Sanskrit Education And Research In The IITs: An IITan’s Perspective
We are proud of our Aryabhatta, Nagarjuna, Chanakya, Brahmagupta, Shushruta but how many of us actually know what they wrote or what they accomplished?
Vast literature of Atharvaveda, Vaisheshika Darshana, Arthashastra, Shushruta Samhita, and so on are yet to be tested in the light of modern science. Who knows what knowledge is hidden?
MHRD does not propose Sanskrit as a compulsory subject in the IITs, rather as an optional subject in undergraduate curriculum.
During the late 1960s, a highly ambitious government funded project was launched in China to find a new drug for treatment of several forms of malaria which were not treatable by quinine. Scientists all over the world had already tested over 240,000 compounds without any success. At this time, a 39-year-old Chinese woman Tu Youyou took a highly offbeat strategy. She started digging into traditional Chinese medicinal literature and documented the viable options.
Upon testing about 2,000 herbal recipes, there was a hit. An extract from sweet wormwood (Artemesia annua) was found to be effective. Interestingly, the “modern” or conventional method of extraction with boiling water was found to be completely ineffective. In an ancient text from 340 CE, extraction with cold water was prescribed, and it worked remarkably well.
Soon, the structure of the active compound was identified, and it was named artemesinin. Artemesinin is regarded as a wonder drug against malaria and has saved millions of lives since then, especially in the developing world. For her contribution, Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2015.
We Indians are always fascinated by such stories but ourselves fail to realize the underlying significance. We are proud of our Aryabhatta, Nagarjuna, Chanakya, Brahmagupta, Shushruta but how many of us actually know what they wrote or what they accomplished?
Had it not been the effort of the Arabs and Persians, much of their pioneering works would have faded into obscurity before 1st millennium CE. Sadly, this ignorance about our own heritage was not a recent trend. It is said that when Alexander the Great came to India, he was surprised by the fact that India in spite of being a great civilization had no properly recorded history.
The MHRD initiative
It is to be stressed that the initiative by the ministry of human resources (MHRD) to introduce Sanskrit education in the IITs has nothing to do with the alleged saffronization of higher educational institutes. Sanskrit is the heritage and pride of Indians irrespective of ethnicity, caste or religion. Sanskrit is not just the language in which the religious texts were written, it was also the language of science in ancient India, as English is the language of science in the modern world.
MHRD does not propose Sanskrit as a compulsory subject in the IITs, rather as an optional subject in undergraduate curriculum. That means, there is nothing which is forced upon the IITans. Moreover, Sanskrit is a highly structured language. Its rigorous yet elegant nature is comparable to mathematics. So, it won’t be surprising to find IITans who are genuinely interested to learn Sanskrit. The prime objective of the MHRD is to set up Sanskrit Cells in the IITs, which can research on ancient Sanskrit texts in the light of modern science and technology.
“Decoding” traditional knowledge - why it is important
Vast literature of Atharvaveda, Vaisheshika Darshana, Arthashastra, Shushruta Samhita, and so on are yet to be tested in the light of modern science. Who knows what knowledge is hidden there? It doesn’t hurt to run a traditional Ayurvedic concoction through an HPLC-MS/MS. There could be a new remedy for cancer hiding somewhere there. Taxol (paclitaxel) - one of the most widely used anti-cancer drugs, quinine - highly used anti-malarial drugs, came into use in modern medicine thanks to traditional knowledge.
Yoga has become a global phenomena and it is not just limited to the realms of alternative therapies. It has drawn the attention of mainstream scientists, especially neuroscientists and psychologists to better understand the scientific basis of the ever-enigmatic “body-mind problem” and also its applicability to deal with challenging disorders like ADHD and PTSD.
Unless the knowledge is tested, it is extremely foolish to brand them outrightly as trash. In this context, an important caveat needs to be pointed out. It should not be expected that these ancient texts will contain the useful information in a “ready to use” recipe form. Probably, they won’t be in the form of mathematical formulas or chemical equations or scientific names as we know in modern world. Also, not everything is expected to have a scientific basis. That is why, specialized effort is needed to “decode” the useful information and discard the rest.
Lack of traditional knowledge also makes our “national treasures” vulnerable to “stealing” by international parties. The legal fight between Indian and US organizations over the latter’s patenting on the usages of turmeric and neem have caught considerable media attention in the recent times. Finally, what came to our rescue? It was the evidences from ancient Sanskrit texts that pointed out that these products have been in use for millennia.
What to expect
To sum up, introduction of Sanskrit education and research is expected to serve the following purposes:
- Focused research on natural products, medicinal chemistry, agriculture, metallurgy, psychotherapy, etc where traditional knowledge often came out to be helpful to modern scientists all across the world. In these disciplines, close observation of nature can yield highly useful information, which may not need high technical advancement. On the other hand, it’s quite unlikely that information relevant to the modern science will be available in the much hyped areas like cosmology or “missile technology” (as described in Mahabharata or Ramayana) as the technology available in the ancient times was too primitive to be of any match of the modern times.
- Systematic documentation of the traditional knowledge base and its preservation, such that more crises do not arise in the future over patent issues. If premier institutes like the IITs assume the role of vanguards for this cause, our traditional knowledge will be in safe hands.
- Apart from scientific research, this initiative can boost linguistics and allied research in the IITs. This will also facilitate the diversification of the IITs. IITs have started multidisciplinary initiatives like business schools, law school, medical technology research centers, entrepreneurship cells, and so on. Following their likes, a Sanskrit Cell will definitely open up newer avenues.
Sadly, many “educated” Indians regard this initiative of MHRD as useless, retrograde and communal and even consider study of ancient Sanskrit texts in the same line as practising mumbo-jumbo.
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