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The Creative Genius of India

Heritage Program, Sep 2008

By Rajeev Srinivasan
Management Consultant, Columnist

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• Considering creativity
• India: the Empire of the Intellect
• The genesis of competitive advantage
• The Indian Century?

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Creativity and civilization
• Creativity is the most important ingredient in human progress
• Creativity does not come in a vacuum: it is only possible in a
civilized society, where basic needs like food and shelter are
taken care of
• Ancient India was one such land, the most prosperous country
in the world from 2000 BCE to 1700 CE
• India was also the most creative of all civilizations: we have
forgotten more than most other civilizations created
• It was not only the Empire of the Spirit, but also the Empire of
the Intellect
• “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a
faithful servant”: physicist Albert Einstein
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Art and Sculpture
• Much painting has disappeared due to the ravages of
time, but sculpture remains
• Chola bronzes as an apogee of Indian art
– The Kaveri delta in Tanjavur was very prosperous
– Agricultural surplus translated into leisure, wealth and art
• Sacred art as worship
• Conversely, the appreciation of the human figure
• Remarkable continuity of themes from Indus-
Sarasvati times
• Theory: rasas (sringara, hasya, raudra, karuna, …)
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The Transcendent One

Siva Nataraja: Tanjavur, TN (11th cent


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The beauteous ones

Devi: Tanjavur, TN (11th cent CE)

Tara: Nalanda, Bihar (11th cent CE)

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The confused one

Rishyasringa: Madhya Pradesh (5th

cent CE)

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The benevolent one

Ganesa: UP, 10th cent CE

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The suffering one

Emaciated Buddha: Gandhara,

Afghanistan (2nd cent BCE)

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At play

Krishna steals the gopis’ clothes: Kangra,

19th cent CE
Chariot: Harappa, Pakistan, 15th cent BCE

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The love-lorn one

Krishna in viraha: unknown

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The fierce ones

Krishna slays the elephant-rakshasa

Kuvalayapidham: unknown
Bhagavati, Teyyam: Kannur, Kerala,
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The gentle one

Manikyavachakar, Tanjavur, 13th cent


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Greater India: soft power
• Indic ideas were popular in the entire region
from West Asia to Southeast Asia
– Sanskrit-speaking Mitanni/Hittite kings in Syria
• Beauteous Queen Nefertiti’s father was ‘Thusharatha’
– Southeast Asia’s dominant influence was Indian
• Rajendra Chola’s invasion of Sumatra in 1017 CE
• Kalingas established Hinduism in Bali
• Indic ideas continue to be influential in Indo-china
– Languages use Indic alphabets: Thai, Javanese, Khmer
– World’s largest Buddhist temple: Borobudur (Indonesia)
– World’s largest Hindu temple: Angkor Wat (Cambodia) which
is the world’s largest religious structure
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Borobudur, Java: 9th cent CE

Dieng Plateau, Java: 5th-8th cent CE
Death of Maricha: Prambanan, Java,
9th cent CE
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Angkor Wat (12th cent CE), two views

Enigmatic heads at the Bayon (12th
cent CE)
Bhishma in sara sayya, Angkor Wat
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The Empire of the Intellect
• Tremendous achievements:
– Panini’s grammar, Aryabhata’s astronomy
– Kerala school of math: infinite series and calculus
– Saayana and the speed of light (1400 CE)
– Kanada and atomic theory (600 BCE)
– Brahmagupta(?) and the zero (500 CE?)
– The greatest universities: Nalanda, Taxila
• Influence of Indic ideas on
– Christianity: monasticism, mythology, Gnostics
– Europe: Druids, Gundestrup cauldron, astronomy, fables
• Greeks: philosophy, mythology, epics
• More recently, great ideas from:
– C V Raman, S Chandrasekhar, J C Bose, Srinivasa Ramanujan
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Formal Languages, Astronomy, Math
• Context free grammar: Panini (ca. 500 BCE)
– Possibly the single greatest achievement of one human mind
– The concept of algorithms is embedded in this
• Astronomy
– The earth is a rotating sphere, the size of the earth, the length of the
day, eclipses (Aryabhata ca. 499 CE)
– Heliocentrism (Parameswara, Nilakantha ca. 1400 CE)
• Mathematics
– Pythagoras theorem, squaring the circle (Baudhayana, Sulba Sutras,
ca. 800 BCE)
– Pi to six digits, table of sines (Aryabhata ca. 499 CE)
– Infinite series, calculus: (Nilakantha, Madhva ca. 1300 CE)
– Algebra (Aryabhata 499 CE, and Bhaskara II in “Lilavati”, ca. 1150 CE)

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(Dharampal quoting British observers)
• The Observatory in Benares (published 1770 CE)
– “One of the five most celebrated in the world”
– Built roughly around 1575 CE
– The meridian for astronomical tables is Benares (like
Greenwich is meridian for European science)
• Astronomical tables refer to 3102 BCE as the beginning
of the Kaliyuga (paper published 1790)
– Astronomers either observed the celestial configuration or
were able to back-calculate them
– Indians knew of the 4 satellites of Jupiter, and the seven
satellites and ring of Saturn (before European telescopes

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(source: Dharmpal)
• Binomial theorem (a+b)n was known to
Indians (paper published 1790 CE)
• Algebra was known to the authors of the
‘Lilavati’ and ‘Bija Ganita’ (paper published
1820 CE)

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Practical impact of abstract ideas
• The Indian numeral system
– Mathematics would have stagnated without the
revolutionary invention of the zero (and infinity)
• Infinite series for trigonometric functions
– Enabled navigation of the open ocean, as you
could locate yourself using sextant, tables
• Panini’s context-free grammar
– Computing would be impossible without precise
and unambiguous semantics for language

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Medicine and Surgery
(source: Dharampal)
• Standard Indian surgical methods:
– Catarats: “depressing the lens when… opaque”
– Plastic surgery: “putting on noses”
– Healing: “caute”, the cement used for uniting
animal parts
– Inoculation against smallpox: banned by the
British in 1802!
• And the inoculators had a theory about “animalculae
(ie. Bacteria) which cause all epidemical diseases”

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Ayurveda and Yoga
• Some of the most elaborate mechanisms for
wellness and health as well as curing
• Yoga as a mechanism for mental and physical
health as well as a spiritual practice

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(source: Dharampal)
• “In Malabar, agriculture is an important and
honorable occupation” (paper written ~1820 CE)
• Principles of:
– Crop rotation, manuring, sowing via drill plough
– Propagation using cuttings (eg. Rice)
– Transplantation
– Irrigation was widespread but fell into disuse
• Unfortunately, prohibitive taxes (sometimes
>100% of the gross produce) imposed by the
British led to abandonment of fertile lands
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Potential Agricultural Superpower
• Arable land: 57% of land mass (160 million hectares, cf. 14%
for US – 177 mh, 14% for China+Tibet – 124 mh)
• Productivity
– 900 CE, Tanjavar, Inscriptions: 15 tons of paddy/h
– 1100 CE, S Arcot, Inscriptions: 14.5 tons/h
– 1325 CE, Ramanathapuram, Inscriptions: 20 tons/h
– 1807 CE, Coimbatore, Europeans: 13 tons/h
– 1770 CE, Chengalpattu, British Survey: 9 tons/h
– 1803 CE, Allahabad, Europeans: 7.5 tons/h of wheat
– 1993 CE, Ludhiana, GoI: 4.3 tons/h wheat; 5.5 tons/h paddy
• Irrigation (1998)
– India 59 mh, China 53 mh, US 21 mh, Europe 17 mh, World 271 mh
• Source: Timeless India, Resurgent India: J Bajaj and MD Srinivas
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Agriculture Under-served
• Indian agricultural production
– One of the largest producers of wheat, rice, tea, milk, coffee, cotton
– The second largest producer of fruits and vegetables
• But half the production is lost to rot and pests
– Not enough storage, refrigeration, or value add
– Poor mechanisms for getting it to market
– Not enough branding of organic, traditionally grown crops
• Water management, recharging of old ponds, tanks and
groundwater not being done
– Work by Tarun Bharat Sangh in re-greening Aravallis
– Over 100,000 tanks in South India: many have fallen into disuse

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Food Security: Key to Prosperity
• India can become the world’s predominant
agricultural power
• Like OPEC, OFEC (Org of Food Exporting
Countries): food more valuable than oil
• India has a large genetic diversity of crops
(which is being reduced by monoculture)
• Food power is the basis of all prosperity
• Agriculture needs greater focus
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Agricultural Landscapes
• Mehrgarh domesticated barley as early as
9000 BCE (photo of excavated village)
• Abundant rice-growing area: Nagercoil,
Kanyakumari district, Tamil Nadu
• The Grand Anicut on the Kaveri, built by
Karikala Chola, ~60 CE; still working

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• Indus-Sarasvati shows evidence of cotton spinning
• India was leading producer of textiles till 1800
• Vast variety: cotton painting from Sironj (Rajasthan),
printed cottons (Gujarat), wollens/pashmina
(Kashmir), silks (Patan, Benares, Mysore, Kanchi),
muslin (Dacca)
• Indian words: chintz, madras, calico, paisley,
jodhpurs, seersucker, cashmere, …
• British mill cloth destroyed this industry by imposing
huge duties and prohibiting it
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(Dharampal: “Beautiful Tree”)
• India had the oldest and greatest universities in the world:
Nalanda, Takshasila, Odantapuri
• Education was available to all castes
– 70% of students in Tamil areas, 54% in Malayalam areas, 62% in Oriya
areas, 35% in Telugu areas were Sudra and Ati-Sudra (Madras
Presidency, 1800)
• Even at the time of European invasion:
– “Every village has a school”, “Every 1,000 residents have a school” –
Munro, Governor, Madras Presidency, 1812
• The arrival of the alien European system destroyed traditional
education: this was intended to produce factory hands and
“brown sahibs”, not Indians who cared about India
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Science and Technology
• India accounted for 25% of the world’s manufacture as late as
– Tanjavur delta and Brahmaputra delta were two of the world’s four
greatest centers of industry
– The only source of diamonds in the world
– Specialty metals: “damascene/wootz”, Iron Pillar; textiles
– Specialty services: medicine, surgery
• Ayurveda, kalari payat: root of E Asian martial arts/medicine
• Sushruta: plastic surgery, Caesarians, 101 surgical instruments
• Charaka: digestion, metabolism, immunity, anatomy
– The average Indian agricultural or industrial worker was much better
off than his equivalent in England

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(source: Dharampal)
• The making of ice
• Waterproofing material for ships
• Wootz, the finest steel in the world
– As many as 10,000 furnaces, making 20 tons/year
• Manufacturing of paper
• ‘Madras mortar’ for building

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In economic terms, India was the world’s largest economy in the first millennium,
producing a third of global GDP. By 1500 its share had declined to 25 percent, as China
overtook it and Western Europe’s share began to expand rapidly. India’s share continued
fall after 1700. Rajeev Srinivasan 54
The British Interregnum
• Agricultural productivity was wiped out:
– Canals and tanks not kept up, famines caused 30 million
• Light industry was wiped out:
– Textiles damaged by prohibition, huge tariffs
– Weavers, metal-workers, potters, all paupered and turned
into unskilled landless laborers: the poor
• Enormous amounts of capital were taken out:
– $10 trillion in today’s money
– Financed the Industrial Revolution and still funds the UK

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• Kautilya’s Artha-sastra is perhaps the most practical text for
managing a state. Quotes:
– "Learn from the mistakes of others... you can't live long enough to make them
all yourselves."
– "A person should not be too honest. Just as straight trees are cut down first,
honest people are taken advantage of first."
– "Even if a snake is not poisonous, it should pretend to be."
– "The biggest guru-mantra is: Never share your secrets with anybody. It will
destroy you."
– "There is some self-interest behind every friendship. There is no friendship
without self-interests. This is a bitter truth."
– " Before you start some work, always ask yourself three questions - Why am I
doing it, What the results might be and Will I be successful. Only when you
think deeply and find satisfactory answers to these questions, go ahead."

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Peaceful and Democratic
• Tolerance for heresies; and for refugees
– Parsis, Syrian Christians, Tibetans,..; Buddhists, Jains,…
– Jews never oppressed only in India out of 148 nations
• Indus-Sarasvati noted for lack of armies, carvings glorifying
rulers or seals bearing scenes of war
– No huge palaces for kings and nobles either
– No signs of violent struggles over this vast area
• Tradition of democracy: eg. Tamil villages (Chengalpattu),
Indus-Sarasvati era
• Tradition of debate and argument eg. Al Biruni
• Coexistence/peaceful transitions: eg. Sabarimala, SE Asia

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Largest Civilization (and oldest?)
• Mehrgarh, Baluchistan – settled around 6500 BCE
• Sarasvati dried up circa 1900 BCE
• Size of Indus Sarasvati greater than Mesopotamia, Egypt,
put together
• Astonishingly uniform weights/measures (decimal/binary)
(1:8/3:2:4:8:16:32:64), town planning, brick sizes
• Decimal: Scale at 1.70 mm, port with 1.70 m walls
• Far more sites clustered around Sarasvati than Indus:
– Kalibangan, Dholavira, Rakhigarhi, Lothal (port)
– See map, courtesy Michel Danino

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Today’s India, in competition

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The key to regain past prosperity?
• Agriculture?
• Intellectual property generation?
• Education?
• The storehouse of traditional knowledge?
• Innovation and knowledge management?
• Entrepreneurial skills?
• Or… all of the above?
• That which enabled ancient India to be the wealthiest land in
the world: is that sustainable?

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Sources of competitive advantage
 The Michael Porter thesis on leadership:
 Low cost production
 Innovation/differentiation/customer intimacy
 Niche focus
 How does India stack up?
 Low labor cost (but not forever)
 Must focus on high value intellectual property
 Focus not on everything but a few areas

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Megatrends of today
• “Engineering is the oil of the 21st century”
– Joel Kotkin, Californian sociologist, 1997
• “Demographics is destiny”
– Augustus Comte, French philosopher, 19th century CE
• “India has the potential to show the fastest growth over the
next 30 and 50 years”
– Goldman Sachs paper “Dreaming with BRICs”, 2003
• “India may catch up with and overtake China”
– Foreign Policy, Huang (MIT)/Khanna (Harvard), 2003
• These will merely put India back where it was for most of her
– Consider 1000 CE: Rajaraja Chola; end of Gupta Empire

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India and its only rivals
• India and China
– India is the source of abstract thought, China focuses on concrete
things; and the future is abstract
– Indian ideas colonized Asia, although the Chinese migrated in large
numbers: because the ideas were useful
• India and America
– India can potentially compete with the US in every sphere where it is
• Agriculture, technology, finance, space, entertainment
– The persistence of Indian culture over time and despite invaders: the
merit in the syncretic approach
– A symbiotic relationship:
• Sales and marketing, finance: US
• Design and development: India

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Goldman Sachs’ recommendations
1. Improve Governance
2. Raise basic educational achievement
3. Increase quantity and quality of universities
4. Control inflation
5. Introduce a credible fiscal strategy
6. Liberalize financial markets
7. Increase trade with neighbors
8. Increase agricultural productivity
9. Improve infrastructure
10. Improve environmental quality
Source: Ten Things for India to Achieve its Potential by 2050
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• History can give us self respect and self confidence:
Indians have the capacity to be thought-leaders
• Our past shows us the way to our future:
– We always chose butter over guns
• This century will see a splendid renaissance in India
– But we must first believe in ourselves
• India is the only continuously surviving ancient civilization
on earth
– And it was more creative than all others put together
– We have forgotten more than other civilizations created

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Further Reading
• Ancient India
– “The invasion that never was”, Michel Danino
– “In search of the cradle of civilization”, Subhash Kak et al
– “Sarasvati”, Dr. S. Kalyanaraman
– “Our Oriental Heritage”, “The Case for India”, Will Durant
• British period:
– “Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino and the Creation of the Third
World”, Mike Davis, 2001
– “’Prosperous’ British India”, William Digby

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Further Reading (contd.)
• Mathematics and Science
– “Computing Science in Ancient India”, TRN Rao,Subhash Kak
– “The Kerala School of Math”, Ian Pearce
– “A Concise History of Science in India”, DN Bose et al, editors
– India's Scientific Mind: A Quest for Infinity", Michel Danino, Indian
Institute for Advanced Study, Sept 2003
– "The Universal History of Numbers", George Ifrah, John Wiley, 2002
– "Aryabhatiya of Aryabhata", KS Shukla and KV Sarma, ed, 1976
– "A Concise History of Science in India", Indian National Science
Academy, 1989
– "The Origin of Mathematics", A Seidenberg, 1978
– "500 years of Tantrasangraha: A Landmark in the History of
Astronomy", MS Sriram et al, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 2002

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Further Reading (Contd…)
• Education
• The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the 18th century,
Dharampal, Impex India, 1971
• Art
– History of Indian and Indonesian Art, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy,
Dover, 1927
• Science and Technology
– Indian Science and Technology in the 18th century, Dharampal, Impex
India, 1971
• General
– Timeless India, Resurgent India, J Bajaj and M D Srinivas, Center for
Policy Studies, 2001
– Ten Things for India to Achieve its Potential by 2050, Goldman Sachs,
– Videos from

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