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“Science = Shastra”: The Blunder of Indian Education

I am a researcher in the field of System Design and Management, who likes to study social phenomenon from systems perspective.

Whats is Science?

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The Problem in the Meaning.

In most languages and especially in Indo-European languages, any word has a unique meaning, which makes the idea of synonyms futile because how can two words have the same meaning if each of them is unique. At most, two words can have a similar meaning, which allows us to use them alternatively. However, even in that case, we must acknowledge the difference between the two. Unfortunately, in some cases, failure to recognize those differences can have long-lasting effects on social systems. This article explores an example of such two words in the Indian education system, which are often used interchangeably. However, they have considerable differences in their meaning, which leads to significant adverse effects on Indian science education. Here when we talk about Indian languages, we mean the indo-European languages of the Indian subcontinent, which are originated from Sanskrit. The two words that we are talking about are “Vidnyan” and “Shastra.” These two words are common in most Indian languages, with some variations in pronunciations. As this article is in English, we use word science instead of Vidnyan, which is a counterpart of the word in the English language. Whereas in the case of Shastra, we use the word as it is.

Me and Science/Shastra

I would begin the conversation with my own journey with these two words. The story started around 15 years ago when our family moved from a small village to a mid-size town. This was a significant change for a high-schooler, who had to move from a small village school to a larger, more sophisticated high school, and of course, I was excited about it. However, on the first day of school, I noticed a new subject called ‘Shastra’ in the timetable, which put me into panic mode and million questions started running in my mind.

“What is this new subject?”

“Have everyone studied it before coming to high-school?”

“will it be related to any subject?”

‘Would I have to work harder to pass this subject?’

Etc.

However, anticlimactically, soon, we come to know that Shastra was nothing but science, which was one of my favourites, and I didn’t need to worry about it. Nevertheless, throughout my high school and engineering, we continue to study Shastra/science without differentiating the two, and at least on a grade shit, I was good at it.

Then in 2014, I entered into Japanese university for higher education, where I inclined towards scientific research. It was here, I started to understand the difference between Indian science/Shastra tradition vs western modern science tradition, which is necessary for scientific research. During this period, I also realized the lack of understanding of these differences had caused various problems in the Indian education system, which, if not looked at, will further damage our education system.

Indian Greats in Science

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India and Modern Science

We Indians have a long tradition of logical and critical thinking. We are also good at mathematics. A brilliant explanation of this is given in a book by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen: ‘Argumentative Indians, ’ which explains the argumentative culture in Indian history. However, if we look at the recent past, even with our logical, critical thinking and mathematical parous, it's only when Indian get in contact with modern science traditions in the west that leads to new significant scientific discoveries. It's supported by multiple examples which include greats such as C. V. Raman, Chandrashekhar, Ramanujan or as late as 2019 Nobel laureate Dr Abhijit Banerjee. All of them, when they come in contact with modern science traditions in the west, were able to achieve the pinnacle of their research work. It is also important to note that people like Dr Bhaba or Dr Mashalkar, who pioneered modern Indian science, are also higher educated in wester modern scientific traditions. Then the obvious question that arises in once’s mind is, “what makes these combinations of logical, critical and argumentative Indians excel in the west?” And more importantly, why does it not happen at home (India)?

Naturally, the first answer that comes to anyone’s mind is financial investment and support for research activities in the west. It's evident that the developed societies invest a lot more in scientific research compare to developing countries like India. Thus logically, many Indians go to developed countries to pursue their career. This whole phenomenon of smart brains travelling from developing countries to developed ones in search of a better life is well known as brain drain, and India is also a victim of that. However, it will be unwise to argue that the brain drain is the only reason for the above phenomena. Because as someone said, most of the scientific discoveries happen by accident. And the only thing you need to have scientific discoveries is to have vigilant observation skills and curiosity to follow those accidents to the right answers. Now accidents can happen anywhere. Thus they must be happening in India too. So why no one has eyes to catch them or curiosity to follow them to the right answer, which leads me to the conclusion that our science/Shastra traditions have certain shortcomings which are preventing us from developing vigilante eyes and curious minds.

Science = Shastra ?

What set the modern science tradition apart from the traditional Indian one?

To answer this question, we need to examine the meaning of these two words (shastra and science) in respective languages. We also need to explore the implicit impact of those meanings on the knowledge traditions in the respective societies. But first, for the further discussion here onward as we refer western knowledge culture as science tradition and Indian knowledge tradition as Shastra traditions. Whereas in the following, we explore them one by one.

Science

We begin our investigation with the etymology of word science in the English language. It is argued that the word science came into the English language through PEI (Proto-Indo-European) root ‘skei’, which means ‘to cut or to spit’. The root skei then evolved into the Latin word “scire”, which means ‘to know’. However, from the above explanation, we can conclude that the act of knowing (scire) is done by dividing the unknown into small knowable entities and then understanding their causal-effect. Nevertheless, in the oxford dictionary, science is given as

Meaning of Science

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However, to understand the western knowledge tradition related to science, its not sufficient to know only the meaning of word science. Especially it's not enough to understand the modern scientific tradition, which is a recent phenomenon and which has extensively gone against major knowledge traditions of the past. Thus to understand modern science traditions, we need to understand the cultural perspective of it. As explained by Yuval Noah Harari in ‘Sapience: A Brief History of Mankind,’ the modern scientific traditions were developed in Western Europe around 500 years ago, where people like Galileo, Copernicus were some of the early champions of it. Primarily the modern scientific traditions are based on the principle of ‘accepting the ignorance of mankind and then following the evidence to find new knowledge’, where the principle argues that “we don’t know everything important for mankind and the things that we know can change with new information.” This assumption has transformed the way we Look at words around us. The modern scientific traditions can be represented by the figure below.

Modern Science Tradition

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As explained in the figure, a modern scientific theory should have one characteristic, and that is “a scientific theory should be able to make multiple predictions, which in theory should be disprovable using observations”. These theories are called scientific hypotheses. It is important to note that the characters mentioned above do not talk about only testing. It emphasizes on the differentiation between success and failure where is mainly mention failure. Nevertheless, modern scientific hypotheses are tested continuously with new data and technologies. If the result of the test is positive, the theory survives for another day. Whereas if the results are negative (assuming that there was no mistake in observations and testing) the theory is disproved and then we either revise the theory or come up with a new one, which is further tested for predictions. As can be imagined, testing for failure is an essential part of modern scientific culture. As a researcher, it is my experience that most of the useful findings in research or most of the ‘eureka’ movements come in the testing phase—especially the failure in the testing phase, which broadens our knowledge by revealing previously unknown things.

At the same time, and more importantly, this is the process that gives us confidence that modern science traditions will help us find optimum answers to our questions. That’s because, as explained above, there is always a chance that the solutions that we come up with might be wrong. However, on the base of the tradition where we continuously test the theory, we can say that the answer that we come up with has the highest probability to be correct in the present time.

Newton vs. Einstein

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Example of Modern Scientific Traditions

It's all good in theory, but do people really follow it?
To answer this, let's explore the following example, which includes two great minds of recent past. In modern science traditions, some personalities are deeply revered for their discoveries. Galileo, Copernicus, Faraday, Maxwell, Darwin are some of them. However, none is as admired as Newton. After all, Newton was the one who gave us an explanation about a large number of the phenomenon in our universe by proposing simple laws of gravity and motion, which we still use for many engineering decisions. However, through history, regardless of who Newton was, various researchers were testing Newton’s law of gravity through experiments and observations. One of them was Albert Einstein, who later showed that Newton's law of gravity fails to predict the motion of the bodies at high speed (near to the speed of light). He also proposed the theory of relativity, which predicts correct answers for the above scenarios, where Newton’s law failed (motion of bodies at high speed). Einstein’s theory of relativity was and is vital to humankind. Without the theory of relativity, many space missions, fusion energy, cancer treatment and yes, nuclear bombs would not have been possible. And of course, you would not have the theory of relativity if people were not questioning the wisdom of Newton, based on the ignorance principle of modern science.
This example is a great illustrator of how modern science work, how it lead to new revelations and why we trust modern scientific traditions even when it might lead to incorrect or wrong answers like Newton's one.

Shastra

Knowledge traditions existed even before modern science in the west. In fact, since the cognitive revolution, humans have been trying to understand the rules that govern the world around us. In the case of knowledge traditions in India, they could be divided into two time periods: i) pre-Vedic knowledge traditions and Vedic-knowledge traditions. Generally speaking, pre-Vedic time is used to refer to the Indus Valley civilization, where unfortunately because of the lack of understanding about language and writing from that time, we are unable to comprehend knowledge culture from that time. On the other hand, in Vedic time and after that, we have a lot better understanding of knowledge culture due to our understanding of langue from this period. In this period, a knowledge that was considered important was stored in Vedic literature.
According to the Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, etymologically, the word "Shastra" commonly refers to a treatise or text on a specific field of knowledge. In other words, Shastras store knowledge that was known to Indian Vedic culture at the time of writing. In early Vedic literature, the word Shastra is also referred to any precept, rule, teaching, ritual instruction or direction. In other words, the Shastras gave us regulations or instructions, which were based on the knowledge that Indians knew at that time. The earlier reference to the word found is in Rigveda (2nd millennium OBE), where it means rules or instructions. From a knowledge tradition point of view, Shastras were at the core of Vedic knowledge tradition. Shastras were used to make decisions regarding our world, and in many times they were also essential to make arguments about, which decisions are better and based on which Shastra. Thus here onward, we called these Vedic traditions of using Shastra as a manual for decision making as well as argument, as Shastra tradition. It is important to acknowledge that the Shastra tradition that we are discussing here did encourage debates, logical and critical thinking (thus it was here that we got our debating, logical, critical thinking skill that Amartya Sen discuss in his book). However, all this needs to be done with the bases of Shastra. In the figure, I have presented the Shastra traditions decision-making process for better understanding.

Shastra Tradition

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Historical Knowledge Traditions

In a way, the early Vedic Shastra traditions of India are comparable to traditions in early Greek. Interestingly both the traditions started separately around the same time, and they had great deal of similarities. For example, both the cultures were more focused on the logical, critical analysis and at certain level mathematics too. The logical arguments were always based on previous knowledge (shastra), and it was considered as unimportant to test the decision (argument) with experiments or observations. You also find equivalence in the leader of these cultures, in both the societies it was aristocrats who dealt with issues related to knowledge (Shastras). In Greek society, people like Aristarchus, Pluto, Socrates rise in status and are still admired. Whereas in Indian society, there was a rise of people like Aryabhatta, Chanakya, Bhaskaracharya. It’s also important to acknowledge that these traditions were able to promote brilliant minds of those generations and in fact, these people were so good that we still admired their work.
However, although these people were the great mind of their time, their analysis was as good as the information of those times or Shastras of that time. For example, Aristarchus and Pluto both argued that the earth is at the centre of our universe, and they mostly used mystical and mythical arguments. Whereas Indian astrology (Jyotish shastra) or ‘Vastu Shastra’ are also can not be supported with evidence and also use mystical or mythical argument rather than evidence.

Historical Shastra Traditions

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The Shastra Tradition

Through the ancient Indian history, Shastras were learned by heart by the students. It was assumed that all the knowledge that was necessary for humankind was either stored in Shastras or it was unimportant. In the Shastra tradition, Shastras and people who dealt with Shastra acquired sacred status, where it was assumed that if something is said in Shastra, then that means it must be accurate, or you might have misunderstood it. It was and is also a common argument that the students of Shastras or we are incapable of understanding them in their entirety, and thus its meaningless to argue against something that you can’t understand. Therefore in this tradition, it was not accepted to question Shastras. According to the traditions, the only thing that one needed is to study Shastra and understand them well to make decisions. As can be seen in the figure above, Shastra tradition lacked the loop, which is there in the modern scientific tradition. That’s because it also lacks the assumption of modern science, which argues that “there is a lot about our world which is important for us and we don’t know it, at the same time the things that we know could be proven wrong in light of new evidence.” Another vital thing here is that the above assumption encouraged people from modern scientific traditions to find a piece of new information and be the champion by changing the current knowledge like Galileo, newton did. However, as the people who wrote Shastra were sacred in Shastra culture, the above encouragement is lacking in Shastra tradition (even today criticizing Shastra comes with a cost and sometimes life).
It is essential to acknowledge that Shastra traditions are important for decision making. For example, in the case of any engineering projects, given that every project has time and budget constraints, we rely on previous knowledge to make decisions. A similar approach is used in many other fields, such as medicines and others. The above examples describe the importance of the approach of using previous knowledge (Shastra) along with logical and critical thinking for decision making. However, unless that knowledge is based on science tradition, it would be wise to consider that knowledge with scepticism rather than blind faith.

Modern Science and the Indian Education System

Modern education systems around the world attempt to emphasize the above-mentioned importance of modern science traditions and the Indian education system is no exception to that. However, due to the similarity of the two traditions (Shastra and science), we are confusing Shastra traditions for modern science traditions, where we emphasize on previous knowledge, where the Shastras and people who wrote Shastras are considered as sacred. Thus it is considered as arrogant to argue or criticize them, which has prevented us from vigilant eyes that find inconsistencies in current knowledge. It also stops us from following the new information, which contradicts the previous knowledge or criticizing the former knowledge, which is essential for the growth of knowledge. It also forces us to accept previous things as they are without questioning the premise of the traditions.

So What’s the Solution

As this is a massive social system problem, we can not remedy it quickly. However, in my opinion, the answer should have the following aspect to it.
First of all, we need to start differentiating the Shastra tradition from the modern scientific tradition. As explained earlier, they are vastly different and its high time that we make sure we have current science traditions in our education system. At the same time, we must acknowledge the importance of two and also explain and emphasize the purpose of the two traditions separately.

However, considering that the trust in Shastra traditions should be based on the trust in modern science tradition, modern scientific traditions should be given priority in the education system. To do that, we need to propagate and promote the principle of ignorance in our education system, which argues that we don’t know everything necessary in our world, and the things that we know could be proven wrong with new evidence.

At the same time, it is crucial to understand that in general, the new findings will improve our lives and our world. Thus we should actively look for it.

-We need to start differentiating the Shastra tradition from the modern scientific tradition.

-The trust in Shastra traditions should be based on the trust in modern science tradition.

-Acknowledge that new findings will improve our lives and our world.

Whats Does It Mean in Practical Education System (Especially in Indian One)?

First practical change that comes to my mind will be evaluation methods. In the current Indian education system, we focus on how many formulas can the students remember or how exact is the answer, which resembles to remembering the Shastra. However, for modern science tradition, what we need to do is to create an attitude of scepticism, vigilant observation. We also need to urge the students to find new information, patterns, which can only happen when student go away from the standard answers or old Shastra. It also means that we should be focusing on individualism. Encouragement should be given to students to come up with their own ideas, and their own theories. Of course, they should be tested and backed by the evidence, which means that we should promote an approach to test the hypothesis, opinions that we have.
At the same time even if we find positive results, we should also support the culture which keeps us sceptic. We also need to realise that the people who come before us, no matter however smart they were, there is always a possibility that we might find them wrong or we might find something new which they missed. We also need to understand that contradicting the previous knowledge and people with proper new observations and data does not make us arrogant or does not make them less smart. It only means we had better information better vision. In other words, it is also crucial that we check the quality of arguments based on the evidence or observations rather than the age of the presenter.
These are more structural, cultural changes, which no doubt will take a long time for the implementation. They will also need education or preparation on all leaves, including teachers, education system etc. And just like other cultural changes in our education systems, such as the abolition of punishment methods or the introduction of the computer, there will be resistance from old guards. However, we need to understand that it takes time to change the minds of people. It also takes time, resources, patience and persistence to train people in new ways, especially when they don’t want it. But I believe that someday we will get there. I believe that someday we will have a Nobel laureate from India in India.