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JUST LIKE THAT | Indians and their proclivity for data

Nov 12, 2023 09:16 AM IST

A receptivity to interconnectedness comes naturally to us. Philosophy teaches us that even at the smallest atom, matter is part of an indivisible whole

Let me begin by wishing all readers a very happy Diwali. May the coming year bring to all of you health, happiness and fulfilment. In my previous two columns, I discussed entrepreneurial energy, reinforced by the legitimacy given to material well-being in the Hindu worldview, and our remarkable legacy in mathematics as two reasons for the prominence of so many Indians in the leadership of corporate global business. Today, I want to analyse a third factor to try and understand this phenomenon.

PREMIUM
The pandas of Rishikesh and Haridwar maintain what could arguably be the most extensive corpus of genealogies anywhere in the world. (PTI)

This may not strike many Indians themselves, but our heritage provides evidence that from ancient times, and through the centuries, Indians have had a proclivity—even mania—for classifying data, with a view to infer a coherent structure to the seemingly disparate elements of life. Could this ability, which is not always infallible since it can lead to oversimplification or unwarranted generalisations, have any connection to their success in dealing with the avalanche of data of modern times and, instead of being overwhelmed by it, allow them to find a pattern in it?

Hindustan Times - your fastest source for breaking news! Read now.

A receptivity to the interconnectedness of things comes naturally to Indians. Their philosophy tells them that even at the level of the smallest atom, matter is part of an indivisible whole; their society informs them, that an individual is part of a network of kith, kin and caste; their religion proclaims that nothing is random, and birth and death and everything in between, is part of a causal link.

Given this, Indians seem to have an instinct to break down all empirical data into finite categories in a manner that has few parallels anywhere. Everything is meticulously classified. Matter is segregated into five gross elements: Earth, fire, water, air and ether (akash).

A person’s nature is broken down into three constituent elements (gunas): sattva, rajas and tamas. Flavours are subdivided into six kinds: salty, sweet, sour, sweet-sour, bitter and spicy. There are nine kinds of emotions: wonder, terror, disgust, humour, pathos, anger, love, heroism and peace. Human health depends on three kinds of humours: phlegm (kaff) gall (pitta), and wind (vayu). Women are of four basic types: padmini (lotus-like), sankhini (conch-like), hastini (elephant-like) and chitrini (variegated). Men too are of four essential categories: anukula (sincere and devoted), dakshina (one who distributes his emotions equally), satha (cruel) and dhrishta (shameless). There are 64 ways to make love; life has four principal goals: dharma, artha, kama and moksha. People belong to four principal castes: brahmins, kshatriyas, vaishyas and shudras. The human journey goes through four phases: brahmacharya (the age of learning), grihast (the life of a house-holder), vanaprastha (gradual withdrawal from the world) and sanyasa (renunciation).

The essential point is that Indians seem to have a congenital inclination to differentiate the database around them. Therefore, often they appear to be unfazed by the sheer accretion of data or the elusiveness of a paradigm. Like beavers collecting pieces of wood, they proceed to deconstruct both, examining the possible components, reducing them to comprehensible smaller units, linking these to each other, and playing around with the parts, while aware of the need for a unifying principle.

This, perhaps, explains why India had built one of the world’s most extensive databases—and a perfectly workable system to access it for mass applications—more than 3,000 years ago. The Bhrigu Samhita, a treatise on astrology first written in Vedic times, compiles at least 500,000 horoscopes, and claims to have an infinite number of records of people, on the basis of which 4.5 million horoscopes can be permuted.

Fin Wandahl, a Danish traveller, has written about his visit in 1997 to a Bhrigu practitioner in the small north Indian town of Hoshiarpur. Wandahl gave him his date, time and place of birth on the basis of which he drew up an astrological chart. The astrologer then rummaged for about fifteen minutes among bundles of horoscopes before emerging with one, written on a yellowing sheet of paper, that had an identical birth chart as Wandahl’s. The astrologer did not have a computer. But he could pull out a matching horoscope of a man born halfway across the globe 35 years ago! Wandahl writes that what the astrologer told him about his past was uncannily correct. He was willing to advise him on the future too, but only on the payment of a hefty fee, which the parsimonious Dane was unwilling to pay.

There are other examples of such databases. The pandas of Rishikesh and Haridwar maintain what could arguably be the most extensive corpus of genealogies anywhere in the world. A pilgrim has only to give her family name, and the hometown of her ancestors, for these traditional archivists to pull out records tracing the family’s lineage for several generations. Obviously, the record is not complete or accurate in every instance. The population has grown so exponentially, that it could perhaps be partially outdated. However, the database is still extraordinarily extensive and systematically catalogued.

This column is deliberately provocative. It is presented as a possibility, a tentative inference, not a scientific thesis backed by reliable empirical data. But the psyches of people, and the origins of their talents, are always a matter of debate and mystery. That is why I would especially welcome the response of readers.

Pavan K Varma is an author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha). Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers.  The views expressed are personal

Let me begin by wishing all readers a very happy Diwali. May the coming year bring to all of you health, happiness and fulfilment. In my previous two columns, I discussed entrepreneurial energy, reinforced by the legitimacy given to material well-being in the Hindu worldview, and our remarkable legacy in mathematics as two reasons for the prominence of so many Indians in the leadership of corporate global business. Today, I want to analyse a third factor to try and understand this phenomenon.

PREMIUM
The pandas of Rishikesh and Haridwar maintain what could arguably be the most extensive corpus of genealogies anywhere in the world. (PTI)

This may not strike many Indians themselves, but our heritage provides evidence that from ancient times, and through the centuries, Indians have had a proclivity—even mania—for classifying data, with a view to infer a coherent structure to the seemingly disparate elements of life. Could this ability, which is not always infallible since it can lead to oversimplification or unwarranted generalisations, have any connection to their success in dealing with the avalanche of data of modern times and, instead of being overwhelmed by it, allow them to find a pattern in it?

Hindustan Times - your fastest source for breaking news! Read now.

A receptivity to the interconnectedness of things comes naturally to Indians. Their philosophy tells them that even at the level of the smallest atom, matter is part of an indivisible whole; their society informs them, that an individual is part of a network of kith, kin and caste; their religion proclaims that nothing is random, and birth and death and everything in between, is part of a causal link.

Given this, Indians seem to have an instinct to break down all empirical data into finite categories in a manner that has few parallels anywhere. Everything is meticulously classified. Matter is segregated into five gross elements: Earth, fire, water, air and ether (akash).

A person’s nature is broken down into three constituent elements (gunas): sattva, rajas and tamas. Flavours are subdivided into six kinds: salty, sweet, sour, sweet-sour, bitter and spicy. There are nine kinds of emotions: wonder, terror, disgust, humour, pathos, anger, love, heroism and peace. Human health depends on three kinds of humours: phlegm (kaff) gall (pitta), and wind (vayu). Women are of four basic types: padmini (lotus-like), sankhini (conch-like), hastini (elephant-like) and chitrini (variegated). Men too are of four essential categories: anukula (sincere and devoted), dakshina (one who distributes his emotions equally), satha (cruel) and dhrishta (shameless). There are 64 ways to make love; life has four principal goals: dharma, artha, kama and moksha. People belong to four principal castes: brahmins, kshatriyas, vaishyas and shudras. The human journey goes through four phases: brahmacharya (the age of learning), grihast (the life of a house-holder), vanaprastha (gradual withdrawal from the world) and sanyasa (renunciation).

The essential point is that Indians seem to have a congenital inclination to differentiate the database around them. Therefore, often they appear to be unfazed by the sheer accretion of data or the elusiveness of a paradigm. Like beavers collecting pieces of wood, they proceed to deconstruct both, examining the possible components, reducing them to comprehensible smaller units, linking these to each other, and playing around with the parts, while aware of the need for a unifying principle.

This, perhaps, explains why India had built one of the world’s most extensive databases—and a perfectly workable system to access it for mass applications—more than 3,000 years ago. The Bhrigu Samhita, a treatise on astrology first written in Vedic times, compiles at least 500,000 horoscopes, and claims to have an infinite number of records of people, on the basis of which 4.5 million horoscopes can be permuted.

Fin Wandahl, a Danish traveller, has written about his visit in 1997 to a Bhrigu practitioner in the small north Indian town of Hoshiarpur. Wandahl gave him his date, time and place of birth on the basis of which he drew up an astrological chart. The astrologer then rummaged for about fifteen minutes among bundles of horoscopes before emerging with one, written on a yellowing sheet of paper, that had an identical birth chart as Wandahl’s. The astrologer did not have a computer. But he could pull out a matching horoscope of a man born halfway across the globe 35 years ago! Wandahl writes that what the astrologer told him about his past was uncannily correct. He was willing to advise him on the future too, but only on the payment of a hefty fee, which the parsimonious Dane was unwilling to pay.

There are other examples of such databases. The pandas of Rishikesh and Haridwar maintain what could arguably be the most extensive corpus of genealogies anywhere in the world. A pilgrim has only to give her family name, and the hometown of her ancestors, for these traditional archivists to pull out records tracing the family’s lineage for several generations. Obviously, the record is not complete or accurate in every instance. The population has grown so exponentially, that it could perhaps be partially outdated. However, the database is still extraordinarily extensive and systematically catalogued.

This column is deliberately provocative. It is presented as a possibility, a tentative inference, not a scientific thesis backed by reliable empirical data. But the psyches of people, and the origins of their talents, are always a matter of debate and mystery. That is why I would especially welcome the response of readers.

Pavan K Varma is an author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha). Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers.  The views expressed are personal

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