2.1 Perspectives on Knowledge Sharing in Ancient India
While not many scholars have engaged in a rigorous historical analysis of knowledge sharing in India, dominant narratives surrounding this issue have portrayed India as a nation which has historically been morally opposed to restrictions on knowledge sharing.Footnote 10 For example, Carl Malamud, prominent public domain activist and founder of PublicResource.org, has noted in his recent book, Code Swaraj, that he believes India is the ideal place for starting a global revolution in universal access to knowledge as ‘[it]…is a principle that runs deep in the history of India’.Footnote 11 In order to justify this, he refers to translated excerpts from ancient Indian texts that say that knowledge can never be on sale, and that a teacher is bound to impart knowledge to a willing pupil.Footnote 12
Similar views have also been expressed by Prabha Sridevan, a retired judge of the Madras High Court, and she too alludes to excerpts from different religious texts.Footnote 13 In her work, she has highlighted the emphasis of the Upanishads, one of the ancient Hindu texts, on the public benefit aspect of knowledge. She has also quoted excerpts from other texts which say that noble thoughts should come from all sides, and that knowledge alone can set one free.Footnote 14 She argues that India has always recognised that intellectual property rights are not natural rights.Footnote 15 In this regard, she points out the lack of any tradition in India that allowed teachers to claim authorship or other rights over knowledge.Footnote 16 She also highlights that most ancient texts indicate that taking monetary benefits for imparting knowledge was not a socially acceptable practice in ancient India.Footnote 17 According to her, teachers were viewed as mere custodians of knowledge who had the responsibility of imparting education for the benefit of the public.Footnote 18
While it may be true that such references to virtues of knowledge sharing can be seen in many of the ancient Indian texts, it is important to look beyond literal translations of selected excerpts from ancient texts, in order to understand social realities. Imposition of monetary restrictions is not the only way to obstruct access to knowledge; many other dimensions like gender and caste must be taken into consideration for a more holistic view of the state of knowledge sharing in ancient India.
2.2 Gender-Based Restrictions to Knowledge
When one looks at the question of gender-based restrictions, it can be seen that like most of the rest of the world, such restrictions have been existing in the Indian society too. It is nearly impossible to understand and encapsulate with certainty and completeness the history of women’s education in India. There are many reasons behind this, including the lack of uniform documentation and the diversity of women’s experience on lines of caste, religion, class, and geography. Some historians are of the opinion that the Vedas, one of the oldest recognised scriptures of Hinduism, suggest that men and women should enjoy equal positions and freedoms in society with respect to education, religious sacrifice, and marriage.Footnote 19 According to them, universal education, minimum standard of education for all, gender neutral ‘Upanayana’ or initiation ceremonies for introduction to the process of learning, and knowledge of all known branches of culture, knowledge, and religion, were prescribed.Footnote 20 The same was apparently observed in Islam, where religious books laid down that seeking of knowledge is as incumbent upon a male as upon a female.Footnote 21
While the exact timing or reasons behind complete divergence from these texts are not clearly known, social evils such as child marriage, sati, and the purdah system are considered possible ways in which the patriarchy sought to curb rights and freedoms of women. Child marriage forced prepubescent girls into marriage, often with much older men of higher social status. The practice of ‘sati’, followed by Hindus in some parts of the country, forced widows to give up their lives along with their dying or dead husbands. The purdah system, whose name originated from a Persian word meaning curtain, was prevalent in both Hindu and Muslim societies.Footnote 22 Women had to wear veils or pieces of clothing covering their heads, and were confined behind walls or partitions, segregated from the outside world which could only be enjoyed by men. Most Christian nuns also had to wear pieces of clothing covering their heads. A combination of such practices and traditions cemented women’s roles in society as subservient and subordinate to those of men.
Owing to various social changes, women were denied entry to the study of sacred texts, Upanayana began being prescribed only for men, and gradually, right to all kinds of education were restricted.Footnote 23 At tols or pathshalas, which were Hindu schools of higher learning, boys belonging to families enjoying higher social status were given free education through stipends and scholarship donations from kings or wealthy persons.Footnote 24 Even elementary schools were attended only by boys belonging to upper castes, and sons of rich landlords and agriculturalists.Footnote 25 Among Muslims, Maktab or elementary school, which focused on Quran studies, were attended by both boys and girls, where they learned to read and write.Footnote 26 However, Madrasahs, which were Islamic institutions of higher learning, could only be attended by select groups of boys.Footnote 27 There are not many documented references relating to denial of education for Christian women in India that can lead to concrete conclusions on this matter. However, the fact that Christian women were also facing discrimination on most other issues like property rights makes one reasonably assume that their situation was not much different.
In Buddhism, comparatively more inclusive practices were observed as regards education of men and women. Buddhist ideology included belief in kindness towards all living beings, and faith in the essential equality of man and woman in the journey towards salvation.Footnote 28 Interestingly, while women were imparted education, their teachers were their fathers, brothers, and uncles.Footnote 29 Moreover, while women could enter monasteries and continue their education while being in the monastic order, there were different and discriminatory rules for men and women for entry into monasteries.Footnote 30
Prohibition of women from education was motivated mainly by concerns regarding the subversion of patriarchal power. It was believed that education would make girls ‘dushta’ (wicked or immoral) and less amenable to discipline and submission to their parents’ choice of husband.Footnote 31 Since they were ‘too useful’ in the house, education was feared to make them forget and despise ordinary household duties if they learned how to read and write.Footnote 32 Therefore, women’s enlightenment was considered to be dangerous due to the apprehensions regarding the prospect of ‘violent’ social upheaval, the idea of women earning their own livelihood apart from their families was considered repugnant, and superstitions regarding educated women made society believe in misconceptions about educated women.Footnote 33 These superstitions propagated beliefs that educated women are likely to be childless and their husbands are likely to die young.Footnote 34
The prohibition of women from meaningful education and enforcement of child marriage also had other related effects on women’s education. For example, since women – particularly those from upper castes – were not allowed to have their own livelihood, and there was no tangible financial benefit arising out of their education, parents had no motivation to invest time in their education.Footnote 35 Further, insufficiency of educated and working women resulted in low numbers of women teachers in schools, which further discouraged parents from sending their daughters to school.Footnote 36 While some scholars argue that the purdah system impeded women’s education, some others suggest that parents’ insistence on separate schools for girls and boys, and women teachers in girls’ schools, benefitted girls’ education in places like Punjab.Footnote 37
Even when educational reforms were sought to be introduced, the supporting reason had little to do with women’s rights and more to do with the advantages that could accrue to men as a result of women’s education. While it is not clear if reformers cited such reasons as part of their strategy to convince men in power to remove prohibitions on women, it is interesting to note the glaring absence of women’s rights discourses in these historical accounts. It was often claimed that women’s education should be encouraged since the same has far greater impact on the educational and moral tone of the people than men’s education does.Footnote 38 Apparently, impetus for reforms in women’s education was given by educated men who wanted educated wives for their sons, and fathers who wanted to educate their daughters to increase their prospects of being viewed as superior wives and mothers.Footnote 39
Moreover, some opinions suggest that the nationalist movements that arose in response to centuries of British rule in India subsumed the movement for women’s education into its larger agenda of strengthening and enlightenment of Indian society.Footnote 40 Therefore, one may conclude that even the reforms that were initiated to strengthen women’s education, reinforced the social roles prescribed by patriarchy or larger societal goals. It is thus no surprise to see that educational policies which were meant to be reformative, suggested that girls be taught ‘feminine’ subjects such as hygiene, domestic science, needlework, music, and home science; whereas subjects like physics, chemistry, and mathematics were considered as ‘masculine’ subjects.Footnote 41 The 1913 Resolution on the Educational Policy of the Government of India, recommended that while designing the curricula, ‘practical bias’ with reference to the social position women occupy would be important.Footnote 42 Books recommended for girls were simpler in treatment and narrower in the range of subjects than those recommended for boys, as considered appropriate according to dominant public opinion.Footnote 43 It may be safe to say that such restrictions and emphases on social roles, which are based on patriarchal interests, still continue to hinder women from entering the knowledge production process, continuing in it, and breaking glass ceilings.
2.3 Caste-Based Restrictions to Knowledge
Apart from gender, it is impossible to provide any historical account of India without discussing the Chaturvarna system. It has impacted most aspects of social life in India, and has played a major role in preventing dissemination of knowledge. The Chaturvarna system divides the Hindu society into four groups called varnas, based on birth. Those who didn’t fall into any of these four groups, known as ‘Ati-shudras’ in some parts of the country, were the ‘avarnas’ who were considered ‘achhoot’ or untouchable.Footnote 44 Although many texts use the terms ‘caste’ and ‘varna’ interchangeably, it must be clarified here that castes are sub-categories that may be classified under different varnas. Thus, a varna may encompass hundreds of castes as sub-categories.Footnote 45 Rights and obligations based on varna were reinforced by penal sanctions ordained in Manusmriti (‘Laws of Manu’), one of the most authoritative Hindu law texts.Footnote 46
According to Manusmriti, the Brahmins are supposed to cultivate knowledge, the Kshatriya should bear arms, Vaishya should engage in trade, and the Shudra should serve, and strict adherence to this framework is expected from all.Footnote 47 This hierarchical system based on birth has determined, and – in many contexts – continues to determine, many social rules and mores not just in the Hindu sections of India, but in Indian society as a whole. While Brahmins had the highest privileges ranging from access to temples to access to education and teaching, the Ati-shudras were treated as ‘untouchables’ in the society, based on rigid notions of purity and pollution.Footnote 48 Some significant legal efforts have been made in India to address many of the social evils which have their bases in the varna system, by incorporating specific provisions in the Constitution as well as through criminalisation of certain discriminatory acts with the help of special legislations.Footnote 49 However, such prejudices and discrimination continue to exist in various extents in different socio-economic contexts.Footnote 50
While the politics and social impact of the system can be studied in a plethora of ways, in view of the focus area of this chapter, we restrict our discussion to the role played by the varna system in limiting access to education and knowledge. According to Manusmriti, three important aspects of life – teaching of Vedas, performing sacrifices, and receiving gifts – were restricted to Brahmins.Footnote 51 Only when a Brahmin was unavailable for teaching was a person allowed to have a Kshatriya or Vaishya teacher.Footnote 52 Although originally the varna of a person was determined by an independent body and revised after every 4 years, the Gurukul system replaced this system.Footnote 53 The Purva Mimamsa, one of the most prominent ancient Hindu philosophical texts, said that as per this system, the Vedas could not be studied unless one undergoes ‘Upanayana’.Footnote 54 Upanayana is a ceremony which marks the acceptance of a pupil by a guru or teacher by giving the former a sacred thread that he is supposed to wear thereafter. In this Gurukul system, only the Acharya of the Gurukul, who was of course a Brahmin, was responsible for performing the ceremony. Although Brahmins had no express right to deny Upanayana to anyone, they had exclusive right to officiate Upanayana, could be penalised for performing unauthorised Upanayana, and were deemed to be unworthy to partake in rituals before God if they instructed or were instructed by Shudras.Footnote 55 This effectively meant that Shudras and Ati-Shudras were continually denied Upanayana, and hence access to education.Footnote 56 By denying education to them, and restricting Kshatriyas and Vaishyas to military and trade, respectively, Brahmins assumed the power to become the only educated class which could control the entire society.Footnote 57 Thus, birth became the most important determinant of one’s worth and rights.Footnote 58
Apart from effectively deciding a person’s rights to basic dignity and resources, the Brahmins also monopolised knowledge by forcibly dominating literary narratives.Footnote 59 Originally, the Puranas – which contained folk narratives – were written by Sutas, a non-Brahmin literary class. Sutas had the hereditary and prescriptive right to retain monopoly over the Puranas. However, they were later ousted by the Brahmins, resulting in the addition of fresh chapters, substitution of old chapters, and substantial change in the content of the Puranas.Footnote 60
It would be a misrepresentation of history, if one looks away from the varna system and all its associated evils, while asserting that India has had an exemplary historical tradition in knowledge sharing. Interestingly, Malamud does mention in his book that Shamnad Basheer had reminded him about these institutionalised restrictions on knowledge flows.Footnote 61 During our conversation with Basheer, he reiterated his disagreement with Malamud on this issue.Footnote 62 Further, although Sridevan has in her work asserted that India has a rich tradition in knowledge sharing, she herself has alluded to social conditions and instances that suggest otherwise. For example, she talks about how there was no open publication of knowledge, and how knowledge was restrictively transmitted to prevent its abuse and dilution.Footnote 63 She also discusses the direct link of knowledge with religion which automatically caused exclusion.Footnote 64 Moreover, she discusses the perfect recitation, high qualification, and specific training or initiation required to access knowledge, apart from having to belong to a hereditary fraternity.Footnote 65 The ability to fulfil these conditions in order to access knowledge was heavily dependent on one’s caste.
Although teaching for the sake of money or fee was prohibited, and the IP system as we know it now did not exist, it is important to acknowledge the ruthlessness, rigidity, and pervasiveness of the social systems which heavily restricted knowledge flows.Footnote 66 In many ways, such measures to restrict knowledge flows also resemble the working of the existing trade secrets system. The consequences of a Shudra or Ati-Shudra trying to break the law were inhuman and heinous in nature. Some scholars point out that merely hearing the Vedas could result in their ears being filled with molten lead and lac.Footnote 67 Pronunciation of the Vedas could result in slitting their tongue, and if they preserved the Vedas, their body was to be cut through.Footnote 68
Even when some school reforms started being initiated in the nineteenth century, merely opening schools for all castes was not sufficient in breaking social barriers to education. The demands of upper caste Hindus refusing to study with lower caste students were prioritised over the rights of the lower caste students. The colonial government tried to reach a ‘resolution’ by forcing the few lower caste students who did attend school to sit in a verandah far away from their classroom and classmates.Footnote 69 In some schools, lower caste students were made to sit in separate rooms and barred from accessing the common water supply.Footnote 70 In a way, efforts for inclusion of people belonging to lower castes actually highlighted the stigma and prejudice against them and the discrimination was perpetuated through social exclusionary practices.Footnote 71 Given that most authorities reacted to the situation out of fear of boycott by upper caste Hindus, this interaction between students from various castes became cause for more direct humiliation and exclusion of lower caste students.Footnote 72 Many of them were also subjected to persecution when they were permitted entry into ordinary village schools – their stacks of hay were burnt down, arson was attempted on their houses, and they were physically assaulted.Footnote 73 It needs to be specifically mentioned that even conversion of religion did not save people from such exclusion and prejudices, and they continued to face discrimination.Footnote 74
All these aspects highlight how religion and social mores entrenched social prejudice and exclusion against people belonging to certain social strata, and systemically deprived them of rights including that of access to education.
Even today, these prejudices remain alive in various forms and extents, and compensating for the socio-economic gap created by the caste system remains an uphill battle. A combination of socio-economic factors including caste, class, gender, location, and language used to and continue to determine the extent and kind of access one has to knowledge in this country.Footnote 75 One may have to examine present-day attitudes and practices with regard to knowledge sharing, in this socio-historical context.