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Abu Rayhan al-Biruni: Founder of Indology

Is there a founder of Indology?

Maybe not if one accounted for the fact that Indology in itself has evolved over centuries into a more systematic discipline of study of a wider geographical region. In the beginning, there were geographical accounts of travelers or conquerors which were more regionally confined and one cannot attribute deeper motives behind the venture to understand other cultures. Yet, the cultural understandings gleaned from those ‘tales’ are appreciable for their period observations.

The beginnings of Indology date back to the Persian anthropologist and historian Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (973-1048). In his Kitab fi Tahqiq ma l’il-Hind (Researches on India), he not only recorded the political history of India and military history of India but also covered India’s cultural, scientific, social and religious history in detail. He was also the first to study the anthropology of India, engaging in extensive participant observation  with various Indian groups, learning their languages and studying their primary texts, and presenting his findings with objectivity and neutrality using cross- and inter-cultural comparisons. Al-Biruni’s ‘neutrality’ could be questioned but only with the subsequent denouement of the field of Indological discoveries. But one has to remember that he was a pioneer and he trail-blazed a multiplicity of paths.

Historian Francis Robinson reckons that  Al-Biruni earned the “founder of Indology” and “first anthropologist” titles for his remarkable description of early 11th-century India. Born in the city of Kheva near “Ural” in 973 C.E., Al-Biruni was a contemporary of the well-known physician Ibn Sina. In his Researches on India, he provides a graphic account of the historical and social conditions of the sub-continent. At the end of this book he mentions that he had translated two Sanskrit books into Arabic, one called Sakaya, which deals with the creation of things and their types, and the second, Patanjal dealing with what happens after the spirit leaves the body. His descriptions of India were so complete that even the Aein-i-Akbari written by Abu-al- Fadal during the reign of Akbar, 600 years later, owes a great deal to al-Biruni’s book. He observed that the Indus valley must be considered as an ancient sea basin filled up with alluvials.

On his return from India, al-Biruni wrote His famous book Qanun-i Masoodi  (al-Qanun al-Masudi, fi al-Hai’a wa al-Nujum), which he wrote after returning from India and dedicated to Sultan Masood, discusses several theories of astronomy, trigonometry, solar, lunar, and planetary motions and relative topics. He gave a clear account of Hindu numerals, elaborating the principle of position. Summation of a geometric progression appropos of the chess game led to the number: 1616° – 1 = 18,446,744,073,709,551,619. He wrote a number of books and treatises. Apart from Kitab-al- Hind (History and Geography of India), al-Qanun al-Masudi (Astronomy, Trigonometry), al-Athar al-Baqia (Ancient History and Geography), Kitab al-Saidana (Materia Medica) and Kitab al-Jawahir (Precious Stones) as mentioned above, his book al-Tafhim-li-Awail Sina’at al-Tanjim gives a summary of mathematics and astronomy.

Obviously, Abu Rayhan al-Biruni is one of the greatest polymaths who trail-blazed pathways that consolidated into perspectives for the development of different branches of science and his philological and cultural forays in India were pioneering enough that one cannot dispute Francis Robinson’s assertion that Abu Rayhan al-Biruni earned the title the ‘founder of Indology’ and history recognizes it as a deserving honor.

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