How to access Indian traditions?

1. As I have often said, the most intriguing aspect of the Indian culture is the kind of knowledge it produced and encouraged people to produce: experiential knowledge which emerges by systematically reflecting on our (human) experiences in the world. As human beings, our experiences are many: no one set, no one kind of experience exhausts what we go through. From the purely personal experiences of the world (our ambitions, hopes, dreams, frustrations, etc) to the entirely social ones (the experiences of sorrow and injustice that other human beings in the world experience). So, knowledge that reflects on or thinks about and systematizes such experiences presupposes multiple learning sites, many diverse perspectives and varied kinds of intellectual skills.

2. If Indian culture encouraged the production of such knowledge, it also produced (or gave birth) to people who were able to teach the relevant skills to people in order to enable them to go about knowledgeably in the world. Anyone and everyone who was willing to learn this was taught; anyone and everyone who was capable of learning it, produced such knowledge. What exactly was taught, when people were taught to think about their experiences? How were these abilities (call them skills for the sake of convenience) taught and retaught over generations, across the whole of India? These are important but ill-understood questions of today.

3. Two factors are of importance here, for now. One: reflection on experience was itself taught experientially’ (a better word would be ‘practically’) because the results of such reflection, which transform experience, can only be experiential. Our traditions did not write the ‘how to’ manuals as we know them today, even though most of what they wrote are practical manuals. Two: we cannot understand them properly today because of more than one thousand years of ‘colonial consciousness’. The contribution of the British colonialism was to provide us with a pair of spectacles with which we are born: all these manuals from our ancestors appear to us as ‘philosophies’ and ‘theories’ about the world. We cannot even imagine that a Shankara or a Buddha did not write tracts about the world; we do not see how a Brahmasutra Bhasyha or a Bhagavadgita or a Yogasutra could be anything but a ‘theory’ about the world.

4. At the same time, we also inherit the modern day world. We are students of scientific theories and technological achievements. We are learning to do scientific research and build theories, in whatever form or fashion we do so. We are also learning the need to distinguish between scientific theories and non-scientific ones and we also know that sciences are one of the best examples of human knowledge.

5. We are now confronted with the following task: to reestablish our connection to the Indian traditions and its way of teaching to reflect on human experience. However, there is no direct way to do so. We have to go, out of sheer necessity, through the prism of scientific theorizing. This is not only necessary but also desirable: we now need to develop ways of thinking about experiences in a systematic fashion and science, in the first place, is systematic thinking and social science can only be a systematic reflection on human experience. This means, we have to bring together, in one and the same movement, two threads in human history which have developed completely independent of each other: the practical way of teaching and thinking about human experience and a theoretical way of reflecting aboutnature. Our road to the former is through the latter.

6. If and when we succeed, we will have brought these two things together: to think practically about human experience through building theories about human experience. To put it a bit absurdly: we will teach practically in a scientific way or build scientific theories in a practical way. (These sentences do not mean much today, but one day we will make sense of them.)

7. There is only one way to transform life into ‘the’ site of learning and that will be practical, scientific way. We will have to solve practically what has been a basic theoretical question in philosophy: the relation between theory and practice.