History of Science in Early South Asia

This group will focus 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 will bring 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 take “science” to be broadly conceived, and to include all forms of rigorous intellectual activity that adopt at least to some extent a quantitative and empirical approach, 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 will meet monthly during the 2020-2021 academic year and focus in the first instance on group readings of premodern scientific texts in early Indian languages, especially Sanskrit. We plan to begin with readings in South Asian medical and alchemical literatures.

Please set your timezone at https://www.chstm.org/user

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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

  • Monday, November 15, 2021 10:00 am to 11:30 am EST

    Jacob Schmidt-Madsen, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Copenhagen (URL)
    Phañjikā: An Early Cruciform Game at a Late Medieval Indian Court

    The cruciform game of caupaṛ, adopted by the British as Ludo in the late 19th century, is often referred to as the national game of India. In the late 16th-century Ain-i-Akbari, the Mughal court historian Abul Fazl wrote that "[f]rom times of old, the people of Hindustan have been fond of this game." The question, however, remains as to how old those "times of old" actually were. The earliest certain references to the game are found in Bhakti poetry and Sufi romances from the late 15th and early 16th centuries, but now a hitherto unexplored chapter from the 12th-century Mānasollāsa adds new evidence. It reveals the existence of what appears to be an elaborate form of the game played at the court of King Someśvara III (r. 1127-38) of the Western Cāḷukya Empire.

    This paper traces the early history of caupaṛ and engages with key passages from the chapter on phañjikā, or the game of five, in Mānasollāsa 5.16. It reconstructs the layout and rules of the game as far as possible, and discusses the clearly amorous purposes to which it was put. Phañjikā was primarily played by women and young boys to while away time in the palace, but when the king joined the game it took on the character of a lover's game. The same is true of caupaṛ in later textual and visual sources, thus further closing the gap between the two games.

  • Monday, December 20, 2021 10:00 am to 11:30 pm EST

    Prof. Dominik Wujastyk, University of Alberta
    Title: New findings from the Suśruta Project
    Abstract: Exploring the early history of medicine in South Asia through the ninth-century Nepalese recension of the Compendium of Suśruta. We will discuss the rise of the importance of the figure Dhanvantari in the ayurveda tradition.  We will also discuss the differences found in the ninth-century treatise when compared with the printed versions of the Compendium as that have informed general knowledge about the work since the late nineteenth century.  We will focus on the surgery on the ear and nose, and on the dangers of poison

  • Monday, January 17, 2022 10:00 am to 11:30 am EST

    Madhusudan Rimal, PhD student, University of Alberta will present a selected research paper and chair discussion of its contribution to the historical understanding of science in early South Asia.  Paper details TBA.

  • Monday, February 21, 2022 10:00 am to 11:30 am EST

    Philipp A. Maas, Research Associate, University of Leipzig (URL)
    Topic: TBA

  • Monday, March 21, 2022 10:00 am to 11:30 pm EDT

    Cristina Pecchia, Austrian Academy of Sciences (URL)
    Topic: TBA

  • Monday, April 18, 2022 10:00 am to 11:30 am EDT

    Eric Gurevitch, PhD candidate
    South Asian Languages and Civilizations and
    Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science
    University of Chicago
    Title: Diseases of the eye: Debating the physiology of vision across medicine and philosophy in medieval India
    Abstract: Philosophy mattered in medieval India. Philosophers were employed in royal courts and mediated scholarly life and disputes across sectarian and disciplinary lines. At the heart of philosophic disputes were questions of perception, and these often revolved around the physiology of vision. This presentation examines how philosophers made appeals to medical practices and how medicine was invoked in new contexts. It focuses on two 11th-century scholars who argued for the inadequacy of the standard account of visual extramission as given in philosophic, medical, and literary texts written in Sanskrit. These scholars looked back to 500 years of philosophic disputes as well as to medical practices and argued that the eyeball worked in a very different manner than was often assumed. The presentation aims to tell a more plural history of perception in pre-colonial South Asia and does so by moving across scholarly genres and disciplines. The presentation will be aimed at both generalist and specialist audiences and all are welcomed to join in and participate.

  • Monday, May 16, 2022 10:00 am to 11:30 am EDT

    Madhu K. Parameswaran, Assistant Professor, Department of Dravyagunavijnanam, Vaidyaratnam P.S. Varier Ayurveda College (URL)
    Topic: TBA

Past Meetings

  • October 18, 2021

    Prof. Emeritus K. G. Zysk, University of Copenhagen (URL)
    Topic: Mesopotamian and Indian Bird Omens
    This paper explores the relationship between bird omens that occur in both the Sanskrit Gārgīyajyotiṣa Aṅga 42 and the Akkadian Šumma Ālu and related Cuneiform tablets. After an overview of the Sanskrit omens and their source, the study proceeds to compare the Indian and Mesopotamian bird omens with special reference to the omens of the crow in an attempt to show that the Akkadian omens was the archetype of the Sanskrit omen verses. The paper concludes with a list of contents of Aṅga 42, followed by the Sanskrit text and translation of verses 6-29 on the crow. 

  • September 20, 2021

    A. J. Misra, Marie Curie Fellow, University of Copenhagen (URL)


    Persian Astronomy in Sanskrit: A Comparative Study of Mullā Farīd’s Zīj-i Shāh Jahānī and its Sanskrit Translation in Nityānanda’s Siddhāntasindhu
    Starting from the late medieval period of Indian history, Islamicate and Sanskrit astral sciences exchanged ideas in complex discourses shaped by the power struggles of language, culture, and identity. The practice of translation played a vital role in transporting science across the physical and mental realms of an ever-changing society. The present study begins by looking at the culture of translating astronomy in late-medieval and early-modern India. This provides the historical context to then examine the language with which Nityānanda, a seventeenth-century Hindu astronomer at the Mughal court of Emperor Shāh Jahān, translated into Sanskrit the Persian astronomical text of his Muslim colleague Mullā Farīd. Nityānanda's work is an example of how secular innovation and sacred tradition expressed themselves in Sanskrit astral sciences.
    This article includes a comparative description of the contents in the second discourse of Mullā Farīd's Zīj-i Shāh Jahānī (c. 1629/30) and the second part of Nityānanda's Siddhantasindhu (c. early 1630s), along with a critical examination of the sixth chapter from both these works. The chapter-titles and the contents of the sixth chapter in Persian and Sanskrit are edited and translated into English for the very first time. The focus of this study is to highlight the linguistic (syntactic, semantic, and communicative) aspects in Nityānanda's Sanskrit translation of Mullā Farīd's Persian text. The mathematics of the chapter is discussed in a forthcoming publication. An indexed glossary of technical terms from the edited Persian and Sanskrit text is appended at the end of the work.
    My paper on Persian Astronomy in Sanskrit is downloadable below.


  • April 19, 2021

  • March 15, 2021

  • February 8, 2021
    • Presenter: Dominik Wujastyk, University of Alberta
    • Topic: Early Modern Eristic: Readings from the medical polemic Rogārogavāda by Vīreśvara
    • Bibliography

  • January 11, 2021

  • December 14, 2020

  • November 16, 2020
    • Time Buddy
    • Continuing the program from the previous session (see "Past Meetings," below on this screen).

  • October 19, 2020
    • Time Buddy
    •  Continuing the program from the previous session.

  • September 21, 2020
    • TimeBuddy - meeting time in different timezones.
    • Presenters: Kenneth Zysk (University of Copenhagen) & Tsutomu Yamashita (Kyoto University of Advanced Science)
    • Topic: Sanskrit Medical Scholasticism.  Readings from the Caraka Saṃhitā: Cikitsāsthāna 2.2 with Jajjaṭa’s Nirantarapadavyākhyā and other commentaries Sanskrit Medical Scholasticism

    The committee decided that the first meeting of the Working Group on the History of Science in Early South Asia should be dedicated to medical science and continue as much as is possible the projects that stem from the earlier working group on the Caraka Saṃhitā, begun some years ago in Vienna. In line with this, Tsutomu and I volunteered to chair the first couple of sessions of the workshop.
    The seminars will be devoted to the scholastic tradition of medical Sanskrit, as it pertains to the text of the Caraka Saṃhitā. We shall focus on the Caraka Saṃhitā, Cikitsāsthāna 2, which deals with Vājīkaraṇa or “Potency Therapy”. This chapter of Caraka’s corpus was chosen for two reasons. First, it is the first complete chapter that contains the commentary of Jajjaṭa, the earliest extant commentary available to us; secondly, it is the second in a set of two chapters or rather books, which together form a specific system of knowledge, which in all probability was incorporated into the corpus at an early date. The two chapters or books, Rasāyana and Vājīkaraṇa, which together deal with the prolongation and propagation of human life by the use of specialised medicines. Both chapters are constructed in the same manner, being divided into four separate parts (pāda) or chapters, indicating that structurally they derive from a common source.
    Since our study aims at the Sanskrit medical tradition of the Caraka Saṃhitā, we wanted to include all the extant Sanskrit commentaries on that text. We are in the process of editing the commentary of Jajjaṭa, which occurs only in 20th century copies of a single lost palm-leaf manuscript. Although a version of the commentary has already been published, it requires critical appraisal from the original sources. The other three commentaries also occur in published versions. For the sake of discussion, the commentaries have been broken up into two groups:

    •  Old: Jajjaṭa’s Nirantarapadavyākhya (7th-8th cent. CE), and Cakrapaṇidatta’s Āyurvedadīpikā (3rd quarter of the 11thc cent. CE)
    • New: Gaṅgādhara’s Jalpakalpataru (mid-19th cent.) and Yogīndranāth Sen’s Carakopaskāra (early 20th cent.)  

      In the seminars, we shall look at all these commentaries for a given set of verses, first in order to understand the text and how the system of commentary works with medical literature; secondly, to ascertain how the information was transmitted over time; and finally, what kind of historical and cultural information can be gleaned from them.
      Since the first part of the chapter Vājīkaraṇa has been published, we begin with the second part or chapter, called simply, “milk has been poured” (āsiktakṣīrika)” over it. Since most of the chapter contains medical recipes or formulae, we shall try to unpack precisely the step-by-step method by which the formula was prepared, which cannot be understood without the help of the scholastic tradition. Information will be distributed before the scheduled seminar. This is the first time for this kind of one-line seminar for most of us, so patience is required in the beginning. As background reading, I suggest that participants look at the following:

      Group Conveners

      • aklebanov's picture

        Andrey Klebanov

        Andrey Klebanov is a lecturer at the Department of Indological Studies, Kyoto University, Japan. Klebanov has published on the history of Indian medicine and the history of medieval literary commentaries, with a focus on the use of manuscript sources.


      • Richard Shrake


      • wujastyk's picture

        Dominik Wujastyk

        Dominik Wujastyk is Professor and Singhmar Chair of Classical Indian Society and Polity, Dept. of History and Classics, University of Alberta, Canada.  Previous appointments include a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellowship at the Wellcome Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London.  Wujastyk has taught and published on the history of science and medicine in ancient India and on Indian manuscripts and codicology .  Recent work has included research on the history of classical Indian medicine, yoga and alchemy.  He is the Principal Investigator of the recently launched Suśruta Project


      • kzysk's picture

        Kenneth Zysk

        Kenneth Zysk is Emeritus Professor of Indology and Indian Science, Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Zysk has taught and published extensively on the history of science and medicine in ancient India. Recent projects include work on the history of medicine and medical theory in early India with a view to cross-cultural influences and on early forms of augury and prophecy in Indian astral science, with a focus on manuscript sources.


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