Ganesha and the Modern Intellectual
It is an honour and a privilege to be invited to deliver this memorial lecture in honour of Prabhash Joshi and before such a distinguished audience. As a category, journalists invariably associate themselves with the intellectual class. They write to be read by the public, in contrast to academics, who write to be read by their colleagues and peers. Prabhash Joshi fell into the category of public intellectuals. So he took keen interest in movements involving the public interest and went beyond being a mere eor. He insisted – wsion required it – of presenting the truth to power. Thus he worked against the Emergency and denounced the mass killing of Sikhs in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Mrs Gandhi. He also took a stand against the destruction of the Babri Masjid. He played a crucial role in the formulation and passing of the RTI Act, which has touched millions of lives. This is what most journalists are steadily disinclined to do nowadays because of their increasing bondedness. They end up broadcasting not their own views, but those of the persons behind them, to whom they are beholden. Prabhash Joshi, in the last few years he was alive, had much to say against sponsored journalism which had begun to turn the media into an unedifying racket.
I would also like to use the occasion of this talk at Gandhi Darshan to say a few words about my favourite journalist – probably Prabhash Joshi’s as well – M.K. Gandhi. In my humble reckoning, Gandhiji was the most extraordinary journalist of all time. Few people would have the courage to write the kind of Autobiography he did. Nowadays, we often forget that at one time or the other, he owned, edited and published 6 journals: Indian Opinion, Navjivan, Harijan, Young India, etc. Some of these journals appeared in Hindi, Gujarati, Tamil and English and could be read by anyone. In my humble opinion, Gandhiji’s fearlessness as an editor and his ability to write simply and honestly, have remained unmatched to this day. We may recall the incident when Gandhiji realised the huge divergence of views between him and Nehru about the path India should take after independence. He wrote to Nehru that the people of India should know that these were indeed Nehru’s views and therefore he would like to publish them so they could know about them. It was Nehru who, lacking courage then, decided in favour of self-censorship.
Despite the 98 volumes of the Collected Works edited so lovingly by K. Swaminathan, there still remain writings of Gandhi (that I have read) that are unable to be printed because most of his followers would rather die than see them in print. That’s why perhaps Gandhiji was born, so that we journalists will have a high standard for all time to come.
I am sure that most people would not have lifted their eyebrows if I had been scheduled to speak on “Buddhism and the Modern Intellectual.” But Ganesha? I have always found either deep resentment, or curiosity, if we attempt to discuss any aspect of India’s diverse intellectual traditions and attempt to link them with either rationality or science. We don’t quite know what to do, for instance, when we are faced with mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan’s open declaration that the goddess Namagiri was the inspiration for his work. He said his mathematical solutions came directly from her. The association between mathematician and goddess is often condoned by his admirers as an eccentricity on his part, in view of his obvious mathematical genius. Since they could not deny the latter, they could not abjure the former as well.
My reference deity, Ganesha, has remained in the news for several centuries, from acting as a steno taking down the Mahabharata related by Ved Vyas to some intense political involvements during the time of Lokmanya Tilak and more recently, Narendra Modi. In this lecture, Ganesha is nothing but an amiable front, a face, for everything I would like to call Indian or that was created by the people who lived in this region called “Hind” – beyond the “Indus” – over centuries and now known by the name of India. This connotation of “Hind” has been clearly understood as such by the world outside India, which has seen the terms “Hind”, “Hindu”, Indian, as birds of the same feather.
It is only the christian west and its ethnographers who were responsible for turning “Hindu” into “Hinduism”, giving the latter the character of a religion as they compared it with their own christian (better, semitic or Abrahamic) version. This meant imposing on the diverse “Hindu” population one identity, one belief and one doctrine. The geographical and epistemological aspects of being a Hindu were side-lined in the quest to describe and understand it as a religion, like other religions known at the time, mainly christianity and islam.
There is a story related by the Imam Bukhari of the Jama Masjid in Delhi about his experience during his Haj. He described how he was registered at the gate of Mecca as a Hindu Muslim. He was not offended because neither the Saudi authorities nor he thought this description was anything more than a geographical indicator. Recently, a christian minister in the BJP government in Goa referred to himself as a “Hindu christian.” Fifty years ago, I remember writing “Roman Catholic” on my school form when asked to identify my status. A few decades later, my children had changed this entry to “Indian christian”. If Indian and Hindu are interchanged, keeping in mind what we have said above, what we were writing in fact on those admission forms was the fact that we were “Hindu Christian.” For such claims, those promulgating Hindutva have no commensurate response. None is available. Neither are we in any mood to give up those claims.
In fact, if we do away with using the “religion” label for the Hindu and her works, we are left with a rational, logical, materialist, practical, ethical tradition to which everyone who has lived in this subcontinent, from weaver to sant, has contributed in some way. These traditions may be either spiritual sometimes or a-spiritual, often atheistic as well. For the same reason, the intellectual traditions of India that we are referring to cannot be appropriated or misappropriated by any group of people who may claim today to be its exclusive owners or protectors.
In this talk, I would like to describe this diversified intellectual tradition in some detail. In today’s presentation, in fact, I shall make an unusual move, and speak to you from the perspective of Lord Ganesha instead of from the standpoint of the modern intellectual. At least this would make this lecture more interesting than otherwise.
Why Ganesha? Simply because I come from Goa, where the prevailing deity is Ganesha. During the Ganesha festival, everything is shut down in his honour, including the eating of fish, which as many people will recognise, is supreme self-sacrifice for the people living in that small state. Routine activities from economy to school – all institutions of the modern age – are simply shut down to celebrate the arrival and departure of Goa’s biggest guest! No liquor, meat or fish is desired or served and strict discipline is maintained in these matters. People do have their priorities right, it seems. For either five days or seven, and sometimes even eleven days, we cook no food in our christian house. It all comes from the neighbours. So in the past few decades, my worldview has naturally adapted itself to seeing things (including science) in “Ganesha” terms.
Last year, if you recall, the Prime Minister observed in a public address: “We worship Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.”
This statement, more than any other, provoked apoplectic, hysterical and dismissive responses. It was received, in fact, with consternation. The idea appalled even the more conservative supporters of Narendra Modi. What was the PM saying! This was going too far! Strangely, there was no defence, not even from the ranks of the RSS or the Bajrang Dal. This was deeply upsetting for a Ganesha bhakt like myself!
Now that the dust has settled and tempers have cooled off as well, we may dispassionately examine why when such statements are made, they cause controversy and among which class of people. To put it bluntly, why does the modern intellectual make a wry face if Ganesha is mentioned in the company of science? Is it that consideration or even mention of one automatically excludes the other? That all the traditions of this subcontinent must give way to the scientific view of the world?
Today, everyone, whether she is educated or not, knows that you cannot graft the head of an elephant on to the body of a human being and create an hybrid of both, though these kinds of hybrids are to be found as a commonplace in many cultural traditions: mermaids and minotaurs, for example, people the imagination of those who have gone through western education. However, all these cases are considered strictly mythological, not to be mixed up with what is possible in the real world, with science, reason or objectivity.
So I presume that is hardly what Narendra Modi – who is really quite a clever person – could have meant when he made his comment about Ganesha and plastic surgery.
The PM was obviously alluding to Indian skill in plastic surgery and the reported history of its origins and long use in the Indian subcontinent, though I doubt even he would have known the true extent of what he was saying or even the sources he could have relied upon. If you go by what is taught to us in school, college and university, you would never know most things about this country, its history, its people, its technical skills, its history of math, science or technology. These are rarely mentioned, discussed or taught. This is because the ghost of Thomas Babington Macaulay still reigns in all our educational institutions and the textbooks they rely upon even today! Macaulay’s convictions have remained unchallenged policy and as a general guide in such matters. Therefore, I was not surprised that this idea of plastic surgery being a skill commonly available in India centuries ago was received with much mirth by all educated Indians, both here and abroad. It continues to invite ridicule whenever the subject comes up.
So it will come as “breaking news” to most to discover that like several other things about the other India – the India we know so little about – the idea of plastic surgery did actually originate in India, from where it spread to the rest of the world.For the skeptics and the miseducated, a little unvarnished history about this would be useful.
The art of plastic surgery arose as a response to a custom peculiarly prevalent in India: the cutting off or amputation of the nose as a punishment for crime or as a plain humiliation inflicted after a military defeat. (Sometimes, it was also visited on individuals who were found in the intimate company of another man’s wife.) The resulting disfigurement (and embarrassment) often drove the sufferer to a class of surgeons who practised a thriving business in the reconstruction of noses (technically called nasikasandhana – nose-shaping – or its modern equivalent, rhinoplasty).
The earliest of these rhinoplasties (and other cosmetic surgeries as well) were performed in India already in 1600 B.C. The operation is described in the Sushruta Samhita, a medical text written in 600 B.C. by Susruta, the well known Indian surgeon: in the method he describes, a flap from the cheek is removed and used to reconstruct the nose. Later, a better method used flaps from the forehead instead.
Here is a detailed description of the nasikasandhana procedure from the Susruta Samhita:
“The portion of the nose to be covered should be first measured with a leaf. Then a piece of skin of the required size should be dissected from the living skin of the cheek, and turned back to cover the nose, keeping a small pedicle attached to the cheek. The part of the nose to which the skin is to be attached should be made raw by cutting the nasal stump with a knife. The physician then should place the skin on the nose and stitch the two parts swiftly, keeping the skin properly elevated by inserting two tubes of eranda (the castor-oil plant) in the position of the nostrils, so that the new nose gets proper shape. The skin thus properly adjusted, it should then be sprinkled with a powder of liquorice, red sandal-wood and barberry plant. Finally, it should be covered with cotton, and clean sesame oil should be constantly applied. When the skin has united and granulated, if the nose is too short or too long, the middle of the flap should be divided and an endeavor made to enlarge or shorten it.
A more detailed description of the procedure is to be found in the book of another Indian surgeon, Vagbhat, the Ashtanga Hridyans, written in the fourth century A.D.
According to S.C. Almast: “The practical secret of rhinoplastic operations spread from India through Arabia and Persia to Egypt and from there it leaked to Italy. In the 15th century in Sicily, Branca used cheek flaps – a la the Indian method – to reconstruct the proud noses of hot blooded swordsmen. His son, Antonio, tried flaps from the arm and by the late 16th century, Tagliacozzi had published his work on the Italian method of arm flap rhinoplasty.”
It was only in the 19th century – two centuries after the Italians had picked it up from the Indians – that German, French and English surgeons could study the entire method for the first time, through the translation of the Sanskrit literature and personal observations through travel in India.
In 1794, Dr. H. Scott, an Englishman, would report from India on the “putting on noses on those who lost them” and send to London a quantity of caute, the cement used for “uniting animal parts.”
“In Kumar, a place near Pune, a Mahratta surgeon was seen by James Findlay and Thomas Cruso, two medical officers of the East India Company, performing a rhinoplasty by the median forehead flap. This case was reported as a ‘singular operation’ in the Madras Gazette of 1793. The patient was Cowasjee, a Mahratta bullock driver with the British army in the war of 1792. He was taken prisoner by Tipu Sultan who cut off his nose and one of his hands. He went back and rejoined the Bombay army of the East India Company and after one year had his nose reconstructed in Kumar near Poona. A description of this case also appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine of London in a letter from India in 1794.”
The description of the “singular operation” was responsible for the later spread of this technique to European countries and to the United States of America. The first successful case of forehead flap rhinoplasty performed in England was published in 1814, about twenty years after the report on the Cowasjee case. Carpues’ book An account of TwoSuccessful Operations for Restoring a Lost Nose from Integument of the Forehead was published in the year 1816 and helped to create a considerable interest in this subject. In Germany, Carl Ferdinand Von Graefe performed the first total reconstruction of the nose in 1816 and coined the term “plastic surgery” in his text on this subject published two years later. Jonathan Mason Warren from America undertook rhinoplasty by the Indian method in the year 1834, just at the time that Lord Macaulay was dismissing everything from India as worthless for human beings. Captain Smith published his Notes on surgical cases – Rhinoplasty in the British Medical Journal in 1897 and suggested improvements. Keegan (1900) wrote a review of rhinoplastic operations describing recent improvements in the Indian method.
I wrote about plastic surgery in India in fact in 1976, when I submitted my dissertation for a Ph.D., at a European university. One of my sources then was the late Indian historian, Dharampal, whose book on science and technology in India in the eighteenth century had just been published. Thereafter, I came to know Dharampal personally quite well. In fact, Other India Press, where I do editorial work even now, still faithfully publishes Dharampal’s Collected Writings in 5 volumes. (The Publications Division, MIB, GoI, has recently published a single volume, Essential Writings of Dharampal which can be bought at Sales Centre: Soochna Bhawan, C.G.O. Complex, Lodhi Road, New Delhi-110003 ISBN 978-81-230-2040-2, Pb: Rs. 135, Hb: Rs. 165)
It is important to recall that there was little in India’s cultural traditions that obstructed the development of surgery. In the west, for centuries, the then prevailing views about the sacredness of the body – which were related to the need to keep the body intact for its physical resurrection from the dead – did prevent the arrival of surgical skills. Thus the credit for writing the first major text on surgery (Susruta’s Samhita) is undisputedly Indian, say what you will, whichever ideology you come from: Marxist, leftist, rightist, liberal, Hindutva, Hindu or Muslim. Several surgical innovations are discussed by Susruta in his text, including the reconstruction of the nose. As far as the last technique is concerned, the Europeans simply took over the principle informing the rhinoplastic procedure: not habituated to visiting punishments with the lopping off of noses, they could more easily see a liberal application of the technique to other areas of bodily defect.
Today rhinoplasty is extensively practised in countries like Iran for cosmetic purposes, whereas in India the practice of cutting off of noses has long since been discontinued. Rhinoplasty therefore is not a familiar term among the Indian population even if it is a term familiar with plastic surgeons. Here too, the general practice is now to learn it from Western medical texts which dominate the field of medical education. Thus, the reinforcement of the idea among the educated people of this country that the technique originated in the west (and that therefore Narendra Modi was talking nonsense).
In my view then, the Prime Minister was quite right in using a more familiar outward symbol of “plastic surgery” (Lord Ganesha) to make a point: that people in India had a well-established medical practice of transplanting (or grafting) one piece of living tissue onto another. I find nothing wrong therefore with what he said. Once you accept the idea that India was the first country to have obvious competence in the technique of carrying out plastic surgery and then taught the world how to do it, I doubt anyone else, even our habitual Modi baiter, Mani Shankar Aiyar, would have a problem with what the PM said. Neither would any in this audience.
In fact, I spoke of this history of plastic surgery to a hall full of academics and scholars attending a conference at Andhra University in Vizagapatnam at the end of March 2015. I asked them how many knew these undisputed facts. In a hall of more than 200, only four put up their hands!
But let me now go on to talk about other intimate connections between intellectual traditions in India and scientific knowledge which indicate that the ability to carry out plastic surgery was not an exception, but only a good example of widespread competence in just about everything. For example, even though thousands of educated Indians have seen the Ashok pillar in the Qutab Minar complex in Delhi and wonder at the fact that it has withstood corrosion over centuries, most of them still continue to believe that iron and steel originated mainly in modern Europe. The late Dharampal collected considerable information about the manufacture of Indian steel or wootz, as it was then known. Indian steel, also known as Damascus steel (because it was used to make the famed Damascus sword), was admittedly the best steel the world produced for centuries and its qualities amazed even the first steel makers at Sheffield.
All the information one needs to know about wootz, together with additional research, has been brought out in a scholarly work, India’s Legendary Wootz: An Advanced Material of the Ancient World, written by Sharada Srinivasan and S Ranganathan of the National Institute of Advanced Study (NIAS), Bengaluru.After reading Dharampal and the NIAS study, one can only arrive at the conclusion that an excellent method of making steel was simply discarded and replaced by another, without even an attempt then to find out the assumptions that led to the development of the Indian process and then upscaling it when required. While the Indian process, being small-scale, generated no pollution, the modern iron and steel industry and its processes continue to pose a serious challenge to the environment, climate and public health. And as we who live in Goa know, the damage to the natural environment from mining iron ores the modern way has been irreversible.
The histories of plastic surgery and wootz and their spread or use in other countries can be found repeated in several other spheres of human activity, from math to the entire process of manufacture of textiles, ice, drugs and small pox immunisation, agriculture, biodiversity, etc. All these must be seen within the context of a society that had evolved competent, in most cases, optimal technical solutions to problems it faced till it was disturbed by the English (not Mughal) conquest. None of these would have emerged or survived if we had relied upon unrealistic or unworkable assumptions about how the natural world functioned. And it is important to reiterate that all these developments were made possible without relying upon those assumptions that allegedly contributed to the expansion of Western science, including Francis Bacon’s prescriptions, which spoke quite bluntly of the need to “torture nature in order to wrest her secrets,” a phrase and approach we abhor today. That was never our way.
Prof. C.K. Raju is one of the world’s pre-eminent mathematicians. He received the Telesio Galilei Award 2010, in Hungary, for correcting Einstein’s mistake regarding functional differential equations in the special theory of relativity. He has shown that the four basic algorithms – addition, subtraction, multiplication and division – that began to be understood in Europe only around the 16th century were commonplace among people in India ten centuries prior as ganit. Prof. Raju points out that the very term “algorithm” is sourced from the name of Al Khwarizmi who translated the basic mathematical knowledge used in India into Arabic in a volume called the Hisab-i-Hind, from where it was translated into Latin and Greek.
For those who wish to claim that Hinduism gifted the zero to the world, it is important to emphasize that the idea of shunya or shunyata comes from the Buddhists. Therefore, though it came from a Hindu tradition, it owed nothing to religion since the Buddhists do not believe in god, just like the Lokayatas and Jains. I also learnt from Prof. Raju that the Europeans were completely flummoxed (confused) when they encountered the zero for the first time in their lives. What was this element, which when added to any number, increased its value several times? Hence the invention of the tradition of writing out cheques in both numerals and words, which we inherited with western banking, but which was designed to cure a headache caused by Hindus.
Similarly, with the calculus: like the case of plastic surgery later, the calculus appears suddenly in the sixteenth century in Europe without any chronology of development in that society’s history – allegedly as part of the Newtonian “revolution” – but, as Prof. Raju has again shown, it was already perfected in India over the period from the 5th to the 15th century, through the considerable ability of Aryabhat (who in fact was not even a Brahmin!) and others who followed him. The precise trigonometric values provided by the calculus were evolved for practical purposes, that is, for accurately predicting the monsoon for the requirements of agriculture and also of navigation.
The spread of the calculus from India to the west came through what is called the Kerala school of mathematics, comprised of a caste of Brahmins who had no difficulty in taking further the work of a non-Brahmin like Aryabhat. But enough of mathematics: let us cross over to the plant world.
Those working in botany and plants know that in the 16th century the Portuguese Garcia de Orta faithfully recorded local Indian knowledge of a huge variety of plants that were being used for medicinal purposes, the knowledge of which was thereafter transmitted by him to Europe. The information he collected was circulated in the form of the Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia (“Conversations on the simples, drugs and medicinal substances of India”), published at Goa in 1563. His attempt to understand and systematically document this vast indigenous knowledge of plants is sometimes misunderstood as a claim that he had discovered the various medical uses of these plants himself, when he was actually only reporting them!
Similar comments can be legitimately made about the Hortus Malabaricus. That text was based on botanical knowledge available in India, collected by the Dutch from vaidyas. It influenced Carl Linnaeus in the eighteenth century. Linnaeus is promoted amongst us (in our universities) as the “founder of botany”. The history of the knowledge of plants prior to him, and of their use, particularly in countries like ours, is not taught in our so-called institutions of higher learning. Moreover, the nomenclature is now shifted to Latin which fixes in people’s minds the notion that the study and classification of plants has come exclusively from the west.
But let us move on to other technical capacities of the Ganesha tradition, including several skills like the manufacture of textiles. I have shown how the art of making textiles could be developed in Europe only after entrepreneurs there did a close study – and then close imitations – of Indian textile making procedures and techniques. (See my 1976 book, Decolonising History, for more details.) In fact, in desperation, English colonial rulers in some areas had to cut off the thumbs of local weavers (and similarly, of ironsmiths in African countries) in order to kill the local industry because they were unable to compete with the latters’ quality and quantities. We know that the knowledge of natural dyes (indigo) was widespread. Today – after a relatively short and disastrous courtship with chemical dyes, and the havoc they have caused and continue to cause to the ecosystems of the planet – natural dyes have returned under the garb of promoting sustainable industry, which shows very clearly that some features of Indian technology ought never to have been changed in the first place.
One striking example of amazing technical virtuosity with living materials involves the maintenance of the biodiversity of domesticated plant crops and animal breeds. (Since it does not involve physics or math or engineering, it is not even considered in normal histories of science and technology.) It is without doubt that Adivasis and peasant farmers were responsible for the creation and maintenance of some 300,000 varieties of rice alone. This is a phenomenal figure and is indicative of a very high level of understanding of the processes of seed selection, maintenance and breeding techniques. I confirmed on a visit to IRRI in the Philippines in 1985 that 72,000 rice accessions in their possession were (without the consent of the Indian farmers who reared them) collected from India. (No one to my mind has demanded the return of these “kohinoors” from the Philippines, from where copies were taken to the USA) There are likewise at least 60,000 rice varieties at the Central Rice Research Institute in Cuttack which I also visited in the early eighties. The late rice scientist Dr. R.H. Richharia maintained 19,000 rice varieties in situ at the Madhya Pradesh Rice Research Institute at Jabalpur in MP. Even today, Dr Debal Deb, a single scientist working without any infrastructure, maintains over 900 varieties of rice at his research centre, Basudha, in Odisha.
The selection or breed improvement of rice varieties is a dynamic process. Dr. Richharia – himself one of the world’s leading rice breeders – found he had to revise his opinion about adivasis’ knowledge of scientific techniques when he tried out certain seeds which he got from these farmers but which he was unable to reproduce. He came to the conclusion later that these were naturally occurring male sterile lines. He had no idea of how the adivasis had come to know about the existence of these varieties (which modern breeders are still struggling with) but they knew what these naturally occurring varieties were meant for and how they ought to be used in their rice fields to create new varieties. Likewise, none of the so called “saline” or deep water varieties of rice was created by modern science; they were selected by farmers in coastal belts and in water-infested areas from varieties that had adapted to those environments.
In contrast, the International Rice Research Institute has produced – after 50 years of research – only two major successes, IR8 and IR36, both of which were eventually affected by disease. This narrow achievement can be compared with the thousands of varieties documented above. In so far as these varieties are pure sorts or “selections”, they represent knowledge or science of the permanent variety or stream. The plant varieties from current science labs are contributions to seasonal or transient science, since they have no staying power but get mowed down by nature and its devices largely because of their narrow genetic base. In our own time we are seeing this happening on a large scale in the case of Bt cotton.
This man-made biological diversity is available in several other crops as well. Indian farmers have evolved, for example, as astonishing 2,500 varieties of brinjal. This recognition led to the famous agitation against the Monsanto proposal to introduce a genetically engineered eggplant in the country which would use the indigenous varieties as the base, but would be a product owned by Monsanto once they – either by accident or design – were found to incorporate the multinational corporation’s proprietary gene.
The ability to work with seed selection and maintenance of the purity of such selections resulted in yield outputs that have remained unmatched even today.
There are several detailed scientific reports of English agricultural specialists – from Alexander Walker to Sir Albert Howard – who came to teach Indian farmers how to do agriculture but retired after conceding that they had very little to teach and more to learn. Dharampal’s data on agricultural yields reflected in the Chingleput area in the eighteenth century taken from British records indicates that the output of field crops in that region was higher than that associated with the best (and most expensive) of the so-called green revolution practices used today.
Or take cotton, as another fine example of how the situation has indeed deteriorated, instead of being assisted to the contrary by modern agricultural techniques. Just look at this 120-year-old data about cotton production (and remind yourself, no pesticides and chemical fertilisers were used in cotton prior to 1966) sent to me recently by Soumik Banerjee, an activist from Jharkhand working on these issues:
In 2013-14, as per the Cotton Corporation of India website, average yield of cotton per ha was reported at 577 kg/ha with the highest yields of 785 kg/ha from Rajasthan.
Now let’s look at the data provided in Sir George Watt’s Dictionary of Economic Products of India Vol-4 (1890):
According to the data, in 1888-89, we can see that the average yields of indigenous cotton in 19 districts of India were all above 577 kg/ha as shown in the table below:
Currently part of
|Sind 6 dists||Sind||Pakistan||
|Dera Ghazi khan||Panjab||Pakistan||
Banerjee has pointed out to me other interesting observations from the same source:
“In 1870, Mr J G Fraser of Gopalpur, Jaunpur, reported results of cultivating Hinganghat cotton by transplanting from broadcast sowing made in the rains. The yield was 1405 kg/ha of high quality cotton.
“In Cawnpore (Kanpur) Farm, a 2 year experiment by settlement officers recorded yields of 635 kg/ha under irrigation and 561 kg/ha under unirrigated condition.
“Conjointly with the laudable endeavours to improve the local races of cotton, numerous experiments were conducted with the object of determining the suitability of foreign seeds to the climate and soil of Sind. The results have been to prove that no seed can in anyway compete under the local conditions of soil and climate with commonly cultivated Sindhi race. Bourbon cotton, the exotic chiefly experimented with, gave an outturn of only 354 kg/ha while native cotton on the other hand yielded in the same year and similar care 1992 kg/ha.”
It bears repeating that the 2013 yields of cotton (average: 577 kg/ha) have been obtained after profuse use of chemical fertilisers, deadly pesticides and irrigation. The stagnancy in cotton production was misused by Monsanto – with the support of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change – to gain the acceptance of the scientific agricultural community to inflict genetically modified cotton everywhere in the country. Already, in some states like Gujarat, more than 90% of cotton now grown is genetically modified in field conditions that are not permitted by the regulations of the Government of India.
Take a look at the macabre consequences already unwinding: three years ago, 30% of India’s exports of organic cotton were rejected and returned from abroad because of contamination with Bt cotton genes. India is the largest exporter of organic cotton in the world. If genetically modified cotton genes are found in organically grown cotton, the entire consignment fails the “organic” test. To promote organic is one of the most serious concerns of the present government.
The field of domesticated animals is even worse tragedy. We have so far now (belatedly!) recognised 39 Indian breeds of cattle alone. Many of these breeds were imported by countries like New Zealand, Brazil, South Africa and the United States because of their inbuilt superior resistance to disease. These countries further improved the potential of these breeds for both milk and meat. In Brazil today, a Gir cow produces 60 litres of milk a day. In India, we ignored them completely, importing European breeds instead. This was done because of the obsession with quick solutions for producing more milk for urban areas.
Now the older Indian breeds are once being cultivated by the present government. However, the governments of Haryana (BJP) and Israel, and the governments of India and Australia, have recently signed agreements to import exotic semen and frozen embryos for “improvement” of genetic quality of Indian breeds.
This schizophrenia is difficult to understand, much less treat.
An understanding of this society’s approach traditionally to water, water harvesting, water transport, reflected in both large scale engineering devices and small scale storage solutions, has long since emerged among scholars and engineers, due to the persistent work of people like Rajendra Singh and Anupam Mishra. Large-scale, meticulously planned irrigation systems not only enabled people to transport and store water in very substantial quantities (examples: Rajasthan, Pune; the suranga traditions of Kasargod in Kerala which were similar to the qanat from the Arabic world) but the system of tank irrigation (for example, in Karnataka) was so well designed that when English engineers proposed to increase the number of tanks, they found there were no more locations available since the existing ones had adequate arrangements to collect allthe rainfall that fell on the ground in the area. In May this year, I walked a kilometre through an underground aqueduct constructed in Bidar 400 years ago. The engineer turned out to be a Muslim Hindu. The still intact aqueduct is 3 km long. Six such aqueducts have been found. The one I explored is now being restored, because these massive engineering works hold the key to permanent drinking water availability in future in a time of climate change and chronic drought.
Indian water harvesting systems were designed to deal with the monsoon, that is, to collect rain where it fell, precisely like the average Mumbai resident who finds she must collect as much water from her tap within an hour every morning in as many containers, between when the piped public water supply starts and then shuts.
Modern irrigation systems, built on the technology of dams in non-monsoon dominated countries, are never sustainable, since they dam only the excess run off instead of harvesting all the rain that falls. In fact, the forests that harvest and store the water in the catchment area of a river are slaughtered and drowned in the dam’s reservoirs. Since catchment areas are denuded thus of the vegetation, the life of the dam is considerably reduced through erosion and siltation. In the tank irrigation system, the silt accumulated in tanks was removed and used to fertilise agricultural lands, maintaining the tank’s capacity for endless storage. The Telangana government has, in the past year, finally returned in a massive way to support this practice.
But what do the educated people of this country, those who feel they had the good fortune to get themselves certified through the still operational Macaulay system, really know about other aspects of what the Lord Ganesha controversy symbolises? Fairly little. Despite being born in India and educated in Indian schools, they only have a westernised understanding of everything.
I report that I suffered from the same disease. Recovery took several years. Twelve years ago I set up the Multiversity project, to bring together scholars to sit together and discuss methods to undo this damage to our minds.
In fact, remedying this macabre situation in the schools and universities was precisely one of the reasons that the T.S.R. Subramaniam Committee on the New Education Policy was appointed.
Much is made of the voluminous draft report produced by the Subramaniam Committee. I made a presentation before the Committee. After a half hour of explaining disconnects in the system between what was being taught and what this country needed, and despite proposing radical options for getting out of the rut, I was asked to reproduce all I said in one sentence so that it could be incorporated somewhere in the report. I declined the grand offer. Now I have read the report. Let me place it in the context of what I am saying in this lecture.
What does the report say? It says a lot, like all reports do, because it refers to most earlier reports and ends up repeating their observations, but it simply refuses to answer the simple question of why we teach what we teach. Almost all its concerns are focussed on infrastructure, almost nothing on content or method; vast sections are on the delivery system without going into what needs to be delivered or what is being delivered. But there is one revealing paragraph which appears at the beginning:
The Education System which was evolved first in ancient India is known as the Vedic system. The importance of education was well recognized in India, ‘Swadeshe pujyate raja, vidwan sarvatra pujyate’ “A king is honoured only in his own country, but one who is learned is honoured throughout the world.” The ultimate aim of education in ancient India was not knowledge, as preparation for life in this world or for life beyond, but for complete realization of self. The Gurukul system fostered a bond between the Guru and the Shishya and established a teacher centric system in which the pupil was subjected to a rigid discipline and was under certain obligations towards his teacher. The world’s first university was established in Takshila in 700 BC and the University of Nalanda was built in the 4th century BC, a great achievement and contribution of ancient India in the field of education. Science and technology in ancient and medieval India covered all the major branches of human knowledge and activities. Indian scholars like Charaka and Susruta, Aryabhata, Bhaskaracharya, Chanakya, Patanjali and Vatsayayna and numerous others made seminal contribution to world knowledge in such diverse fields as mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, medical science and surgery, fine arts, mechanical and production technology, civil engineering and architecture, shipbuilding and navigation, sports and games.
The Indian education system helped in preserving ancient culture and promoting cultural unity and infused a sense of responsibility and social values. The ancient Indian education system has been a source of inspiration to all educational systems of the world, particularly in Asia and Europe.
However, from a bare reading of the report, it is crystal clear that this ancient Indian system of education, despite its virtues, has not been a source of inspiration to the T.S.R. Committee itself! The reason for this is clear: like many educated modern Indians, the Committee is obviously convinced that what was good for ancient India might not be suitable for the “modern” age. Therefore, after writing this single revealing paragraph, no further mention of these issues appears in the rest of the entire report. It is almost as if Mr Subramaniam (obviously another successful spiritual heir of Lord Macaulay) had to make some concessions to Sevaram Sharma and Dr J.S. Rajput, two members of the Committee associated strongly with these concerns. Once having done so, the concerns were safely relegated, just as Thomas Macaulay once did, to the rubbish bin, of no further practical use for the policy recommendations the Committee has made. This despite the fact that the work of Charaka and Susruta, Aryabhata, Bhaskaracharya, Chanakya, Patanjali and others like Panini, retains its usefulness even today. Lest we have already forgotten, the world has just celebrated the second edition of World Yoga Day! More people than ever across the world settled down for a yoga session than to watch football.
It is important to acknowledge this disconnect that was introduced between working Indian traditions and the new intellectual concerns (including western science) after the introduction of the Macaulay Minute on Education. Just as weavers’ thumbs had to be cut to stop their effective functioning, the system of education that led to the invention of the modern intellectual had to ensure almost total severance with the knowledge systems and skills that had driven this country till almost the beginning of the 19th century. It is important to emphasize that Dharampal’s writings reported not some ancient Indian competence, but expertise obtaining in the eighteenth century!
The abuse that a whole class of English intellectuals (from Macaulay to Lutyens) heaped on India, its ways of doing things, its systems of thinking, had a paralysing effect from which we are yet to recover. Our recent intellectual life has been contaminated or overridden with Eurocentric perceptions, and as most of our historians have come from arts disciplines with little or no engineering or scientific or technical skills or interests, the general impression that has gained disproportionate credence due to their writings – maintained as true facts through school classrooms – is that whatever good has come to this country in the form of serviceable, utilitarian or practical ideas has come exclusively from the West. If people can be made to believe this despite the massive evidence to the contrary, they can be led to believe almost anything!
This alleged deficiency became the excuse to introduce what I call the western variant of science and technology, largely christian (almost Biblical) in its overall framework, the western manner of doing things, learning them, handling them, mostly all at variance with those culturally sanctioned in this country and rooted in a long term understanding of the natural environment. Therefore this inevitable chasm between the educated modern individual and the soul of India, the latter represented so well in the almost total allegiance to Ganesha and his ways, or manifest in the ever increasing numbers at Kumbh Melas in recent times.
From the algorithms, zero, Arabic numerals and calculus to the raising of plants and the maintenance of health, knowledge generated in India had practical aims. For these very reasons it could not go wrong as nothing in life can go against nature, or survive or thrive or work if it attempts to operate against natural principles or the way nature works. Precisely because of this, this civilization survived thousands of years. It owed everything to the Hindus, not to Hinduism, or its latest variant, Hindutva, both the latter a creation of the west and its parochial assumptions.
The circumstances narrated above have had a cumulative and severe impact on the self-esteem and self-perceptions of the public at large from which the political class and the modern intellectual have also emerged. The lack of self-esteem is often sought to be treated by off-the-cuff claims similar to the Modi reference relating to Ganesha and plastic surgery. Or that other tangent, vedic mathematics. The idea of claiming an exclusive set of computation skills under the label of “vedic mathematics” as a demonstration of this country’s contribution to mathematics is absurd when it is our essential contribution to the very foundations of mathematics that we ought to celebrate. So how ridiculous can it get?
Even today, if asked to reflect on this calmly, we can still come to the conclusion that even if the entire western world, together with its systems of thought, was taken into the sea by a tsunami, this country would survive and do well, simply because it invented the four basic algorithms, the differential equations of the calculus (knowledge of which is adequate for any technology from computers to sending people to the moon), it had perfect knowledge of the processes of making iron and steel, it could handle complex issues like plastic surgery, it could clothe itself with ease and distinction, it had the most diverse range of cultivated crops and animals, it had mastered the art of dealing with the monsoon, which enabled it to produce wealth and food for all. No other country had (or continues to have) such an amazing record of ability. However, by some sleight of hand, all the histories of science, technology and mathematics celebrate them as exclusively western contributions to humankind without ever acknowledging their Indian origins.
Our own history of invention, when written, will show that almost every technology that was evolved in the subcontinent closely imitated natural processes: instead of using high energy fossil fuels generating high temperatures which produce colossal waste and greenhouse gases, we relied almost exclusively upon technologies energised by exploiting differences in ambient temperatures (which is also the way nature works, a good example, as the late C.V. Seshadri pointed out, being the monsoon). But this is the subject for another talk.
Notice that I am intentionally, in this lecture, not alluding to obvious skills and competencies in the arts and fine arts including music, dance, theatre and sculpture. In one of his talks, Pavan Varma refers to a man named Bharata, who 600 years before CE, wrote a treatise called the Natya Shastra which has 6000 slokhas and verses in Sanskrit. The treatise is not on a description of the arts, but a meditation on what constitutes aesthetics. Indian music and dance are acknowledged as great contributions across the world and provide ample pleasure to millions of people. In these departments in any case, there is absolutely no loss of self-confidence since none of them is under any threat from any performers from across the country’s borders!
However, even these exquisite manifestations of the human mind (and body) do not find any place in the curriculum, which for our students has been reduced to dreary history, dreary geography and dreary civics and the punishment of sitting 20 years of their youth on wooden benches. It has taken, for example, years of effort merely to get yoga taught in schools, even while the rest of the world and many outside the school system had already taken to it with zest. Admittedly, the leaders in charge of this civilization certainly took mass leave of common sense once Macaulay fiddled with their brains. M.N. Roy one can understand, but what happened to our modern intellectuals after they were set free by a freedom movement that had also focused its attention on what needs to be taught and how?
The promotion of yoga and ayurveda (plus three other systems of medical treatment under AYUSH) are sound examples of turning the compass around to what this country invested in as tested ways. Ayurveda, in fact, is a very good example of a system of maintaining health based on a separate set of assumptions that continue to work.
The assumptions underlying Ayurveda are based on the three empirically sensed elements: vayu (or vata), pitta (heat) and kapha (cold). You can explain global warming on the basis of these three elements. But so can you also explain how the body conducts itself. These elements appear as doshas in the human body. When any one of them or even two, gets predominant, harmony is upset, disease or dis-ease manifests. The effects show on the seven dhatus of which the body is composed and which comprise the physical locations in which dis-ease manifests itself.
The cure for the dis-ease is obtained by reversing those actions that have led to the emergence of the vitiated dosha and the trouble that it now causes. Mostly, this is achieved through diet. All food will contribute in some way to the maintenance or predominance of each of the three doshas. Medicinal plants and regimen will also contribute, so Ayurveda also developed competence in both these areas as well. Therefore, good health in the population is maintained by a widespread knowledge of how these elements can be maintained in harmony in the body through diet. In this theory, people who look after the cooking in the home are the best enabled as doctors. As Dr P.L.T. Girija says in her remarkable book, Jeevani, Ayurvedic understanding of the body is perennial science. “It was valid in the past, it is valid today, it will be valid in the future.”
The assumptions on which it based are part of permanent (not seasonal) science.
For the above reasons, Lord Ganesha remains the face of a civilization that can hardly be dubbed fully ancient or traditional, early modern or modern simply because several of its features, in fact, continue to reflect an understanding of nature’s principles that is so systematic and so holistic that it could be profitably used as long as human beings survive on the planet.
Likewise, the recent rehabilitation of indigenous agriculture through organic farming is another indicator of welcome new directions adopted. So is the project to recover time lost on the conservation and development of indigenous pure livestock breeds. All these programmes are now supported and endorsed by the present government. These programmes mark this regime as different from earlier regimes.
In conclusion, I must clarify: most of us are deshbhakts, not necessarily Modi bhakts. Nonetheless, I am grateful to the PM for that singular reference to Ganesha and plastic surgery because it has provided us with an opportunity to re-examine the frame-works that continue to rule, burden and cripple our intellectual work and our understanding of ourselves, and how we continue to display ourselves and our contributions to humanity and to the welfare of all other living creatures on the planet.
That said, the question which remains and which we must now pose to power is how much present policies reflect or build on these obvious strengths and competencies afforded by the country’s intellectual traditions and the existing and extremely diverse skill bases of its massive population, once the most skilled army of artisans and craftspeople, now downgraded to the status of unskilled labour by the Niti Ayog (and its predecessor, the Planning Commission).
The answer to that is not all happy; in fact, it is indeed troubling.
The christian “dark ages” we can recall, lasted a thousand years. Our own “dark age” – which commenced around 1835 CE – is not yet 200 years old. During this period, very much like the christian west – which went into hiding and allegedly handed over custodianship of science and medicine to Islam – we have handed over our thinking processes to the west, to its bankers, its corporations, its universities, its academic systems, its political class.
The simple maxim about such matters is known to all: the more we use their expertise, the less we can rely upon our own. Our modern intellectuals, including our planners, continue to ignore history, people, craft and native intelligence and resourcefulness. They are determined instead to place this huge billion plus civilisation on the self-destructive development path chosen by the west. It is most ironic that the very person who talked with pride about Ganesha and the Indian skill of plastic surgery is also heading a government that has indulged in little more than tokenism as far as the rehabilitation of our sense of ourselves is concerned. In some matters, it has in fact declared war – leading to conflict within its own ranks – as in the rebellion begun within the RSS against Monsanto’s proposals to genetically tamper with our biodiversity, including brinjal and mustard.
In the field of food growing, for example, the Government of India (here Congress, BJP make no difference) continues to play host to the proposals of the world’s worst and most hated US corporation, Monsanto, in order to hand over the rich agricultural biodiversity raised by its farmers in exchange for the chimera of non-existent enhanced production and profits. This is happening even while the government has before it unimpeachable evidence of Bt cotton going awry. It now wants to repeat the experience with mustard, a condiment we add to our food everyday. Thus, in addition to god every morning, we will also be compelled to pay obeisance to Monsanto. This madness appears to have no end. It is the result of nothing more than a continuing blind faith in the scientific authority system of the west, itself gravely distorted by the cancer of profit-seeking without limits.
As an environmentalist, I must condole with the news that the worst onslaught against the skin, flesh, bones, tissues and blood of Bharat Mata has come from the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in the last two years under the overall supervision of Prakash Javadekar. This government has proceeded, no-holds-barred as it were, with the single objective of removing all obstacles posed by nature (wildlife, forests, water bodies, mangroves, coasts: the ecosystem assets and endowments on which millions survive) simply to further the expansion of corporate dreams – which in most parts of the country are rapidly degenerating into nightmares.
In these days of daily encounters with the negative consequences of climate change, the irreversible decline of planetary ecosystems, the relentless destruction of primary sources required for normal human living – like pure air, clean water, healthy rivers – it is truly shocking that the government continues to live in grand denial. Let it be said categorically that India, without its splendid natural endowments and protected wildernesses, has no reason to exist.
The most difficult of the undeclared policies that one encounters – and which one is unable to understand or accept – is the brazen attempt to suppress and browbeat and condemn people (well known or ordinary) who do not sing or join the praises of the present dispensation, even when it is found to be pursuing a misguided path. How is this legitimate in a country which thrived on the culture of fairness in debate? Since when did such anti-personal violence become a part of Hindu tradition?
Part of the blame for these undesirable developments must goes to the modern intellectual. Without roots, disconnected by his education from his country’s intellectual underpinnings, he finds it natural to remain aloof. For this reason, every issue that is sought to be raised, even if genuine, is now kept at arm’s length or worse, derided and mocked, allegedly because of the fear of being identified with the Hindutva or other similar camps. The result is that the field has been left abandoned. I doubt Prabhash Joshi would have allowed such things to come to pass.
I totally resent the idea, for instance, that the colour of saffron should now be owned or claimed only by sectarian groups like the Bajrang Dal. Who handed over its custody or copyright to them? The extraordinary intellectual contributions of the Hindus (in which I include family and myself) will eventually be divested of all their intrinsic worth and made the subject of universal mirth, if public intellectuals do not come out now and take a stand. The T.S.R. Committee has failed already in this. Now we have no option but to make another effort all over again.
Gandhi was once asked his opinion about western civilization. With his inimitable sarcasm, and with a chuckle, he responded “I think it would be a good idea.” He meant it would be good to establish, meaning quite clearly that it was far from being realised in his time – the tyranny mounted by the Britain against people in the colonies, both political and economic, being the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Gandhi could take that view, already spelled out by him in clear detail in Hind Swaraj, even while a fairly large, in fact, overwhelming number of his colleagues, Nehru included, were already convinced that they should import “the good idea” even when it was yet to be established in the west itself. In fact, it has not been established there even today and probably never will. In fact, all that we can see are signs of a steady and open retreat.
I wonder if any doubt concerning whether Indian civilisation was a “good idea” ever crossed Gandhiji’s or Prabhash Joshi’s mind. Maybe the need never arose. Because these individuals were both believers in sanatana dharma (which is not the same as the Hinduism created in the mirror of christianity) and they openly committed themselves to this belief. The compass providing permanent, unshakeable direction to life, was already there. There were some serious aberrations they conceded, including the obvious and disturbing facts of untouchability based on the degrading grading of classes of human beings in Hindu society in different places and different times, which is why the dalits have come to conclude that Indian civilisation is an extremely bad idea. But these social failings were of such nature that they could conceivably be corrected, if not by actions from above, at least by continued rebellion from below. We have lost faith in the idea of India for far too long. It is time to think of India as a good idea that existed and which can exist again. Thank you!
(Prabhash Joshi Memorial Lecture 2016)
Reproduced from Claude’s blog, in case the site is down (that happened!).
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