THE NATURE OF MATTER
Ancient and Mediaeval Biology
Looking through the Magnifying Glass
of the Modern
Pushpa M Bhargava
Our presentation would be about ‘living matter’. Biology is the scientific study of living matter; therefore, our talk would pertain to biology.
Our objective would be to try to understand and evaluate the past — that is our knowledge in biology from the pre-Mohenjo-daro-Harappa period till the end of the last century — against the background of what we know today. In other words, we intend doing reverse history — that is, looking backwards from today’s vantage point.
Our approach would involve, first, looking at the nature and the structural elements of today’s knowledge in biology: what are the basic rules and generalisations that have emerged. We would then look at how much was, in our evaluation, known about these structure elements, rules, basic tenets and generalisations in our past. Thus, if we were to make a map of biology today, with the knowledge that we have as of now, we would like to know as to how much of this map was filled in our past till the end of the last century. In this way, we should be able to identify our successes against the background of today’s knowledge and ask the question: Could our ancestors have done better given the tools they had? We would then analyse our failures and ask if they could have been avoided. We would, finally, like to determine — within the highly circumscribed limits of our competence — if the story of biology in our country can be correlated with the changes in our social, political, economic and cultural scene over the centuries. The larger objective would be to learn lessons from history so that we do not repeat the same mistakes in the future but derive inspiration and strength from our real and established accomplishments of the past in the process of building our future.
The Structure of Modern Biology
We today know that all biological systems, without an exception, can be fully described in terms of four parameters: chemistry, biochemistry, morphological structure and function. The chemistry of living systems would tell us what they are made of. We today know a great deal about the ‘chemistry’ — that is, the chemical constituents — of living systems, and our dictionary of these constituents is becoming increasingly complete so that it is becoming exponentially more difficult to discover new constituents. In this process, we have also learnt that living systems need to take in from the environment a very small number of what we call nutrients and make from this small number literally millions of different chemical species that are found in the living cell; even the simplest of cells that we know today probably contain several thousand different chemical species. The ‘biochemistry’ of the system is essentially a description of the set of reactions that allow the system to synthesize its large number of chemical constituents from the small number of nutrients it needs to take in from the environment, and then to get rid of them when they are no longer needed. This is where the excitement was at the turn of this half century but, today, the dictionary of biochemistry is already very comprehensive.
By ‘structure’, we mean the looks of the system at various levels of resolution from the naked eye to X-rays. There is considerable excitement in this area in biology even today, and there is little doubt that new structures are awaiting discovery. The ‘function’ of living systems is essentially a description of the capabilities of the system through the manifestation of which we generally identify a particular living system or organism. Thus, movement is a function and we say that animals can move but plants do not. The ability to respond to the environment is also a function, and so on. We shall give a more detailed list of some of the functions that living systems perform a little later.
Chemistry, biochemistry, structure and function of the living systems thus represent four structural elements of modern biology. It turns out that there are enormous similarities which all living organisms from simple micro-organisms to an elephant show in regard to all the four structural elements. It also turns out that the chemistry of all living organisms shows the greatest resemblance; this resemblance declines as we proceed from chemistry, through biochemistry and structure, to function. The above unity and the hierarchies that we have just mentioned in this unity, together, represent another basic tenet of modern biology that we have come to recognise today.
Then, we know today that life evolved from the non-living on our planet somewhere between 3.5 and 4.5 billion years ago, and that the Darwinian evolution acting on this primitive life, led to the evolution of the various species that inhabit our planet today or have inhabited it in the past. The prime principles that have governed this evolution are that of chance that allowed random mutations to occur, of the necessity of perpetuating (through reproduction) the change that these mutations led to, and of natural selection during evolution when there was competition between species. One of the most striking conclusions that modern biology seems to point towards is that all of us who are living today, and all our ancestors, have been the progeny of a single woman who lived in Africa nearly 200,000 years ago! In other words, we are all cousins 20,000 generations apart!
As we shall see later, our ancestors recognised the unity of all life — even of the non-living and the living — but they did not recognise the hierarchy in this unity that is represented by evolution in the temporal dimension.
The last generalisation that has emerged in modern biology, we would like to mention, is that all aspects of living phenomena, without an exception, have a physico-chemical basis. In other words, all properties of life must be explicable in terms of laws of physics and chemistry. We did not recognise this in the past.
Let us now look into some details.
Our Success in the Past
A. Chemistry of living systems
Today, we know that the living and the non-living worlds represent a continuum and that the living world is regulated and controlled by the same laws that hold true for the non-living world. In our ancient tradition, the relationship between the living and the non-living has been ambivalent. On the one hand, we have believed in "dust thou art to dust returnest", implying that living objects were related to the non-living. On the other hand, we have had the all-pervading concept of soul as making living things different — a concept which is incompatible with today’s knowledge in biology.
One cannot, however, blame our ancestors for this ambivalence. In order to understand the chemistry of living systems, we needed the knowledge of chemistry as it developed after the Renaissance in Europe, which not only never happened in India but did not even touch our science till this century. Therefore, we doubt if anyone could have done better during the ancient or the early medieaval period in India. (What, of course, is disappointing is the continuation and uncritical acceptance of this ambivalence today.)
As regards biochemistry, it is a science of the twentieth century, most of its major advances have been made only in this half century. It is largely concerned with the mechanism of synthesis of the large number of chemical substances that living systems have from the small number of nutrients that they need to take in from the environment, and with the fate of the chemical constituents of the living systems. It is also concerned with the relationship of the chemistry of a system with its structure and function. Since laws of chemical combinations are only a few hundred years old, there was no way for precise biochemical knowledge to be arrived at in the ancient or even the mediaeval times. Yet, there were important inferences arrived at regarding phenomenon such as metabolism.
One such inference was the need for nutrients to undergo change in the living system to enable them to perform the various functions that were recognised. One of the conclusions was that life and biological processes are dependent upon the production of heat inside the organism. "This body-heat comes out of food which also nourishes and maintains the organism through its metabolic transformations. Ingested food and drink pass into the stomach and become minutely dispersed by the digestive fluid present there; their assimilable contents then turn into a sweet, frothy, mucus-like fluid. This process of digestion, carried out by agni (digestive fire), continues until the fluid becomes acid, issues out of the stomach and excites the secretion of thin bile. At this stage it is an assimilable, nutritive fluid known as rasa, which is pumped by the heart through 24 major channels and permeates the entire system. Rasa constantly moistens, nourishes, maintains and irrigates the organism by processes which were not completely understood".1 Mostly today’s state-of-art, and incorrect only in detail!
C. Structure of living systems
Our ancestors were extremely acute, accurate and perceptive observers. It is this acuity of observation that laid the foundations of ancient Indian science. Nowhere is this capacity so explicit, as in the case of observations that related to the structure of biological systems.
Detailed knowledge of various internal and external organs of the body and its various systems was acquired during the Vedic period. For example, in Atharvaveda, there are references even to Fallopian tubes and to the relationship between testicles and semen. We were aware of not only bones but also cartilage and ligaments. In the Caraka Samhita (believed to have been put together somewhere between fourth century bc and fourth century ad, probably around 100 ad) the total number of bones in the human body has been stated to be 360. As we know the total number of bones in the human body to be 206 today, the chances are that all of them had been identified by Caraka’s time.
Susruta’s description, even before Caraka, of the anatomy of the human body, within the limitations of the human eye, is breathtakingly comprehensive and analytical. The basic difference between vertebrates and invertebrates was clearly recognised: "some beings stand mainly with the support of skeleton and others with muscles".
Parasara (first century bc to first century ad) gave the details of the internal structure of leaf. His description refers to innumerable small compartments, cell sap and possibly cell wall.
The Brhadaranyakopanisad (1000-600 bc) compares the human being with a tree as follows: "a man is indeed like a mighty tree; his hairs are its leaves and his skin is its outer bark. The blood flows (from the skin) of the man, so does the sap (from the skin) of the tree. Thus blood flows from a wounded man in the same manner as the sap from a tree when it is chopped. Flesh within corresponds to the inner bark; his nerves are as tough as the inner fibres of the tree; his bones lie behind his flesh as the wood lies behind the soft tissue. The marrow of the human bone resembles the pith of the tree".1 Surely, there is an element of both realism and poetry in these analogies! Susruta, too, gave a more or less detailed account of different parts of a plant, with a tendency to compare the plant parts with those of the human body.
(iii) Classification of plants and animals
Classification of plants and animals into manageable categories came naturally to our ancestors. Some 740 plants and over 250 animals seem to be referred to in our ancient literature, which were classified in many different ways, for example, on the basis of their medicinal property, domestic utility, or morphological features. The first attempt to classify animals in some rational way is found in the Chandogya Upanisad, where classification was based on their mode of origin and development. In this classification was also a group comprising of organisms that was born out of heat and moisture of the earth, such as stinging gnats, mosquitos, lice, flies and bugs. It is interesting that all those that were small and apparently caused some damage or discomfort were thought to arise spontaneously out of the scum of the earth! It was only in the later half of the last century that the theory of spontaneous generation was finally buried by Louis Pasteur, so our ancestors did not do badly at all!
The most elaborate classification of plants was by Parasara who based it largely on morphological considerations such as floral characteristics. He classified plants into families some of which clearly represent families of today, for example, Leguminosea, Crustacea, Cruciferae, Cucurbitacea, Kapucynacea and Compositae. The tragedy is that such classification was not improved upon subsequently. Unfortunately, also the relationship between various classes was not analysed. If that had been done, subsequent to Parasara, perhaps a more systematic classification might have emerged many centuries ahead of Linnaeus. The importance of dealing with many parameters at a time in classification was clearly not recognised.
D. Functions performed by living systems
Some of the important functions that we know today to be manifest in living, biological systems are:
A significant number of these functions performed by living systems were observed accurately and recorded in detail in the ancient times. Udayana (tenth century ad) recorded, in plants, the phenomena of life, death, sleep, waking up, disease, transmission of specific characters from one generation to another, and movement towards what is favourable and away from what is unfavourable.2 The recognition of the six basic tastes — sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent — was surely remarkable.1
Knowledge that has stood the test of time was arrived in ancient India (and subsequently all through our history) not only by direct observation but also by drawing inferences. This was nowhere more obvious than in regard to our understanding of several functions that biological systems perform. Let us look at some examples.
The conclusions arrived at in regard to the reproductive process, both in animals and in plants, in ancient India were truly impressive. Although there does not appear to be enough evidence of the knowledge of sexuality in plants in the Harappan culture, sexual reproduction in higher plants as well as in higher animals is mentioned in the pre-Buddhistic Kathopanisad as being similar.3 Seeds and flowers were believed to be produced by the cooperation or union of different sexes. Pollen was believed by Amara to be analogous to the female menstrual fluid. In the Brahmanas — a constituent of the Vedas — there are many references to conception and to child-birth.4 As has been already mentioned, the testicles were recognised as being responsible for the production of semen. It was also recognised that the semen should get amalgamated with the contribution of the woman in her womb; unless this happened, pregnancy could not be established.
Garbhopanisad gives a detailed and fascinating description of the day-to-day and monthly development of the human embryo through its various stages, from conception to delivery. Susruta gave the best time for conception from the fourth to the twelfth day from the date of the beginning of the menstrual flow: precisely what is recommended for a 22-day menstrual cycle today! Imagine the amount of information he must have collected to arrive at this conclusion and that too how, and in what kind of a culture! (May be our today’s perceptions of that culture are inadequate.)
The role of the umbilical cord and the navel was amazingly well recognised 2,4. "The dhamanis in the foetus take their rise from the umbilical cord, thus bringing nourishment from the mother" 2, and the navel in the foetus was rightly stated to be the source and origin of the entire vascular system. To continue the quotation, "The embryo is held at the navel. It grows without taking food, that is, there is no effort made on the part of the embryo to take food and no food is specially served to it. The food in its final form, is assimilated automatically and directly into the system of the embryo. The child is nourished of its own accord as it were. The mother is not conscious of the nourishment given to the young one below her heart". Could it have been said better?
The animal body was recognised to be sustained and nourished by blood which was "conveyed through a large number of channels to every part of the body".5 Existence of capillaries was recognised in numbers that were impossible to count. It was stated that urine is formed by draining of the waste or refuse matter in the body by water. The water content of the urine was correctly concluded as derived from the drinking water and from the moisture of the food taken in. Urine was, therefore, thought of as a body fluid which served to eliminate waste metabolic products not required by our body.5
The growth of a plant was recognised to depend on soil, water and season 2. It was recognised that light had something to do with the process of manufacture of food by plants and storage of energy in their body 2,3.
Caraka made another highly perceptive and logical statement when he said that diagnosis of a disease should depend on (i) theoretical knowledge of the possible causes and symptoms of diseases, (ii) meticulous observation of the patient’s symptoms and complaints, and (iii) inferences based on previous experience.6
One of the most remarkable deductions made in the history of Indian medicine was in regard to small pox. In fact, the impression that all of India was in a state of rapid decline in the late eighteenth century, is certainly argued against by the fact that inoculation against small pox was practised in the subcontinent at this time, and long before it became generally acceptable in Europe.7 It was unknown in Europe till 1720, when the wife of the then British Ambassador in Turkey, having got her children successfully inoculated, advocated its introduction into Britain.
The farmers of the Vedic period were aware of the possibility of improving the fertility of the soil by rotation of crops — a concept that developed in the West very much later.8, 9 Rice was grown in summer and pulses in winter.10 References to rotation appear in Rgveda and Yajurveda.11,13 Thus rye-grass and cloves were grown with wheat, barley or oats, and beans with peas.7
The ancient cultivators knew how to select the seeds and what to sow when and where; they recognised the need of replenishing the nutrients of the soil by manures.3,11-15 The later Vedic agricultural farmers seemed to be fully conversant with the use of organic matter such as appropriately processed cowdung, 12, 14 bones, blood, and plant products such as the straws of barley.3, 16 These manures are today known to contain nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.
From 300 to 200 bc onwards, the early stages of the germination of seeds and the factors governing germination (such as proper season, good soil, water, vitality of the seeds, and proper care) were clearly recognised. Kautilya’s Arthasastra mentions the effect of temperature on germination; it gave specific conditions required for germination of different kinds of seeds.
Although there was much emphasis on vegetarian food, eating of meat was far from prohibited. The food value of the flesh of a large number of animals was discussed [for example, in Sutra-Sthana (800-300 bc)1], and cow was not yet "in the venerable company of the Gods and Brahmins" but was merely regarded as just another animal. In other words, there was no restriction on the eating of beef. Qualities of beef are stated in Caraka Samhita as follows:
We had learned how to determine the age of animals from sequential changes in their teeth17, and we knew how to train animals and to exercise control over them.17 Cattle breeding appears to have been one of the important aspects of animal husbandry practice in ancient India. Salihotra’s work on horses appears to be most comprehensive, consisting of 16,000 slokas in 120 chapters. It can be taken to be a complete guide to the science of horses, from breeding and grooming to care in health and disease.
Surgery was, perhaps, the most illustrious branch of ancient Indian medicine. Susruta divided surgery into eight branches: incision, excision, scarification, puncturing, exploration, extraction, evacuation and suturing. Actually, fifteen different methods were described for the extraction of a foreign body loosely or firmly embedded in the tissues; they were practical, reasonable and highly innovative, a magnet being used for iron particles.18
More than 100 surgical instruments made of steel were described by Susruta.2,9,19 Indian doctors in the ancient period achieved such perfection in plastic surgery that European surgeons of the nineteenth century borrowed several methods from them. Susruta also discovered the art of cataract-crouching which was unknown to surgeons of ancient Greece and Egypt.2 Limbs were amputated, abdominal operations performed, fractures set, dislocations, hernia and ruptures reduced, and haemorrhoids removed — all with an amazing rate of success.2 Susruta was, in fact, the first to advocate that dissection of dead bodies was indispensable for a successful student of surgery.6 The earliest of rhinoplasties appeared to have been performed in India in 1600 bc and there are still families that practise the same method today. The practical secret of rhinoplasty operation spread from India through Arabia and Persia to Egypt and from there to Italy.20
The Indus valley people understood the qualities of wood, nor did the strength, durability and preservative power of the various timbers escaped their notice.3
Garments were dyed with the juice of Lodina flowers, madder and indigo, starting from somewhere between 800 and 300 bc. Silk was known and used to make clothes.10
The art of perfumery was highly developed.21 People knew the technical art of distilling essence from natural sources, and our ancestors had arrived at formulations using different proportions of various aromatic substances to get various notes of perfume. Basavaraja has given a list of nine aromatic ingredients from which as many as 72 perfumes could be obtained by combining them in various proportions.
F. Value systems
Today we recognise that the practice of science generates and sustains values. Therefore, one would expect that the generation of scientific knowledge in the ancient times also led to the establishment of certain values and value systems. This indeed is true. Let us look at some examples.
In the Vedic period, agriculture had become virtually the universal occupation in India. It had developed to such an extent that there was plenty of produce. It was probably for this reason that hospitality came to be regarded as a cardinal virtue.8 "He who possessed of food hardens his heart against the feeble man craving for nourishment, against the sufferer coming to him for help, and pursues his own enjoyment even before him, that man finds no consoler".
Ayurveda demanded an elaborate moral and ethical code for the physicians. According to Caraka, friendship towards all, compassion for the ailing, devotion to professional duties, and a philosophical attitude towards cases with a fatal ending, are the four cornerstones of medical practice. There is much here to learn for our present-day doctors.
Where We Failed
It should be obvious from what we have said above that our ancestors possessed a substantial body of knowledge in the area of structure and some functions of living systems; this would not have been possible had it not been for their capacity and desire for acute and extensive observation, the power of reasoning, the ability to arrive at inferences and conclusions, and to learn from trial and error.
This empirically acquired knowledge was put to good use and, therefore, it set up a tradition that allowed India to remain at par, if not gain supremacy with the rest of the world till the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe.
However, our analysis of documented information also shows that, alongside this knowledge that had stood the test of time, there also developed a body of knowledge — perhaps, better called beliefs and ideas — about biological systems that has since then proven to be wrong and shown to be based on fallacious principles or assumptions. Many of these erroneous beliefs and ideas have, unfortunately, not been discarded till today, and have consequently acted as a drag on us; they often exercise a greater hold over the minds and hearts of our people than the tradition of knowledge that has stood the best of time and has been found to be compatible with what was discovered later.
We believe that any objective documentation of the history of the development of science, culture and philosophy in India would be incomplete and of little use, if it is not accompanied by an analysis of the evolution of such ideas and beliefs and their sustenance in an unchanged form even today, when we have much evidence to the contrary. Only if we do this analysis and shed whatever we can be reasonably sure to be wrong, we cannot but accelerate the pace of progress in the country. It is not scientific either to glorify or condemn our past wholesale. We must isolate facts from myth and dogma to appreciate what our ancestors were able to accomplish, and then build on it.
There were beliefs and ideas developed and propagated in our past that have proven to be partly right and partly wrong and those that have turned out to be wholly wrong. Let us first look at some examples of the former: the ones that were partly right and partly wrong.
Now a few earlier beliefs that have proven to be wholly wrong.
Why the Erroneous Beliefs?
First, although our ancestors were obsessed with the desire to find answers to questions and to be exhaustive, they were armed only with an acute sense of observation. They did not even have the simplest form of aid such as a magnifying glass to help them in their endeavour. Therefore, wherever observation by itself was enough, they did extremely well — even to the extent of drawing valid inferences following trial and error.
Secondly, there was a lack of democratisation of knowledge. Knowledge became the privilege of particular castes and families, with the caste system becoming more and more rigid with time. Further, knowledge was treated with great secrecy and was handed down only to a chosen few. Instead of being written down in books and given a wide circulation, the art was taught by the preceptor to the disciple, in most cases by the father to the son, so that where there was no son, the knowledge may have died with the father.
Thirdly, there was a lack of tradition of questioning. In fact, referring to the Susruta Samhita, one commentator says that a wise phyisician was not expected to raise any theoretical questions about the properties of a drug which were already known through traditional knowledge and practical experience. A physician was expected to rely on what was traditional, rather than act on theoretical reasoning, or take into account new knowledge and experience. Therefore, many untruths remained unchallenged and often got attached to vested interests over a period of time. This was a clear step towards stratification of knowledge; what is particularly interesting is the kind of logic that is used to justify it. It was probably on account of the above that there have been few changes in the practice of Ayurveda since its inception: contrast this with the modern system of medicine!
Fourthly, the mixture of truth and myth got further amalgamated with religion and dogma. When this happened, truth ceased to stand on its own merit and, instead, sought the sanction of religious authority. Gradually, the distinction between truth and myth got lost.
Fifthly, there was very little inflow of knowledge from elsewhere, excepting during the Moghul period and the subsequent European period.
Perhaps, language too played a major role in stratification of knowledge and consolidation of untruths. The observations were often written in poetic verses in Sanskrit, with great economy of words, and one could give the written material various interpretations whose meanings hardly overlapped. Therefore, in many cases, the true meaning may have been distorted if not lost with the passage of time. Then, in course of time, Sanskrit became more and more rigid with Panini’s prescriptions, while other languages started evolving and absorbing more and more. Sanskrit no longer remained the common man’s language; therefore, the wealth of information contained in this language became inaccessible to a vast number and became stratified.
Finally, the tradition of experimentation was lacking in our ancient and mediaeval culture — even in Gautama’s Nyaya Sastra. Experimentation to test a hypothesis based on observation on analysis of existing information is the key to all modern scientific inquiry and progress. In the West, the experimental tradition based on the scientific method took root in the thirteenth century and flowered after the Italian Renaissance, of which the Industrial Revolution was a logical follow-up. This did not happen here. Wherever we did experiments such as in relation to surgery — for example, in dissection — the knowledge gained has stood the test of time.
To sum up, we believe that, in biological knowledge, India was far ahead of most of the then civilized world up to, say, 1000 a.d., or even 1500 a.d — that is, for some 4000 years of documented history. However, after this period, the knowledge of biology in Europe progressed by leaps and bounds while our knowledge remained static. Thus, the advantage we had of history, culture and tradition (e.g., of no ban on dissection) were lost.
Our forefathers in the ancient and the mediaeval period did all that was humanly possible. However, they tried to do more and in that process gave us untruths which, in the social milieu in which they were generated and sustained, came to be stratified, amalgamated with truth on one hand and with myth, legend, magic and religion on the other. If we can separate the myth and dogma from truth, and reject what is not compatible with modern science, we would be in a position not only to have a better appreciation of what our ancestors were able to accomplish, but also lay the foundations of a systematic and rapid development of modern biology in India by providing a new motivation. We have no doubt in our minds that one of the reasons for the lack of this development has been the hold of obscurantism and religious authority on the minds of our people, partly derived from what has been said in our scriptures.
We are grateful to a large number of friends and organisations that have helped in collection of the information presented in this article. They include Prof Anil Gupta of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, Dr Irfan Habeeb of NISTADS, New Delhi, Dr A. D. Bag and the staff of the library of INSA, New Delhi, and Prof A. S. Kolaskar and Prof Khubchandani of Pune. We would also like to acknowledge with grateful thanks the pioneering work of Shri A. Rahman, the two D. P Chattopadhyaya’s and Dr B. V. Subbarayappa that stimulated our interest in this area.
Notes & References
©1995 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi