The concept of a university, as we know it today, has to be decolonized. Not just by changing the curriculum one fine day or bringing in a new dress code. And definitely not by bringing in alternate power structures which mirror that which is existent, albeit from a variant ideological perspective. The very notion of a modern University is a western construct. While the associated historiography can have various national and cultural appropriation vis-à-vis the ‘first University in the world’, universities, as a social organization, was peculiar to medieval Europe. While some may protest this characterization, I would like to encourage my Dharmic dissidents to refrain. The very term ‘University’ comes from the latin ‘Universitas’, which means “the whole, total, the universe, the world”. This, in itself, exudes a certain hubris that belies fruits of any informed introspection. The university of medieval Europe had a rather guild-like nature to it, giving rise to what can be regarded as an academic market. Licentia ubique docendi (license to teach everywhere), issued by the Church to the universities at the end of the thirteenth century, codified the consolidation of this market by granting the right to teach at any institution in Europe after receiving a doctorate. The sorting, agglomeration and selection of scholars led to high University outputs, even as these three phenomena point to market forces at play. There seems to have been competition, both among scholars and institutions, to have the best institutions and scholars respectively. This is spoken on by Denley:
“an efficient and sometimes cut-throat academic market, with its own ‘transfer season,’ clearly defined hierarchies, rocketing salaries for the top players, and a mentality of academic celebrity that fed of it.”
Political fragmentation, competition between state and church as well as a common language (Latin) are often regarded as key to the academic market developing in a decentralized manner. The decoupling of the state and the clergy as well as preeminence of Sanskrit was a reality in India since ancient times. Political fragmentation also took place after the fall of the Vardhan dynasty. Then a natural question is: did India have an academic market like the medieval Europeans did? The short answer is – ofcourse! In Ancient India, Pushpagiri Vihara, Odantapuri, Takshashila, Nalanda, Sharada Peeth, Jagaddala Mahavihara, Somapura Mahavihara and Vikamashila are some of the giants among learning institutions. Bronkhorts and Scharfe regard Takshashila to be atleast from the fifth century BCE. The library at Nalanda was so massive and had so many texts and books (about 9 million) that it is said that upon its destruction and arson by Ghuride general Bakhtiyar Khilji, the library kept burning for 3 months. Nyaya Shastra, Tarka Shastra, Mimansa and Shankhya Shastra emerged from Mithila, which also was associated with Ashtavakra and Yajnavalkya. Sharada Peeth was so renowned that Sri Ramanujacharya traveled from Srirangam to this temple-university to refer to the Brahma Sutras, before beginning his work on writing his commentary on the Brahmasutras – the Sri Bhasya. Over time, primarily due to the advent of invaders and marauders, these Indic centres of learning faded away. In 1234 AD, Dharmaswamin found Nalanda to be in a terrible state. He mentions in his biography – Chag lo tsa-ba Chos-rje-dpal, written in Tibetan, that of the eight temples as well as fourteen large and eighty-four smaller monasteries, only two viharas were in serviceable condition!
A question many ask is that if we could have short cylinders of composite glass in the Satavahana period, if Indian could work Wootz or Damascus steel and compose treatises like Rasaratna Samuchaya telling us about types of zinc ore, why did we fall on the short end of the technological power gradient with respect to invaders in the 12th century CE? It was partially due to an ossification, a societal rigidification of the concept of Varna on strictly birth-based lines and partially due to a lack of nuance when considering military and political strategy. Both of these took place due to a more fundamental ossification: an ossification of intellectual and spirituo-social capital. An ossification that happened in the collective consciousness of the Indian people. This is most glaringly true when it comes to science and technology back in those days. It is at the onset of such ossification that constructs can be conveniently misused for self-interests of those who hold the reins of power, hierarchies are instituted and exploited for egomaniacal pursuits. When a boffin does not collaborate with artisans or craftsmen closely, when innovations aren’t chrestomathic – related to that which is useful and utilitarian, when knowledge-seeking is not calibrated with the larger movement of human percipience and wisdom, when instead of ability one’s birth becomes primary to decide the human resource dividend of a person particularly for tactics and deployment as strategists and soldiers, when one forgets one’s strengths and only apes what the other side has to offer (only trying to push the frontier thereof) and when one has a general lack of unity due to political (and more importantly, psychological) silos, what can one expect but vulnerability and a promise of destruction, which many Indian kingdoms faced over the centuries, such as in the Battles of Tarain (1192), Chandawar (1194) and Mt. Abu (1197)? The lack of intellectual maneuvering is so glaring that in terms of strategies, similar tactics were used in the Battle of Khanua (1527) and Halidighati (1576)! Even in philosophy, after the heydays of Sri Ramanujacharya, there were very few innovations or novel strands of thought. Yes, ways of communication and reach of the ideas and insights increased, particularly in the Bhakti movement, and maybe one could say that Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa’s formulation of Vijñāna Vedanta was a noteworthy development. However, there was a certain overall stagnation of thought.
At the practical level, while there was progress in areas like mathematics and astronomy (with luminaries like Śrīdharācāryya, Sripati, Śatānanda and Bhāskarāchārya II), medicine (with practices like checking a patient’s pulse being introduced for the first time in Cikitsūtilaka by Tisatācaryā, irrigation technology (with construction of large tanks like the Porumamilla tank by Emperor Bukka Raya I’s son Prince Bhaskara Bhavadura of the 1st Vijayanagara dynasty) and glass technology (as seen from artifacts found in Satvahana sites), the application of science and technology to various socio-economic and geopolitical problems was restricted. This may have been due to societal stratification, due to political fragmentation, due the lack of vision and ambition amongst intellectuals, and most importantly of being unable to look beyond rigid conceptions of how life, society and the world around should function as. Mind you this was not a Hindu model that relied on fatalism and contentedness – a characterization so wrongly done by Raj Krishna to regard failed dirigist economic policies to be the cause of a slow ‘Hindu rate of growth‘. No, that would be both historically and civilizationally unfair and untrue. In the times of yore, there have been various achievements that are seldom spoken of or even known. The tryst with calculus and town planning, the forays into medicine and statecraft (such as by Chanakya), the complete rout of the Umayyid campaigns in the eighth century, and so much more. These do not point to lack of initiative or agency. These do not highlight any fatalistic whims or hubris. We fell to a denigration of our own civilizational imagination. We succumbed to the miniaturization of the scope and scale of our own indigenous meta-theories. It was not just about the empirical failures but also a failure of thought, a failure of imagination. We lost our ability to have an informed, adaptive and rounded approach to matters of life, society and the world around. This is what we must reclaim. Not just liberation from the encumbrance of identities but from that of the absolutist pre-eminence of any system of ideas. Both identities and ideologies have a conditioned, relative reality, and should not be the premise for overarching positioning, prejudices or parsimony, when it comes to the interests and freedom of specific cross-sections of University communities, in particular, and societies, in general. We need to move towards a truly Dharmic model of our academic spaces that are, both ontological and epistemologically, unfettered and yet building towards a national and humanitarian coherence.
Modern Maladies: Left-Liberal Bias and Exclusivist Tendencies
Fast track forward, from the medieval times. We face a similar and yet a completely different instantiation of the principles of dogma and intellectual ossification. The modern Indian universities, much like various Western universities, are infused with biases. Most prominent among these is the infamous left-liberal bias. Today, an NLU social science curriculum may have Marx and Foucault but no Friedman or Sowell, communist literature on the issues with Indian neoliberalism but no discussion on how India may have suffered under the socialist bandwagon. Today, the ‘student-activists’ of JNU would protest Baba Ramdev’s visit but laud Afzal Guru, who was a Kashmiri separatist convicted for his role in the 2001 Indian Parliament attack! This is not a new phenomenon. Between 16 November 1980 and 3 January 1981, then-PM Indira Gandhi had to shut down the Jawaharlal Nehru University due to left-instigated violence on campus. The Left in India has been unrelenting in various ways when it comes to academia. There are stories of a general purge of non-Left academics upto the 1990s, to the point that there were hardly any non-Left voices left in some disciplines. Even in politics, this tendency of purging opponents is ubiquitous. Mainstream Weekly (2010) highlighted that the communist government of West Bengal committed more than 50,000 political killings in its three decades of rule. It is not as much the freedom to chose a political ideology that is problematic as much as imposing the effect of that choice on the system and on the youth of the country. Such intellectuals are hypocritical and display selective outrage – the CAA will receive backlash but the Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists being persecuted in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh will hardly be met with anything other than a cursory lamentation, at best. Leaving aside any ideological partisanship, the protest against the Leftist dominance in academia is also for a larger reason when it comes to Bharat – the ideas and policies promulgated by them seem to be premised on the principle of exclusivism, which is at variance with the foundation ethos of the nation. Leon Trotsky beautifully shows how communist thinking can fall, with an emphasis on Stalinism:
“Stalinism reestablished the most offensive forms of privileges, imbued inequality with a provocative character, strangled mass self-activity under police absolutism, transformed administration into a monopoly of the Kremlin oligarchy and regenerated the fetishism of power in forms that absolute monarchy dared not dream of.”
The Indian Right aping this form of exclusivism, while understandable as a political move to offset existing entrenched leftist biases in the short term, may not help in the long term with rethinking the system in an inherently Indic and Dharmic manner. Any and all ideologies that are at variance with the Dharmic ethos of cosmopolitanism must be countered in the strongest possible way.
There needs to be an academic market, a marketplace of ideas that needs to flourish, not with a Right-wing mirroring of the Leftist bias but with the multiplicity of thought true intellectualism entails. Just by filling academic positions with Right-wing people by the BJP government will not remove the bigger problem – the ossification of the intellectual space. And re-normalizing this in Universities, to begin with, would be of utmost important for a dynamic environment and drive that could help the country’s intellectuals contribute to the nation in the best possible way. Government protection taken to absurd heights as well as decentralized silos of learning have empowered the misuse of power and privilege by academics in the University space. The government can do a few things on this front. The government can start by permitting some for-profit schools to open campuses in India, allowing foreign universities to establish campuses there, requiring establishments to fundraise on their own, forcing them to build and oversee their own endowments, allowing universities to determine their own academic curricula and staff salary administration, and mandating that all central higher education institutions be managed and administered by trustee boards made up of the institutions’ alumni. Centralization of power, such as in the case of making JNU accept the common admission test for students (CUCET) so that interview-based recruitment is not undertaken, in what is seen as a way to bolster the Leftist dominance in the University. However, in this pursuit, one has to be mindful of two things – there must not be a rootless education model or a movement towards a corporatocracy in education. The former is a call to orient all education with an India First approach. It must be rooted in the socio-cultural and civilization ethos of the nation. This should not be with a sense of jingoism or pretense but with a genuine alignment with Bharat. In this path, in this movement, we will have to move towards a sense of transcendence – of moving past the rigid confines of any constructs or ideologies, since that is the Indic way. This is beautifully seen in the Srimad Bhagavad Gita 18.17:
यस्य नाहङ् कृतो भावो बुद्धिर्यस्य न लिप्यते
where Sri Krishna talks of those who are free from the ego of being the doer, and whose intellect is unattached. The other point of avoiding over-corporatization of the education system is important because the encumbrance of identities can easily be replaced by the encumbrance of self-interest. In fact, while most worldly activities are driven by self-interest, profit-seeking corporates influencing education is the surest path to falling prey to diktats of the ducats! While encouraging competitiveness, efficiency and meritocracy is important, moving to the extremes of corporatization will reduce education to a transactional and mechanical pursuit.
Ānvīkṣikī, Turiyavaad and Dismantling Dogma
The philosophy of knowledge has fascinated mankind since the times of yore. In the Hellenistic world, everything from Presocratic and Epicurean epistemology to epistemology in Plato’s Middle Dialogues and Neoplatonism dealt with this theme. Insights into the nature of knowledge and reality saw an almost universal turn inwards, drawing from the idea of self-similarity: what is without is within. Gnōthi seautón or ‘know thyself’ is a Delphic maxim that gives the message seen in the Upanishads as ātmā́naṃ viddhi (आत्मानं विद्धि). This knowledge of the self and the science of reasoning thereof is what Chanakya regards as Ānvīkṣikī (आन्वीक्षिकी). Besides Veda (spiritual chants), Varta (economics) and Dandniti (political sciences), the Arthashastra talks of Ānvīkṣikī as one of the four types of knowledge – a point also highlighted in the Manusmriti:
त्रैविद्येभ्यस्त्रयीं विद्यां दण्डनीतिं च शाश्वतीम् ।
आन्वीक्षिकीं चात्मविद्यां वार्तारम्भांश्च लोकतः ॥
It is regarded as the means by which spiritual, material and policy-related discernment can be undertaken with logical reasoning. It provides a tool to break free from compartmentalized ways of thinking, most dramatically by embracing both positivist and reflectivist traditions of Indian thought, thereby dismantling dogmatic tendencies and encouraging a broadness of thinking to understand the truth of reality. My conceptualization of Turiyavaad is oriented around the idea of Turiya – the fourth, which transcends any logical premise, its negation and its conjunction with its negation. It looks at the inadequacy of any binary, multiplicity or even paradoxical thought to encompass all of reality. It is a natural product of sustained Ānvīkṣikī or logical philosophy and possibly what ancient Indian universities placed their functioning on – the comprehensive deconstruction of all ideological and conceptual rigidities. While intuition and spiritual insights hold an important role in ancient Indian modes of accessing reality, logical philosophy was not any less of an integral part of this broad stream. Takshashila and Nalanda functioned as multidisciplinary centers with numerous spokes for advanced studies. Academic institutions in ancient India were world-class in terms of their diversity, depth and level of rigor. Teaching and learning was founded on curiosity, inquiry, debates and dialogue, discourses and dialectics, reflective practices, reason, and an approach supported by definitive proof.
While one thing I am against is trying to unnecessarily emulate concepts, establishments or notions of a different era, this is one area where ancient Indian universities can guide us to become more nuanced in our approach. The purpose of learning was, as R. K. Mukherjee says, as follows
Learning in India through the ages had been prized and pursued not for its own sake, if we may so put it, but for the sake, and as a part, of religion. It was sought as the means of self-realization, as the means to the highest end of life – emancipation.
This emancipation cannot be undertaken without a liberation from parochial constructs. At a practical level, today we see funding being a potent tool for skewing the balance of ideologies in various places. A good example is that of Western universities like Harvard University, where centres such as the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute, have apparently become hotbeds of leftist anti-Indian activities. The first step that needs to be taken is reduction of the efficacy of such initiatives. In this case, it could be potentially by making the Mittals more aware of how their money is being used. Thereafter more pressure needs be built by the Indian government and other stakeholders to ensure that the requisite steps are taken by Lakshmi Mittal to prevent his funds from being misused. Disruptive action like protest and strikes can be encouraged in facilities like the AM/NS India. Beyond and besides this, we must learn from an occurrence in ancient India, as highlighted by D. G. Apte
The community also was conscious of its duty to the cause of education. Moneyed people very often used to make arrangements for the food of the students all throughout their courses of education. Sometimes kings of various places sent students to the university for education and made all the necessary arrangements for boarding and lodging for them at State expense.
The encouragement of potential patrons to fund centers in Universities that are more aligned with an Indic perspective is very important. India has a number of industrialists, entrepreneurs and corporates, who can actively finance centers of excellence and education within existing universities. A good financial plan and a rigorous research as well as education framework will help create centers of the civilizational push-back. A good example here is how China was outcast and criticized by Americans for the longest time but today the Harvard China Project is normalizing and connecting the disparate worlds with each other. Political patronage can also help in this regard, such as within Bharat, but one must be careful to support and fund only those who can truly contribute and be beneficial for the interests of Bharat. Comprehensive audits and performance feedback rosters can help with ensuring that complacency and entrenched political circles don’t foster in our Universities. ‘Comprehensive‘ is such an important characterization here, in the context of how a truly Bharatiya education system must emulate it, as has been the case in our civilizational past and memory. Just like in the past, we need to ensure that any patronage or funds taken do not influence the general functioning, spirit and activities of the University, using strict advisory guidelines for the same. The one thing that must be in such guidelines is the advisory for the intake of students from lower-income backgrounds. This has to be ensured so that everybody gets access to education. This model itself is not to be annotated any absoluteness, for there must be a regular review of the applicability of the same in evolving conditions. It is in the fluidity and freedom of thought and conceptualization of education, in the content and form of taught wisdom that the promise of emancipation lies. It is in the acceptance of the diversities, paradoxes and intricacies of reality that Indian education can truly reclaim its Dharmic roots. It is only then that fulfillment can arise, devoid of vagaries of acute self-interest or dogma. I would like to conclude with the insightful verse,
आनंदः अस्ति स्वीकृतिः
Happiness is acceptance.