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Traditional Indian knowledge systems: A National Treasure!!
6/7/2020 12:04:35 AM
Dr. Pragya Khanna

While the term 'traditional' sometimes carries the connotation of 'pre-modern' in the sense of 'primitive' or 'outdated', many of the traditional sciences and technologies were in fact quite advanced even by western standards as well as better adapted to unique local conditions and needs than their later 'modern' substitutes. The term 'Traditional Knowledge System' has been coined by anthropologists as a scientific system which has its own validity, in contradistinction to 'modern' science. It is thought that colonizers systematically derogated, exterminated or undermined the local traditional science, technology and crafts of the lands and people they plundered, because of their intellectual arrogance, and also to control and appropriate the economic means of production and the social means of organization.
Traditional knowledge, which may be technical, social, organizational, or cultural was obtained as part of the great human experiment of survival and development. Traditional Knowledge Systems date from more than 2 million years, when Homo habilis started making his tools and interacting with nature. Since the dawn of history, different people have contributed to different branches of science and technology, often in a manner involving interactive contacts across cultures separated by large distances. We have to study, preserve, and revive the Traditional Knowledge Systems for the economic betterment of the world in a holistic manner, as these technologies are eco-friendly and allow sustainable growth without harming the environment.
The History speaks volumes about Indian contributions to global science particularly in the fields of forests, agricultural biodiversity, inland waters, coastal and marine ecosystems, rangelands and eco-tourism, mathematics, linguistics, astronomy, metallurgy, civil engineering, medicine to name a few.
The Indus-Sarasvati Civilization was the world's first to build planned towns, with underground drainage, civil sanitation, hydraulic engineering, and air-cooling architecture making it the best example of Civil Engineering. Oven baked bricks were invented in India in approximately 4,000 BC. From complex Harappan towns to Delhi's Qutub Minar and other large projects, India's indigenous technologies were very sophisticated in design, planning, water supply, traffic flow, natural air conditioning, complex stone work, and construction engineering.
Looking into the world of Metal Technologies, Indians had pioneered many tools for construction, including the needle with hole opposite the pointed end, hollow drill, and true saw. Many of these important tools were subsequently used in the rest of the world, centuries later during Roman times. Also, India was first to produce rust-free iron.
India participated in the earliest known ocean based trading systems. Vasco da Gama's ships were captained by a Gujarati sailor, and much of Europe's 'discovery' of navigation was in fact an appropriation of pre-existing navigation in the Indian Ocean, that had been a thriving trade system for centuries before Europeans 'discovered' it. Some of the world's largest and most sophisticated ships were built in India and China. The compass and other navigation tools were already in use at the time. ('Nav' is the Sanskrit word for boat, and is the root word in 'navigation', and in 'navy', although etymology is not a reliable proof of origin.)
Regarding Water Harvesting Systems, Scientists estimate that there were 1.3 million man-made water lakes and ponds across India, some as large as 250 square miles. These are now being rediscovered using satellite imagery. These enabled most of the rain water to be harvested and used for irrigation, drinking, etc. till the following year's rainfall.
Many interesting findings have recently come out about the way forests and trees were managed by each village and a careful method applied to harvest medicines, firewood, and building material in accordance with natural renewal rates. The local populations had been quite sophisticated in managing their ecology until they were dis-empowered. There is now a database being built of these 'sacred groves' across India.
It is very well known that India's agricultural production was historically large and sustained a huge population compared to other parts of the world. Surpluses were stored for use in a drought year.
Traditional Medicine is now a recognized and respected field. Much re-legitimizing of Indian medicine has already been done, thanks to many western labs and scientists. Many multinationals no longer denigrate traditional medicine and have in fact been trying to secure patents on Indian medicine without acknowledging the source.
Besides other sciences, Indians developed advanced math, including the concept of zero, the base-ten decimal system now in use worldwide, and many important trigonometry and algebra formulae. They made several astronomical discoveries. Diverse schools of logic and philosophy proliferated. India's Panini is acknowledged as the founder of linguistics, and his Sanskrit grammar is still the most complete and sophisticated of any language in the world.
These systems evolved over centuries as communities living in challenging environments were able to develop suitable technologies and medicines to strengthen their survival skills.
Likewise, situated in the central Himalayan region, Uttarakhand is a biodiversity hot spot. The hill state offers unbelievable vignettes in the fields of architecture, hydraulics, ethno-medicine, ethno-botany, metallurgy and agriculture. Even today, there are many 1,000-year-old, multi-storeyed buildings that have withstood the test of time and devastating earthquakes. These marvels are part of the Koti Banal architecture, where rigid joints are avoided to allow seismic energy to dissipate.
Or let’s take the case of traditional hydraulics, bawlis (spring wells), gharats (water mills) and a wide range of irrigation channels. Over centuries, people developed these efficient water harvesting technologies to recharge underground aquifers. Most enticing examples can be seen from Rajasthan.
Traditional knowledge systems are today being gradually replaced with modern lifestyle preferences and unsustainable development practices. For instance, traditional architecture is fast becoming extinct due to the emergence of concrete structures; hydraulic technologies are being replaced by a network of pipes and hand pumps; traditional medicinal systems have given way to allopathic treatment; and, traditional metallurgy has been wiped out by non-stick cookware.
At the same time, ancient medicinal plants are being patented by major drug firms, who do not share the profits with local communities from whose habitats they source the plants.
Traditional knowledge systems were passed on through the oral tradition over centuries, and often through the heuristic devices of legends and myths. So there is a need to document and patent these systems on the one hand, and on the other, it is imperative to prevent over-exploitation and misuse by large corporations. But more importantly, it is vital to evolve mechanisms so that these systems benefit the community at large.
India's intellectual resources are not limited. Today, there are Indian economists, social developers, and scholars who are working hard to revitalize many Traditional Knowledge Systems. It must be done for the betterment in the interest of the planet Earth and those thriving on it.
India has amongst the best cases for successful revival of Traditional Knowledge Systems. It has a rich heritage still intact in some areas. It has the largest documented ancient literature relevant to Traditional Knowledge Systems. It has the intellectual resources to appreciate this and to implement this revival, provided the mental blocks could be shaken up through re-education of its governing elite. It has dire needs to diversify beyond dependence solely upon the new panacea of globalization and westernization.
India's scientific heritage, besides its philosophical and cultural legacy, needs to be properly understood. The aim is not inspired by chauvinism, but to understand the genius of Indian civilization better. This would overhaul the current assessment of India's potential. To correct the portrayal of the History of Science, the History of Ideas, mainstream accounts of World History, anthropology and culture. This entails emphasizing to scholars and educators that Traditional Knowledge Systems should be included, especially India's achievements and contributions to world science that have been very significant but unappreciated.
Traditional Knowledge Systems should be included in economic planning, because they are eco-friendly, sustainable, labor rather than capital intensive, and more available to the masses. This should be done in parallel with the top down 'modern' scientific development using westernized 'globalization', as the two should co-exist and each should be used based on its merits.
Traditionally, India was one of the richest regions in the world, and most Indians were neither 'backward' nor uneducated nor poor. Some historians have recently begun to come out with this side of the story, demonstrating that it was massive economic drainage, oppression, social re-engineering, and so forth at the hands of colonizers that made millions of people ‘poor' over the past few centuries.
Therefore, let’s ponder over a simple question: Is India a 'developing' society, or is it a 're-developing' society? Without appreciating the Traditional Knowledge Systems, how could anthropologists and sociologists interpret the current condition of a society? Were we always poor, always living in polluted and socially problematic conditions as today, in which case these problems have become an essence? Or is there a history behind the present condition? This history should not, however, excuse the past failures since independence to deal properly with the economic and social problems that persist. Going forward, Traditional Knowledge Systems are eco-friendly, symbiotic with the environment, and therefore can help provide a sustainable lifestyle.
When Gandhiji was asked whether he would like India to develop a lifestyle similar to England's, his reply may be paraphrased as follows: The British had to plunder the Earth to achieve their lifestyle. Given India's much larger population, it would require the plunder of many planets to achieve the same. The point is that employing Traditional Knowledge Systems is imperative for humanity at large, while reducing global dependence on inequitable and resource draining "advanced" knowledge systems. Therefore it is very important that India's scientific heritage is brought to the attention of the educated world.
I quote the wisdom of Harold Flett, “To the early Native people, education was a part of everyday life. Their books were the rocks, the rivers and lakes, the trees and roots, the sun, the moon and the stars. It was from these elements that they fashioned their material culture. Creative life was in everything. One loved nature and nature loved in return. The people believed in only one Supreme Being, The Creator, whose mighty power governs and directs the beginning and end of all things.”
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