How to bridge ancient wisdom and modern knowledge? Opening remarks at ThinkEdu Conclave, Chennai, 4 Mar 2017.

How to bridge ancient wisdom and modern knowledge?
That we are here to discuss HOW to bridge these two kinds of learning– of course, assumes that we think there is a gap of some sort. In order to answer the question, of course, I will first – theoretically – accept that there is a gap, and present some of my thoughts on how to bridge the gap.
My first solution comes from the topic itself. See how, within the very topic, the term ancient is paired with wisdom, and modern with knowledge. Instead of ancient knowledge, and modern wisdom … surely, modernity is not all about ignorance, nor ancient sources only wise!
There is both romance and prejudice in such a pairing – “ancient wisdom” and “modern knowledge” – my first solution, number ONE, suspend both romance and prejudice.
I have met young students fervently desiring to live “the vedic way of life” before they even know what that could possibly mean.
On the other hand, I have also come across people who have preconceived prejudices against ancient sources without ever having bothered to learn about them.
Neither should we reject / denigrate something because it is ancient – nor should we revere / romanticize it because it is ancient. First, we need to try to know what it is we are bridging.
We need to first become informed – and of course, for this we must have, or find, access. This leads to some obvious points. It means language studies. It means investing in libraries. Frankly, some of our best libraries are embarrassingly unkempt. If scholars study Indology in Europe and USA, let’s try to understand why that is so!
I would also say that it points to a need for – a respect for anthropology / cultural studies / ethnography, because, in particular in India, it is not only the canonized sources that contain useful information, but the people. Anyone who has traveled by road in India knows, many eras exist at once here (and not only because of tourism).
2. Second, we need to focus on the information rather than what it means about us, then we are liberated from the pre-determinations that come from platforms—all sorts of platforms – including those of identity- civilisational, cultural, religious.
When we focus on the information rather than what it means about the learners, we break through packaging and boxes – we find out that not everyone who studies Sanskrit or believes in Ishwara is “right” (i.e., right-wing) nor is everyone else “left.”
When we focus on the information rather than what it means about the learners, we also become sensitive to context.
This means that we recognize we live in a society that is different from that many centuries or millennia ago. Equal opportunities in education and roles for men and women in public life mean that we cannot just simply graft something taken from the past on to the present. We cannot “go back” – we do not have to duplicate it – but we become more self-aware. Just because you are not happy with the ending of the Ramayana, or Sita’s suffering, you do not have to reject this moving and rich resource.
3) THIRD: You know the saying, you can take a horse to the water but you can’t make it drink… No matter how much of propaganda you use, you only promote platforms, or conventions, or modes of behavior – respect, reverence, and so on. What finally bridges the gap is the taste – Experience.
There’s a story about a lion cub that grows up among sheep. One day a lion shows up and recognizes it. It says – you’re a lion! And the lion cub does not listen. Anyhow the lion cub joins a hunt and gets a taste of the kill. That’s when it realizes who it is.
When there is experience, there is immediacy and there is neither ancient nor modern. In fact, both ancient and modern are both PRESENT.
At any point in time, people always live in the present.
In the prelude to the Sanskrit play Malavikagnimitram, the sutradhar or director tells the assistant that a new play by Kalidasa should be staged for the Spring festival. The assistant replies: how can we disregard Bhasa, Saumilla and Kaviputra and choose a composition by Kalidasa, a modern poet? The phrase used there is “vartamana kavi.” Ancient and modern are both present – current.
And this is also my own approach – whether to Kalidasa or Ezra Pound, if you engage with a subject, all that there is, is immediacy.
FOURTHLY. Having said that, the frameworks of ancient knowledge and modern wisdom are different. The problem occurs when you try to apply one on to the other.
In my doctoral work on mantra, I met a number of people who are conducting experiments… for instance, to prove that the medha suktam increases mental capacity, and so on … but all of this in fact is in the service of the parameters of modern science, and the desire to be accepted by it.
For sure there were parameters in early Indic thought – Indian philosophies accept the following criteria as evidence, in varied combinations: pratyakṣa (perception), anumāna (inference), upamāna (comparison), anupalabdha (non-apprehension), arthapatti (postulation), śabda (especially Veda/tantra). But these are not the parameters of modern knowledge.
So the answer is, in order to bridge the ancient and modern, recognize the difference also.
FOR THE PANEL DISCUSSION:
Specific questions I asked: 1) (Before the conference-) To Dr Sudha Seshayyan, since she is in the field of medical science: To give us examples– consider Suśruta samhita / Chāraka samhita/or Ayurveda … is it all valid? what finds use today, and what does not, and must be discarded? Dr Sudha answered this question in her opening remarks. 2) (In the session) To Revd Valson Thampu (since he spoke about “integration” rather than bridging and had also noted that ancient wisdom was mostly about self-realisation): Ancient and early Indic sources have a lot of information, not only information about self-realisation. Eg: shilpashastra, natyashastra, principles of law derived from principles of purva-mimamsa, yoga… and so on. In our curriculum and syllabi today, is it possible to integrate these knowledges? Thus, in Literature courses, could universities ensure students also learn about Natyashastra?  3)And this question was to both of them: The debate today seems to be about gatekeepers and stakeholders– conflation and confusion of categories — “religion” with anything ancient, Hindu with anything Indian—who is the right person/s to decide how to bridge ancient knowledge with modern knowledge? Is it the government? Or should it be left to universities? Dr Sudha’s answer was that it should be a combination.

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Mani Rao is the author of eight poetry books, and two books in translation — The Bhagavad Gita, and Kalidasa for the 21st Century Reader. Her poems and essays are published in journals including Tinfish, Wasafiri, Meanjin, Washington Square, Fulcrum, West Coast Line, and Interim, and in various anthologies.