Diving into India’s prescient heritage of learning and wisdom

Diving into India’s prescient heritage of learning and wisdom

Two hundred years ago, when Lord Macaulay decided that Indian ‘heathens’ needed to be civilised and English imposed as the main language, he set in chain a series of policies which demolished public respect for India’s own cultural heritage and vast ocean of Dharmic wisdom. Historians and Indologists have discovered that a thirst for moral, responsible and sustainable knowledge has always been deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche. In its rich oral tradition, Indians used stories, poetry and rhyme to convey complex ideas across the generations, and to educate a people who could not read or write as easily as today.

Oral methods of transmission improved memory and unlocked the spirit in ways which have been dulled by modernity. Scientists are also discovering today that wisdom comes from higher levels of consciousness, beyond the material reality of experimentation and obervation. Prejudices, medical profiteering and ideologies are disguised today as science and truth, backed by global educational brands like Harvard or Oxford, which we follow blindly. French philosopher Frederic Bastiat has said: ‘When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living in society, they create for themselves, in the course of time, a legal system that authorizes it and a moral system that glorifies it.’

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Over several thousands of years of study and meditation, India developed its own traditions of learning and well-being. As an example, 200 years ago, Jains funded gyan bhandars which were libraries for collating and preserving manuscripts from all traditions. The monks and nuns were master scholars and literateurs, who memorised whole scriptures and gave public lectures without any notes. Instead of PowerPoint they used stories, music and singing to enthrall their audiences. Conversion was through learning rather than force. The core wisdoms of ahimsa, anekant and aparigraha reminded listeners of respect for all living beings, and helped them to understand the ephemeral nature of money and the blindness of individualism. Throughout India, there are schools and colleges established by Jain communities as charitable institutions – such was the respect for learning and personal development.

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The global Jain diaspora are today endowing Professorships in Jain Studies, with North America providing the leadership. Dr Jasvant Modi, Dr Sulekh Jain and Dr Nitin Shah have donated and collected millions of dollars to catalyse Jain wisdom in all its pristine glory and ensure it has its deserving place in institutions of higher education, like the University of California or the University of Chicago among many others. At the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, Professor Peter Flugel has over a 30-year leadership marathon, globalised Jain Studies into a field of repute and the highest standards of scholarship, widening its membership. At Ghent University, Jain Studies have flourished under the leadership of Prof Eva De Clerq. The International School for Jain Studies founded by Dr Shugan Jain, has opened the living heritage of India to scholars from all over the world, helping them connect with the intellectual and cultural soul that is India.

A group picture from the International School for Jain Studies, headquartered in Pune, India.
A group picture from the International School for Jain Studies, headquartered in Pune, India.

Dr Parveen Jain has set up a professional online Arihanta Academy to make Jain wisdom widely accessible. All these initiatives have become a plantation for Jain education which is fertilising the planet. Scholars from all cultures bring their thirst and sacrifice to help spread these seeds much more widely, to eager students, most of whom are non-Indian. As a global diaspora we should transform ‘Never Have I Ever’ studied Indian Dharma to ‘I have been nourished by my heritage and wisdom’.

The timeless wisdom of India urgently needs to permeate school textbooks and methods of teaching and learning if we are to save the world from catastrophe. It’s compassion and respect for biodiversity is so profound that it can shine a light on a reformed holistic approach to education. During the current economic and climate crisis, we can boldly say ‘we told you so’ thousands of years ago, and our knowledge was not borne out of fear or self-preservation but instead a deeper understanding of truth, far beyond western science.

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My colleague at City University Professor Inderjeet Parmar and I have discovered that violence against nature and humanity has become deeply engrained in the commercial, educational, legal and political institutions of the West and to reverse it is a mammoth undertaking. Above all, we of Indian heritage should overcome our own ignorance and disrespect for tradition, and use it instead to observe, study and reflect on how we can embrace Dharma positively.

Professor Atul K. Shah [@atulkshah] teaches and writes about Indian wisdom on business, culture and community at various UK universities and is a renowned international author, speaker and broadcaster.

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