Dismantling disciplinary boundaries and decolonizing young India: Decoding the National Educational Policy (2020)

The academic journeys of the Austrian-Irish quantum physicist, Erwin Schrodinger and the Hungarian-American geophysicist Joseph Kaplan might seem strikingly relevant to the emphasis put upon multidisciplinary education, inclusive of the Indian knowledge systems, in the National Educational Policy 2020. Yes, these are not Indian examples; there are many Indian examples. But I have consciously chosen these two scientists to support my argument, because such has been colonial atmosphere of higher education in the country that unless one mentions renowned names from the West such as Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Goethe, Einstein, Thoreau, and the like, who were either influenced by the Indian thought or found it worthy of reflection, there is no way that an Indian student can be convinced that there lies any worth in a textual-intellectual tradition that has survived for thousands of years.

Schrodinger won the Nobel Prize for his work in quantum physics in 1933, two years before Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote in his infamous Minute on Education (1835) that the whole literature of India and the Arab world was inferior to a single shelf of European books. The Nobel Prize winner for what came to be known as the Schrodinger equation was deeply influenced by Indian thought systems. Dick Teresi, the acclaimed author of The Three-Pound Universe (1986) and Would the Buddha Wear a Walkman (1990) writes in an article titled “The Long Range of Quantum Physics, “published in The New York Times:

“Schrodinger never achieved his greatest dream, to reinstate classical physics with its almost Vedantic continuity over the lumpiness of quantum mechanics. Perhaps as a revenge against his quantum enemies, he did leave behind a paradox that torments scientists to this day.”

The Hungarian-American physicist, on the other hand, commemorated again by The New York Times for “his leadership in international work in Geophysics,” was drawn towards the Samkhya philosophical system. He found in its epistemology a reflection of the modern physicist’s enquiry into the dynamism of matter and energy. In his own words,

“By this I mean that if a modern physicist were to discuss the gunas, he would, in the light of knowledge and experience, use the same argument [as the Samkhya’s].”

As in other colonized nations, colonialism in India produced a mental attitude of subordination to the West and its intellectual history. However, post-Independence, the political exigencies of those who determined what got included into the curriculum and shaped the pedagogies of intermediate and higher education shoved the Indian intellectual texts away to either libraries where dust gathered on the book covers or limited them to the Sanskrit or Tamil departments, thereby preventing their access to the students of other disciplines. It would not surprise anyone that our students would have never even heard of names such as Panini, Patanjali, Pingala, Aryabhatta, Nagarjuna, Dharmakirti, and Abhinavagupta. In 2019, Ayurveda made headlines for all wrong reasons. A section of the academic community teaching in elite Indian colleges and universities mocked the fact that ancient Indians knew and performed surgery. What underlay such strong belief that Indians of the past had nothing to do with scientific knowledge? What else than a systematic and ideological construction of a mentally and intellectually subordinate consciousness that looks upon its culture and people as mere empirical data. The Columbia University Medical Irving Medical Centre on a webpage titled “History of Medicine: Ancient Indian Nose Jobs and the Origins of Plastic Surgery,” states:

Think plastic surgery is a modern luxury… During 6th century BCE, an Indian physician named Sushruta- widely regarded in India as the “father of surgery”- wrote one of the world’s earliest works on medicine and surgery. The Sushruta Samhita documented the etiology of more than 1100 diseases.”

Ironically, the Indians from the elite institutions who mock the existence of surgery in ancient India would not bother to even open a single page of the Sushruta Samhita.

I do not suggest that we remain stuck in the past. Past can be, and is, used for regressive politics as well. And modern science and the modern Intellectual traditions of the West are undeniably important. But a young mind rooted in its traditions of knowledge, when it comes into contact with the modern thought would have the ability to contribute originally to the knowledge it receives, to modify and create new knowledge.

The National Education Policy (NEP) announced on 29 July 2020 has grasped the foundational principle of the Indian knowledge tradition- its multidisciplinary nature. Most students and scholars understand interdisciplinarity as an outcome of a modern Western phenomenon with conceptual roots in the Greek thought. They would not know that knowledge (vidya) was essentially interdisciplinary in India.

Vidya in Sanskrit denotes knowledge pertaining to arts, sciences, and philosophy. Sciences include all shastras (scientific treatises) such as astronomy and mathematics, logic, medicine, mining, metaphysics, phonetics, literature as well as economics, agriculture, trade, commerce, law, polity, etc. There are epistemological differences between a particular discipline and another. However, the discourses overlap disciplinary domains. Ideas and facts from disciplines flow into the texts of other disciplines. Artistic and scientific texts are differentiated only by their modes of expression.

For example, Rajashekhara (8th century CE), a poet, in his Kavyamimasa, lays down that an aspiring poet and critic must be well-versed in sixty-four disciplines of knowledge that include “painting, pottery, weaving, carpentry, tailoring, making cots of cane, locating mines,” etc. The multidisciplinary method of knowledge creation and dissemination enabled the mind and its cognitive and creative faculty to think diversely and converge multiple perspectives onto a subject of study. It is not surprising, therefore, that this knowledge tradition produced thinkers such as Panini (6th-5th century BCE), whose text on Sanskrit grammar has become a reference point for computational studies and Pingala (3rd-2nd century BCE) who was a mathematician, but wrote a seminal work on prosody called Chhandahshashtra.

The multidisciplinary method of learning in the higher education, as envisaged by the NEP, with an open-minded reception of the Indian knowledge traditions, will decolonize the young Indian mind, while making it equally aware of the knowledge created in other intellectual centres of the world, including other Asian civilizational giants.