Before starting the discussion on actual chemistry topics, I thought of writing about something different today – the history of Indian Chemistry!
In this post, I intend to talk about ancient Indian chemists and the knowledge they had in the field of chemistry. I came across many references in ancient Indian literature, which were relatable to the scientific truths we study today. These references provoked me to think about ancient science and technology. How much scientific knowledge did our ancestors have? How did they use this knowledge to their benefit? I went through some writings on this topic and was astonished to learn some amazing facts.
This post is dedicated to throwing some light on the defunct knowledge that our ancestors possessed. Unfortunately, this knowledge became extinct with the passage of time. The scope of their scientific knowledge was very vast. However, I shall restrict myself to discussing ancient Indian Chemistry only- ‘The Rasayan Shastra’ as they called it.
ANU – The atom
Acharya Kanada(Kashyap), born in 600 BC, was regarded as ‘The Father Of Atomic Theory’. He formulated the theory of very small, invisible particles – the ‘Anu’.He conceptualized this theory 2500 years before John Dalton(1766-1844)!
The concept of Anu is comparable to the concept of atoms. According to Acharya Kanada, every object of creation is made of ‘anus’ (atoms), which in turn connect with each other to form molecules. He explained that anu is an indivisible entity and cannot be sensed through any human organ. He authored the text ‘Vaisesika Sutras’ describing the dimension, motion, and chemical reactions of these particles.
Ancient Indian texts have so many references to metals. The text of Yajurveda clearly states that gold, silver, copper, tin, and iron were known to the Vedic people. The word ‘Panchdhatu’ is familiar to all Indians? Hindu Shilpa Shastras (Sanskrit text on idol making) describe Panchdhatu as alloys of gold(Au), silver(Ag), copper(Cu), iron(Fe), and lead(Pb)! Sometimes Lead was replaced by Tin (Sn) or Zinc(Zn). Patanjali (second century B.C.) in his Lohasastra, gives elaborate illustrations of many metallurgic and chemical processes like the preparation of metallic salts, amalgams, and the extraction, and purification of metals. He discovered aqua regia – a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acid, which is used to dissolve gold and platinum!
Since the Vedic times, Gold, Silver, Brass, and Copper were widely used for making utensils, idols in temples, and weaponry since Vedic times. Doesn’t this mean that ancient metallurgists knew how to make alloys from metals? The wonder of metallurgical advancement in early times can be witnessed even today! The Iron Pillar of India, near Qutub Minar, continues to amaze chemists worldwide! The wrought Iron pillar(98% purity), made 1600 years back, stands rust-free to date! It weighs 7 tonnes and is made without the use of any machinery. In the 21st century, only four foundries in the world could make such a large pillar and none could make it rust-free!
Mahabharata also mentions Papilika Gold, which is a superior quality gold obtained from ant hills or termites mounds. This was gifted to Yudhistira by some tribal kings saying that it is a very special kind of gold. This Papilika Gold is equivalent to nano gold in present times, which has enormous applications in chemistry and other industries.
Ramayana and Mahabharata have many unambiguous references to nuclear weapons. The after-effects of weapons like Brahmastra and Pashupatastra mentioned in these texts are exactly similar to the annihilation effects caused by the atomic bombs. So nuclear energy was known and harnessed thousands of years ago! In fact, many believe that the SHIVALINGA is nothing but a nuclear reactor and lord Shiva represents nuclear energy! Why would anyone think that? The following points will help understand this better –
- Lord Shankar/Shiva is called ‘Bholenath’(the naive one). However, he is also considered the lord of destruction. This is an allegory for nuclear energy, which is one of the most efficient forms of energy if used correctly. However, improper use of this energy can have devastating effects.
- Interestingly, the shape of Linga resembles that of a nuclear reactor.
3) Like nuclear plants, Shiva temples are also built near water bodies. Immense heat is produced in the reactor and thus a huge amount of water is required to cool it down.
4) The Bael /wood apple/ Aegle marmelos plant possesses radioprotective, and chemopreventive properties. According to Hindu tradition, it is a custom to cover the Linga with the bael leaves. If it were to be believed that the linga is a representation of a nuclear reactor, it is understood why such a practice was advisable. The covering of bael leaves was a preventive measure to ensure that harmful radiation is not leaked into the environment.
We have stories in Ramayana, where Ravan, a very mighty king, was a devotee of Shiva and did tapasya (to practice austerity) just to get a Shivalinga – a stone that was a symbol of the lord’s radiance. It was a powerful object and had the power to make Ravana invincible! Nations with nuclear power are always considered formidable. It is possible that the power Ravana was seeking was nuclear power!
Nagarjuna was considered a great alchemist of India. He is the author of an Indian text ‘Rasa Shastra’.Recently, Krishna Pal Shastri, an Ayurvedic practitioner, produced gold from Aluminum chloride, mercury, and some secret powder. Around the 1980s, he continued to make gold in this way at the rate of 3 grams per week. The marble plaques in Visvanath temple at Benares University and Birla temple in Delhi bear witness to the gold produced by his alchemical feats.
The advancement of ancient chemical science finds expression in other fields, like the distillation of perfumes and fragment ointments, the manufacturing of dyes and chemicals, weaponry, and the preparation of pigments and colors.
It amazes me to read about such revelations about ancient Chemistry. However, I wonder why was this knowledge not passed to future generations correctly? Why was this vast information lost? Thankfully, science emerged again in the new era and made impossible things possible. Thanks to all the modern-day scientists, who changed our world and helped us grow!
Hope you enjoyed reading this post.If you did do let me know in the comments section below.
Be a perpetual student of life and keep learning…
References and Further Reading-
1)The Father of Atomic Theory: Acharya Kanad – Sanskaar Varg.
2)The Indian Sage who developed Atomic Theory 2600 years ago – ancient-origins.net
3)The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India by David White.
4)Ancient Indian Chemistry by Dr. Iragavarapu Suryanarayana.
Very excellent and remarkable….
In ancient Indian Chemistry, ZInc extraction played a major role as brass was made from Zinc, for centuries the difficult process of extraction of zinc was carried out only in India.
Woww! Thanks for the link Aditya!
Keep it up Gauri. Even common man like me understood lot of things.
Thank you so much sir !
Such a beautiful read
very intersting to know, i wonder why this was not taught at schools