Social Organization of Knowledge in India: Folk and Classical Traditions

A. V. Balasubramanian


The author has long researched and documented India’s traditional knowledge systems, and directs the Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems, Chennai. This text, reproduced with his permission, was presented at a national seminar on Indian Knowledge Systems held at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, in September 2003.


It is an interesting and fascinating aspect of knowledge in India that in diverse areas knowledge prevails and is expressed at varied levels. In many areas such as Medicine, Arithmetic, Agriculture, Grammar, Language, Dance, Music and Astrology, to name just a few, there is wide and extensive knowledge both at the level of the classical texts and the folk traditions. Quite commonly, they are referred to as “Shastra” and “Lok Parampara” respectively. This is a significant feature of traditional knowledge in India and perhaps no major civilisation other than the Chinese has this aspect. I would like to illustrate this with examples from a few areas and discuss the implications.

Let us start from the area of Traditional Health.

Indigenous Health Traditions

The Indian sub-continent abounds as it were in a variety and diversity of health traditions. We have with us what is perhaps the longest unbroken health tradition which has not only a stream of practitioners but also a textual and theoretical backing in terms of the Ayurvedic and Siddha systems of medicine. 1 They have made their presence felt even outside India, in other parts of Asia such as China, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia. However, what is most remarkable about the Indian medical tradition is that it prevails at two different levels, namely the classical system and the folk system. By the classical system, we refer to the codified systems such as Ayurveda, Siddha and Unani traditions. They are characterised by institutionally trained practitioners, a body of texts and highly developed theories to support their practices. As against this, we also have a folk tradition (or what may be termed as the Lok Parampara) which is an oral tradition passed on from father to son or mother to daughter (or daughter-in-law) or from guru to sishya in tens and thousands of our villages through the ages. These folk traditions are rich and diverse and include several practitioners as the following list illustrates:

  • Home remedies and cures for common ailments.

  • Hundreds of thousands of folk and tribal practitioners known as Vaidus, Nattu Vaidhyars, Bhagats who learn through oral traditions and who treat a variety of ailments.

  • Knowledge and beliefs regarding foods — Pathyam and Apathyam, i.e., foods to be preferred or avoided during specific diseases or conditions such as pregnancy, by lactating mothers etc.

  • Folklore on health (eg. Proverbs relating to health).

  • Individuals / families specialising in the treatment of specific diseases. (e.g.) jaundice, asthma.

  • Knowledge of diagnostic procedures.

  • Knowledge of preventive measures.

  • Knowledge of Rutucharya or adaptation of food and regimen to suit the seasons.

  • Yoga and other physical cultural practices of a preventive and promotive nature.

  • Special areas such as bone setting, Visha Chikitsa (Treatment for poisons), Panchakarma (Five purificatory procedures) etc.

  • Over 600,000 Dais (Traditional Birth Attendants) who perform home deliveries.


The relationship between folk and classical traditions is found to be symbiotic. There is a strong commonality of underlying theory and world view expressed at the level of — Panchamahabhoota — theory of composition of matter and Tridosha — theory of causation of disease. There is also a striking common ground between the technical terms that are used by the expert practitioners and what is known to the folk practitioners. The technical vocabulary such as Vaata, Pitta, Kapha, Ushna, Sheeta, Laghu, Guru, Guna, Veerya etc are also very much part of the knowledge of folk practitioners and the households.

It is also interesting to see what the classical texts of Ayurveda say about folk tradition.

The Charaka-Samhitha states that “Oushadihi naama roopabhyaam, jananthe hyajapaa vane, avipaashchaiva gopaashcha ye cha Anye vanavaasinaha” — “the goat herds, shepherds, cowherds and other forest dwellers know the drugs by name and form…” 2 Similarly Susrutha-Samhitha states that “Gopaalasthaapasaa vyaadha ye chaanye Vana charinaha, Moola jaathihi cha tebhyo Bheshaja vyakthi Ishyathe — “One can know about the drugs from the cowherds, thapasvis, hunters, those who live in the forest and those who live by eating roots and tubers.” 3

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Proverbs in Tamil Literature

Though proverbs by their very nature are part of oral tradition, even amongst the most ancient Tamil literature, there are compilations of proverbs as well as profuse use of proverbs and references to them. The most ancient Tamil Grammar Tholkkappiyam 4 assigns a formal status to proverbs. In the Poruladhigaram section of this text, we find the definition “Mudumozhi” is that which conveys its intent and meaning being possessed of the qualities of subtlety, brevity, clarity and simplicity. Proverbs carry an enormous amount of knowledge regarding priorities of foods, herbs and treatment — for example a Tamil proverb states that the paste of Haritaki (Terminalia chebula) can be used for swelling of the eyes — this conveys the traditional wisdom that this herb is excellent and wholesome for the eyes. In Ayurvedic terms, it is described as Chakshushyam that is beneficial to the eyes. Properties of foods are widely reflected in proverbs. A Tamil proverb says, “Sesame for the lean man and horsegram for the stout man.” Horsegram is considered as Langhaniya and depletes tissues and Sesame is considered Brumhaniya that helps build tissues.

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Seasonal Variations

Knowledge regarding changes in our digestive power with the varying seasons, has been well understood in society. As per the Ayurvedic view, food is digested by agni within us — just as it is cooked by agni outside. According to Ayurveda, there is a “stimulus-response” relation between the agni within us and the outside agni — namely the sun. When the agni outside is strong (i.e., in summer) the agni inside us (our digestion) is weak and vice-versa. This is reflected in the way in which out food customs have been adapted to seasonal changes. 5 For example during winter, the breakfast taken is more guru i.e., heavy (to digest) than what is consumed in summer; this is in keeping with the greater strength of our inner agni i.e., the power of digestion, in winter. In South India, a variety of sweets are prepared to celebrate Gokulashtami, which is celebrated in winter. In contrast Ramanavami which is celebrated in summer, usually merits only neermoar (diluted buttermilk) and paanakam (a ginger-jaggery lemonade)! The effect of various seasons on health has also been noted. For example, in Andhra Pradesh, it is a custom to partake of preparations containing neem flowers and tender neem leaves at the onset of the Vasantha Rithu (Spring season) and to continue taking it during that season. This is indeed a sound practice, since this serves as a corrective measure for kapha dosha, which gets vitiated in this season.

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Folk Knowledge Compared with Classical Textual Knowledge

The large number of proverbs in diverse areas such as agriculture or medicine are very important since they constitute a vast body of knowledge being the wisdom of thousands of years of experience. However, what is equally interesting is to know the relative importance or status assigned to such ‘folklore’ in our tradition. While in any given area, (such as medicine) there may be a body of experts or learned professionals who have specialist knowledge, knowledge also prevails in other forms more diffuse or scattered among the rest of the people. In Indian tradition, it seems to be a general principle running through all types of learning, that knowledge can and does prevail in various forms and also gets communicated in many ways, with each form serving its own purpose.

For example, songs and literary works are classified in five groups based on how they are formulated and how easy they are to comprehend, namely: Narikelapaka, Ikshupakam, Kadalipakam, Drakshapaka and Ksheerapakam. 6 The form most difficult to comprehend is the Narikelapakam — it is like a coconut; to be eaten, the shell must be broken, the fruit grated and then mixed with food. Ikshupakam, is the sugarcane form — which has to be crushed to extract the juice. Next is the Kadalipakam, the banana form which has to be just peeled to be eaten. Easier still is the Drakshapakam — grape form which can be eaten without any processing, and the easiest of all is the Ksheerapakam or the milk form which can not only be easily consumed, but also is a wholesome food for all ages and people in all conditions. In a similar vein in Sanskrit the literary compositions are classified into three groups: Prabhu samhita, Suhrut Samhita and Kantha Samhita. 7 Prabhu Samhita instructs like a Prabhu or master who punishes when rules are transgressed (e.g. Instructions such as in the Vedas), Suhrit Samhita instructs like a friend who advises on what to do and what not to do (eg. Like the Puranas), and Kantha Samhitha which instructs like a Kantha or one’s beloved who advises and cites examples, coaxes or pleads or persuades as the situation may require to achieve the same end, namely ‘upadesa’ (e.g., as in Kavyam).

It is noteworthy that these different formulations or forms of communication are not understood as being part of a hierarchical system where one cannot replace or supersede another or is considered the generally superior form. Each one serves a specific need and may be the most appropriate for a particular context or for a given purpose.

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The Nature and Social Organisation of Knowledge in the Indian Tradition

In conclusion, we would like to sum up some aspects of the traditional Indian systems of knowledge, specifically theory construction and its relation to popular knowledge. The main feature is that the theories do not employ a great degree of “formalisation” in the sense of providing laws or rules that are ‘absolute’ and can be blindly applied outside of or irrespective of the context of their formulation. The terms and variables used in the theory and laws are closely related to actual observed phenomena or measured quantities often being their refinements. This does not mean that the theories lack rigour or precision or power. For example the most rigorous and precise formulations and argumentation in areas such as logic or grammar or metaphysics are carried on in our tradition in Shastric Sanskrit, which is but a refinement of the natural language Sanskrit without recourse to any ‘formal’ devices of abstraction. Thus the laws, theories and its terminology bear a very live and intimate relation to the popular mode of discourse on the subject and the ‘folk knowledge’ of it.

This points to a very important feature of our Science and Technology namely that its knowledge, theories and principles are not meant to be reposed in a small number of experts, institutions or texts, but are created and shared on a wide scale, even by the ordinary folk who are the day to day practitioners of the arts and sciences. In fact, though we have used the term ‘folk knowledge’ to denote knowledge with out people for want of a better term, its connotation is quite different in the modern context. In the modern Western view, ‘Folklore’ is used to denote knowledge that prevails with the common people and gets propagated by oral tradition. This is as against classical or ‘proper’ scientific knowledge which uses its own terminology, theories and abstractions and resides in a different body of people — viz. the experts. But in our tradition, this kind of a sharp qualitative difference does not seem to exist. The ‘folk’ practitioner’s are also equally the innovators in the frontiers of their discipline and the theories and technical categories belong to their domain as well. If we consider for example a highly developed branch of Indian Science such as medicine, the basic theories at its foundation, such as the Panchabhuta theory of matter and the Tridosha theory of causation of disease and its treatment are part of common knowledge of our people and a number of technical terms such as Vata, Pitta, Kapha, Agni, Rasa, Ushna, Sheeta, Veerya etc are all part of the vocabulary of our households.

The expert or specialist, seems to play a very different kind of role here, namely that of systematising the corpus of knowledge. For example, in a discussion about the role of the Grammarian, the famous Grammarian Patanjali says: “He who has the use of a pot goes to a potter’s house and says ‘make a pot; I have to use it.’ But no one similarly goes to a Grammarian and says ‘coil words; I shall make use of them.’ He thinks of objects and makes use of words denoting them… the loka (i.e. what prevails in the world as usage) is the authority for the use of words.” 8 Thus there is no looking down upon the common folk or the lay practitioners; on the contrary the Sastras themselves assert repeatedly that it is in the concrete particular and in their use in a real situation that the truth of the Sastras ultimately reside.

A strikingly similar expression is found in the attitude of Tamils towards their own grammar. It is said that the legendary poet, Kamban who composed the Tamil version of the Ramayana once made use of the word ‘Neerthumi’ to represent water drop in a verse in the Ramayana. 9 He was promptly challenged by his counterpart, the great poet Ottakoothan who pointed out that all the standard lexicons of Tamil only used the word ‘Neerthuli’. Kamban replied that the usage is correct since it is an accepted usage among the people. The story of the life of Kamban goes on to describe an instant where Kamban went for a stroll with Ottakoothan and the Chola King and while they were passing the tenement of the cowherd they heard the old lady of the household use the word ‘Thumi’ to describe a drop of buttermilk. Upon this, Kamban triumphantly expressed that his stand was vindicated and this was accepted by Ottakoothan.

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Folk Traditions Today

There is every reason to believe that on the ground today, folk traditions are widespread in all areas in various walks of life and vibrant. There is every indication that they are showing dynamism and continuing to develop. Take for example the case of the resource base of traditional medicine. In the 1980s the Department of Environment of the Government of India initiated an “All India Coordinated Research Project on Ethno Biology” with the objective of taking up a detailed assessment of the knowledge and use of Natural Resources by the tribal communities of India. The mid term report of this programme that was published in 1994 indicated that these communities have knowledge of about 9,500 species of plants of which the single largest use category is medicinal plants accounting for over 7,500 species. 10 This should be seen in the light of the fact that in the classical systems of medicine it has been estimated that the total number of medicinal plants referred to in the three major texts of Ayurveda is about 900 species. Hence this is a truly stupendous number by any standard. We should also assess the information in the light of the fact that tribals constitute only about 7% of the total Indian population even though they are perhaps a section of the population that live most closely in communion with nature.

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Creativity at the Grassroots

Several examples can be seen all around of the active use of not only natural products but also the new synthetic products for a variety of purposes. A remarkable instance of the use of an exotic species by the tribal has been documented by Winin Perietra. 11 In the 1980s the Forest Department had started to introduce the species Acacia auriculaeformis in rural areas of Maharashtra. The seeds of these exotic species were first introduced in the area of Warli Adivasis around 1985. It was observed as early as 1987 that the Warlis have been catching fish by stupefying them with the seeds of Acacia. It takes about two years for Acacia to flower and fruit and the Adivasis’ research has indeed been carried out very quickly. What makes this achievement truly remarkable is that there is no record of the use of seeds of Acacia for this purpose as of that time either in modern literature or a traditional use in Australia which is the place of its origin. It is a remarkable testimony to a keen sense of observation and creativity at the grass roots. Many such examples can be illustrated.

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Establishing Links between Folk and Classical Traditions

In recent years there is been a strong revival of interest in traditional knowledge systems particularly in the context of the use of bioresources. There has been extensive research and documentation of folk and tribal traditions of bio resource use in Asia, Africa and Latin America. What makes the Indian situation quite strikingly impressive is that we have not merely extensive and deep folk traditions but also classical textual traditions that bear symbiotic relationship to the folk traditions. This offers outstanding opportunity and possibilities for revival and strengthening of traditional knowledge since a weakened oral tradition can also derive strength and vitality from its classical counterpart. A linkage between the folk and classical can also infuse new life into the theories of classical systems which may have got alienated or cut off to some extent from the mainstream Indian society. This may have happened particularly in the last two centuries during the colonial period where there was a wide scale wide spread and large scale disruption and disorganisation of many of our traditions, societies and institutions. It appears that our society is in the phase of a slow process of regeneration of folk traditions and establishment of linkages between folk and classical traditions. This would certainly prove to be an important step in exploring and developing the current relevance and potential of Indian knowledge systems in varied areas.

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Notes & References

1. Local Health Traditions : An Introduction by A. V. Balasubramanian and M. Radhika (Lok Swasthya Parampara Samvardhan Samithi, Chennai) 1989.

Ethnobiology in India: A status Report All India Coordinated Research Project on Ethnobiology (Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, New Delhi) 1994. (Back to text)

2. Charaka Samhitha, Sutra Sthana, Chapter I, Shloka 120-121. (Back to text)

3. Susrutha Samhitha, Sutra Sthana, Chapter 36, Shloka 10. (Back to text)

4. TholkappiyamPoruladhigaram (Second part) by S. Kanakasabhapathi Pillai. (Back to text)

5. Ayurvedic Principles of Food and Nutrition Part 1 by M. Radhika and A. V. Balasubramanian (Lok Swasthya Parampara Samvardhan Samithi, Chennai) 1990. (Back to text)

6. Quoted from a speech of Dr. U. V. Swaminatha Iyer (delivered in Madras, 1937) in Ninaivu Manjari Part II by U. V. Swaminatha Iyer. (Back to text)

7. Prataparudriyam of Vidyanatha (Ed) V. Raghavan (Sanskrit Education Society, Madras, 1979). (Back to text)

8. Quoted from Paspasahnika of Patanjali’s “Mahabhashyam” See — Lectures on Patanjali’s Mahabhashya Vol.I by Vidyaratna P. S. Subramanya Sastri (Annamalai University, 1944). (Back to text)

9. Vinodarasamanjari by Veerasami Chettiar (B. Ratha Naicker and Sons) Undated. Chapter 10, pp. 165-167. (Back to text)

10. Ethnobiology in India. A status Report All India Coordinated Research Project on Ethnobiology (Ministry of Environment and forests, Government of India, New Delhi) 1994. (Back to text)

11. The case of Acacia auriculaeformis from an article by Winin Periera in Indianet Issue 31-34 February 2000, p. 34. (Back to text)

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