The Future of Indigenous Knowing

- Jinan Kodapully

The future of indigenous knowing depends on the children of the indigenous communities. But, in my view the present drive to send all children to school will ensure the death of all traditional skills; craft, farming, healing, folk arts and other specific knowledge systems that artisanal and village communities hold within. ‘Education’ as exemplified by the system that we are all part of which is institutionalised, structured, instruction – oriented and expert dependent will make all other ways of knowing extinct. The reason for this, very briefly, is that the process of ‘knowing’ in ‘non-codified knowledge societies’ (instinctual, biological, unselfconscious, relating to senses) is very different from the process of ‘knowing’ in ‘codified knowledge societies’ (Memory, text and digital codification). And these present-day systems of learning tend to create blinkers that do not allow an understanding of the earlier systems.

Institutional conditioning of aesthetic sense

In the institutional space, there is a direct relationship between colonised minds, cultural and spiritual alienation and formal schooling/education. The outer manifestations of any culture – architecture, craft, food, music, dance and ritual are imbued with the aesthetic sense of the people who belong to that culture. When year after year students are subjected to a western design process and learn design through western history and western sense of aesthetics, is it any wonder that generation after generation gets estranged from their own history, culture, individual sense of beauty and their very being. 

Attempts in de-conditioning

I believe that the best way to redeem the self would be to work with culturally rooted, rural and adivasi artisans. That is the only way to decolonise myself. I started working with many artisan communities in Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, Nagaland Tamilnadu and Kerala. My journey into the world of the rural artisan communities was not with the intention of ‘developing’ them or educating them. But instead to regain that which I had lost in the process of getting educated. Having escaped ‘education’ and ‘development’, these artisans were still original and authentic and were holding on to a culture and world-view, which had sustained them for centuries.

The Do Nothing Method

In the name of teaching and training of rural and artisan communities, all that happens is the corruption of their sense of knowing. Trainers interventions, if at all, need to be restricted to erecting a fence against outside influences that corrupt the genuine aesthetic sensibility and sense of perfection of the craftspeople. The ‘do nothing method’ accepts the fact each person is creative and intelligent and therefore the need is only to initiate a process by which the artisans get inspired to use their subdued potential.

Artisans children

Highly misplaced notions of admitting artisans children to the schools in order that they learn and become something in life is rendering children misfits within their own environment. We need master craftsmen, who genuinely believe that a secure future for the craft is possible if the children of the community were infused with faith and pride in the traditional work, and come forward to take on the apprentices. 

The key guiding principle behind any training must be to preserve each child’s individuality and independence – prerequisites to creativity, while at the same time providing inputs that sharpen their senses. 

Natural Learning Process

The rural, adivasi or non literate communities seem to act holistically endowing every act with an aesthetic quality. I was intrigued by the way with which the master potters arrive at a form which is so innately beautiful. Mulling over it for several days I felt that there could be a biological instinct that instinctually guides our sense of beauty. People undefiled by modern ways are far more open and receptive to this biological guidance. The rural, tribal or non literate communities seem to act holistically endowing  their every act with an aesthetic quality. What we understand as culture is a result of this collaboration. It is clear that in modernity this cultural element is totally absent. Therefore the modern artist, architect or a designer anywhere appears to be creating with a uniform and almost regimented aesthetic sense.

In traditional societies every situation is a learning situation. Here to live means to know. It is a rhythm followed from birth to death. So the visible aspect of this learning process was the total knowledge of the outer environment with which people associate. This requires the use of all the senses. Senses therefore play a very important role in the process of learning and are a sort of a reciprocal device that helps create and establish communion with the inner self. All the games children play in these communities has to do with sensitising the senses, planning, balancing, guessing, developing the mathematical sense etc. 

This is the process of knowing the world. As opposed to this, in the modern educational environment the use of senses is totally absent. Reading is not at all the same as seeing and experiencing actual things. They activate different aspects of the brain.

Codified vs Non-codified 

Now I would like to elaborate more on this aspect of knowledge since it is essential in our understanding of the whole problem.

In my view, knowledge and the process of knowing has undergone fundamental cognitive shifts depending on the process of knowing and accessing knowledge. – Non-codified (experiential) and codified (memory codified, text codified and, most recently, virtual which includes photographs, radio, movies, television and computers.

The first shift from the experiential paradigm to the memory and to the textual paradigm was so compelling and spread so rapidly and with such ease that the ill effects on the human psyche went almost unnoticed. When knowledge got textualised, feelings and emotions were dropped. The whole tragedy of modernity, represented variously as alienation, boredom and rootlessness, is a direct result of textualisation of experience. Text makes sense only as a tool of experience, it cannot be a substitute for the experience itself.

Knowledge got separated from the knower and knowledge preceded the knower. The over-use of reason and logic and the neglect of intuition is due to textualisation of knowledge. The textual experience itself is always linear and fragmented, which is the only way text can convey. At several levels one can see the fragmentation in textual cultures. 

Education through textualisation has been the most powerful tool of conditioning and colonising people. It has just replaced religious superstition with scientific superstition. It has turned us into believers of a different kind. It has turned us from active creators and inventors of knowledge to passive believers of text and experts. We no longer use our senses and feelings and experience to know the world. We are taught everything—including beauty.Textual experience is an abstract one, by its nature it is second hand, experience (by senses) is authentic and original. It cannot become second-hand. 

The crisis in modern schooling is precisely due to this conflict in these two (experiential and textual) paradigms. 

If we consider knowledge to be a biological response to sustain life, then the present level of estrangement between man and nature is unimaginable. How could knowledge and destruction go hand in hand to the extent that the very survival of the earth now edges on the brink of cessation? Textual knowledge, devoid of the experiential and biological content has fostered the grounds for this depredation.

Knowledge as a biological response to sustain life is inbuilt in the knowledge of experiential cultures. Indigenous knowledge is the result of collaboration between people and their surroundings guided by nature’s need to preserve all life. The biological element in knowledge is what has led the indigenous communities to create ‘life-sustaining’ knowledge, guided by the autonomy of the senses. The so-called indigenous knowledge (a term invented by the textual world) is knowledge of the experiential paradigm.

Now with information technology, text is being replaced by the computer. The computers’ criterion for dropping various elements from textual knowledge would depend on manageability and software-ability. The calamity of this virtualisation of knowledge will be far more destructive and elusive than the textual paradigm. The ultimate loss will be that of human creativeness and life at large. If our experience and experiential knowledge is forgotten or destroyed, our behavior will be distorted and destructive.

The natural state of being is to be authentic and original. And in this state one is creative in a continuum. This brings in concrete and first-hand experience as the basis for what is knowledge. Senses are tools that connect us to the concrete experience as well as our inner nature. This demands that we sharpen or sensitise our senses as those are our primary tools for knowing. When all senses are awake and we receive life in its totality, the experience and the experienced become one, however momentarily.

Since we belong to the codified knowledge paradigm we have assumed that knowledge is transmitted rather than created. The truth is that each living being has to re- live and re-creates knowledge.

After all the ‘education’ we have gone through, how much do we truly ‘know’? Will believing in authority automatically become knowledge? Is the purpose of schooling to produce human labour, citizen worker or to enhance the true human potential? Are we, the so-called ‘educated’, original, independent, creative and spontaneous? 

By educating our children what is that we want out of them? Do we want them to be mediocre, insensitive, imitative, non co-operative, unhappy, stressed, tensed, dependent, citizen workers. If we want our children to be creative, sensitive, intelligent, co-operative, original, loving and happy, independent, self disciplined we have to reexamine and reassess our notions of what knowledge is and how knowledge is created.

I feel that the idea of ‘education’ itself stands challenged.

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