Alberuni: India in his times

In his book on India, Alberuni  (AD 1030) recorded his neutral opinion about India and her people as he observed them. He says, “The Hindus are not in the habit of writing on hides, like the Greeks in ancient times. Socrates, on being asked why he did not compose books, gave this reply: “I do not transfer knowledge from the living hearts of men to the dead hides of sheep. Muslims, too, used in the early times of Islam to write on hides, e.g. the treaty between the Prophet and the Jews of Khaibar and his letter to Kisri were written on hides. The Kirtas (or charta) is made in Egypt, being cut out of the papyrus stalk. Written on this material, the orders of the Khalifa went out into the entire world until shortly before our time (1029 AD). Papyrus has this advantage over vellum that you can neither rub out nor change anything on it, because thereby it would be destroyed. It was in China that paper was first manufactured. Chinese prisoners introduced the fabrication of paper into Samarkand, and thereupon it was made in various places, so as to meet the existing want.

  “The Hindus have in the south of their country a slender tree like the date and coca-nut palms, bearing edible fruits and leaves of the length of one yard, and as broad as three fingers one put beside the other. They call these leaves tari (tala or tar=Borassus flabelliformis), and write on them. They bind a book of these leaves together by a cord on which they are arranged, the cord going through all the leaves by a hole in the middle of each.

  “In Central and Northern India people use the bark of the tuz tree, one kind of which is used as a cover for bows. It is called bhurja. They take a piece one-yard long and as broad as the outstretched fingers of the hand, or somewhat less, and prepare it in various ways. They oil and polish it so as to make it hard and smooth, and then they write on it. The proper order of the single leaves is marked by numbers. The whole book is wrapped up in a piece of cloth and fastened between two tablets of the same size.

  “Such a book is called puthi (cf. Pusta, pustaka). Their letters and whatever else they have to write, they write on the bark of the tuz tree.

  “As to the writing or alphabet of the Hindus, we have already mentioned that it once had been lost and forgotten; that nobody cared for it and that in consequence people became illiterate, sunken into gross ignorance, and entirely estranged from science. But then Vyasa, the son of Parasara, rediscovered their alphabet of fifty letters by an inspiration of God.

  “A letter is called akshara… The great number of the letters of the Hindu alphabet is explained, firstly, by the fact that they express every letter by a separate sign if it is followed by a vowel or a diphthong or a humza (visarga), or a small extension of the sound beyond the measure  of the vowel; and, secondly, by the fact that they have consonants which are not found together in any other language, though they may be found scattered through different languages – sounds of such a nature that our tongues, not being familiar with them, can scarcely pronounce them, and that our ears are frequently not able to distinguish between many a cognate pair of them.

  “The Hindus write from the left to the right like the Greeks. They do not write on the basis of the line, above which the heads of the letters rise whilst their tails go down below, as in Arabic writing. On the contrary, their ground-line is above, a straight line above every single character, and from this line the letter hangs down and is written under it. Any sign above the line is nothing but a grammatical mark to denote the pronunciation of the character above, which it stands.

  ‘’The most generally known alphabet is called Siddhamatrika, which is by some considered as originating from Kasmir, for the people of Kashmir use it. But it is also used in Varanasi. This town and Kashmir are the high schools of Hindu sciences. The same writing is used in Madhyadesa, i.e. the middle country, the country all around Kanauj, which is also called Aryavarta. In Malava there is another alphabet called Nagara, which differs from the former only in the shape of the character.

  ‘’Next comes an alphabet called Ardhanagari, i.e. Half nagara, so called because it is compounded of the former two. It is used in Bhatiya and some parts of Sindh.

  “Other alphabets are the Malwari, used in Malvasau, in Southern Sind, towards the sea-coast; the Saindhava, used in Bahmanwa or Almansura; the Kamata, used in Karnatadesa, whence those troops come which in the armies are known as Kannara; the Andhri, used in Andhradesa; the Dirwari (Dravidl), used in Dirwaradesa (Dravidadesa); the Lari, used in Laradesa (Latadesa); the Gauri (Gaudl), used in Purvadesa, i.e. the eastern country; the Bhaikshuki, used in Udunpur in Purvadesa.

  “This last is the writing of Buddha. The Hindus begin their books with Om, the word of creation, as we begin them with “In the name of God”. The figure of the word Om is’ ‘. This figure does not consist of letters; it is simply an image intended to represent this word, which people use, believing that it will bring them a blessing, and meaning thereby a confession of the unity of God. …

  “The Hindus do not use the letters of their alphabet for numerical notation, as we use the Arabic letters in the order of the Hebrew alphabet. As in different parts of India the letters have different shapes, the numerical signs too, which are called anka, differ. The numerical signs which we use are derived from the finest forms of the Hindu signs. Signs and figures are of no use if people do not know what they mean, but the people of Kashmir mark the single leaves of their books with figures which look like drawings or like the Chinese characters, the meaning of which can only be learnt by a very long practice. However, they do not use them when reckoning in the sand.

  “In arithmetic all nations agree that all the orders of numbers (e.g. one, ten, hundred, thousand) stand in a certain relation to the ten; that each order is the tenth part of the following and the tenfold of the preceding. I have studied the names of the orders of the numbers in various languages with all kinds of people with whom I have been in contact, and have found that no nation goes beyond the thousand.

  “The Arabs, too, stop with the thousand, which is certainly the most correct and the most natural thing to do. I have written a separate treatise on this subject.

  “Those, however, who go beyond the thousand in their numeral system are the Hindus, at least in their arithmetical technical terms, which have been either freely invented or derived according to certain etymologies, whilst in others both methods are blended together.  They extend the names of the orders of numbers until the 18th order for religious reasons, the mathematicians being assigned by the grammarians with all kinds of etymologies.

  “The 18th order is called Parardha, i.e. the half of heaven, or, more accurately, the half of that which is above. For if the Hindus construct periods of time out of Kalpas, the unit of this order is a day of God (i.e. a half nychthemeron). And as we do not know anybody larger than heaven, half of it (Parardha), has been compared with a half of the greatest day. By doubling it, by uniting night today, we get the whole of the greatest day. There can be doubt that the name of Parardha is accounted for in this way, and that parar means the whole of heaven.

 “The following are the names of the eighteen orders of numbers:

  1. Ekam

  2. Dasam

  3. Satam

  4. Sahasram

  5. Ayuta

  6. Laksha

  7. Prayuta

  8. Koti

  9. Nyarbuda

  10. Padma

  11. Kharva

  12. Nikharva

  13. Mahapadam

  14. Sanku

  15. Samudra

  16. Madhya

  17. Antya

  18. Paradha …

  This information about India speaks for itself. Alberuni further says: “We shall now speak of certain strange manners and customs of the Hindus. The strangeness of a thing evidently rests on the fact that it occurs but rarely, and that we seldom have the opportunity of witnessing it. If such strangeness reaches a high degree, the thing becomes a curiosity, or even something like miracle, which is no longer in accordance with the ordinary laws of nature, and which seems chimerical as long as it has not been witnessed.”

  He continues: “The common notion of the Hindus regarding creation is a popular one, for, as we have already mentioned, they believe matter to be eternal. Therefore, they do not, by the word creation, understand a formation of something out of nothing. They mean by  creation only the working with a piece of clay, working out various combinations and figures in it, and making such arrangements with it as will lead to certain ends and aims  which are potentially in it.”

  Alberuni records an interesting fact about an important place of women in society, when he says: “In all consultations and emergencies they take the advice of the women… Of two children they give the preference to the younger, particularly in the eastern parts of the country; for they maintain that the elder owes his birth to predominant lust, whilst the younger owes his origin to mature reflection and calm proceeding..They do not ask permission to enter a house, but when they leave it they ask permission to do so.”

  Alberuni says:  “Most of their (Hindus) charms are intended for those who have been bitten by serpents. Their excessive confidence in them is shown by this, which I heard a man say, that he had seen a dead man, who had died from the bite of a serpent, but after the charm had been applied he had been restored to life, and remained alive, moving about like all others.

  “Another man I heard as he told the following story: “He had seen a man who had died from the bite of a serpent. A charm was applied and in consequence he rose, spoke, made his will, showed where he had deposited his treasures, and gave all necessary information about them. But when inhaled the smell of a dish, he fell down dead, life being completely extinct.

  “It is a Hindu custom that when a man has been bitten by a venomous serpent, and they have no charmer at hand, they bind the bitten man on a bundle of reeds, and place on him a leaf on which is written a blessing for that person who will accidentally light upon him, and save him by a charm from destruction. I, for my part, do not know what I am to say about these things, since I do not believe in them.

  “Once a man who had very little belief in reality, and much less in the tricks of jugglers, told me that he had been poisoned, and that people had sent him some Hindus possessing the knowledge of charms. They sang their charms before him, and this had a quieting effect upon him, and soon he felt that he became better and better, whilst they were drawing lines in the air with their hands and with twigs.

  “I myself have witnessed that in hunting gazelles they caught them with the hands. One Hindu even went so far as to assert that he, without catching the gazelle, would drive it before him and lead it straight into the kitchen.”  This, however, rests, as I believe I have found out, simply on the device of slowly and constantly accustoming the animals to one and the same melody.”

  Alberuni writes about an interesting thing about the notion of ‘gravity’ held by Indian scientist Brahmgupta. This authentic record of Alberuni has the potential to give the credit of discovering an idea of earth possessing the property of gravity to Brahmgupta, which is now held by Newton, whose ideas are of course  much elaborate and sophisticated in understanding this force.. Alberuni says:  “As regards the resting of the earth, one of the elementary problems of astronomy, which offers many and great difficulties, this, too, is a dogma with the Hindus astronomers. Brahmagupta says in the Brahmasiddanta: “Some people maintain that the first motion (from east to west) does not lie in the meridian, but belongs to the earth. But Varahamihira refutes them by saying: ‘If that were the case, a bird would not return to its nest as soon as it had flown away from it towards the west… And, in fact, it is precisely as Varahamihira says. Brahmaguta says in another place of the same book: “The followers of Aryabhata maintain that the earth is moving and heaven resting. People have tried to refute them by saying that, if such were the case, stones and trees would fall from the earth.

  ‘’But Brahmagupta does not agree with them, and says that would not necessarily follow from their theory, apparently because he thought that all heavy things are attracted towards the centre of the earth.”

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