Indians have grown up learning about Pythagoras, Archimedes, Galileo and Newton without ever learning about Panini, Aryabhatta, Bhaskar or Bhaskaracharya, reading Homer or Dickens but not the Panchatantra, the Jataka tales or anything from the Indian epics. As early as the Indus valley forms of technical standardization, measurement, calibration are evidenced. Large scale constructional plans, cartographic material, and use of large numbers are cited in the Vedic period. The BaudhayanaSulba Sutra contains Pythagorean triplets. Panini contributed to phoneticsand morphology. Kanad propounded the Vaisheshika school of atomism. Pingala knew the Pascal triangle and Binomial coefficients, Aryabhata, trigonometric functions and Bhaskara II Rolle’s calculus theorem. Indians knew negative numbers, decimals, andthe concept of zero. Rust control in iron is exemplar in the Delhi Iron Pillar. Ancient systems created highly efficient irrigation networks, ensuring replenishment of water tables.
Indian thought systems combined mathematics with music, grammar or poetry, astronomy with metaphysics, medicine with philosophy, rituals with water conservation. This creative cross-disciplinarity is lost sight of in modern education.
India’s worldview inspired scientists both Indian (J C Bose, P C Ray, S Ramanujan, C V Raman, S N Bose) and Western (Tesla, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Oppenheimer, Bohm). Why has this ceased? Dominated by western epistemologies, Indian education has led to cultural desertification, colonial and post-colonial intellectual hegemony, a loss of identity and mortgaging the development problems of the nation to imported and ill-suited technologies.
Technologies streaming in through educational curriculum and text books uncritically adopted from the West are not always suitable to the conditions here, as for example dams in India where the dam structure mostly has been modelled on the fast flowing rivers of the USA, and does not address the problem of silting caused by slow moving rivers of India.
Awareness of such anomalies has prompted efforts to promote short courses / special papers on Indian Knowledge systems. The CBSE has developed texts on the history of Indian Science and culture. There is in fact considerable writing on Indian thought systems, some quite encyclopaedic. However, these remain as optional ‘information’ supplements outside a valorised body of knowledge so constructed as Truth in mainstream educational systems that they assume the form of intrinsic epistemological categories- like programming the mind.
There is a need to deconstruct entrenched hegemonies of intellectual discourse. What is needed is a pedagogy of critical consciousness that interrogates given terms of debate towards a more inclusive episteme by integrating our intellectual and cultural inheritance in formal educational systems. Some nascent work in this direction led by IITs briefly illustrates a process of critical enquiry that seeks to correlate plural sources of knowledge in order to construct a holistic world view. This implies emphasis on problem- solving learning with project -based experience combining lab and field work, actively engaged with the local context and community. Such research reflecting and analysing real –world concerns inevitably encourages multi-disciplinary perspectives. C-TARAinIIT Bombay, the dry toilets designed in IIT Kanpur, the study of traditional water harvesting systems in IITDelhi, the Centre for Rural Development in IIT Kharagpur are examples of efforts to address local needs and build on local knowledge interpreting traditional knowledge systems in India and the way in which cultural forms are informed by science and technology over the ages. 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. The manifesto enables IITs to set up Design schools engaged with local problems. Local problems create the new idiom of knowledge by compelling innovation and encouraging re-interpretation of traditional knowledge forms in terms of their contemporary relevance. New projects on frugal technologies and creative economy focus on the bottom of the pyramid needs, such as IIT Kanpur’s work on toy clusters in Varanasi integrating traditional production processes with improved technologies in ways that empower traditional artisans. The Science and Heritage Initiative (SANDHI) of various IITs enables acritical study of traditional texts as knowledge sources along with experimenting and lab -testing traditional technologies and developing sustainable solutions for modern problems such as water, buildings, energy, health. In IIT Kanpur this includes the study of cultural forms, example musical instruments, traditional architecture and classical Indian languagesand of natural forms such as water harvesting systems as cognitive structures integrating experiential and abstract learning, aesthetics and science. It also includes Indian philosophy and its contribution to scientific thinking. SANDHI in IIT Bombay involves both a multi –layered analysis of Ajanta paintings and of a wide range of classical Sanskrit texts for their scientific knowledge and verification. In IIT BHU and IIT Kharagpur efforts are on to study the cultural and intellectual inheritance of Varanasi and its contemporary relevance in cross-disciplinary ways as part of their Design Hubs. The Schools of planning and Architecture Delhi and Bhopal are integrally involved with participatory city mapping in Varanasi. IIT Roorkee is working on Himalayan ecologies beginning with Uttarakhand focussing on its environment and livelihood. These initiatives are driven by faculty, students and professionals and engage with local communities. The success of such a participatory research based pedagogy will be tested if it can move from a project approach towards integrating our cultural and intellectual heritagewith mainstream education. This will strengthen cognitive capabilities of critical enquiry that sift and evaluate knowledge sources without the dogma and reductionism of binaries as ‘traditional’ ‘modern’; ‘east’ ‘west’, sans apologia and glorification. It will also enable greater engagement with the local context and this will spur original creative discourse and innovations that benefit life more equitably and sustainably. In all this the effort is to combine local rootedness with global best as Bhartrhari (5th c.) said, “What does he know who knows only his own tradition?”
The author is an Additional Secretary (Technical Education), MHRD, Dept. of Higher Education, GoI