Mahamana’s Vision of Science and Technology at the Banaras Hindu University
Prof. S.C. Lakhotia
Mahamana Pandit Maadan Malaviya was a nationalist with deep convictions in the ancient Hindu values deep and culture. The decline and rot in the education and value system in the country prevailing at that stimulated him to undertake the mega-task of creating the Banaras Hindu University de novo. His dream was to not only thwart the social and culture decay that was threatening the very existence of Indian society but to actually rejuvenate, through appropriate education, the masses of the country. The University that the envisioned was to be set on a very different pattern than any existing at the time . He wanted the best of the Gurukula and the western university system. It is remarkable that unlike ordinary mortals, Malaviyaji’s ‘religious’ convictions did not occlude his appreciation and need of Science and Technology for the resurgence of India. It is indeed the very broad perception of the Banaras Hindu University, which as its Kulgeet expounds in the beautiful mix of old and the new.
It is interesting to briefly note how his concept of the teaching of Science and Technology evolved as his dreams began to take visible shapes. In his first ‘Prospectus of a proposed Hindu University ,circulated in 1905,he included ‘Sthapatya Veda (Science and Technology)’ as one of the major areas of study and research. Under this he stated “one of the most important functions of this institution will be to build up the Sthapatya Veda or arthasastra which as a written science ,has been so completely effaced from the Indian literature that its very name has ceased to be familiar.”Besides teaching and research in Physics and Chemistry, he imagined large classes for teaching of arts of spinning, weaving, dyeing, calicopriting, glass-making etc. and training of mechanical, mining, electrical, civil engineers etc. He was conscious of the need of well-equipped laboratories for practical instructions and original research. To this end, he stated “It is proposed to raise one hundred lacs of rupees to meet the initial expenses and to create an endowment, the interest of which will be sufficient to maintain the institution. At least one-half of this sum will be allotted to the promotion of scientific, technical and industrial education (emphasis added)”. A few years later in 1911, Mahamana reformulated the objectives of his proposed University and of the four defined objectives, two related to teaching and research in Science and Technology to help in promoting indigenous industries and in developing the material resources of the country. In place of the College of Sthapatya Veda, it was proposed to establish a College of Science and Technology with four well-equipped departments of pure and applied science. This was to be the first college to be established by the new university. Regarding the required funds for its establishment, Malaviyaji stated in his note of 1911 “It is not perhaps the good fortune of India at present to discover to the world ten more such splendidly public-spirited sons the late Jamshedjee Nuseerwanjee Tata (reference to the creation of the Indian Institute of Science at Banagalore in 1890s). But it is not too much to hope that the high and the humble among her sons of the Hindu community, have sufficient public spirit to raise by their united contribution a sum equal to atleast twice the amount which that noble son of India offered for the good of his countrymen, to build up a College of Science and Technology which should be a great center for scattering broadcast among the people a knowledge of the know result of scientific investigation and research in their practical applications to industry, and thus form a necessary complement to the Research Institute at Bangalore and to the proposed Technological Institute at Cawnpore.”
College of Science and Technology
In the draft scheme of the University, Mahamana proposed the College of Science and Technology to have four department , viz. (1) Department of Science (for instructions in Physics, Mathematics, Astronomy, Botany, Geology, Mineralogy, Biology), (2) Department of Engineering (teaching of Civil Engineering, Municipal and Sanitary Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Architecture, Mining and Metallurgy), (3) Department of Chemistry and (4) Department of Technology (for training in scientific subject combined with practical training for industrial career (what we call as vocational training today).
On the occasion of the Foundation-Stone laying ceremony in 1916, a remarkable series of lectures were organized. Among these was the lecture by Dr. J. C. Bose who set the tone of teaching and research in Science and Technology to be followed. J.C. Bose pointed out that for gaining new knowledge, the first step was a strong scientific imagination to define the goal and to intuitively recognize the truth , which is to be proven. This would form the motive for research and define the path to be pursued. This has to be followed by the second step of patient, rigid experimentation to demonstrate the goal. Dr Bose warned that the reason for a comparative lack of India’s success in scientific investigations was due to relatively poor appreciation of experimental work. Bose felt that the capacity in Indians for burning imagination and the habit of meditation, when combined with experimental skills would make India pre-eminently fir for high quality research.
Underlying all the efforts to promote Science and Technology in this university was the very basic principle of Indian value system. As Dr Annie Besant stated in her lecture during the foundation- Stone laying ceremony, one ideal of the university must be to love knowledge for knowledge’s sake and the only stable foundation on which the University must rest was religion. As she said, this puts a great responsibility on those who teach at this University just as it gives them a great privilege.
Mahamana’s belief of a deep relation between Religion and Science was very clearly stated in his address as the Pro-Chancellor of the newly established University at the 1st court meeting in 1916: “there are some people, I am fully aware, who doubt whether the teaching of Faith, side by side with Science, can be productive of good result. This assumes that, if religion and Science are not antagonistic, they are at least incompatible. But happily, signs are not wanting that the attitude of Science towards Religion is undergoing a great change: I think this was inevitable. All science teaches that many things which still seem unconnected and isolated have some common principal running through them all. And those particular laws are comprised in more general laws. A day may come, and with the blessing of God it will come, when the Supreme Law, permeating all and enveloping all, will stand revealed to the intellect of man. When that happy consummation arrives, man will know what he now believes what the intellect is striving to discover, and will go on struggling to purse, till it reaches that goal to which Faith was vouchsafed long ago. The mists are giving place to light; dim it may be – but the coming dawn is breaking on the horizon and the future gives promise of the hope that Religion and Science will work together for the ultimate salvation of Humanity”.
The subsequent history has borne out the remarkable success of Mahamana’s creation of the new teaching order. His determination to initiate teaching in modern Science and novel disciplines of Engineering and Technology, amidst some protests from even personalities like Mahatma Gandhi (opposition to mechanization of industry), put the Banaras Hindu University very soon on world map. He attracted the best talent in all the subjects from all over, from within and outside the country. He even tried to have Albert Einstein at this University. It is well known how the leading experts in the different fields of learning came to join this university as soon as Malaviyaji indicated his desire to have the benefit of their services. They served this great institution even if it meant some personal inconvenience of financial loss. They were in the services of a great man and an unique institution and that was the best reward, everything else was of no consequence! Most of the departments in areas of Science and Technology were set up and nurtured by stalwarts in their fields. Starting departments in like those of ceramics, Metallurgy, Pharmaceutics, Industrial Chemistry etc. was remarkably bold in those days and the success of his foresight was soon documented by the world – wide demand of graduates in these subjects.
Are we living up to Mahamana’s expectations ?
It is good time to reflect back and ask ourselves, how well we are doing in the context of the founder’s dreams and visions. There is no doubt that the Banaras Hindu University stands out uniquely amongst the educational institutions in India. A testimony to its position of pre-eminence in areas of Science and Technology is the recognition received by a large number of departments in these faculties from the university Grants Commission as Centres of Advanced Studies or as Departments having Special Assistance Programmes. Very recently, the Banaras Hindu University has been approved the largest quantum of grant, among the Indian Universities, by the Department of Science and Technology (Govt. of India) under its new programme for strengthening the infrastructure in Science and Technology (FIST). Again among the Indian Universities, the Banaras Hindu University can claim to have the largest number of Fellow of the different academies and those who have been accorded various other honours for their academic achievements. The number of research projects being funded by national and international agencies is also very high in this University. All these appear to indicate that the academic health of these disciplines in this university is good. However, what we need to ask is: Is it as good as Mahamana desired it to be or this University appears better because others in the country are not so good?
A dispassionate analysis of the prevailing situation, unfortunately, suggests that in recent times we have actually slid down from the high position that this university could attain in the past because of its Founder’s effort. The Banaras Hindu university still appears better because of the past momentum and because others are not as good. The decline is part of the decline that has happened in all the Universities in the country, which in turn is part of the decline that has set in our general social structure during the past several decades. Fewer students want to study basic sciences and join the academia as a career. Although many bright students go to engineering courses, few of them actually want to join a teaching institution. Consequently, as the more established teachers/scientists retired from the university departments, they could not be replaced by younger persons who had the zeal to maintain the high level of academic activities. This has been further compounded by fact that for a long period, new young teachers have not been appointed in most of the departments of this University. Consequently, the average age of teaching community in various departments has steadily increased and with more of them taking a passive attitude, the thirst for creation of new knowledge through research in frotier areas appears to be more or less quenched and with this, the enthusiasm for good teaching has also steadily declined. Such a situation drives the better students to seek opportunities elsewhere.
The political and social establishments in the country have allowed University and Colleges in the country to decay at an ever-increasing rate, and the Banaras Hindu University could not remain insulated from this decline. The Science and Technology/Engineering departments, set up by Mahamana with so much care and effort have particularly suffered due to poor finances and lack of induction of new outstanding faculty members. Failure of the established to appreciate special requirements of Science departments has compounded their woes. It may be recalled that Mahamana had ear-marked 50% of the resources of the University for Science and Technology departments.
The steady decline of the University system in the country has resulted in a situation where the research institutions that are better endowed (in terms of quality manpower and material facilities) get more and more support while the disadvantaged University system keeps on losing. Mahamana;s vision of the University continuing as efficient creator and transmitter of quality knowledge thus has in shambles.
Can the University system, in general, and the Banaras Hindu University, in particular, be resurrected?
Resurrection of the higher education system in the country has been discussed several times in recent years. Considering the enormity of the problem and consequently the magnitude of the efforts needed, some radical measures like establishment of newer Science universities have been suggested. Such proposals and discussions stem from the impression that the existing Universities have been suggested. Such proposals and discussions stem from the impression that the existing University system is beyond redemption. In fact an editorial and the associated cartoon in a recent issue of Current Science (Vol. 79. 25 November, 2000) seems to suggest that the only remedy is to auction the antique colleges and Universities! This may perhaps pave the way to create new and better Universities. But is that the only solution or a lasting solution? Can we guarantee that the newly created institution would not be allowed to decay in the same manner as the existing ones have?
What the country needs is a futuristic vision and a strong resolve like that of Mahamana to resurrect the existing institutions and restore their glory, rather than to write them off. Institutions like the Banaras Hindu University still have the Vitality and resilience to regain their past glory and thus be ready to further advance the Founder’s Vision.
The most important component of a university is its teachers. We need to identify persons from all over the globe and kindle in them the same spirit that Malaviyaji could, when he ‘asked’ them to come and serve this university. The existing bureaucratic procedure of appointing teachers on the basis of interviews lasting only a few minutes each, cannot identify the right kind of people who are committed to good teaching and quality research. The average age of teachers in the University is already high and if the better ones among the existing depleted staff also go out before the new ones have had time to establish their roots, the system may collapse more or less completely. Thus while we immediately need the 2nd line of defense to stem the decline, we need further reinforcements to take the University back to its reinforcements to take the University back to its past glory and beyond.
A University differs from other academic institutions in the fact that this is not only a place for higher learning but also the place for creation of new knowledge through active and original research. Most University in India, including the Banaras Hindu University, are faltering in their research activities. Therefore, the Universities need to identify and employ persons who are not only good teachers but who are also researchers of high order. Malaviyaji was very keen about the quality of research in newer fields of Science and Technology at his University and indeed used to take personal interest in knowing what was happening in the different laboratories. He always took pains to provide the necessary encouragement, through personal appreciation and also through his visible efforts to provide the required material resources for research activities. Research activities in current times are becoming more and more expensive. Since government funds can’t sustain the increasing requirements, non-government funding is essential. Such funding would have the additional benefit of making the beneficiaries accountable for the money invested. However, to attract such resources, the University system need to make its academic and administrative rules flexible and in tune with changing needs.
The system needs to recognize talent and capabilities and give them the right atmosphere and freedom to carry out their work as required. Democratization works very well in an atmosphere of excellence but under other conditions it may become counter-productive: equalization is unlikely to help those below the base line to come up but carries the risk of pushing those above to the zero line! Malaviyaji’s practice of personal appreciation of good work by any one in the University encouraged even a mediocre to try improve. Such atmosphere needs to be restored. In a good academic institution, the administration needs to work for the academy, rather than the academicians working for administration.
Archaic academic programmes attract neither good students, nor good resources and in absence of eigher of these ‘good’ teachers tend to go into a state of slumber. Newer teaching programmes. In tune with contemporary requirements, need to replace the ones that have outlived their utility. This is specially true in fields of Science and Technology where the pace of progress is very fast. Many other Universities have started newer courses of teaching with considerable success but this colossus seems to have remained thwarted by its own weight. It is indeed a good sign that in recent years, several new courses of study in contemporary fields have been initiated in the Banaras Hindu University also. We once again need Mahamana’s vision and resolve to find the essential material and manpower resources so that the necessary momentum, required to make bold step a real success, is quickly attained.
The large number of distinguished alumni of this University can and should contribute their might in rejuvenation of this unique institution conceived and created by Malaviyaji and which has been nurtured by so many in the past. The nation cannot afford to let this wither away just because most institutions have a half-life.