Re-Establishing Shastras in Education

Talk was delivered at the Platinum  Jubilee of Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan Lecture, Oct17, 2014. To hear Shri Gupt:

The Conflict between European and Indic Vidyaas

There is an un-subsiding conflict between traditional and  modern genres of knowledge. The latter came to India from Europe a century and  half ago but have now become the domineering system for all vidyaas, sciences and arts alike. The  very division of knowledge (episteme)  into sciences and arts is Euro-centric, not ancient not, and was followed by  Greeks or Indians or any other ancient culture.

In India, every area of knowledge has a traditional version  and a modern one and both are unconnected. For instance, there is so much divergence  between a modern (printed and occasionally performed realism-based) urban Hindi  play like Andhâ Yuga and a traditional rural Svânga. A big  difference prevails between a modern naturalistic novel like Godâna or a  folk epic like Alah-Udal; between a modern Malayalam film (in spite of its  song and dance numbers) and a Kudiyattam performance. The hiatus allows  very few meeting points between contemporary urban and traditional/rural  genres. The same is true of ancient methods of alloy making (for muurtis of gods) and modern forging of  metals; between Ayurveda and Allopathic medicine;

A lone exception among Indian art forms that resisted  westernization so far was music, but that too has come under a severe  neo-colonial influence in the last decade and is succumbing to westernization  at an unprecedented scale.

This conflict is not sufficiently discussed among writers  and critics, as the practitioners of the two streams have neither a forum for a  regular interchange nor a common audience to compete for. Each section is  living in its own world. One thrives on the urban ground with secular state patronage,  the other in rural areas with the help of religion and tradition-based  organizations. In essence, the conflict is the same as for social power between  the westernized Anglophonic elite and the rural and muffassil town-based  populations.

Symbolically speaking it may be called a tug of war between  ‘India’ and ‘Bhârat’; that is between the name, definitions and descriptions of  our land and culture as given by outsiders such as the Greeks, Arabs, Turks,  Mongols, and Europeans and the ideals, concepts and purushârthas (aims  of life) as given by indigenous thinkers from very ancient times. A fresh  Indian discourse must overcome this schizophrenia.
No Indian control over the study and interpretation Indian canonical texts
India has been projected as a primarily spiritual culture from the 18th century  onwards by the western Orientalists and westernized Indians themselves. We see  this trend from Vivekananda to Gandhi via Sri Aurobindo and many great names of  modern times. Though valuable, this portraiture of India as a spiritual nation  has downplayed her contributions in science, statecraft, arts, aesthetics and a  host of other worldly skills. The cultural and material achievement (‘karmasu  kaushalam’) has been deciphered less and glorified more.

The agenda set by Oriental scholarship with concentration  on the spiritual (pârmârthika) nature of Hindu civilization was blindly  reiterated by our own scholars, without paying sufficient attention to vastly  important mundane pursuits (conceived as balanced cultured goals) that Indian civilization  was made of. The excessive emphasis on India as a spiritual culture could not  be corrected by Indian universities after Independence. The main reason was,  study of religion (and hence the intertwined culture) has been, and still is,  regarded as anathema by the secular Indian state. The University Grants  Commission does not pay to set up departments of religious studies or even of  Western discipline called ‘Indology’ in India.
As a result there has been no rigorous and sustained institutional study of the  classical Indian texts by Indians themselves. For instance, most relevant for  the purpose of humanities, the three worldly aspiration texts, (artha and kâma shâstras), namely the Nâtyashâstra, Kamâshâstra and Arthashâstra, have been kept out of any serious primary or  interpretative study. What is worse, a planned and well executed  anti-intellectualism disguised as ‘anti-Brahmanism’ has been practiced for a  very long time in India, beginning from the medieval court/administration  patronized intellectuals like Ziauddin Barni of the 14th century to the British  administrator T. B. Macaulay, and in recent times from the Nehruvian  ‘secularists’ to the present Euro-American academics like Wendy Doniger and  Marxist groups disguised as votaries of Subaltern Studies who concentrate on a  caste, curry and sexuality-ridden stereotype of Hinduism.
This has engendered a pathetic ignorance of our own texts,  and their original languages, a childish ignorance that oscillates from guilt to  bravado in our Anglophonic educated elite. Another major fallout of this  neglect has been the inability to interpret the European texts from an  independent point of view. And hence Indians have not succeeded in creating a  critique of the so-called Western culture. If the erstwhile colonizing European  countries developed areas they called ‘Indology’ to understand and govern  India, why have the Indians in their sixty-seven years of self rule, not been  able to develop what may be called ‘Westology’, to negotiate and interact with  the West independently.

This should not be taken as a retaliatory move but as an  enterprise that helps the Indians to look upon the West with Indian eyes. It  can have its benefits. For example, when in the field of theatre studies, I  studied Greek drama setting aside the usual European notions; I found it cannot  be categorized as ‘Western theatre’. I discovered that it was actually an ‘Indo-European  theatre’ because the whole construction of Greece as ancient West was flawed1.  Ten years after the publication of my work, a Westerner’s publication,  McEvilley’s, made the similar observations in the field of philosophy, questioning  the mutual exclusiveness of Greek and Indian philosophical thought2.
Fresh Indian aesthetic theory cannot emerge unless a study of the indigenous  texts and intellectual traditions is not restored in the system of higher  education. The European Renaissance happened when Greek and Latin texts were  studied and revisited. It is an enigma that Indian Anglophones, never tired of  singing eulogies of Euro-renaissance, have never thought about. They cannot  conceive of a real intellectual revival in India through a deep study of its  own texts (vangamaya) because they  have been brought up to look down upon them.
Indian Tradition of Textual Analysis
The Indian methodology of textual analysis was called vyâkhyâ. A  detailed study of the vyâkhyâ system and the ancient educational system  as a whole is urgently needed. As present we are too caught up in ethnographic  or caste concentrated analysis of the ancient pedagogy and we are hardly aware  of its economics, its social contributions, its sources of sustenance and  effectiveness.

In its initial stages the vyâkhyâ system did not  mean merely writing commentaries on older texts but it was a large enterprise  devoted to rewriting and enlarging the earlier texts themselves. Vi (in  a unique way) âkhya (told, retold) was the way of transmitting and  retelling the earlier story or concepts (siddhânta). For instance, the Vâlmiki  Râmâyana was composed to meter and music, (‘tantrilaya-saman-vitam’)  and taught to be sung to the disciples who certainly enlarged the story over a  period of time3.

Though writing was adopted for preserving the text of Mahâbhârata,  as is recorded in the story of Ganesha writing it while spoken by Krishna  Dvâipayana, it was circulated by telling, that is as the Kathaa sessions  held by vyâsas of all categories told to celestial, semi divine and  human audiences4.

“Dvâipayana  first taught the core edition called ‘Bharata’ of 24 thousand verses to  his son Shuka and some deserving disciples, then he enlarged the text to a  collection of 60 lacs verses. Out of these, 30 lacs are honored in the deva/celestial  world, 15 lacs in the pitri/ancestral world, 14 lacs in musical/ gândharva world, and the remaining one lac in the mânava/mortal world. Narada  narrated it to the gods, Asita to the ancestors, Shuka to the yakshas,  râkshasas and the gândharvas, and Vaishampâyan to the mortals who  was learned in the Vedas, and disciple of Vyâsa. That collection of one lac you  may now hear from me (says Lomharshana)”. (MBh. Anukramika Parva. Âdi Parva,  104-9).

Constant expansion of all kinds of texts including the shâstras was also an earlier phase of vyâkhyâ or retelling/compiling/re-compiling/rewriting/re-quoting.  Editing old stories into new forms, like Kalidâsa’s changing the tale of  Shakuntalâ, was also part of the vyakhyâ process in which retelling was  done for giving a new meaning. In the field of nâtya, it was known as  the lokadharmi to nâtyadharmi transformation5.

In its later phase the vyâkhyâ system got restricted  to mean commentary upon the canonical texts dealing with a given branch of  knowledge called the Shâstra, which was defined as an instrument of  dispensation and preservation (shâsanopâyam). A vyâkhyâ was  supposed to bring out the growth and diversity of meaning in the text. But it  did not enforce any regimentation, as is the common belief in modern circles.  The Indian shâstras were not utopian, but descriptive. They were not  commandments but expositions of the standard practices and conventions in a  given field. They were also called ‘lakshana-granthas’ (descriptive of  characteristics) of a given lakshya, i.e., a vidyâ, an art or  science. They also shared the general approach to life in ancient times, that  there is no universal injunction for all actions but a course of action, a dharma which is decided upon in a given situation and according to one’s well being (shreyas).  This is not to be mistaken for any principle-less expediency or worldly niti.  It was a determination of the right choice for the moment. The Shâstra was the place where the guiding principles were enshrined.
The Shâstras, as they obtain now, are the apex of a long process of  development from the earlier shâstras that had been written down after  composition and verbal transmission. For a single subject there were many shâstras of different viewpoints, each maintained by a line of teachers. Books were  preserved and re-copied every thirty years or so by trained calligraphers (lipikas).  But there was no copyright as a student could study the texts under many achâryas of a given subject and compose his own opus magnum incorporating various  view-points in his work with due credits given to different lines (matas)  of teachers. Writing and copying had a conservatory role as the text was learnt  by rote (kanth.astha) by the adolescent student. On maturing the student  later on discussed a given Shâstra with the teacher referring to all the  major commentaries on each verse (kârikâ-baddha upadesha) of the Shâstra.  The memorized text was thus available for teaching (adhyâpana),  discussions (uhâpoha) and debates (shâstrârtha).
Abhinavagupta best states the aims of vyâkhyâ of a text at the outset of his Abhinavabhaarâratii:
    Upâdeyasya  sampâ tad anyasya pratiikanam
    Sphut.avyâkhyâ virodhânâm parihârah supuurn.atâ
    Lakshyâ klisht.a-vaktavyâmsha-vivechanam
    Sangatih Paunaruktyânâm samâdhâna-samâkulam
    Sanghrahashchetyayam vyâkhyâprakâro-atra samâshritah.

Upâdeyasyasampâth.ah (Deciding upon the correct reading or textual content of the shâstra (work under consideration), tadanyasya pratiikanam (marking out the  non-correct), Sphut.avyâkhyâ (lucid comments), virodhânâm parihârah (explaining the seeming contradictions), supuurn.atâ (explaining the  conceptual unity of the shâstra), Lakshyânusaranam (demonstrating  how the shâstra describes the past and present practice of the art or  science dealt with by the shâstra), klisht.a-vaktavyâmsha-vivechanam (making comprehensible the terse and obscure portions in the text), Sangatih  Paunaruktyânâm (expaining the logic of behind repeated statements in the  text), samâdhâna-samâkulam (laying to rest various doubts and queries). Sanghrahashchetyayam  vyâkhyâ-prakâro atra samâshritah. (These are the ways of vyâkhyâ that have been relied upon in this collection of my comments, called Abhinavabhâratii)”6.
As is evident any modern commentator would do well to emulate this methodology  of analyzing a text. Its investigative nature, rather than the dogmatic  approach is so clear. The tradition of vyâkhyâ is actually of plurality  and openness and not of conservative regression. The Indian tradition, which is  portrayed incessantly as rigid, had an inbuilt methodology for fresh creation  of ideas and artistic genres. The number of surviving art forms, from the most  sophisticated ones to the simplest, still alive in India, is staggeringly  large. This it is a proof of the flexibility of Indian canons of performance  and the analytical openness of the tradition, which has decidedly contributed  to this diversity.
The Malady of Presentism
In spite of the much-mouthed idea of plurality, the contemporary presumptions  in the cultural field have an unmistakable bias in favor of present day notions  of individuality and liberty, social freedom, universal franchise,  anti-hierarchism and similar values. The  present day concerns,valuable and necessary in them self,are  foisted upon the ancient or medieval texts, which are then evaluated according  to the present day notions. The result is that a Kabir is seen as a  social reformer and a promoter of Hindu Muslim amity while his central emphasis  on the pursuit of nirguna-brahma is sidelined. Mira is seen as a  feminist rebel against patriarchal repression and ignored as the supreme ideal  of devotion that sees nothing worthwhile in this world except the Lord called  the ananya gopikâ bhakti of the Bhaagvad-purâna tradition. Tulsidas  has been maligned as a promoter of ‘evil braahmana-vaada’.
Similarly, the text of the Nâtyashâstra is sometimes seen as a social  document of the 2nd century A.D. exemplifying Sanskrit hegemony over Prakrits,  or an Aryan text that shows the domination over Dravidian cultures, or a Gupta  period Brahminic text hegemonizing over other non-Vedic sects, or even as an  example of North Indian supremacist over South India or South East Asia.
Unlike Europeans who were able to revive the classical theories like that of  the Poetics and Aristotelian tragedy  in Renaissance Europe, in India, we think of our classical theories, such as of  the Nâtyashâstra, as outdated and fit for understanding only ancient  plays like the Shâkuntalam and other such dasharupakas. It is at  best conceded as a manual for learning hasta mudrâs of bharatanâtyam.  According to this view, modern Indian art forms cannot be related to the Nâtyashâstra as these require a different aesthetics and terminology.
They find little worth in the traditional approach in that this is a text for  theatrical production and the regulation of the life of actors (natas)  and other theatre people, that it is of great moral value and called the fifth  Veda (panchama veda) that it aims to make available the tasting of rasa,  that all the arts are commented upon in it as they as they are all encompassed  in theatre. They find it hard to accept that this Shâstra is meant  primarily for performance and is play-centric and not ideology-centric.

The Road Ahead

For the past many years one has seen that the proponents of  Indian knowledge systems have been trying to push merely a memory of our  ancient texts or Shastras. They just refer to them as ‘values’ or ‘samskaaras’. A few years ago there was a  mild fever of talking about ‘value education’, which was suspected and  ridiculed by the Marxist-Secularist establishment as ‘Hindutva agenda.  Any plea for paying attention to the 4000  year old textual paramparaa is still  going to face the same rejection because the ruling classes or Indian  legislators are by and large not attentive to erudition and study in any  language including the languages of States from where they claim their turf.  Administrators, judges, lawyers and academics, are mostly from the ‘English  medium’ Varna. They are rather distant, if not contemptuous, of the bulk of  Indian people or the ‘vernacular varnas’, whom a legislator once called ‘cattle  classes.

The poet Bhartrihari once said of the Indian scene:
  Boddhaaro  matsaragrastaah Prabhavah smayaduushitaah
  Abodhopahatashcaanye  Jiirnamange subhaashitam.

(The learned are  quarrelsome the rulers tainted with arrogance
  The ruled are  uneducated, Knowledge is thus famished).

With the quarrel between the tradition and modernity in the  intellectual classes and utter self-centeredness in the legislators, and the working  people struggling to acquire worthwhile skills, who is going to establish the Shastras in the modern education? Here  are some suggestions or a road map:

1. A country-wide awareness needs to be generated that India  cannot allow the Mischief of Macaulay to continue. The Bhaartiya Vangamaya or  Indian Textual Tradition should become the focus of attention under the  principle that modernity is not a rejection of tradition but its continuation.  It should be realized that these texts are neither a religious entity (a Hindu  past as Marxists and Socialists would have us believe), nor are they against Human  Rights and cultural pluralism, they are neither sectarian nor hegemonic.

2. From school to college, these texts, the Shastras in  particular, have to be enumerated, their areas of thought and application  described and a positive approach towards their study cultivated. Bulk of  non-Anglophonic classes of India still hold these texts in veneration and shall  be willing to apply their minds to them afresh. They are not to be convinced of  the relevance or utility of the Texts. It is the Anglo-phonics (Anglo-phoneys?)  with whom the engagement must begin in a serious manner. Major debates are needed  with them in social media, on television and public discourse, so that the  space for Indian languages and their Texts is created.

3. The re-introduction of our ancients Shastras, Poems, Plays,  and Commentaries should be done through the bookish printed medium. It cannot  be done by making new school text books. It is not the strategy of syllabi  alteration that can ever work, especially in the school stage. It cannot be  done by making new books on history, literature, religion or civic duties or  ‘value’ education. That will amount to just replacing ‘ideas’ injected under  the same system of teaching and examination.

4. What we need are not new courses but new teaching. We  should stop talking ideas but doing ideas. What has been made into  ‘extra-curricular’ has to be made curricular. Just by prescribing new books on  the history of Indian painting a child cannot be made to like it. Children have  to be given a choice to paint, sing, dance, enact, experiment in labs, do  social service and teach their own juniors. This means a total refurbishing of  the ‘mug and vomit’ system. It calls for a ‘create and serve’ model. The people  who will ‘Make in India’ will have to be ‘Made in Schools’.

5.  This also calls for  a much bigger investment in education. But there is no other way. We have to be  reminded that India during its best days, invested more in culture and education  than any other civilization in the world. It is at the university level that a  deep textual study of the Shastras has to be introduced.

6. It would be a disaster to introduce them as a class by  themselves, as Indology or Hindu Culture. They have to be taught as part of the  subjects to which they belong. Arthashastra should be part of BA, MA, and PhD in Economics, Political Science and  International Studies, Natyashastra of degrees in Literature, Charakasamhitaa of MBBS, Dhanurveda in military  training, and so forth. Our Modernists and Socialists would have to be  convinced that if their ‘sahib race’, rose out of the clutches of medievalism  through Greek and Roman Texts, Indians can do so with their own texts. The  Euro-Americans have adopted the Mediterranean texts to the extent that they  have declared themselves as ‘heirs’ to them and created a category called  ‘Western’ civilization beginning with the Greeks and ending with the Americans.

7. The classical Shastras if studied seriously demand a relinquishing of several notions such as: Sanskrit  was a language of non democratic oppression, ancient India as a feudal  anti-people civilization, caste/varna-ashram system as an article of Hindu  faith and not a socio-economic order, kingship was a divine order, and several  other stereotypes about India that are the order of day. It is only by going to  the texts with an open mind that they would be once again meaningful.

Results Expected
1. Unification of “India” and “Bharat” or filling of the  gap between the governors and the governed.
2. Closer synergy between the Indian languages and a  greater role of transformed traditional vidyaas.
3. A more democratic society, more tolerant and integrated.
4. Revival of new forms of arts and a successful resistance  against technological consumerism and restoration of respect for environment.

The author is Associate  Professor (Retd), Delhi University.

1. Gupt, Bharat. (1994, 1996, 2006) Dramatic Concepts Greek and Indian. Delhi. DKPrintworld.
2. McEvilley, Thomas. (2002) The Shape of Ancient  Thought. New York. Allworth Press.
3. Gupt, Bharat  (1986) "Valmiki's Ramayana and the Nâtyashâstra." In Sangeeta Natak. 81-82  (July-Dec.1986) 63-76.
4. Gupt, Bharat (1998) "Classifications on  Lokadharmi and Natyadharmi.”  Sangeeta  Natak 95. (Jan.-March 1990) 35-44.
5. Mahabharata (1955). Gorakhpur. Gita  Press.
6. Nâtyashâstra with Abhinahavabhaaratii.  Ed. Ramakrishna Kavi. 4 vols.  Gaekwad’s Oriental Series. Baroda: Oriental  Institut2, vol. I (1956), vol. II (1934), vol. III (1954), vol. IV (1964). 

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