Transmissions in the history of science

Part I: Origins

C. K. Raju


(An extended abstract is available here.)

The dog bounded forward. Even at that distance, its intentions were obvious, and I looked around for a weapon. But there was not a stone in sight in that park where I had been walking barefoot on the grass. Not even a key in my pocket, for hotels today use cards. Summer was just setting in in late October; it was already broad daylight, and Sydney university was clearly visible at one edge of the park. But, at 5 a.m., on a Saturday morning, there was no one else in the park—for me, with an eight-hour flight ahead, and a diabetic tendency towards life-threatening blood clots, a walk was a necessity.

As the dog came nearer, it looked bigger and more frightening than I had first thought. The owner was far behind, following, but so casually that he seemed to be enjoying the situation. The Australian press had recently been hysterical about terrorists, in the wake of an anti-terrorist bill. Though my hosts at Sydney university the previous day had been the epitome of politeness, to a stranger in the park, I was obviously a suspect—anything unusual usually is. And terror-suspects, as everyone knows, are people without any rights.

As the dog closed in, I still had nothing in my hands except a pair of rubber slippers. As I prepared myself, I recalled my observation that dogs first frighten their target into flight—and then attack from behind. I stood my ground. The dog kept circling me, trying to attack from behind, and I kept turning to face it. The standoff lasted a couple of minutes—long enough for the owner to arrive; but he seemed unable to control the dog. Eventually, I told him I would have to call the police. At this his tone changed subtly, and sensing this the dog suddenly bounded off. The owner now apologised, “He is a good dog,” he said, “it's just your clothes”.

Clothes are even more superficial than the color of the skin that racists rely upon. But, as a symbol of India's non-violent independence struggle, a khadi kurta and pyjama is a dress which is both formally and ethically correct in India. Why, then, should it provoke an Australian dog? Irrespective of whether it was the dog or the owner who was racist, the answer relates to the origins of racist history. During the Inquisition, a “Moorish” dress invited death. At that time, non-Christians were not permitted in Christian lands: they had to leave or convert to Christianity. Inquisitors assessed the genuineness of conversion using quick visual indicators like the dress, and later the color of the skin. Hence, the departure from “correct” dress, especially when combined with the “wrong” color of the skin, still arouses all sorts of prejudices in the West today—even in a dog.

The prohibition of anything non-Christian, which preceded racism, had a dramatic impact on the history of science, for it meant that knowledge, to be acceptable, had to be put into a suitable garb by attributing it to “theologically correct” sources.

Take the case of Copernicus. Today, the story is told that he was a scientist whose heliocentric (sun-centric) theory of planetary motion brought about a great revolution in human thought. It emerged in the 1950's that Copernicus' heliocentric model was a copy of models used by Arab astronomers at Maragha,1 and that his model of the moon is an exact copy of a model proposed earlier by a certain Ibn-as-Shatir of Damascus. It is known that Ibn-as-Shatir's book was translated from Syriac to Greek, it is known that copies of this translation were circulating in the vicinity of Copernicus, and it is known that Copernicus knew enough Greek to translate it into Latin. While conceding all this, the renowned Harvard historian Owen Gingerich argues that Copernicus could yet have “independently rediscovered” it.2 He asks us for proof that Copernicus actually read Ibn-as-Shatir's book—since Copernicus himself does not admit doing so. The history of the “Copernican revolution” stands unrevised; Ibn-as-Shatir remains little known to the common man.

Wouldn't Copernicus have truthfully acknowledged his earlier sources? In medieval Europe people were afraid to acknowledge “pagan” sources because of the Inquisition. Possessing pagan books, like wearing pagan clothes, was regarded as positive proof of theological deviance, and invited a painful death by torture. With the Inquisition, as with the racist dog, the onus of proving innocence was on the accused. Copernicus was a priest by profession, not a scientist. Fearful of being denounced he sent his book for publication only when he was on his deathbed. Even so, to establish his theological correctness, he thanked a pope, and other high church-functionaries in the preface to his “revolutionary” book. Under these circumstances, would Copernicus have acknowledged any earlier non-Christian sources?

The process of making science theologically correct started at Toledo in the 12th c. Toledo was a splinter of the magnificent Caliphate of Cordoba, and its huge library of Arabic books came under Christian control a few years before the first Crusade. Ordinarily, the library would have been burnt—for the previous seven centuries, often called the “dark age” of Europe, the church and Christian kings had burned all non-Christian books as evil.3 However, during the “dark age” of Christian Europe, Islam was passing through its “golden age”. Starting from 9th c. Baghdad, Arabs had accumulated world knowledge in vast libraries spread across the world. The wealth and knowledge of the Arabs contrasted sharply with the poverty and ignorance of Europe, and the Crusades were launched with an eye on Arab wealth.

Starting around the year 1000, the church had been making efforts to learn from Arabs. Pope Sylvester II who wrote a learned tome on the abacus (today's kindergarten toy) imported elementary arithmetic techniques from Cordoba—which arithmetic techniques the Arabs had learnt from Indian books translated at Baghdad in the 9th c. However, accustomed to Roman numerals, Sylvester failed to understand the Indian place-value system, and made some amusing mistakes.4 Nevertheless, at Toledo, this faction of churchmen prevailed, and the church revised its policy of book-burning, and decided instead to learn from the Arabic books. The gold that the church had amassed from the Crusade was used to translate Arabic books en masse into Latin.

However, this policy change was problematic for the church, since the Crusades were a time of mass religious hysteria and an intense hate campaign against Islam. In such an atmosphere of religious bigotry, how could the church justify engaging with what it had earlier so persistently declared to be evil?

A simple ruse was used to overcome this difficulty: the (secular) knowledge in the Arabic books was all indiscriminately attributed to the theologically correct early Greeks. The story was given out that Europe was not learning from the Arabs, but was only getting back its own lost Greek inheritance earlier transmitted to the Arabs who added nothing to it. However, the Arabic books at Toledo represented all world knowledge of the 11th c. For example, it is well known that the Arabs in 9th c. Baghdad learnt from a variety of Indian books, including books on mathematics and astronomy, procured both directly from India or indirectly from Jundishapur in Iran. It is also well known that some of these Indian books, such as the Pancatantra, were subsequently re-translated from Arabic into Greek, even before the Toledo translations. Under these circumstances, it is very hard to separate out the “pure Greek” knowledge from the melange at Toledo. However, the church goes by stories, not evidence. And, by means of a simple story, most of 11th c. world knowledge was appropriated to Europe by attributing it to Greeks.

The stories are grand but the evidence is thin—exactly how thin may be gauged from the case of Euclid, who is today regarded as the father of geometry. Although everyone heard in school this story about Euclid, no one knows what is the actual evidence for Euclid's existence, and no one asks.5 Everyone just supposes that this evidence must exist somewhere! This involves a simple psychological trick. People (especially children) tend to believe the first story they hear—they ask for evidence only when the story changes. This is how myths (and many religious beliefs) propagate—the stories are implanted in childhood. Once the story becomes widespread, everyone supposes someone else must have checked it out. I would invite everyone to judge for themselves whether there is any evidence to believe in the existence of Euclid6 or Claudius Ptolemy.7

This concocted story of the Greek (or Hellenistic) origins of knowledge soon changed into history, and has been retold countless times down the ages. On this “standard” history, science is entirely a Western creation, and whatever others might have done was something different and inferior:: “Science, in its mature form, developed only in the West. But...protoscience...appeared in other areas”.8 More precisely, on this story, science originated in a theologically correct way, all key scientific advances were all made either by Christian Europeans or, before that, by early Greeks, and the rest of the world learnt from them. This story of transmission from West to non-West was often used by racists to establish the inferiority of other races which allegedly could only mimic the West: “Indian thought, however, was primarily philosophical and otherworldly and was concerned more with escaping this world than with understanding it.”9 Sadly, many Indians have swallowed this story, hook, line, and sinker.

To bring out the flavour of this propaganda, let us notice that “Greeks” such as Euclid and Claudius Ptolemy (if at all they existed) are all supposedly from Alexandria, which is physically located in the African continent. Herodotus informs us that the Greeks aped all Egyptian practices, and Martin Bernal in Black Athena argued that racist historians in the past three centuries appropriated Egyptian knowledge by attributing it to the Greeks. The racist element involved here becomes further apparent when we notice that some late Arab sources maintain that Euclid was Greek only by nationality and that Archimedes was a short black man. This was denied vehemently by racist historians of the previous century, like Heath and Rouse Ball, who spoke of the Greek “race”. No one speaks of the Greek race any longer, but pictures showing Euclid etc. as White Caucasian stereotypes are part of current Indian school texts,10 and part of popular but unreliable history websites like MacTutor. This is how mere Greek names are used to propagate racist history, even to this day.

The link between racism and theological correctness was cemented by the “doctrine of Christian Discovery”, put forward in papal bulls (fatwas) of the 16th c. On this doctrine, the first Christian to sight a piece of land became its “discoverer”, hence its owner, since this doctrine proclaimed that only Christians had the right to discover anything. This is the meaning of the phrase “Columbus discovered America”, and this meaning is legally endorsed by currently-valid US supreme court judgments.11 It was implied that the original inhabitants of America, being non-Christian, were non-people. Hence, the church encouraged their genocide,12 just as it initially encouraged the slavery of blacks. Later on when some blacks turned Christian, this doctrine could no longer be used to justify slavery. It was at this stage that the color of the skin became a quick way to identify a non-Christian (or a recent convert whose orthodoxy was suspect) who could hence be treated as a semi-person if not a non-person.

Today racism has assumed more covert forms—unlike dogs, owners have to hide their racism. This is done by appealing to double standards which are the essence of racism. Two standards of evidence are used to decide transmission. First there is a double standard with regard to onus of proof. In the case of Copernicus, originality is taken for granted, and we are asked to prove transmission. In the case of Euclid and Ptolemy transmission is taken for granted, and we are asked to prove the originality of others. Quite conceivably things could be the other way around. One could ask, what is the proof that Copernicus actually contributed something original? One could ask, what is the evidence that anything was transmitted from Ptolemy to anyone else? It is not clear why the onus of proof should always be placed in a way that favours the story told by Western historians.

Second, there is a double standard with regard to norms of proof. An excessively stringent standard of evidence is required to prove transmission to the West (e.g. Copernicus). In the other direction (e.g. Greek to Arabs), the standards of evidence needed to prove transmission are so lax that transmission is widely asserted to be the case even when the very existence of the alleged source of transmission (e.g. Claudius Ptolemy) is in doubt. Once again, things could conceivably be the other way around. Since Copernicus comes after Ibn-as-Shatir, one could take for granted that there was transmission from Ibn Shatir to Copernicus. On the other hand one could ask for the hard evidence that anyone actually saw the book that Euclid or Ptolemy supposedly wrote, prior to the 9th c.

Euclid, Ptolemy and Copernicus are some major heroes in the “standard” history of science, and this double standard concerning norms and onus of proof is critical to maintain that story.

The next scientific superhero was Newton who allegedly invented the calculus. Once again there is a nasty coincidence. The infinite series for which Newton claimed credit is found centuries earlier in Indian tradition. In Indian tradition the series arose naturally as part of a thousand year effort to tabulate and update trigonometric values, starting from the 4th c. CE. These trigonometric values were needed for the calendar which was a critical input for monsoon-driven agriculture. Because these trigonometric values and the calendar were very useful also for navigation, there is every reason to believe that the Indian techniques were transmitted to Europe. Note, however, the double standard: even though the Indians had priority, the default is to suppose that the Europeans  "independently rediscovered" the calculus, until transmission is "proved". The rough outline of the proof is as follows.

In the 16th c., Europeans were ignorant of techniques of celestial navigation (known to Indo-Arabs), and developing a reliable method of navigation was the foremost scientific challenge in Europe. This required accurate trigonometric values for the calculation of of latitude, longitude and loxodromes. The most accurate trigonometric values, in the 16th c., were available in Indian texts whose authors lived in the vicinity of Cochin. These authors, such as Sankara Variyar, author of Yuktidipika, shared a common patron with the Portuguese in the Raja of Cochin. Cochin was where the first Roman Catholic mission in India started in 1500, and where the Jesuits had a three-storeyed college building by 1550. During the 16th c., in this college, Indian books were being translated and despatched to Europe, on the lines of the Toledo model. A complete record of all books so translated is not publicly available—this is part of the secrets kept locked in the Jesuit archives in the Vatican, another instance of how history is manipulated (by manipulating documentary evidence in this case). However, apart from the motivation and the opportunity enumerated above, circumstantial evidence can be used established beyond reasonable doubt that the texts transmitted to Europe included the Indian calendrical manuals containing the relevant trigonometric values.13

These accurate trigonometric values were obtained using calculus techniques.14 So the calculus not only originated in India, but it was transmitted to Europe. So the entire scheme of allegedly revolutionary scientific discoveries: from Ptolemy to Copernicus to Newton is suspect. They do not come across as the revolutionary and creative scientists they were made out to be. Instead, credit has been attributed to them by manipulating the rules of evidence. The whole scheme is sustained by persistent appeal to double standards of evidence. Whether or not science was produced in the West , it is clear that the history of science has been produced in the West. So, what we need to decide is whether the West produced scientific giants or crafty historians, who have been writing different versions of “History Against the Pagans” since the 5th c CE Orosius.

A better understanding of this process of fabricating history can be obtained by examining similar processes in more recent times, where things happening right under one's nose, so to say, are open to inspection. This is done in the next part of the article. In fact, the very theory that the calculus was transmitted from India to Europe was transmitted15 from India to Europe! I will, however, not go into further details of this specific case since a key person involved has already tendered an apology, and since details of this case have appeared in the press. However, it is instructive to note how influential websites like MacTutor continue to hang on to a version known to be inaccurate, and this inaccuracy is reproduced in the Wikipedia, and propagated across the globe.



1 George Saliba, “Arabic Astronomy and Copernicus”, A History of Arabic Astronomy, New York, 1994, chp. 15.

2 Owen Gingerich, “Islamic astronomy”,\%20astronomy.htm.

3Clarence A. Forbes “Books for the burning” Transactions of the American Philological Society 67 (1936) pp. 114–25.

4 Karl Menninger, Number Words and Number Symbols: A Cultural History of Numbers, trans. Paul Broneer, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1969, p. 325.

5See David Fowler's response that NOTHING is known about Euclid. In Historia Matematica discussion list 10 Nov 2002 (in response to a query about this author’s statement that Euclid perhaps did not exist).

6 For a quick downloadable account, see C. K. Raju, “Good-Bye Euclid!” preprint at

7C. K. Raju, Cultural Foundations of Mathematics: The Nature of Mathematical Proof and the Transmission of the Calculus from India to Europe in the 16th c. CE, Pearson Longman, New Delhi, 2007. The key point argued there is that the Almagest, being a scientific text, was accretively updated. This happened specifically at Jundishapur (6th c.) and Baghdad (9th c.), at both of which places Indian astronomy texts are known to have been imported. (Indian astronomy texts had, for instance, a more accurate length of the year, more accurate trigonometric values, and a superior method of computation.) Proof of this accretive updating is that the Almagest text opens with a reference to Cyrus—obviously an Iranian name—and that it refers to the present-day pole star, which was not the pole star on the alleged date of Ptolemy. The Almagest text also has what appear to be paraphrases from Indian astronomy texts. One among the several reasons to disbelieve the existence of Ptolemy is that his dates are fixed by appeal to observations in the Almagest, but all “observations” in the Almagest are known to be concocted and back-calculated from theory. (E.g. R. R. Newton, The Crime of Claudius Ptolemy, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1977.) Secondly, the relative sophistication of the Almagest text is in striking contrast to the non-textual evidence from the clumsy and inaccurate Greek and Roman calendars, means of computation, etc. The text, in its present form, was obviously not known to the calendar reformers in the Roman empire from the 4th to the 6th c. The text is a singularity: there is no earlier or later comparable tradition of astronomy among the Greeks and Romans, etc. The primary corpus of the text probably derived from Egyptian knowledge gathered during Ptolemaic times, from the library of Alexandria, and hence came to be associated with the name “Ptolemy”, a name it continued to bear after accretive updating. So, from the text alone one cannot infer the existence of “Claudius Ptolemy”.

8Encyclopaedia Britannica, URS CD 2005, Article on “science, history of”.

9Encyclopaedia Brtannica, cited above.

10For more details, see C. K. Raju, “Good-Bye Euclid!” preprint at

11Johnson and Graham’s Lessee V McIntosh 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 543, 5 L.Ed. 681 (1823). See also, Steve Newcombe, “Five hundred years of injustice: the legacy of fifteenth century religious prejudice”, web article, based on article with the same title, Shaman’s Drum, Fall 1992, pp. 18–20. See the website of the Indigenous Law Institute,

12From Las Casas' accounts it is clear that this genocide was a religious hate crime. Bartolomé de Las Casas, A Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies (1542/52) can be found in various translations: e.g., Bartolomé de las Casas—A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, ed. and trans. Nigel Griffin, Penguin, 1992, and Bartolomé de Las Casas, The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account, trans. Herma Briffault, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1974. See also, Robert Francis, “Two kinds of beings: the Doctrine of Discovery and its implications for yesterday and today”, web article at

13C. K. Raju, Cultural Foundations of Mathematics, cited above.

14This can be denied by demanding that mathematics ought to be “theologically correct”. For the whole issue of defining mathematics as something originating in Greece, and the “fundamental theorem of calculus” in India, see C. K. Raju, Cultural Foundations of Mathematics, cited above. An interesting point here is the epistemic test of transmission: those who copy, often do so without full understanding, hence make mistakes. Europeans did not understand the Indian techniques, though they realized their practical value. Thus, Descartes, for example, opined that the measurement of curved lines was mathematically impossible and “beyond the human mind”. Galileo concurred, and left such disreputable things to his student, Cavalieri. For an elementary exposition, see C. K. Raju, “The Indian Rope Trick”,

15Earlier, my claim that the calculus had been transmitted from India to Europe had itself been transmitted from India to Europe! See, for example, “Prof. Raju's charge of plagiarism found correct: UK varsity warns lecturer”, Hindustan Times, Bhopal Plus, front page headline, 8 Nov 2004.