brahmin elite. It was expressed in symbolic form or terse shlokas which required detailed
commentaries and explanations. The priests considered the natural cause and effect approach to
human ailments and their treatment subversive, and the Indian lawgivers were obliged to
denounce it as abject heresy. This led to the downgrading of practitioners of medicines in social
They also put more emphasis on learning through rote rather than through critical discussion.
The worst thing that they did was that they monopolised theoretical and philosophical knowledge
and the practical work was delegated to the lesser castes. Even in the Harappan period, we find
the metallurgists on the periphery of the settlement and all our artisans were pushed to the lowest
rung of the social hierarchy. No wonder, whether it is the weavers or the blacksmith, they were
treated as Shudras.
As has been shown by Dharampal, Claude Alvarez and A Rahman, Indian science and
technology were faring well in 18
century CE when Europe was still going through its Dark
Ages. Indians were producing the best steel, doing plastic surgery and smallpox inoculation, and
between China and India monopolised 75 per cent of the global industrial production. Even in
the 12th-13th century CE, zinc production in Rajasthan was almost on an industrial scale. Our
textile industry was highly developed and competitive. It was the colonial rule which practiced a
deliberate policy of learning our technologies and utilising them for their own industrial
revolution and systematically dismantling all our industries. The consequences of the negative
socio-cultural factors generated by the Brahmins and the physical decimation of our science and
industry by the British were mainly responsible for our regression. Perhaps, if the British had
come a century later, India and China would have continued on their trajectory of industrial and
scientific growth and perhaps overtaken Europe in assuring the industrial revolution.
Needham’s question is rather vast and complex to answer. Such social phenomena are
multidimensional and therefore multi-causal. The discussion on this question should not be
limited only to explain the success of the West and the regression of the East in science and
technology over the last few centuries, but also to explain the astonishing stagnation of the West
from 300 to 1100 CE (the Dark Ages), and the progress of the East during this period.
1. Cosandey, David 1997. The Secret of the West. Paris: Arlea.

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2. Mokyr, Joel. 1999. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Published online in The American
Historical Review.
3. Narasimha, Roddam. 2003. The Indian half of the Needham’s question: some thoughts on
axioms, models algorithms, and computational positivism. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 28:
4. Rahman, A. 1996. A Perspective of Indian Science of Tenth- Eighteenth Centuries. In Science
Philosophy and Culture - Multi Disciplinary Explorations (Part I) Edited by D.P.
Chattopadhayaya and Ravinder Kumar. New Delhi: PHISPC. Pp. 396-426.
5. Udgaonkar, B.M. 1995. Scientific tradition and other traditions. Current Science, 69:197-206.
6. Weber, Max. 1930. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: George Allen
& Unwin. Reprint 1968.
7. Wittfogel, Karl. 1957. Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. New Haven,
Connecticut: Yale University Press.
8. Sardar Ziauddin. 2000. Bright sparks. New Scientist, 70-71.