This week at Oxford, I spotted a tweet of a Welsh scholar notifying about admissions to a fully funded PhD programme at Trinity College, Dublin, which involves analysing medieval texts using big data.
It so happened that I saw this at a time when I was despairing about one more Indian academic spouting flights of fantasy—this time it was about India possessing knowledge about stem cell and test tube baby technologies citing the birth of Kauravas in The Mahabharat. He aired his spectacular views at the Indian Science Congress, no less.
Instances as this do India grave damage. It destroys the credibility of the great achievements that did, in fact, happen in ancient India. For instance, some people find it difficult to believe that one of the earliest works on medicine and surgery was written by an Indian physician called Sushruta in the 6th century BC. His Sushruta Samhita records the causes of more than 1,000 diseases and instructions for surgical procedures—including skin grafting and rhinoplasty.
But none of the cutting-edge work as what Trinity College, Dublin, is trying to do, or what The Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing at the University of Birmingham is doing, is being done in India.
This is not merely academic loss. It also means a complete failure to use India’s natural prowess in technology to build world-class startups in history, heritage and culture, and a complete failure to present content that rightfully ought to be owned and produced by India. To top it all, we don’t even, often, own the content!
Let’s take a few examples. Which has been the most talked about TV show on history in the last few years? ‘Civilisations’, a sweeping, cascading show anchored by some of the best historians in the world that gives us a unique glimpse of man’s life and progress. Who made this programme that has been well received around the world? The BBC.
Who made ‘The Architecture of Yoga’, the best Netflix show on yoga? Michael O’Neill, the New York-based photographer on whose book of the same name the show is based. Who published the book? Vanity Fair, and then, the German art book publisher, Taschen.
What is the best-known meditation and spirituality app in the world? Headspace, whose founder is London-born monk-turned-entrepreneur Andy Puddicombe, who spent time in India, Nepal and Tibet. At the last count, the app of the company, valued at around $250 million, was downloaded 11 million times and annual revenue of around $50 million.
What is one of the hottest startups in Silicon Valley these days? SoulTour, started by psychology graduate Tara-Nicholle Nelson which aims to teach a generation that is ‘spiritual but not religious’ and upwardly mobile the value of religious truths without any of the trappings. Her dream of building a ‘Netflix of spirituality’ is backed by the Menlo Park, California-based venture capital fund Lightspeed Venture Partners.
India could be a leader in this. It could be a leader in spiritual and religious content and startups. The next unicorns will come from this world, and India can create them. But we must first stop dwelling on how India had the Internet and the technology to make test tube babies in the times of The Mahabharat.