Today, February 15, is the day of Goddess Saraswati—the Goddess of Knowledge and Arts in the Indian tradition. It is celebrated as an occasion to recognise the significance of knowledge, arts and music by showing respect to their sources---teachers, books, musical instruments (I guess laptops and iPads would now have to be worshipped too!). In the Indian tradition, knowledge from diverse sources in society was recognised; worshipping Goddess Saraswati on this day was also an act of encouragement to learning.
In the contemporary world, knowledge economy is being talked about as laying the foundation of a future society. This fascination with knowledge economy is pushing towards ‘mono-culture’ of knowledge, thereby de-legitimising diversity of sources, forms and epistemologies of knowledge prevalent in any society. Goddess Saraswati’s favourite bird is peacock, with its myriad colours and hues; she sits on a lotus flower which grows in several colours; and, she plays ‘veena’, a string musical instrument with numerous notes. Today, on this day of knowledge, arts and learning, let us celebrate that diversity of knowledge.
What happens to societies, even contemporary ones, if such a diversity of knowledge is not recognised? A recent study of global think-tanks indicates that India lags behind many other countries (including China) in respect of global rankings of its think-tanks. The study ranks six Indian think-tanks in top 150, none in top 50. Three of these are civil society think tanks. This poor showing is all the more perturbing as India has the fourth largest number of think-tanks, nearly 300. Several causes can be identified for this malaise. First, most public sector think-tanks are mono-culturists; they have generally surrendered their intellectual autonomy to the ruling political class. Private sector attached think-tanks also end up towing the line of their benefactors. Poor ranking is therefore an indication of weak intellectual autonomy and relevance; it is also suggestive of absence of vibrancy of ideas and dynamism of interactions in society. The global report does identify the need to acknowledge many diverse sources of knowledge today, and traditional think-tanks may lose their cutting edge if not engaging with that diversity.
In contemporary Indian society, use of knowledge for public policy-making is also an aberration; most decisions are not informed by evidence of realities. As a consequence, there is not much value attached to production of critical knowledge relevant to policy review and formulation. A society which revered its Goddess of knowledge and arts till recently is today becoming intolerant of its manifestations in different forms. There has been a considerable increase in instances of suppression, harassment and condemnation of various forms of expressions of knowledge and arts---journalists, facebook writers, social media, painters, film-makers; it is an endless and growing list of unacceptable intolerance at the behest of the ‘goons’ of the political class.
The most appropriate way to show respect to Goddess Saraswati today, on her birthday, is to resolve to raise our voices and fists against such acts of intolerance in the society today; knowledge and arts belong to all, produced by all, and used by all. No one has monopoly over it, no one can unilaterally define morality of expression for society at large.
May Goddess Saraswati bless us with such courage!
February 15, 2013