India’s search for meaning – Michel Danino

India's search for meaning

Prof Michel DaninoThe supremacy of spiritual knowledge is perhaps the most significant master idea of Indian civilisation and will remain one of its most enduring legacies. – Prof Michel Danino

The previous article in this series, Dharma, generator of Indian ethics, attempted to circumscribe the central yet elusive notion of dharma, which bundles together law, truth, duty, right thinking and right action, virtue, honour and a few more values. In many ways, it may be viewed as the foundation of Indian culture and civilisation. As Kapil Kapoor, a fine scholar of Indian knowledge systems, once remarked pithily, “Dharma is the one-word unwritten constitution of India.”

In other words, it would be a serious mistake to equate dharma with “religion”. India’s two epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, whose central purpose is to expound and discuss dharma, are not, in that sense, religious texts. Sharing the same purpose are texts on governance, warfare, administration, the collections of wise sayings called Subhashitas, or even historical chronicles such as Rajatarangini, as the historian of Kashmir Shonaleeka Kaul brilliantly demonstrated in a recent work. So is it with traditional historical or semi-historical ballads still sung across India, such as the rasas of Gujarat and Rajasthan, which do not stop at praising a noble ruler or narrating some military campaign or heroic deed, but go on to draw moral lessons that reaffirm dharma as the one cement of society.

From this mass of literature in all languages of India, it would appear that dharma is the be-all and end-all of our human quest. Yet India’s search for meaning, if I may adapt the title of Viktor Frankl’s celebrated and poignant psychological study on Nazi concentration camps, refused to stop anywhere. The Bhagavad Gita is a case in point; at the start of the Great War, Arjuna, asking what purpose will be served by all the impending bloodshed, in effect preaches ahimsa, albeit without the word.

His charioteer, Krishna, at first reminds him of his swadharma (or specific duty) as a warrior, then proceeds with his sublime teaching on the nature of the human soul and the need to renounce all attachments—not to action, but to its fruits, to ego and its whole pathology. Chapter after chapter, concisely yet systematically, the Teacher explains the means of self-exploration and self-fulfilment, erecting in turn each of them—self-knowledge, devotion and action—as the supreme method of realisation. The last chapter is an appropriate climax, when he destroys the very argument he started from: the warrior’s dharma. Now that Arjuna has been enlightened, Krishna asks him to “abandon all dharmas” (in the plural) and “take refuge in Me alone”.

The supremacy of spiritual knowledge is perhaps the most significant master idea of Indian civilisation and will remain one of its most enduring legacies. That knowledge—paravidya—is beyond all dharmas, all human conventions, all moral codes. So are its seekers, in principle at least, although one might argue that they should be so only after attaining their goal. Be that as it may, this explains India’s “God-mad” men and women, sadhus, sannyasins, Bauls and renunciates of all ilk, and their often unconventional behaviour; perhaps it also explains some apparently offensive tantric practices designed to radically decondition the mind.

All that is the outward, often exotic side of India’s spiritual quest, which has delighted all manners of less-than-genuine seekers. Behind it, however, lies one of the most important statements humanity could ever make: the supreme consciousness or truth is beyond the mind and its grasp; therefore, “mind cannot arrive at truth”, in Sri Aurobindo’s words, and “Yoga is not a field for intellectual argument or dissertation.” It does not mean that India shunned intellectual life; quite the contrary, she built theories for every field of life, including the philosophical, while recognising their limitations as part of aparavidya (“non-supreme knowledge”). And whether it is polity, art, architecture or ayurveda, even astronomy at times, the spiritual (for lack of a better word) influence perceptibly works behind them.

In the old system of the purushartha or four-fold objectives of a well-ordered human life (see The Individual and the Collective in Indian thought), moksha is the last, after artha, kama and dharma.

The word is not to be understood as the cessation of reincarnation, rather as the liberation from ignorance, much like the Buddha’s goal. The mind cannot work out that liberation; it is too much in love with itself and its endless somersaults, and too convinced that it is the sole judge and arbiter of the truth. It is India’s greatness to have shown the mind its place and allowed full expression to other regions of consciousness and to practical means to access those—the many systems of yoga. Indeed, realisation of the truth beyond mind and dharmas even broke through rigid caste barriers, producing enlightened beings from all social layers, even today. If social freedom was curtailed, spiritual freedom was not.

All human life ultimately seeks meaning. India’s answer, or rather answers, do not claim finality and are not dogmatic; they effectively reject all exclusive claim to the truth, since no text, no teaching, no prophet can do more than imperfectly grasp and express a small portion of the truth. They are for the unblinkered,  unfettered mind. If humanity journeys on, they will remain part of the journey. – The New Indian Express,  4 March 2019

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

Yatris Kumbh 2019


 

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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


 

The need for a resurgent Bharat – Vamadeva Shastri

Abhaya Mudra

Vamadeva Shastri / David FrawleyA nation is largely defined according to its history. There is a great battle going on relative to the history of India. After independence, history studies and national institutions, such as the Indian Council of Historical Research, were dominated by socialists, if not Marxists, who were naturally hostile to the older dharmic culture of the region. … When the greatness of India’s past, such as the extensive urban sites along the ancient Sarasvati River were discovered, this largely Delhi intelligentsia found little to be proud of or made known. The older Vedic period was reduced and not made into anything foundational for India as a whole. It was treated as a limited culture said to originate from outside of India in Central Asia.” – Pandit Vamadeva Shastri

BharatvarshaThere is an ongoing battle occurring at many levels relative to the concept of India and what India is, was and is meant to be. This is not merely a scholarly debate to arrive at truth but resembles more a struggle for power. Whoever controls the idea of India, as presented at media, education and government levels, to a great extent controls the country along with its resources, and shapes its future.

In this debate about India, the term Bharat—which is the correct and long-term name for the country—is usually left out, as that would immediately change the tenor of the discussion.

Bharat is the traditional name of India and is enshrined in the constitution, showing that those framed the constitution were aware of the importance of the term and its equivalence for India as a whole. Article 1(1) of the Constitution states, “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States.”

If we use the term Bharat for India a number of issues of the nature and identity of the country are automatically solved. Bharat is the name of India in the region’s literature going back to Vedic times and shows a continuity of the country for thousands of years.

If we look at India only since 1947, we start with the idea of partition and tend to build upon it with further partitions and divisions of culture, people and language, each with its own separate identity. Those who are biased against the older history of India avoid the term Bharat so that they can redefine India today as if it no real past as a country before 1947, which allows them to turn the country into what they would like it to be, with no specific culture of its own.

Some modern thinkers say that India as a country was invented by the British during the period of colonial rule, who put together under a single administration the diverse group of peoples, countries, cultures and languages of the subcontinent, which overall had little in common to begin with. Other credit the Moguls (who called India “Hindustan”) for providing some sense of national unity to the far-flung land.

If we use the term Bharat, no one can say that there is no unity of culture, civilization or history to the region. Bharat implies a history of the country going back to the famous Vedic emperor Bharata, one of the early kings in the ancient Puru dynasty said to have reigned long before Rama, Krishna or Buddha.

Bharatiya Samskriti: The Culture of Dharma

Indian culture translates as “Bharatiya Samskriti” in the older terminology of the region, which also explains a lot as to what it is. Indian culture is not something invented over the last century or two and enshrined in the intellectual circles of modern Delhi. Indian culture is Bharatiya Samskriti, the culture of Bharat.

Samskrit is not simply a language but a way of culture and refinement, and a body of knowledge. The idea of Bharatiya Samskriti naturally brings back the culture of Bharatiya or Indian classical music, dance, poetry, philosophy, medicine, mathematics and science, and aims at a renaissance for them in the modern age. It includes the Prakrits or regional languages of the country as well as their cultural traditions, which are all linked together.

The culture of classical India or Bharatiya Samskriti is first of all a culture of dharma. It is built upon an effort to understand the dharma of all life and all aspects of human life and culture. This dharmic culture embraces a pluralism of spiritual paths, including the many sects of Hinduism, as well as Buddhists, Jain, and Sikhs and can be extended to anyone who honors a pluralistic view and respect for the whole of life.

Who are those who uphold the culture of Bharata or Bharatiya Samskriti in India today? It is not the English language media or even most of academia. These groups may address aspects of the traditional culture, but usually in a fragmentary manner, forgetting the overall connections, examining local folk customs in isolation for example. Or they may denigrate the idea that there was any overriding culture for the region as a whole.

Those who uphold the culture of Bharat are now on the periphery and often criticized as narrow-minded or out of date, though the dharmic culture of classical India or Bharat cultivated a broader view of life and consciousness than what we see in predominant modern ideologies and educational trends. Yet these voices of Bharat can still be heard and are making their present felt again.

This means that there is no need to create a new Indian culture post-independence in order to bring unity and identity to the country. The need is to honour the ongoing continuity of Bharatiya and Dharmic culture, its relevance for the future and its ability to adapt itself to the times, including its capacity to embrace and integrate diverse views. If India is a free and democratic country today, it is because of its history as Bharat.

Yet Dharmic culture is not confined to the boundaries of any political or religious system or dogma. This Bharatiya Dharmic culture was not limited to the subcontinent of India but spread throughout Asia and influenced Europe and much of the rest of the world as well. Yet it was in Bharat itself that this characteristic dharmic civilization most took root and survived.

Bharatiya culture is largely a culture of knowledge and promotes learning, considering meditation as the most important form of study that one can do. The symbol of Bharatiya culture is the Yogi or Buddha sitting in meditation pose. This dharmic culture of knowledge can embrace science as well as spirituality and sees consciousness as the underlying ground of the entire universe. The Bharatiya tradition of learning and knowledge is the basis for the success of India’s diaspora in the US, UK and western world.

There are those who say that India is an inclusive concept but Bharat is communal because it is mainly Hindu, though Hindu Dharma itself has a pluralistic and respectful view of life. But traditional Bharat never tried to invade and conquer other countries. There us no history of wars of religious conquest or conversion by Bharatiya armies, or any Bharata based colonial rule and exploitation of other lands.

The Bharatiya model is an excellent model for the modern era in which we must integrate a number of cultures from throughout the world. Compared to the inclusive and synthetic Bharatiya model of culture, socialist and Marxist models are narrow, repressive and materialistic. Even the capitalist model lacks the depth of the dharmic approach and its sense of compassion.

What should be our model for defining India, if not Bharata? Is it China, the Soviet Union, the EU or the USA? Is it Nehruvian socialism, Bengali communism, European nationalism, or American consumerism? These may have some benefits but reflect much more circumscribed views of human life and culture.

Mahabharata

Bharat has the longest and most extensive literary continuity of any modern country or culture. This extends through its massive Sanskrit literature to the main local languages from Tamil to Hindi, which are linked to Sanskrit, and often have larger literatures of their own than the literature of modern European countries.

The concept of Bharata as comprising the entire subcontinent of India is clear in the Mahabharata itself, which is over two thousand years old. The Mahabharata embraces every portion of greater India from Sri Lanka in the South to Uttara Kuru or the lands beyond the Himalayas to the north.

The Mahabharata is not just a story of ancient kings but outlines the kingdoms, countries and cultures of the region. It reflects all the main sects of Hindu Dharma as Vaishnava, Shaiva, Ganapata, and Shakta but also honors freedom of thought and inquiry, with extensive dialogues examining numerous subjects, spiritual and mundane. It discusses the rule and laws of kings and the role of dharma in all aspects of life. No other country or region, whether Europe, China or the Middle East, has a text of such extent and a continuity of culture as the Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata looks back on the older Vedic tradition, which originated in the Saraswati region of North India over five thousand years ago, when the Saraswati was a great river. Yet today it is in Kerala in the South that we find the strictest adherence to Vedic rituals and practices, showing the extent of influence of this ancient culture.

Saraswati RiverThe Battle Over History

A nation is largely defined according to its history. There is a great battle going on relative to the history of India. After independence, history studies and national institutions, such as the ICHR (Indian Council of Historical Research) were dominated by socialists, if not Marxists, who were naturally hostile to the older dharmic culture of the region.

Their goal was to emphasize a new India defined in the post-independence era that was removed from its traditional past. There were a few traditional figures like Ashok and Akbar who were brought in as historical precedents of their idea of India, but much of the history of the country was ignored. When the greatness of India’s past, such as the extensive urban sites along the ancient Saraswati River were discovered, this largely Delhi intelligentsia found little to be proud of or made known. The older Vedic period was reduced and not made into anything foundational for India as a whole. It was treated as a limited culture said to originate from outside of India in Central Asia.

Today the Archaeological Survey of India and Geological Survey of India have placed the Vedic period on a firm footing, showing a continuity of culture in the Saraswati region from the beginnings of agriculture before 7000 BCE to the drying up of the Saraswati River around 1900 BC.

We can identify the early Vedic period with the period from 7000-3100 BCE. Curiously when the Greek scholar Megasthenes visited India along with Alexander’s armies, he noted a tradition of 153 kings going back over 6400 years to a date of around 6776 BCE. This suggests a continuity of dynasties in the region going back a very long time.

We can identify the late Vedic period from 3100-1900 BCE with the urban Harappan period, in which the Saraswati River was already in decline, which is how we find the river described in several later Brahmana texts, in Mahabharata and in Manu Smriti.

The New Battle for Delhi

Delhi is the seat of government in India. But it is also the main center for the English language media and academia in the country, which often uncritically reflects the opinions of its western education and values. This Delhi intelligentsia has had the main role in defining India in recent decades, though the culture of Delhi, particularly of its ruling elite, is very different from the culture of most of the country.

The Delhi elite has redefined India largely in a Nehruvian-socialist-Marxist image, mainly as India after 1947. They have tried to make classical India into a foreign culture or something merely regional, while glorifying recent political trends in the West as capable of defining and raising up India as a modern nation.

Even today we have well-known communists appearing in the media, pretending to be defenders of India and examples of intellectual thinking, tolerance and compassion, though their comrades throughout the world have largely been thrown out of power, with their views discredited.

The Post-Marxist Era and the Twenty First Century

We need to redefine India in the post-colonial, post-Marxist era, which requires the rediscovery of Bharat. While India did throw off the British rule at an outer level in 1947, the rule of colonial based concepts, biases and institutions continued. These were gradually combined with Marxist and leftist concepts that maintained the denigration of the older dharmic culture of the region.

The great majority of Marxist countries in the world came to an end in the period from 1989-1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies. China has moved away from a Marxist orientation and is now re-embracing its Confucian past. Russia once more emulates the Czars and the Russian Orthodox Church. Yet India’s intellectuals continue to promote Marxist ideas in India’s universities as if Marxism were still an important and innovative trend in world thought.

India Resurgent as Bharat

India today in the twenty-first century is becoming resurgent as Bharat, because that is the actual foundation of the country through its enduring culture throughout the centuries.

India’s great dharmic traditions—including Yoga, Vedanta, Buddhism and Ayurveda—have gained respect throughout the world, with millions of followers in every continent. It is this older dharmic culture of Bharat that the world looks up to and hopes India develops, not the recent India of the Nehru dynasty.

Economically speaking, India is rising up today only by casting off the Marxist-Nehruvian-socialist yoke and embracing its own older Vaishya, merchant and dharmic economic traditions, which are similarly an integral part of Bharat. India was not poor when it was Bharat. It became poor when it ceased to be Bharat.

Bharat MataBharat Mata as Mother India

The land of Bharat has always been regarded as Bharat Mata, Mother India. This is not a cultural concept defined by aggression, intolerance, and materialism, but one that honors Mother Earth and Mother Nature and sees culture as a mother who nurtures us, not as a social control mechanism.

Bharat Mata is also Yoga Mata and regards human culture as a movement towards Yoga and the evolution of consciousness, such as Sri Aurobindo so eloquently proclaimed. Bharat Mata is Ma Durga, the protective force the takes us from darkness to light. She is Bharata Bhavani, Mother India as the mother of life and culture. Bharat Mata embodies the Yoga Shakti or power of spiritual striving in humanity. She is not the imposition of a religious concept upon the country but a poetic/spiritual representation of the soul of its people and its dharmic ethos.

Bharat was traditionally Vishvaguru or the world guru among nations for many centuries. People came from throughout Asia and the Middle East to study at its great centers of learning like Takshashila and Nalanda. Bharat was famous for its spiritual and scientific knowledge but also for its art, philosophy, medicine, mathematics, and material prosperity.

Bharat remained prosperous until the period of British rule, showing that the colonial rulers did not raise India up but pulled it down. Colonial rulers tried to remove Bharat and in its place substitute an artificial idea of India, made according to their own biases, which they therefore had the right to rule.

Bharat Mata can be the Vishvaguru or the world guru, but India as defined by the last hundred years only cannot. It is time for Bharat to arise again and awaken the world to a greater destiny and higher awareness that goes back to its great ancient seers and yogis. A resurgent Bharat is of tremendous value for the entire world, if not essential for the future of humanity. – Vedanet, 13 August 2015

» Pandit Vamadeva Shastri (Dr David Frawley) is an author and Sanskrit scholar recognized as a Vedacharya in India. His scope of studies include Ayurveda, Yoga, Vedanta and Vedic astrology, as well as the ancient teachings of the Rigveda. He is the Director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Raksha Bandhan
Raksha Bandhan
Bindeshwari Pathak
Narendra Modi

Harnessing heritage – Amita Sharma

Amita Sharma“The SandHI Series of articles that the Financial Chronicle hosted … were an effort to give a brief glimpse of the range and rigour of traditional Indian knowledge systems. They suggest strong reasons for integrating Indian knowledge systems in mainstream education as opportunities for discovery, research and interpretation of our intellectual inheritance. This will equip students to critically evaluate the information available and to construct knowledge free from the stereotype labelling of knowledge as ‘traditional,’ ‘modern,’ ‘east,’ ‘west.’” – Amita Sharma

RishiIf one were to represent the contemporary educational scenario in India dramatically, a morality play would probably be a good choice. A host of actors battle the ground for knowledge, each claiming to be truer than the other, accusing the other of ‘tempting the mind’ of the nation with falsehoods.

The more cacophonous the contestation becomes, the more it begins to look like a ‘dumb charade.’ Instead of enquiring into what ‘truth’ is — which, in fact, is the very essence of education and the only way in which knowledge is discovered — the skirmishing sides want the rights to lay down a set of pre-determined forms as truth, defeating the very ground of knowledge or the need for education.

Such claims and counter claims are about power, not about education and the struggle is to seize the education system to make it a means of generating symbolic forms — of whichever hue — that in turn, entrench the power system.

This is the worst form of intellectual paranoia and fundamentalism and is symptomatic of the failure of the education system to develop a culture of critical consciousness capable of rational debate, self-reflection, imbued with faculties to evaluate and sift information to construct know­ledge and to disc­riminate betw­een the spheres wh­ere such knowledge can be used. Where is the great intellectual tradition of India that delighted in debate and celebrated questioning as a way of seeking knowledge? Why has the freedom to let ‘thoughts…wander through eternity’ sunk into the narrow confines of dogmatic facts, swerving between defensiveness and aggression, unsure of what they claim and why.

While there are several reasons for this, the deep-lying malaise is the loss of self-esteem and pride and the confidence in our own intellectual abilities and identity. This is the result of a steady and subtle colonisation of the mind that may have started historically with British rule over India but that continues post-independence. Modern day educational systems perpetuate the domination of western epistemologies.

This has spawned a mimetic knowledge system where the norms of knowledge construction and its legitimisation is on borrowed terms. We do not engage with our own environment and culture. Happy with borrowed language and borrowed technologies, we do not invest enough in research and cripple our ability to think originally and construct knowledge from our own resources, relevant to our society.

As a result, development problems of the nation get mortgaged to imported and ill-suited technologies. For example, dam structures in India often modelled on the slow-moving rivers of the US, do not add­ress the problem of silting caused by the fast-flowing rivers of India.

Oddly enough, the insistence of a ‘national’ educational system enc­ourages prescriptive content and information as ‘knowledge forms’ that cannot be interrogated or be deviated from. Paradoxically, the discourse of ‘national’ concerns be­comes yet another way of colonising the intellectual space of the country.

This is aggravated by the bureaucratisation of the academic system where academic institutions occupy the bottom rung of a hierarchy as subordinate ‘offices.” Bureaucrats as the neo-colonisers devise ways in which education institutions are to be controlled. Excessive control and regulation does not necessarily mean better quality, and standardisation of content does not necessarily mean better standards. So the increased numbers of educational institutes do not add up to quality. In the absence of quality, education barons thrive, commercialising education.

In such a context, educational debates whether in the guise of ideological warfare or regulatory norms or legal frameworks skim the surface of problems, evading the pivotal question of educational reform — how can the nation foster the creativity of its people to trigger their intellectual and material development in sustainable and ethical ways.

The question remains dormant also because it is believed that it is enough to canonise its concerns theoretically in the National Curricular Framework (NCF) which describes educational goals as value development and building a cohesive society, fostering a national identity preserving cultural heritage. The NCF also emphasises indigenous knowledge, the development of aesthetic sensibilities and the interface between cognition, emotion and action, by linking learning to work and life.

Despite the NCF, learning operations in all Indian classrooms are verbatim memorisation of officially sanctioned knowledge available in the textbooks.

Guru & ShishyaHow can educational processes be liberated from their own ent­renched authoritarianism so as to stimulate critical consciousness and holistic development that the national curricular framework posits?

As a first step, there is a need to re-examine the existing epistemological hegemonies that inform the text books without which the spirit of critical enquiry cannot be the guiding force of our educational system. The dominant epistemological paradigm in the current educational processes is based on western knowledge systems. Colonising constructs of India have marginalised its own powerful knowledge systems, or brushed it off as an amalgam of rituals and myths.

The long unchallenged dominance of such discourses, have not only spawned questionable and spurious theories about Indian culture and society, they have unfortunately obviated the memory of our own history and knowledge systems from the minds of our own people.

The strength and rigour of Indian knowledge systems have been elaborated upon by several scholars in diverse contexts, quite a few eminent ones being of non-Indian origin, but are strangely enough rejected by modern Indians — a testimony of their allegiance to their progressive education! It is said that if one does not know one’s own language, it is doubtful if one will have the ability to acquire competence in a foreign language. Indians need to know their own intellectual inheritance and to be able to evaluate it in its own context as well as its contemporary significance. And in a way to understand the critical implications of the choices they make now.

This kind of a statement arouses mainly amused disbelief or vehement rejection. Why deal with what is obscurantist? An indulgent attitude prefers to treat traditional knowledge systems as interesting antiquities, objects as in a museum, cultural/ethnographic studies rather than knowledge systems. Even those who believe in the strength of Indian knowledge systems ask the question — why should one know of one’s intellectual inheritance? Of what use is it to us? Does it offer a better solution to current problems? If not, how does it matter if one knows it or not?

The SandHI Series | Indian Knowledge SeriesAll these criticisms stem from a very limited idea of what is rejected. The SandHI Series of articles that the Financial Chronicle hosted in the Know pages from April 2015 to June 2015 were an effort to give a brief glimpse of the range and rigour of traditional Indian knowledge systems. They suggest strong reasons for integrating Indian knowledge systems in mainstream education as opportunities for discovery, research and interpretation of our intellectual inheritance. This will equip students to critically evaluate the information available and to construct knowledge free from the stereotype labelling of knowledge as ‘traditional,’ ‘modern,’ ‘east,’ ‘west.’

Such intellectual decolonisation will spur original creative discourse. It will also encourage a greater engagement with the local context as many traditional knowledge systems that have continued historically to serve human needs have been preserved as community practice. Such knowledge has an inherent dynamism and innovative energy generated by the real life contestations of its users but is relegated the place of folk customs and finds scarce place in text books or any formal educational curriculum. Research shows how several of these folk practices tested by time and real world challenges are constructed on valid scientific grounds. Neglect of these traditions has been a loss to its practitioners and researchers.

Local problems create a new idiom of knowledge by compelling innovation and encouraging re-interpretation of traditional knowledge forms in terms of their contemporary relevance. A study of traditional practices will offer opportunities to evolve appropriate technologies to address problems ranging from every day existence such as water, food , productivity to major environmental hazards on a more sustainable, equitable basis.

This will also imply the re-legitimisation of traditional knowledge practitioners as equal knowledge partners. Currently, there is a hierarchical relationship between the main curriculum like math and language and a co-curriculum like vocational education, privileging the former over the latter and discouraging lateral movements. It also creates a paradoxical situation, wherein despite the emphasis on skill development and practical knowledge, existing skills honed in real world and relevant to the knowledge domain are not recognized because they are not encoded in formal treatises. As a result, there is a dearth of skilled teachers, the real practitioners for whom the skill is not just a curriculum unit with a credit but a source of survival.

A good example comes from the community of artisans and artists. Design schools can conduct workshops with artisans and artists but they cannot be acknowledged as teachers because they lack formally prescribed educational qualifications. This restricts knowledge transfer.

IIT KanpurAn interesting innovation to break this impasse is IIT Kanpur’s intervention with the toy clusters of Varanasi, the moonj grass weavers of Allahabad and the metal sheet workers of Kanpur integrating traditional production processes with improved technologies in ways that empower traditional artisans while also working out IPR related issues of community owned traditional design products and technologies and to outline fair-trade strategies for these creative communities. The Design Manifesto released by the ministry of human resource development in January 2014 builds on such initiatives, foregrounding community needs to evolve appropriate technologies, valuing local knowledge systems, and integrating experiential learning with formal theorisation, well exemplified in the design education curricula and pedagogies in IIT Bombay.

Such engagements of premium academic institutes with local problems and the traditional knowledge resources in creative communities should help steer Make in India towards tradition bonds. They reverse the process of epistemological schizophrenia caused by formal educational systems wherein multiple world views clash, those that inhere in the community and those that the academic institution imports and the ability to negotiate between them instead of being encouraged is suppressed leading to a sense of alienation. Ironically, having driven a wedge between the school and the community by the way knowledge is legitimised, educational policies of the state then expect the school to be a platform for community participation.

An inclusive epistemic approach recognises the significance of culture as the locus of knowledge and its use. This recognition has the potential to make knowledge transformative. The World Dev­elopment Report 2015: Mind and Culture, underscores the importance of culture, which provides mental models that influence what individuals understand and espouses integrating knowledge scattered across many disciplines to inform development strategies.

While the implications of such an epistemology for formal education in India appear to prompt a radical re-designing, it is interesting to note that theoretically at least, the National Curricular Framework recognises that “ideally, various learning experiences should make an integrated whole.” This seems close to the way traditional Indian knowledge systems entwined multiple knowledge fields. Fragmented worldviews and the domination of economic reasons have been partly responsible for splintering knowledge into ‘useful ‘ and ‘useless’ with deleterious impact on the individual and society. Socially, this creates a false division of the math type as bright and gifted and the arts type as frivolous and unemployable. This has had a reductionist effect on educational systems, by knocking off subjects deemed irrelevant denting the traditions of liberal education.

At the individual level, this creates what T.S. Eliot calls the dissociation of sensibility, the disconnect between reason and im­agination, the loss of in­tuitive cognition — the source of creativity and innovation. Increasingly, even the market now recognises the higher productive value of holistic cognitive capabilities over simply specialised skill sets as these become rapidly obsolete and fail to respond to complex situations.

Both from an intrinsic and an instrumental perspective, it becomes important to consciously encourage cross-disciplinary studies, specially between science and liberal arts, technology and culture. The pedagogy of such cross-disciplinary study needs careful designing. The challenge is to develop processes that transact learning objects in ways that stimulate exposure to multiple knowledge fields encouraging the abilities for multiple interpretations, for analysis and synthesis of different ways in which reality is constructed, broadening and deepening comprehension , making for more inclusive perspectives. For example, a musical instrument can teach music, material sciences, physics, engineering, math, history, aesthetics. Examples can multiply. This will reduce the burden of too many subjects, while enriching understanding at many levels.

Such cross-disciplinary organisation of knowledge would also, for example, enlarge the study of history from just a narrative of political events to the study of ideas and the development of different knowledge systems. It would also nudge the study of history from the refracting lens of contemporary ideologies to scientific evidence. This in itself would do much to liberate us from the political prison-house of communal identities and to discover a truly national identity.

Most significantly it would change the way languages are taught. Lan­guages are taught as me­ans of social communication and fall in the domain of culture or literature. Never of science or technical knowledge. Cons­equently, they are not regarded as vehicles of knowledge. Worse, they get confounded with the religious beliefs of the community to which they belong. Politicisation of language has spelt the death of several important knowledge systems.

SanskritA good example is Sanskrit — one of the oldest Indian languages which holds much of our scientific, technical, philosophical and linguistic knowledge from the Vedic to the medieval period. There is a growing interest in this intellectual heritage, not only to clarify India’s place in the growth of ideas, but also to explore sustainable, and locally relevant solutions to current societal, environmental, and medical challenges. A similar case can be made for other classical languages in India. A study of classical languages will not only unlock a vast reservoir of knowledge of significance to the contemporary world, but will unravel an inheritance of ideas that have much in common, again highlighting a shared identity despite manifest differences.

The reason that this sort of cross-disciplinary study that knits together traditional with modern knowledge systems, and traverses multiple knowledge fields, has not taken off is the difficulty of finding teachers competent to use integrative pedagogies. To nurture academic institutions in this direction, it is important to allow them academic autonomy. It is this that will, over time, build the three pillars of a strong knowledge economy: creative thinking, innovations and a holistic world view.

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a study of colonisation, Caliban accuses Prospero: “You taught me language; and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you for learning me your language.” A nation cannot build itself if it cannot think for itself. The SandHI Series of the Financial Chronicle reminds us that we have a rich inheritance of thinking in India. Modern India, in making itself, will be the stronger by building on it. – Financial Chronicle, 22 June 2015

» Amita Sharma is former additional secretary in ministry of human resources development. Right to Education

Ask the past – Michel Danino

Michel Danino“Whether the inquiry was philosophical, medical or agricultural, India’s knowledge traditions were continuous and cumulative: savants, thinkers, artists did not normally demolish their predecessors’ work but built upon it and enriched it with their contributions, even if that involved sharp criticism at times. This richness of many-sided knowledge and freedom of inquiry is what we have lost in our linear and impoverished education, which discourages or penalises original thinking. Young Indians know next to nothing of this huge intellectual heritage, while many of our ‘intellectuals’ are content to scoff at it.” – Prof Michel Danino

SaraswatiIndia is perhaps the only civilisation of the ancient world that turned knowledge into a goddess. It was, in any case, regarded as sacred and so was its transmission: there was an old saying that a teacher, however great a scholar, who failed to find one student worthy of his learning, would have to go to hell. More historically, bas-reliefs in temples and other monuments often depict gurus teaching disciples; and when Dharmaswamin, a Tibetan monk, visited in 1235 the ruined site of Nalanda University, sacked four decades earlier by Bakhtiyar Khilji, he found a 90-year-old teacher, Rahula Shribhadra, still instructing a class of 70 students — perhaps Nalanda’s last class, stubbornly taught by a nonagenarian.

Knowledge was, however, not shapeless or a collection of snippets. Previous articles in this SandHI series have shown how it was carefully structured, yet shunned compartmentalisation: language and grammar often had underlying mathematical models; India’s earliest geometry resulted from complex fire altars and a philosophy of sacrifice; mathematics occasionally used poetry to express itself and shared with philosophical systems concepts of zero and infinity and the science of logic (variously called nyayayukti, tarka, anvikshiki, depending on the approach or school of thought); Aryabhata’s concept of beginningless and endless time, Indian astronomers’ use of yugas and the Kali Era are rooted in classical Hindu concepts; Ayurveda relied on fundamental philosophical views of the human and the cosmic, and had close links with alchemy and metallurgy; architecture was a meeting ground of cosmological concepts (most of them part of vastushastra), geometry (including the application of various sets of proportions) and building technology.

Dancer from Mohenjo-daroHarappan beginnings

When and how these knowledge systems took shape remains a matter of debate. Most of them go back two to three millennia, but a few clearly have roots in the Harappan or Indus or Indus-Sarasvati civilisation (2600 to 1900 BC for its urban or mature phase): its legacy to classical India of advanced practices in town planning, water harvesting and management, sanitation, metallurgy and craft technologies is rich and now well documented, although studiously ignored by our textbooks.

Mohenjo-daro’s Great Bath is often seen as the ancestor of pushkarinis. Almost every major city area or structure follows the same sacred proportions that classical architecture will use (this is especially visible at the impressive site of Dholavira in the Rann of Kutch, where the dimensions of every fortified enclosure and every reservoir obey strict ratios). The perky Dancing Girl has an arm covered with bangles, as do rural Rajasthani or Gujarati women even today; this bronze figurine was cast by the ‘lost-wax’ technique, in which a wax model is first made, covered with thick clay, fired, and molten bronze is then poured into the hardened clay mould — a technique transmitted to historical India and to today’s bronze casters.

Harappan symbols and designs — from the swastika to the intersecting circles and the endless knot — have survived; even the general design of the enigmatic Indus seals, with an animal standing before a ‘ritual stand’ and below an inscription, survived on coins from Mauryan and later times. Living customs such as the anjali namaskar with joined hands or the application of vermilion at the parting of the hair are traceable to Harappan traditions.

We know little of the Harappans’ thought and belief systems. Their rigorous town planning and obsession with standardisation — from the Indus seals and script to pottery styles and designs, from brick proportions to weights — bespeak a high sense of order. Several deities appear on the seals; while their identities remain speculative, their iconography is familiar: one stands below an arch of pipal leaves, just like Shiva under his arch of fire: another, with three faces, sits on a throne in mulabandhasana (a difficult posture, with the two heels brought back under the hips). Indeed, Harappans appear to have practised some form of yoga, judging also from figurines in various asanas and the so-called, but probably mis-called, Priest-King with his half-closed eyes conveying a sense of inward contemplation.

Salomon ReinachThe Aryan imbroglio

Surprisingly, whether Vedic literature, the earliest in India, begins before, during or after the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation remains an unsettled question after almost a century of Harappan archaeology. The answer hinges on whether one accepts or rejects the mainstream view that Aryan-speaking tribes swept into the Indian subcontinent around 1500 BC, some four centuries after the decline of the Harappan cities, and settled in northwest India to compose the Vedic hymns. In that perspective, the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation would be pre-Vedic and would therefore have little to do with subsequent developments in the Ganges plains, where, in the first millennium BC, a new civilisation emerges that will soon give rise to the kingdoms and empires we are familiar with, and ultimately to ‘classical’ India.

Mainstream or not, the Aryan theory has seen many avatars, from a brutal and massive conquering invasion swamping the indigenous people to a largely peaceful immigration limited to a few waves of ‘trickling-in’ Aryans. This tactical retreat — a dilution, rather — has been necessitated by the failure of archaeology, anthropology and genetics to support the old scenario, and their occasional success in opposing it. It would have completely faded away but for linguistics, which still insists on the origins of the Sanskritic branch of the Indo-European family of languages being located outside India — but where and when, there seems to be no agreement in sight.

We cannot go deeper here into the complex question of the origins of Vedic culture, except to point out that the characterization (‘demonisation’ would be more appropriate) of critics of the Aryan scenario as ‘hindu chauvinists’ or ‘hindutva communalists’ is deeply dishonest, although widespread in India as in the west. In reality, strong opposition to the Aryan paradigm was first voiced not by Indians but by European scholars such as British archaeologist and philologist Isaac Taylor (1890) or French archaeologist Salomon Reinach (1892). Several noted Indian scholars did follow suit — P.T. Srinivasa Iyengar (1914), B.N. Datta (1936), A.D. Pusalker (1950), P.V. Kane (1953) — as well as prominent public figures: Swami Vivekananda (1897), Sri Aurobindo (1914) or B.R. Ambedkar (1946), none of whom can invite the above invectives.

In recent decades, British anthropologist Edmund Leach, US bioanthropologist Kenneth A.R. Kennedy, US archaeologist Jim Shaffer, French archaeologist Jean-Paul Demoule, Italian linguist Angela Marcantonio, Estonian biologist Toomas Kivisild, all of them accomplished academics, have vigorously argued against the Aryan paradigm. Expectedly, our ‘demonisers’ have studiously ignored them, exerting themselves instead to create an impression in the public mind that Hindu fanatics alone oppose the Aryan invasion/migration theory.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jnana_yogaThe Vedic tradition

Let us leave this controversy to trace the first organisation of knowledge in the Vedic age, whether it is to be positioned before, during or after the Indus civilisation. The Vedas themselves are collections (samhitas) of hymns invoking divine powers for a multiplicity of purposes, from the most material level (protection, victory, wealth, progeny) to the most spiritual: some hymns explicitly call for the divine birth in us, while others, such as the famous Gayatri mantra, pray for the illumination of the mind. The river-cum-goddess Sarasvati is praised as the ‘impeller of happy truths’ who ‘awakens in the consciousness the great flood and illumines all the thoughts.’

By the time of the early Upanishads, a distinction is made between paravidya, the supreme knowledge of the nature of the brahman, and aparavidya, which includes pretty much all else: the knowledge of the universe, the human world and the sacred texts. A portion of aparavidya dedicated to the study and understanding of the Vedas is structured into six vedangas, or ‘limbs of the Veda’: grammar, prosody, phonetics, etymology, rituals and astronomy (the last initially for the elaboration of calendars).

Along with the Ganges civilisation, six darshanas or systems of philosophy emerge early in the first millennium BC, each giving rise to a primary literature that will, in turn, produce numerous commentaries, schools, sub-schools, and rich intellectual debates all the way to pre-colonial times. The six darshanas have been called astika (‘orthodox’ is a poor translation) because they were founded on the authority of the Vedas. Keeping in mind that equivalent English terms are approximate at best, they are:

  1. Vedanta or, broadly, the Upanishadic philosophical tradition;
  2. Nyaya or logic, which inquired deep into concepts of perception, inference, means of validation and categories;
  3. Vaisheshika, an atomistic inquiry into the nature of the physical world and its relationship with consciousness; it famously declared that ‘whatever exists is knowable and nameable’;
  4. Samkhya, which sees the universe as the result of the interplay of prakriti (nature) and purusha (the knower, a witness of pure consciousness);
  5. Mimansa or Vedic exegesis; and
  6. Yoga.

The last hardly needs a definition, although it may be useful to recall that it aims at the union with the divine consciousness. The level of that union and the method chosen to achieve it define the countless schools and systems of yoga. They are, at bottom, systems of self-exploration and self-fulfilment. Founders of the early schools of yoga, such as Kapila or Patanjali, would have been bemused by our current debate on whether yoga is ‘secular’ or not, ‘Hindu’ or not; they may have scratched their beards, if they sported one, convinced that this must be one of the signs of an advanced Kali Yuga, the age of ignorance.

RamayanaTransmission

Indeed, liberation from ignorance was the pursuit and ultimate objective common not only to the above six darshanas, but also to several others, called nastika (‘unorthodox’) because they did not accept the authority of the Vedas. There we find, among others, the Buddhist and Jain philosophies, the various systems of tantra, and a few atheistic schools such as the Charvaka, which laid emphasis on the exclusive truth of sensory perception; they do not appear to have appealed to the society and soon dwindled.

Buddhism and Jainism, although today regarded as ‘separate’ religions, in fact shared much with their late Vedic sisters: concepts of dharma and karma, the cessation of rebirth as ultimate objective, and the pursuit of happiness here and now. Recall Ashoka: “What I desire for my own children, and I desire their welfare and happiness both in this world and the next, that I desire for all men.” In time, these two ‘religions’, if we must call them that, also integrated a number of Vedic and Puranic gods and goddesses, from Indra to Sarasvati, into their pantheons. The symbiosis (much more than rivalry) worked both ways: when Buddhism faded away from northern India, largely under the Islamic impact which left most of its brilliant centres of learning in ruins, it did not ‘disappear’, as is often said, but was partly reabsorbed by an ever-assimilating Hinduism, its teachings and worship.

If Hinduism had by then regained much of its old vigour, its two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, deserve some credit for this. Those timeless texts are not only outstanding teachers of dharma and knowledge, but a gigantic tapestry of human life, its meaning, its limitations and tragic contradictions. They are also, incidentally, a mine of information on ethnography, polity and governance, warfare, social customs, sacred geography, ceremonies and rituals, diet, dress and ornaments, environmental changes, and much more. With countless regional adaptations and translations, they worked out the cultural integration not only of India but also of much of southeast Asia.

All this knowledge was transmitted by a variety of methods, from the formal institutions of Buddhism (not just Nalanda but thousands of monasteries across India) to the smaller gurukulas (often centred on temples) and village schools, not forgetting the hari katha tradition of wandering scholars who recited the two epics and other texts night after night in village after village, so that even the so-called illiterate were not uneducated but part of those knowledge traditions. The illiterate was cultured; today’s literate is uncultured.

Ramachandran GuhaA knowledge society?

When we look back on ancient India, we often imagine that its culture was, in the main, ‘spiritual’ and ‘otherworldly.’ Without going into the reasons for this misconception, let us point out that India’s so-called ‘spirituality,’ her philosophies, arts and literature, flourished best when the civilisation was materially most developed and opulent. From the Mauryan to the Gupta empires and beyond, this is a clear lesson of history.

Whether the inquiry was philosophical, medical or agricultural, India’s knowledge traditions were continuous and cumulative: savants, thinkers, artists did not normally demolish their predecessors’ work but built upon it and enriched it with their contributions, even if that involved sharp criticism at times. This richness of many-sided knowledge and freedom of inquiry is what we have lost in our linear and impoverished education, which discourages or penalises original thinking. Young Indians know next to nothing of this huge intellectual heritage, while many of our ‘intellectuals’ are content to scoff at it. The loss is considerable — nothing less than the essence of Indian culture. Perhaps, it is not too late to show to some of our bright young minds that they can still be enriched, stimulated or inspired by their distinguished predecessors. We will not go back to the past, but we may build a better future if we study some of its accomplishments, the best of which include a high vision of the goal of human life. – Financial Chronicle, 16 June 2015

» Prof Michel Danino is the author of The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati, and guest professor at IIT Gandhinagar, as well as member of the Indian Council of Historical Research. Contact him at micheldanino@gmail.com

The SandHI Series | Indian Knowledge Series

Circling the square – Amita Sharma

Nataraj & Sadhu

Who knows for certain?
Who shall here declare it?
Whence was it born, whence came creation?
The gods are later than this world’s formation;
Who then can know the origins of the world?
None knows whence creation arose;
And whether he has or has not made it;
He who surveys it from the lofty skies,
Only he knows — or perhaps he knows not.
– Rig Veda (X:129)

Amita SharmaThe Hymn of Creation is, perhaps, one of the profoundest critical gazes cast on the creator in the history of metaphysical thought, putting under erasure an a priori cognisant principle, manifesting a spirit free to doubt and question. This defines ancient Indian knowledge systems, cohabiting different realms of ‘realities’ generating at one level, the language of sophisticated argument, technical detail and codification, and at another, a language that is tentative, suggestive, pushing the borders of the known.

The genesis of ancient Indian knowledge systems is this coupling of intellectual enquiry with a sense of sublime wonder at the great mysteries of life. Ancient Indian knowledge forms were divided into two broad groups, namely para vidya and apara vidya. Para vidya or higher knowledge is knowledge by which the imperishable is known. Apara vidya encompassed worldly knowledge, like science, technology, arts, commerce and management. To the modern mind, thinking in exclusive categories, dichotomising knowledge forms, these two knowledge worlds are dualistically wedged. But the uniqueness of ancient Indian knowledge systems is the coexistence of the transcendental with the empirical, generating several distinctive features. The sacred and the secular flowed into each other.

There was no Inquisition to be feared, no imposed dogma. Savants built upon inherited knowledge forms while equally questioning them. We find Kautilya disagreeing with earlier thinkers of political science on issues of warfare, or Brahmagupta virulently rejecting Aryabhata’s theory of a rotating earth. A huge literature of commentaries, many of them sadly lost, is evidence of ceaseless and tireless scholarly discussion, debate and dissent

Technical knowledge often arose to serve religious practices. Over time, organised systems emerged dealing with language, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, the arts, governance and administration, ethics and yoga and a host of lesser known knowledge systems related to agriculture, animal husbandry, water management, town-planning that were documented in numerous texts rarely studied now.

Today the enmeshing of ideas, of poetry with physics, maths with mantra, science with mysticism, might appear as pre-scientific and, therefore, mere objects of curiosity. Yet when submitted to rigorous tests, they have almost always proved their worth. A few examples illustrate how the complexity of Indian knowledge systems argues for analytical rigour, not a reductionist reading and uncritical rejection. It is not for nothing that 20th century physicists such as Erwin Schrödinger or Werner Heisenberg drew inspiration from Vedantic concepts.

Ancient Indian mathematics arose from the Vedangas — a reflection on the Vedas. The Shulba Sutras, India’s first texts of geometry, composed around 800 – 600 BCE, exemplify traditional epistemological forms and their contribution to modern knowledge. These texts addressed the theological requirement of constructing fire altars with different shapes such as a falcon in flight with curved wings or a tortoise with extended head and legs, but with the same surface area. The altars had to be constructed with five layers of burnt bricks, each layer consisting of 200 bricks and no two adjacent layers having congruent arrangements of bricks. One of the geometric constructions involved squaring the circle (and vice-versa) viz., geometrically constructing a square having the same area as a given circle.

Circling the SquareThe Baudha­yana Shulba Sutra says, a rope stretched along the length of the diagonal produces an area which the vertical and horizontal sides make together. This is a precise geometric expression of the Pythagorean theorem, which states that the sum of the squares of the two sides of a right-angle triangle equals the square of its hypotenuse. Were we more aware of the contribution of Indian geometricians, the Pythagorean theorem might today be equally known as the Shulba theorem.

The Vedic mantras are chanted till today after a ritual prayer. Have we ever noticed the incantation involves large numbers? For example, the mantra at the end of the annahoma (food-oblation rite) performed during the ashvamedha invokes powers of 10 from a hundred to a trillion.

Maths and verse enmeshed not just in style, but in substance. Pingala (300 – 200 BCE), author of the earliest known Sanskrit treatise on prosody, Chandaḥsāstra (the science of metres), gave elaborate rules for listing out all possible combinations of ‘heavy’ (long) and ‘light’ (short) syllables in Vedic metres. In the process, Pingala constructed prastāras or tables which noted the combinations in what would be called today a binary system of notation (for instance, ‘long-long-short … long-short-short’). The science of metres led to the Indian equivalent of the famous Fibonacci numbers (in which each number is the sum of the preceding two: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55…).

A Vedic hymn could have more than one meaning, embedding philosophical speculation with mathematical concepts. A famous shloka from Ishavasya Upanishad reads, purnamadah purnamidam purnat purnamudachyate purnasya purnamadaya purnameva vashishyate: “That is whole; this is whole. From the whole comes the whole; take away the whole from the whole, what remains is the whole.” Mathematically, this can be interpreted in terms of zero as well as infinity, both of which are meanings of purna.

While the zero (variously called shunya, purna, bindu …) as an empty place-holder in the place-value numeral system appears much earlier, algebraic definitions of the zero and its relationship to mathematical functions appear in the mathematical treatises of Brahmagupta in the 7th century whose Brahmasphutasiddhant had basic operations (including cube roots, fractions, ratios and proportions) as well as applied mathematics (including series, plane figures, stacking of bricks, sawing of timber, and piling of grain). His concept “divided by zero = infinity” is etymologically interesting: khachheda means divided by kha, where kha (space) stands for zero.

Consider the way the decimal story unravels. The present system of decimal numbers needed two fundamental discoveries: the concept of zero and the principle of place value. Both were developed in India between the 1st and the 6th centuries CE. The first inscription with a decimal place-value notation is from Sankheda in Gujarat, dated 346 in the Chhedi Era, or 594 CE, where ‘3’ stands for hundreds, ‘4’ for 10s and ‘6’ for units. But five centuries earlier, the Buddhist philosopher Vasumitra, discussing the counting pits of merchants, had remarked, “When [the same] clay counting-piece is in the place of units, it is denoted as one, when in hundreds, one hundred.”

Decimal representation was also employed in a verse composition technique, later labelled bhuta-sankhya (literally, object numbers) used in technical books. Since those were composed in verse, numbers were often represented by objects. The number 4, for example, could be represented by the word Veda (there are four Vedas), the number 32 by the word teeth (a full set consists of 32), and the number 1 by moon, sun or atman, all of which are unique. So, “Veda-teeth-moon” would correspond to 4-32-1 or our decimal numeral 1324, as the convention for numbers then was to enumerate their digits from right to left.

This rich tradition of mathematics flowered in some of the greatest mathematicians of their times who contributed towards discovering and formalising mathematical principles. Aryabhata I (born 476 CE) described fundamental principles of mathematics and astronomy in 121 verses of Aryabhatiya which deal with quadratic equations, trigonometry or the value of π, correct to 4 decimal places. His calculation of the circumference of earth was within 12 per cent of the actual value, his table of planetary positions and his lengths of the sidereal and solar years remarkably precise. Brahmagupta (born 598 CE) studied many geometrical figures, introduced negative numbers and defined mathematical infinity as “that which is divided by zero”.

Bhaskara IIBhaskara II (born 1114), author of Lilavati and Bijaganita, proposed solutions to cubic and biquadratic equations, worked out an efficient algorithm for some types of second-degree indeterminate equations and laid down some of the foundations of calculus.

As in the case of mathematics, early astronomical insights were embedded in sacred texts often veiled in allegorical or poetical forms. The Rig Veda refers to a wheel consisting of 360 spokes, clearly the days of the year; some of its verses have been interpreted in terms of eclipses and meteor showers.

The Aitareya Brahmana (3.44) declares, “The sun never really sets or rises. … Having reached the end of the day, he inverts himself; thus he makes evening below, day above…. Having reached the end of the night he inverts himself; thus he makes day below, night above; He never sets; indeed he never sets.” This seems to reflect an awareness of the sphericity of the earth.

The famous scholar Sayana (c. 1315-1387) commented thus on a hymn to the sun from the Rig Veda (1.50.4): “Thus it is remembered, O Surya, you who traverse 2,202 yojanas in half a nimesha.” With a yojana of about 13.6 km and a nimesha of 16/75th of a second, this amounts to 280,755 km/sec — just 6 per cent from the speed of light (299,792 km/sec) — a coincidence worth noting.

The Puranas describe time units from the infinitesimal truti, lasting (according to Bhaskara II) one 2,916,000,000th of a day or about 30 microseconds, to a mahamantavara of 311 trillion years. Time is seen as cyclical, an endless procession of creation, preservation and dissolution. The end of each kalpa brought about by Shiva’s dance is also the beginning of the next. Rebirth follows destruction. Each Brahma day and each Brahma night lasted a kalpa or 4.32 billion years, adding up to 8.43 billion years which is not too far from the current 13.7 billion years for the age of the universe (another coincidence, which the US astronomer Carl Sagan noted).

In contrast, till the 19th century, much of Europe was convinced that the universe was no more than 6,000 years old. And while we are on coincidences, let us mention that Jain texts state that there are 8.4 million species on earth, which compares well with the figure of 8.7 million arrived at in a 2011 research paper.

Chitrakut

Sacred geographies enfolded astronomical observations. According to the German archaeologist Holger Wanzke, the east-west alignment of the main streets of Mohenjodaro’s citadel (or acropolis) was probably based on the Pleiades star cluster (Krittika), which rose due east at the time; it no longer does because of the precession of the equinoxes. Ujjain, associated with the legendary king Vikramaditya, is located on the Tropic of Cancer; it was a centre of astronomical observations. Chitrakoot is associated with Rama, who is often represented symbolically as an arrow. Mapped with GPS, ashrams and other holy sites there form arrows that point to the sunrise and sunset on the summer solstice. Varanasi’s 14 Aditya shrines precisely track the sun’s path through the year, embedding time in the ancient city’s map.

Surya Shrines Varanasi

The purpose of alluding to diverse forms of cultural codification of knowledge is that even while ambiguity may en-wrap them, they have a steady stream of scientific insights that merit research. The significance of culturally embedded knowledge is supported by our material inheritance.

For the growth of a truly scientific spirit, it is necessary that we critically evaluate our intellectual inheritance. Bhaskara II said, “It is necessary to speak out the truth accurately before those who have implicit faith in tradition. It will be impossible to believe in whatever is said earlier unless every erroneous statement is criticised and condemned.”

In ignoring our own knowledge legacy, or rejecting it as myth, are we guilty of creating an uncritical modernism that stultifies its own growth?

Fields Medal winner, Manjul Bhargava has said that he was inspired not only from ancient Indian mathematicians, but also from his practice of tabla and his knowledge of Sanskrit. The statue of Nataraja, a symbol of the dance of subatomic particles, which adorns the CERN where the hunt for the ‘ultimate’ particles goes on, is a reminder that India’s wisdom offers much to the world in its tireless research into the mysteries of life in its infinite complexity. – Financial Chronicle, 13 April 2015

» Amita Sharma is former additional secretary in the Ministry of Human Resources Development. 

» With inputs from the French-born Indian author Michel Danino, currently guest professor at IIT Gandhinagar.  

» Maps courtesy Rana P.B. Singh & J. McKim Malville.

The SandHI Series | Indian Knowledge Series