Bharatiya Traditional Knowledge: A Public Policy Perspective

Recently, twitter witnessed huge outrage over an article tweeted by American Scientific Association which referred to the ancient yogic technique of Pranayam as “Cardiac Coherent Breathing”.

This article raises the broader issue of copying Bharatiya intellectual knowledge, making superficial changes to it, giving it a new name/nomenclature, patenting it and them selling it all over the world, including to Bharatiya people who are the real inheritors of that knowledge. This process is often referred to as ‘Digesting’.

This tweet by a Western Hindu very correctly captures the current trend in the West regarding Bharatiya knowledge systems –

The British consciously tried to take Bharatiyas away from their traditional knowledge by destroying both institutional as well as community-based systems of knowledge transfer. Few prominent examples are:  Artisan guilds being impoverished through unfair trade policies, demeaning of Hindu Dharma & all knowledge attached to it, and the very infamous Macaulayan education system meant to make Bharatiyas look down upon their own traditions.

On the other hand, Europeans were busy studying ancient Sanskrit texts and trying to decipher science out of it. In fact, it is said that many theories in the west are derived from Bharat’s ancient texts ranging from Surgery and Medicine to Psychology and Astronomy.

Why the British did all this, was because of who they were- Colonialists. However, how the Government in Independent Bharat approached traditional knowledge makes no sense and is unforgivable. We not only continued with the policies of the British, we seemed more keen than the British to destroy all traditional knowledge.

The rural economy was destroyed by replacing organic farming practices by so-called ‘Green Revolution’ which brought the use of chemical based fertilizers and pesticides. We now all know the devastating impact it had on long term fertility of soil, farmer debt, contamination of food and water resources and crop diversity.

This was further worsened by ‘White Revolution’ where indigenous breeds of cows were replaced by European cows in the name of increasing milk production. Production quantities were given primacy over the most important aspect of food- Nutrition. Now we are being sold our own traditional knowledge in the form of Whole grains, Multi Grains, A2 Milk and organic products.

The successive NDA governments did bring about a change to this policy by encouraging Traditional Knowledge in the field of Yoga and Ayurveda. The Ministry of AYUSH was set up and International Day of Yoga started to be celebrated. However, this is too little and maybe too late. Today, Yoga and Ayurveda is a multi billion dollar industry but a large part of it is controlled by foreigners.

Bharat also made some strides in the TRIPS agreement under WTO by being able to get Geographical Indicators clause inserted. Under this clause, products known to be belonging to a community residing in a geographical location cannot be patented (Darjeeling Tea, French Champagne, Basmati Rice for eg.). However, it has been seen that variants of such food products are getting patented, the most common example being “Texmati”. Also, Bharat cannot rely on a reactive policy where we take up the case once it has been already patented.

Relying on geographical Indicators will not stop the digestion of our traditional knowledge, but merely delay it. Every few months, we see some product based on Bharatiya traditional knowledge patented and sold in market by western companies, from Charcoal toothpaste to Neem Datun to Turmeric.

It’s our knowledge and there is no reason why Bharat and Bharatiyas should not be earning from it. Traditional Knowledge is so ingrained in our everyday life that we often just miss it for the ‘Scientific Value’ it has. Many organisations are working on traditional knowledge in various fields and are doing a fantastic job.

Patanjali and JIVA will be remembered in future for having brought Ayurveda into the mainstream industry in Bharat. At the same time, real progress in preserving and promoting traditional knowledge will only happen when the government makes suitable policy interventions.

I am outlining a few policy changes to bring about a paradigm change in the way we approach traditional knowledge-

  • National and State Level Autonomous Institutions: Such institutions need to be established that will document and do research on traditional knowledge. These institutions will aim at patenting traditional knowledge, working with research institutions to innovate on the basis of that Knowledge, advising universities and vocational training institutions like NSDC for inclusion of such knowledge in educational curriculums.
  • Absorption and lateral entry of persons possessing traditional knowledge: Look at the case of Dai Maa (Midwife). A Dai Maa is someone who is skilled in natural deliveries and her experience apart, she has valuable knowledge that has been passed  on through generations. She should be given basic vocational training in modern medicine and absorbed into the health care sector. Such a Dai Maa can become a very important resource in providing cheap rural healthcare with her dual skill set of traditional knowledge and modern medicine.
  • Similarly, the case of Lohar community who can be seen selling metal products on the roadside. This Lohar community used to make the Bharatiya sword, that was much sought after in the world during medieval times. Their traditional understanding of iron smelting should be utilized and they should be absorbed into the metal industry after being skilled in the basics of modern metallurgy. There are innumerable similar examples in the fields of architecture, leather, medicine, nutrition etc. We need to formulate a policy of identifying and absorbing such skilled personnel from traditional occupation communities into the modern industries.
  • Removing English as an entry barrier: English, being a popularly spoken language, has given an advantage to Bharat in many industries, especially those where business/process is outsourced to Bharat. However, we have also used English to our disadvantage by  firstly, converting it into a symbol of class and secondly, using it as an entry barrier into professions. The first one has led to generation after generation of Bharatiyas who have grown up with an inferiority complex regarding their own culture and civilization, thereby creating a mindset of ignoring or looking down upon traditional knowledge and accepting false propaganda related to it. Change of food habits where we replaced healthy foods like ghee and multi grains, with chemically refined oils and maida (processed flour) is an easily observable example. The second one has led to keeping 70% of Bharat away from higher education in the field of Sciences and Research. The nation is being deprived of the talent and knowledge of this 70% population due to an artificial entry barrier that has nothing to do with merit.
  • Compulsory teaching of Sanskrit to all Bharatiyas: Sanskrit studies are being encouraged in a big way in Western nations. The studies range from learning written and spoken Sanskrit to research in the field of Indology. While we take pride in foreigners learning our language, we are largely ignoring it in our own country. Sanskrit ancient texts have vast reserves of knowledge, some coded and some straightforward. Whoever learns Sanskrit will be the inheritor of this great knowledge heritage. Mass Sanskrit literacy will promote reading of ancient Sanskrit texts by general populace and will create a channel for transmission and preservation of learning from one generation to another.

Bharat is fortunate to have a continuity of civilization where knowledge has been preserved and passed on through progeny, communities and Guru Shishya Parampara (teacher-student traidition). The government needs to formulate appropriate policies and ensure that Bharatiyas, the natural inheritors of this traditional knowledge are at the fulcrum of the ecosystem that benefits from this boon of our ancestors.

(Featured Image for representational purpose only. Source: birac.nic.in)


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About the Author

Rahul Swami
The author is a strategy, campaign management & public policy professional working as an advisor to public leaders & organisations.