Creating Borderless University

I deem it a great privilege to deliver the Convocation Address of Poornima University. I am proud to see that the university is considered as one of the most rapidly rising centres of learning in India today.

I feel doubly privileged to give this convocation address because I have received D.Sc. (Hon. Causa) from our university today. I say `our’, because I am its alumnus now. I promise you that I will do my very best to fulfil my duty as an alumnus, and enhance the prestige of our University in every possible way.

My young friends, your graduation marks a milestone in your life as you leave the portals of this wonderful university to enter a world that is full of exciting opportunities. I congratulate you warmly. I must also congratulate your parents and teachers for giving you the best gift of your life, education.

When my generation graduated about fifty years ago, India was struggling as a `third world country’. When you graduate today, everyone expects India to be the `third most powerful country’ in the world. And my friends, it is you who will be charged with the task of building a great future of our great nation.

Building Borderless Minds

The theme of my oration today is building a `borderless university’. This theme is influenced by a very profound statement that Mahatma Gandhi had once made. He said, ‘I do not want my house to be walled in on sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible’. Gandhiji implied that our mind should be open and uninhibited. It should be open to new ideas and new thinking. And he was right. Parachute works best, when it is open. Mind is also like that. It works best, when it is open.

There should be no artificial boundaries and walls or borders between the people. A borderless mind and borderless thinking alone can lead to a borderless university.

The first borders we need to break are between formal and informal systems of knowledge. We need to recognize that scientific knowledge generated in formal laboratories is not the only knowledge system. There is knowledge generated in the ‘laboratories of life’ by people over centuries. Indian society has nurtured and refined systems of knowledge of its own, relating to such diverse domains as geology, ecology, botany, agriculture, physiology and health. We are now seeing the emergence of terms such as ‘parallel’, ‘indigenous’ and ‘civilizational’ knowledge systems. Such knowledge systems are also expressions of other approaches to the acquisition and production of knowledge.

Such indigenous knowledge systems must be sustained through active support to the societies that are keepers of this knowledge, be they villagers or tribes, their ways of life, their languages, their social organization and the environments in which they live. We need innovative ways of preventing the erosion of such knowledge, which usually vanishes with people. Equally importantly, we need an in-depth analysis of the parallelism of insights between the indigenous knowledge systems, on the one hand, and certain areas of modern science concerned with fundamental aspects, on the other. Our university education and research needs to shift the search light on this important issue, which it has neglected so far.

Thomas Huxley said in 1881 “It is easy to sneer at our ancestors – but it is much more profitable to try to discover why they, who were really not one with less sensible persons than our own excellent selves, should have been led to entertain views which strike us as absurd”. It is in this spirit that we should build a borderless mind, which connects the past with the present. The idea is not to ‘recreate’ the past but ‘understand’ the past by using new science.

Ayurveda : Science of Life

Ayurveda is possibly the earliest formal system of healthcare. As we know Ayurveda literally means, ‘Science of Life’. It encompasses the total sweep of life sciences, pursuing its quest for understanding life in all its ramifications. It is truly holistic.

Ayurveda is no mere compendium of therapeutic recipes as many other systems tend to be; nor was it the first one to use herbs. Herbs have been used from time immemorial. Ayurveda is one of the earliest frameworks that systematized knowledge of health and healthcare. Its framework is not only self-consistent, but also uses cause and effect arguments to correlate manifestations of sickness, its causes and its treatments.

When this framework was developed in ancient India—and I am very proud of this—the notion of a molecule did not exist, nor was the cell and the role it plays in the life process known. The discoveries of DNA and functional genomics lay more the 3000 years in the future, yet in spite of all this Ayurveda offered effective treatments for many disorders, particularly those with multiple causes. For some degenerative diseases, most Indians consider it to be the treatment of last resort. There is a general belief that, when all other treatments fail, Ayurveda may still succeed and it often does! We should be proud of this. In fact I would go as far as saying that just as we have cellular biology, molecular biology and structural biology, there must be an ‘Ayurvedic biology’ that we should start talking about. I must give credit to Dr Valiathan for coining this phrase. The more I think about it, the more I believe in it. Indeed India’s gift to the world could be `Ayurvedic biology’ and now even `Ayurgenomics’, where Ayurveda and genomics are being brought together.

Breaking Boundaries

Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan had launched in 1977 a project entitled “Ancient Insights and Modern Discoveries”, which was a national cooperative endeavour to explore the possibilities of meaningful correlations of ancient ideas and concepts and modern scientific discoveries. Modern scientific discoveries are made without any regard to the clues that flow from our ancient wisdom. Here is a brilliant example.

T.L. Lentz and colleagues reported in 1982 in Science that acetylcholine receptors may serve as receptors for rabies virus. In Sushruta Samhita, the ancient Indian Classic on the Science of Life, there is a fascinating account of Datura as a prophylaxis for rabies. The active principles of Datura are the ones that predominantly block the action of acetylcholine, receptors precisely what was discovered by Lentz and others thousands of years later. In view of Lentz’s findings, Datura for rabies may represent the first documented example of pro-phylaxis by receptor blockade. However, the use of Datura was found by people centuries ago, who were not trained in modern science. On the other hand, modern scientists had no clue about the work reported in Sushruta Samhita. How do we build the bridges between the two?

Traditional Knowledge Digital Library

I am proud to say that I had the privilege to lead an initiative on building this missing bridge, namely Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL). Let me explain.

You will all recollect the wrong patent on wound healing by turmeric that was granted by Unites States Patents & Trademarks Office (USPTO), when I was DG of CSIR. I decided to fight this patent by showing that this was ancient wisdom known in India. History was created, when the patent was revoked.

But we found that large number of US patents have been granted on the ancient wisdom in India. To prevent its repeated recurrence, Dr. V.K. Gupta from CSIR took the leadership and our CSIR team created a Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) on traditional medicinal plants and medicinal systems, which was also aligned to a new Traditional Knowledge Resource Classification (TKRC). Linking this TKRC to internationally accepted International Patent Classification (IPC) System has built the missing bridge between the knowledge contained in an old Sanskrit Shloka and the computer screen of a patent examiner in Washington! This eliminated the problem of the grant of wrong patents, since the Indian rights to that knowledge are known to the examiner. Wrong patents on Turmeric, Neem, etc. are now be the things of the past! Just consider the following example.

A US Multinational Company, Natreon Inc, had filed a patent application (EP 1906980) in July 2006, for the use of Ashwagandha plant extract for treating or managing anxiety and depression-induced stress. The TKDL team submitted its Third Party Submission in July 2009 with evidence from as far back as the 12th century from the then prevalent practices used in Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha. After looking at the strong TKDL evidence, the applicant withdrew the claims in July 2009.

Several companies from Kenya, China, Denmark, Netherlands, USA and, interestingly, even from India, have withdrawn their patents. So the power of TKDL is already in evidence.

It is time we started looking at the huge knowledge base of our ancient heritage that is available in TKDL. And then, decide to use the TKDL, not just as a ‘protective’ and ‘preventive’ tool, but as a ‘promotional’ tool, fueling the promotion of new innovations, or may I say, ‘Indovations’, by leveraging India’s vast reserves of traditional knowledge.

Golden Triangle

India can benefit enormously if we can build a Golden Triangle between modern science, modern medicine and traditional medicine. I used the term, ‘Golden Triangle’, for the first time at a meeting in Chitrakoot where I gave the valedictory address. I am very happy the concept of `Golden Triangle’ got incorporated in Chitrakoot Declaration. Indeed, triangles are a popular concept in complementary medicine, but for AYUSH, the Golden Triangle project is not merely a triangle, but a ‘Golden Triangle’ because it presents a golden opportunity to break the boundaries between three different systems.

As Director General of CSIR, I have initiated a major program of research within the Golden Triangle framework. Getting the program going was not easy. I still remember, I went to sign our Memorandum of Understanding with with Arya Vaidya Shala, Kottakal. It took us almost an year to get us together. Dr Valiathan managed to bring together Dr. Warrier and me. I well remember, how, when we both had signed the MoU, Dr Valiathan said, ‘This is a holy place for me, because there are two rivers meeting here. One is the river of traditional knowledge, Arya Vaidya Shala, and the other is the river of modern knowledge represented by CSIR’. ‘Sangam’ is the word he used. I only wondered why it had taken so long for this ‘Sangam’ to take place, but now that it has done so, I am sure rapid strides will be made.

By breaking boundaries between ancient wisdom and modern science, India can create world class products, because new products cannot compete with products, which have only tradition and empirical observation as the knowledge base. The knowledge to be integrated into the traditional products has to emerge form modern science, especially modern biology and chemistry. Such fusion will lead to better definition of existing products, improved understanding of the mechanism of their action, modified compositions at molecular level and better understanding of interactions amongst various molecules.

Borderlessness Everywhere

But this borderlessness is not just between the knowledge system of the past and the present, but between multiple streams of present day science too. Just as one example, consider the issue of a human mind itself. Scientists from different disciplines have turned to the study of the human mind. Computer Scientists have tried to emulate its capacity for visual perception. Linguists have struggled with the puzzle of how children acquire language. Ethologists have sought the innate roots of social behaviour. Neuro-physiologists have begun to relate the function of nerve cells to complex perceptual and motor processes. Neurologists and neuropsychologists have used the pattern of competence and incompetence of the brain-damaged patients to elucidate the normal workings of the brain. Anthropologists have examined the conceptual structure of cultural practices to advance hypotheses about the basic principles of the mind. These days one meets engineers who work on speech perception, biologists who investigate the mental representation of spatial relations, and physicists who want to understand consciousness. And, of course, psychologists continue to study perception, memory, thought and action. However, I have not seen a meeting of these computer scientists, linguists, neurophysiologists, anthropologists, engineers, and so on! Understanding of mind cannot be made possible without meeting of minds of all of them.

Borderless University: A Dream

In order to create a borderless university, we need to address several issues that hinder the creation of borderless minds and borderless thinking. They include our rigid academic curricula, our process of learning by rote, our rigid examination system based on a single correct answer, hierachical structures in management, etc. Our systems promote inhibition and imitation rather than innovation. It is only in an environment, which fosters innovation that borderless minds can be formed and borderless thinking can flourish. Finally, we must recognize that innovation is not a undimensional process. It is comparable to the intermeshing gears of a clock. The challenge before us is to make this intermeshing happen. It is only breaking up those walls and opening up those windows of mind will bring that fresh wind,that will build Borderless University of our dream.

My Conviction of Borderlessness

I am firmly committed to the idea of borderlessness. For example, I gave the prestigious D.V. Danckwerts Memorial Lecture in London in 1995. The title of my talk was `Seamless Chemical Engineering Science: The Emerging Paradigm’. Here I talked about not only the vanishing boundaries between sciences themselves but also engineering and science. Twenty years later, my last act as DG, CSIR was changing the name of Regional Research Laboratory in Jammu to Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine, with the object of breaking boundaries in different strands of medicinal practices. I have continued this quest of borderlessness in my own science as well as in science leadership. Extending this philosophy, I hope that Poornima University would become the first truly borderless university in the world.

Five Mashelkar Mantras

My young friends, at the end, I will tell you about five mantras that have helped me in my life. I hope the Mashelkar mantras will work for you too. After all, in life, aptitude is as important as ability.

First, your aspirations are your possibilities. So always keep them high. Keep your eyes on the stars, and not down at your feet.

Second, perseverance always pays. It is always too early to quit. Winners never quit and quitters never win.

So my friends, look at the word FAIL differently. FAIL is First Attempt in Learning. As long as you keep on learning from the errors you have done and not repeat them, you will ultimately win.

Third, be always a part of a solution, never a part of the problem. If you can’t find the way, create a new way. Don’t just knock on doors of opportunity. Create your own doors.

Fourth, like instant coffee, there is no instant success. There is no substitute for hard work. You may be talented, but remember hard work beats talent when talent does not work hard enough. But work hard in silence. Let success make all the noise.

Fifth, there is no limit to human endurance, to human achievement, to human imagination, except the limits you put on yourself. So go limitless.

My young friends, I wish you all the best as you keep rising in your journey up the limitless ladder of excellence, not only reaching your potential, but striving to exceed it, when you have reached it.

Thank you all.