Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Z is for Zero and Infinity



So here we are at Z...the last letter of the English alphabet. And here I am staring at the screen not sure what I want to say now. I know, I know...after all that I have said in the last 25 extremely wordy posts, you may be wondering if there is anything even left for me to say. Or maybe there still is! Let us see....

What is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of letter Z? Zero. I will speak about Zero then.

And when I think of Zero, I think of India. Because it was India that gave the world this concept of Zero. Don't believe me? Maybe you would believe the evergreen Indian patriot given to us by the Hindi film industry, Mr. Manoj Kumar....


[I am happy that I could find this particular video for this song, because it also has the English translation of the lyrics for my non-Hindi-knowing readers.]

Ok, so there is some, actually quite a bit, generalization happening in that song, but so what? There is also some grand portrayal of India happening there, but so what? So what, you ask? Shouldn't I be questioning such over-generalizations, such grand portrayals? To your question, my dear reader, I say - hear me out first, and let us decide then....

We all know not everything is right with India or Indian society. Our media, international media, Indian intellectuals of a certain hue and ideological lineage, and their friends and counterparts from the West do a rather good job of telling us that almost everyday. Everyday we hear what is wrong with India, Indian society, Indian politics, Indian religions, Indian cultures, Indian industry, Indian markets, Indian education, Indian way of thinking, so and so forth. Enough already! Yeah, that's exactly what I sometimes want to say to all these voices criticizing everything and anything Indian, often without thinking or questioning, often without any deeper understanding of why things are the way they are.

You and I also know that everything is not right anywhere else either. Each society goes through its evolutionary process in its own way, at its own pace and facing its own challenges and struggles. But then this post is not about what is right or what is not right with India, or about how societies evolve. (Now there's an idea for a future blog post - or two, or three!)

If you actually knew the context in which the song played out in the film (Purab aur Paschim, East and West), you may begin to think differently about this generalization issue. Actually the way I see it, is not so much a generalization but something else that is going on here...but let me not digress. Those who have seen this film would probably agree with me that maybe there was a need for such a statement to be made in that particular context. The time when that film came out - 1970 - should also be kept into account when interpreting its overtly nationalist discourse. But then this post is also not about some old Hindi film or how Hindi films have done their bit in creating an "imaginary nation" as some postmodernist scholars would want to say after watching this video. As much as I like old Hindi films and old Hindi film songs and also have a cursory interest in some of intellectual discourse surrounding Hindi cinema, I move on to what this post is actually about.

The reason I wanted to share this video was simply this. It speaks of a love for India. A love that is based on the knowledge about India. A knowledge that is rooted in love for India. And if India has to evolve and progress, Indians must love India first. And it can't be blind love. It has to be a love with eyes wide open. With knowledge, with deep understanding.

Indian Education must play a prominent role in this. Indian children and youth must be given full opportunity to know about their country, their culture, their history. So they can begin to love and respect their rich and varied heritage, and be willing to work for their nation's glory (and through that work for the world and humanity at large) as they follow their life's chosen vocation and work. I have dealt with these and many other related topics and issues in my previous posts in this series. So for this last post, I will simply add one more thing. When Indian children and youth are told that it was India that gave to the world the concept of Zero, they should also be told that it was India that gave to the world the concept of Infinity too. (Don't believe me? Well, you know what to do then...Google it up!) Emphasizing the point about India's contribution of the concepts of Zero (shunya) and Infinity (anant, purna) makes the picture complete, in a way. And Indian education must also help Indian children and youth fill in those gaps between zero and infinity. They must be encouraged to discover and do their own fact-finding and research on what else did India contribute to the world knowledge, in various fields of human endeavour and activity, including many different branches of theoretical and applied sciences, engineering and medicine, architecture and city planning, visual and performing arts, economics and politics, etc.

Learners in Indian schools and colleges need to be shown that India has had a most inspiring legacy in the matter of original thinking. Prof. Subhash Kak has reminded us that the ancient Indian mind anticipated several of the most fundamental concepts which govern the world view of modern science today at least a couple of millennia before Western science could come up with them*. Some of those are:
1. According to the Puranas the cycle to which the present creation belongs is about 8.64 billion years old. This is about right based on current astrophysical estimates. This sounds revolutionary when we note that until a couple of hundred years ago the dogma in most of Eurasia was that the world was created in 4004 BC.
2.  The atomic doctrine of Kanada (2nd century AD) is much more interesting than that of Democritus. Kanada also postulates like Sankhya and Vedanta the subject/object dichotomy that has played such a crucial role in the creation of modern science.
3. That Space and Time need not flow at the same rate for different observers is a pretty revolutionary notion which we encounter in the Puranic stories and in the Yoga Vasishtha. We are not speaking here of the mathematical theory of relativity which is of recent European origin, yet the notion that time acts differently for different observers is quite remarkable.
4.  The Puranas say that Man arose at the end of a chain which began with plants and various kinds of animals. The theory of Vedic evolution is not at variance with Darwinian evolution although its focus was consciousness and not mere physical forms.
5.  The science of Mind described in the Vedic books and systematised by Patanjali is a very sophisticated description of the nature of the human mind and its capacity. The Western world did not even take up this field for study until very recently.
6.  A binary number system was used by Pingala (according to traditional accounts Panini's brother who lived around 450 BC) which must have helped the invention of the zero sign between 50 BC and 50 AD. Without the binary system the development of modern computers would have been much harder, and without a sign for zero, mathematics would have languished. In the West, the binary number system was independently discovered by Leibnitz only in 1678, 2000 years after Pingala.
7. Finally, Panini's Grammar of Sanskrit Ashtadhyayi describes the Sanskrit language in 4000 algebraic rules. This has been hailed by the American scholar Leonard Bloomfield as "one of the greatest monuments of human intelligence". No grammar of similar power has yet been constructed for any other language since.
The above list given by Prof. Kak is cited in Mangesh Nadkarni's essay - Can India Ever be Great Again? Prof. Nadkarni further goes on to write -
"Isn't it our educational system itself a marvel of our mental slavery since we aren't being told about any of these seven wonders of the ancient Indian mind in our school books? My purpose in listing them here is not to make us all just feel smugly proud of our heritage but to convince the modern generation of Indians what wonders can be achieved if only we break all intellectual bonds and learn to think for ourselves."
And my purpose in sharing this information is also not to feel smug as an Indian or even remotely suggest that Indian education should in any way promote any feeling of cultural chauvinism. If you have been reading the posts in this series, you would know how I have strongly cautioned/warned against any such thing.

Let me also add that I am not knowledgeable enough to personally verify the accuracy of these claims, but I trust that the sources from where I got this information have done enough research and study before making such claims. I list them here with the hope that those interested may perhaps take up their own research to explore these further. After all, that is what true learning is about - discovering truths on our own! And for those interested in knowing more about the legacy and history of science and scientific thinking in India may also look up this link here.

But the more important point I want to emphasize here is that in the name of globalization, world-citizenship, modernization, cross-cultural learning and secularism and other such trends of the time (all of which are necessary in their own way for a whole-istic model of education, as also suggested in many of my previous posts), some great truths about their heritage and culture should not be kept away from the learners of India. Our curriculum, textbooks, everything must be reflective of some of these great truths about India's past so that a strong and healthy present and future India can be prepared. A healthy love and respect for one's past helps prepare the ground for a bright future.

I have said something similar earlier too in this series. But it is worth reiterating. When the only message given to the young minds is that all pragmatic and scientific knowledge needed for practical life and living came from and comes from outside India, and that India only gave them some (or many) gods and goddesses, mythologies, rituals, and other such things we are not only not giving a complete picture to the learners. We are doing something even worse. We are creating a division in these young minds - not only about India and the West, but also about what is sacred and what is secular, what is mythological and what is historical, what is otherworldly and irrelevant and what is practical and relevant. And we all know what serious problems can arise out of such mental divisions, such rigid categorizations, such constructed oppositions. An objective look at the present socio-political-cultural-intellectual discourse in India (and perhaps in rest of the world too) will convince you of how disruptive and regressive such a dichotomous and polarizing thought-process can be. Young minds should be given a more accurate picture of how not only all knowledge is One Knowledge but also that each culture, each civilization has in its own way, through its own unique ways of knowing contributed to that One Super-Ocean of Knowledge.

As I come to the end of this series "Putting India Back in Indian Education" I find that the only way I can I end this last post of the series is with the following words of Sri Aurobindo:
"National education cannot be defined briefly in one or two sentences, but we may describe it tentatively as the education which starting with the past and making full use of the present builds up a great nation. Whoever wishes to cut off the nation from its past is no friend of our national growth. Whoever fails to take advantage of the present is losing us the battle of life. We must therefore save for India all that she has stored up of knowledge, character and noble thought in her immemorial past. We must acquire for her the best knowledge that [the West] can give her and assimilate it to her own peculiar type of national temperament. We must introduce the best methods of teaching humanity has developed, whether modern or ancient. And all these we must harmonise into a system which will be impregnated with the spirit of self-reliance so as to build up men and not machines.... (CWSA, vol 6-7, p. 895)
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This post is written for the A-Z Challenge, April 2014. The theme I am exploring is - Putting India back in Indian Education

Click here for all the previous posts in this series.

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Author's note: A big thank you to all my patient readers for going through these long posts on Indian Education. I truly appreciate your constant support, encouragement and motivation given via your comments on the blog and private emails. And I promise I shall try my very best that my next several posts on the blog will not be this long, or this 'heavy' :) Keep checking back here, keep visiting and reading this blog. Subscribe if you haven't done so already. Like the Facebook page of the blog here, if you like.

Thank you, once again!