India had been among the "leaders" in scientific research spanning Mathematics, Medicine, Chemistry and others.


Controversial theories of nuclear technology in 1000 BC aside, India's leadership role is true when we talk about the "BC" era and maybe up to 1000 AD.

What went wrong after that? Is the colonization the only reason for India's seeming downfall in scientific advancements?

  • 6
    The colonization of India only started in the seventeenth century.
    – Luke_0
    Commented Jul 6, 2012 at 21:23
  • 13
    And I would cast out British colonisation of India as a possible reason. For one, had India been scientifically, militarily, or industrially advanced it would never have been colonised to begin with.
    – Apoorv
    Commented Jul 6, 2012 at 22:50
  • 2
    @MonsterTruck Not true at all. India was far richer and at least as scientifically advanced as most European powers at the start of the Age of Discovery. The British successfully colonized India through a long (it took about 90 years, from the 1760s to the 1850s) process involving open warfare and skillful diplomacy, pitting rival kingdoms (of which there were many) against each other. Battles between British and the armies of Indian kings were never as lopsided as, say, those of the Incas or Aztecs vs the conquistadors.
    – Jay
    Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 0:05
  • 2
    @Jayraj While that is true of the period before the Age of Discovery (at least partially true because European scholars and chemists had made remarkable progress in textiles, mathematics, naval navigation, ballistics, and mechanics before the advent of the 18th century) it is certainly not true for the 18th century period you mention --Europe was undergoing the Industrial Revolution by then. While I wouldn't say that things went wrong for India but I would agree with T.E.D. that they actually went right for Europe.
    – Apoorv
    Commented Jul 15, 2012 at 3:32
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    It is simply not true that India held scientific leadership somewhere from 1000 BC to 1000 AD
    – Anixx
    Commented Aug 12, 2012 at 14:12

8 Answers 8


Personally, I don't think anything ever went particularly "wrong" with India. They only fell behind the civilizations of Western Europe, not the rest of the world. So the proper question to ask here is what suddenly went right with heretofore backward Europe.

To my mind the answer to this question is clear: The printing press. Nearly overnight Europeans had access to several orders of magnitude more knowledge than they had before (and than anyone still relying on slow, error prone, and expensive hand-copying could possibly have). The discourse this allowed would have had a self-multiplying effect. The difference would be like somebody from the 1800's (or even the 1970's) trying to compete for knowledge with today's internet society. There's just no hope for them, no matter how smart they may be.

  • 7
    So, Gutenberg made Europe a superpower? Very interesting.
    – user1071
    Commented Jul 7, 2012 at 6:40
  • 1
    @Inquest - Quite. For more on this, see Hauser's answer to history.stackexchange.com/questions/1030/… . In fact, you may be interested in the entire question.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 7, 2012 at 15:59
  • 16
    I don't think it can be attributed to a single factor like the printing press. Why not blame it on the ancient Hindu belief that traveling overseas pollutes a person irredeemably, thereby stunting the growth of Indian naval technology and ensuring Europeans came to India rather than vice versa? Or the caste system that ensured that the likelihood of an Indian Gutenberg being born into the correct caste to invent the printing press in India was much lower? I'm not suggesting these seriously, I just think your answer is far too simple...
    – Jay
    Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 0:13
  • 6
    @Jayraj - Europeans had backwards superstitions too. Every culture does. You should ask yourself why Europe's superstitions suddenly started to have less influence there. Oddly, they seemed to start to dissipate in importance after the printing press allowed easier comparison and dissimenation of knowledge.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 14:12
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    @sdrawkcabdear - I've addressed that on other answers of this ilk. In short, the Chinese were greatly hampered by not having an alphabet. Its tough to get much efficiency out of an early press if you are constantly having to stop to create new glyphs (its tough to get a straight answer even on how many they have). AFAIK, the first Islamic-owned moveable-type printing press didn't exist until 1727.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 23:56

Every culture and civilization goes through ups and downs. To assume that:

  1. There was a homogenous Indian civilization
  2. It was for any length of time constantly on the up or even "better" than others
  3. Certain expressions of advancement from certain locales mean "Indian" technology was universally more advanced

would be a very narrow view.

This denies Grecian, Mesopotamian, Persian and European achievements, Industrial Revolution, and just so much more.

So what slice of time are we talking about when we discuss decline? That keeps happening everywhere. Greece isn't what it used to be, neither is Mesopotamia. Rise and fall are natural cycles.

Only In the short run we can attribute causes. As in "what were the factors that led to the fall of the Magadhan(/Roman) Empire?"


Hmmm, in my point of view,

  1. Our ancestors never taught those technologies in written form.
  2. The people who learned some technology don't want to teach that outside their family.
  3. From British period we just started to read Europe's history as our indian history. For example "Vasco da gama discovered india".
  4. We people started to thought US and Euro only has the technologies.:(

Thats it...:)

  • 5
    When you say "our ancestors", you might want to make it clear whose ancestors you mean. Not everyone on this site is from India.
    – Joe
    Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 17:38

As late as the 18th century, India had a cotton industry that was at least as advanced as the European textile industry. But when England conquered most of the country, she felt that it was too competitive with her woolens industry. So England taxed India's cotton industry and otherwise prevented it from developing. Same with a number of other industries in the country. Instead, under "mercantilism," India was made to produce raw, not finished goods.

So colonization appears to be the culprit.

  • Do you have sources?
    – Luke_0
    Commented Aug 11, 2012 at 1:40
  • 1
    Wikipedia also confirms this fact. In this article, it says, "During the period, 1780–1860, India changed from being an exporter of processed goods for which it received payment in bullion, to being an exporter of raw materials and a buyer of manufactured goods."
    – Arani
    Commented Aug 11, 2012 at 9:26
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    LOL. Did they have a power loom so to be "as advanced as Europeans"? They simply could not compete with English steam looms by 18th cectury.
    – Anixx
    Commented Aug 12, 2012 at 14:16
  • IMO, This is the best answer, but it is to kind. The British were a leach sucking the life out of the south asian economy. They Indians were paying for the industrial revolution England with their silver and gold. When there were to few funds originating from south asia, the British moved on to China and the opium trade to continue to fund industrialization. Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 10:27
  • 1
    @Anixx mass production by English steam looms was not the Indian way. It was handcrafted material cloth. So obviously India could not compete with the English looms that produced cloth every day. But if India had a strong internal government that could have resisted British colonialism India could have held it's way.
    – user16615
    Commented Dec 18, 2016 at 15:48

I think the main reasons are demolition of Takshashila and Nalanda universities.

  • 2
    I would classify that as a symptom not a cause. A general lack of respect for higher education and a constant threat of invasion (that caused a general short sightedness amongst the rulers and the ruled) would be the reasons why those universities faded away.
    – Apoorv
    Commented Jul 15, 2012 at 3:38
  • 6
    Nalanda and Takshashila universities did not just fade away. They were actively destroyed by the Turkish invaders.
    – Arani
    Commented Aug 11, 2012 at 9:19
  • @ApoorvKhurasia - can you cite a reference that claims "general lack of respect for higher education and a constant thread of invasion would be the reasons why those universities faded away"
    – user16615
    Commented Dec 18, 2016 at 15:45
  • @gansub S Sen wrote an article in the IJHS (1988) that mentions how systematic state sponsored public higher education in India was replaced by private tuition systems in the late medieval ages. At the time of the Khilji's invasions, the monasteries (such as Nalanda) had already started to fade away (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nalanda#Decline_and_end)
    – Apoorv
    Commented Dec 26, 2016 at 14:52
  • Assertions without evidence. This answer would be improved by evidence of research. H:SE is not a discussion or opinion site.
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 16:40

Indians were never good at scientific method to begin with. Scientific method aka challenging/testing/advancing existing knowledge by peers and verification using experiments was never popular.

Most of the glory lies in individual brilliance/theories/work that was passed down as facts and absolute truths, which does not help in advancing knowledge. Most of the Indian scientific works survive intact unchanged today because of the lack of challenges/advancing of these works by others.

This is due to the Indian psyche of not challenging ideas/elders and the inherent need to maintain status quo. While the threats of invasion, colonization, destruction of centers of learning like nalanda/taxilla etc are true, the greatest culprit is that Indians rest on past accomplishments instead of moving to the next thing and advancing what is already known.

Indians sucked at scientific method of any kind, so development of science never happened beyond the initial work of some savant in their respective fields.


The advancement of the 'scientific progress' of a society is largely contingent upon the society's ability to create new inventions and integrate them into their society. India's rigid caste system and the adoption of dharma, or 'duty,' into Indian society fit new members of society into specific roles without regards to their innate talents or interests and discouraged scientific progress. The highest ranking members of the caste, the 'brahmin' (priests) and 'ksatriyah' (warriors) had virtually no need for scientific inventions or research except for potentially firearms and so had no incentive to encourage scientific study among the other castes.

The caste system, I would argue, was India's greatest limitation with respect to scientific innovation and research throughout its history.

  • Do you have any sources for this, or is it merely a personal opinion?
    – Mark
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 8:59
  • @Mark What are analytical sources besides personal opinion? I do have some sources though: "The Caste System Upside Down, or The Not-So-Mysterious East" by J. Mencher in Current Anthropology argues that "caste has functioned...as a very effective form of economic exploitation" and that "the system has...[prevented] the formation of social classes with any commonality of interest or unity of purpose." While the Vaishya had an incentive to streamline to gain an advantage over their competitors, they lacked the ideological unity with the upper castes needed to fully encourage scientific research.
    – Alekxos
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 15:13

This would certainly be linked to the Turkish and Mughal conquest of the subcontinent.

In pre-medieval India, the academia was heavily dependent on royal patronage, as the Brahmin and Buddhist scholars were attached by occupation to the court. In this period, there had been various mathematical and philosophical advances though there seems to have been a dearth of equipment and tools required for experiment that are fundamentally important to the development of the scientific method. Also, as the accepted answer points out, the printing press which enormously fueled the scientific revolution in the West, was absent in the present case.

With the arrival of the Muslims1 however, royal patronage to the indigenous academia ceased; and later (to a minimal extent) replaced by scholars of Central Asian origin. If an active interest in indigenous intellectual institutions were taken by these rulers, I think the scenario would have been markedly different.

Therefore, the reason for the lack of scientific development in the subcontinent may have not been that it "lagged-behind" as much as that there was discontinuity and in fact a total cessation of the thousand year old tradition of Indian scientific2 thought.

1 A loose term used here to denote the succession of Central Asian empires that entered the subcontinent.

2 Denoting here the various fields of study that might have led to the development of a scientific method.

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