History of Science in Early South Asia

This group focuses on the kinds of research published in journals such as the Indian Journal of History of Science, the e-Journal of Indian Medicine: EJIM, Asian Medicine, and History of Science in South Asia. The working group brings together scholars who study the history of science in South Asia before about 1800 and as discoverable from literatures in Sanskrit and other indigenous Indian languages. We take “South Asia” as an inclusive, non-political, socio-geographic term referring to the area from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, from Pakistan to Bangladesh, and of course India. Discussions on the influences of South Asian cultures beyond these borders is also welcome, for example Nepalese or Tibetan influences on China, Sri Lankan influences on the Maldives, or Indian influences in South-East Asia. We broadly conceive of “science” to include all forms of systematic intellectual activity, as in the German “die Wissenschaft,” that covers most forms of academic scholarship. Theoretical discussions of the meaning of “science” in the South Asian context are welcome. The group meets monthly during the academic year. We welcome the presentation of individual and group work-in-progress, facilitated discussions of published articles and books, and focused reading sessions in Indic languages.

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Consortium Respectful Behavior Policy

Participants at Consortium activities will treat each other with respect and consideration to create a collegial, inclusive, and professional environment that is free from any form of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation.

Participants will avoid any inappropriate actions or statements based on individual characteristics such as age, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, nationality, political affiliation, ability status, educational background, or any other characteristic protected by law. Disruptive or harassing behavior of any kind will not be tolerated. Harassment includes but is not limited to inappropriate or intimidating behavior and language, unwelcome jokes or comments, unwanted touching or attention, offensive images, photography without permission, and stalking.

Participants may send reports or concerns about violations of this policy to conduct@chstm.org.

Upcoming Meetings

  • Monday, October 16, 2023 10:30 am to 12:00 pm EDT

    Ancient manuscript fragments of the Carakasaṃhitā and their text genealogical relevance
    Dr. Gudrun Melzer (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München)
    Dr. Philipp Maas (University of Leipzig)
    Various modern collections of ancient Buddhist manuscripts contain fragments of works from other literary genres than Buddhist literature proper, such as medicine. Recently, Gudrun Melzer identified fragments of manuscripts containing the Carakasaṃhitā among these oldest attestations for the transmission of medical knowledge in writing. The ancient Caraka fragments, which can be dated to a period from the fifth to the eighth century CE, predate all other surviving manuscripts by more than a millennium. They thus provide a unique snippet view of the early transmission history of the oldest extant medical compendium. In the first part of this presentation, Gudrun will introduce the newly discovered Caraka fragments along with the current state of knowledge concerning their origin, their dating and context. In the second part, Philipp will discuss possible conclusions concerning the transmission history of the Carakasaṃhitā based on a comparison of the text version transmitted in the fragments with that of later Caraka manuscripts.

  • Monday, November 20, 2023 10:30 am to 12:00 pm EST

    A Contagion Theory in the Hārītasaṃhitā? The Chapter on upasarga
    Dr. Vitus Angermeier (University of Vienna)
    In studies concerning notions of contagion in pre-modern South Asia, the term upasarga has repeatedly attracted attention because it evidently refers to the transmission of diseases through bodily contact. Although these contacts are not always person-to-person, upasarga is increasingly used, especially in the commentary literature from Cakrapāṇidatta onwards, to describe processes that are today understood as contagion. Sources consulted to understand the development of the term generally include the compilations attributed to Caraka, Suśruta and Vāgbhaṭa (between 150 and 700 CE), as well as later commentaries on these texts (from the 11th century onwards). The less noted Hārītasaṃhitā, usually thought to have been composed in its surviving form between 700 and 1000 CE, is generally overlooked in this context. In this talk, I will examine the use of upasarga in the Hārītasaṃhitā, as the text promises to fill a major gap by means of two particularities: Due to its date, this compilation can shed light on the developments that took place in the period between the writing of the earlier compilations and the later commentaries. And secondly, the Hārītasaṃhitā is the first medical compilation to contain an entire chapter (3.34 on upasargacikitsā, "treatment of infectious diseases") dedicated to the concerned concept.

  • Monday, December 18, 2023 10:30 am to 12:00 pm EST

    Incurability as ‘disability’ in classical Āyurveda: The case of vision disorders
    Tulika Singh (University of Alberta)
    In classical Āyurveda, disorders become disabilities, marked by inauspiciousness and social stigma, only when they are entirely incurable. The medical literature considers all treatable conditions as ‘normal,’ and it is primarily the incurability of a condition that renders it ‘disabling’ for the body. This perspective stands in contrast to prevailing legal and normative discourses, which often perceive disorders as socially and legally disabling simply due to their existence. However, the early Indian medical perception of normality and disability is not centered on disorders or the body that possess them but rather on the potential for curability or incurability of the condition in the body.
    To illustrate this point, this paper will discuss curable and incurable vision disorders and their connection to the perception of blindness in the literature. The first section will examine the causes and treatments of curable vision disorders, ranging from partial blindness (timira) to mature cataract (liṅganāśa), to demonstrate that even severe vision loss that can be cured is regarded similarly to any other eye ailment, and therefore is not considered a ‘disability.’ The second section will place importance on incurable vision disorders, highlighting that the physician is advised to neglect curing these conditions primarily because they are deemed incurable. Attempting to treat an inherently incurable condition may incur a bad reputation to the physician. Thus the incurability of a condition contributes to the stigma associated with it. This perspective provides us context for understanding occasional references to the inauspiciousness of blindness, viewing it as a disability in Āyurveda. It is not the disorder itself or the body possessing it but rather the intrinsic incurability of the condition that makes it a disability in medical thought.

  • Monday, January 22, 2024 10:30 am to 12:00 pm EST


  • Monday, February 26, 2024 10:30 am to 12:00 pm EST

    The yogi who became a Muslim: Indian Alchemy and Pseudograph Sufi Writings in South Asia
    Dr. Fabrizio Speziale (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, Paris-Marseille)
    This talk looks at the function of fabricated Sufi authorship in cross-cultural translation. It focuses on the Haft ahbāb (Seven friends), a Persian treatise on alchemy that combines materials from Indian and Muslim sources. Claimed to be written in 621/1224, it was probably forged between 944/1537 and 1094/1683. The text is divided into seven chapters, which are attributed to the thirteenth century Sufi master Ḥamīd al-Dīn Nagawrī and six other authors, one of them being a Nāth yogi converted to Islam. The primary purpose underlying the composition of the Haft ahbāb is to provide Muslim readers with one of the most extensive accounts of rasaśāstra available in the Persian language. The analysis of this form of literary creation requires a shift from the dichotomic criteria of philology, which privileges the authenticity of a text and deems pseudograph writings as unreliable sources deserving little attention because of their fake authorship. The Persian text analyzed here suggests that pseudograph writings can convey direct and reliable accounts of how new concepts and technical notions circulated in the Muslim society of South Asia due to the contacts with the Indian one. The perspective taken here views forged Sufi authorship as a literary device used by Persian-speaking writers to integrate Indic knowledge within Muslim textual culture and society of South Asia. From this perspective, pseudograph Sufi writings appear as crucial sources for a more precise comprehension of how certain fields of Indic knowledge were tailored for Muslim readership.


  • Monday, March 18, 2024 10:30 am to 12:00 pm EDT

    Dr. Anna Elizabeth Winterbottom (McGill University)

  • Monday, April 15, 2024 10:30 am to 12:00 pm EDT


  • Monday, May 20, 2024 10:30 am to 12:00 pm EDT

    Are the Elements and the Pañcabhūta the Same (Thing)? Epistemic Objects between
    Science, Religion, and Philosophy in Colonial North India, c.1920

    Dr. Charu Singh (University of Cambridge)

    What are things made from? If elements are the foundational matters of fact in global
    chemopolitics, what happens to elementary conceptions of life and world when new concepts
    challenge existing ontologies? This chapter examines an early twentieth century debate
    about the status of the pañcabhūta, also called the pañcatattva, a concept foundational to
    Hindu ontology and authority. In British India, these “five Hindu elements” were described
    by European orientalists, Sanskrit scholars, emerging Indian scientists and philosophers, and
    lay readers. The tattva presented significant difficulties in linguistic, conceptual, and material
    translation. While pṛthivī, jal, and vāyu were easily rendered as earth, water, and air, the two
    other tattva – tejas and ākāśa – proved less pliable. Is tejas fire or energy? Is ākāśa ether? As
    the Sanskrit scholar Chandrashekhar Shastri asked in the Hindi-language popular science
    monthly Vigyan in 1920, “are the elements and the pañcabhūta the same (thing)?” In the
    subsequent debate, Vigyan’s authors drew on ancient Sanskrit knowledge alongside the
    history of European chemistry. They evaluated the tattva in light of phlogiston and caloric,
    new theories of chemical structure, and also cited traditional theories on the nature of things
    associated with the Vaisheshika, one of the six ‘schools’ of Hindu philosophy. The views of
    the legendary seer Kanada, Antoine Lavoisier, and John Dalton were all cannily deployed.
    Thinking about elements and tattva as epistemic objects, this chapter brings into view the
    complex mediations by which early twentieth century vernacular readers identified these
    objects with reference to and through the intercalation of two distinct standards: Vaisheshika
    philosophy and European chemical writings.

Past Meetings

  • September 18, 2023

    Dreams and Tooth-cleaning-sticks: Two Omens from Indian Tantric Traditions
    Dominique Baur, M.A. (Heidelberg University),
    Dr. Daisy Cheung (Hamburg University)

    Omens are present in many traditional Indian scientific knowledge systems such as
    Āyurveda and Jyotiḥśāstra. Although many scholars have surveyed omens in various texts
    and contexts, detailed studies are few. Within Jyotiḥśāstra, von Negelein has extensively
    studied Jagaddeva’s Svapnacintāmaṇi (1912), a compendium on dream omens. Zysk has
    systematically studied human marks (2016) and crow omens (2022) across knowledge
    systems. Within ritual studies, Geslani (2018) has focused on the ritual use of omens
    concerning kingship rituals. However, none of these works have addressed the place that
    omens occupy in Tantric traditions, such as Pāñcarātra, Śaivism and tantric Buddhism.

    In our paper, we will investigate the dream (svapna) and the throwing of the tooth-
    cleaning-stick (dantakāṣṭha) as two common examples of omens in Tantric ritual. Drawing
    from sources in Sanskrit, Tibetan and classical Chinese we will compare, among other
    texts, passages from the Jayākhya-, the Viśvaksena- and the Paramasaṃhitā, the
    Niśvāsatattvasaṃgraha, the Śārdūlakarṇāvadāna, the *Svapnohana and the
    Svapnādhyāya. With a detailed study of these two omens we hope to provide more
    examples of intertextuality and to address the question of a common ‘cultural substratum’,
    as well as to shed light on omens as a new field of study.

  • May 15, 2023

    Speaker: Dr Vijaya Deshpande
    Title:  The Rasopaniṣad
    Abstract: I recently revised my earlier work on a Sanskrit alchemical text called the Rasopanișad. The Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, published it last year as Rasopanișad - A Discourse on Indian Alchemy. I will discuss some points related to this work such as what is this text about, why I selected it for a detailed study, why it is somewhat peculiar and what it tells us about medieval Indian chemistry and metallurgy.
    A series of five lectures on this topic were recorded by BORI. They are for a lay person who is new to the topic. They are accessible on the following link.  

  • April 17, 2023

    Speaker: Dr Cristina Pecchia, University of Vienna and  Austrian Academy of Sciences
    Topic: Ayurveda and Philology: Gangadhar Ray Kaviraj and His Legacy.*
    The wide spreading and popularization of Ayurveda makes it more urgent to gain a deeper understanding of the formative stages that led to the present configuration of this medical tradition. In this talk I will present the research project “Ayurveda and Philology: Gangadhar Ray Kaviraj and His Legacy”, which aims at exploring the interplay between Ayurveda and the Sanskritic culture during the colonial period. Its main focus is Gangadhar Ray Kaviraj (1798–1885), who was editor and commentator of the Carakasamhita. The project will study Gangadhar’s editorial and interpretative activity and his legacy in the making of modern Ayurveda, with special regard to practices and dynamics concerning texts and the context of their production.
    * The project is based at the University of Vienna and funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF)


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  • March 20, 2023

    Speaker: Dr Lisa Brooks, Killam Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Alberta
    Topic:  Classification, Coagency, and Care: Human-Leech Medicine in Early South Asia
    Abstract: Leeches and humans have a long history of medical entanglement. For over two thousand years and across a range of geographical and cultural spaces, leeches have been regarded by humans as a both a venomous nuisance and a medical technology. The oldest and most detailed surviving description of leech therapy is found in an early first-millennium Sanskrit treatise focused on surgery, theSuśrutasaṃhitā. In this treatise, non-venomous leeches are listed as a type of medical tool, an accessory or substitute sharp instrument (anuśastra) for surgical practice, and as the gentlest method of bloodletting. But the treatise also highlights their nature as living beings by detailing how a physician should interpret leech behavior and care for them. The way in which leeches and human-leech interactions are portrayed reveal a range of attitudes about physicians’ sensory expertise, the nature of leeches, and what constitutes medical agency or a medical technology. The talk will explore how textual representations of leeches challenge early ayurvedic classificatory schemes, and the ways that, in practice, leeches push against the notion of locating medical agency solely in the realm of the human.

  • March 6, 2023

    Special session for the discussion of future directions for the history of science in early SA, and especially funding.

  • February 20, 2023

    Speaker: Anthony Cerulli, Professor of South Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
    Topic:  We will discuss Prof. Cerulli's new monograph, The Practice of Texts: Education and Healing in South India (University of California Press, 2022).  The book is available as Open Access in several formats.

  • January 16, 2023

    Speaker: Dr Andrey Klebanov
    Title: Textual parallels between the compendia of Caraka and Suśruta: What can we learn from them?

  • December 19, 2022

    Speaker: Dr Vitus Angermeier, PI at the FWF Project "Epidemics and Crisis Management in Pre-modern South Asia", University of Vienna
    Topic:  Epidemiology in the Bhelasaṃhitā – the chapter on distinctions according to land and people
    Note: Dr Angermeier's presentation, "A contagion theory in the Hārītasaṃhita? The chapter on upasarga." originally scheduled for March 20,. 2023, has now been postponed until September.

  • November 21, 2022

    Speaker: Lucy May Constantini
    Title: Understanding Text in Relation to the Embodied Practice of Kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘: investigating alternative methodologies
    Kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘ is a martial art with an allied medical system that originated in South India in the Malabar region of what is now the modern state of Kerala. Its long and complex history includes a revival from near-extinction in the early twentieth century when a few practitioners gathered and systematised what knowledge remained, both practice and text. Malabar kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘ evinces a particular relationship between its inherited texts and lived practice. A kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘ gurukkaḷ (lineage-holder) carries the responsibility of preserving and transmitting the lineage, and, regardless of any reverence for inherited manuscripts, the final śāstric authority of the kaḷari resides in the gurukkaḷ’s body and practice. As such, written texts only partially represent a kaḷari’s śāstra, which is only complete when informed by the experience of embodied practice. To date there has been little academic enquiry into the texts of kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘, in part because of the inaccessibility of kaḷari paramparā manuscripts, which introduces further complication.  

    This talk will present a brief survey of known kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘ texts and discuss the methodologies I have evolved to collect and analyse discrete sections of otherwise closely- guarded texts from the CVN lineage that is the chief focus of my research. I will discuss these and their working translations, which are still evolving as part of my PhD project. This textual analysis has been guided by Dr. SAS Sarma at l'École française d'Extrême-Orient at Pondicherry.  

    My PhD is at the Open University in the UK, exploring the relationship between practice and textual traditions in kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘, funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Open-Oxford-Cambridge Doctoral Training Partnership. This interdisciplinary research encompasses ethnography, drawing on a relationship since 2002 with CVN Kalari in Thiruvananthapuram, and the study of manuscripts in Malayalam and Sanskrit. My background is in dance and somatic practices, where my work investigates the confluence of my praxes of postmodern dance, martial arts and yoga.  

    You can read more about Lucy's PhD project here: http://www.open.ac.uk/people/lmc662

  • October 17, 2022

    Speaker: Dr Charu Singh, Dept. of History, Stanford University (from January 2023: Assistant Professor, Dept. History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge)
    Title: When science became vijñāna: Redescriptions of knowledge in colonial north India, 1915–1935.
    See attached papers, all in the zip file:

    • Charu Singh, "When science became vijñāna: Redescriptions of knowledge in colonial north India, 1915–1935."  Abstract.
    • Elshakry, M. (2010) “When Science Became Western: Historiographical Reflections,” Isis 101: 98–109. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/652691.
    • Menon, M. (2021) “Indigenous Knowledges and Colonial Sciences in South Asia,” South Asian History and Culture. 13: 1–18.

    • Pollock, S. (2011) “The Languages of Science in Early Modern India,” in Forms of Knowledge in Early Modern Asia: Explorations in the Intellectual History of India and Tibet, 1500–1800. Durham NC and London: Duke University Press, pp. 19–48.

    Dr Singh will make a 30-minute presentation on the discussions and reflections on vijñāna in the Hindi-language science monthly that she studies, Vigyan. She requests that we combine this presentation with a group discussion on the readings above.  
    Dr Singh says: "In choosing programmatic work in the global history of science (Elshakry) with South Asian reflections on knowledge categories (Pollock, Menon), I'm hoping we can all together think through the problem presented by several cognates of "science" across premodern and modern South Asia. In addition, I'm hoping that the empirical evidence I will provide for one such knowledge category can serve as a case study for our discussion."

Group Conveners

  • labrooks's picture

    Lisa Brooks

    Lisa Allette Brooks is a Killam Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Alberta and the recipient of the Dorothy Killam Memorial Postdoctoral Prize, as well as a 2022-2023 AAS Pipeline Fellowship. Lisa’s current project, Leech TroubleTherapeutic Entanglements in More-Than-Human Medicines, is a historical and textual study of human-leech medicine in South Asia and a comparative ethnographic study of leech therapy in contemporary ayurvedic medicine and biomedicine. Lisa’s work has been published in the Asian Review of World HistoriesMedical Anthropology QuarterlyAsian Medicine and in the edited volume Fluid Matter(s) by ANU press (eds. Kuriyama and Koehle). Lisa co-edited a special issue of Asian Medicine, “Medicines and Memories in South Asia” 15.1 (2020) and is the South Asia book review editor for the journal Asian Medicine and reviews editor for History of Science in South Asia. In 2021 Lisa completed a PhD in South and Southeast Asian Studies with Designated Emphases in Science and Technology Studies, and in Women, Gender, and Sexuality at UC Berkeley. Lisa'a interests include multispecies medicine, histories of health, healing, and embodiment, queer and feminist science studies, and sensory studies.



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