The process of rejecting western notions about India has acquired speed, pushing aside anyone who dares to question the intellectual rigour of the new interpretations. This is particularly so in the case of Indian science and how advanced it was in the days before the Islamic conquest began.
Lets take the case of the idol at Somnath. As we know, Mahmud of Ghazni is supposed to have destroyed the famous temple in 1025 CE. He is supposed to have decamped with tons of gold and jewels and put 50,000 people to death.
A friend of mine, known to be a high IQ physics buff and deeply involved in emerging technologies like Internet of Things, sent me a quote that indicated a very deep knowledge of magnetism in ancient India and specifically about the idol at the Somnath temple before it was smashed to pieces allegedly by Mahmud.
When the temple fell, said my friend, “the king directed a person to go and feel all around and above it with a spear, which he did but met with no obstacle. One of the attendants then stated his opinion that the canopy was made of loadstone [a magnetized rock], and that the idol was iron and that the ingenious builder had skillfully contrived that the magnet should not exercise a greater force on any one side — hence the idol was suspended in the middle. When two stones were removed from the summit the idol swerved on one side, when more were taken away it inclined still further, until it rested on the ground.”
This quote has been doing the rounds amongst the Hindu faithful. I asked my friend for attribution. I was surprised to get a response from him that said he did not need some white man to provide validation for knowledge about India, and that there are facts and there are facts. So I did some digging around of my own and this is what I found.
The quote in italics is taken from an obscure work on history by Sir H M Elliott and Prof John Dowson published in London in 1869. The two English gents were Persian and Arabic scholars, and they compiled a reference work of histories of India written by others, especially Arabic and Persian writers. They have translated many Arab writers and compiled it into two volumes. Serious historians know of this work but it is largely unknown to the common man.
The passage cited is taken from Abu Yahya Zakariya’ ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini, an Arab geographer and astronomer. He was born sometime in around 1230 CE or so. He was not a traveller but compiled his work from the works of others. He is mainly known for “ʿAjā’ib al-makhlūqāt wa gharā’ib al-mawjūdāt” (The Wonders of Creation). This is a book on cosmography and was apparently immensely popular the Arab world. In the work under reference, This quote is from a book called Asaru Al Bilad wa Akhbaru-l Ibad (“Monuments of Countries and Memories of Men”) . Qazwini apparently quotes from another work by an earlier Arab writer called Misar Bin Mulalhil in this work.
Everything stated by Qazwini may be true. And then again not. Since he never actually saw any of this, as Ghazni destroyed Somnath in 1025 CE and Qizwani wrote his book in 1263. It is indeed true that the Susruta Samhita does show the ancients knew all about magnetism, and therefore it is entirely possible that the suspension of the idol with magnets may have been done.
I thought about this and wondered how the Somnath phenomenon could be possible. For a huge iron idol to be suspended in mid air would need industrial magnets. A loadstone (which is a naturally occurring weak magnet that was used in compasses of old) would not do the job (unless these loadstones were huge and very powerful). Does it mean our ancients knew how to build industrial magnets, for which they would need access to electrical engineering technology.
Not satisfied, I wrote to Prof Subhash Kak, who is an Emeritus Professor of Electrical Engineering at Oklahoma State University and a member of the Indian Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. He is also an expert in matters relating to ancient Indian science, and has written extensively about the mathematical knowledge contained in ancient Indian scriptures.
He replied saying the iron idol and its suspension by magnets does not seem likely, but persistent reports of such suspension in Hindu temples in Java could lead us to conclude that perhaps dark ropes were involved. Which I can accept.
My larger point is this – why do we suspend our scientific faculties just because we wish to reject the unfair characterization of India as a land that did not know science until the white man arrived? The foremost scientific tool we have is Occam’s razor. Unless otherwise proved, reject something fanciful as the explanation for a hypothesis. In this case, clearly Qazwini was making it up.
Is our inferiority complex so deep-rooted that we have to reject in entirety anything Western?
 History of India By Its Own Historians Vol I & II. Edited from the posthumous papers of Sir H M Elliott by Prof John Dowson. London, Trubner & Co. 1869