Ask the Past

Ancient India's knowledge traditions were continuous & cumulative and it's a pity that young Indians know little of this vast intellectual heritage.

Ask the Past


India is perhaps the only civilisation of the ancient world that turned knowledge into a goddess. It was, in any case, regarded as sacred and so was its transmission: there was an old saying that a teacher, however great a scholar, who failed to find one student worthy of his learning, would have to go to hell. More historically, bas-reliefs in temples and other monuments often depict gurus teaching disciples; and when Dharmaswamin, a Tibetan monk, visited in 1235 the ruined site of Nalanda University, sacked four decades earlier by Bakhtiyar Khilji, he found a 90-year-old teacher, Rahula Shribhadra, still instructing a class of 70 students — perhaps Nalanda’s last class, stubbornly taught by a nonagenarian.

Knowledge was, however, not shapeless or a collection of snippets. It was carefully structured, yet shunned compartmentalisation: language and grammar often had underlying mathematical models; India’s earliest geometry resulted from complex fire altars and a philosophy of sacrifice; mathematics occasionally used poetry to express itself and shared with philosophical systems concepts of zero and infinity and the science of logic (variously called nyaya, yukti, tarka, anvikshiki, depending on the approach or school of thought); Aryabhata’s concept of beginningless and endless time, Indian astronomers’ use of yugas and the Kali Era are rooted in classical Hindu concepts; Ayurveda relied on fundamental philosophical views of the human and the cosmic, and had close links with alchemy and metallurgy; architecture was a meeting ground of cosmological concepts (most of them part of vastushastra), geometry (including the application of various sets of proportions) and building technology.

Harappan beginnings

When and how these knowledge systems took shape remains a matter of debate. Most of them go back two to three millennia, but a few clearly have roots in the Harappan or Indus or Indus-Sarasvati civilisation (2600 to 1900 BC for its urban or mature phase): its legacy to classical India of advanced practices in town planning, water harvesting and management, sanitation, metallurgy and craft technologies is rich and now well documented, although studiously ignored by our textbooks.

Mohenjo-daro’s Great Bath is often seen as the ancestor of pushkarinis. Almost every major city area or structure follows the same sacred proportions that classical architecture will use (this is especially visible at the impressive site of Dholavira in the Rann of Kutch, where the dimensions of every fortified enclosure and every reservoir obey strict ratios). The perky Dancing Girl has an arm covered with bangles, as do rural Rajasthani or Gujarati women even today; this bronze figurine was cast by the ‘lost-wax’ technique, in which a wax model is first made, covered with thick clay, fired, and molten bronze is then poured into the hardened clay mould — a technique transmitted to historical India and to today’s bronze casters.

Harappan symbols and designs — from the swastika to the intersecting circles and the endless knot — have survived; even the general design of the enigmatic Indus seals, with an animal standing before a ‘ritual stand’ and below an inscription, survived on coins from Mauryan and later times. Living customs such as the anjali namaskar with joined hands or the application of vermilion at the parting of the hair are traceable to Harappan traditions.

We know little of the Harappans’ thought and belief systems. Their rigorous town planning and obsession with standardisation — from the Indus seals and script to pottery styles and designs, from brick proportions to weights — bespeak a high sense of order. Several deities appear on the seals; while their identities remain speculative, their iconography is familiar: one stands below an arch of pipal leaves, just like Shiva under his arch of fire: another, with three faces, sits on a throne in mulabandhasana (a difficult posture, with the two heels brought back under the hips). Indeed, Harappans appear to have practised some form of yoga, judging also from figurines in various asanas and the so-called, but probably mis-called, Priest-King with his half-closed eyes conveying a sense of inward contemplation.

The Aryan imbroglio

Surprisingly, whether Vedic literature, the earliest in India, begins before, during or after the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation remains an unsettled question after almost a century of Harappan archaeology. The answer hinges on whether one accepts or rejects the mainstream view that Aryan-speaking tribes swept into the Indian subcontinent around 1500 BCE, some four centuries after the decline of the Harappan cities, and settled in northwest India to compose the Vedic hymns. In that perspective, the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation would be pre-Vedic and would therefore have little to do with subsequent developments in the Ganges plains, where, in the first millennium BC, a new civilisation emerges that will soon give rise to the kingdoms and empires we are familiar with, and ultimately to ‘classical’ India.

Mainstream or not, the Aryan theory has seen many avatars, from a brutal and massive conquering invasion swamping the indigenous people to a largely peaceful immigration limited to a few waves of ‘trickling-in’ Aryans. This tactical retreat — a dilution, rather — has been necessitated by the failure of archaeology, anthropology and genetics to support the old scenario, and their occasional success in opposing it. It would have completely faded away but for linguistics, which still insists on the origins of the Sanskritic branch of the Indo-European family of languages being located outside India — but where and when, there seems to be no agreement in sight.

We cannot go deeper here into the complex question of the origins of Vedic culture, except to point out that the characterization (‘demonisation’ would be more appropriate) of critics of the Aryan scenario as ‘hindu chauvinists’ or ‘hindutva communalists’ is deeply dishonest, although widespread in India as in the west. In reality, strong opposition to the Aryan paradigm was first voiced not by Indians but by European scholars such as British archaeologist and philologist Isaac Taylor (1890) or French archaeologist Salomon Reinach (1892). Several noted Indian scholars did follow suit — P.T. Srinivasa Iyengar (1914), B.N. Datta (1936), A.D. Pusalker (1950), P.V. Kane (1953) — as well as prominent public figures: Swami Vivekananda (1897), Sri Aurobindo (1914) or B.R. Ambedkar (1946), none of whom can invite the above invectives.

In recent decades, British anthropologist Edmund Leach, US bioanthropologist Kenneth A.R. Kennedy, US archaeologist Jim Shaffer, French archaeologist Jean-Paul Demoule, Italian linguist Angela Marcantonio, Estonian biologist Toomas Kivisild, all of them accomplished academics, have vigorously argued against the Aryan paradigm. Expectedly, our ‘demonisers’ have studiously ignored them, exerting themselves instead to create an impression in the public mind that Hindu fanatics alone oppose the Aryan invasion/migration theory.

The Vedic tradition

Let us leave this controversy to trace the first organisation of knowledge in the Vedic age, whether it is to be positioned before, during or after the Indus civilisation. The Vedas themselves are collections (samhitas) of hymns invoking divine powers for a multiplicity of purposes, from the most material level (protection, victory, wealth, progeny) to the most spiritual: some hymns explicitly call for the divine birth in us, while others, such as the famous Gayatri mantra, pray for the illumination of the mind. The river-cum-goddess Sarasvati is praised as the ‘impeller of happy truths’ who ‘awakens in the consciousness the great flood and illumines all the thoughts.’

By the time of the early Upanishads, a distinction is made between paravidya, the supreme knowledge of the nature of the brahman, and aparavidya, which includes pretty much all else: the knowledge of the universe, the human world and the sacred texts. A portion of aparavidya dedicated to the study and understanding of the Vedas is structured into six vedangas, or ‘limbs of the Veda’: grammar, prosody, phonetics, etymology, rituals and astronomy (the last initially for the elaboration of calendars).

Along with the Ganges civilisation, six darshanas or systems of philosophy emerge early in the first millennium BC, each giving rise to a primary literature that will, in turn, produce numerous commentaries, schools, sub-schools, and rich intellectual debates all the way to pre-colonial times. The six darshanas have been called astika (‘orthodox’ is a poor translation) because they were founded on the authority of the Vedas. Keeping in mind that equivalent English terms are approximate at best, they are:

1. Vedanta or, broadly, the Upanishadic philosophical tradition;
2. Nyaya or logic, which inquired deep into concepts of perception, inference, means of validation and categories;
3. Vaisheshika, an atomistic inquiry into the nature of the physical world and its relationship with consciousness; it famously declared that ‘whatever exists is knowable and nameable’;
4. Samkhya, which sees the universe as the result of the interplay of prakriti (nature) and purusha (the knower, a witness of pure consciousness);
5. Mimansa or Vedic exegesis; and
6. Yoga.

The last hardly needs a definition, although it may be useful to recall that it aims at the union with the divine consciousness. The level of that union and the method chosen to achieve it define the countless schools and systems of yoga. They are, at bottom, systems of self-exploration and self-fulfilment. Founders of the early schools of yoga, such as Kapila or Patanjali, would have been bemused by our current debate on whether yoga is ‘secular’ or not, ‘Hindu’ or not; they may have scratched their beards, if they sported one, convinced that this must be one of the signs of an advanced Kali Yuga, the age of ignorance.


Indeed, liberation from ignorance was the pursuit and ultimate objective common not only to the above six darshanas, but also to several others, called nastika (‘unorthodox’) because they did not accept the authority of the Vedas. There we find, among others, the Buddhist and Jain philosophies, the various systems of tantra, and a few atheistic schools such as the Charvaka, which laid emphasis on the exclusive truth of sensory perception; they do not appear to have appealed to the society and soon dwindled.

Buddhism and Jainism, although today regarded as ‘separate’ religions, in fact shared much with their late Vedic sisters: concepts of dharma and karma, the cessation of rebirth as ultimate objective, and the pursuit of happiness here and now. Recall Ashoka:

“What I desire for my own children, and I desire their welfare and happiness both in this world and the next, that I desire for all men.”

In time, these two ‘religions’, if we must call them that, also integrated a number of Vedic and Puranic gods and goddesses, from Indra to Sarasvati, into their pantheons. The symbiosis (much more than rivalry) worked both ways: when Buddhism faded away from northern India, largely under the Islamic impact which left most of its brilliant centres of learning in ruins, it did not ‘disappear’, as is often said, but was partly reabsorbed by an ever-assimilating Hinduism, its teachings and worship.

If Hinduism had by then regained much of its old vigour, its two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, deserve some credit for this. Those timeless texts are not only outstanding teachers of dharma and knowledge, but a gigantic tapestry of human life, its meaning, its limitations and tragic contradictions. They are also, incidentally, a mine of information on ethnography, polity and governance, warfare, social customs, sacred geography, ceremonies and rituals, diet, dress and ornaments, environmental changes, and much more. With countless regional adaptations and translations, they worked out the cultural integration not only of India but also of much of southeast Asia.

All this knowledge was transmitted by a variety of methods, from the formal institutions of Buddhism (not just Nalanda but thousands of monasteries across India) to the smaller gurukulas (often centred on temples) and village schools, not forgetting the hari katha tradition of wandering scholars who recited the two epics and other texts night after night in village after village, so that even the so-called illiterate were not uneducated but part of those knowledge traditions. The illiterate was cultured; today’s literate is uncultured.

A knowledge society?

When we look back on ancient India, we often imagine that its culture was, in the main, ‘spiritual’ and ‘otherworldly.’ Without going into the reasons for this misconception, let us point out that India’s so-called ‘spirituality,’ her philosophies, arts and literature, flourished best when the civilisation was materially most developed and opulent. From the Mauryan to the Gupta empires and beyond, this is a clear lesson of history.

Whether the inquiry was philosophical, medical or agricultural, India’s knowledge traditions were continuous and cumulative: savants, thinkers, artists did not normally demolish their predecessors’ work but built upon it and enriched it with their contributions, even if that involved sharp criticism at times. This richness of many-sided knowledge and freedom of inquiry is what we have lost in our linear and impoverished education, which discourages or penalises original thinking. Young Indians know next to nothing of this huge intellectual heritage, while many of our ‘intellectuals’ are content to scoff at it. The loss is considerable — nothing less than the essence of Indian culture. Perhaps, it is not too late to show to some of our bright young minds that they can still be enriched, stimulated or inspired by their distinguished predecessors. We will not go back to the past, but we may build a better future if we study some of its accomplishments, the best of which include a high vision of the goal of human life.

About Author: Michel Danino

Born in 1956 at Honfleur (France) into a Jewish family recently emigrated from Morocco, from the age of fifteen Michel Danino was drawn to India, some of her great yogis, and soon to Sri Aurobindo and Mother and their view of evolution which gives a new meaning to our existence on this earth. In 1977, dissatisfied after four years of higher scientific studies, he left France for India, where he has since been living. A writer of numerous books including the bestseller, The Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati, he is currently a member of ICHR and a visiting professor at IIT Gandhinagar. The Government of India awarded him the Padmashri (India's fourth highest civilian award) for his contribution towards Literature & Education.

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