Tag Archives: Science

Aryabhata: Ancient Icon of Science

This is my first submission for the online eZine Agnishatdal, created by the awesome Sharmishtha Basu. The content is verbatim, and my own writing, and only the title of the permalink has been changed from the original in Agnishatdal’s  first issue for the Bengali month of Shravan. Agnishatdal is soon to be in its fourth issue for the month of Kartik. Do check it out!

Aryabhata (आर्यभत in Sanskrit). Astronomer and mathematician, he lived during the Gupta empire’s waning years, as the fierce Hunas swept down from the North.

Given the sobriquet “Asmakiya,” he’s thought to have been born in the area of South Gujarat and North Maharashtra, then Asmaka country. By his own reckoning, some 3600 years into the Kali Yuga, about 499 CE at the age of only 23, he had composed his only known surviving work. He studied and lived much of his life in Pataliputra, the imperial capital, now Patna, then in Magadha country, now Bihar.

Aryabhata has been mentioned as teaching at university there, and has been mentioned as kulapa (head of institution) at least once. He may have supervised the University of Nalanda at Pataliputra perhaps until his death at 74 in 550 CE. In his illustrious career in teaching and research, he was the author of several other works, none confirmed as having lasted to the present day except through the commentary, quotations, or criticisms of his contemporaries and those who followed in the intervening centuries.

The Aryabhatiya (not his own title): A text on astronomy and mathematics, it’s also known as Asmakatantra (“the Asmaka’s treatise”) by Bhaskara I, or Aryasatasasta, “Aryabhata’s 108” for its number of main verses. The text, composed in Sanskrit poetic meter for mnemonic purposes, is minimal but expanded on by commentary since then.

There are four chapters:

Gitikala: Offers a cosmology and units of deep time, kalpa, manvantra, and yuga; gives a table of sines (“half-chords”) in one verse.

Ganita: Here are place value numbers from 1 to 9 given; geometric progressions; rules for square and cube roots; quadratic, simultaneous, and indeterminate equations; an approximation of pi given as 3.1416.

Kalakriya: This gives the length of year, month, day, smaller units of time; Aryabhata in this chapter seems to suggest the rotation of the earth on its axis rather than the revolution of the celestial sphere about the earth; he gives a seven-day week, each day named.

Gala: Here are given matters of the celestial sphere; features of the ecliptic; day and night’s causes; shape and composition of the earth; He uses the term “Lanka” in this chapter for a point on the earth’s equator, not the island of Sri Lanka. “Ujjain” here is given as the location 23 degrees directly north of this.

So accurate was Aryabhata’s mathematical paradigm that an 18th century visitor to Pondicherry, Guillaume Le Gentil, found that his own figures for the duration of the August 30, 1765 eclipse exceeded it by 68 seconds, while Aryabhata’s methods were short by only 41 seconds, a difference in results of 107 seconds with greater error using Le Gentil’s calculations!

Conclusion: Some of Aryabhata’s earliest commentary comes from the work of his contemporary Varahamihira, his 7th century disciple Bhaskara I, and those who would follow in centuries after, like Brahmagupta and Al-Biruni. A statue of him stands at the front of IUCAA at Pune, and India’s first commercial orbital satellite was named after him. As first in a long line of famous Indian scientists and mathematicians, born in a golden age of learning and scholarship, few of his era have achieved lasting renown as he has. I consider him, not to be the Isaac Newton of ancient India, but rather Newton to be the Aryabhata of the early Modern age. That, I think, is the better comparison.

Content copyright Troy David Loy ©2016


Aryabhata: His Name, Time and Provenance (K.V. Sarma: Indian Journal of History of Science) (https://web.archive.org/web/20100331152303/http://www.new.dli.ernet.in/rawdataupload/upload/insa/INSA_1/20005b67_105.pdf)

The Aryabhatiya of Aryabhata (Clark, 1930) (https://archive.org/details/The_Aryabhatiya_of_Aryabhata_Clark_1930)

Aryabhata (Wikipedia) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aryabhata)