India’s Vishwaguru Syndrome

Indian government has advocated a national aspiration that the country would soon emerge as vishwaguru (world teacher). Consequently, this has become the dominating theme of the current national discourse. It is accompanied with inflated intensity and exclusionary emphasis on India’s Vedic culture and distinctive spirituality of the past. National political leadership’s ambition is centred on a quest to assert the country’s social ascendancy and achieve international recognition. It relies upon India’s civilisational excellence during the ancient era and creates a pedagogical imperative with high expectations from the country’s society, particularly the academic fraternity.

There is no doubt that India’s knowledge system in the past, especially during the early Vedic period, exhibited richness and diversity of intellectual pursuits. It played a pivotal role in contribution to a vast pool of wisdom spanning multiple disciplines like philosophy, medicine, technology, agriculture, architecture, political science, military science, governance, yoga, music, dance, shilpa shastra, nature conservation among many others. India’s ancient Rishis were not only able to create knowledge but had perfected the art of knowledge acquisition, retention, dissemination and application. The system of education during that era prepared students for life. Education for life stressed upon and imparted human values and skills to earn a livelihood. Meritocracy was the guiding principle and students were only accepted for higher education based on their knowledge and aptitude. There were instances where even persons from royalty were denied admission because they were not considered fit to receive higher education. Teachers – the Rishis – were accorded a high status in society and even kings rose from their thrones when a teacher entered their court. Indian leadership is of the opinion that the ancient Indian knowledge system, once rejuvenated, can facilitate the country in transcending the challenges of 21st century and pave the way for a more enlightened, innovative and harmonious global fraternity. Admittedly, a legacy is sought to be created that acts like a beacon guiding the country toward a future where education transcends boundaries and produces empowered individuals to shape the country and the world. The basic premise is that the Vedas and other ancient scriptures and texts could provide foundational and holistic approach to education. It is felt that the Indian knowledge system comprising Jnan (self-realiation), Vignan (intellectual and creative power) and Jeevan Darshan (guidance for life) that had evolved based on experience, observation, experimentation, and analysis could greatly contribute to education, arts, science, law, justice, health, technology, commerce and administration.

Approach to Attain the Status of Vishwaguru – Some Imperatives  

Indian knowledge system evolved during the Early Vedic Period (2500 – 1000 BCE). That was the period when the Vedas and many other ancient texts were composed and were passed on orally from generation to generation. These played a pivotal role in shaping the society and contributed to the national pool of wisdom. However, commencing around 1000 BCE during the Later Vedic Period, the system imploded due to its own internal contradictions. The emphasis during the Later Vedic Period shifted from knowledge management toward performance of rituals. During the Early Vedic Period the objective of education was achieved through meditation and self-realisaton (Jnan). However, during the Later Vedic Period, Yajna – a sort of ritual – replaced the meditation and Vedic rituals became more and more complex. Emphasis shifted from acquisition of knowledge to memorisation and recitation of the mantras, sometimes devoid of comprehension. Except for those reciting the mantras the common man could not make a sense of or understand those. Therefore, the concept of Vishwaguru essentially involves emulating the knowledge system that was prevalent during the Early Vedic Period. That was the era before 1000 BCE. Therefore, it implies bridging a time-gap of over three millennia! It is a mammoth task and demands extensive efforts especially involving human resources and study of literature that exists in ancient Sanskrit. Therefore, there is a requirement for synergy to be created by bringing together the society and academia. Not many citizens are available who have intimate knowledge of the Vedas and other ancient texts. Similarly, there aren’t many teachers in educational institutions who could impart knowledge contained in the ancient Indian texts. Unfortunately, and for obvious reasons, the votaries of the concept of India becoming a Vishwaguru have not yet outlined their plans to achieve their objectives. The aim seems to be to arouse emotions through rhetoric.

Some may argue against the exclusivist endeavour of pursuing only Vedic studies at national level and not following up with the current composite culture. They have a point. Similar projects could be taken up pertaining to other sub-cultures of the country but at a different plane.  Having said that, it cannot be denied that there is a dire need to promote study of Vedic literature so that the country benefits from the vast repository of knowledge created by ancient Indian Rishis. Many leading universities of the world have departments dealing with Vedic studies and for teaching Sanskrit. India lags far behind in taking up this national imperative.

Approach So Far. The prevailing national discourse relies heavily on rhetoric instead of making any serious effort to start teaching about India’s past national heritage. The approach is essentially dependent on playing the ‘victim card’ wherein the second-millennium invaders and the British colonisers are blamed for India losing touch with its roots. It is said that the invaders destroyed medieval Indian universities and the British modified Indian education system to suit their designs to drain away the country’s wealth and did little to teach about its cultural heritage. A fact that is conveniently ignored is that the system of higher education suffered due to discriminatory policies initiated during the Later Vedic Period wherein except people from the Brahmanical and priestly caste all other castes and womenfolk were debarred from higher education. That included study of Vedas and other ancient texts. Thus, the knowledge of Vedas and other ancient literature had already gone in to oblivion when the invasions from the northwest started at the beginning of the second millennium. Universities in India during that period – Nalanda, Vikramshila, Odantapuri, Valabhi and their contemporaries – were basically Buddhist institutions that laid greater emphasis on Buddhist literature though they encouraged study of the Vedas as part of teaching comparative logic of the Buddhist and Vedic philosophy. Takshashila, the only university that genuinely pursued Vedic studies, had gone into oblivion much earlier around 5thcentury CE.  The worrying feature of the current national discourse is that, invariably, destruction of ancient Indian universities and consequent alleged decline of Indian knowledge system degenerates into hate campaigns against certain segments of society. That argument, apart from being half-truth is not in national interest and does nothing toward initiating steps that could lead to serious and systematic study of India’s cultural heritage and ancient texts.

A Suggested Way Forward

 A deliberate and well thought out plan is required to encourage the study of Vedas and other ancient Indian texts. Universities need to set up departments for Vedic studies. While study of Sanskrit needs to be encouraged, a massive project needs to be initiated to translate ancient Indian texts into current Indian languages. Motivating faculty and students to take up these studies is going to be a critical factor. It would take a long time – may be up to 50 years (spanning almost two generations, if not more) – to achieve the desired results and expectations to see instant outcomes would need to be curbed. Government would have to play a major role by formulating policies and by creating human capital that could facilitate in generating interest among the academia and professionals. In the initial stages, students taking up Vedic studies may struggle to find means to sustain themselves financially after completion of their respective programmes of study. Similarly, suitable faculty may not be available in the universities.  Government support would be required to overcome these challenges. Time-bound, but pragmatic, plans would have to be made to get the desired results which does not seem to be the forte of the government. For example, decades ago the government had taken steps to promote Ayurveda in the healthcare sector. So far there is no regulatory mechanism in place that could regulate the working of doctors and paramedic staff. Similarly, there are no regulations and norms for the pharmaceutical industry engaged in production of Ayurvedic medicines and other allied products. Consequently, an environment has emerged where quacks are having a field day and substandard or spurious medicines are being sold to gullible patients. Some manufacturers have resorted to unethical means by making false claims of cures for certain diseases. The government has been found lacking and its well-intentioned policies to promote Ayurveda are, on the contrary, having a negative impact.

The society would also have to contribute significantly in this national-level venture by generating interest in India’s ancient heritage and culture. People should be willing to learn and take pride in acquiring knowledge of Vedas and associated literature. There is also a need to guard against pseudo-experts who make outrageous statements and claims. It is going to be a major challenge that will involve self-learning and learning by curiosity. Academia and the government would have to create genuine and authentic study material that citizens could rely upon. Social media could be used creatively to bring about a change in the mindset of the citizens. Most importantly, an attitudinal change is required to wean away the citizens from playing the ‘victim card’ and cautioning them against the nefarious designs of hate-mongers who make use of the social media to pour out venom against certain segments of society.

UGC and institutions like IGNOU could create curricula to help learners take up studies in a systematic manner. Informally, learned and elder members of the society could take the lead in generating awareness about India’s ancient heritage and culture and arouse curiosity among the population to learn about it. However, a critical challenge is that there aren’t many senior citizens available who have knowledge or even awareness of the Vedas and other ancient literature. If at all, their knowledge is likely to be only limited to rituals. Thus, a paradigm shift is required in the way Indian society approaches the learning process about its cultural heritage. Emphasis should shift away from ritualism, symbolism, rote learning and recitation of shalokas and mantras. Aim should be to comprehend what is contained in the texts and understand its relevance and applicability in day-to-day life. Beginning with an introduction, a systematic approach would have to be followed that helps in generating interest and desire to learn. For example, a teacher or an elder in a community could start with efforts to arouse curiosity to motivate people to learn willingly on their own. Learners could be given questions and given guidance to seek answers. In the process of finding answers to the questions they would come across additional information that could start a chain reaction of knowledge acquisition. For example, some questions that could be framed to give introduction to the ancient texts are given below: –

  • What are Vedas and what are Upnishads?
  • What is the outline structure of a Veda or how is the content in a Veda divided in to various parts?
  • What is Samhita?
  • What are Brahmanas?
  • What are Aranyakas?
  • What are Vendangas?
  • Vedas were composed almost 4500 years ago. These were passed on orally from one generation to another for 1500 years. How was the fidelity of the content maintained? It is noteworthy that there is no dispute among the scholars as far as the contents of Vedas are concerned. How has this feat been achieved?
  • What are Upvedas?
  • What are Puranas? How many Puranas are there?
  • What is Muktika canon of Upnishads?
  • How many Upnishads are there? When was the last Upnishad written?
  • Who were Brahmavadinis?
  • Who were Sadyodvahas?
  • Who could be called a Rishi?
  • What was the hierarchy of Rishis?
  • Who could be called a Muni?
  • How many versions of Ramayana are there? What are the major differences in some of the important versions?
  • What were Brahmasanghas and what were Agaraharas?

These are only some of the sample questions that could provide introduction to the ancient Indian literature and could help in motivating a person to delve deeper and carry out self-study. The next step could be to start serious study of literature. Similar questions could be formulated which could highlight the content of various texts, facilitate its comprehension and appreciation to make life better.


 India has a rich cultural heritage that had spawned a very distinguished knowledge system. Leadership of the country is justified in assuming that it could help the country to play the role of Vishwaguru. However, there is one major and inescapable pre-requisite: Indians will first have to learn about their own ancient texts and literature. The country can produce gurus only if there is a vast pool of human resources who have intimate knowledge of the country’s heritage and ancient literature. Moreover, the country will have to guard against pseudo-experts masquerading as custodians of its cultural heritage and who spew venom to create divisions in the society. A country with a fractured society, riddled with fault-lines, can never hope to assume the role of Vishwaguru. The choice is ours!

8 thoughts on “India’s Vishwaguru Syndrome”
  1. Brilliant, very incisive and in-depth analysis of Vedic studies background,what required to be done and most importantly what basic questions about our ancient literature we all need to be teaching in our our education system.

    1. Well written Sir. There is no doubt that Indians will have to learn about their ancient texts and go beyond just rituals.

  2. Yes there is a great deal of noise of Bharat becoming Vishwaguru without clarity on what it implies. One does not just ‘become’ a Guru. It requires recognition first and then acceptance by others. This needs a lot of thought and deliberate action as suggested in the article.
    Setting an example is the first step which has to start with continuity in good leadership and sharing higher values towards a more harmonious world. The world needs the change alright.

  3. Well researched write up.
    Govt needs to do deep thinking and consider the suggestions by the author.

  4. Very logically articulated Sir as you have always been doing as our course instructor. I fully agree with you that Bharat lost her mojo with rigidification of rituals and Brahminical controls on our society in the latter half of our first millenium around 1000 AD. Maybe that opened our doors to recurring foreign invasions. However, I do feel there is a need to re-establish our ancient civilizational excellence without too much hype and pseudo-experts hijacking the movement and making a mockery of the golden period. Similar analytical discourses as initiated by you may lead towards the optimum path to regeneration.

  5. A very well written and incisive article on the quest towards India becoming a ‘Vishwaguru’.With the time frame you have mentioned for the efforts to fructify into something substantial and with the advent of AI in the academic domain,one approach could be to appoint a panel of experts to extract certain fundamental principles from the vast resources of Vedic wisdom and combine those principles with modern academic concepts to evolve a practical and workable academic framework. One could learn from Japan which has blended traditional wisdom with modern practices.

  6. A very well written paper with sound advise for the course of action required to achieve the desired aim.

  7. This so called Vishwaguru concept has made the Indian children rude and arrogant. Added to the chaos is various so-called debates on news channels where the moderators are arrogant – so are the participants – mainly the military veterans.

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