The Knowledge Superpower

  • By Shyam Sunder
  • November 2014

True  pride in India's heritage would require study of the intellectual and  cultural heritage that lies beyond its borders

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Several  years ago, while serving in China, I was able to visit Hangzhou in  eastern China -  famed for its natural beauty, but also for having been for several  centuries a centre for the arts and scholarship. One famous landmark  there is the ancient Buddhist temple called Fei Lai Feng, which is  translated as "the peak that flew over". Legend has it that  an Indian monk who came to China in the ninth century built the  temple in Hangzhou below a mountain that to him looked similar to  Gridhakuta or Vulture's Peak in his native Rajgir in Bihar.  Gridhakuta, of course, is intimately linked with early Buddhism;  Sakyamuni delivered some of his early sermons on the hill.

But  the reason why my visit to the temple has remained a fresh memory is  because of an interesting encounter I had with the monks at the  temple. They were chanting from manuscripts written in Chinese  characters, but the chants themselves had no resemblance to any  Chinese dialect. While listening more closely, I soon realised that  what the monks were chanting was some distorted form of Sanskrit, not  Chinese at all. The chants had been transliterated from the original Sanskrit into  Chinese characters and were unintelligible to modern-day monks. They  knew that the chants were sacred, even though they had no idea what  they meant. The monks then told me that the temple and the monastery  attached to it still had large number of manuscripts in Sanskrit that  the Indian monk had brought to China. There were also Chinese  translations of some of the Buddhist scriptures, but all these were  lying locked up inside. The books of sacred chants were all that even  they had access to.

A  few years later I was on assignment in Japan and visited the ancient  monastery town of Koyasan, outside the old capital of Kyoto. Koyasan  is associated with the name of Kobo Daishi, or the Grand Master  (774-835 A D). Kobo  Daishi spent  several years in Xi'an in China, where he studied Buddhist scriptures  and the Sanskrit language under an Indian pandit, Prajna, who had  earlier studied and taught at the famous Nalanda University. On his  return to Japan, Kobo Daishi introduced the Sanskrit syllabary to the  Japanese language, hitherto written only in Chinese script. This  phonetic alphabet is known as Hiragana and is used to supplement  Chinese characters in written Japanese. Kobo Daishi is also credited  with bringing a very large number of Buddhist scriptures, but also  Sanskrit texts on other more secular subjects, such as science and  medicine, to Japan. These are still stored in an ancient library in  Koyasan and are treated as a national treasure. Kobo Daishi's  "Catalogue of Imported Items" gives an idea of what texts  he brought with him from China to Japan. I was told by a very  distinguished Japanese monk at Koyasan that several of the texts no  longer exist anywhere else in the world, the originals as well as  copies having been destroyed in wars, revolutions, civic strife,  fires and disasters over the years.

A later assignment in  Nepal brought me face to face with a wealth of historical material  that is a shared intellectual and cultural legacy  with our northern neighbour about which there is little knowledge -  but, even more seriously, little curiosity - in our country.

Another  repository of India's intellectual and religious wealth is in Tibetan  manuscripts preserved over centuries in Tibetan monasteries across  the Himalayas.

More  lately, one has come across evidence that, throughout the eighth to  the 12th centuries, classic Sanskrit texts on Indian medicine,  mathematics and philosophy travelled to Central Asia where, after the  Arab invasions, Arabic had become the lingua franca of the Islamic  world. Several of the works of Charaka and Susruta (in medicine and  surgery), and Aryabhatta and Brahmagupta (in astronomy and  mathematics) were translated into Arabic by well-known Central Asian  scholars like Khwarazmi, Ibn Sina and al-Beruni. These were later  transmitted to Europe, and became part and parcel of the European  renaissance from the 12th century onwards. The Indian numeral system,  the concept of zero and the decimal, the calculation of pi and the  notion of negative numbers and integers were part of India's  intellectual legacy, which spread far beyond its borders including to  Europe as well as China.

There  has been some recent controversy over the revision of textbooks in  schools that seem to blur the distinction between legend and  verifiable facts. Such controversy should not detract from the fact  that India has much to be proud of in terms of its contributions to  the development of science and mathematics in particular. Susruta  described plastic surgery techniques in detail and the principles he  enunciated still form the basis of modern plastic surgery.  Unfortunately, there is no Indian Joseph Needham, who published his  monumental study of Science  and Civilization in China, cataloguing  for an international readership the many significant contributions  China had made through its long history to science and technology.  The Indian legacy is equally rich, perhaps even superior in terms of  evolving philosophical and conceptual bases for scientific  principles. But these lie scattered and fragmented both in India and  in several other parts of the world.

True  pride in India's rich cultural and religious heritage demands  a national project of collating, studying and disseminating the many  disparate elements of India's intellectual heritage, so that a more  complete picture begins to emerge of an India and of Indians, who  inculcated a "scientific temper" much before the modern  age. We will need to encourage and support scholars who are as adept  in Sanskrit as in classical Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan and Arabic,  and seek access to the many repositories around the world, where bits  and pieces of our intellectual, cultural and philosophical heritage  lie buried. If we really respect our history and take pride in our  civilisational heritage, why not embark on this momentous adventure  rather than quibble about the meaning of this or that legend? Let us  enjoy our rich legacy of legends, but also seek to scale the  intellectual and philosophical heights that once made India the  knowledge capital of the world.

Courtesy and copyright  Business Standard.

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4. Indian influence on China, Korea and Japan