Traditional Knowledge Systems: Culture, Ecology and Ways of Knowing


D. P. Agrawal

Director, LokVigyan Kendra

Almora, Uttarakhand


About a decade back a celebrated astronomer and writer of popular science, in one of his Times of India articles, dismissed traditional knowledge as mere superstition. I protested, and in his liberal scientific manner, he asked me to plead the case of Traditional (or Indigenous) Knowledge Systems in a scientific journal which, of course, I did. Even in the so-called progressive ‘West’, Traditional Knowledge Systems were looked down upon. It was difficult for anthropology students to get scholarships for doing research on indigenous knowledge systems. In a path-breaking study, Laura Nader made a powerful plea that indigenous Traditional Knowledge Systems were scientific systems in their own right. She condemned the western attitude of creating hegemonic categories and argued that Western science imposes the contrasting categories of science/religion, rational/magical, developed/under-developed and so on. But these categories, as much scholarly work has shown, are contrived and arbitrary. No wonder that an aboriginal leader, Kwagley, complains, ‘Down through the millennia, the Yupiaq produced and maintained a science and technology to support a sustainable social and economic system’; but, he tellingly adds, ‘at the advent of the Western society the Yupiaq ways were pronounced primitive and savage.’


Pat Howard further elaborates, these alternative knowledge systems include all sorts of subsistence production systems, knowledge regarding ecosystems and related logics of subsistence, traditional methods of healing and prophylaxis, traditional methods of socialization and education, methods for adjudicating disputes and the convictions and experience that inform them, traditional systems of self-government and communal decision making, and a myriad of languages and written and oral traditions, to name a few of the most obvious.


Many of these systems of knowledge are not even recognized as knowledge but viewed as superstitious beliefs or irrational behaviour. This is especially true when embedded in ritual and myth as is the case with many traditional agricultural, forestry, birthing, healing, and prophylactic practices.


The proposal for the United Nations University argues that ‘Traditional knowledge which may be technical, social, organizational, or cultural was obtained as part of the great human experiment of survival and development’. In fact, knowledge and science originate in an ambience where humans are in close contact with their environment. They study flora, fauna and minerals to eke out their livelihood. During the course of several millennia, through trial and error, humans learnt empirical science and transmitted it to their progeny through the word of mouth, and quite often through the heuristic devices of legends and myths. Thus the origin of knowledge and science lies with the primitive societies.


With the advent of urbanisation, the elite systematised and codified many oral Traditional Knowledge Systems and reduced them to writing. By way ofillustration, we will see below how a large number of medicinal plants of the traditional Himalayan medicine were eventually incorporated in the MateriaMedicaof the elite science of the Ayurveda. It is interesting to note that the elite treatises seldom, if ever, acknowledge the contribution of the folk sciences. Even the local folk deities were misappropriated by the Brahmin pantheon and assimilated into the narratives of pan-Indian gods: Nanda was turned into a consort of Siva and Badrinath into an avatar of Vishnu! However, in countries such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand, where the colonial white population assumed the view that the indigenous population was altogether savage, the consequences of European supremacy were far more drastic and unsettling. European colonisers decimated the aboriginal populations and thus totally cut off their links with the local cultural traditions. But, in a country like India, with deep antiquity, both the systems have been flourishing: the elite Greater Tradition (Margi) and the folk Lesser Tradition (Desi).