History of Science in Early South Asia

This group will focus 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 will bring 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 take “science” to be broadly conceived, and to include all forms of rigorous intellectual activity that adopt at least to some extent a quantitative and empirical approach, 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 will meet monthly during the 2020-2021 academic year and focus in the first instance on group readings of premodern scientific texts in early Indian languages, especially Sanskrit. We plan to begin with readings in South Asian medical and alchemical literatures.

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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, April 17, 2023 10:00 am to 11:30 am EDT

    Speaker: Dr Cristina Pecchia, University of Vienna and  Austrian Academy of Sciences
    Topic: TBA

  • Monday, May 15, 2023 10:00 am to 11:30 am EDT

    Speaker: Dr Vijaya Deshpande
    Title: TBA (on a Sanskrit work on alchemy.  See the BORI publication launch: https://youtu.be/jKJJaIJPOEA )
    Abstract: TBA

Past Meetings

  • 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."

  • September 19, 2022


  • June 20, 2022

    Speaker: Dr Ranee Prakash, Senior Curator - Flowering Plants, Dept of Life Sciences. Natural History Museum, London
    Title: Ethnobotanical insights from an historical herbarium: the Samuel Browne collections from Early Modern India
    Abstract: TBA
    See the attached article for background,

    • Winterbottom, Anna, and Ranee Prakash. 2020. “Samuel Browne.” In The Collectors: Creating Hans Sloane’s Extraordinary Herbarium, edited by Mark Carine, 168–173. London: Natural History Museum.


  • May 16, 2022

    Speaker: Madhu K. Parameswaran, Assistant Professor, Department of Dravyagunavijnanam, Vaidyaratnam P.S. Varier Ayurveda College (URL)
    Title: Influence of the Suśrutasaṃhitā on the Structure and Contents of the Aṣṭāṅgasaṅgraha: Insights from the Ongoing Critical Edition of Five Selected Chapters from the Sūtrasthāna of the Aṣṭāṅgasaṅgraha
    Abstract: The Aṣṭāṅgasaṅgraha (AS) and the Aṣṭāṅgahṛdaya (AHS), two texts ascribed to Vāgbhaṭa mark the conclusion of an important period in the history of Indian medicine known as the period of the text compendia (saṃhitākāla). While drawing influence and materials from the earlier Carakasaṃhitā (CS) and the Suśrutasaṃhitā (SS), the AS and AHS show remarkable ingenuity in restructuring and editing text materials. The similarity in the structure of the sections (sthānas) in SS and AS often leads scholars to assume that the structure and design of AS is predominantly inspired by the SS. Based on an ongoing critical edition of the AS, this talk tries to address this issue along with a host of other issues regarding the influence of the SS on the structure and contents of the AS.

Group Conveners

  • aklebanov's picture

    Andrey Klebanov

    Andrey Klebanov is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies, University of Vienna, Austria. Klebanov has published on the history of Indian medicine and the history of medieval literary commentaries, with a focus on the use of manuscript sources.


  • wujastyk's picture

    Dominik Wujastyk

    Dominik Wujastyk is Professor and Singhmar Chair of Classical Indian Society and Polity, Dept. of History and Classics, University of Alberta, Canada.  Previous appointments include a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellowship at the Wellcome Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London.  Wujastyk has taught and published on the history of science and medicine in ancient India and on Indian manuscripts and codicology .  Recent work has included research on the history of classical Indian medicine, yoga and alchemy.  He is the Principal Investigator of the recently launched Suśruta Project


  • kzysk's picture

    Kenneth Zysk

    Kenneth Zysk is Emeritus Professor of Indology and Indian Science, Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Zysk has taught and published extensively on the history of science and medicine in ancient India. Recent projects include work on the history of medicine and medical theory in early India with a view to cross-cultural influences and on early forms of augury and prophecy in Indian astral science, with a focus on manuscript sources.


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