Drift From Inheritance: A Review Of Sahana Singh's Book On Indic Educational Heritage

by D V Sridharan - Dec 13, 2021 02:13 PM +05:30 IST
Drift From Inheritance: A Review Of Sahana Singh's Book On Indic Educational HeritageChildren at a school near Bodh Gaya (José Morcillo Valenciano/Flickr)

Revisiting The Educational Heritage Of India. Sahana Singh. Vitasta Publishing. 2021. Pages 308. Rs 695 (Hardcover).

  • Sahana Singh’s book nudges us to reflect on what we have walked away from.

Drift From Inheritance: A Review Of Sahana Singh's Book On Indic Educational Heritage

At the risk of embarrassing author Sahana Singh, I say I found her book Revisiting the Educational Heritage of India, comparable — in a broad sense — to Dr Meenakshi Jain’s ‘Flight of Deities’.

Let me explain.

If the doyen historian detailed our ancestors’ dedication to safekeeping deities of ravaged temples, the younger author describes the commitment of thinkers and teachers of our ancestry in building the massive edifice of Bharata’s knowledge system.

Curiously, our ancestors’ areas of concern, namely temples and education, are precisely the ones that all governments of independent India — including the current — seem set to pointedly look away from; I refer to the denial of autonomy to Hindus’ temples and the indifference to the need to correct the corruptions that have crept into our education system.

Singh writes without exclamations or exaggerations. Also she neither espouses “a complete resurrection of the ancient system of education”, because it is “both impractical and undesirable to move away from those aspects of modern education which are empowering and beneficial.”

Hers is an exhaustive overview of knowledge creation and its transfer from 100 BCE onwards. A good way to summarise her book is to begin at Page 148.

The graphic there, (and above) — designed by the author — lays out the physical extents of Bharatiya knowledge’s influence.

It’s worth pausing a bit here. There are maps illustrating pilgrim routes and places of worship. And there are ones laying out the political extents of various Hindu rulers. Yet, others show trade routes. But this is the first I have come across that maps knowledge streams. The geographical extent it shows would easily exceed those of other maps, both in terms of reach and influence.

That’s another way of saying, Bharata’s most influential power arises from its pursuit of knowledge.

In the course of her book, Singh touches upon every geographic outpost shown in her graphic; though not in great depth but sufficiently enough to kindle your interest.

As a further aid there’s a vast list of references and many excerpts. Sources vary from books to papers and articles.

Cover and back page of the book by Sahana Singh.
Cover and back page of the book by Sahana Singh.

Among the reasons why we may have collectively lost the reverence and commitment to the pursuit of knowledge is a conflation of study of even temporal subjects with religious rites.

Another — and a more a saddening one — is the trivialising of the depth of our knowledge system with factoids gathered from boastful lectures and articles and increasingly, from WhatsApp forwards.

Let me serve some samples from the book that redresses these with a ring of authenticity, backed as they are by references to sound sources:

- More than 90 per cent of our archaeological sites remain unexcavated.

- India is said to have preserved more pre-modern manuscripts than the rest of the world combined.

- “…scholars from China first visited Indonesia where they spent some years learning Sanskrit and other subjects in order to gain enough competency to seek admission in famous Indian universities. Indonesia was like a mini-India”.

- Only about 20 per cent of the students who applied (to Nalanda) got through… And yet, the university in its prime had as many as 8,500 students and 1,500 teachers.

- First elementary school came up in England only in 1850 and catered to a minuscule fraction of children.

- A non-exhaustive list of renowned universities (presumably contemporaneous) is as follows: “Valabhi, Vikramshila, Pushpagiri, Jagaddala, Odantapuri, Somapura, Bikrampur, Varanasi, Sharada Peeth, Ratnagiri, Mithila, Ujjaini, Kanchipuram, Ennayiram and Thrissur”

- Pythagoras may have travelled to India or at least was deeply influenced by her ways in Egypt. He became a champion of vegetarianism and forest schools. A couple of thousand years later, Voltaire was to assert “…everything has come down to us from the banks of Ganga… Pythagoras went from Samos to Ganga to learn geometry”.

- Mendaleev’s use of Sanskrit numerals for undiscovered elements in his Periodic Table, may have have been a homage to Panini, who had hugely influenced him.

- Jaisalmer had multi-storey caverns to conceal and preserve thousands of manuscripts from destruction.

- There were 100,000 village schools reported in Bengal and Bihar alone in the 1830s.

- “…in a large number of schools, ‘Soodras’ were in majority while the Brahmins and ‘Vysees’ were in minority….In Tamil-speaking areas, the Shudras were 70 per cent in Salem and Tinnevelly, to over 84 per cent in South Arcot.”

Extracts can go on. You are awed and humbled throughout the book.

What left me saddened though, is how uncaring we have become to the zeal and privation of our ancestors in pursuit of knowledge. Creation of knowledge is one thing, but its conservation and propagation are less appreciated aspects.

Consider this: “The estimates of manuscripts that survive today within India range from five million to twenty million, while another million were said to have been taken out of India…”

Imagine the collective picture of the land, that emerges from all the following: Manuscripts were being produced manually by scribes who needed to be diligent about clarity and accuracy. Gurukulas and ashramas were ubiquitous. Scholars were journeying long distances within Bharata and overseas. The author names two scholars from Kanchipuram at Nalanda. Some travel times to and from China could take five years. Yet they toiled, travelled and lived their lives out in service of knowledge.

After a pause and a sigh over all that we have lost, one must turn to hope what and how we might redeem something at least.

Singh recommends Memory Training based on the 11 rules of memorisation used to transmit Vedas. The other is to revive Chaturanga as a means to teach foresight and strategy.

My mind suggests more ideas:

- Reproduction of the author’s Knowledge Flow map accompanied by a small booklet by her that points to sources for further study of each topic mentioned in the map. These topics can be prescribed for research and essay writing competitions.

- Popularising PanchaTantra and Hitopadesha as relationship guides.

- Teaching children to scribe with stylus in order to trigger a feel and interest in the ways of the old. They can be guided to make ‘greeting-leaves’ and book-marks. That would be a mind-focusing activity.

It's worth thinking up more ways to reconnect with our past.

I leave you with something that tugged at my heart: “…for a long time, Gurus disapproved of transferring the Vedas to written format even after writing was well established. Perhaps they worried about the incorrect transmission of intonations of the sacred.”

What care and sense of responsibility must have driven those ancestors to this worry? How great was their fear of mis-transmission of information that they preferred the harder way of doing it which they thought was error-proof.

Where has all this perfectionism gone? Have we been worthy of their caring labour? What could we do in gratitude?

May this book make us reflect on ways to conserve and propagate treasures of our past. There’s little time to lose. Lesser ideas and brittler ideologies have attracted more passionate activists than our knowledge treasures have done.

Unaware of our inheritance, we stand mocked.

(This review was first published by the author on medium.com and is republished here with permission).

D V Sridharan was a sea-going engineer in the 1960s. For the last 40 years, he has been passionate about the environment, especially water conservation and eco-diversity. He’s currently in the second decade of his land regeneration work at pointReturn, 100km south of Chennai. He tweets at @strawsinthewind.

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