The Indian tradition of open knowledge sharing

When we look back on our times, we may find that the term, “Intellectual Property” has taken its place along side another archaic term, “Horseless Carriage.” Both were attempts to impose metaphors of the past on the future. And the folly of our times is that we treat inexhaustible resources like knowledge as finite resource and treat finite resources like oil and forests as infinite resources. The sooner we turn these attitudes around, the better it will be for the future of mankind.

Great editorial from Red Hat director, Venkatesh Hariharan:

“The current model of trying to “propertize,” “privatize” and “commoditize” knowledge comes from a very mercantile, reductionist model of treating knowledge. That may be OK for other countries, which have “intellectual propertized” their knowledge and hold the balance of power in IP Rights, but not for India which has had a long, rich tradition of free knowledge cultures like yoga, ayurveda, mathematics and many other disciplines. It would not be far-fetched to say that many Indian traditions place a moral imperative on sharing knowledge.

One of my favorite stories illustrates the importance accorded to the sharing of knowledge. After the brutal battle of Kalinga, the Emperor Ashoka was so overcome with remorse that he renounced bloodshed and embraced Buddhism. As part of his penance, Ashoka went to monasteries across the country. At each monastery, he would leave munificent donations of gold coins. At one monastery, the emperor left behind one solitary gold coin. When his perplexed followers asked him to explain, Ashoka said that the abbot of the monastery was a great man but he did not share his knowledge with others.

This is a deep-seated ethos that is thousands of years old. This is the ethos that created open knowledge traditions like yoga, ayurveda etc, that are freely used by all. However, when India seeks to use “their” “intellectual property” (allopathic medicine, software and business method patents etc.) we are told, “pay up or else….” Talk about an unequal exchange!

The contrast is best illustrated by what happened with Bikram Yoga taught by celebrity yoga teacher, Bikram Chowdhury who makes a fortune teaching yoga to Americans. Bikram copyrighted a series of 26 postures and two breathing exercises practiced in a room heated upto 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Note that Yoga is a body of knowledge which has been free from copyrights, patents and “intellectual property” for more than 2000 years. When asked why, Bikram said that he sought legal protection because “it’s the American way.”

Each society evolves systems that suit its own needs. Most of India’s traditions of knowledge spring forth from a spiritual base whereas America’s treatment of knowledge has a mercantile bias. This is not to pass a value judgment on either. The problem arises when, in a globalizing society the two systems clash and are unable to harmonize with each other.

Sadly most of India’s thinking around legal protection of knowledge has been “derivative” in nature, a shoddy cut and paste job from the “mature IP systems” of the West. However, as the Bilski case shows, even these “mature IP systems” are having second thoughts on how they treat knowledge, or in this specific case, business methods. As I have argued in my previous blog entry, “The Practical Problem with Software Patents,” the litigation-ridden path followed by US in granting software and business method patents is something India must avoid at all costs.”

From a hymn to Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge, which says that:

Wonderful is your gift of knowledge
the more we share, the more it grows
the more we hoard it, the more it diminishes

1 Comment The Indian tradition of open knowledge sharing

  1. Avatarsivam krish

    Another saying in Tamil (South Indian Language) ” Than pettra inbam perruha iv vaiaham” .

    A strong statement towards knowledge sharing:

    ” May the joys of knowledge that I enjoy, be enjoyed by the world”

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