City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Future of the Past?

What is it about the past that produces wisdom? Why is it so easy to believe that the ancients hold all the keys to truly deep wisdom? For civilisations to locate an essential form of truth far back in time is interesting. Why are so many battles of today based on knowledge created in contexts far removed from our own? What is it about our own age that we distrust or disdain? It is interesting that the medieval age is not credited with any great wisdom, we have to go back to the ancients to plumb those timeless depths. Something about the idea of the ancient seems to be synonymous with having deep reservoirs of insight that subsequent ages cannot rival.

To be sure, there exists evidence of great wisdom that resided in the past. A lot of it is both profound and timeless. But why should the knowledge gathered in any one era be enshrined as being definitive? Just as our ancestors left us some deeply profound philosophical precepts that have timeless value, quite clearly there are a whole lot of other areas where the modern age knows much more. The need to assert that everything that was conceived of in the past must necessarily be true because it was conceived of in the past is dogma.

Things must have a source, and the idea of having a fixed point of origin anchors us in a world where things seem to move too fast. To go back to the source for understanding and comfort is understandable, but since the past is largely a product of the way in which we construct it, our sense of it is necessarily limited. We look at the past through the lens of the present, which is in some ways, is nothing more than the present looked at through the wrong end of binoculars. We value those things in our past that we fear we lack today. Our claim to the greatness that we wish to locate in ourselves gets strengthened if we are to establish that we have greatness implanted in us from the very beginning. The idea that our present gets legitimised by our past is a widespread one, but that in no way makes it correct.

The paradox is that at one level, we are convinced that we are more advanced than our preceding generations, that we know more and understand even more. at the same time, we do not back the wisdom of our times, for that we need to go back several centuries to a time which, at one level, was nothing like ours, but equally was imbued with no special qualities either. It was just another era with its own set of circumstances, its own contemporary concerns and its own modes of knowledge and storytelling. Individuals then too, tried to interpret the world around, some with deep insight and others much less memorably.

And what about the wisdom of the present? Why is it so easy to discount its value? Why is the present fractured into alcoves of competing ideas but the past imagined as one monolithic flat landscape?

The trouble with ideologies that venerate an idealised past is that they have little interest in using those ideas to shape the present. This would involve a process of continuous evolution, modification and rejection in order to creatively use the knowledge of the past. If Western knowledge systems enjoy dominance it is partly because of the geo-political pre-eminence of the West in recent centuries, but it is also because they have kept pace with the times. Western science and philosophy continue to reference the past but have found ways to think of knowledge as a living system, that is constantly adding to itself by acts of adaptation and challenge. The old is built on ceaselessly, knowledge is added and updated.

Movements like Hindutva which are apparently rooted in a desire to reconnect with the wisdom of the past, are in reality far less ambitious. Hindutva today has less to do with the desire to find an Indian way of thought and more as a way to find resentments rooted in the past. There is little visible attempt to build contemporary modes of knowledge using the frameworks of the past.

The mainstream political discourse focuses not on ideas, but on a few token cultural symbols. It is a car that has one gear- the reverse, and instead of a windshield it sports a giant rear-view mirror. There is undeniable value in looking back and retrieving the wisdom that is on offer there, but the real opportunity is to then project it forward, after adjusting for the changed context. Ideas that are alive do not fear change, and the true value of wisdom is that its principles can be adapted for new circumstances. To cite the loftiness of the past but to use it only as a tool to harness repressed anger is a gross underutilisation of a powerful instrument.

The argument that Indian knowledge systems have been suppressed for centuries because of the skewed geopolitical order is a powerful one. The need to look at world through an Indian lens using concepts and frameworks that are locally produced is not only a correction of an epistemic imbalance, but is also something that will add value to a world that is struggling to find new perspectives. The possibilities that an Indian way of thinking can unleash are endless, but for those to be realised, the country needs to get over its resentful and petulant obsession with its minorities. The project to revitalise traditional Indian wisdom needs to be more intellectually ambitious. Currently, the past is being used as a source of identity alone, and that belittles it. We are the primitives of a future civilisation, as poet Gary Snyder reminds us, and some day our ideas will be regarded as timeless wisdom. That is, if we have any.