Biology is the Science of life. It is the Science that studies living organisms and how they interact with one another and with their physical and chemical environment. India from ancient times has contributed to the field of Botany, Zoology and other fields of Biology extensively. Their superficial and philosophical observations such as concepts of organic evolution, origin of life, existence of life in the plant and animal kingdom, their responses to environment and their deep insight into the domestic and economic uses of plants and animals find attestation in Modern Science today. Inspite of their methods being primitive, their knowledge and use of plants and animals for food, oils, fodder and fibre were really of a high degree. Planting to yield cereals, fibrous and oil yielding plants agricultural methods like preparation of land for cultivation, tilling, sowing, practise of rotation of crops, using natural fertilisers and other methods were all practised and the results assessed and improvised upon.
Biology in Ancient India
It has been observed in the Vedic literature that 740 plants and 250 animals were recorded proving that in the Vedic period observations of plants and animals were carried out and recorded.
The Rigveda gives references to trees, sowing of seeds, hibernation and sighting of frogs, seasoned timber, domestication of cattle, grinding of corn, reference to birds and their feathers, production of food through ploughing etc. Evolution and origin of the universe, plants(nearly 107 applications of plants) and their curative powers, are mentioned here. The Soma plant was the most important plant followed by the Aswatha or the peepal plant.
In Atharvaveda, there is recognition of energy, uses of beans, rice, sesame, curd, vegetable foods and the preparation of liquor from grass, barley and rice are mentioned. The Satapatha Brahmana mentions ploughs used in agriculture, boar skin used for sandals, dyeing of cloth, cow dung used as manure, pests and weeds, houses made of wood, grass with bamboo cane for thatching etc.
Parasara’s Vrkshayurveda had extensive information on the morphology, anatomy and classification of plants.
The Upanishads and Sutras mention rice and barley as the staple diet. Camel, ass, dog and deer were mentioned and cloth such as cotton, hemp, wool, linen and silk are mentioned. Garments were dyed with the juice of certain flowers, hair comb was made of porcupine quill and perfume was made out of sandalwood. Cattle were given great importance and special rites were formed on them. Life in plants was perceived in a dormant and latent state. The five elements and evolution were explained.
The Chandogya Upanishad made the first attempt in classification of animals into three categories-Jivaja or Viviparous meaning giving birth to young ones like mammals, Andaja or Oviparous meaning egg laying like birds, reptiles, worms and insects and Udbhija or Vegetal origin like minute organisms.
In Sushruta Samhita in 600 BC, all substances were classified into Immobile or Sthavara like plants and Mobile or Jangama like Animals. Plants were further subdivided into Osadhi or plants which die with ripening of fruits, Virudha or shrubs and creepers, Vriksha or fruit yielding and flowering plants and Vanaspati or fruit yielding non flowering plants. The parts of the plant were also described in detail by Sushruta as Mula (root), Ankura (sprout), Patra (leaf), Kanda (bulb or stem), Pushpa( flower), Phala(fruit) etc. It also mentions the classification of animals like Matsya(fish), Janghala(wild herbivorous quadrupeds like deer), Guhasaya(Carnivorous quadrupeds like lion, tiger etc), Kulachara(herbivores who frequent banks of rivers like buffalo, elephant etc). There are also observations on venomous and non venomous snakes and leeches. In post operative cases, Sushruta used live leeches which were non poisonous for preventing clotting of blood.
The first physician to present the concept of metabolism, digestion and immunity was Charaka. According to him the body contained three doshas vata, pita and kapha and any disturbance in them caused an imbalance in the body. His medicinal drugs could restore the balance in such cases. Genetics and its fundamentals were also known to him. His views were that an individual is a replica of the Universal spirit. Along with the five elements Earth, air, water, fire and ether, the self or the spirit was the sixth element equivalent to Brahman in the Universe.
The Taittiriya Upanishad made important observations on life and its evolution and traced it to space. Manu Samhita also propounded the theory of evolution.
Later as observed in the Mahabharata Shanti Parva, scientific thought evolved. Absorption and assimilation of food from the soil by the roots, distinction between fertile and sterile soil, knowledge of trees, methods of planting, grafting and transplanting, various types of manures, rotation of crops, pollination of seeds, nomenclature of plants, the habitats required etc were all mentioned in Brihatsamhita, Puranas and other texts written by great scholars like Varahamihira, Shankara Mishra, Gunaratna, Udayana and others.
Plants were systematically classified as medicinal, dietic and botanical. Vaiseshika, Bhagavat Purana and other works mention systematic grouping of plants with their characteristics and uses.
After Sushruta and Charaka, classification of animals was further advanced by Umasvati in his Tatthvarthadigama. In the Mahabharata pedigree registers and cattle census are also described. There is clear evidence in ancient texts on information about genetics, its science, antenatal and post natal care of animals.
Breeding of animals and hybridisation of animals improved. There was more co ordination and organisation of scientific procedures. Plants and animals were observed more closely to facilitate better methods to improve their uses so as to be further useful to society. Rainfall pattern and other factors were closely monitored so as to improve crops which in turn improved quality of human and animal life as they depended on them for their subsistence and growth.
Indus Valley Civilisation
Excavations reveal a very advanced system of farming and herding, animal husbandry, dairy farming and agriculture. They lived on a variety of foods and studied the climate to facilitate agriculture. Herding and hunting were also some of the main occupations. Evidence of roasting, baking and boiling of food and some forms of preservation of food was carried out.
Being keen observers of nature and biological phenomena, Ancient Indians could make many strides in the field of biology and agriculture. Veteranary science and animal husbandry developed with each successive period and the Indus Valley civilisation shows a highly developed system in place. Initially they were primarily agriculturists and appreciated the importance of cattle. This led to dairy farming and further knowledge about plants and animals led to an improvement in the field of Biology and agriculture.