regular-article-logo Sunday, 10 December 2023

Regressive thought

India is on its way to becoming an anti-knowledge polity

G.N. Devy Published 11.11.22, 03:41 AM
Inclusive enough?

Inclusive enough?

One of the recurring themes in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s discourse is that of making India ‘vishwaguru’. The government’s policy for education, its restructuring of the higher education regulators, its wishful depiction of ancient India, and its cultural politics are all oriented towards claiming for India the status of a ‘knowledge-country’.

On the face of it, the idea sounds alluring. But it cannot be accomplished through patting one’s back or through propaganda. Unless the deep incompatibility between the Sanskrit universe of knowledge and the ‘universal knowledge’ by which the world lives is understood, all adventurist steps taken are likely to result in the exact opposite of what is being desired. In the process, India may be pushed into becoming an anti-knowledge nation.


Throughout human history, man has attempted to understand the universe by using various ingenious methods of encrypting its formal and material features. From the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and Greek trigonometry to medieval Europe’s magical code languages, these methods had essentially aimed at storing human experiences in ways that would make them ‘transferable’— giving them life beyond their natural life. The desire to represent, store, transact and pass on to the succeeding generations what humans ‘know’ culminated in the conceptualisation by the 17th century German thinker, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, of a ‘pure language’, a language of signs that do not have meaning in themselves but have the ability to represent constant and entirely non-subjective meanings. During the historical phase of transition from the use of Latin to that of the modern European languages for intellectual and imaginative expression, the obsessive attraction for inventing a symbolic method for ‘stating knowledge’ made it possible for European scholars to arrive at sorting ideas in terms of what came to be accepted as ‘universal science’. Earlier, in 1582, Giordano Bruno had come up with the idea that combining ‘associations of ideas’ in manageable symbolic strings would help hold a vast amount of knowledge in a relatively small band of human memory. A century later, in 1675, Leibniz proposed his celebrated ‘logical calculi’, stated in the aphorism, ‘existere nihil aliud esse quam harmonicum esse’ — ‘to exist is nothing other than to be harmonious’. In that span of a century and a half, from Bruno to Leibniz, Europe had discovered the ability of the human mind to reduce diverse perceptions to a ‘harmonised understanding’, capable of being stated in abstract terms. This ability is what is described in philosophical terms as ‘rationality.’ If René Descartes (1596–1650) gave to Europe the philosophical basis for its rationality, often highlighted through his claim, ‘Je pense, donc je suis’ (‘I think, therefore I am’), Bruno, Leibniz and their contemporaries gave Europe the ‘method’ of stabilising knowledge on the bedrock of rationality.

The history of ‘sorting out and storing ideas’ in Europe should be of interest to India as well for in the process memory started getting transmuted from being just a commonly shared heritage of human societies to a higher order platform for commanding and canonising the cerebral acts of humans, resulting in the idea of a ‘universal knowledge’, which is the real business of universities. These historical factors would not be of relevance to the analysis of the trajectory of ‘knowledge’ in India had it not been for the fact that they clearly point to the use of memory for encrypting and classifying knowledge. In Indian traditions of learning, memory had been a central interest from the earliest times. In fact, what was worth learning was described with the term, ‘smriti’ (‘remembering’ as well as ‘the remembered’). The Bhagavad Gita states rather categorically that the weakening of smriti leads to the destruction of the intellect: smriti-branshat buddhi-nash. In ancient literature and theoretical compositions, special care was taken to aid and facilitate easy remembering of the text by introducing various accessible mnemonic tools, quite akin to the Ciceronian use of memory. Rarely has another civilisation in the world focused on developing natural memory as the central tool of learning as India did for millennia.

However, the fundamental difference between the turn that the 17th-century use of memory took in Europe and the fixation with memory in India was that the idea of a ‘science of knowledge or a universal knowledge’ did not find favour with those who were expected to cultivate knowledge. The idea of knowledge as ‘knowing’, bringing in a subjective intuition as the horizon of intellect together with the seasoned use of memory for a flawless reproduction of the texts from the past, had resulted in ‘guru-parmapara’ and ‘apprenticeship’ becoming the privileged mode of education in India. This was a challenge. It became even more menacing when combined with the stringent gender and caste segregation that besieged Indian society more than two thousand years ago. The gender-exclusionary and clan or caste-based apprenticeship mode of knowledge transmission became a formidable hindrance to producing any genuinely ‘universal science’. While a high-accuracy memorisation continued to be the tool for storing developments in ideas, the access to such memorisation was restricted by the caste origin of the learners. During pre-colonial times, two broad streams of memory-based knowledge emerged in India without the possibility for mutual exchange and cross-fertilisation: one, the memory traditions of those with access to abstract symbols, including writing; and, two, the memory traditions of those who were denied symbolic abstractions. The latter continued as ‘knowledge-workers’ within their limited confines. The possibility of India devising a grand scheme of classifying ‘all that was known’ in the diverse knowledge traditions with the help of a single and unified symbolic grid ‘all memory’ did not take shape.

It is with the wound of a deeply divided ‘memory field’ that India has been trying to internalise the idea of a ‘universal knowledge’ over the last two centuries. The 19th-century attempts to modernise society had to launch upon the project of creating access to a shared band of abstract signs the transition to new fields of knowledge that qualified to be ‘universal’ science. Similar, but far more difficult, was the struggle to get girls into formal education. After a century and a half of that difficult struggle, the BJP education policy is trying to prioritise and privilege the ‘sanatan vidyas’ and coaxing scientists to revisit long-forgotten theories in preference over what is described in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s terminology as ‘the pollution caused by Western knowledge’. Sheepish vice-chancellors and Boards of Studies are propagating the mood in order to safeguard their funding. If the project succeeds, we may soon find ourselves becoming an anti-knowledge nation. If the education policy imposed on universities asks for unquestioning acceptance of all that was ancient, the result will be a fatal loss of the ability to ask meaningful questions, the main task for which universities exist.

G.N. Devy is Chair, The People’s Linguistic Survey of India

Follow us on: