Indian, yet modern

I have a sense of utmost pride in our knowledge and learning systems.  The systems that our ancestors developed, designed, and practised amaze me.  When I read some of the texts, the precision with which our Rishis had stated certain universal truths, stuns me.

We preserved all our wisdom and knowledge by following only oral tradition.  Our learning system ‘ the passing of knowledge from one generation to another ‘ is based on memory.  We did not use script.  We only used human mind to preserve our vast body of learning.  It called for unfailing memory along with precision and analysis.  We established certain very strict norms in order to preserve this body of knowledge unsullied.

For instance, we said many things in the form of aphorisms: that is, sutras.  They are easy to remember, they are precise, and they are composed in a particular metre.  In the transfer of knowledge, and in the process of learning, these sutras guarded themselves against misrepresentation.  They have certain in-built defences.  Any deviation from the authentic text would soon be exposed because either it did not conform to the metre, or exceeded the precision of letters and words that it is supposed to contain.  In order to be recited in the correct form they must not have even a single letter out of place.  Let me draw your attention to the definition that a great acharya Ramanuja gave to a Sutra:

Alapaksharam asamdighdham saaravantam viswatomukham

Astobhyam anindyam cha sutram sutra vido viduhu

It should contain as less number of letters as possible ‘ alpaksharam.  There should not be any ambivalence in what is stated, it should not give rise to any doubt ‘ asamdighdham. It should contain the entire essence of the proposition ‘ saaravantam.  It should touch upon all the different angles there are to a proposition ‘ viswatomukham.  It should not have any repetition ‘ astobhyam. And finally it should be flawless ‘ anindyam.  Let me tell you that I have not come across a more strict, precise, and meaningful definition of how a proposition should be than this in any philosophical and knowledge tradition in the world.

We in our system of learning fundamentally believed in union.  We believed in joining.  Everything is yoga ‘ union for us.      Yoga between what we utter and what we think. Yoga between the teacher and the student.  Yoga between the knower and the subject of knowledge.  Yoga between the microcosm and the macrocosm.  Yoga between the jiva and the Paramatma.  Every aspect of our life ‘ from the mundane to the sublime ‘ is informed by this spirit of union, the spirit of joining, yoga.  That is why we pray:

Vangme manasi pratishthita,

Manome vaachi pratishthitam

Our mind is one with what we say and our words are one with what we contemplate.  Mind and utterance are in union.  This is another norm and basis of our knowledge and learning system.

It is sad that we left this glorious tradition of knowledge and learning systems behind us.  What is tragic is that we today think that these systems are outdated and unsuited to the contemporary world.  For everything we have learnt to look to the western world.  We have somehow established a strong connection between modernity and western civilization.  We somewhere at the back of our minds have an unstated but deep confusion that westernization and modernization are one and the same.  In other words, we think that to be modern is to be western and to be western is to be modern.

But if we take a close look at our knowledge systems, one conclusion is inevitable: That it is possible to be not only modern but at the frontiers of modernity without being western. And I even venture to add that if we look at some of the westernized men and women in our society, the conclusion is inescapable that it is possible to be most western and be pathetically retrograde.  Behind the veneer of westernization of dress and language, and mannerisms and other trappings, we find a lot of people who are unbelievably backward in their thinking.

There is another misnomer about our learning systems.  And this I think is very powerfully grounded in the minds of our young men and women.  That is, our knowledge and learning systems are only spiritual and are not good for material well being and prosperity.  I think it is important to explode this myth that is firmly lodged in the minds of our young generation.

It may be recalled that until about the Common Era1600, our share of the world trade was about 35 per cent.  That of China was about 30 per cent.  And the entire rest of the world put together could contribute only 35 per cent to the trade transaction of the globe.  Our ancient civilization had so much of production.  They could not have it without well developed systems of manufacturing, accounting, organization, managerial skills, banking, education, material sciences, etc.

If it were only a spiritual tradition unconnected and unsupported by the material learning system, this nation could not produce so much of wealth.  I need not tell you that for centuries hordes of people plundered this nation and carried away immeasurable booty of diamonds, gold, and other treasures.  Even after that the country remained prosperous.  The entire Europe wanted to flock to India.  In the 15th and 16th centuries, finding a sea route to our great land was a big industry there.  It was a gigantic effort.  Kings and princes financed adventurers to sail and find out navigable route to Indian.  Why?  Because it was a land of gold, milk, and honey.

Pushpa heenam sahakaaramapi

Bhramaraaha na samaasrayate

Even if there is a robust mango tree, if it is flowerless not a single honey-bee will come near it says our subhashitam.  Only because our nation offered such a material wealth, did many come to plunder it.  After more than two hundred years of the European plunder too, the country is still a prosperous one today.  The point I am making here is that our learning is not something that did not support the creation of wealth.  It is not merely of sanyasis, rishis, and recitation of some obtuse slokas in the thick forests or obscure caves.

We have struck a harmonious relationship between the mundane and the spiritual domains.  We did not pursue one to the exclusion of the other.  This enabled us to ask questions and seek answers that no civilization in the globe could do.  The foundations of the western civilization, the Greek and the Roman, only asked ‘what is good life?’ and proceeded to prescribe as to how to organize collective life in order to enjoy good life.  But the Indian mind did not rest content by only asking ‘what is good life?’ It also tried to explore what was the basis of that good life.  And then it tried to apply itself to the question of how to attain it on the basis of reaching its very well-springs.

Let us, for example, take Kautilya.  He is unparalleled in the history of the world for his practicality, realpolitik, and strategy.  It was he who in his Arthasastra, the greatest treatise on the political economy, said:

Sukhasya moolam Dharmaha, the basis of good life is righteousness

Dharmasya moolam Arthaha, the basis of righteousness is material prosperity.

The current generation should take note of it.  Our ancient seers and thinkers recognized that material prosperity was the basis of spiritual progress and righteousness.  And that was the reason that our nation could be so advanced in material sciences.  On the other hand, our knowledge system also asked questions that no civilization had even dreamt of asking.  Our ancient scriptures are replete with questions about the life, about the microcosm and the macrocosm and the interrelationship between the two.  I am reminded of Adi Sankara’s Vakya Vritti.  The vidyarthi asks his Acharya to enlighten him on the following:

Ko jeeva kaha paraschatma

Tadatmyam va katham tayohi

Tatwamasyadi vakyam va

Katham tat pradipaadayet?

What is the individual? What is the Universal spirit? How is it that they are one? How is it possible to propound that they are one and the same?  Such questions we find in our ancient learning systems time and time again.  They recur in one form or the other.  In fact, it is always such question by a vidyarthi and an answer to such a question by the Acharyas that resulted in the immense body of knowledge that we proudly possess today.

In other words, our learning system is a system of enquiry, a dialectical process and a process of disputation, questioning, and arriving at a proposition after long and systematic reflection.  It is the fruit of such process of learning that could come up with a proposition ages ago that the so called modern science is struggling to explain.  What could be life?

Kesagra satabhagasya

Sataamsaha saadrasaatmane

Jeevo sookshmaswarupoyam

Samkhyateetohi chitkanaha

Jeeva, our ancient seers proposed, is a minutest particle.  To help us imagine as to how tiniest it could be they said that we must take the smallest tip of a hair and make it into a hundred pieces. And take one of those hundred pieces and make it into one hundred pieces!  Can we imagine?  Yes. The modern science is now beginning to talk about nano technology.  That is the physical part of it.  What about the part that deals with consciousness?  They said that it is unquantifiable ‘ samkhyateetohi.

Our ancient learning systems have led us to imagine the minutest and the unquantifiable.  They have also enabled us to dominate the material world and equipped us to create immense wealth and prosperity.

Our great ancestors had always exhorted us to look farther and higher:

Deergham pashyatu maa hrasvam

Param pashyatu maa aparam

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