The Sacredness of Knowledge
An aspect very unique to Hindu culture is the sacredness of knowledge.
This is because with knowledge comes awareness, and with that comes understanding and empathy, and with that comes genuine compassion. Unless you’re a yogi of high caliber it’s not easy give genuine compassion. People who claim to give compassion without attaining that state, are deceiving themselves or have ulterior motives (like the conversion tactics of Christian missionaries is driven by outward show of compassion, which falls flat (if not become violent) if the target that is being “harvested” refuses to convert or in any way blasphemes their belief).
For example, inherently fundamentalist Western religions preach “compassion” and “tolerance”. But how can you have compassion (or “tolerance”) when you lack genuine knowledge of the other. Only with knowledge comes understanding and empathy, and from that compassion. As the yogi’s say: when there is a genuine understanding of the other, there is no need to “tolerate” the other. Where is the need to tolerate when there is understanding or love for all things? You tolerate only things you don’t understand or don’t want to understand. Under such pretext of exercising “toleration”, how can you exercise genuine compassion. Such compassion will be conditional.
This is why there is so much religious divisiveness and infighting within Christianity and within Islam itself (let alone against each other and against other faiths). This in contrast to how thousands of drastically different faiths, cultures, and spiritual traditions within Hindu culture get along with great synergy. That is, even though they differ very dramatically between each other – in just about everything – each having their own distinct representation and approach to God, their own sages, saints, spiritual literature, stories, rituals, customs, etc.
Ignorance results in lack of awareness, lack of understanding and empathy, and lack of compassion, and results in prejudices and conflicts of all sorts.
When the Hindu spiritual master, Swami Vivekananda was asked by a Christian priest, whether Hindus had the concept of Evil, he replied, “No, we call it Ignorance”.
The Science of Knowledge
The study of knowledge was a sacred science. The six darshanas (systems of Indian philosophical thought) are just mind-boggling in their depth of exploration on the nature and means of acquiring knowledge – steeped in epistemology, ontology, psychology, logic theory, and metaphysics.
Knowledge and Science
India had its share of excellence in applied sciences (medicine, architecture, ship building, textiles, organic farming, commerce, metallurgy, mathematics, etc.). But as for science itself, the Hindu’s goal was not in the application of knowledge purely for material progress, but in the spiritual enrichment of their lives, and is reflected in their dance, music, arts, poetry, literature, spirituality, and philosophy.
While the typical scientist, the moment they discover something, are immediately on to the question “Now what can I do with this knowledge? (i.e. material application/progress)”, the Hindu yogi was more immediately onto asking “How can I advance the understanding of my true nature, the nature of the universe, and my place in it, even further?”.
Even a simple question as “Now what can I do with this knowledge” was a trap that Hindu yogis could not afford to get caught in. To entertain such thoughts would be to stop all progress and to fall into a bottomless pit (the deeper the knowledge/insight, the greater the binding force of “what can I do with it”, the deeper the well).
Note I’m talking specifically about yogis, not Hindu scientists in general. Hindus have had a great and rich history of science, technology, and engineering feats (using the word Hindu to refer to the people of the Indian Subcontinent, their philosophy and way of life before 800 years of Islamic/European conquests). Not to mention for almost 400 years, just about every country was importing goods and technologies from India in the areas of textile manufacturing, steel manufacturing, shipbuilding, accounting, mathematics, astronomy, architecture, civil engineering, etc. During that period, every conqueror had their targets set on India — from Muslim invaders, to European imperialists, to Marco Palo, to Christopher Columbus.
Knowledge and Society
Also, the approach towards acquiring knowledge (through yoga) gives something that modern science doesn’t train you in: compassion, responsibility, and humility. A society acquiring knowledge at the blinding pace that it is today, that outstrips man’s evolution/maturity to keep up with it, can only result in disaster.
Let’s take gun powder and martial arts for instance. While the Chinese had it for centuries, it was the West that weaponized it within a very short span of time. In Japan, even with the availability of firearms, many loyal Samurai for example, refused to take part in it, even if it meant their own extinction, preferring their skill and training in their martial arts, and the spiritual development that came with it (that the Samurai themselves decayed in moral character later on is a different story). That also shows a fundamental difference between East and West in the treatment of knowledge. The former for mastery of the spiritual development and mastery of their self, and the later for conquering (and mastery over others). The same can be said about the Indian Defense. It has the third largest military in the world, and yet has not attacked a single country other than for defense (as the Defense, should be), contrast with the number of times the USA has attacked or invaded a country (see Imperialism and Non-Violence).
Knowledge and Religion
Hinduism is probably the only ancient culture whose many hundreds of spiritual traditions evolved out of the intellectual thought, reasoning, and deep insights arising from yoga – much more than any dogma or doctrinal beliefs. In Hindu culture the subject of belief is a very personalized matter, and did not interfere with the thirst for knowledge and the sacredness of knowledge and acquiring knowledge.
In contrast Christianity and Islam for centuries have stifled scientific progress – those who dared to challenge the doctrine where persecuted – subject to witch hunts, crucified, burnt alive, or guillotined. Even today, the Church interferes with the progress of science – as in the theory of evolution. So also in Islam which censors itself by preventing any room for critical thinking (which is vital for progress), such as by banning books, policing free speech, or severely punishing dissenters.