A review of Sahana Singh’s book on Indian educational heritage


Among the reasons why we may have collectively lost respect and commitment to the pursuit of knowledge, there is an amalgamation between the study of even temporal subjects and religious rites.

Another – and sadder – is the trivialization of the depth of our knowledge system with facts gathered from lectures and boastful articles and increasingly, from WhatsApp forward.

Let me serve a few excerpts from the book that straightens them out with a touch of authenticity, supported as they are by references to sound sources:

– Over 90 percent of our archaeological sites have yet to be excavated.

– India is said to have preserved more pre-modern manuscripts than the rest of the world combined.

– “… Chinese academics first went to Indonesia where they spent a few years learning Sanskrit and other subjects in order to acquire enough skills to be admitted to famous Indian universities. Indonesia was like a mini India ”.

– Only about 20 percent of the students who applied (to Nalanda) succeeded… And yet the university at its peak had as many as 8,500 students and 1,500 teachers.

– The first primary school did not appear in England until 1850 and only accommodated a tiny fraction of children.

– A non-exhaustive list of renowned universities (probably contemporary) is as follows: “Valabhi, Vikramshila, Pushpagiri, Jagaddala, Odantapuri, Somapura, Bikrampur, Varanasi, Sharada Peeth, Ratnagiri, Mithila, Ujjaini, Kanchipuram, Ennayiram and Thrissur”

– Pythagoras may have traveled to India or at least was deeply influenced by his habits in Egypt. He became a champion of vegetarianism and forestry schools. A few thousand years later, Voltaire said: “… everything has come down to us from the banks of the Ganges … Pythagoras went from Samos to the Ganges to learn geometry”.

– Mendaleev’s use of Sanskrit numerals for elements not discovered in his periodic table was perhaps a tribute to Panini, who had greatly influenced him.

– Jaisalmer had multi-story caverns to hide and preserve thousands of manuscripts from destruction.

– There were 100,000 reported village schools in Bengal and Bihar only in the 1830s.

– “… in a large number of schools, ‘Soodras‘were in the majority while the Brahmins and’Vysées‘were in the minority …. In Tamil-speaking areas, the Shudras were 70 percent in Salem and Tinnevelly, to over 84 percent in South Arcot.

The extracts can continue. You are impressed and humbled throughout the book.

What saddened me, however, was how indifferent we became to the zeal and privations of our ancestors in the pursuit of knowledge. Knowledge creation is one thing, but its conservation and dissemination are less valued aspects.

Consider this: “Estimates of the manuscripts which survive today in India range from five million to twenty million, while another million have been withdrawn from India …”

Imagine the collective picture of the earth, which emerges from all of the following: The manuscripts were produced manually by scribes who had to be diligent in clarity and accuracy. Gurukulas and ashramas were ubiquitous. Scholars traveled long distances inside Bharata and overseas. The author names two scholars from Kanchipuram to Nalanda. Some travel times to and from China could take five years. Yet they have worked hard, traveled and lived their lives in the service of knowledge.

After a pause and a sigh over all that we have lost, we have to turn to hope for what and how we could at least redeem something.

Singh recommends memory training based on the 11 rules of memorization used to impart the Vedas. The other is to revive Chaturanga as a means of teaching foresight and strategy.

My mind suggests other ideas:

– Reproduction of the author’s knowledge flow map accompanied by a small booklet from her that points to sources for further study of each subject mentioned in the map. These topics may be prescribed for research and essay writing competitions.

– Popularize PanchaTantra and Hitopadesha as relational guides.

– Teach children to write with a stylus in order to trigger a feeling and an interest in the old man’s ways. They can be guided to make “greeting sheets” and bookmarks. It would be an activity of concentration of the mind.

It is worth considering other ways to reconnect with our past.

I leave you with something that pulls my heart: “… for a long time, Gurus disapproved of the transfer of the Vedas to the written format even after the writing had been well established. Perhaps they were worried about the poor transmission of the intonations of the sacred. ”

What concern and what sense of responsibility must have driven these ancestors to this anxiety? What was their fear of poor transmission of information they preferred the most difficult way of doing it which they thought was error proof.

Where has all this perfectionism gone? Have we been worthy of their thoughtful work? What could we do as a sign of gratitude?

May this book make us think about ways to preserve and propagate the treasures of our past. There is little time to waste. Lesser ideas and more fragile ideologies have attracted more passionate activists than our treasures of knowledge.

Ignoring our heritage, we remain mocked.

(This review was first published by the author on medium.com and is republished here with permission).

About Harold Hartman

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