Thursday, December 26, 2019

Garuda Purana and the democratization of knowledge production

The Garuda Purana, composed in Sanskrit, contains 16000 verses, dealing with an incredibly diverse collection of topics.

It covers cosmology, mythology, salvation theory, ethics, Hindu philosophical schools, theory of Yoga, ancestral rites, rivers and geography, types of minerals and stones, testing methods for gems for their quality, listing of plants and herbs, disease symptoms and medicines, astronomy, astrology, architecture, grammar, literature classification etc.

It also includes statecraft and more practical matters such as charity and gift making, economy, thrift, duties of a king, politics, state officials and their roles, and how to appoint officials. Lastly, it also covers personal development and self awareness through Sankhya and Advaita Yoga.

The text is attributed to the legendary sage Vyasa, in the absence of clear authorship. It is believed to have been first composed at least a thousand years ago, with the core being even older. The versions that survive today contain different lengths and different sets of scriptures, pointing to diverse authorship over time as it gained popularity.

Garuda Vahana, at Chennai airport, a beautiful wooden sculpture 
used for temple processions. It is likely from Tanjore.
One of India's unique features is the way in which many of our scriptures co-opt and include multiple authors. Imagine a book, with many chapters by different writers, all of whom help to grow the book continuously over centuries. As it spreads, more chapters appear, more commentaries and discussions take place, and diverse versions grow and become popular in different parts of the land. The closest parallel is a river, with a single origin but which branches into thousands of tributaries, ending in many lakes and ponds, and watering many fertile lands as it goes along. One could also draw a parallel to the way the internet functions, democratizing the production and dissemination of knowledge. In the case of scriptures, the dissemination takes place in thousands of sabhas and temples, where readings and recitations bring different versions to the people. Confusing? Yes. That is the nature of a cooperative effort at knowledge production. But it is also very appealing, that there is no "one book", no single authority.


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