Ancient wisdom in modern times

PTI
Sunday, 24 February 2019

Author, scholar of Indology and religious studies, Mani Rao, who was a speaker at the recently held International Festival of Spiritual India (IFSI) in the city, talks about the relevance of Vedas, mantras and ancient wisdom in the age of the internet

With the aim to demystify the concept of spirituality and bring it to the grass-root level, the first-ever International Festival of Spiritual India (IFSI) was held in the city from February 22-24 at YASHADA, Pune. The festival focussed on finding the true essence of spiritualism in India and understanding how to imbibe its values in one’s daily life. Author Mani Rao, who is a scholar of Indology and religious studies, participated in a session titled Relevance of Vedas, Mantras and Ancient Wisdom. We pick her brain for some more insight into this topic.

In the age of the internet and social media, how does one interpret and apply the Vedas?
Vedas are revelations — content, internet and social media are media technologies. There is no anomaly or contradiction here; in fact, they are beautifully complementary. Content and technology can and will work together. 

Can you imagine what a monumental task it would have been in the 14th century for Sayanacharya’s team in the Vijayanagara kingdom to edit and inscribe, copy and circulate manuscripts of his commentary? But today, digital technology is available for those who want to disseminate the Vedas. Recorders and video cameras are helpful as teaching tools, and I have met a number of Veda teachers who take classes on Skype and WhatsApp. As for interpretation and application, that depends on learning and training.

Ancient wisdom — how relevant is it in today’s world?
Some of the information our ancients documented may not be factual, and if we know better, fine. Science is meant to be improved upon. Some Indian systems from centuries ago such as yoga and ayurveda have found acceptance — perhaps it is because the results are evident.  

We are not always aware and conscious of what shoulders we stand upon. We may already reap the benefits of previous effort and not even know whom to thank for it. For instance, we may wonder about the use of Purva-mimamsa (Vedic interpretation) today, but the principles of Purva-mimansa were helpful in formulating legal methodologies.

Sometimes, information may be available but not understood, and it could take centuries for it to find application. Science has barely begun to explore the potential of the human mind. For instance, it does not matter if the general public does not understand the benefits of Vedic and tantric mantras, there will be a select few who engage with them, and the public still must invest in their preservation. 

Remember, Aristarchus in the 3rd century BCE proposed a heliocentric model (sun at the centre), but for centuries after that, people still believed in a geocentric model. 

What kind of packaging is required to make ancient wisdom palatable for the youth? We see FMCG companies harping on it to please the middle-aged and elderly customers by promoting products with neem, aloe vera, clove and other herbs, as also many other things. And though it has a novelty value, does it enjoy the place of importance it deserves?
I don’t think neem, aloe vera, clove and other herbs are “ancient” or “modern” — they are a part of the natural resources around us — and they work! In fact, advertisers are using “ancient wisdom” as a platform to sell these products — so let them, why not, and let them package it any which way they like. 

On one hand atheism is on the rise, and on the other more and more people are turning to spiritualism, yoga, and meditation. What is your take on this?
It is a good thing that people want evidence before they “believe” in something. That is exactly what Indian systems teach us. Yoga, for instance, must be done before Shad-chakra-nirupana (proof of six chakras) is personally experienced. The only thing that can move a person from atheism to theism is experience and personal conviction. Just as you cannot force someone to fall in love, you cannot coerce someone to believe in a higher intelligence through and beyond the world. 

What role did feminism play in the Vedas and ancient wisdom, and where does it stand now?
Women had a different social role in the Vedic era compared to now. Having said that, extraordinary women have always transcended their allotted roles, both then and now. Now that many parts of the world are much more egalitarian, it is fair to expect some questioning about age-old prohibitions (nishedh).

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