Science in Vedas

A passage in an ancient text The Panchavimshati-brahmana, ‘The Knowledge-Book of Twenty-five Chapters’ states: “The world of heaven is as far removed from this world as thousand GAVA stacked one above the other.”

With the keen interest of the Western world in Eastern culture and traditions, especially in the Vedas from India and the penchant for rendering anything of value into English, there is no dearth of translations of ancient Eastern texts. W Caland is a Dutch scholar whose work is among the more respected translations of the Vedas. His translation reads:

“The world of heaven is as far removed from this (earthly) world as a thousand cows standing one above the other.”

This meaning as translated defies logic. How come there is a passage which, to put it mildly, is enigmatic and to put it plainly made no sense at all.

Material Science or Meta-Physics?

How could a text rich in philosophical thoughts, and a society, which produced highly refined ideas in philosophy, not have similar development in the field of material sciences?

There are always superficial but tenable solutions:

Meta-physics is the forte of the East and it is an unlikely place for scientific advancement of the secular kind.

If there was a part of the text which was enigmatic, made no sense and seemed to have little place in a literature of Vedic maturity, such portions have always been set aside as the poetic (by implication meaningless) outbursts of the sages.

Our love for our ancient language – Sanskrit – is only matched by our ignorance of the same. When it comes to English, we know it; more importantly English sanctifies what is said in it. We have no difficulty in accepting such translations, convinced that great though our civilization was, we had no use for physical sciences.


It does not take too much effort to break from this mindset, reach below the surface and discover possible truths for ourselves.

The Indian knowledge system encompasses Chaturdasha-vidyas – the 14 disciplines which consist of:

The ‘basic’ texts              – The Vedas 4

The Supplementary texts – The Vedangas 6

The complementary texts – The Upangas 4

Of the supplementary 6 texts i.e. The Vedangas, the following 4 deal with language:

·         Shiksha – Phonetics

·         Vyakarana – Grammar

·         Chandas – Prosody

·         Nirukta – Etymology

The remaining two, Jyotisha (Astrology) and Kalpa (Rules for rituals), we will get to later.

These supplementary and complementary texts are intended to help reach a proper understanding of the main text viz., the Vedas. So when there is a Rig to be understood, we know the place to go to i.e., the Nirukta, theVeda-specific dictionary.

Learning the Simplicity

Nirukta gives two meanings for the word ‘Gau’ –

·         The planet earth and

·         The animal cow

in that order.

Generally, in modern times even the established scholars lack patience to go through any dictionary – Oxford, Vaman Apte or the Nirukta – in any degree of detail. Most of them tend to settle down quickly for the first mentioned meaning, which should, by definition, meet most needs. Making only this modification, the Dutch translation would read as follows:

“The world of heaven is as far removed from this (earthly) world as 1000 earths stacked one above the other.”

This literal translation can be re-stated as follows:

The distance between the Earth and the Heavens = 1000 Earth Diameter

This certainly makes more sense than the chosen translation of 1000 cows stacked one above the other. The correct distance from the earth to the sun is more like 1000 times the Earth’s radius than diameter. Or did they not mean the sun at all when they talked of the heaven? We have at least reached a statement on astronomy which qualifies as a starting point for further examination.

This looks elegant and simple. Is this one-off or is it representative?

Astronomy and Medicines

There are other cases of secular truth – in astronomy and in medicine, which have been brought to the surface from the Vedic ocean.

·         Speed of light (Rig-Veda 1.50.4)

·         Sun as the centre of the Universe (Yajur-Veda, Yajur-Veda

·         Moon as a satellite of the earth (Rig-Veda 10.189.1, Yajur-Veda

·         Removal of placenta in child birth (Atharva-Veda – Prathama-Kanda 11.4)

The example of the distance from the earth to the heavens has the classic strength and limitations of an example. It makes a point, but does not reveal the underlying complexities. How did somebody manage to spot this one Rig in the Vedic ocean?

The structure of Vedas

If we are going to look for the needle in the haystack, understanding the haystack – its structure – would be a good starting point.

There are four Vedas

  • Rig
  • Yajur
  • Sama and
  • Atharva

Each of these Vedas is in four parts:

  • Samhitas
  • Brahmanas
  • Aranyakas and
  • Upanishads

Samhitas are hymns in praise of the various Vedic gods; these are also considered as mantras – the ones with the power to protect. Brahmanas contain directions for using these hymns in religious rituals.

Rituals are of two kinds:

Shrauta – Sacrifices like Rajasuya and Ashvamedha and

Smarta – Domestic rituals – beginning with naming ceremony at birth, through wedding rituals and finally, the death rites.

Shatapatha-brahmana, of the Shukla-yajur-veda (17 books containing 104 Brahmanas) provides detailed instructions on building sacrificial altars, making bricks for the construction of the altar, the arrangement and maintenance of the various Agnis (ritual sacred fire) and so on.

Similarly Ekagni-kanda of Krishna-yajur-veda contains material on performing wedding rituals.

Since the Samhitas and Brahmanas, by and large, deal with the conduct of rituals, they are collectively referred to as The Karma-kanda – ritualistic part of the Vedas.

It is the later part of the Vedic literature, chiefly Aranyakas and Upanishads, which elaborate on religious philosophy. Hence their currency today, 5000 years after their compiling, is quite obvious.

Our perceived intent and driven by it, the current application of Samhita and Brahmana materials is ritualistic. Once it is a ritual, then, the communication is prescriptive, the adherence is mechanical, the focus is on the form and not the content and the primary requirement is faith and not understanding. Add to this mindset the fact that the text is in Sanskrit, which is alien to both the priests and the practitioners of the rituals, the chance of the meanings of the Rigs seeping through and reaching the people involved is close to zero, a perfect zero.

Rigs and Suktas

The following examples illustrate in what strong ritualistic strait-jackets these materials are presented and preserved.

1.   Rig-Veda, 1st Mandala, 164th Sukta

This Sukta of 41 Rigs is in praise of the sun. The Rigs here have repeated reference to the path of the sun, the seven rays of the sun, and the worlds above and below. This Sukta has a Rig which talks about the elliptical path of planets and how they are held together by gravitational forces.

This Sukta is intended for the purification of a Brahmin, who has committed a theft! There are detailed instructions on how the person should recite the Sukta (inaudibly for 3 nights in a row).

2.   Rig-Veda, 1st Mandala, 164th Sukta, 2nd Rig

Commenting on a Rig in this Sukta, Sayanacharya, the most respected commentator on the Vedas, mentions the speed of light which matches the twentieth century measurement.

This Sukta is prescribed for the final rites of a Nitya Agnihotri (somebody who has performed the fire sacrifice as a daily routine, in his life time).

While 700 years ago, Sayanacharya was able to perceive, comment upon and declare hard core scientific ideas from these materials, today these Vedic texts yield no meaning of any kind to us.

What do the Vedas stand for?

Let us go back to the origin of the Vedic literature to see whether we can gain an understanding.

Time is cyclical; day after day there is dawn, noon, dusk and night. It is cyclical on a monthly basis; the moon waxes and wanes. It is cyclical on an annual basis, there is spring, summer, autumn and winter.

The Indian concept of time is cyclical eternally. There are 4 Yugas – Krita, Treta, Dvapara and Kali. On the completion of the Kali-yuga, the world as it exists comes to an end and is reborn.

While the species are gone, the structure remains or is revived in the old order. All the old knowledge – gravity, speed of light, pulse rate of humans and animals and the Periodic Table of elements continue to be relevant. Hence, knowledge inscribed in the Vedas is eternal.

Thankfully, the knowledge need not be reacquired. It is revealed to worthy individuals, the sages. To Vishvamitra is revealed the Gayatri-maha-mantra, hence Vishvamitra is the Mantra- drashta and not the Mantra-karta. He is the seer of the Mantra and is not credited with composing it. Since the eternal knowledge is revealed by a higher power to the humans, knowledge, as revealed in the Vedas, is ‘Apurusheya’ not of human origin.

Newton discovered gravity. We have no qualms about calling Isaac Newton the discoverer of gravity. However, can we state the same fact differently? For instance, ‘Was gravity revealed to Isaac Newton?’

The Vedic passages were heterogeneous multiple truths which were divined by certain evolved individuals. Vedavyasa, in his time, had arranged these passages. The arrangement was not by discipline but is in terms of the sages who had the revelations and delivered them.

Scholars opine that at some stage these Vedic passages were woven into the daily rituals of the Hindus so that they were preserved and not lost. However, it appears that these opinions are lost somewhere in rituals.

Mathematics in Vedic Literature

Vedas à Shulba Sutras à Construction of Vedic Altars à  Mathematics

Kalpa is a term given to the group of four Sutra texts. These are:

1.   Grhya-sutras which deal with the Vedic duties to be performed by a householder.

2.   Dharma-sutras which enunciate ethical and moral code.

3.   Shraura-sutras which discuss various aspects of Vedic rituals beginning from the number of officiating priests to the utensils that are to be used in a Vedic sacrifice.

4.   Shulba-sutras which concentrate on the construction of the Vedi (sacrificial altar). The term ‘Shulba’ refers to a measuring cord or a rope. It details the algebraic calculations that are involved in constructing a ritual sacrificial altar.

There is mathematics to be tapped from this part of the Vedas.

It is to be understood that each Vedic Shakha has its own Kalpa. Various sages have written Kalpas. Ashwalayana, Apasthamba, Bodhayana, Gautama are some among them.


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