|Like all ancient civilizations, India has a rich heritage of traditional knowledge. Much of this heritage stands at the doorstep of becoming extinct or has already become so. Attention has recently been focused on a few cases of traditional S&T practices — such as steel making in Bastar or use of rare herbs in Kerala. This apparent revival in interest regarding traditional practices is linked with attempts to Patent such practices — often by foreign entities — and concerns related to measures to safeguard them.
While any attempt to take a close look at this fast dying heritage should be welcome, it is also true that an interest in a few high profile cases may not amount to a cogent policy towards traditional knowledge and practices. The Indian countryside is replete with instances where artisans make use of empirical knowledge, that has a history of thousands of years. Yet, often, the attitude to such knowledge has been fraught with two contradictory kinds of dangers. One attitude is to ridicule traditional knowledge and practices, while the other attempts to glorify it. Both, viewed objectively, result in contributing to its ultimate demise.
The first view is disdainful of all traditional knowledge and practices and mechanically seeks to introduce new technologies to replace existing practices. In the process a lot that is useful, and draws upon local wisdom and resources is irretrievably lost. Ultimately, what is introduced may turn out to be disastrous for the local ecosystem and entirely alien to the needs of the local community.
The recent drought in Rajasthan and Gujarat has focused attention on the fact that the disruption of traditional methods of water harvesting has led to a dangerous situation. In parts of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh the water table has risen as a result of intensive ground water withdrawal, leading to dangerous levels of salinity of the soil, because of the disruption of natural drainage channels. Introduction of mono-cropping along with new agricultural inputs has replaced coarse grains in vast tracts of India with cash crops like tobacco, cotton and sunflower or with “high value” grains like rice and wheat. As a consequence the staple diet of the poorest in rural India, which is to be constituted by coarse grains, has been disrupted and they are forced to buy wheat or rice from the open market at very high prices. In the artisanal sector traditional pottery, leather tanning, blacksmithy, etc. have withered away in the face of competition from industrial modes of production. Traditional artisans — usually the natural carriers of traditional knowledge — have been reduced to penury or forced to give up their trades and exchange them for unskilled work in sweatshop conditions. It may, of course, be argued that the pauperisation and conversion to urban proletariat is a natural consequence of capitalist development. While the argument is valid, it needs to be underlined that even under capitalism, the total marginalisation of the existing knowledge base is not a necessary consequence.
Hierarchical Division in Traditional Science
One of the treasons for the inability of traditional knowledge to survive in India is also related to the way knowledge systems were organised in traditional societies. With the increasing stranglehold of the caste system, most trades came to be associated with specific castes. Thus knowledge in trades like pottery, leather, weaving, blacksmithy, etc. were practiced according to a strict caste-based division of labour. The division was further compounded by the notion that “intellectual” pursuits are the “highest” form of human endeavour, while tasks requiring manual skills are to be considered as menial pursuits of the “under-castes”. There was thus a tendency towards the disjuncture between science and technology — the former being seen as a domain of the upper castes and the latter being pursued by the “lower” castes. This, for example, led to a rich harvest in the theoretical branches of science — mathematics, astronomy, etc. but a very poor record in the development of mechanical artifacts that had everyday practical application. There was a societal disdain towards any form of activity that required mechanical skills — in other words all forms of artisanal trades. Thus, for example in medicine, Ayurveda was privileged as a science to be practiced by the upper caste vaidyas while surgery and midwifery were the domain of the “lower” castes. This kind of a hierarchical division led to the stagnation and mystification of traditional knowledge in India.
The Revivalist Approach
Today, the real carriers of much of traditional knowledge are the “under-castes”, whose wisdom has for centuries been undervalued. It is in this context that the second, contrary, approach to traditional knowledge is to be viewed. This approach attempts to “revive” traditional knowledge and practices in their pristine purity, and abjures any “contamination” of these by present day practices of science and technology. Such an approach is as damaging as the first, because it seeks to perpetuate unsustainable practices and deny people benefits of recent insights and advances in Science & Technology. Such attempts are unsustainable also as they do not address the inherent asymmetry that existed in the organisation of knowledge systems. Today, while on one hand caste barriers are being broken down, an attempt to resurrect a traditional knowledge system in its “pure” form is an anachronism. The traditional vaidya flourished under court-patronage, the traditional potter was allowed to ply his trade after paying the landlord in kind, the traditional tanner was given the right to use the hides of fallen carcasses in exchange for footwear supplied to the landed gentry. Traditional knowledge withered in India not because it was overrun by modern science, but because in many cases its natural carriers were the most marginalised in society. Revival of traditional trades and the associated wisdom, would hence require efforts to privilege these trades with social prestige. This can be done not by merely spouting swadeshi, but by infusing modern technology that builds upon traditional skills.
An important underlying philosophy of the “revivalist” approach is to view present day science and technology as “Western”, and thus alien. What is forgotten is that modern science carries with it the heritage of knowledge of the whole of humankind, dating back to the earliest civilizations of Egypt, India, China and Mesopotamia. The first effective drug against malaria drew upon the traditional practice of ancient communities in the Amazonian jungles. The concept of zero, without which the present day communication revolution would not have even started, draws from mathematics in ancient India and China. Instead of highlighting this heritage of modern science, what is sought to be built up are mere myths regarding the “golden age” of Indian science that supposedly boasted of space travel and nuclear fission, among other similar accomplishments! They, thereby, end up by handing over the entire heritage of modern science to the West, as though what we see as modern science was developed ab initio in the latter half of the last millennium in Europe. Interestingly, this is also precisely the view that Europe would have us believe. This is manifest in their effort at tracing much of the heritage of modern science to Greek science, and denial of the contributions made by science from Egypt, China, India, Mesopotamia and Arabia.
Some, so called, radical practitioners of the revivalist philosophy have extended the notion of “Western” science by dubbing modern science as inherently violent, anti-women and violent. They conveniently lay all the ills of capitalism at the doorstep of modern science, and in the process trivialise and demonize thousands of years of human endeavour — for the latter is the true claimant of what we call modern science today. Such a philosophy is dangerous because it tries to incorporate an inherently revanchist understanding of society within radical slogans.
In order to secure the core of traditional knowledge that still exists in the practices of a large number of practitioners it would be necessary to rescue it from both the contradictory trends described above. If the intent is to draw the best out of traditional knowledge and harness it to address people’s problems, an open approach is necessary that is neither disdainful of it, nor suspicious of modern science. Anything else does justice neither to tradition, nor to science!