Science in India during the Middle Ages

I recently finished a great book on the Mughal empire – Emperors Of The Peacock Throne: The Saga of the Great Moghuls by Abraham Eraly. The author takes us through the lives of all the significant Mughal emperors from Babur to Aurangzeb. A highly recommended read for history buffs.

Now coming to the reason for this write-up, sometime back I’d penned a post on how there is a huge gulf of information about the state of science in India during the middle ages. According to Eraly, it is not a dearth of information, but instead actually reflects the state of affairs in India at the time. Eraly says this in the appendix of his book (which is just as interesting as the main body):

“…in several areas crucial to the growth and transformation of society, Mughal India lagged way behind Europe, behind even China, Japan and Persia. There was hardly any vigour in the economy, scant spirit of enterprise among the people. In agriculture, industry and trade, Indian practices were archaic. There was no ferment of ideas, and curiosity about the new science and technology of Europe did not go beyond the dilettantism of a few amirs. Except in a few minor gadgets, India showed little interest in European inventions. Even in military technology, so close to the Mughal heart, adoption of improvements was slow and haphazard. While numerous Europeans from every stratum of society were arriving in India in Mughal times, only one Indian of note is known to have travelled to Europe – “Haji Habibullah, who had visited Europe, … had brought with him fine goods and fabrics for His Majesty’s inspection,” says Nizamuddin Ahmad, chronicler of Akbar. There were no Indian books on Europe or European learning. Such indifference was not mere insensitivity to new knowledge, but a denial of the very possibility of change and progress.”

He adds,

“Meanwhile Europe had broken free, to go adventuring across far horizons, to the ends of the earth and confines of the mind. Columbus had discovered America when Babur was still a lad in what he considered to be “the very farthest limits of teh civilized world”, and by the time Babur arrived in Agra, Magellan’s expedition had circumnavigated the world, and the Portugese had already been in India for over a quarter century. Copernicus, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Machiavelli were Babur’s contemporaries; Shakespeare, Kepler and Galileo were the contemporaries of Akbar and Jahangir; Newton of Aurangzeb. Europe was on the up spiral, India on the down spiral.”

Makes for a sad reading.

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