Was India’s knowledge elitist? – Michel Danino

Book Knowledge

Prof Michel DaninoThomas Babington Macaulay … declared that traditional Indian knowledge consists of “false History, false Astronomy, false Medicine … in company with a false religion”, many Indian academics and intellectuals have implicitly or explicitly accepted that knowledge from the West is the real thing. – Prof Michel Danino

Indian civilization’s obsession with knowledge was our last “master idea,” with endless and still poorly explored contributions in nearly every field (“India as a Knowledge Creator”, The New Indian Express, 29 November). But there is another side to the story, which in many ways characterizes the paradox of Indian culture.

No Indian university, IIT or IIM has a regular, comprehensive course on Indian knowledge systems (IKS) (though IIT Gandhinagar made a beginning a few years ago). There are, no doubt, a few scattered courses on systems of ancient science (IIT Bombay and Kharagpur), and a few universities teach courses on Indian philosophical systems or even “Indology,” whatever that means. By and large, however, indifference, neglect, or hostility to IKS is the rule.

All three are part of India’s colonial legacy: ever since Thomas Babington Macaulay, a powerful British figure of the first half of the nineteenth century, declared that traditional Indian knowledge consists of “false History, false Astronomy, false Medicine … in company with a false religion”, many Indian academics and intellectuals have implicitly or explicitly accepted that knowledge from the West is the real thing.

Our philosophy courses cover mostly European philosophy; the same goes with psychology (from which yogic systems of self-knowledge are generally excluded); contemporary Indian literature is often studied; classical texts rarely are. Students of Ayurveda are compelled to devote much time to modern medicine, but not vice versa. Political scientists generally know nothing of the systems of polity that prevailed in ancient India. And so forth. In 1946, the freedom-fighter and statesman K.M. Munshi wrote: “Modern education in India assumes that Indian culture is dead, only requiring post-mortem dissection, and that a new culture can be developed by imitating the West. No attention is paid to the importance of a ceaseless reintegration.”

That accounts for the indifference and neglect. But why hostility? I see it essentially as a survival of the colonial-cum-missionary stereotype that Indian knowledge systems were “elitist”, “upper caste” when not “Brahminical”, and denied to the lower castes and “untouchables”. Such declarations are usually based on a few Dharma Shastra texts prohibiting the teaching of the Vedas to lower castes. Granted, those texts and a few more were Brahminical and set down a caste-based order for the society.

However, the said society was far from circumscribed or defined by a few orthodox texts. A careful look at the mechanisms of transmission of knowledge gives a very different picture. “Brahminical” texts of mathematics produced number systems and calculation methods that were, in time, adopted by the population at large, down to the carpenter and the farmer. Astronomy created calendars that punctuated people’s lives and stood behind astrology and the ever-popular panchangas (almanacs).

Architecture was rooted in Vedic principles but practised by Vishvakarmas: technically Shudras, they often regarded themselves as higher than the Brahmins in their application of those concepts to temple construction and iconography (for the making of bronze or stone images), and themselves wrote manuscripts in both Sanskrit and regional languages. So too, texts of medicine, metallurgy, agriculture, animal and plant treatment, water management and other civil engineering techniques, were often written by the practitioners of those disciplines rather than by “upper caste” theoreticians.

All this points to a sustained, intense and complex dialogue between the Shastras (the theories or systems) and the popular practices (loka parampara). From the Ayurvedic classic which declares that for the knowledge of medicinal plants one should consult the hunter or the tribal, to Kautilya’s Arthashastra which explains how the quality of a metal ore is to be assessed through its taste and smell, this dialogue has clearly enriched the two sides, if at all there are sides. In literature and the arts, it is the much-discussed marga-desi interplay, or classic (generally pan-Indian and Sanskritic) vs. popular (regional and often non-Sanskritic) texts and art forms. Again, it is a story of mutual enrichment, with classical forms often emerging from popular ones and eventually influencing them back. This is perceptible in the epic genre (Mahabharata and Ramayana), in all performing arts (drama, dance, music), and in sculpture. A scholar friend of mine has compared this interaction to the double helix of the DNA molecule; as the helices, though joined by numerous bridges, never meet, I prefer the symbol of Hermes’s caduceus with its two intertwined snakes.

In 1920, Sri Aurobindo wrote to his younger brother, “I believe that the main cause of India’s weakness is not subjection, nor poverty, nor a lack of spirituality or Dharma, but a diminution of thought-power, the spread of ignorance in the motherland of Knowledge. Everywhere I see an inability or unwillingness to think—incapacity of thought or ‘thought-phobia’.” The last term perfectly applies to our cultural negationists of the day. Indian knowledge systems were not “elitist” or exclusivist, even if specialized fields did exist for the various castes. Overall, while they invoked lofty concepts, they were often remarkably pragmatic. No, they did not tell us how to construct vimanas or nuclear weapons; instead, they sought to equip the society with all the tools it needed for a complete development in the material, aesthetic, intellectual, ethical and spiritual fields. – The New Indian Express, 31 December 2018

» Prof Michel Danino is a French-born Indian author, scholar of ancient India, and visiting professor at IIT Gandhinagar.

Vidhyarambham ceremony at Santhigiri Ashram



India as a knowledge creator – Michel Danino

India was once the world's greatest knowledge creator.

Prof Michel DaninoThe India that was a creator of knowledge, has become a consumer rather than a supplier in the market. Two centuries of colonial dominance certainly played a part, but we have enjoyed seven decades of independence. Clearly, as a nation we have not done justice to Indian knowledge systems, which no Indian university teaches today except in bits and pieces. – Prof Michel Danino

Launched with great fanfare in 2005, India’s National Knowledge Commission claimed to work “towards a Knowledge Society”, an objective which Dr. Manmohan Singh, then prime minister, repeated on many public platforms. It sounded quite noble, but few noticed how it implied that India was not yet a “knowledge society”, and perhaps never was one. Paradoxically, such a statement reflects a profound ignorance of the cult of—almost obsession for—knowledge in pre-modern India.

Indeed, India is the only ancient civilisation where knowledge was deified, with the honour going to Sarasvati. (Other cultures’ pantheons did often include knowledge, but only as a peripheral attribute.) Now, this fine move perhaps does not take us very far in practice—how do we assess whether knowledge was genuinely worshipped, or at least revered? We have a choice of methods; two will help us here, deviating from the stock answer that “Veda” comes from vid, or “knowledge”, that Upanishads view the knowledge of the Self as the highest knowledge, or that moksha is really liberation from ignorance—an objective shared by the Buddha. All that is fine, and perhaps essential; in the nineteenth century, however, it helped stereotype Indians as being “contemplative” or “otherworldly.” Let us be, therefore, crudely empirical.

A first answer comes from estimates of the number of manuscripts available in Indian libraries, repositories or private collections. They run into millions, with the U.S. scholar David Pingree once reaching an educated guess of 30 millions. This figure is but a tiny fraction of the mass of production over the last three millenniums, since numerous texts disappeared owing either to destruction (Nalanda’s library is an oft-cited case), the vagaries of time, neglect or obsolescence. A tiny fraction, again, of this figure has been published, and a much tinier fraction translated into some other language. We are therefore judging the mass of knowledge created in India by the tip of the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

What do those manuscripts deal with? Every topic under the Indian sun: philosophies, systems of yoga, grammar, language, logic, debate, poetics, aesthetics, cosmology, mythology, ethics, literature of all genres from poetry to historical tradition, performing and non-performing arts, architecture, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, chemistry, metallurgy, botany, zoology, geology, medical systems, governance, administration, water management, town planning, civil engineering, ship making, agriculture, polity, martial arts, games, brain teasers, omens, ghosts, accounting, and much more—there are even manuscripts on how to preserve manuscripts! The production was colossal and in almost every regional language (with, expectedly, Sanskrit having the lion’s share).

The second answer comes from formal or informal educational institutions, the humble gurukula or the large Buddhist monasteries. A great concern in imparting knowledge—both inner and outer—is perceptible through a number of texts and inscriptions, and struck several European travellers to India. The Italian writer and musician Pietro Della Valle reported in 1623, during his journey across Asia, “They [Indians] are particularly anxious and attentive to instruct their children to read and to write. Education with them is an early and an important business in every family.” Two centuries later, Bishop Reginald Heber, who spent a few years in India, noted, “The Hindus are brave, courteous, intelligent, most eager for knowledge and improvement.”

If India was such a creator of knowledge, how has it become a consumer rather than a supplier in this market? Two centuries of colonial dominance certainly played a part, but have we not enjoyed seven decades of independence? Clearly, as a nation we have not done justice to Indian knowledge systems, which no Indian university today teaches, except for a fragment here and a snippet there. Many scholars, Indian and non-Indian alike, have flagged this debilitating lack of self-confidence in our creative abilities, and have demanded a place for the best of classical knowledge to be given due place in our academic spaces—to no effect as yet.

Exactly a hundred years ago, Sri Aurobindo wrote: “When we look at the past of India, what strikes us … is her stupendous vitality, her inexhaustible power of life and joy of life, her almost unimaginably prolific creativeness. For three thousand years at least,—it is indeed much longer,—she has been creating abundantly and incessantly, lavishly, with an inexhaustible many-sidedness, republics and kingdoms and empires, philosophies and cosmogonies and sciences and creeds and arts and poems and all kinds of monuments, palaces and temples and public works, communities and societies and religious orders, laws and codes and rituals, physical sciences, psychic sciences, systems of Yoga, systems of politics and administration, arts spiritual, arts worldly, trades, industries, fine crafts—the list is endless and in each item there is almost a plethora of activity.” But that was in the past; the “inexhaustible many-sidedness” seems exhausted.

Even when India’s contribution to knowledge is somehow acknowledged, it has often been characterised as “elitist”: it was reserved, we are told, for the social elite and denied to the lower castes or the casteless. Does this serious charge withstand scrutiny? This will be the object of our next exploration, and our next master idea of Indian civilisation. – The New Indian Express, 29 November 2018

» Prof Michel Danino is a French-born Indian author, scholar of ancient India, and visiting professor at IIT Gandhinagar.

Village school in UP


Ram Temple: Why such a long wait? – Balbir Punj

Ram Temple in Court

Balbir PunjWhile the Ayodhya dispute is presented just as a title dispute for a small piece of land between two warring groups in a court of law, in fact it is a fight waged by a wounded civilisation to reclaim its original glory and self-respect. – Balbir Punj

Within less than two decades of raising the demand for a separate homeland, the Muslims of the subcontinent who put forth the demand managed to vivisect the country and get for themselves a theocratic Pakistan. In contrast, the majority Hindus have been struggling to reclaim Lord Ram’s birthplace in Ayodhya for the last few hundred years, with little success.

The two situations, however, are not comparable, either in their scale or their ramifications. The creation of Pakistan led to the killing of thousands and displacement of millions of innocents. Islamic Pakistan’s sole agenda since its birth has been to destabilise and dismember residual India. Rebuilding the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, in the manner of Gujarat’s Somnath, would not have hurt anyone. Instead its reconstruction would have removed a major irritant in Hindu-Muslim relations. And the proposition still holds good.

How did Pakistan become a reality in such a short time-span? Firstly, barring a few notable exceptions, the entire Muslim community rallied behind Mohammad Ali Jinnah after he articulated the demand for a separate Islamic nation in the 1930s.

Secondly, the then establishment—the Britishers—supported Jinnah’s bloody endeavour for their own strategic reasons. Since Jinnah’s divisive goal overlapped with the Left’s ideological paradigm, Communists happily worked with the Muslim League for a shared objective of dismembering India.

In contrast, the then Congress leadership, though opposed to Partition, lacked the courage to fight the divisive stratagem of the British-Muslim League-Left combine and meekly accepted it as a fait accompli. Have things changed for the better since Independence? If they have, the fate of the Ram Temple would not still be hanging in the balance.

Interestingly, the very caucus consisting of Communists, the Establishment and Islamic zealots, who worked for Pakistan’s creation, has also actively opposed the Ram Temple. The Establishment does not necessarily mean the party in power. It refers to the colonial mindset which pervades the ruling dispensation, the alienated English-educated and mostly Left-leaning elite that controls the bulk of the English media, academia, law and bureaucracy.

Despite the repeated destruction of four iconic temples—Somnath, Kashi, Mathura and Ayodhya—at the hands of Islamic invaders, the temples’ subsequent phoenix-like rise from the ashes sums up the indomitable spirit of people of the subcontinent and the struggle they put up against the 800 years of alien rule to save their timeless inclusive civilisation.

Mir Baqi, when he demolished the Ram Temple on Babur’s orders in 1528-29, did not bring down a mere building. He destroyed a value system. The Babri structure erected by him on that very site was not a place of worship, but an ideological statement by a barbarian victor to humiliate the vanquished. It was the defeat of pluralism at the hands of bigotry.

Ram is not only a deity worshipped by millions since aeons. His value system and life are intrinsically linked to the identity of the nation and civilisational ethos of pluralism and morality that define the Indian public and private life. While it is presented just as a title dispute for a small piece of land between two warring groups in a court of law, in fact it is a fight waged by a wounded civilisation to reclaim its original glory and self-respect.

How has the establishment dealt with issues relating to faith in India since Independence? In 1988, Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, provoked protests from Islamic zealots in several countries, including India.  The government, under PM Rajiv Gandhi, feared a Muslim backlash and was the first in the world to ban Rushdie’s work [available online]. No legal or expert opinion was sought before denying non-Muslims (87 per cent of the population) their right to read the book, if they so wished.

The ban on the book was not based on merit, but was in deference to the supposed Muslim sentiments, or an abject surrender to a threat of violence by Islamic zealots. I am not sure if even all the Muslims in the country favoured such a ban. On 23 April 1985, the apex court in the Shah Bano case decided that a divorced Muslim woman was eligible for alimony from her husband. The Muslim orthodoxy took to the streets against it. Fearing a hostile reaction from Muslims, the Parliament hurriedly passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986, effectively overturning the SC judgment.

The Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem hosts Islam’s third holiest site, the al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Dome of the Rock, a seventh-century structure believed to be where the Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven. The compound’s Western Wall, known as the Wailing Wall to Jews, is believed to be the last remnant of the Second Temple. The Islamic tradition refers to it as the al-Buraq Wall and believes it is where the Prophet tied the winged animal upon which he later ascended to the sky.

There have been numerous skirmishes and battles for the control of this site. In all such disputes, the Communists have always sided with the warring Muslims. But none has ever questioned the Muslim belief that the mosque was built over the Prophet’s footprint and other such beliefs.

But Hindus are asked for evidence in support of their belief that Ram was born on that very site in Ayodhya. And they are also asked to prove that there was a temple prior to the construction of the Babri Mosque, which they in fact have done. Can issues relating to matters of faith (and it applies to all religions) be put to test by any known tools or adjudicated by human institutions, including courts? – The New Indian Express, 15 November 2018

Balbir Punj is a columnist in New Delhi. He is a member of the Rajya Sabha representing the BJP.

Ram Janmabhumi Graphic

Ayodhya Dispute Timeline

India’s art of simple living – Michel Danino

Farmer with plough

Prof Michel DaninoToday, we have perfected the art of being unhappy with much—or too much. Out of selfish greed rather than higher values, in search of petty pleasures rather than worthwhile accomplishments, we have critically jeopardised the planet’s lifecycles and caused species to fall extinct at a frantic pace. – Prof Michel Danino

To understand the Indic worldview beyond catchphrases (vasudhaiva kutumbakam and the like), we need to put it to test against contemporary issues and challenges. Our next “master idea” of Indian civilization in this series comes into focus, not on the occasion of the Sabarimala judgement and controversy, but through the report on climate change released earlier this month by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It suggests that the battle to limit the rise of global temperatures to 1.5°C is probably lost and we might be heading towards 3°C instead, which will very severely impact all of the planet’s ecosystems, possibly triggering loops that will fuel the rise higher. Our oceans, shorelines and rivers are already invaded by plastics, including microplastics ingested by a marine life also severely affected by effluents carrying antidepressants and human birth-control pills. The oceans’ “dead zones,” in which oxygen is at dangerously low levels because of pollution from fertilisers, sewage, detergents and various industrial waste, have multiplied tenfold since the 1950s. The severely polluted condition of India’s air, groundwater, rivers and coastlines requires no elaboration.

What drives this mindless race to nowhere? A few centuries ago, Leonardo da Vinci, in a prophetic mood, wrote in his Notebooks of a creature and an age we are intimate with:

We shall see on the earth creatures relentlessly fighting each other, with great loss of life on both sides. Their viciousness will be boundless; their cruel limbs will fell countless trees in the world’s vast forests. Their hunger satiated, they will seek to satisfy their desire to inflict death, affliction, torment, terror and banishment on all living things. … Nothing shall subsist on earth or below ground or in the waters that they will not pursue, molest or destroy, and they will take what is found in one country to another; and their own bodies will before the tomb and channel for all those living bodies they have killed. O Earth, why tarry to open up and engulf in the deep crevices of your vast abysses and caves such a cruel and ruthless monster?

Is it only cruelty, which we certainly do not lack, as whales and baby seals know too well? “Greed is good” has been de facto the motto and prime mover of the world economy, especially of the US kind: let greed drive your growth; instil the same greed in others so as to boost consumption. The consumer is not a human being with free will, but a cog in the wheel whose choices can and will be oriented. Nobody needs processed or exotic foods, ten pairs of shoes, torn jeans, piles of electronic gadgets or diamonds—never mind, the obedient consumers will buy all those and more, even if they cannot afford them.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the German economist Ernst Schumacher realised that this greed-driven economy could not last. He pioneered the concepts of appropriate technologies and unsustainable exploitable of resources, and authored the best-seller Small Is Beautiful in which he advocated a radically different philosophy: why not place the human being at the centre of the economy, rather than the consumer? “[In] Buddhist economics,” he argued, “since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption. … Modern economics, on the other hand, considers consumption to be the sole end and purpose of all economic activity.” His book had an immense impact, but could not bring the prime mover to a halt.

Schumacher used the word “Buddhist” because he had been exposed to Buddhist thought and society during a stay in Burma (he also visited India). Indeed Buddhism and Jainism promoted “right livelihood” based on ahimsa. But this philosophy of minimised consumption or simple living applies to the whole Indian worldview. It is reflected in its approach to ecology, which I dealt with earlier (“India’s Own Sacred Ecology”, 5 December 2016; “Sacralising the Cosmos, Nature and Life”, 3 September 2018). When a Subhashita says, “One may own a hundred cows but his need is only one cup of milk; one may own a hundred villages but his need is only one morsel of food. One may own a hundred-roomed palace but his need is but one cot. All the rest belongs to others,” it is really cautioning us against accumulating needless goods.

How far were these ideals practised? Strabo, the Greek geographer and historian of the first century BCE noted, “All Indians live a simple life,” which surely requires some qualification: as we know from Kautilya and others, or from the artha-kama-dharma-moksha quadruple objective of life, wealth was not looked down upon; it was however to be used in a dharmic way, not merely for oneself but for the good of the society around. Thousands of inscriptions from all periods of Indian history testify to rulers, merchants, ordinary men and women, donating temples, icons, wells, ponds and other irrigation works, or endowments for centres of learning. Artistic depictions of village life point to comfortable but simple lifestyles. Barring the very wealthy, “Be happy with little” seems to have been the dominant line.

Today, we have perfected the art of being unhappy with much—or too much. Out of selfish greed rather than higher values, in search of petty pleasures rather than worthwhile accomplishments, we have critically jeopardised the planet’s lifecycles and caused species to fall extinct at a frantic pace. We must return to ancient India’s philosophy of simple living, else the collapse of our artificial system may one day force us to it. Our small everyday choices are blind and mechanical; let us make them enlightened and we can yet change tack. – The New Indian Express,  29 October 2018

» French-born Prof Michel Danino is an author, historian and guest professor at IIT Gandhinagar.

Man evolves to consumer!References

  1. Small Is Beautiful – Ernst Schumacher
  2. The hoax called Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – Sarvesh K. Tiwari
  3. IPCC Special Report on the Impacts of Global Warming of 1.5 °C
  4. The historical roots of our ecological crisis – Lynn White


Sacralising the cosmos, nature and life – Michel Danino

Sacred Ecology

Prof Michel DaninoMy own “belief” is that time will show the wisdom of the sacralisation of Nature early India systematically undertook. As the US astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell said in 1971, during the Apollo 14 mission, saving the planet will take nothing less than “a transformation of consciousness.” – Prof Michel Danino

If all things in this universe are impelled by consciousness — the master idea explored in the previous article in this series (“Consciousness, the Key to Indic Thought”, 6 August) — it stands to reason that all things are potentially sacred. The cosmos itself, to begin with, and this finds its way beyond India’s philosophico-spiritual texts: in his Aryabhatiya (early sixth century CE)the celebrated early Indian mathematician Aryabhata suddenly abandons his dry procedures and formulas to note, as though enthralled by the contemplation of this infinite universe, “Knowing the motion of the Earth and the planets on, one attains the supreme brahman after piercing through the orbits of the planets and stars.” Brahman (not to be confused with the creator god Brahma) is the supreme essence of this universe. Two centuries later, another fine mathematician, Lalla, will echo this thought: “He who acquires a comprehensive knowledge of the celestial sphere … sees, in front of his eyes as it were, the whole universe; he gets spiritually enriched and attains moksha….”

Let us return to earth, which must be equally sacred, as I wrote on “India’s own sacred ecology (5 December 2016); from that point of view, there is no distinction between heaven and earth, the creator and the created. (Indeed, Indian thought has enjoyed invoking such pairs of “opposites”, only to fuse them back together: Shiva-Shakti, Ardhanarishvara, Purusha-Prakriti, Harihara….) To hold nature and life sacred and occasionally to deify them has not been India’s prerogative: most other pre-Christian cultures did so too, from the Egyptian or the Greek to the Native American and aboriginal cultures, leaving behind moving invocations of Nature’s beauty and bounty as the sustainer of all life.

India, however, went further or deeper in giving this concept a body, not content with deifying oceans, mountains, rivers, animals and plants, but integrating all of them in her pantheons, worships, rituals, paintings, sculptures, monuments and literary compositions. It is easy enough to ridicule our “sacred cows”, but the same sacredness extends to all animals, even the humble rat, as Deshnoke’s temple to Karni Mata testifies, sheltering thousands of them. Before we snigger again, let us reflect on the concepts these beliefs attempt to express. Nanditha Krishna’s recent bookHinduism and Nature, provides a wealth of illustrations of this love story between the two.

But are these mere “beliefs”? They resulted, as every student of history knows, in ecological practices ranging from wildlife and forest conservation to water management and traditions of food growing and sharing—practices we are groping back towards in the current ecological crisis. Indeed, contemporary environmental thinkers, especially those of the “deep ecology” school, have often acknowledged finding inspiration from Hindu, Buddhist and Jain concepts—even as they have rejected the biblical legitimisation of man’s God-given dominance and exploitation of all creation. My own “belief” is that time will show the wisdom of the sacralisation of Nature early India systematically undertook. As the US astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell said in 1971, during the Apollo 14 mission, saving the planet will take nothing less than “a transformation of consciousness.”

The transition to the land is but a small step: imbuing the geography with sacredness began in early Vedic times. Pilgrimage sites and routes, networks of landmarks connected with the two Epics were some of the devices used with great efficiency; in today’s Tamil Nadu, villagers sometimes point to hillocks sitting in the plains as being detached lumps from the mountain Hanuman carried back, flying, from the Himalayas to Lanka. Rocks, caves and shrines were visited by Agastya or Rama or the Pandavas—anyone, in fact, as long as the place and therefore the society living there can somehow be attached to a Greater Story. This construction of a sacred geography, studied by a few scholars such as the anthropologist K.S. Singh or the geographer Rana P.B. Singh, finds no place in our textbooks, even though it was a major contributor to the cultural integration of early India and the building of an Indian identity.

Enough has been said and written on India’s classical arts: the temple builder, the sculptor’s mastery, the dancer’s body or the musician’s instrument. The artists strive to convey through their medium something of the divinity, or to connect us to it by creating a range of emotions in us. In the process, the borderline with profane art is often blurred: even a humble residence can invoke cosmic principles of vastuvidya. Ultimately, nearly nothing of daily life seems to be left out of the exercise: from birth to death, with marriage and childbirth on the way, every stage is an occasion to reconnect to a greater purpose beyond the drab daily routines. Even sexuality can be part of the sacred, as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (no, not the Kama Sutra) makes clear.

 Food production, sharing and consumption are also part of this vision in which nothing, ultimately, is “secular”. An old legend concerning Thiruvalluvar, the author of the celebrated Kural, narrates how, whenever he sat at his meal served by his wife, he would always keep next to him a toothpick, but would never use it in the end. His wife was intrigued, but perhaps too shy to ask. After a few decades of this ritual, however, curiosity got the better of her and she asked her husband the burning question. “My dear,” he answered, “should you ever have spilled a grain of rice while serving me, I would have picked it with the toothpick, since food is a gift of the gods and not to be wasted; but I never needed to do so, since you never spilled a single grain.” Are there not some lessons here for our current cult of unbridled consumption and wastage? – The New Indian Express, 3 September 2018

» Prof Michel Danino is a French-born Indian author, scholar of ancient India, and visiting professor at IIT Gandhinagar.

Karni Devi


The Michel Danino Interview – Medha Dutta

Prof Michel Danino

Medha DuttaFrench-born author and historian Prof Michel Danino talks to Medha Dutta about his recent book Sri Aurobindo and India’s Rebirth.

• Tell us about the book.

Sri Aurobindo is regarded as a thinker, poet, philosopher and spiritual master, but his vision of India is poorly known—the country’s foundations, accomplishments, potential, “destiny” (a word that often comes under his pen), mission in the world, but also her supreme challenges. This book covers some six decades of his writings, speeches, notes, talks and letters to disciples, in an attempt to convey the richness of that vision, its evolution in time, and something of its power.

• Are Sri Aurobindo’s thoughts relevant today?

If not, such an anthology would only have historical value. In my opinion, Sri Aurobindo’s remarks on the errors India should avoid both in her struggle for freedom, and the lasting foundations she should build on afterwards, are particularly rich in lessons for today.

• Do you think he was right in doubting Gandhi’s method to attain freedom and insistence on ahimsa?

He was not the only one to think so; historians such as R. C. Majumdar shared this scepticism. A whole decade before Gandhi’s return to India, Sri Aurobindo was one of the architects in Bengal of what he called “the doctrine of Passive Resistance”, which included the boycott of British goods, swadeshi, national education, etc. However, he also regarded the use of force, if appropriate and with a reasonable chance of success, as perfectly legitimate. To him, Gandhi’s stand on ahimsa was dogmatic and often counter-productive. It will take some time before we have a comprehensive and dispassionate assessment of how much the end of the colonial rule owes to ahimsa.

• Could we achieve the India of his vision?

Like many leading figures and freedom fighters of his time, Sri Aurobindo wanted India to stand on her own legs and not on post-colonial crutches. Yet Independent India hardly altered the political, judicial, bureaucratic or educational systems she inherited. Some of his political and social thoughts offer alternatives.

• You have been in India for a while now. How has it changed over the years?

• The outer change is obvious, both for good and bad; the “inner” change is harder to gauge: intellectual hypocrisy and self-contempt have grown by leaps and bounds, but genuine (and often silent) attempts, through individuals or institutions alike, to rediscover what made Indian civilisation tick for five millenniums, to ask the right questions—Can the past help our future?—have also multiplied.

• What is that one thing that India has taught you?

Not one but many; trust, patience, detachment (keep trying but never expect results), a healthy sense of insignificance but also of a divine hand behind appearances.

• Are we as a nation letting go of our cultural roots?

As a modern nation, did we ever bother about them? Almost nothing of them is to be found in our curricula and textbooks, for instance; or how much is reflected in our “culture” of corruption or our crass neglect of the environment? Indeed, the worst failure is to believe that culture is fine for museums, puja rooms or perhaps weddings, while it is to be lived in every day’s small gestures and choices—if not, it is a dead culture.

• Do you think our leaders today need to go back to Sri Aurobindo?

How many would feel such a need at all? In every party, most are quite content wallowing in the present decayed system, as long as they can extract privileges from it.

• What are you working on next?

An old karma revisited: a fresh study of the Aryan issue. Something different, I hope, showing the lack of rigour in that old debate (or “non-debate”, rather). The focus will ultimately be on the genesis of Indian civilisation. – The New Sunday Express, 26 August 2018

» Prof Michel Danino teaches at IIT Gandhinagar.

» Medha Dutta is an editor with The Sunday Standard in New Delhi.

Sri Aurobindo and India's Rebirth

Should Indian education be secular? – Michel Danino


Prof Michel DaninoThe entire “Indian” system of education conveys the message that India never produced any knowledge worth teaching. … The misconceived secularisation of education … has resulted in cultural nihilism. – Prof Michel Danino

A retired computer scientist who regularly visits an Indian institution of higher education recently told me how, in the course of his schooling in erstwhile Yugoslavia, he had studied the outline of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. He was shocked when I answered that Indian schools can do no such thing: anyone attempting to do so would immediately be branded “communal” and accused of undermining the “secular” principles of Indian education.

Who determined these principles? Just as most of India’s freedom fighters had an idea of India that was far removed from our nebulous and hypocritical concept of secularism (Our freedom fighters and secularism, 2 May 2018), most pre-Independence thinkers had much to say on what a genuinely Indian education should be. Tagore, for instance, reviled the cultural disconnect Indian students suffered from: “Their education is a chariot that does not carry them in it, but drags them behind it. The sight is pitiful and very often comic. … The education which we receive from our universities takes it for granted that it is for cultivating a hopeless desert, and that not only the mental outlook and the knowledge, but also the whole language must bodily be imported from across the sea.” Gandhi echoed this view: “I find daily proof of the increasing and continuing wrong being done to the millions by our false de-Indianizing education. These graduates … flounder when they have to give expression to their innermost thoughts. They are strangers in their own homes.” The great art critic and Indologist Ananda Coomaraswamy added: “The most crushing indictment of this education is the fact that it destroys, in the great majority of those upon whom it is inflicted, all capacity for the appreciation of Indian culture.”

Indeed, as earlier as in 1908, having served as the first principal of Bengal National College, Sri Aurobindo had defined the problem very lucidly: “In India … we have been cut off by a mercenary and soulless education from all our ancient roots of culture and tradition. … National education … [is] the education which starting with the past and making full use of the present builds up a great nation. Whoever wishes to cut off the nation from its past is no friend of our national growth. Whoever fails to take advantage of the present is losing us the battle of life. We must therefore save for India all that she has stored up of knowledge, character and noble thought in her immemorial past. We must acquire for her the best knowledge that Europe can give her and assimilate it to her own peculiar type of national temperament. We must introduce the best methods of teaching humanity has developed, whether modern or ancient. And all these we must harmonise into a system which will be impregnated with the spirit of self-reliance so as to build up men and not machines.”

Did independent India take steps to remedy the ailment and implement this programme? Quite the contrary, it gradually took deculturalisation to greater heights, in a way that even our colonial masters would not have dreamed of. Today’s school and college student is profoundly ignorant of India’s cultural, intellectual, artistic, scientific or technological heritage. Sanskrit—indeed, all Indian languages—has been relegated to the status of a suspicious oddity. When, in 1994, “secular” groups approached the Supreme Court to prevent the CBSE from offering Sanskrit as an elective, Justices Kuldip Singh (a Sikh, incidentally) and B. L. Hansaria rejected the whole perverse argument and asserted that, “The stream of our culture would get dried if we were to discourage the study of Sanskrit.”

Of late, the media have generously ridiculed statements by various ministers rejecting Darwin’s theory of evolution or asserting that India had in the Mahabharata age an Internet of its own and satellite communications. Indeed, many more such silly misconceptions could be produced from pseudo-scholarly literature. But the central point has been invariably missed by our equally ignorant media: why should there be such a total neglect of ancient India’s genuine, well-researched and well-documented knowledge systems in the first place? Why should an Indian student be allowed to learn nothing of ancient Indian mathematics, astronomy, medicine, water management, town planning, construction techniques, agriculture, environmental conservation, martial arts or board games? Nothing of Indian systems of philosophy, of psychology based on methods of self-exploration and self-fulfilment that go by the name of yoga? Nothing of systems of governance, polity, education, business, management, trade practices, ethics?

Any decent book on Mesopotamia or classical Greece will have a few chapters on the science and technology created by those civilisations; standard books of Indian history have nothing comparable. Our philosophy departments teach mostly Western philosophy; psychology departments blank out the whole yogic view of the human being; Bangalore University’s MSc programme in mathematics has a module on the history of mathematics which includes (as it should) Greek and Arab developments, but not a word on Indian ones (or Chinese ones, for that matter). And why has India not lobbied for kabaddi to be recognised an Olympic sport, when beach volleyball can be one? The list goes on endlessly and can be summed up in a single sentence: The entire “Indian” system of education conveys the message that India never produced any knowledge worth teaching.

There may be much that needs to be discarded from India’s past, but there is also much of timeless value. We rightly complain about the vulgarisation and loss of values in Indian society, but refuse to address one of their chief causes: the misconceived secularisation of education, which, in the Indian context, has resulted in cultural nihilism. – The New Indian Express, 19 May 2018

» Prof Michel Danino is an author and visiting professor at IIT Gandhinagar.

Modern Education

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