Peril of ignoring the building blocks of knowledge

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Oct 11, 2015

The education of our population, in all its forms, from birth till the time our brain stops functioning, is the one factor that determines the quality of our lives, and collectively, our country. No wonder in all the major religions the word ‘Iqra’ was the first to be mentioned.

How has Lahore fared in its long history in terms of its human development? This vital aspect of existence needs to be better understood, researched and written about, let alone discussed in the highest forums, which it definitely is not. Our per capita investment in education is the lowest in the world. That Jinnah wished to spend “one fifth of our income on educating the poor” is ignored, and ignored it is to the peril of the State itself. This piece was inspired by an article in a Lahore newspaper by my friend Dr. Tahir Kamran, a much sought after scholar when he was in Cambridge, though unsurprisingly neglected in his homeland. The learned doctor suggested that we need fewer, but high quality universities based on research, with better archives and libraries, and, most importantly, teachers of the highest calibre capable of inspiring the young to question and dare.

Imagine a country where it has become difficult to find an appropriate vice chancellor to the numerous universities. Mind you one recent research found out that only eight per cent of the population can actually write a letter themselves. With a functional literacy rate (based on newspapers printed) of 0.01 per cent, what can one expect?

If we go back in time we see that almost 3,500 years ago the great Harappa Civilisation had produced important seats of learning. This the few archaeological digs have proven beyond doubt. We can see the lasting results of just two scholars who studied between 1,000-600 BC at Taxila University, were born probably east of Charsadda, moved to Lahore, or nearby, to learn mathematics and the languages from the great scholars of the city.

Mathematics and languages are the building blocks of knowledge, and it was here that they produced two books that are still acknowledged as the greatest books on the rules of grammar and mathematics. Mind you in our villages till very recent mathematics by rote learning of complex multiplication tables and a few languages like Punjabi, Persian and Arabic was normal. Even this has died out. There is a real threat to our very mother tongue. What could be more serious, let alone dangerous, for our very culture and way of life?

The outstanding book of the rules of grammar is ‘Astadhyayi’, or ‘eight chapter grammar’. Its 3,990 ‘sutras’ (rules) are even today studied by scholars of linguistics. This to the present day determines the basic rules of grammar for all languages of the world. This work of the great Harappa grammarian Rishi Panini took over 20 years of research and data collection. The rigours of scholarship have to be endured. Then we have the great Katyayana who set about 300 years later explaining the work of Panini in a village near Gujranwala, with his ‘Vartikas’ (explanations) of Panini’s ‘sutras’. He was followed by Patanjali, another grammarian who wrote ‘Mahabhasya’ or a ‘great commentary’ on the works of Panini and the explanations by Katyayana.

In these very columns a few years ago I dwelt on the great mathematician from Salatura (Lahore’s ancient name in the Vedas) by the name of Pingala, brother of Panini. While Rishi Panini was travelling, researching and compiling his great ‘Astadhyayi’, his brother was also delving to advance the science of mathematics and logic. His immortal work is called ‘Chandahshatra’. In this the very first known description of the binary numeral system came through. What we today term ‘Pascal’s Triangle’ was first described in great detail in this great book. One of his students, the great Halayudha, improved on this work and the first use of (n-1) was seen. The origins of modern mathematics had been truly laid.

But Pingala was the very first man, so it seems, who came up with the concept of a ‘zero’. The use of the word ‘shunya’, meaning in Sanskrit “empty, or a void” came about. The empty space that emerged when the sum of anything was nothing was noted down by a small circle. Arab mathematicians who learnt the Sanskrit word ‘shunya’ termed it ‘sifr’, meaning ‘nothing, or empty’. From the word ‘sifr’ the Venetians who travelled the trade routes between Rome and the Arab word called it ‘zyphrus’, which is a Latin-Greek origin word. This is not surprising for the elite used Latin when writing. The word ‘zefiro’ was how they described it in their old texts, which went on to be called ‘zero’ once English influence prevailed.

Mind you the massive effort of Al-Mansur of Spain in 773 AD to translate all the old Sanskrit works to some extent formed the foundation of scientific research and thought. The influence of Greek thinking flushed with their scholars excited by the knowledge of the translated Sanskrit texts saw Muslim Spain enter into an ‘age of enlightenment.’ The rise of religious fundamentalism in Spain ultimately led to the beginning of the Inquisition, which was led by the church. The end of religious plurality naturally bred intolerance and the Dark Ages set in Europe.

Have absolutely no doubt that scholarship needs to be nurtured, tolerated, protected and encouraged, and this is done best in ‘relative’ peace. In periods of strife, and hence intolerance, scholarship is lost as it happened to Sanskrit, the language of our land, and dare I say ancestors, which continuous military invasions from our western borders fuelled. It took western scholars like Heinrich Roth (d 1668), Johann Hanxleden (d 1731) and Sir William Jones (d 1794) to discover the great works of our land, which in turn led to the development of western philology and linguistics.

We see in the history of Lahore, and the Punjab periods of immense scholarship but only when periods of great turmoil ceased. In periods of peace there was tolerance, and hence scholarship. Take the recent events of 1947 when extreme communal hatred led to the partition of the land. The ‘claims’ phenomenon triggered a way of life where corruption is, even today, accepted as ‘normal’. Corruption and tension are a lethal mix. In such circumstances education becomes a lucrative business as the State abdicates this basic role. The end result is ‘relative’ economic backwardness. That India and even Bangladesh have overtaken Pakistan in economic development is, therefore, not surprising.

What is our heritage as far as human development goes? The answer is that we have had impressive periods where the creative burst of the literate produced great works that still live. Of recent how we treated Dr. Abdul Salam is before us. I remember as a young journalist interviewing him when all my brother ‘pen pushers’ refused. For days official operatives followed me, some of whom I even entertained to tea at home. Those were torrid times. Mind you they still are.

Will the cycle of learning return to our land? For that to happen probably great changes will be needed in the way we view our history, let alone the other sciences. But most important will be the changes that will follow once we ensure that every citizen of this land knows the basics of mathematics and languages, the building blocks of knowledge.


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