What to teach in today’s educational curriculum is a matter that has produced more dust and heat than real substance. This has been true especially in recent years as every attempt by the Indian government to introduce “Indian knowledge” into the curriculum has met with stiff resistance and a hue and cry of thrusting religion, taking us back to a set of outdated and sectarian ideas etc. After nearly 200 years, the “Macaulayan” system of education is indeed delivering the results, although those who wanted it have gone back nearly 70 years ago. The purpose of this writing is to present a case as to why it is important for “Indians” to know what their ancestral knowledge systems were.

What is Indian knowledge?

Before we get into the main argument, it helps to set out clearly what we mean by Indian knowledge. By Indian knowledge we mean a set of ideas that can enable individuals to pursue their life with a singular goal of being happy, contented and self‐evolving either by themselves or in some group of social, religious or other types of organizations. There is a structured classification of the knowledge known as caturdaśa vidyā-sthānam, which covers the most part of it. This repository provides interesting set of ideas on core principles of life (śruti), specific instructions for ethical and moral living (smṛtis), suggested alternatives for do’s don’t in life (dharma śāstras), detailed case laws illustrating implementation challenges and actual experiences while observing these codes of conduct (purāṇas, itihāsas) and a host of scientific and management principles for gainful application in our day‐to‐day life (scattered all over the literature, including in the Upavedas).

What separates out the Indian knowledge from the rest is that it does not force everyone to accept that the method of achieving this goal is only one and everyone will have to strictly adhere to that single prescription. Most of the knowledge were developed, synthesised and articulated by great individuals who proposed their own models. In the process they refuted others and disagreed with others’ ideas, albeit in a structured logical fashion, without any room for emotional outbursts, name calling and dumping ideas and people disrespectfully. The ideas in Smṛtis and Dharma Śāstras proposed by great seers such as Manu, Yajñavalkya, Parāśara, Apasthamba and Bodhayana to name a few will provide enough evidence to this. Similarly the six major darśanas (Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika, Sāṅkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta) also demonstrate this aspect if we dwell deeply into it. Even if you take one topic such as Vedānta, you find more than three competing schools of thought (Advaita, Viśiṣṭādvaita, and Dvaita, to name a few major thoughts for example). Such is the richness of the literature and multiplicity of ideas to choose from.

It appears that for the Ancestral Indians, knowledge can never be static, dogmatic or rigid in both structure and content. It must allow for dissent and constant churning thereby discovering new insights. In the whole process there is a culture of being very tolerant and respectful of the received wisdom. You will find no incidence of somebody being killed for not agreeing with the philosophies promulgated as the only valid means of knowledge (as you see in Semitic and Abrahamic religions). Where else can you see such a democratisation of knowledge, learning and practice of one’s own ideals in life?

Do we need to teach this knowledge today?

Modern educated Indians do not want this knowledge to be taught. They want it to be erased from their memory somehow, destroyed altogether if possible, or at best, ridiculed to the core so that it will not enter into the corridors of the educational institutions. They fancy the growing children with some new found ideas from the West, not in an accommodating fashion along with this knowledge, but in an exclusive fashion. The irony is that the greatest votaries of these are those who have not had the opportunity to properly acquire this knowledge, examine it by themselves, and conduct deep study and reflection etc. before taking the position. Instead they have been administered several doses of evils of “Indian knowledge” by some champions of this cause, who themselves have also suffered from the same limitation. It is like a person who claims to have a lifetime of expertise in the field of metallurgy making serious accusations and comments on anaesthesia or brain surgery on the basis what he has “learnt” from some self-proclaimed experts in the field. It is a typical case of the blind leading the blind! Let us not worry about these people, but get to the root of the matter and identify reasons as to why we need to know ancestral Indian knowledge.

Importance of received wisdom

Of all the reasons, the top of the list is that no society can afford to say, “I do not want to know what my ancestors thought about issues of life”. Such an attitude is naïve and childish and will make us “fish out of the water” overnight. I do not know if any society will develop such an attitude. This will be possible only under a few conditions. First of all, all our ancestors ought to have been so idiotic, mindless and bereft of any reasonable thinking. Further they must have been worldly foolish, dull headed and myopic in their thinking that it is not worthwhile to know what their ideas were, the issues that they discussed, and the theories of good and successful living that they proposed. Trying to know this could be a sheer waste of time in such a case.

If the above assumptions are not true, then we run a huge risk of reinventing the wheel all by ourselves by numerous needless experiments in our own lives. We are already going through this unwanted routine. It has been a practice for us to “junk” ancestral knowledge in the first place. When some western University reinvents the wheel after a series of experimentation and reiterates the ideas contained in the ancestral scriptures, we suddenly develop some respect for that piece of newly rehashed knowledge and at times end up paying dearly for acquiring it. All these could be avoided if we ourselves can introduce this knowledge in the curriculum. We must have the benefit of some first‐hand experience of consuming this knowledge. In any case, every society must learn to appreciate that there is intrinsic value to received wisdom and value it.

Propping up the sagging self esteem

An average Indian today, who has spent considerable number of years in the formal educational system (say up to higher education leading to UG or PG degree) is at best a bundle of conflict on matters pertaining to ancestral knowledge. Put such a person alongside such educated persons from the Western countries and kick start a discussion on their respective religious and cultural ethos and values, this Indian will be apologetic to the core. He will feel inferior and will quickly agree to the suggestion that his native wisdom and knowledge repositories are worthless. If his Macaulayan foundations are pretty strong he will even covertly and overtly argue for this. This introduces a deep sense of inferiority complex in him and his self‐esteem takes a beating every now and then. How can you build a society of confident and self‐believing young minds with this state of affairs? What can be a greater tragedy than this and how long can we live in a denial mode. The only way to come out of this is to have a good understanding of the ancestral knowledge of India.

Fighting the emerging IPR battle worldwide

There are strong geo‐political economic reasons for us to start learning ancestral Indian knowledge. This arises from the emerging IPR regime that promises to reward those who claim to have access to rich and useful knowledge earlier than the rest. The economic and legal framework for this is administered through a system of awarding patents, copyrights and exclusives rights of use. In very simple terms this works as follows. “A” claims that he indeed had the knowledge (by way of his ancestral repository) that is being used gainfully in the society for a number of potential applications. He will file a patent application to the International patent regulatory authorities on this basis. If no one else is able to prove that they had access to this knowledge earlier than “A”, then “A” is given patent and he is allowed to enjoy the benefits while restricting the use for others. On the other hand, if “B” claims that they indeed knew this earlier than “A” and is able to establish this decisively, the privileges are indeed given only to “B”.

Where will this country head if we are busy erasing our past memory and knowledge on some flimsy grounds of “thrusting Hindu religious ideas etc.”? We will either fight a losing battle (since we do not know what knowledge we had), or we will helplessly subdue ourselves to the rules of the game and curse ourselves for not being informed of what our ancestors did and said. In the case of Basmati rice, turmeric and a host of scientific and industrial applications (especially in the pharmaceutical sector) we are waging these losing battles. The cruel business world is silently smiling at the “height of ignorance” that we are subjecting ourselves to. The only way to quickly redeem us from this needless logjam is to get adequately educated into ancestral Indian knowledge.

The Way Forward…

There could be any number of reasons as to why we need to get educated with ancestral/traditional Indian knowledge. We shall focus on how this needs to be done rather than why. Two things need to be done almost immediately to rectify this lacunae that haunts our society, particularly the youngsters. We need to equip ourselves with this knowledge repository. The knowledge repository is vast and it needs careful thought on the different formats and methods of imparting them. Some foundational courses that can introduce the caturdaśa vidyā-sthānam will be a very valuable beginning.

The other aspect is giving them the key called Sanskrit, to open this vast treasure house. This is because the entire repository in its original is available only in Sanskrit. Therefore, knowledge of Sanskrit will prove to be very valuable going forward. Perhaps, several foreigners and Universities in the West have opened up to this reality and have seriously begun teaching Sanskrit, whereas we are left behind in the race. However, all that we need is a beginning. We have the native advantage to catch up and overtake others so that the delay in starting this process can be more than compensated.

Chemical and Metallurgical Engineers and Doctors must have some understanding of the ancestral knowledge, so that they can relate them to some modern day issues, and will be able to get near the source and examine it for whatever requirement. Similarly a student of Political History, Management, Psychology or Commerce must also benefit from this awareness. All that we need will be a decade of serious reforms and well thought out implementation strategies for this. When we achieve this, we will be at a striking distance from being the Viśwa Guru, which our ancient nation was for several centuries.

B. Mahadevan, a Professor at Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, is currently the Vice Chancellor of Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth. The ideas expressed in the article are the author’s personal views. He can be reached at: vicechancellor@chinmayauniversity.ac.in

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