Let’s not reject the past as doctrinaire

(This article was posted in the “Meditations” column of the Hindustan Times on 18 June 2002.) MODERN SCHOLARSHIP demands discovery from “original” sources, while Vedic scholarship relies more upon knowledge from historical roots (Siddhanta). Both systems have their validity. Practitioners of these two systems tend to conflict, but can converge. Last month, B. G. Matapurkar, a surgeon with the Maulana Azad Medical College in New Delhi, announced to the All-India Biotech Association that he was “thrilled” to encounter a statement in the Mahabharata indicating that stem-cell research and cloning are nothing new. He informed his audience that the Kauravas “had the technology to grow human fetuses outside the body of a woman — something that is not known to modern science.” Scientific methodology is empirical, often mechanistic, and infers that we know only by direct perception, which includes using instruments. This is the pratyaksha or ascending process of gaining knowledge. But Matapurkar indicates that the ancients knew something we don’t yet know. This implies appreciation of the descending process of acquiring knowledge – a method also known as shabda. It’s popular to trash anything that smacks of pedantry, dogma or authoritarianism. Many customs, and traditions are simply rammed down our throats and are not open to debate. We prefer to deny all such knowledge, and to consider it invalid, untested and highly questionable. Matapurkar, as a medical surgeon, must be dedicated to the ascending model. Yet he seems glad to tell us how things practiced in days of yore may be precursors to knowledge medical science has laboured hard to learn. Indirect though it may be, Matapurkar appears to appreciate the descending method of gaining knowledge. He expressed elation to find something that the ancients knew, and yet we have not learned to replicate. In fact many types of other ‘modern’ phenomena are found in the Mahabharata, including atomic weaponry, outer space travel and medical marvels (physicians healed dangerous warriors’ wounds each night after battle). This leads us to consider the difference between knowledge gathered from ‘original’ sources and that knowledge which dignifies conclusions brought forward from the remote past. The former process essentially involves ascension, and the latter descension (not the astrological variety). But truth be told, both always operate. As Matapurkar found out, ‘realised’ or ancient knowledge is not ignorant or invalid just because it’s come down to us from by-gone eras. (The writer is emeritus member of the ISKCON Governing Body Commission)