Why Is Hindu Indian Civilization Stonewalled in Western Academic Studies?
Note: This article was originally published here — https://talageri.blogspot.com/2023/10/why-is-hindu-indian-civilization.html
“Why Is Hindu Indian Civilization so calculatedly and systematically stonewalled in Western Academic Studies?” This is the question that assailed me as I went through a very interesting book “Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge from Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic” by Simon Winchester, published by William Collins, Great Britain, 2023, and which continues to bother me ever since I read the book. The book, a rather technical treatise on the subject of the history of the transmission of knowledge in human society, was given to me by someone, and I went through it at first sporadically and then more in detail. Two facts struck me most forcibly while going through the book:
- It is fascinating and gives truly impressive facts about the subject from all over the world.
- It completely stonewalls the most impressive achievements of the Hindu Indian Civilization in respect of the transmission of knowledge.
The book does not completely stonewall the subject of India: it refers to many things pertaining to modern India and even to a very important example of the transmission of knowledge among the Andamanese people − but then I realized that this was because he, in common with most anti-Hindu/anti-Indian people as well as jingoistic nationalist Hindus, does not regard the Andamanese culture as a part of Hindu culture and feels no apprehension that he may be praising Hindu Civilization when he praises Andamanese traditions.
- This is not speculation. A reading of his account of the Andamanese incident makes it clear that he holds Hindus as such in resentment: the only reference, as far as I could see, in his book, to Hindus, is in this piece (p.25-26) where he refers to the Andaman islands as “lying in the Bay of Bengal off the coast of Burma….officially Indian sovereign territory” rather than as a part of India, emphasizes that “almost all of the victims (of the tsunami) were Hindus” rather than merely as mainland Indians (and including Muslims and Christians as well, who as per the census of 2011, constitute 20% of the population in roughly the same proportion as on the Mainland), and contrasts them with “the five hundred indigenous inhabitants, those belonging to the aforesaid Onge, Jarawa and Sentinelese groups−all of whom have great hostility to newcomers and have long made it clear their wish to be left alone (presumably by the “Hindus”)−not a single one died in the tragedy” (p.25).
Winchester refers to India in the following instances:
- The response of the Andamanese people to the tsunami in December 2004 (p.25-26).
- The activities of a modern NGO in Bangalore working to teach poor students living in a slum (p.33-41), are referred to repeatedly later (e.g. p.27, 48).
- The commencement and establishment of Western education in India by Macaulay and the British rulers (p.76-83).
- A reference to library books being distributed between India and Pakistan in 1947 (p.116).
- The achievements of two modern (colonial) Indians — Srinivasa Ramanujan and Harinath De — and, to be honest, I had never before heard about the latter of the two (p.334-338).
- A personal incident about a man named Dr. Agarwal who was his neighbor on a flight from Dhaka to London, and who gave him a lecture about the importance of virtue in life (p.377-378).
Yes: Everything that Hindu Indian civilization has offered to the world by way of contribution in the formation, dissipation, spread, and transmission of any aspect of knowledge was exclusively during and after the period of colonial rule by the British! Before that, India’s contribution was literally a big zero: even the invention of the zero-based numeral decimal system by India, which spread out all over the world and replaced all the other numeral systems extant in the world, and without which any kind of major progress and scientific development in the world would have been extremely unlikely, finds no place in the book!
As I said above, the book is a fascinating and impressive presentation of the history of “the transmission of knowledge” from ancient times to modern times, covering not only all the ancient civilizations of the world but also the native indigenous people from every continent. But pre-colonial India has no role anywhere in this vast human endeavor.
Speaking of the Great Civilizations, he tells us: “In four quite separated places around the planet… the craft of writing was invented…. in Iraq, Egypt, China, and southern Mexico. The fact that they are all of approximately of similar age, and that the civilizations that did the writing had no known contact with one another, argues powerfully that when taken together they illustrate the steady and linear progress of human evolution, and suggest that genes played a significant role in the evolutionary step. It was as though the genes inside the cellular arrangements of people who were beginning their various and quite separate existences across thousands of miles of territory, from the Americas to China, all fired up roughly at the same time and triggered very similar responses in the minds and muscles of their human hosts, demanding that they make their thoughts and knowledges permanent by noting them down in written form” (p.50). Here, he mentions four of the five primary Great Civilizations of the world, stonewalling only India.
Strangely, and fishily, the oldest known specimens of any form of writing found in Mexico or America as a whole, as dated by various scholars, do not go beyond 1000 BCE as per the very earliest estimates, while the Harappan writing system goes back to at least 2600 BCE as per a consensus among most scholars; and as per JM Kenoyer: “The Indus script emerges out of earlier writing systems that date to around 3300 BC or even earlier. The Ravi Phase at Harappa (3800-2800 BC) has the earliest evidence for signs that eventually were used in the later Indus Script. During the Kot Diji Phase at Harappa and other sites there is widespread use of what can be called Early Indus Script. The Indus Script begins with the Harappa Phase (2600-1900 BC). There are three phases of Indus script and seal use based on excavations at Harappa and other sites”.
But, Winchester, who has published this very year, 2023, does not seem to even be aware that a Harappan civilization ever existed on this planet!
He refers likewise to various “indigenous people” of the world, the Andamanese (p.25-26), the Canadian Inuit (p.27), the “nomadic peoples in western China and Tibet” (p.29), “the Arctic Inuit, Native American, First Nation, Australian Aboriginals, Amazonian rain-forest dwellers, New Zealand Māoris, Polynesian Islanders, Siberian indigenes” (p.29), “the Inuit or the Cherokee or the Samoan” (p.30), and the Elders or “the wise ones from Uluru or Rotorua, from Pine Ridge or Yosemite, from Surabaya or Hardwar, Tuktoyaktuk or Chichén Itzá…. Guarani or Tuareg or San or Sámi, or… uncontacted nomads deep in the jungles of Kalimantan” (p.371-372).
Needless to say, Indian civilization, which has no place along with the other four Great Civilizations of the world, naturally has no place here either − although the mysterious reference to “Hardwar,” not elaborated, as far as I could see, anywhere in the book, left me completely foxed. In the circumstance, it must be noted that he is not particularly prejudiced against Pagan or non-Christian cultures in general − at one point he criticizes the Dewey system of classifying books as follows: “The Christian origin-myth was classified in his system under 200, Religion, while its Cherokee counterpart is listed in 300, Folklore” (p.122, footnote) − but only against India!
In speaking of India, in the context of the Western education implemented by Macaulay, he tells us: “…the notion of Western knowledge supremacy was something that was impressed upon the local peoples−and perhaps nowhere more egregiously than in the immense social confusion that was, and remains, India” (p.77), but his own book suggests that in his opinion “Western knowledge” had no competition to face in India in any race for supremacy since there was no “Indian knowledge” existing at all in any sense of the term before the arrival of the British.
As a matter of fact, the number of arts and sciences, all part of “knowledge” systems, which spread out − or were “transmitted” out − from India and gave birth to new arts and sciences in the rest of the world, is beyond precise count and quantification. Whether it is mathematics or medicine, religions or philosophical ideas, domesticated plants or animals, music or dance, games or martial systems, attire or cuisine, literary genres or erotic studies, India’s contributions to the world have been fundamental and primary ones. I have written in more depth on this in other articles and will not waste time elaborating the point here. But not a single one of these contributions finds a place in the book, and to the writer, India seems to have awakened into the world of knowledge and knowledge transmission only after the British established their empire in India.
But more than any of these contributions, there are two very outstanding aspects of “Transmission of Knowledge” in India, which, after all, is what his book is all about, which find absolutely no mention in the book:
- The Rigvedic (or Vedic) system of “transmission of knowledge” which seems to be completely unknown to Winchester. He refers perhaps once, and only very incidentally, to the Rigveda when referring to the works of Harinath De (already referred to above, who had apparently mastered 34 languages): “His translations of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury and Macaulay’s Essay on Milton, of parts of the Rig Veda and some of Ibd Batuta’s travelogues, as well as his own English-Persian Lexicon and an Arabic grammar, are still to be found in the better libraries of the world” (p.337). And Vedas as a word occurs once in a list of miscellaneous texts which were taught as a matter of “policies”: “The teachings of the Buddha or Confucius or Mencius, the great tidal waves of words of the Vedas, of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana in India, of the scriptural texts written by bards of various persuasions in Hebrew or Sanskrit or Arabic, in Persian, Greek or Latin or, in time, English” (p. 62).
But the absolutely unique and unparalleled system of transmission of the Rigveda is vouched for not just by enthusiastic Hindus: it is a matter of consensus among scholars of all persuasions. UNESCO, in 2003, declared the oral chanting of the Rigveda as part of The Intangible Heritage of Humanity. But, more important is the reason why they did so. What is so unique about the Oral Transmission of the Rigveda? I will give my favorite quotations on this subject, which I have given many times before in many of my articles. They are the words of Michael Witzel, the Wales Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University, and the editor of the Harvard Oriental Series:
“Right from the beginning, in Ṛgvedic times, elaborate steps were taken to insure the exact reproduction of the words of the ancient poets. As a result, the Ṛgveda still has the exact same wording in such distant regions as Kashmir, Kerala and Orissa, and even the long-extinct musical accents have been preserved. Vedic transmission is thus superior to that of the Hebrew or Greek Bible, or the Greek, Latin and Chinese classics. We can actually regard present-day Ṛgveda recitation as a tape recording of what was composed and recited some 3000 years ago. In addition, unlike the constantly reformulated Epics and Purāṇas, the Vedic texts contain contemporary materials. They can serve as snapshots of the political and cultural situation of the particular period and area in which they were composed. […] as they are contemporary, and faithfully preserved, these texts are equivalent to inscriptions. […] they are immediate and unchanged evidence, a sort of oral history ― and sometimes autobiography ― of the period, frequently fixed and ‘taped’ immediately after the event by poetic formulation. These aspects of the Vedas have never been sufficiently stressed […]” (Witzel, 1995, p. 91).
“[…] the Vedas were composed orally and they always were and still are, to some extent, oral literature. They must be regarded as tape recordings, made during the Vedic period and transmitted orally, and usually without the change of a single word” (Witzel, 1997, p. 258).
“At the outset, it must be underlined that the Vedic texts excel among other early texts of other cultures in that they are ‘tape recordings’ of this archaic period. They were not allowed to be changed: not one word, not a syllable, not even a tonal accent. If this sounds unbelievable, it may be pointed out that they even preserve special cases of main clause and secondary clause intonation, items that have even escaped the sharp ears of early Indian grammarians. These texts are therefore better than any manuscript, and as good―if not better―than any contemporary inscription” (Witzel, 1999, p.3).
“It must be underlined that just like an ancient inscription, these words have not changed since the composition of these hymns c.1500 BCE, as the RV has been transmitted almost without any change […] The modern oral recitation of the RV is a tape recording of c.1700-1200 BCE” (Witzel, 2000, p. §8).
“The language of the RV is an archaic form of Indo-European. Its 1028 hymns are addressed to the gods and most of them are used in ritual. They were orally composed and strictly preserved by exact repetition through by rote learning, until today. It must be underlined that the Vedic texts are ‘tape recordings’ of this archaic period. Not one word, not a syllable, not even a tonal accent were allowed to be changed. The texts are therefore better than any manuscript, and as good as any well-preserved contemporary inscription. We can therefore rely on the Vedic texts as contemporary sources for names of persons, places, rivers (Witzel, 1999) (Witzel, 2006, p. 64-65).
The entire text of the Rigveda (as well as the other Samhitas, and to a slightly lesser extent other Vedic texts) was transmitted since at least 1700 BCE as per Witzel’s own accepted date, but actually, for the older parts of the text (i.e. for the Old Rigveda) from as early as 3000 BCE or more, by an amazing system of rote memorization which, though it seems impossible, has stood the test of time for over 5000 years! The following two videos demonstrate this method (see particularly the second one):
But this book, about the history of “The Transmission of Knowledge” is absolutely and totally ignorant about this system, which is unique and unparalleled in the entire history of knowledge and knowledge transmission.
- The book deals at length with the history of Universities, Libraries, etc. from all over the world. But there is not a single mention of what were probably the oldest and most truly international universities, known to every scholar on the subject of ancient India — Tākṣaśilā and Nālanda. I append the two following articles from Google, which, give and take a few points on which there may be some difference of opinion (usually on political or ideological grounds) between scholars, no scholar or historian − leftist, rightist, or centrist; nationalist or “secularist”; or Indian or non-Indian − would dispute in respect of the basic facts regarding the dates, the scales of operations, the high levels of scholarship, the incredibly vast range of subjects, the vast international alumni from all (then known) parts of the world, their massive libraries consisting of hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, the rigorous systems of education, etc.
Again, it is incredible that Winchester does not seem to be aware even of the existence of these universities!
This book is just a sample of the predominant attitude of Western academics studying simply any aspect of ancient civilizations. It is not, and (going by the otherwise high degree of scholarship shown in the book, and the many fascinating aspects brought to the notice of the reader) it simply cannot be out of ignorance. Is there such a pathologically deep-rooted hatred of Hindus, India, and Hindu Indian Civilization in Western academia that it leads to such a degree, intensity, and extent of supressio veri, suggestio falsi? I leave it to the reader, especially the Indian reader to judge.
Witzel, M. (1995). Early Indian History: Linguistic and Textual Parameters, p. 85-125, in “The Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia,” ed. by George Erdosy. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
Witzel, M. (1997). The Development of the Vedic Canon and Its Schools: The Social and Political Milieu, in “Inside the Texts, Beyond the Texts,” ed. by Michael Witzel. Cambridge University Press (Being the Proceedings of the International Vedic Workshop, Harvard University, June 1989).
Witzel, M. (1999). Early Sources for South Asian Substrate Languages. in Mother Tongue, Special Issue.
Witzel, M. (2000). The Languages of Harappa.
Witzel, M. (2006). Central Asian Roots and Acculturation in South Asia: Linguistic and Archaeological Evidence from Western Central Asia, the Hindukush, and Northwestern South Asia for Early Indo-Aryan Language and Religion. in “Indus Civilization: Text and Context”, edited by Toshiki Osada. New Delhi: Manohar Publications.