History of Science and Technology in India in the Context of the 'Great Synergy'

Term Paper 2008 19 Pages

Business economics - Economic and Social History



1 Introduction

2 Mokyr: The Great Synergy

3 History of science and technology in India
3.1 The Harrapan period
3.2 Vedic Period and Classical Age
3.3 The Indo-Muslim synthesis

4 Impediments to Indian science and development

5 Conclusions


1 Introduction

The purpose of this paper is the discussion of a recent article presented by Joel Mokyr who offered, according to his own words, a new “variant of the European Miracle question”[1]. The main thesis of his article The Great Synergy: the European Enlightenment as a factor in Modern Economic growth points to the European Enlightenment as being a crucial factor for attaining and establishing modern, i.e. sustainable economic growth in Europe once the British Industrial Revolution had overcome its humble beginnings at the end of the eighteenth century.

Mokyr argues that the stability of economic growth which was reached in Europe after 1825 was to a great extent due to a new attitude towards the relation between technology and progress. This new attitude was the result of a development that had its roots in the European Enlightenment where the foundations for a new understanding of science and technology were laid. The outcome of this development was the unique ‘idea of research’ that made scientists and craftsmen cooperate, giving way to a very fruitful convergence of science and technology that helped making sustainable economic growth possible. This evolution mingled with the modification of institutional mechanisms which was a result of the Enlightenment, too. These two trends both formed a ‘Great Synergy’ that finally yielded the ‘European Miracle’.

To prove and strengthen his thesis, Mokyr compares the history of European sciences with those practiced in China coming to see that Chinese sciences were confined to and restricted by the Mandarin rulers, thus a situation similar to pre-enlightened Europe. But his comparisons to the Asian continent are limited to the situation in China. It could therefore be telling to have a look at Indian sciences, especially when discovering that India “had a well-established scientific and technological tradition of its own long before being subjected to an extended period of European colonial rule”[2]. Going deeper into Indian history we will see, that on top of that, before the colonization by the British, “traditional knowledge generated large-scale economic productivity for Indians”[3]. Departing from these considerations, the present paper will put Mokyr’s assumption under inspection examining the Indian history of science and technology.

The arising problem is thus twofold, implicating questions that are clearly inter-related with each other and which are touching fields both of science and economy. On the one hand, it has to be asked why the long tradition of well advanced sciences in India did not generate this useful knowledge as happened in Europe. On the other hand, if we are coming to see that throughout the history of India the sciences had partly been much more advanced than in Europe, the question whether the rise of the European ‘idea of research’ was as important to the economic development as Mokyr tells us to be. Or to put it in other words: was the development of ‘useful knowledge’ triggered off by the European Enlightenment really that crucial to sustainable growth after 1825 or did the economic ‘take-off’ simply result in technological progress without the necessity of relying on earlier developments?

In an attempt to find a satisfying answer to the above questions we will first have a detailed look at Mokyr’s thesis summing up and tracing his main arguments in order to subsequently give a concise overview of the history of science and technology in India. In reviewing Indian history of science, it will be imperative to mention and appreciate the newly arising interest of historiography on the issue in recent years and the changes that are taking place within this branch, changes which are mainly pushed by Indian scientists like Irfan Habib, Deepak Kumar or D.P. Chattopadhyaya.

Lastly, we will have to search for the reasons why the evolution of the sciences in India did not result in ‘useful knowledge’. What hindered their development in a ‘European sense’ and have these hurdles also been an impediment to industrial development? Was the lack of applied sciences decisive for India’s non-development[4] or have there been other reasons? The answers to these questions will lead to the conclusion that the practice of applied sciences in Europe rather followed industrial and economic evolution, not the other way round, as Mokyr puts it. Applied sciences were not so much a precondition for industrial development rather than a result of it.

2 Mokyr: The Great Synergy

Unlike many modern and post-modern scholars who hold the European Enlightenment responsible for the twentieth-century horrors[5], Mokyr emphasizes on the beneficial consequences the Enlightenment movement had on the emergence of modern economic growth which stood at the end of a long period of laying the foundations for it. His argumentation is mainly based on the observation that Enlightenment thinking led, on the one hand, to the new idea of technological progress, while, on the other hand, it triggered off institutional changes that allowed technological progress to shape economy. These two phenomena came to form The Great Synergy that gave birth to sustainable and stable growth in Europe.[6]

The first one was the enlightenment-inspired belief in technological progress which was based on the hope that the accumulation of useful knowledge, i.e. the fruitful merging of various kinds and fields of knowledge, would lead to prosperity. The modern idea of research was therefore an offspring of these beliefs. At the same time the practice of ‘open science’ arose: new inventions and discoveries were made available to everyone interested in the issue by means of encyclopedias, books, journals and the like. A remarkable point in that context is the fact that it was seemingly quite common in the nineteenth century that not a few scientists did their research and work not for private profit but for the benefit of the human community.[7] These advancements, both in the way of thinking and in the amount of useful knowledge gave way to a close cooperation between theoretical sciences and “the mundane details of production”[8], leading to the extended technological progress indispensable for the modern sustainable growth. Mokyr calls this achievement the ‘Industrial Enlightenment’[9].

The second element in Mokyr’s concept of The Great Synergy is an ideological shift within the beliefs about economy itself. A reorganization of economic thought took place and resulted in a new economic liberalism thanks to the new opportunities for critics, skeptics and innovators that were offered in Europe at that time[10]. Such tendencies led to the abolition of institutional obstacles to the expansion of growth, viz. craft guilds, protective and internal tariffs and the mercantilist zero-sum idea of economic activity.

Thus, and according to Mokyr, the fact that economic growth in the Western world became institutionalized after 1825 – or simply: that the European Miracle happened – was the result of an evolution that had its roots in a progress that started almost a century before. Two closely inter-related changes in the European intellectual framework were to become the driver of the modern and industrialized world, as the “enlightenment-inspired technological progress and institutional change created a powerful synergy, which in the end was responsible for the sustainability of what was started in Britain in the last third of the eighteenth-century”.[11]

3 History of science and technology in India

“Among the nations, during the course of centuries and throughout the passage of time, India was known as the mine of wisdom and the fountainhead of justice and good government and the Indians were credited with excellent intellects, exalted ideas, universal maxims, rare inventions, and wonderful talents. They have studied arithmetic and geometry. They have also acquired copious and abundant knowledge of the movement of the stars, the secrets of the celestial sphere and all other kinds of mathematical sciences. Moreover, of all the peoples they are the most learned in the science of medicine and thoroughly informed about the properties of drugs, the nature of composite elements and peculiarities of the existing things”.[12]

This testimony, made by a Spanish Muslim scholar at the beginning of the eleventh century A.D. gives an interesting insight into the nature of Indian sciences and renders the question why it did not come to a convergence of science and technology in India similar to that one in Europe after the Enlightenment even more intriguing. As it seems useful to have an overview of the development of science and technology in India throughout the centuries, the following pages are dedicated to this special issue of Indian history. And as Indian history embraces some millennia, a history of Indian science and technology must without fail cover a long period of time as well. But not only the extension in time makes it a challenge to summarize the history of Indian science but as well its plurality. It is not difficult to imagine that in such a vast territory like the Indian subcontinent with its diverse cultural and geographical regions, there developed a “wide variety of different oral and textual traditions, drawing upon exogenous contacts as well as indigenous roots“[13]. Thus due to the restricted space in the present paper, we will have to confine ourselves to a few salient points of this fascinating history of India’s contribution to science and technology throughout the centuries, mainly those that are of concern for the issue at stake, The Great Synergy.


[1] Mokyr, Joel: The Great Synergy: the European Enlightenment as a factor in Modern Economic growth, 2005, in: http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/~jmokyr/Dolfsma.PDF - 28.01.2008, p. 1 [original emphasis].

[2] Arnold, David: Science, Technology and Medicine in Colonial India (= The New Cambridge History of India, III-5), Cambridge 2000, p. 1.

[3] Malhotra, Rajiv/Patel, Jay: History of Indian Science & Technology: Overview of the 20-Volume Series, in: http://www. indianscience.org/index.html – 28.01.2008.

[4] The term ‘non-development’ in this paper is only used to refer to a development different to that in the Western World and is free of any value-judgment.

[5] Cf. Mokyr: Great Synergy (see note 1), p. 3.

[6] Cf. Mokyr: Great Synergy (see note 1), p. 4.

[7] Cf. ibid., p. 9.

[8] Ibid., p. 6.

[9] Cf. ibid., p. 9.

[10] Cf. ibid., p. 24.

[11] Ibid., p. 23.

[12] Abu’l-Qasim Sa’id bin ’Abdur-Rahman bin Muhammad bin Sa’id al-Andalusi’s comments on India in Tabaqat al-Uman (Categories of Nations) A.D. 1068. Quoted by Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad: History of Science and Technology in Ancient India. The Beginnings, Calcutta 1986, p. 45/46.

[13] Arnold: Science (see note 2), p. 2.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
543 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder) – Lehrstuhl für Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte der Neuzeit
History Science Technology India Context Great Synergy



Title: History of Science and Technology in India in the Context of the 'Great Synergy'