The Beautiful Tree
The author is a
professor of computer science at Oklahoma State University
(USA), a historian of science and an Indologist. This
column appeared online at Sulekha on May 22, 2001 and
is reproduced with Dr. Subhash Kak’s permission.
As a young boy raised in
small towns of Jammu and Kashmir, I often came across people
who could not read or write. The school books said that literacy
in all of India was low, perhaps 30 percent or so, and this
was despite the introduction of the British education system
more than 100 years earlier. The books implied that before
the arrival of the British the country was practically illiterate.
This thought was very depressing. Perhaps I shouldn't have
believed the story of India’s near total illiteracy
in the 18th century so readily. India was rich 250 years ago
when the British started knocking at the door for a share
of its trade. Paul Kennedy, in his highly regarded book, The
Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military
Conflict from 1500 to 2000 estimates that in 1750 India’s
share of the world trade was nearly 25 percent.
To understand this figure of 25 percent, consider that this
is USA’s present share of the world trade, while India’s
share is now only about half a percent. India was obviously
a very prosperous country then, and this wealth must have
been mirrored in the state of society, including the literacy
of the general population.
Unfortunately, education in medieval India is not a subject
that has been well researched. But thanks to the pioneering
book, The Beautiful Tree by Dharampal, we now have
an idea of it before the coming of the British. The book uses
British documents from the early 1800s to make the case that
education was fairly universal at that time. Each village
had a school attached to its temple and mosque and the children
of all communities attended these schools.
W. Adam, writing in 1835, estimated that there were 100,000
schools in Bengal, one school for about 500 boys. He also
described the local medical system that included inoculation
against smallpox. Sir Thomas Munro (1826), writing about schools
in Madras, found similar statistics. The education system
in the Punjab during the Ranjit Singh kingdom was equally
These figures suggest that the literary rate could have approached
50 percent at that time. From that figure to the low teens
by the time the British consolidated their power in India
must have been a period of continuing disaster.
Amongst Dharampal’s documents is a note from a Minute
of Dissent by Sir Nair showing how the British education policy
led to the illiteratization of India: “Efforts were
made by the Government to confine higher education and secondary
education, leading to higher education, to boys in affluent
circumstances... Rules were made calculated to restrict the
diffusion of education generally and among the poorer boys
in particular... Fees were raised to a degree, which, considering
the circumstances of the classes that resort to schools, were
abnormal. When it was objected that minimum fee would be a
great hardship to poor students, the answer was such students
had no business to receive that kind of education... Primary
education for the masses, and higher education for the higher
classes are discouraged for political reasons.”
According to Dr Leitner, an English college principal at Lahore,
“By the actions of the British the true education of
the Punjab was crippled, checked and is nearly destroyed;
opportunities for its healthy revival and development were
either neglected or perverted.”
Dharampal’s sources appear unimpeachable and the only
conclusion is that 250 years ago the Indian basic education
system was functional. Indeed, it may have been more universal
than what existed in Europe at that time.
One might, with hindsight,
complain that the curriculum in the pathshalas was not satisfactory.
Dharampal’s book lists the texts used and they appear
to have provided excellent training in mathematics, literature,
and philosophy. Perhaps the curriculum could have had more
of sciences and history. I think the school curriculum was
not all that bad in itself. Judging by the standards of its
times, it did a good job of providing basic education.
What was missing was a system of colleges to provide post-school
education. After the destruction of ancient universities like
Taxila and Nalanda, nothing emerged to fill that role. Without
institutions of higher learning, the Indian ruling classes
did not possess the tools to deal with the challenges ushered
in by rapid scientific and technological growth.
The phrase ‘the beautiful tree’ was used by Mahatma
Gandhi in a speech in England to describe traditional Indian
education. Gandhi claimed that this tree had been destroyed
by the British. Dharampal’s book provides the data in
support of Gandhi’s charge.
The Macaulayite education system, put in place by the British,
almost succeeded in erasing the collective Indian memory of
vital, progressive scientific, industrial and social processes.
But not all records of the earlier history were lost. Dharampal
has authored another important book, Indian Science and
Technology in Eighteenth Century: Some Contemporary European
Accounts which describes the vitality of Indian technology
250 years ago in several areas.
It is not just colonialist ideas that are responsible for
the loss of cultural history. The need to pick and choose
in today’s information age is also leading to an erosion
of cultural memory. The scholar and mathematician C. Muses
from Canada did his bit to counter it by writing about Ramchundra
(born 1821 in Panipat), a brilliant Indian mathematician,
whose book on Maxima and Minima was promoted by the prominent
mathematician Augustus de Morgan in London in 1859. Muses’s
work appeared in the respected journal The Mathematical
Intelligencer in 1998. Ramchundra had been completely
forgotten until Muses chanced across a rare copy of his book.
Muses called me over a year ago, just before he died, to tell
me how he got interested in India. He said that he wanted
to make sense of why Indians had not developed science, as
colonialist and Marxist historians have long alleged. But
the deeper he got into the original source materials, he found
an outstanding scientific tradition that had been misrepresented
by historians who were either biased or plain incompetent.
Although Muses did not so speculate, one might ask if de Morgan’s
own fundamental work on symbolic logic owed in part to the
Indian school of Navya Nyaya. De Morgan, in his introduction
to Ramchundra’s work, indicates that he knew of the
Indian tradition of logic, “There exists in India, under
circumstances which prove a very high antiquity, a philosophical
language (Sanskrit) which is one of the wonders of the world,
and which is a near collateral of the Greek, if not its parent
form. From those who wrote in this language we derive our
system of arithmetic, and the algebra which is the most powerful
instrument of modern analysis. In this language we find a
system of logic and metaphysics.”
Finally, there is the loss of memory taking place due to the
carelessness with which we are preserving our heritage. This
is a process of permanent loss, although on a few lucky occasions
long-forgotten documents are found. One example of this latter
event is the recovery of the lost notebooks of Srinivasa Ramanujan
(1887-1920), who may have been the greatest mathematical genius
of all time. Ramanujan had been called a second Newton in
his own lifetime, yet the full magnitude of his achievements
was appreciated only when his [lost] notebooks, full of unpublished
results, were discovered in the eighties.
You can read a fine biography of Ramanjuan by Robert Kanigel
titled The Man Who Knew Infinity. I also recommend
Ramanujan: Letters and Commentary, edited by Bruce
Berndt and Robert Rankin.