Digital Rare Book:
Science and Society in Ancient India
By Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya
Published by Research India Publications, Calcutta - 1977
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Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya (19 November 1918 – 8 May 1993) was an Indian Marxist philosopher. He made contributions to the exploration of the materialist current in ancient Indian philosophy.He is known for Lokayata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism, which is his exposition of the philosophy of Lokayata. He is also known for work on history of science and scientific method in ancient India, especially his 1977 book Science and Society in Ancient India on the ancient physicians Charaka and Sushruta. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India's third highest civilian honour, posthumously, in 1998.
This book is about scientific method in ancient India and how societal divisions of the time shaped the development of science. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya chooses the field of medicine for the purpose, because, according to him, "the only discipline that promises to be fully secular and contains clear potentials of the modern understanding of natural science is medicine".
The main concentration of the book is to present an analysis of Caraka Samhita, the crucial source book on Indian medicine. According to Chattopadhyaya, "discarding scripture orientation, they [the Indian physicians] insist on the supreme importance of direct observation of natural phenomena and on the technique of rational processing of the empirical data.
They go even to the extent of claiming that the truth of any conclusion thus arrived at is to be tested ultimately by the criterion of practice". For them, "everything in nature occurs according to some immutable laws, the body of which is usually called svabhava in Indian thought" and "from the medical viewpoint there can be nothing which is not made of matter". They even say that "a substance is called conscious when it is endowed with the sense-organs". Further, Chattopadhyaya shows:
"If anywhere in ancient Indian thought we are permitted to see the real anticipation of the view that knowledge is power – which, when further worked out, assumes the formulation that freedom is the recognition of necessity – it is to be found among the practitioners of the healing art".
Chattopadhyaya also tries to show in the book, how societal divisions, especially the caste system, which was enforced by the law-givers and their justificatory idealist ideologies, formed obstructions in the way of scientific development in India.
Illustrated Medical Simples of the Four Tantras, Tibeto-Mongolian manuscript, ink and watercolour on paper, 19th century.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London
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