In Needham’s Indian Network: The Search for a Home for the History of Science in India (1950–1970), Dhruv Raina traces the long-range networks that institutionalized the disciplinary history of science in India soon after its independence in 1947. Using primarily archival materials deposited at the Needham Research Institute, Raina shows that Joseph Needham (1900–95)—the famous Cambridge biochemist, Sinologist, and inaugurator of the ongoing Science and Civilisation in China series—was a constant source of inspiration and a frequent interlocutor for a generation of Indian historians and philosophers. These included Damodar Dharmanada (D. D.) Kosambi (1907–66), Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya (1918–93), Abdur Rahman (1923–2009), and Irfan Habib (1931– ), among others. They sought Needham’s advice on building academic communities and infrastructure for the history of science in India, conversed at length with Needham in person or through decades-long correspondence on comparative issues, and produced voluminous scholarship that critically engaged with Needham’s methodologies. This slim and elegant volume is essential reading for researchers interested in cross-cultural histories of science and historiography of South Asia.

According to Raina, this group of Indian historians had three concerns in mind: “(1) understanding the place of science in society in India; (2) reflecting upon how this understanding informed the current crisis in Indian society; and (3) challenging the Eurocentric conception of history” (75). On the one hand, doing the history of science in India was about the anti-Eurocentric “struggle for cognitive justice” (120). Ancient India had an immense scientific heritage to be discovered, and Greek civilization was shown not to be the sole cradle of science. This narrative served to “legitimat[e] the state’s investment in science . . . in the programme of nation-building” (120) by casting science not as a foreign threat, but something that had always already existed in India. On the other hand, these historians were also looking for “explanations for the non-emergence of modern science or the non-occurrence of the industrial revolution” (75). They did this to promote values of modernity, democracy, and egalitarianism through science, and to criticize the weaknesses and failures of Indian society past and present. At the same time, this project was also animated by a vision to internationalism that came from both Nehruvian politics—“Science is something that is bigger than countries. There ought to be no such thing as Indian science” (Nehru, quoted on p. 7)—and from Needham’s historiographical outlook—“Needham did not see his history of science in China in nationalist terms, just as he envisioned a history of science for the Indian culture area and not just the nation” (45). In other words, history of science was a means of “breaking down the barriers of narrow nationalism and cultural bias” and “enhancing international cooperation and understanding” (10). Ultimately, however, a kind of nationalist, triumphant scientism would prevail within the Indian scientific community (110).

In chapter 1, Raina introduces the intersections between the politics of decolonization in India and the network of Western intellectuals and scientists who were closely involved with institution building in the country, such as J. D. Bernal (1901–71) and of course Joseph Needham. Needham served as the head of the Natural Sciences Section of UNESCO from 1946 to 1948; during that time Needham, Julian Huxley, and the Annales historian Lucien Febvre conceived the Scientific and Cultural History of Mankind project. The project was based on the ethos that “all cultures had participated in the creation of modern civilization, thereby rejecting any kind of Euro-exceptionalism” (12). This prefigured both Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China and post-1950s attempts toward “‘salvaging’ the antiquity of India’s scientific tradition” (14). Chapter 2 expands on the role of UNESCO and transnational networks in the formation of the history of science in India as an academic discipline. For Indian scholars, Needham was “a figure endowed with both intellectual and institutional authority, someone who could introduce their research findings and work to Western audiences still unfamiliar with the subcontinent” (20). Raina discusses, for example, the case of Rahman, who tried to introduce a History of Science section at the Indian Science Congress in 1949, put forward a successful proposal to the National Institute of Science (NIS) to develop facilities for research on the history of Indian science in 1953, cofounded the Indian Society for the History of Science in 1957, devised syllabi to introduce the history of science in universities, set up a library for the history of science for the NIS, and compiled primary materials and annotated bibliographies to facilitate research (34–42). Many of Rahman’s achievements were indebted to Needham’s generous mentorship.

As the history of science grew roots in India in the early 1950s, scholars embarked on determining the dates of scientific discoveries and inventions in India. Needham and these scholars—many of whom were professional-scientists-turned-historians—clashed in what Raina in chapter 3 calls an “embarrassing controversy.” In November 1950, a symposium took place at University of Delhi, co-organized by the NIS and UNESCO. Needham had intended to attend but had to cancel his trip; he later received facsimiles of the presented papers and wrote a review for Nature. While Needham praised a number of scholars for their careful datings, he remarked that several papers “betrayed a ‘chauvinistic tendency’ that minimized foreign influences on Indian science and placed greater emphasis on outward transmission” (62–63). Sunder Lal Hora (1896–1955), president of the NIS, then penned a strongly worded reply in Nature. Raina explains that, for the Indian scholars, “it was a question of recreating a glorious image of the past of Indian science in order to legitimize their own activity and ensure government support” (62). Despite this controversy, the “spirit of the symposium was influenced by and was a tribute” to Needham’s ideas, for example, “a keenly worked out historiography of science and civilizations where science and civilization are seen to be inseparable” (67).

Chapter 4 explores the four aforementioned Marxist historians of science in greater detail: Kosambi, Habib, Rahman, and Chattopadhyaya. All four had met Needham, and each of them, with the exception of Kosambi, corresponded with Needham at length. Trained originally as a mathematician, Kosambi became a pioneer historian of technology who broke away from colonial Indology and employed Marxist historiography while “depart[ing] from the Marxist claim of the inevitable succession of the four stages of the modes of production and the exclusion of the Asiatic mode of production from this sequence” (77). Habib attempted to explain an Indian version of the Needham Question, that is, the nonemergence of Western modernity in India. Habib’s study on technological transfer between India and the Islamic world led him “to conclude that an inherent weakness in both civilizations, Islamic and Indian, was the ‘absence’ of systematized scientific observation and communication ‘of technological principles followed in the crafts’” (Habib, quoted on p. 80). Rahman, a “reluctant Marxist” (74), “tried to combine Bernal’s policy activism with Needham’s scholarship” (85). Rahman adopted a fairly instrumental approach to the history of science as a discipline that would provide lessons for policy making in India. Chattopadhyaya “sought to break with classical stereotyping of ancient Indian thought as primarily spiritual” (94). He argued that the Hindu caste system, and the conflict between upper-caste idealists and artisanal materialists, resulted in “the decline of the medical tradition and therefore science in India” (98). Even though there is still no Indian equivalent to Science and Civilisation in China, Needham’s influence remained powerful: “His work provided inspiration and frame for a discourse on the history of science in India—and not as an appendage to the standard master narratives on the history of science” (104). However, one of the weaknesses of history of science as a discipline in India continues to be “its inability to find an institutional home in college and university curricula” (107). Finally, in the epilogue, Raina briefly analyzes the entanglements between history of science and the domain of Indian philosophy.

A lingering question is how Joseph Needham himself perceived the history of science in India vis-à-vis China. After the 1960s, Needham’s travels to India ceased with his growing involvement in Science and Civilisation in China—even though his correspondence with historians of science in India continued into the mid-1980s. Raina argues that the “fledgling community of historians of science” in India might have felt that “the Needhamian gaze was unfavourably tilted away from India towards China,” but this was “neither a significant nor informed opinion” (47–48). However, once we start tracing discussions on India in Science and Civilisation in China and Needham’s other publications as well as further documentation from the Needham archives, it becomes clear that Needham did in fact hold Chinese civilization in higher regard than Indian civilization. As I have argued elsewhere, Needham’s reasoning for his prioritization of China was mainly to do with the promises that Chinese medicine, specifically acupuncture, appeared to hold for an “ecumenical medicine.” Needham’s pronouncements on India were confusing at best: “Sometimes Indian culture was too familiar while Chinese culture was more otherly; sometimes Indian thought was too transcendental and ‘other-worldly’ while Chinese philosophy was supposedly more materialist and rational; sometimes Indian science was ‘not very original’ (and the criteria for ‘originality’ were never spelled out) while Chinese science was more ‘proto-scientific’” (Rocha 2016: 38). While Needham did believe that the “older streams of science in the different civilizations [were] like rivers flowing into the ocean of modern science,” (22) it would appear that in Needham’s view, certain “rivers”—like China—might be more important than others. What needs further investigation, then, is a history of the intellectual resources that informed Needham’s thinking about South Asia and enabled Needham to have the particular scholarly exchanges that he had with Indian historians.


Rocha, Leon Antonio.
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