The ancient in the present

Sagacious seniors, middle-aged intellects and curious youngsters were all present.

Science versus superstition. Faith versus rational thinking. Tradition versus modernity. These have been and continue to be topics for endless debates. Votaries of both sides, many of them highly learned and erudite intellectuals, offer convincing and stimulating explanations in support of their stand. But there is no, and can never be, one last word on such matters. It is a personal belief, a choice that an individual makes, either consciously or one that is a cultural inheritance. Nevertheless, it forms a vital component of one’s persona.

Watching the proceedings of an assembly of scholars on a balmy August evening, I ruminate on these matters. I am in Sringeri, the revered seat of non-dualistic Indian philosophy established by the great saint philosopher Adi Shankaracharya over a thousand years ago. Each year, in the months of August- September, commencing from the Ganesha festival day, Sanskrit scholars from various parts of India gather here for discussions and debates on different facets of ancient Indian knowledge streams.

Present day jargon uses words and phrases like conference, symposium, seminar, lecture-demonstration and so on for occasions where experts from a particular field gather for a discussion on topics relevant to their work, exchange ideas, learn about current developments, present their work and so forth.

Here in Sringeri, this annual scholarly gathering is called ‘Vakyartha Sabha’, roughly translating as a gathering of persons learned in the science of the spoken word. The prodigious output of ancient Indian polymaths is to be found in the Vedic literature and its tributaries such as the vedanta (upanishads), tarka (logic), vyakarana (grammar), mimamsa (enquiry), kavya (poetics )and many others. It is heartening to see this eclectic assemblage of sagacious seniors, dignified middle-aged intellects and eager, curious, respectful and sharp youngsters.

Presiding over the proceedings is the benignant pontiff of the Sringeri Math, a storehouse of knowledge whose very presence is the leitmotif of this institution — as not only a spiritual destination, but a place where the roots of Indian culture and true knowledge still hold great promise. By his side is his junior and designated successor, who is being groomed to adorn this seat of learning.

Remarkably similar to the present day doctoral research, a problem or a contentious issue is first raised by the participant, who then presents his work while elaborating on different approaches to the subject by other scholars citing their inferences. Other members of the assembly interject with their opinions, objections and suggestions.

The senior pontiff enlivens the proceedings with his epigrammatic comments laced with gentle humour. A conclusion is then arrived at regarding the purport of the topic or the message sought to be conveyed by the original writer. In today’s world of artificial intelligence, one feels truly blessed to witness such events!

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