Ancient India was the repository of all wisdom. This is the abiding belief of many people who have been touched by saffron. One major proponent of this view is the minister for human resources development, Mr Murli Manohar Joshi, who believes in the intellectual validity of something called Vedic science. Some of his colleagues have gone a step further. Mr Shatrughan Sinha, the minister for health, is so convinced that vaastu shastra has significant practical implications that he refused to attend his office in Nirman Bhavan since his office was on the first floor, and three, not one, is his auspicious number. Orders have been issued to relocate the minister’s room on the third floor, and elaborate renovations are being carried out under the supervision of the minister’s wife. There are reports, unconfirmed, that other prominent cabinet members — even those who speak English with an impeccable accent — are also wary about attending office because their desks face the wrong way according to vaastu shastra. This kind of behaviour, a little different from Mr Joshi’s strong intellectual convictions, is significant in a negative way.
It is negative because it adversely affects the functioning of the government. A minister absent from his office on a regular basis inconveniences all concerned, the bureaucrats and the public. Renovations cost money and increase government expenditure. Above all, it allows private beliefs to intrude into a public space. In a democracy all beliefs are permitted — from vaastu shastra to arthashastra. Ministers are welcome to guide their private lives according to their beliefs. But it will be a brave finance minister who will allow his policies to be dictated by Kautilya’s magnum opus. He would be well advised to take Milton Friedman or John Maynard Keynes or even Karl Marx as his mentor. It is somewhat axiomatic that public officials committed to making India into a modern democratic state will not allow their private beliefs to be manifest in their public actions.
This is not to decry the learning of the sages of ancient India. If the philosophical heights reached in the Upanishads and the strands of philosophy that flowed from them are any indication, erudition and scholarship were not in short supply in the seats of learning. But outside of philosophy and to an extent, mathematics, other branches of knowledge remain obscure or are lost. Some of them have been reconstructed from arcane fragments and are not often reliable. This loss is a product of history. The conquest of India by the West was a military and an intellectual one. India was forced to accept Western reason as universal reason. Modes of ratiocination indigenous to India were suppressed and lost. There is poignancy in this as well as the challenge of retrieval. The latter is not possible with blinkers on. It would be irresponsible and dishonest to claim validity for the wisdom before it has been retrieved. If it can be retrieved at all.