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The Public Ignoramus - Why should IITs teach Sanskrit? Or any other Language? Or Literature? Or History?

The Public Ignoramus

All too predictable — we seem to have gone through this countless times in recent years. No sooner had the ministry of human resource development (MHRD) issued a circular to Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) encouraging them to initiate teaching activities centred on Sanskrit and in particular on texts of science and technology, than some of our politicians and “public intellectuals”, valorous albeit Quixotic saviours of the country’s intellectual landscape, rose as one man to brand it another obscurantist attempt to saffronise education. “I don’t think an IIT engineer will need Sanskrit in his profession. It is not right to force something like this,” opined a leading light of the Congress party.

Doubtless, IIT engineers will have no use for Sanskrit “in their profession”. But why stop there? They will have no use for history either and, therefore, it was wrong to “force” it upon them at school. (Let us recall how, a few years ago, an education minister in Tamil Nadu argued that history should be scrapped at school level, as it serves no purpose.) Wrong also to have our future engineers study literature or any art form. Who needs any of that and how would it help you get a fat paycheck, which arguably is the sole objective of human existence?

A few days ago, I concluded a semester course at IIT Gandhinagar with a talk entitled “What can we learn today from Indian Knowledge Systems?” (the said IKS were the theme of the course, jointly offered by nine scholars). I think I surprised the students when I showed them a photograph of the cylinder of Gujarat’s most famous stepwell and asked them, “What’s the use of a Rani ki vav?” The only possible answer (from the standpoint of our luminaries) is — no use whatsoever. A ridiculous waste of time and manpower, considering that architects and craftsmen had to bring blocks of sandstone from afar, painstakingly cut them into precisely circular sections, carve panels and sculpt hundreds of beautiful statues, lower those sections one by one into the well’s cylinder and fit them together to perfection, layer after layer, all the way to the top. Then create elaborate “steps” leading to multiple mandapas and lined with more magnificent sculpted panels, all of which must have taken decades of hard work. All this just for a well! How preposterous. Today, our technologies enable us to construct a well of pre-cast concrete rings of the same size in just a day or two. Case proved, right?

But why stop there, again? Who needs a pharaoh’s pyramid? A Greek tragedy? A Roman palace? A Norse saga? A Japanese pagoda? A Shakespearean sonnet? All a waste of time, if you ask me. None of our bright engineers ever had the least need of it — much less of Bharata’s Natyasastra, Valluvar’s Kural, Kalidasa’s plays, Ellora’s Kailashnath temple, Aryabhata, Bhaskaracharya, the Ajanta or Badami caves, Mirabai, or a good grasp of the difference between hindustani and carnatic music.

All our engineers need is skills, not culture — not too many skills and not even a proper scientific culture (which probably no institution in India provides anyway). Therefore, let us go back to the cave age, of course improved upon with all the technological advances we are so proud of — although, come to think of it, cavemen were often fine artists who wasted much time leaving behind utterly useless rock paintings for us to scratch our heads over.

Is Sanskrit anti-secular?

“It’s the RSS agenda and the government is working on it,” thundered another Opposition leader, a little too predictably again. Last November, JNU’s Academic Council unanimously rejected a proposal for the introduction of courses on Indian Culture and Yoga, a proposal prepared by JNU’s Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies. The message was clear: Indian culture and Sanskrit are unsecular; they may be fine in a German or US university, but they have no place here (JNU’s School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, which claims to teach and research “Languages, Literatures and Cultures of India, Asia and Europe”, does not teach Sanskrit; it does, however, have Persian and Arabic, besides modern European languages). And, perhaps, Indian culture is unsecular indeed, since one of its well-acknowledged objectives has been to make every aspect of life, including India’s whole geography, sacred.

Be that as it may, here is the government’s recommendation: “Research in Indology, the humanities and social sciences will receive adequate support. To fulfil the need for the synthesis of knowledge, inter-disciplinary research will be encouraged. Efforts will be made to delve into India’s ancient fund of knowledge and to relate it to contemporary reality. This effort will imply the development of facilities for the intensive study of Sanskrit.” Before you righteously cry out against this highly jingoistic and communal agenda, allow me to add a dateline: the above is not a diktat of today’s government, but the recommendation of the Congress government in its National Policy on Education of 1986. Savour the irony (or should I say the hypocrisy?).

Of course, someone went to court — in India, someone always goes to court; call it a ritual if you will. The charge (in 1989) against MHRD was that such a policy would run counter to our sacred tenets of secularism (note that secularism, too, has a place for the sacred), unless Arabic and Persian were taught along with Sanskrit (and admire the logic). Anyhow, five years later, the Supreme Court rendered its judgment. The gods, it appears, had been in a mischievous mood: they had chosen for the main judge not a brahmin hindu, but a sikh, the eminent Justice Kuldip Singh, who distinguished himself through a few courageous judgments, on environmental issues among others; the second judge was Justice BL Hansaria. Quoting from Jawaharlal Nehru and the 1957 Sanskrit Commission, the judges threw the plaint out, observing that “in view of importance of Sanskrit for nurturing our cultural heritage, because of which even the official education policy has highlighted the need of study of Sanskrit, making of Sanskrit alone as an elective subject, while not conceding this status to Arabic and or Persian, would not in any way militate against the basic tenet of secularism.” Imagine the fracas if this were uttered today. But strictly speaking, those who argue that promoting the teaching of Sanskrit runs against secularism are guilty of contempt of court.

Is there any science in Sanskrit?

After the MHRD’s announcement, several blogs predictably ridiculed attempts to find any “science and technology” in Sanskrit texts. Don’t we know that all science flows from English (why not German or French or Hebrew?), and that we had nothing but vain fancies about flying machines or cosmic weapons? And here is proof: two years ago, Bangalore university’s department of mathematics published the curriculum for an MSc course on the history of mathematics; the said history began with a host of European mathematicians, and continued with Greek and Arab ones, without a single mention of Indian mathematicians. It follows that none existed. It is hard to think of a better example of self-contempt, for it cannot be mere ignorance in this case. Would a Chinese university offer a similar course that would blank out China’s brilliant achievements in the field?

I will not attempt here even the barest overview of the vast corpus of knowledge accumulated in Indian knowledge traditions, since last year’s SandHI series in Financial Chronicle effectively did so. Let me just point out that in fields like linguistics, ayurveda, agriculture, water management, construction, statecraft, philosophy, psychology, ethics, environmental conservation, management — even mathematics if we are to believe Manjul Bhargava — some of Indian accomplishments have retained much relevance and applicability. Astronomy, chemistry, botany, zoology and a few more disciplines also saw brilliant developments which, if no longer relevant today, still need to be studied as they are an important part of the history of ideas.

The way forward

The enormous heritage of IKS is beyond controversy and well documented — for scholars; our students, again, have no access to it, since in our secular wisdom, we have denied them their rightful inheritance. The resulting damage is equally enormous: loss of self-confidence (since it is implicit that all knowledge comes from the West); loss of crossdisciplinary thinking (90 per cent of our engineers are one-track minds); consequent loss of creativity (we produce good scientists, but no great scientists); loss of a sense of aesthetics (ugliness is accepted as a normal by-product of “modern living”); loss of methods of self-exploration and self-fulfilment (the psychiatrist will always be there when depression strikes, as it inevitably will), loss of time-tested, varied and non-dogmatic sources of cultural values (yet let us lament on the degeneration of morals in our society)....

So will a government circular to IITs help? Not in itself. (Incidentally, the said circular is not a government order but in the nature of an advisory.) The critics of the MHRD circular do not seem aware that some IITs did not wait for it to initiate activities centred on Sanskrit or IKS. IIT Roorkee has a vibrant Sanskrit club; IIT Kanpur has been running a course on Sanskrit for science and technology; IIT Bombay has long had a Cell for Indian Science and Technology in Sanskrit, with fairly popular courses besides much academic and scholarly output; along with the last two, IIT Kharagpur is an active part of the SandHI network; IIT Gandhinagar has offered courses of Sanskrit, Indian literatures and heritage, and recently IKS, and conducted three years ago a high-level workshop on the history of science in ancient India with the participation of some of the best scholars in the field. It is clear from all these experiments that there is a substantial demand, even among BTech students whom our Public Ignoramus would like to confine to an ant’s skill. The same may be said of many private universities in the country.

What is needed is not governmental intervention, but the creation of an atmosphere of genuine culture where students are invited to critically explore wider horizons. Let the thali of Indian culture be offered to them, and let them be free to accept or reject this or that dish — but after tasting it. And let our Public Ignoramus spare us his high-decibel, stereotyped and neo-colonial disparagement of one of the finest heritages humanity may yet claim.

Author:  Michel Danino (Guest professor at IIT Gandhinagar and a member of the Indian Council of Historical Research)

Originally Published @ Financial Chronicle, 3rd May 2016

Published: May 11, 2016

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