Wealth of Traditional Knowledge System
Yoga schools, teaching, CD’s, videos and magazines constitute a multi billion dollar business in US which is twice the software exports of India to US today. Despite Yoga being a product of India, not a single paisa comes to India. Worse, it is not even acknowledged as Indian. It has become purely an American business. Churches are quick to appropriate Yoga into their fold and now there is Christian Yoga.
In 2004, US patent office granted a patent on a sequence of 26 asanas to an Indian-American yoga practitioner. You might wonder or express disbelief. How could anyone claim ownership over a 5,000-year-old tradition? But, unfortunately that is the state of affairs in the world today.
Actually this is not a single such case. For example, 80% of 5,000 patents on plant-based formulations granted by the US in 2000 were of Indian origin. This is only in the category of medicine and there is more to the list if we take into account of other cultural products such as food, architecture and other oral knowledge passed down from our ancestors.
Two prominent cases which India fought successfully in recent times are patents on neem and turmeric.
US government filed a patent application on neem tree at European patent office in 1990 and was granted patent in 1994. Neem, having its origin in India has been used for centuries as an insecticide, medicine for humans and animals and in cosmetics. How could such common sense medicine be patented? The issuing of patent was challenged by environmental activists calling it a biopiracy. Finally after 15 years, the case was won in favor of environmentalists and the patent was withheld.
In 1995, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), India challenged a US patent on turmeric granted to two non resident Indians associated with University of Mississipi Medical Centre. Turmeric is a common medicine in Indian households and has been used for thousands of years for healing wounds and rashes. CSIR won the case and the US Patent Office cancelled the patent.
Indian traditional knowledge system is vast and largely under-explored by today’s Indians. However, it has been under scanner by western countries for long time. With the help of intellectual property rights and patent laws, West is making a great use of our traditional knowledge for their benefits. Imagine if turmeric was patented, your mother would be infringing US patent laws if she applied it to heal your wounds.
Who are to blame for all these? Westerners who are hawkish on anything to mint money out of it or ourselves who are incapable of recognizing value of our traditional knowledge system?
I believe part of the problem lies with us.
There are Indians whose minds are still colonized. They trash any traditional knowledge system as regressive, primitive and anti-modern. Anything that is Indian is a shame to these people.
And there are generous and calm Indians who think knowledge is for sharing among all humans alike. Not at all bad actually, but these people have not woken up to modern challenges of global business.
Colonization still rules prominent Indian minds. Otherwise, how can anyone explain the fact that we are not taught anything about Indian traditional knowledge system in our schools?
In my experience, it is difficult to answer whenever Koreans asked me if I practice Yoga. My answer is negative as is the case for many Indians. ‘Isn’t it taught in schools in India?’ I am asked. My answer is negative again. They find it difficult to believe my answers, for Korean traditions are taught in their schools.
In this season of secularism, I have no hopes of seeing Indian education undergoing a reformation to teach at least some important aspects of our tradition.
Well, let me not digress into educational reforms.
Is India doing something to safeguard our traditional knowledge systems?
CSIR scientists led by their chief, Dr R A Mashelkar in collaboration with bureaucrats and intellectual property lawyers have initiated a project to safeguard intellectual property of Indian traditional knowledge system by making it digital. Some excerpts from the news are reproduced below (first link in references).
“Over the coming months, India will unveil a first-of-its-kind encyclopedia of 30 million pages, containing thousands of herbal remedies and eventually everything from indigenous construction techniques to yoga exercises”
“The Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) aims to prevent foreign entrepreneurs from claiming Indian lore as novel, and thus patenting it.”
“Already, the CSIR is creating databases on traditional Indian foods, indigenous architecture and construction techniques, and oral tribal knowledge, in what Dr. Mashelkar calls "defensive protection".
Yes, being defensive is the first step. But why not make business out of our traditional knowledge? Shouldn’t we be doing what we are good at?
If we setup state of the art traditional knowledge based institutions (Yoga, Architecture, Ayurveda and Meditation to name a few) in India and abroad, that would generate a lot of wealth for India.
India: Breathe in, and hands off our yoga
TKDL- A safeguard for Indian traditional knowledge by Nirupa Sen
The U-Turn Theory: An Introduction by Rajiv Malhotra