Science and Society in Ancient India

Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya


This is the first serious study of the profound promise with which positive science begins in ancient India. It is also a study of how this promise is eventually stifled by the ideological requirements of hierarchical society. With an equal distaste for chauvinistic cliches and fashionable jargons, the author goes in for an enormous amount of cold textual data analysed by him with an amazingly lucid but devastatingly persuasive logic. These show that hierarchical aspirations sense danger in practically everything that makes science possible––in secularism, in the rational processing of empirical data, in the uninhibited search for the laws of nature inspired by the hope that their knowledge alone ensures freedom from avoidable human sufferings.

The preliminary survey establishes that in ancient India––as in ancient Greece––of all the disciplines cultivated, medicine contains the greatest science-potentials. Despite the prodigious difficulties of the first steps of science, and the tentative and groping thoughts that often accompany these, Indian medicine––quite sometime before the Buddha––makes the momentous move from magico-religious therapeutics to rational therapeutics. This ushers in a wide range of theoretical and practical propositions, in some of which we have the astonising feeling of having reached the threshold of modern science as it were. But the move also proves to be a very risky one and the risk involved is frankly political. In defence of these propositions, it is necessary to scrap the spell of mysticism, ritualism and religion, which are sanctified by powerful priestly corporations––and hence also by Indian law-givers––for the purpose of validating the vested interests. The ancient Indian doctors thus aspire to be too severely scientific to remain unnoticed by the establishment. Hence the continuous condemnation of them for over a thousand years––from the Yajurveda to the later commentaries on Manu.

Like the great astronomer-mathematician Brahmagupta, the “reconstructors” of the grand medical compilations try to evade censorship of the law-givers by grafting on the works of science an apparent show of orthodox piety. This accounts for the accumulation in these of a heap of intellectual debris, which the author argues can be identified and removed without being obliged to go outside the medical compilations.


Review Comments

Here is a path-finding book, which opens up a new trail for further research in this regard. Contemporary historical research has not experienced sharper critical analysis and more insightful interpretation of known and unknown facts.

–– Niharranjan Ray

I feel that you have entirely proved your case that the caraka-Samhita and the Susruta-samhita have an ambiguous character, which, when dissected, reveals the intense struggle between the theological philosophers on the one hand, and the doctors who strove for a truly scientific view of the world, on the other. It is unmistakably a chapter in the “warfare of science with religion”...I do feel that your philological and philosophical analysis has been here a really splendid contribution.

–– Joseph Needham

For two decades, Professor Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya has been giving us exhaustive and scholarly studies on the conflict between rationalism and mysticism in the history of Indian philosophy...In his latest publication, Science and Society in Ancient India, Chattopadhyaya carries his study further into a new, very relevant and very important sphere of the life of ancient Indian society, namely the conflict between religion and science.

–– S.G. Sardesai in Mainstream

Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya has deservedly earned the respect of all the serious students of Indian philosophy for the pioneering research work he has undertaken...Chattopadhyaya’s latest major work carries his researches in this field a big step forward.

–– E.M.S. Namboodiripad in Peoples Democracy

The recent book is as brilliant, readable and fascinating as Prof. Chattopadhyaya’s earlier Marxist works or analysis... Never was the sociology of knowledge, following closely in the lines set by Marx, so rigorously applied; never were the dividends so rich.


–– Claude Alvares in The Times of India



Preface & Acknowledgements 

Notes and Abbreviations


Plan of the Work

The Argument

The Sources

Book  I

science and counter-ideology

Chapter 1




book ii

the source-books re-examined

chapter 3

caraka-saŸhitª : A critical analysis

Bibliography and Abbreviations



Second Reprint 2014


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