I’d blogged earlier on India’s contributions to mathematics. As some of us are aware, it wasn’t just in mathematics, but in several other areas of technology that Indian accomplishments are overlooked in standard text books and literature. In fact, in ancient India, scientific breakthroughs range from references to astronomy in the Rig Veda to Shushruta’s trysts with plastic surgery.

This note captures Shushruta’s brilliance:

“The practice of surgery has been recorded in India around 800 B.C. This need not come as a surprise because surgery (Shastrakarma) is one of the eight branches of Ayurveda the ancient Indian system of medicine. The oldest treatise dealing with surgery is the Shushruta-Samahita (Shushruta’s compendium). Shusruta who lived in Kasi was one of the many Indian medical practitioners who included Atraya and Charaka.

Shushruta was one of the first to study the human anatomy. In the Shusruta Samahita he has described in detail the study of anatomy with the aid of a dead body. Shusruta’s forte was rhinoplasty (Plastic surgery) and ophthalmialogy (ejection of cataracts). Shushruta has described surgery under eight heads Chedya (excision), Lekhya (scarification), Vedhya (puncturing), Esya (exploration), Ahrya (extraction), Vsraya (evacuation) and Sivya (Suturing).

OPHTHALMIC SURGERY: Shushruta specialised in ophthalmic surgery (extraction of Cataracts). A typically operation per formed by Shushruta for removing cataracts is desired below.

“It was a bright morning. The surgeon sat on a bench which was as high as his knees. The patient sat opposite on the ground so that the doctor was at a comfortable height for doing the operation on the patient’s eye. After having taken bath and food, that patient had been tied so that he could not move during the operation.”

The doctor warmed the patient’s eye with the breath ~ of his mouth. He rubbed the closed eye of the patient with his thumb and then asked the patient to look at his knees. The patient’s head was held firmly. The doctor held the lancet between his fore-finger, middle-finger and thumb and introduced it into the patient’s eye towards the pupil, half a finger’s breadth from the black of the eye and a quarter of a finger’s breadth from the outer corner of the eye. He moved the lancet gracefully back and forth and upward. There was a small sound and a drop of water came out. “

The list of scientific/technological breakthroughs in India is a long and impressive one. What is interesting for me personally are India inventions in the post patent era. Notable amongst these would be the works of JC Bose. A long standing controversy has been over whether Bose ought to be credited as the first inventor of the “wireless”. See this note by Varun Aggarwal which begins with:

“The aim of the present article is to acquaint the younger generation that the real inventor of wireless was not Guglielmo Marconi (Italy), but Jagadish Chandra Bose (India). The classic paper of Dr. P. K. Bondopadhyay [1] published by the IEEE has now established this fact.”

Bose’s antipathy towards patents is well known, although he is credited with being the first Indian to ever have filed a patent (thanks largely due to the compulsions of two of his friends). Prof Kochhar, in a note states:

“In May 1901, Bose wrote to his friend Rabindranath Tagore: “…the proprietor of a reputed telegraph company…came himself with a Patent form in hand…He proposed to take half of the profit and finance the business in the bargain. This multi-millionaire came to me abegging. My friend, I wish you could see that terrible attachment for gain in this country, that all engaging lucre, that lust for money and more money. Once caught in that trap there would have been no way out for me.”

If only Bose had understood the real value of patents and used it strategically to create wealth for the country!! Had he appreciated that a government cannot indefinitely fund R&D, he might have commercialised his inventions and used the money to fund more research and perhaps even to build more scientific infrastructure in the country –without necessarily falling into the “lust for money” trap. Particularly so, when his fellow scientists were not as charitable with their knowledge, but were using it strategically. Professor Kochar notes:

“There can be no doubt, as P.C. Ray reminded the audiance assembled in 1916 to greet Bose on his knighthood, that “If he had taken out patents for the apparatus and instruments which he had invented, he could have made millions by their sale”. More importantly, he would perhaps have become an Indian role-model for production of wealth through science. As it is, Bose abandoned radio waves altogether, there were no trained students to continue the research; and India’s tryst with technical physics came to a premature end.”

Anyway, an interesting counterfactual to pose would be:

What if JC Bose had patented his inventions? Would this have helped him gain recognition as the true and first inventor of the wireless? More importantly, would this have changed things in terms of how and to what extent wireless technology (and other technologies with which he is credited) might have developed in India and abroad. And would his have influenced the direction of science/technology in India and more importantly, the attitude of Indian scientists towards patents? I’d be intereted in hearing your views.

Shamnad Basheer

Shamnad Basheer

Prof (Dr) Shamnad Basheer founded SpicyIP in 2005. He is currently the Honorary Research Chair of IP Law at Nirma University and a visiting professor of law at the National Law School (NLS), Bangalore. He is also the Founder of IDIA, a project to train underprivileged students for admissions to the leading law schools. He served for two years as an expert on the IP global advisory council (GAC) of the World Economic Forum (WEF). In 2015, he received the Infosys Prize in Humanities in 2015 for his work on legal education and on democratising the discourse around intellectual property law and policy. The jury was headed by Nobel laureate, Prof Amartya Sen. Professional History: After graduating from the NLS, Bangalore Professor Basheer joinedAnand and Anand, one of India’s leading IP firms. He went on to head their telecommunication and technology practice and was rated by the IFLR as a leading technology lawyer. He left for the University of Oxford to pursue post-graduate studies, completing the BCL, MPhil and DPhil as a Wellcome Trust scholar. His first academic appointment was at the George Washington University Law School, where he served as the Frank H Marks Visiting Associate Professor of IP Law. He then relocated to India in 2008 to take up the MHRD Chaired Professorship in IP Law at WB NUJS, a leading Indian law school. Prof Basheer has published widely and his articles have won awards, including those instituted by ATRIP and the Stanford Technology Law Review. He is consulted widely by the government, industry, international organisations and civil society on a variety of IP issues. He also serves on several government committees.


  1. Avatarmedicherla.ravi

    i feel,it is the protectionist and the quota regime which made indians shy away from patents and not the decesion of bose….the paradigm shift(limited to pharma!) in patent filing is a result of globalisation & trips outcome…. the thought of making money(from his fellow indians ,who are already being looted by british)using patents would have deterred bose from patents!the paradigm shift has to go beyond pharma field ,which is only possible if india invests in both basic & higher education…lest we remain a country of “cyber coolies”

  2. AvatarShamnad Basheer

    Dear Ravi,

    You’re right–we need a paradigm shift. A shift that helps us move away from always seeing “patents” as bad things. As is always the case with most things in life, there is a “good” and a “bad” side to patents. Excessive patents or patents over trivial technology or patents that engender abusive practices (particularly in the context of pricing of essential drugs) are no doubt bad. But a patent can be a useful econonmic development tool too. And this is what JC Bose failed to recognise. He could have charged those that could afford it and not charged those who could not–without necessarily assuming that his patenting would always detrimentally impact his fellow citizens. Or perhaps he just wasn’t commercially savvy enough to realise the role of “licensing” and the flexibilities that a patentee has in this regard.

  3. AvatarRajesh Kochhar

    J C Bose is not the inventer of wireless. He is one of the earliet experimentalists.He took to lab work on what are today called microwaves after reading Hertz’ obituary in Nature.European scientists were using metal to make their radio receivers and transmitters. Since metal rusts in damp Bengal, Bose experimented with a whole lot of new substances, thus greatly enriching the new field of radio science.More than not patenting or not encashing the patent, it was his leaving physics altogether, that in retrospect prevented technical physics from taking roots in India ( cf . P.C. Ray’s success with chemistry).If Bose had been asked to choose between a physics Nobel prize and mainstream recognition for his plant physiology work , he would probably have chosen the latter.
    Let us keep in mind that those were the days when respect from the West was more desired than wealth.This is understandavble keeping in mind the class composition of the then native leadership.
    It is paradoxcal that an Indian
    professor of physics was refusing to patent, while a spiritual lady ( Sister Nivedita) because of her industrial background was trying to interest him in royalties. Paradoxically , Bose had no compunction in accepting donnation from a western wealthy lady mrs Sarah Bull.
    , Bose it would seem was seduced into spirituality by Tagore and others.

  4. AvatarNilanjana

    More than anything else, I think that it is Indian societies (read middle class) double standards regarding money that was responsible for Bose’s antipathy towards patenting.


  5. AvatarShamnad Basheer

    Dear Rajesh and Nilanjana,

    Thanks for your comments. As Nilanjana puts it: seems to be a case of double standards–though Bose may have never seen it this way. In any case, I posted recently on a news item that captures Sri Sri Ravi Sankar-ji’s views on IP and spirituality–i.e. that the two are not incompatible. I wish he’d been around to advise Bose.

  6. AvatarSudarshan

    Compare Bose’s altruism with Marconi’s deeds. Pupils are still taught that Marconi invented the wireless (he did NOT). He did patent his device, however, and became very rich. Apparently, even this did not satisfy him. Consider Marconi’s crude (and successful) attempts to cash in on the Titanic disaster in April 1912. He was not willing to give the lists of survivors aboard the Carpathia for free, since the Carpathia had a Marconi set. The sordid details of this little episode would come out in the US hearings into the disaster.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.