On culture

‘Did ‘Wisdom’ Supplant ‘Knowledge’ In India’s Past?

M. K. Raghavendra

The ongoing efforts to uphold ancient Indian knowledge alongside the claim that western knowledge is derivative or superficial deserves scrutiny. This is especially so because such utterances have been coming from even people highly placed in the scientific establishment - like the Chief of the ISRO when he spoke at a Sanskrit university in Ujjain recently. Indians had taken big strides in many of the sciences like observational astronomy, medicine and metallurgy very early, but apparently this knowledge was lost or misplaced. Colonialism or Mughal rule cannot be blamed since it was perhaps lost much earlier; astronomer Aryabhata lived in the 6th century CE and Nilakanthan Somayaji in the 16th century. Islam also brought into India its own scholars and scientists like Al-Biruni (10th century) and the Persian Fathullah Shirazi who lived in Akbar’s court in the 16th century. Why Indian scientific knowledge was lost can only be a matter for speculation but my own surmise is that it was not valued as it should have been - because of the traditional Indian valorization of ‘wisdom’ over ‘knowledge’. 
Before proceeding further, I should make a distinction between these two kinds of knowing, although where they depart from each other may be contested. I will describe as ‘wisdom’ any form of knowing that helps the human being attain peace, happiness or salvation - for himself or herself. Wisdom by its very essence is non-contextual and cannot therefore lose its relevance regardless of the circumstances. The mystical perception that ‘consciousness’ is supreme and individual consciousness will merge with universal consciousness - of which it is an essential part - cannot lose pertinence even if nuclear war breaks out. ‘Knowledge’ on the other hand can only be contingent and is certain to become dated. Scientific theories will be superseded sooner or later, as are skills - that are ‘knowledge’. Whatever Copernicus knew was superseded by Newton, later overtaken by Einstein. Artisanal skills are similarly made obsolete by technology, which makes difficult work easier. By this reckoning the teaching of a sage like the Budha is ‘wisdom’ while the work of the philosopher Plato is ‘knowledge’. We may know many more things than Plato knew but we cannot be wiser than the Buddha.

From whatever has been said it would appear that ‘wisdom’ has more intrinsic worth than ‘knowledge’ but, as Francis Bacon said, ‘knowledge is power’. Knowledge is essentially to gain control over nature, over social forces as well as over other human beings. Knowledge of politics helps the leader ascend to power and govern; knowledge of the market helps the businessman acquire wealth; knowledge of metals helped humankind design tools to make physical work easier; astrology helps those who practice it fulfil one’s yearning to know the future. None of this knowledge can be valid eternally - the validity of some may even be questioned - but it helps human beings and societies attain their desired objectives.  

An admissible conjecture about India’s past may be that after the Vedic period at least, knowledge was increasingly subordinated to wisdom. The Rig Veda – since it dealt with sacrifices intended to fetch material rewards – may have been ‘knowledge’ but, when expounded upon later, the emphasis gradually shifted to wisdom. The underlying causes may have been political since Buddhism and Jainism emerged as resistance to the Brahmins and the earliest Upanishads were contemporary to them. But whatever the causes, later commentaries on the Vedanta – by thinkers like Sankaracharya - underlined its importance as a path to salvation. The ‘ultimate reality’ is what he sought but neither science nor philosophy has any desire to know that. How dominant the notion of wisdom - rather than knowledge - became may be gauged from the Indian materialists who, while rejecting the immaterial soul, associated the good with pleasure. Indian materialist thought is also tied to how human beings must live in the world – pleasure equated with salvation and happiness and peace, perhaps. 

My proposition is that if ‘wisdom’ gains priority over ‘knowledge’ as to be attained, one might tend to undervalue aspects of knowledge. As evidence, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana (all of which purvey wisdom) are more easily available, understood or commented upon than are scientific treatises like those of Aryabhata.  The consequence of this undervaluation of knowledge - in relation to wisdom- could only have been its gradual erosion. What we value as ‘western knowledge’ today began to grow rapidly only with the Renaissance in Europe in the 14th century, but there has been no ‘dark period’ thereafter with regard to its growth and accumulation. Indian knowledge (in contrast) arguably went into decline in the medieval period and the kind of knowledge required for survival in today’s world cannot be derived from ‘Indian knowledge.’    

While acknowledging that wisdom is something to be highly valued in all our personal lives, the country as a whole cannot be great or powerful without knowledge of the kind highly pertinent to the rest of the world today. The fact that all scientific theories will be eventually superseded does not mean that what is known today cannot be applied usefully. And it is not only scientific knowledge that is of importance. If we consider the miliary happenings in the world strategy is devised after working out the various scenarios, as they are likely to play out - which involves an understanding of the social and political forces involved, i.e.: implying the services of sociologists and political scientists. Today’s economists do not only study scenarios but they also try to engineer them actively.

It is a well-known fact that ‘games’ are played before a war happens so that its likely outcome can be managed effectively. One may suppose that it is the acumen of political scientists in the US that helped it become the resounding gainer in the Ukraine war. (Its oil companies are minting money as is its armaments industry. Europe is buying gas from it at exorbitant prices because of its sanctions against Europe’s normal gas supplier Russia.) Elections in many democratic countries are also fought by political parties after calculating carefully what might happen in various scenarios - in which even the weather might play a deciding part. One may be sure that if something like demonetization took place in the developed world the likely social scenarios of the decision would have been worked out; but did that happen here? All this is the ‘knowledge’ that a modern nation needs and cannot be derived from Ancient India’s achievements. While it is undoubtedly just to be proud of the latter, what is known through them is still inadequate to help India rise to where patriotic Indians might want it to. Knowledge is not only a matter of pride but also helps in coping with a multitude of things. Given these factors we may also suppose that knowledge, since it is contingent, would be hopeless if not up to date.   

June 2023

On culture