With the growth of Hindu nationalism in the political space, there is naturally a new impetus to discover the past of the entity called India, in which the beginnings of nationhood were sensed only in the 19th century. But the sense of nationhood is growing in recent times and it seems necessary to study India’s past – in every possible sphere – because of the growing interest in it among the Indian citizens.
However, due to the paucity of records – probably caused by its dependence on orality as a means of transmitting knowledge – not enough of what is believed is supported by hard evidence. There is, for instance, more physical support for the Trojan War being grounded in fact than the Kurukshetra War.
Nationalism has led in India to the decrying of ‘western knowledge’ and seeing it as a remnant of the ‘colonial mindset.’ But ‘western knowledge’ is ardently sought even by countries like China with a glorious past and technological advancement is impossible without embracing it. India is trying to become a world power economically and militarily but one cannot seriously believe that even nationalists imagine the country making progress in a globalised world by relying entirely on Indian knowledge systems.
Study of western knowledge
If one studies the constitution of ‘western knowledge’ one finds that all of it – including technology – is interconnected. Immanuel Wallerstein (‘World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction’) provides a succinct account of how knowledge is subdivided into separate disciplines. The belief in an omniscient creator had led to curiosity about how He made the world. But the claim that religious texts alone had a sure way of knowing the truth was challenged. Philosophers insisted that human beings could obtain knowledge by using their minds.
While philosophers were now challenging the theologians, asserting that human beings could discern truth directly by using their rational faculties, other scholars argued that philosophical insight was as arbitrary a source of truth as divine revelation. They (called ‘scientists’) insisted on giving priority to empirical analyses of reality – although there was, until the late 18th century, no sharp distinction between science and philosophy.
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Birth of modern university
The divorce between science and philosophy led to the birth of the modern university. Unlike the medieval university, it has full-time, paid professors, who are almost never clerics, and who are grouped together not merely in ‘faculties’ but in ‘departments’ within these faculties, each department asserting that it is the locus of a particular ‘discipline’.
The medieval university had four faculties: theology, medicine, law, and philosophy. In the nineteenth century, the faculty of philosophy was divided into two separate faculties: one covering the ‘sciences’; and one covering other subjects, sometimes called the ‘humanities’, sometimes the ‘arts’ or ‘letters.’ The emphasis of the sciences was on empirical/ experimental research and hypothesis testing. The emphasis of the humanities was on empathetic insight – called hermeneutics.
In the 19th century, the faculties of science divided themselves into multiple ‘disciplines’: physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, zoology, mathematics, among others. The faculties of humanities divided themselves into such fields as philosophy, classics (mainly of antiquity), art history, musicology, the national language and literature, and languages and literatures of other linguistic zones.
The French Revolution propagated two ideas. One was that political change was not exceptional but normal and thus constant. The second was that ‘sovereignty’- the right of the state to make autonomous decisions within its realm – did not belong to either a monarch or a legislature but in the ‘people’ who, alone, could legitimise a regime.
If political change was now considered normal and sovereignty was in the people, it became imperative for everyone to understand what it was that explained the nature and pace of change, and how the ‘people’ could arrive at the decisions they were said to be making. This is the social origin of what we later came to call the social sciences.
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How history should be written
The oldest of the social sciences is history. But, in the nineteenth century, there occurred a revolution in historiography; it was proposed that history should be written as it really did happen and not as hagiography of monarchs. But the historians’ practice of restricting themselves to studying the past meant that they had little to say about contemporary situations and political leaders were in need of more information about the present.
Three main disciplines, therefore, emerged for this purpose: economics, political science, and sociology. Why should there be three disciplines to study the present but only one to study the past? Because the dominant liberal ideology of the nineteenth century insisted that modernity was defined by the differentiation of three social spheres: the market, the state, and the civil society. Anthropology subsequently branched off from sociology when Europe undertook colonial conquests and needed to study their colonised subjects.
This subdivision of a single realm of knowledge (with its basis in religion) in the last three centuries into a multitude, it may be noted, implies a developing continuity between the social sciences, humanities and the physical sciences that is not to be found between Indian thought and modern science – as understood today.
It would even be difficult to make a rigorous connection between the other-worldliness of Vedanta and the concern of astrology with one’s worldly fortunes – since India’s intellectual history is not clearly determinable.
If India is to excel in science and technology as it needs to – being a modern nation – acquiring ‘western knowledge’ is unavoidable; the social sciences and humanities cannot also be treated differently because of the inter-relationship between branches of knowledge.
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Bringing it all under Indian studies
India’s past achievements in every branch are hence best taught separately in higher education under the rubric of ‘Indian studies’, which can encompass subjects like philosophy, the arts and aesthetics, the basic sciences like astronomy/astrology, metallurgy and Indian medicine. Textbook writing should be initiated but with the insistence that it is rigorous and based on credible evidence.
The ultimate end to creating such a branch of knowledge should be that it is made influential outside India, but unless there is rigour in its development it will not be accepted. The task of strengthening Indian knowledge systems should be taken very seriously and only then will it get the respect it deserves. If yoga can become popular worldwide, why cannot Ayurveda and some other branches also?
Branches of western knowledge like medicine are becoming predatory and that looks like a good opening. But Indian knowledge will not get that respect universally if the discipline falls into the hands of political interests.
(MK Raghavendra is a writer on culture, cinema and politics)
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