History of Science in Early South Asia

This group focuses on the kinds of research published in journals such as the Indian Journal of History of Science, the e-Journal of Indian Medicine: EJIM, Asian Medicine, and History of Science in South Asia. The working group brings together scholars who study the history of science in South Asia before about 1800 and as discoverable from literatures in Sanskrit and other indigenous Indian languages. We take “South Asia” as an inclusive, non-political, socio-geographic term referring to the area from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, from Pakistan to Bangladesh, and of course India. Discussions on the influences of South Asian cultures beyond these borders is also welcome, for example Nepalese or Tibetan influences on China, Sri Lankan influences on the Maldives, or Indian influences in South-East Asia. We broadly conceive of “science” to include all forms of systematic intellectual activity, as in the German “die Wissenschaft,” that covers most forms of academic scholarship. Theoretical discussions of the meaning of “science” in the South Asian context are welcome. The group meets monthly during the academic year. We welcome the presentation of individual and group work-in-progress, facilitated discussions of published articles and books, and focused reading sessions in Indic languages.

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Consortium Respectful Behavior Policy

Participants at Consortium activities will treat each other with respect and consideration to create a collegial, inclusive, and professional environment that is free from any form of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation.

Participants will avoid any inappropriate actions or statements based on individual characteristics such as age, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, nationality, political affiliation, ability status, educational background, or any other characteristic protected by law. Disruptive or harassing behavior of any kind will not be tolerated. Harassment includes but is not limited to inappropriate or intimidating behavior and language, unwelcome jokes or comments, unwanted touching or attention, offensive images, photography without permission, and stalking.

Participants may send reports or concerns about violations of this policy to conduct@chstm.org.

Upcoming Meetings

There are no currently scheduled upcoming events.

Past Meetings

  • May 20, 2024

    Are the Elements and the Pañcabhūta the Same (Thing)? Epistemic Objects between
    Science, Religion, and Philosophy in Colonial North India, c.1920

    Dr. Charu Singh (University of Cambridge)

    What are things made from? If elements are the foundational matters of fact in global
    chemopolitics, what happens to elementary conceptions of life and world when new concepts
    challenge existing ontologies? This chapter examines an early twentieth century debate
    about the status of the pañcabhūta, also called the pañcatattva, a concept foundational to
    Hindu ontology and authority. In British India, these “five Hindu elements” were described
    by European orientalists, Sanskrit scholars, emerging Indian scientists and philosophers, and
    lay readers. The tattva presented significant difficulties in linguistic, conceptual, and material
    translation. While pṛthivī, jal, and vāyu were easily rendered as earth, water, and air, the two
    other tattva – tejas and ākāśa – proved less pliable. Is tejas fire or energy? Is ākāśa ether? As
    the Sanskrit scholar Chandrashekhar Shastri asked in the Hindi-language popular science
    monthly Vigyan in 1920, “are the elements and the pañcabhūta the same (thing)?” In the
    subsequent debate, Vigyan’s authors drew on ancient Sanskrit knowledge alongside the
    history of European chemistry. They evaluated the tattva in light of phlogiston and caloric,
    new theories of chemical structure, and also cited traditional theories on the nature of things
    associated with the Vaisheshika, one of the six ‘schools’ of Hindu philosophy. The views of
    the legendary seer Kanada, Antoine Lavoisier, and John Dalton were all cannily deployed.
    Thinking about elements and tattva as epistemic objects, this chapter brings into view the
    complex mediations by which early twentieth century vernacular readers identified these
    objects with reference to and through the intercalation of two distinct standards: Vaisheshika
    philosophy and European chemical writings.

  • April 15, 2024

    "Show and Tell" 
    Presentations and Group Discussion
    Join us for a special meeting on April 15! We are excited to welcome six scholars who will use an object or an image to introduce themselves and their work. Each mini-presentation of approximately 3 minutes will be followed by an opportunity for discussion. 

    One of the primary aims of our working group is to cultivate inclusive community, collaboration, and conversation among people who study science in South Asia (pre-1800) from a range of disciplinary perspectives, so we hope many folks will attend this meeting.

    Leo Weiß (Ruhr-Universität Bochum)
    Lingli Li (EHESS (Paris) and University of Goetingen)
    Dhammaloka Jambugahapitiye (Department of Classical Languages, University of Peradeniya)
    Madhusudan Rimal (University of Alberta)
    Bradley Lewis Scott (Queen Mary University of London)
    Divya Kumar-Dumas (Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, NYU)


    After the presentations we will open up some broader questions for discussion. What is our shared object/field of study? What do me mean when we say “science” in this context of “early South Asia”? What are some of the methodological problems that we face across the group? How can we better share resources and collaborate?
    We would also like to know what kinds of conversations and formats would be most helpful for you in our group for next year.
    We look forward to seeing you on April 15!



  • March 18, 2024

    Material aspects of some early modern Sri Lankan medical manuscripts
    Dr. Anna Elizabeth Winterbottom (McGill University)
    At McGill University, there is a collection of around 125 olas (palm leaf manuscripts), several of which are concerned with medicine, astrology, or veterinary medicine. These manuscripts were collected in the 1920s and 1930s by Casey Wood, an ophthalmological surgeon and keen collector of historical manuscripts. Most date from the Kandyan period (1595-1815). While several of the manuscripts are copies of well-known texts, like the Sinhalese Yogāratnākara, others are compilations of excerpts, prescriptions, and recipes made by physicians for personal use. In this talk, I will consider the material aspects of the texts, including the length of the leaves used for the text, the decoration of their covers, the buttons used to secure the cords, and the illustrations and decorations that many of these texts contain. I will argue that rather than acting solely as vehicles for medical knowledge, the texts were also considered to play an active role in healing through these material elements.


  • February 26, 2024

    Hues of faces and phases: insights on crafting high-tin bronzes in southern India
    Dr Sharada Srinivasan (National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science Campus, Bangalore, India)
    Generally speaking, as-cast binary copper-tin alloys with over 15% do not seem to have been widely used in antiquity as they get embrittled at higher tin contents due to the increasing presence of the intermetallic delta phase compound. Nevertheless, the use of the unusual and skilled binary bronze alloys of a higher tin content and skillfully manipulating the high temperature intermetallic compounds properties of bronzes are reported from various contexts in Indian antiquity. In particular the specialized use of the hot forged and quenched high tin beta (23%) bronze was used to skillfully make vessels with finds reported by the author from archaeometallurgical studies from numerous peninsular and south Indian megalithic contexts ranking amongst the early such finds known; with continuing traditions particularly in Kerala. Sadly, these days it is largely cymbal making that survives.
    Another exotic high tin-bronze craft tradition that thrived in Kerala is the making of mirrors exploiting the silvery delta compound of bronze of around 33% to get a good reflective surface. Further insights on more recently excavated finds from sites such as the Iron Age site of Adichanallur are also touched upon in terms of background. Thus, an attempt is made to trace the trajectory of the usage of bronze in the Indian and south Indian context in this illustrated talk, tracing the numerous ‘faces’, ranging from celebrated lost wax statuary bronzes such as of the Chola period to the mirrors, and the ‘phases’, the unique properties of which were skillfully exploited to fashion the intriguing artifacts, not to mention the related historic ‘phases’…




  • January 22, 2024

    Noah’s Grandsons and the Elephant: Functions of Pseudepigraphic Writing in Persianate South Asia
    Dr. Fabrizio Speziale (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, Paris-Marseille)
    This lecture examines Muslim elephant keepers, and the function of Persian forged texts in South Asian society. It will inquire into forgery as a tool to domesticate technological knowledge translated from Indic sources and to legitimate the status of a guild that has emerged from Muslims’ interaction with the South Asian natural environment and society. It investigates the function of apocryphal writing in the translation context as a stratagem to produce semantic shifts concerning features of both the translated and the translating cultures. In the Kursī-nāma-yi mahāvat-girī (Genealogy of the mahout), a text of uncertain period about the elephant and the elephant keeper, apocryphal writing functions as a device that allows to Islamize professional and technical skills assimilated from the Indian environment. This is accomplished by making them congruent with Muslims’ conception of the origin of technical and scientific professions as practices connected to the early Islamic prophets. Thus, the Kursī-nāma-yi mahāwat-girī creates a legend about the mahout as a profession practiced by Noah’s grandsons. This fictional account also entailed a reflexive meaning in that it operated a significant shift from earlier Muslim negative views on the elephant and provided a new framework for emerging Muslim professional groups involved in the care of this animal. 


  • December 18, 2023

    Incurability as ‘disability’ in classical Āyurveda: The case of vision disorders
    Tulika Singh (University of Alberta)
    In classical Āyurveda, disorders become disabilities, marked by inauspiciousness and social stigma, only when they are entirely incurable. The medical literature considers all treatable conditions as ‘normal,’ and it is primarily the incurability of a condition that renders it ‘disabling’ for the body. This perspective stands in contrast to prevailing legal and normative discourses, which often perceive disorders as socially and legally disabling simply due to their existence. However, the early Indian medical perception of normality and disability is not centered on disorders or the body that possess them but rather on the potential for curability or incurability of the condition in the body.
    To illustrate this point, this paper will discuss curable and incurable vision disorders and their connection to the perception of blindness in the literature. The first section will examine the causes and treatments of curable vision disorders, ranging from partial blindness (timira) to mature cataract (liṅganāśa), to demonstrate that even severe vision loss that can be cured is regarded similarly to any other eye ailment, and therefore is not considered a ‘disability.’ The second section will place importance on incurable vision disorders, highlighting that the physician is advised to neglect curing these conditions primarily because they are deemed incurable. Attempting to treat an inherently incurable condition may incur a bad reputation to the physician. Thus the incurability of a condition contributes to the stigma associated with it. This perspective provides us context for understanding occasional references to the inauspiciousness of blindness, viewing it as a disability in Āyurveda. It is not the disorder itself or the body possessing it but rather the intrinsic incurability of the condition that makes it a disability in medical thought.

  • November 20, 2023

    A Contagion Theory in the Hārītasaṃhitā? The Chapter on upasarga
    Dr. Vitus Angermeier (University of Vienna)
    In studies concerning notions of contagion in pre-modern South Asia, the term upasarga has repeatedly attracted attention because it evidently refers to the transmission of diseases through bodily contact. Although these contacts are not always person-to-person, upasarga is increasingly used, especially in the commentary literature from Cakrapāṇidatta onwards, to describe processes that are today understood as contagion. Sources consulted to understand the development of the term generally include the compilations attributed to Caraka, Suśruta and Vāgbhaṭa (between 150 and 700 CE), as well as later commentaries on these texts (from the 11th century onwards). The less noted Hārītasaṃhitā, usually thought to have been composed in its surviving form between 700 and 1000 CE, is generally overlooked in this context. In this talk, I will examine the use of upasarga in the Hārītasaṃhitā, as the text promises to fill a major gap by means of two particularities: Due to its date, this compilation can shed light on the developments that took place in the period between the writing of the earlier compilations and the later commentaries. And secondly, the Hārītasaṃhitā is the first medical compilation to contain an entire chapter (3.34 on upasargacikitsā, "treatment of infectious diseases") dedicated to the concerned concept.

  • October 16, 2023

    Ancient manuscript fragments of the Carakasaṃhitā and their text genealogical relevance
    Dr. Gudrun Melzer (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München)
    Dr. Philipp Maas (University of Leipzig)
    Various modern collections of ancient Buddhist manuscripts contain fragments of works from other literary genres than Buddhist literature proper, such as medicine. Recently, Gudrun Melzer identified fragments of manuscripts containing the Carakasaṃhitā among these oldest attestations for the transmission of medical knowledge in writing. The ancient Caraka fragments, which can be dated to a period from the fifth to the eighth century CE, predate all other surviving manuscripts by more than a millennium. They thus provide a unique snippet view of the early transmission history of the oldest extant medical compendium. In the first part of this presentation, Gudrun will introduce the newly discovered Caraka fragments along with the current state of knowledge concerning their origin, their dating and context. In the second part, Philipp will discuss possible conclusions concerning the transmission history of the Carakasaṃhitā based on a comparison of the text version transmitted in the fragments with that of later Caraka manuscripts.

  • September 18, 2023

    Dreams and Tooth-cleaning-sticks: Two Omens from Indian Tantric Traditions
    Dominique Baur, M.A. (Heidelberg University),
    Dr. Daisy Cheung (Hamburg University)

    Omens are present in many traditional Indian scientific knowledge systems such as
    Āyurveda and Jyotiḥśāstra. Although many scholars have surveyed omens in various texts
    and contexts, detailed studies are few. Within Jyotiḥśāstra, von Negelein has extensively
    studied Jagaddeva’s Svapnacintāmaṇi (1912), a compendium on dream omens. Zysk has
    systematically studied human marks (2016) and crow omens (2022) across knowledge
    systems. Within ritual studies, Geslani (2018) has focused on the ritual use of omens
    concerning kingship rituals. However, none of these works have addressed the place that
    omens occupy in Tantric traditions, such as Pāñcarātra, Śaivism and tantric Buddhism.

    In our paper, we will investigate the dream (svapna) and the throwing of the tooth-
    cleaning-stick (dantakāṣṭha) as two common examples of omens in Tantric ritual. Drawing
    from sources in Sanskrit, Tibetan and classical Chinese we will compare, among other
    texts, passages from the Jayākhya-, the Viśvaksena- and the Paramasaṃhitā, the
    Niśvāsatattvasaṃgraha, the Śārdūlakarṇāvadāna, the *Svapnohana and the
    Svapnādhyāya. With a detailed study of these two omens we hope to provide more
    examples of intertextuality and to address the question of a common ‘cultural substratum’,
    as well as to shed light on omens as a new field of study.

  • May 15, 2023

    Speaker: Dr Vijaya Deshpande
    Title:  The Rasopaniṣad
    Abstract: I recently revised my earlier work on a Sanskrit alchemical text called the Rasopanișad. The Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, published it last year as Rasopanișad - A Discourse on Indian Alchemy. I will discuss some points related to this work such as what is this text about, why I selected it for a detailed study, why it is somewhat peculiar and what it tells us about medieval Indian chemistry and metallurgy.
    A series of five lectures on this topic were recorded by BORI. They are for a lay person who is new to the topic. They are accessible on the following link.  

Group Conveners

  • labrooks's picture

    Lisa Brooks

    Lisa Allette Brooks is a Killam Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Alberta and the recipient of the Dorothy Killam Memorial Postdoctoral Prize, as well as a 2022-2023 AAS Pipeline Fellowship. Lisa’s current project, Leech TroubleTherapeutic Entanglements in More-Than-Human Medicines, is a historical and textual study of human-leech medicine in South Asia and a comparative ethnographic study of leech therapy in contemporary ayurvedic medicine and biomedicine. Lisa’s work has been published in the Asian Review of World HistoriesMedical Anthropology QuarterlyAsian Medicine and in the edited volume Fluid Matter(s) by ANU press (eds. Kuriyama and Koehle). Lisa co-edited a special issue of Asian Medicine, “Medicines and Memories in South Asia” 15.1 (2020) and is the South Asia book review editor for the journal Asian Medicine and reviews editor for History of Science in South Asia. In 2021 Lisa completed a PhD in South and Southeast Asian Studies with Designated Emphases in Science and Technology Studies, and in Women, Gender, and Sexuality at UC Berkeley. Lisa'a interests include multispecies medicine, histories of health, healing, and embodiment, queer and feminist science studies, and sensory studies.



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