If knowledge is power, language should be no bar

India is experiencing a schism between mythology and Science. This schism has its moorings in the fact that most scientific knowledge is unable to percolate among the non-English-speaking populace of the country. If we seek a knowledge revolution, speedy and large-scale translations may be in order.

January 04, 2019 05:15 pm | Updated January 08, 2019 03:30 pm IST

The stars have no obligation to communicate to us. If we must understand them, the onus is on us to learn their language.

The stars have no obligation to communicate to us. If we must understand them, the onus is on us to learn their language.

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The progress achieved over the last few decades in India is marked by a series of revolutions. The green revolution, for example, achieved self-sufficiency in food; the white revolution accomplished a similar victory in milk production. We may envisage the advent of yet another revolution that will provide the foundation on which any other future revolution in India would occur. We may describe it as the revolution of knowledge or, poetically, an Exultation of Light.

Although there has been a lot of talk by visionaries like Shri Sam Pitroda and late Shri Abdul Kalam, Indian society is plagued by a severe starvation in terms of knowledge. Knowledge always begs the question of a medium, a receptacle, a language in which that knowledge is captured. There is an ocean of knowledge in English and other world languages. But the fact that only a very tiny portion of it percolates into Indian languages leads to a kind of mental malnutrition, a grim fact of which our societies do not seem to have yet fully grown conscious.

A few revealing statistics are in order. If we accept Wikipedia as a standard repository of knowledge, the number of articles in Indian languages relative to those in English and other dominant world languages is quite disappointing. The number of Wiki articles in English, Swedish, German, and Chinese (in millions) are, respectively, 5.7, 3.7, 2.2 and 1. Corresponding figures (in millions) for some of the highest-scoring Indian languages are: Hindi (0.1), Urdu (0.14), Tamil (0.12), Telugu (0.07) and Bengali (0.06). Similar comparisons may be drawn between the largest of Indian libraries and the best libraries in the world. The largest library in the world, the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, has 162 million holdings. The second position is occupied by the British Library in London with 150 million holdings. By contrast, the largest library in India, the National Library of Kolkata has only 2.2 million books while the Anna Centenary library has just 1.2 million. It is noteworthy that in both these measures (Wiki articles and libraries) the figures corresponding to the dominant languages of the world and Indian languages differ by about two orders of magnitude. It appears that Indian society does not particularly fancy knowledge; it wishes to live in a void where knowledge is uninvited.

It is not difficult to see that a society that lives in a vacuum of knowledge sits in a precarious position, with uncultivated inner potential, unrealised outward opportunity. Nowhere is the deficiency starker than in matters of our history. The average common Indian seems to believe that India had a glorious and resplendent past, as per the picture painted in our epics. The ultimate objective of any social progression is then a regression back to that past glory — a perfect Ramarajya. It is shocking to note that the lay Indian scarcely distinguishes between mythology and history. Not many understand that Ramarajya was a mythical concept, it did not exist in the historical timeline, like the pyramids or the dinosaurs. In popular Indian imagination, demons and demi-gods, god-kings and gnomes, yakshas and yatis all mingle freely, transcending all boundaries of space and time. There is a need to ameliorate this situation by infusing massive amounts of material, from both mythology and history, into Indian-language literatures.

Why should our knowledge of mythology be confined to our own epics, itihaasa s, and myths, the 18 purana s? Our children would do well to familiarise themselves with Greek, Roman, Norse, Celtic, Arabic, Persian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, North and Central-American mythologies too. In the domain of history, it would be a splendid project for the community of Indian historians to create an extensive body of literature pertaining to world history in every Indian language. It could be a voluminous, prodigious and an encyclopedic work, running into about ten thousand pages, aggregating all of known human history. It must be written, however, in an easy language, keeping the lay Indian reader in mind. Access to such a scholarly body of literature will give a strong fillip to every one of our creative endeavors — films, TV, novels, poetry, music, dance and drama. It will have a positive influence on our polity, may inspire deep social reforms, or suggest more effective forms of governance. Such a profound historical awareness will equip our societies to defend themselves against the malicious influence of bigots and zealots and cultural fanatics, who mislead whole generations through vigorous propaganda buttressed only by backward scholarship. It will give our society a more objective perspective of our past, of our place among the world cultures, and, most importantly, of the secure and glorious future that we are collectively trying to envision and co-create.



Another area that benefits from a massive infusion of knowledge is the domain of Science. Science in India is generally considered the special preoccupation and prerogative of “science students” and “scientists”. Scientific research is an esoteric affair confined to the ivory-tower walls of our universities, these “temples” of learning (an anachronism that prescribes a religious attitude even in areas that require perfect objectivity). The future of humanity, at least as envisioned by futurists like Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Michio Kaku, and others, is a world that is shaped and upheld by a scientific outlook. We are living in an era that sees a progressive encroachment of Science in areas that were off limits for science in the past. A scientific, empirical approach is being attempted today even towards seemingly intractable questions like the nature of Consciousness and God. Therefore, Science must be permitted to step off its hallowed altars of educational institutions and walk among the commoners. Science must be shaped as a tool for individual growth and handed out to the common man. Vast tracts of untested or obsolete belief systems permeate the Indian mind today. The next generation of Indians would ideally grow on strong traditions of scientific empiricism, reconfirming, to the extent possible, data that is inherited from the past, and allowing all that does not stand the test to slip quietly into oblivion. A massive effort must be undertaken to create comprehensive, easy-to-understand, scientific literature in all Indian languages.

Freshly creating such a great body of literature, in so many languages, in a meaningfully short social and historical duration, would be nothing less than a miracle. It is only pragmatic, therefore, to depend on translated writings to achieve such an end. Translation work is sometime looked down upon in India. But in history there have been large translation missions that have had a tremendous regenerative influence on the societies that supported them. A remarkable example was the Toledo experience. In the ancient Spanish city of Toledo, a massive translation work was undertaken with royal support stretching over the 12th and 13th Centuries. It was initiated by Archbishop Raymond in the 12th Century, and saw its consummation under the reign of King Alphonso X. The translation was initially done from Arabic sources to Latin, but in later to the native language of Spanish. Such large-scale translation movements in Europe were thought to be the redeeming power that dragged medieval Europe out of the dark ages, ushering in the scientific and cultural Renaissance. On similar lines, massive translation efforts must be undertaken in every single one of the Indian languages.

There must be a government policy by which all the public university faculty must contribute in a variety of meaningful ways to rural education in India (such initiatives have been taken up, albeit in slightly tyrannical form, in the Maoist regime, as a part of the Chinese Cultural Revolution). They can visit government schools, for example, and give lectures. The aim of these lectures, delivered in lucid and native language, is not merely to help the village kids in test-taking, but to inspire them and expose them to the most impactful ideas of the modern world. Or they can write books, or train and motivate government-school teachers. It must not be a million disconnected efforts. All that must be done as a part of a grand, solid, coherent, and well-thought-through framework.

In the latter part of his life, the former President of India, Abdul Kalam, often spoke of a mission called PURA — Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas. The aim of this mission was to bring high-quality urban facilities to the villages. This is a laudable goal but will have to face the challenge of funds. I propose an intermediate step that can greatly facilitate the realisation of the aims of PURA. One may call this mission Providing Urban Knowledge Amenities to Rural Areas (PUKARA). Move the knowledge that makes the urban world tick, knowledge that is behind urban wealth and urban energy, to the rural world. Make that knowledge available in local language literature in village libraries, teach it in village schools. Access to modern knowledge in native tongues will greatly empower rural India. (At IIT Madras, with funding from the Institute, a group of us have undertaken a modest project that publishes popular science books in Indian languages, and send them freely to rural schools and NGOs engaged in educational activities. Currently, the work is confined to Tamil and Telugu, due to constraints in access to human and financial resources. But we hope to expand to other Indian languages over the years.)

The section that we condescendingly call the “masses” must be empowered through knowledge, which must be abundant, affordable and accessible in local languages. Once people learn, they can uplift themselves by creative, inspired self-effort. Right now in India most of the visible progress — all the ‘shaking’ and the ‘moving’ — is driven by the English-speaking section, or at least the section that is influenced by the knowledge available in English. English puts you in contact with the great progressive movements of the world. All that movement is driven by knowledge of a very specialised kind, which is present in English and other world languages. If such knowledge is also ported to Indian languages on a massive scale, we can anticipate the Second Wave of growth in India, similar to the First Wave that occurred with the birth of the IT industry in the ‘80s. When that happens, the groundswell of creativity and energy that will be unleashed in our country will probably be unprecedented in human history.

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