“World-class institutions of ancient India such as Takshashila, Nalanda, Vikramshila, Vallabhi, set the highest standards of multidisciplinary teaching and research, and hosted scholars and students from across backgrounds and countries. The Indian education system produced great scholars such as Charaka, Susruta, Aryabhata, Varahamihira, Bhaskaracharya, Brahmagupta, Chanakya, Chakrapani Datta, Madhava, Panini, Patanjali, Nagarjuna, Gautama, Pingala, Sankardev, Maitreyi, Gargi and Thiruvalluvar, among numerous others, who made seminal contributions to world knowledge in diverse fields such as mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy, medical science and surgery, civil engineering, architecture, shipbuilding and navigation, yoga, fine arts, chess, and more. Indian culture and philosophy have had a strong influence on the world” — this is a quote from the National Education Policy (NEP). How much do we know about Takshashila, Nalanda, Vikramshila and Vallabhi? What were the admission processes? How were these universities funded? What were the subjects and degrees offered? What were the governance structures? These are relevant questions, for any university, anywhere in the world. I suspect most educated Indians will only have a vague idea about the answers. In 1882, there was an Education Commission, better known as the Hunter Commission. It dismissed “education in ancient India” (defined as Pre-British) in one page. In fairness, that wasn’t the Commission’s mandate.
However, it did say, “in the seventh century AD, the vast monastery of Nalanda formed a seat of learning which recalls, by the numbers and the zeal of its students, the later Universities of medieval Europe.” For the average educated Indian, the impression about Takshashila, Nalanda, Vikramshila and Vallabhi will probably be limited to that 1882 quote and no more, with very little known about the non-Nalanda universities. We forgot everything about that history, spanning 600 BCE (Takshashila) to 12th century CE (end of Nalanda and Vikramshila, not to forget Jagaddala, Odantapura and Somapura). If I know more than most people, that’s because I have followed Shailendra Mehta’s work. That knowledge about India’s higher education system, as it then existed, had to be reconstructed from sources external to India (China, Tibet, Japan, Korea). Internally, we forgot. In 1835, Thomas Macaulay wrote a famous “Minute on Education”. Macaulay’s Minute is lambasted, with valid reason, though policy-wise, the great Indian education debate and the Orientalist-Anglicist controversy weren’t as sharp (eventually) as we sometimes think.
“I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed, both here and at home, with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia…It will hardly be disputed, I suppose, that the department of literature in which the Eastern writers stand highest is poetry… But when we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded and general principles investigated, the superiority of the Europeans becomes absolutely immeasurable.” That is what Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote. Given Macaulay’s background, he was unlikely to have known much about Sanskrit or Arabic. But were Orientalists familiar with any of the scholars mentioned in the NEP quote?
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Elsewhere, on Sanskrit, the NEP states, “Sanskrit, while also an important modern language mentioned in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India, possesses a classical literature that is greater in volume than that of Latin and Greek put together, containing vast treasures of mathematics, philosophy, grammar, music, politics, medicine, architecture, metallurgy, drama, poetry, storytelling, and more (known as ‘Sanskrit Knowledge Systems’), written by people of various religions as well as non-religious people, and by people from all walks of life and a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds over thousands of years.” In 1835, what did the average Orientalist know about Sanskrit? Kalidasa, primarily because of Shakuntala and Bhagavad Gita, because of the 1785 translation. In the entire corpus of sacred books of the east series, Hinduism texts meant Upanishads or Dharmashastras — nothing on mathematics, grammar, music, medicine, architecture, metallurgy or governance. Hence, a perception that Sanskrit means literature or dharma. The problem is that I don’t think the average educated India’s perception about Sanskrit is remarkably different from that of the 1835 Orientalist. Note that an estimated 95 per cent of manuscripts under the National Manuscript Mission, not all of which are in Sanskrit, have not been translated and that we have lost knowledge transmitted verbally. As an example, the Arthashastra all but vanished, until R Shamasastry rediscovered the manuscript in 1904.
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From Macaulay’s Minute again, “indeed it is unusual to find, even in the literary circles of the Continent, any foreigner who can express himself in English with so much facility and correctness as we find in many Hindoos…We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, — a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” The home language/mother tongue versus English isn’t the real issue. The real issue is the amnesia about our history, roots, culture, legacy and language and the production of interpreters and clerks. That is what NEP seeks to reboot.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 10 under the title “The NEP reboot”. The writer is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM. Views are personal.
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