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.
Michel Danino is a French-born Indian author, scholar of ancient India, and visiting professor at IIT Gandhinagar. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is the seventh part in a series on Master Ideas of Indian Civilisation; earlier articles in this series:
- Defining Indian Civilization, 11 June 2018
- The Universal in Indian Culture, 11 July 2018
- Consciousness, the Key to Indic Thought, 6 August 2018
- Sacralising the Cosmos, Nature and Life, 3 September 2018
- India’s Take on Individual vs. Collective, 4 October 2018
- India’s art of simple living, 29 October 2018