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Mining Civilizational Knowledge

Review: Toward A Global Science: Mining Civilizational Knowledge. Susantha Goonatilake. 1998. New Delhi: Vistaar Publications. Pp. 314.
by D.P. Agrawal

The main importance of the book is that it emphasises the need of building even modern scientific tradition and culture in Asian countries on the traditional scientific heritage. The author also points out how China has been far more successful than India in integrating its traditional knowledge with modern science and medicine. The author also brings out glaring examples of ignoring India’s contributions to science though they were full utilized by the west.

Susantha Goonatilake is well known for his earlier book, Aborted Discovery: Science and Creativity in the Third World (Zed Press, London, 1984) which triggered considerable discussion among the students of science and scientific temper in Asian sub-continent. He regrets that many ancient countries including Japan did not build upon their own traditions particularly in the field of science and technology while developing a path of modernisation in the western mould. Susantha’s central thesis is, ‘that as the world’s center of gravity shifts to Asia, there is not only an increased necessity to have local cultural inputs into science, but also the possibility of doing it. South Asia with its relatively long period of discussions on the relevance of past knowledge is eminently suitable for the task.’

The book explains why we need to view (section one) science without Eurocentric blinkers. In section two he explores the issues of contemporary science particularly the efforts being made to tap indigenous conceptual categories in the realm of ethics and philosophy of science. Despite some lacunae, one must admit that the book is extremely well researched and well referenced and shows the breadth of knowledge that has been brought together. For instance, the debate that Dr. Y. P. Singh had started way back in 1969 on the contemporary relevance of traditional knowledge has been missed. The author perhaps has ignored the fact that China has not only far better documentation of its ancient and historical knowledge but has also made far more effective use of this knowledge in the contemporary times to become the world leader in the field of herbal patents. Further the fusion between traditional and modern medicine in China is far more organic, institutionalised and functional than in India or other parts of South Asia.

Chapter one deals with the theme of the way global science is evolving. Chapter two traces the trajectories for civilizational knowledge. Whether having a national strategy in science is necessarily better than having ‘hundreds of strategies’ as in US, is a debatable point (Pp. 17). The biases in citation of literature in the West are well accepted but similar biases exist among the third world scholars also who ignore the work of their own peers particularly if it predates their own work. Author explains how the local knowledge can be grafted on to the dominant knowledge tree in two ways, one by demonstrating the specific inputs of direct validity and second by bringing in the new metaphors that help in developing the concepts. Chapter three deals with the meeting ground between eastern and western knowledge systems. He submits that many elements of Greek knowledge systems were borrowed from Asian classical Sanskrit text. For instance the Samhitas of Charaka and Susruta seem to have more than a dozen coincidences when compared with the Greek systems (Pp. 28). The sharp differences in the way knowledge evolved in Europe and Asia could be traced in author’s view to the European strength and ability to blend ideas from different sources (Pp. 34).

Chapter four deals with the major turning points in science. He draws attention to various concepts in Jain tradition dealing with the motion in a straight line and the conceptualisation of gravitation by Brahmagupta’s and Varahamihira. He shows that formalisation of the concept in the West may have taken later but the knowledge did exist in Asia earlier. He underlines, what is now well recognised that many Indian alchemy ideas had gone to the west through Arabs. For instance, a south Indian alchemist namely Ramadiver taught salt based alchemy in twelfth century Saudi Arabia (Pp. 50). Author draws attention to the three major innovations that are supposed to have transformed British Agriculture in 18th century as per the Encyclopedia Britannica. These were, the use of drill plough, introduction of crop protection and selected breeding of cattle. All these innovations were well known in South Asia even according to the British records. However, the history of science and technology has not been corrected in many countries for these inaccuracies.

Chapter five deals with the concept of Indigenous Knowledge. The author recalls the question Joseph Neetham raised as to why science did not develop in Ancient China? He makes an important point that there is a large number of different ‘indigenous starting points for potential trajectories of knowledge-trajectories which, if they were developed, would have led to different explorations of physical reality’, (Pp.71). He however fails to mention that the whole discipline of ethno-biology has evolved to deny the local communities and individual experts their identity as creative and innovative people. The people are treated anonymously. While looking for the contrast in the philosophy of scientific pursuits in Western and Asian societies, author somehow ignores the strong similarities in the behaviour of science in both the cultures when it comes to dealing with Indigenous Knowledge.

Chapter six deals with Ayurvedic knowledge and need for giving importance to local health traditions. It would have been useful to mention that the department of Indian system of medicine could hardly get four percent of the health budget of India till recently. Surely one could not blame western science and western institutions for such a deep seated bias against local knowledge systems in Indian subcontinent.

Chapter seven looks at the historical development of mathematics, a subject in which Indians were first to develop the concept of zero which got incorporated in European traditions much later. The relative emphasis on Algebra in India and China and Geometry in Greece is worth nothing. Part of the reason why Greeks developed a deductive logic and Indian developed algorithmic knowledge could be because of the closer affinity in the ancient Indian linguistic and mathematic traditions. The tendency in the Indian tradition to provide proofs whether in medicine, mathematics or astronomy rather than giving the prior reasoning might have affected, as the author rightly argues, the analytical tradition. However, he feels that new discoveries can still be made by expanding the Jain conception of infinities and other similar indigenous ideas of mathematics.

Chapter eight looks at the discipline of psychology. This is one area where Asian psychological tradition seems to be dominating in many of the Western analytical explorations. It is here that the western science seems to be paying maximum attention to incorporate the effects of meditational techniques and approaches to deal with ever increasing stress in modern life.

In Chapter nine he looks at how information and biotechnology are changing the way in which knowledge is produced and disseminated. He questions the logical growth of moral theory where morality coincides with the self-interest.

Chapter ten looks at the emerging field of virtual reality and after giving a very dense summary of various philosophies, he looks at the emerging tension between the world of virtual reality in the Western context and Asian context. The western focus generally is on a single state of consciousness. The multiple state of consciousness in the Asian context provide different ways of dealing with the real and the imaginary world.

The author tries to dig deep and look at the possibilities of combining the Buddhist logic and philosophy with the emerging western philosophies (chapter eleven). Recognising the intertwining of scientific and philosophical conditions of human mind, the author summarises in chapter twelve his basic argument. His suggestion is that one way in which Asian knowledge system can fertilise the western science further is through the use of metaphors in which Asian traditions are very strong. He regrets that South Asian scientists have themselves ignored the power of metaphors while pursuing scientific research. The contribution of Ramanujam and his ways of discovering mathematical proofs is a good example of how one can draw sustenance from one’s cultural roots. Susantha suggests that one could think of a ‘periodic table of various positions in anthology and epistemology’. He sees a strategic alliance of feminist approaches, ethno-knowledge and regional civilization knowledge in the making.

The author concludes that the task ahead is to make the global knowledge system less parochial and less chauvinistic.

This book is a must and a powerful read for all those interested in Traditional Knowledge Systems.

Adapted by D. P. Agrawal from:

Anonymous Review. Honey Bee Vol. 11 (4) & Vol. 12 (1) 200-2001. Pp 34-35.