Traditional Knowledge Systems


It is now recognized that western criteria are not the sole benchmark by which other cultural knowledge should be evaluated. While the term ‘traditional’ sometimes carries the connotation of ‘pre-modern’ in the sense of ‘primitive’ or ‘outdated’, many of the traditional sciences and technologies were in fact quite advanced even by western standards as well as better adapted to unique local conditions and needs than their later ‘modern’ substitutes. In countries with ancient cultural traditions, the folk and elite science were taken as part of the same unified legacy, without any hegemonic categorizations.

However, modernization has homogenized various solutions, and this loss of ideas is similar to the destruction of biodiversity. Colonizers systematically derogated, exterminated or undermined the local traditional science, technology and crafts of the lands and people they plundered, because of their intellectual arrogance, and also to control and appropriate the economic means of production and the social means of organization.

Modern societies created hegemonic categories of science verses magic, technology verses superstitions etc., which were arbitrary and contrived. But many anthropologists who have recently worked with so-called ‘primitive’ peoples have been surprised to learn of some of their highly evolved and sophisticated technologies. The term ‘Traditional Knowledge System’ was thus coined by anthropologists as a scientific system which has its own validity, in contradistinction to ‘modern’ science.

The United Nations University proposal defines ‘Traditional Knowledge Systems’ as follows:

Traditional knowledge or ‘local knowledge’ is a record of human achievement in comprehending the complexities of life and survival in often unfriendly environments. Traditional knowledge, which may be technical, social, organizational, or cultural was obtained as part of the great human experiment of survival and development.

Laura Nader describes the purpose of studying Traditional Knowledge Systems (TKS): “The point is to open up people’s minds to other ways of looking and questioning, to change attitudes about knowledge, to reframe the organization of science — to formulate a way of thinking globally about traditions.”

Historical Background

Modern science can perhaps be dated to Newton’s times. But Traditional Knowledge Systems date from more than 2 million years when Homo habilis started making his tools and interacting with nature. Since the dawn of history, different peoples have contributed to different branches of science and technology, often in a manner involving interactive contacts across cultures separated by large distances. This interactive influence is becoming clearer as the vast extent of global trade and cultural migration across large distances is being properly recognized by researchers.

However, one finds that generally the history of science as commonly taught is mostly Eurocentric. It typically consists of two phases: It starts with Greece, neglecting the influences of others upon Greece. Then it ‘fast forwards’ many centuries to the Enlightenment period around 1500AD, to claim modern science as an exclusively European triumph, by neglecting the influence of others, especially India, upon the European Renaissance and Enlightenment. The European Dark Ages is presumed to be dark worldwide, when in fact, the rest of the world thrived with innovation and prosperity while Europe was at the peripheries until the conquest of America in 1492.

Thanks to especially the work of Joseph Needham, China’s contributions to global knowledge have recently become known to a wide range of scholars. Even more recently, thanks largely to Arab scholars, the important role of Islamic empires in the transmission of ideas into Europe has become better appreciated. However, in the latter case, many discoveries and innovations of India, as acknowledged by the Arab translators themselves, are often depicted as being of Arab origin, when in fact, the Arabs often retransmitted what they had learned from India over to Europe.

Therefore, the vast and significant contributions made by the Indian sub-continent have been widely ignored. The British colonizers could never accept the fact that Indians were highly civilized even in the third millennium BC when the British were still in a barbarian stage. Such acknowledgment would destroy the civilizing mission of Europe that was the intellectual premise for colonialization.

British Indologists did not study TKS, except to quietly document them as systems competing with their own and to facilitate the transfer of technology into Britain’s industrial revolution. What was found valuable was quickly appropriated (see examples below), and its Indian manufacturers were forced out of business, in many instances justified as civilizing them. Meanwhile, a new history of India was fabricated to ensure that present and future generations of mentally colonized people would believe in the inherent inferiority of their own traditional knowledge and in the superiority of the colonizers’ ‘modern’ knowledge. This has been called Macaulayism, named after Lord Macaulay who successfully championed this strategy of Britain most emphatically starting in the 1830s.

Because it became difficult for Europeans to ignore the massive archaeological evidence of classical Indian science and technology, they propounded that the Indus civilization had to be a transplant from the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations. These constructions in historiography have tended to be cumulative rather than re-constructive, i.e. more layers were constructed without re-examining or correcting prior ones. Unfortunately, since Independence there has not been much improvement in such distortions of history, and this has continued to negatively impact the understanding and appreciation of TKS. Many in India’s intellectual elite continue to promote the notion that pre-colonial India was feudalistic, pre-rational, and by implication in need of being invaded for its own benefit.

This has created a climate in which entrenched prejudice against TKS still persists in contemporary society. For example, according to TKS activist Madhu Kishwar, India’s government today continues to make many TKS illegal or impossible to practice. Even after independence, many British laws against TKS have continued, even though their original intent was to destroy India’s massive domestic industry and foreign trade and to replace them with Britain’s industrial revolution. It is significant to note that today less than 10% of India’s labor works in the ‘organized sector’, namely as employees of a company. The remaining 90% are individual freelancers, contract laborers, private entrepreneurs, and so on, many of whom still practice their traditional trades.

However, given the perpetuation of colonial laws that render much of their work illegal, they are highly vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation, corruption, and abuse. The descendents of India’s traditional knowledge workers, who built massive cities, technologies, and dominated world trade for centuries, are today de-legitimized in their own country under a democratic government. Many of today’s poor jatis, such as textile, masonry, and metal workers, were at one time the guilds that supplied the world with so many and varied industrial items.

It is important to note that amongst all the conquered and colonized civilizations of the Old World, India is unique in the following respect: Its wealth was industrial and created by its workers’ ingenuity and labor. In all other instances, such as the Native Americans, the plunder by the colonizers was mainly of land, gold and other natural assets. But in India’s case, the colonizers had a windfall of extraordinary profit margins from control of India’s exports, taxation of India’s economic production, and eventually the transfer of technology and production to the colonizer’s home. This comprised the immense transfer of wealth out of India.

From being the world’s major exporting economy (along with China), India was reduced to an importer of goods; from being the source of much of the economic capital that funded Britain’s industrial revolution, it became one of the biggest debtor nations; from its envied status as the wealthiest nation, it became a land synonymous with poverty; and from the nation with a large number of prestigious centers of higher education that attracted the cream of foreign students from Eurasia, it became the land with the highest number of illiterate persons. This remains a major untold story. The education system’s subversion of India’s TKS in its history and social studies curricula is a major factor for the stereotyping about India. Even when told of these things, few westerners and elitist Indians are unwilling to believe them, as their prejudices about India are too deeply entrenched.

Nalanda University Designed by Vastu Consultants

A view of map exhibition of Nalanda Open University at Hotel Maurya in Patna. Photo by – Sonu Kishan.

The Global Problem Today

The present day globalizing economy with its mass media glorification of the western lifestyle is resulting in the homogenization of human ‘wants’ and in unachievable expectations. Conventional western technology by itself cannot deliver or sustain this false promise to the world, for several reasons:

  1. Westernized living is unachievable by billions of poor humans, because the capital required simply does not exist in the world, and the trickle down effect is too slow to reach the bottom tier where most of humanity lives.
  2. Western civilization depends upon inequality — there must be cheap labor ‘somewhere else’, and cheap natural resources purchasable from somewhere, without regard to the big picture of world society or global ecology. This practical necessity of the present-day global capitalist system conflicts with the equal rights of states and persons long theorized and promoted. All sorts of reasons are offered against such drastic proposals as opening all borders and allowing free competition among all available laborers, contradicting the ‘freedom’ position so popular in theory.
  3. The western economic development model demands ‘growth’ to sustain valuations in the stock markets, and growth cannot be indefinite. A steady state economy in zero growth equilibrium would devastate the wealth of the west, since the financial models are predicated on growth.
  4. Even if the above obstacles could be overcome and the world’s six billion persons were to achieve western lifestyle, it would be unsustainable for the planet’s natural resources to sustain.

When Gandhi was asked whether he would like India to develop a lifestyle similar to England’s, his reply may be paraphrased as follows: The British had to plunder the Earth to achieve their lifestyle. Given India’s much larger population, it would require the plunder of many planets to achieve the same.

If the idealized western lifestyle is unavailable to all humanity, then on what basis (morally, intellectually, and in terms of practical enforcement) do a few countries hope to sustain their superiority over others so as to maintain such a lifestyle? The point is that employing TKS is an imperative for humanity at large, while reducing global dependence on inequitable and resource draining ‘advanced’ knowledge systems.

We have to study, preserve, and revive India’s scientific Traditional Knowledge Systems for the economic betterment of the world as these technologies are HOLISTIC, ECO-FRIENDLY and allow SUSTAINABLE growth WITHOUT HARMING the environment. India’s scientific heritage needs to be brought to the attention of the educated world, so that we can replace the Eurocentric history of science and technology with an honest globalization of ideas. This goal requires generations of new research in these fields, compilation of existing data, and dissemination through books, seminars, websites, articles, films, etc.

Indian Contributions to Global Science

The arenas of India’s innovations for growth and development are vast. They include but not limited to civil engineering, metal technologies, textiles, shipping and ship building, water harvesting systems, forest management, farming technologies, traditional medicine, mathematics, logic and linguistics, and folk science. Some highlights are below.

Civil Engineering: The Indus-Sarasvati Civilization was the world’s first to build planned towns, with underground drainage, civil sanitation, hydraulic engineering, and air-cooling architecture. Oven baked bricks were invented in India in approximately 4,000 BC. From complex Harappan towns to Delhi’s Qutub Minar and other large projects, India’s indigenous technologies were very sophisticated in design, planning, water supply, traffic flow, natural air conditioning, complex stonework, and construction engineering.


Farming Techniques: India’s agricultural production was historically large and sustained a huge population compared to other parts of the world. Surpluses were stored for use in a drought year. But the British turned this industry into a cash cow, exporting massive amounts of harvests even during shortages, so as to maximize the cash expropriation. This caused tens of millions to die of starvation while at the same time India’s food production was exported at unprecedented rates to generate cash. Also, traditional non-chemical based pesticides have been recently revived in India with excellent results, replacing Union Carbide’s products in certain markets.

Ancient Farming2

Mathematics, Logic and Linguistics: Besides other sciences, Indians developed advanced math, including the concept of zero, the base-ten decimal system now in use worldwide, and many important trigonometry and algebra formulae. They made several astronomical discoveries. Diverse schools of logic and philosophy proliferated. India’s Panini is acknowledged as the founder of linguistics, and his Sanskrit grammar is still the most complete and sophisticated of any language in the world.


But in too many cases, western scholars reduce India’s experts to ‘native informants’ destined to live below the glass ceiling: the pandit as native informant to the western Sanskritist; the poor woman in Rajasthan as native informant to the western feminist seeking to cure her of her tradition; the herbal farmer as native informant to the western pharmaceutical firm appropriating medicines for patents; etc. Given their poverty in modern times, these ‘native informants’ dish out what the western scholar expects to hear in order to fit his/her model, because in return they receive gifts, rewards, compensation, recognition, and even trips and visas in many cases.

Rarely have western scholars acknowledged India’s knowledge bearers as fellow scientists and equal partners, as co-authors or as co-panelists. This competitive obsession to make ‘original’ discoveries and to put one’s name on publications has exacerbated the tendency to appropriate with one hand, while denigrating the source with other hand so as to hide the plagiarism. We have referred to this as ‘academic arson’.

The Goal

India’s intellectual resources are not limited to (though they are limited by) its ‘Indi-genius’ doubting intellectual elite. Today, there are Indian economists, social developers, and scholars who are working hard to revitalize many TKS. Resources for research and teaching of India’s Traditional Knowledge Systems should be made available for the following reasons:

India has amongst the best cases for successful revival of TKS: It has a rich heritage still intact in this area. It has the largest documented ancient literature relevant to TKS. It has the intellectual resources to appreciate this and to implement this revival, provided the Macaulayite mental blocks could be shaken up through re-education of its governing elite. It has dire needs to diversify beyond dependence solely upon the new panacea of globalization and westernization.

India’s scientific heritage, besides its philosophical and cultural legacy, needs to be properly understood. The aim is not inspired by chauvinism, but to understand the genius of Indian civilization better. This would overhaul the current assessment of India’s potential.

To correct the portrayal of the history of science, the history of ideas, mainstream accounts of world history, anthropology and culture. This entails emphasizing to scholars and educators that TKS should be included, especially India’s achievements and contributions to world science that have been very significant but unappreciated.

To include Traditional Knowledge Systems in economic planning, because they are eco-friendly, sustainable, labor rather than capital intensive, and more available to the masses. This should be done in parallel with the top down ‘modern’ scientific development using westernized ‘globalization’, as the two should co-exist and each should be used based on its merits.

TKS and Inner Sciences, History, and Society Today

Inner Sciences: The Inner Sciences of India have been on the one hand appropriated by the west, and on the hand have been depicted as being in conflict with the progressive, rational, and materialistic west. In fact, inner and outer realms are often viewed as opposites, that can at best be balanced because one contradicts the other. This assumes that Inner Sciences make a person and society less productive, creative, and competitive in the outer realm. However, India’s TKS are empirical evidence to demonstrate that Inner Sciences and outer development did co-exist in a mutually symbiotic relationship. This is a major reason to properly study India’s TKS.Inner sciences

Without removing this tension between inner and outer, it would be difficult to seriously motivate the modern world to advance in the Inner Sciences in a major way. Inner progress without the outer would be a world negating worldview, which India’s TKS record shows not to be the case in classical India. Outer progress without inner cultivation results in societies that are too materialistic, too selfish to the point of genocides and holocausts, eco-unfriendly, and dependent upon force and control for social harmony.

History: Until the 1800s, TKS generated large scale economic productivity for Indians. It was the TKS based thriving Indian economy that attracted so many waves of invaders, culminating with the British. Traditionally, India was one of the richest regions in the world, and most Indians were neither ‘backward’ nor uneducated nor poor. Some historians have recently begun to come out with this side of the story, demonstrating that it was massive economic drainage, oppression, social re-engineering, and so forth at the hands of colonizers that made millions of ‘new poor’ over the past few centuries. This explanation yields a radically different reading of the poverty in India today. Upon acknowledging India’s traditional knowledge systems, one is forced to discard accounts of its history that essentialize its poverty and the accompanying social evils. The reality of TKS contradicts notions such as:

  1. India was less rational and scientific than the west.
  2. India was world negating in its outlook (which is a misreading of the Inner Sciences), and hence did not advance itself from within.
  3. India’s civilization was mainly imported via invaders, except for its problems such as caste that were its own ‘essences’.
  4. Indian society was socially backward (to the point of being seen as lacking in morality); hence it depends upon westernization to reform its current problems.

Society Today

Is India a ‘developing’ society, or is it a ‘re-developing’ society? Without appreciating the TKS of a people, how could anthropologists and sociologists interpret the current condition of a society? Were they always poor, always living in polluted and socially problematic conditions as today, in which case these problems are essences? Or is there a history behind the present condition? This history should not, however, excuse the failures of fifty years of independence to deal properly with the economic and social problems that persist today.

About Author

Palak Shah

Palak is an Executive Recruiter at a Fortune 500 firm. A spiritual entrepreneur at heart, Palak has spent more than 20 years as a practitioner and teacher of India's dharmic traditions.

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