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Shyam Saran: The knowledge superpower

True pride in India's heritage would require study of the intellectual and cultural heritage that lies beyond its borders

Shyam Saran 

Shyam Saran

Several years ago, while serving in China, I was able to visit Hangzhou in eastern - famed for its natural beauty, but also for having been for several centuries a centre for the arts and scholarship. One famous landmark there is the ancient Buddhist temple called Fei Lai Feng, which is translated as "the peak that flew over". Legend has it that an Indian monk who came to in the ninth century built the temple in Hangzhou below a mountain that to him looked similar to Gridhakuta or Vulture's Peak in his native Rajgir in Bihar. Gridhakuta, of course, is intimately linked with early Buddhism; Sakyamuni delivered some of his early sermons on the hill.

But the reason why my visit to the temple has remained a fresh memory is because of an interesting encounter I had with the monks at the temple. They were chanting from manuscripts written in Chinese characters, but the chants themselves had no resemblance to any Chinese dialect. While listening more closely, I soon realised that what the monks were chanting was some distorted form of Sanskrit, not Chinese at all. The chants had been transliterated from the original into Chinese characters and were unintelligible to modern-day monks. They knew that the chants were sacred, even though they had no idea what they meant. The monks then told me that the temple and the monastery attached to it still had large number of manuscripts in that the Indian monk had brought to There were also Chinese translations of some of the Buddhist scriptures, but all these were lying locked up inside. The books of sacred chants were all that even they had access to.

A few years later I was on assignment in Japan and visited the ancient monastery town of Koyasan, outside the old capital of Kyoto. Koyasan is associated with the name of Kobo Daishi, or the Grand Master (774-835 A D). spent several years in Xi'an in China, where he studied Buddhist scriptures and the language under an Indian pandit, Prajna, who had earlier studied and taught at the famous Nalanda University. On his return to Japan, introduced the Sanskrit syllabary to the Japanese language, hitherto written only in Chinese script. This phonetic alphabet is known as Hiragana and is used to supplement Chinese characters in written Japanese. is also credited with bringing a very large number of Buddhist scriptures, but also Sanskrit texts on other more secular subjects, such as science and medicine, to Japan. These are still stored in an ancient library in Koyasan and are treated as a national treasure. Kobo Daishi's "Catalogue of Imported Items" gives an idea of what texts he brought with him from China to Japan. I was told by a very distinguished Japanese monk at Koyasan that several of the texts no longer exist anywhere else in the world, the originals as well as copies having been destroyed in wars, revolutions, civic strife, fires and disasters over the years.

A later assignment in Nepal brought me face to face with a wealth of historical material that is a shared and legacy with our northern neighbour about which there is little - but, even more seriously, little curiosity - in our country.

Another repository of India's and religious wealth is in Tibetan manuscripts preserved over centuries in Tibetan monasteries across the Himalayas.

More lately, one has come across evidence that, throughout the eighth to the 12th centuries, classic Sanskrit texts on Indian medicine, mathematics and philosophy travelled to Central Asia where, after the Arab invasions, Arabic had become the lingua franca of the Islamic world. Several of the works of Charaka and Susruta (in medicine and surgery), and Aryabhatta and Brahmagupta (in astronomy and mathematics) were translated into Arabic by well-known Central Asian scholars like Khwarazmi, Ibn Sina and al-Beruni. These were later transmitted to Europe, and became part and parcel of the European renaissance from the 12th century onwards. The Indian numeral system, the concept of zero and the decimal, the calculation of pi and the notion of negative numbers and integers were part of India's legacy, which spread far beyond its borders including to Europe as well as China.

There has been some recent controversy over the revision of textbooks in schools that seem to blur the distinction between legend and verifiable facts. Such controversy should not detract from the fact that India has much to be proud of in terms of its contributions to the development of science and mathematics in particular. Susruta described plastic surgery techniques in detail and the principles he enunciated still form the basis of modern plastic surgery. Unfortunately, there is no Indian Joseph Needham, who published his monumental study of Science and Civilization in China, cataloguing for an international readership the many significant contributions China had made through its long history to science and technology. The Indian legacy is equally rich, perhaps even superior in terms of evolving philosophical and conceptual bases for scientific principles. But these lie scattered and fragmented both in India and in several other parts of the world.

True pride in India's rich and religious demands a national project of collating, studying and disseminating the many disparate elements of India's intellectual heritage, so that a more complete picture begins to emerge of an India and of Indians, who inculcated a "scientific temper" much before the modern age. We will need to encourage and support scholars who are as adept in Sanskrit as in classical Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan and Arabic, and seek access to the many repositories around the world, where bits and pieces of our intellectual, and philosophical lie buried. If we really respect our history and take pride in our civilisational heritage, why not embark on this momentous adventure rather than quibble about the meaning of this or that legend? Let us enjoy our rich legacy of legends, but also seek to scale the intellectual and philosophical heights that once made India the capital of the world.

The writer, a former foreign secretary, is currently chairman of the National Security Advisory Board and RIS, as well as a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi

First Published: Tue, November 11 2014. 21:50 IST