By Anand Parthasarathy
September 17 2022: The contribution of ancient India is not limited to Ayurveda, the invention of zero — and some neat tricks in mathematics.
Take civil engineering: the Grand Anicut, an irrigation dam still in use in the Cauvery (Kaveri) river basin in Tamil Nadu, was built in the first century CE by Chola King Karikalan, making it the world’s oldest dam still in use.
Chand Bori, in Rajasthan, on the Jaipur-Agra road, one of the largest step wells in the world, was built between 800 and 900 CE, with 3,500 steps and 35 storeys, extending 30 metres underground — a gift of Chand Raja to provide water to his people in a perennially-dry region.
Or metallurgy: while students are taught about the achievements of the Industrial Revolution in England in the nineteenth century in areas like iron and steel fabrication, they may or may not be aware that the technology of making corrosion-resistant iron was perfected in the fifth century CE during the reign of Vikramaditya II (375-414) — the still shiny Delhi Iron Pillar is an exemplar.
Or that the unique Indian process for making steel known as Wootz steel (from the Tamil urukku or melt) was extensively used for making swords as early as 700 CE.
And the technology was taken by traders back to Europe where it was used to make the famous Damascus swords used in subsequent European wars.
Or ship building: the Archeological Survey of India has reconstructed a ship’s hull deployed in the era of the Cholas (200-848) and it is now displayed in the Government Museum, Tirunelveli.
Knowledge of the winds took Indian vessels to China — and to the court of Roman emperor Augustus (63 BCE to 14 CE).
Mandatory Course On IKS
This awareness — of the average Indian student’s unawareness of the country’s own contributions to science and engineering — led the All-India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) in 2018 to make mandatory in all technical and engineering higher educational institutions, a not-for-credit course on Indian Knowledge Systems (IKS).
Issuing mandates was the easy part: creating the required course material was the challenge that — thanks to the efforts of a small group of experts and financial support from government — has now been overcome.
The core resource for such a course in engineering or technical degree, diploma and certificate courses, has been compiled and was released earlier this year: Introduction to Indian Knowledge System: Concepts and Applications (PHI Learning, 2022; Rs 795 paperback or e-book; currently discounted to Rs 596).
It is co-authored by Professor B Mahadevan of the Indian Institute of Management Bengaluru, Vinayak Rajat Bhat, Associate Professor at the Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems, Chanakya University Bengaluru and Nagendra Pavana R N, Assistant Professor at the School of Vedic Knowledge Systems, Chinmaya Vishwa Vidyapeeth, Ernakulam, Kerala.
All three authors are PhDs in aspects of IKS and Sanskrit.
With this key study aid now available, the mandate on the IKS course has just come into effect in the new academic year and some institutions, notably the National Institutes of Technology (NITs) who had already taken steps to create resources in IKS, have begun offering the course.
But challenges remain — not least being the need to develop faculty expertise.
However, a clear vision and a game plan is visible: in November 2021, a start was made when AICTE launched a three-week faculty development programme (FDP) in Bharatiya Jnana Parampara or Indic Knowledge Systems, at the Rashtram School of Public Leadership at the Rishihood University, Sonipat, Haryana.
The course material was uploaded to reach a wider audience of teachers.
Since then, AICTE has selected 13 higher educational institutions nationwide to set up IKS centres for both research and teaching.
They include among others, the Jain (deemed) University Bengaluru, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, IIT-BHU, IIT-Guwahati and IIT-Madras, Trinity College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala and Kavikulguru Kalidas Sanskrit University, Ramtek, Maharashtra.
The IKS Centre at IIT Madras was inaugurated last month within the humanities and social sciences department.
Courses developed here will subsequently be made available online through the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL).
MOOC Courses Coming
Meanwhile, the lead author of the main academic resource currently available, Prof B Mahadevan, told Swarajya, that he is steering efforts to create some 14 instructional videos — one for every chapter of the Introduction to Indian Knowledge System — and he hopes to complete this task by year end.
The Centre for Educational and Social Studies at Chanakya University is a key player in this effort.
“They could be used as course material for India’s own Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), SWAYAM,” he said.
That way, even lay Indians keen on learning about our rich heritage of knowledge could benefit, he feels.
Prof Mahadevan, a specialist in operations management, has pioneered an innovative course on leadership lessons from the Bhagavad Gita at IIM.
He was also the first vice chancellor of the Chinmaya Vishwa Vidyapeeth (CVV) in Kerala, a deemed university, which since 2017 has introduced two mandatory modules on IKS for its BA, BCom, BSc and MA courses.
Its BA and MA courses in Sanskrit provide students the option to take them in the traditional gurukul mode if they so choose.
Much of the research for Introduction to Indian Knowledge System was done at CVV over a period of two years.
The Vidyapeeth, which has its own rich collection of ancient Indian artefacts including palm leaf manuscripts, has the added distinction of encompassing within its Easwar Gurukula campus at Veliyanad near Piravom, Ernakulam district, the maternal home and birthplace of Adi Sankara.
This brings the unique ambience of a traditional mana or illam (home) complete with a private pond where students relax — when they are not studying in the modern sections of the campus equipped with smart audio-visual and WiFi-enabled classrooms.
The book has four parts — the first providing an overview of the Indian knowledge system and the four vedas;
The second covering concepts of science and technology including linguistics and the number system;
The third covering engineering fields including mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy, town planning and architecture;
And a fourth section dealing with humanities and social sciences including governance and administration.
All Fact, No Mythology
Profusely illustrated (unfortunately one needs to read the e-book or Kindle edition to benefit from the valuable colour images since the printed version is in black and white) the book almost uniquely among treatments of IKS, maintains a strict distance from the mythology of Indian knowledge systems and confines itself strictly to scientific and technical information sources or oral traditions of those times.
Exhaustive references in every chapter, lead interested readers to the original document or record, lending the book a rare authenticity.
Overstated claims of Indians inventing virtually everything eons before anyone else, tend to give IKS a bad name.
This book restores its reputation by shunning the stuff of myths and legends and documenting substantially provable fact.
Starting this year, lakhs of engineering students are being nudged, albeit gently, into a better appreciation of unique Indian contributions to the arts, sciences, engineering and commerce, going back nearly 20 centuries.
And seen through the unsensational, yet authentic lens of three experts in the field, it makes for a new awareness — that is, at the same time, humbling and uplifting.
This article has appeared in Swarajya Magazine online
(Explanatory note: The old terms BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini) have been replaced in general and formal usage today by BCE (Before Common or Current Era) and CE (Current Era), to bring in religious neutrality.)