Unlocking History’s Vaults: How Knowledge Became the Key to Social Influence

Navigating the Seas of Knowledge from Ancient Societies to the Modern Era,

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Lt Col Manoj K Channan
Lt Col Manoj K Channan
Lt Col Manoj K Channan (Retd) served in the Indian Army, Armoured Corps, 65 Armoured Regiment, 27 August 83- 07 April 2007. Operational experience in the Indian Army includes Sri Lanka – OP PAWAN, Nagaland and Manipur – OP HIFAZAT, and Bhalra - Bhaderwah, District Doda Jammu and Kashmir, including setting up of a counter-insurgency school – OP RAKSHAK. He regularly contributes to Defence and Security issues in the Financial Express online, Defence and Strategy, Fauji India Magazine and Salute Magazine. *Views are personal.

Throughout history, knowledge has often been critical in establishing and maintaining social hierarchies. Groups or classes with access to education and information usually held significant power. In ancient Indian societies, Brahmins, primarily priests and scholars, held a significant position due to their exclusive access to Vedic knowledge. This monopoly over religious and educational matters gave them considerable influence.

In ancient Iran, the Zoroastrians, particularly the priestly class, played a similar role. They were custodians of religious texts and knowledge, often translating into socio-political influence. The Jewish community’s significant dominance in various fields, including winning numerous Nobel Prizes, is outstanding.

Historically, controlling education and knowledge has been a method for maintaining power. This can be seen in the way certain groups were denied education. Access to knowledge often provided a pathway for social mobility, allowing individuals or groups to rise in social hierarchies.

Comparing historical scenarios with the current situation, where knowledge is more widely accessible, can provide insights into how power dynamics and knowledge have evolved. The cultural and religious context often shaped the type of knowledge that was valued and thus influenced the social structure.

The role of knowledge in shaping and sustaining social hierarchies is a profound aspect of human history. This concept can be elaborated upon through several dimensions.

  • Historical Context. In many ancient and medieval societies, specific groups or classes, often religious or scholarly elites, controlled access to knowledge. This included religious texts, scientific information, and cultural lore. 
  • Impact on Power Dynamics. By controlling knowledge, these groups could influence beliefs, laws, and social norms, effectively shaping the structure and functioning of their societies.
  • Selective Education Systems. Education was frequently a privilege of the elite classes. Formal education was restricted to nobility or specific castes in many societies, as seen in feudal Europe or caste-based systems in ancient India.
  • Reinforcement of Hierarchies. This exclusivity of education reinforced existing social hierarchies, as knowledge became a tool for maintaining power and privilege.
  • Role of Religious Institutions. In many cultures, religious institutions were the primary repositories of knowledge. Monasteries in medieval Europe, for instance, were centres of learning and literacy.
  • Influence on Societal Values. These institutions often determined what constituted valuable knowledge and how it should be interpreted, influencing societal values and norms.
  • Administration and Governance. Knowledge about laws, administration, and governance was often restricted to certain classes, enabling them to administer and control societies effectively.
  • Advancements in Science. In various historical periods, scientific knowledge began to be seen as a symbol of prestige and power.
  • Impact on Social Structures. In Europe, the Renaissance and Enlightenment exemplify the manner in which novel scientific revelations initiated a process of questioning established social and religious hierarchies.
  • Literacy as a Marker of Status. Historically, the ability to read and write was a significant marker of social status and power.
  • Control Over Information. Literate individuals or groups could control information dissemination, influencing public opinion and decision-making processes.

Exclusion and Marginalization

  • Denial of Education. Deliberate denial of education to specific groups, like slaves in Antebellum America or women in many societies, was a method to maintain control and perpetuate existing power structures.
  • Long-Term Impact. This exclusion had long-term impacts on these groups’ economic and social development.
  • Education as a Pathway. In some instances, knowledge and education became pathways for social mobility, challenging existing hierarchies.
  • Meritocracy. The concept of meritocracy, particularly in more modern contexts, emerged when knowledge and talent began to be valued over birthright or class.
  • Cultural Differences. The role of knowledge in social hierarchies varied significantly across different cultures and periods, reflecting diverse values and social structures.
  • Colonialism and Knowledge. The imposition of colonial powers’ education systems on indigenous societies is another aspect where knowledge was used as a tool for domination. 

Brahmins in Ancient India – Custodians of Sacred Knowledge

The role of Brahmins in ancient Indian society is a fascinating aspect of the subcontinent’s historical and cultural tapestry. Their position and influence can be elaborated upon through several key aspects.

  • Vedic Scriptures. Brahmins had exclusive access to and mastery over the Vedas, the ancient sacred scriptures of Hinduism. These texts covered religious rites, philosophies, cosmology, and social laws.
  • Ritual Importance. As the only class authorized to conduct Vedic rituals, Brahmins held a crucial role in religious life, which was central to the daily existence of ancient Indian society.

Educational Authority

  • Centres of Learning. Brahmins often ran Gurukuls or traditional schools, where they imparted Vedic knowledge. This education was not merely religious but also encompassed various fields like mathematics, astronomy, politics, and philosophy.
  • Knowledge Transmission. Their role as educators reinforced their authority, as they controlled the transmission of cultural and intellectual heritage.

Social and Political Influence

  • Advisors to Rulers. Brahmins frequently served as advisors or counsellors to kings and rulers, influencing statecraft and political decisions with their knowledge and religious authority.
  • Legal Experts. They were also interpreters of Dharma (moral and ethical duties), playing a pivotal role in their communities’ legal and judicial matters.

Cultural Impact

  • Preservers of Tradition. Brahmins, in their capacity as guardians of religious and cultural customs, significantly contributed to the preservation of prevailing social conventions and practises.
  • Literature and Arts. Many Brahmins were also scholars, poets, and artists, contributing significantly to the rich tapestry of Indian literature and arts.

Ritual Purity and Social Status

  • Caste System. In the Varna system (the traditional division of Hindu society into various classes), Brahmins were placed at the top, attributed to their ritual purity and spiritual leadership.
  • Lifestyle. Their lifestyle, which emphasized austerity, study, and adherence to various rituals and purity laws, further distinguished them from other social groups.

Economic Aspects

  • Land and Wealth. Brahmins often received grants of land and wealth from rulers and wealthy patrons in exchange for their religious and scholarly services.
  • Agriculture and Trade. While primarily scholars and priests, some Brahmins also engaged in agriculture, trade, and other occupations, especially in later periods.

Evolution Over Time

  • Changes in Influence. The influence of Brahmins has evolved, particularly with the rise of Buddhist and Jain philosophies, which challenged the traditional Vedic authority.
  • Medieval and Modern Periods. In the medieval period and under various dynasties, their roles and societal positions underwent further changes, adapting to the new socio-political landscapes.

Zoroastrians in Ancient Iran

The Zoroastrians, particularly their priestly class, known as the Magi, held a significant role in the ancient Iranian society, much akin to the Brahmins in India or the priestly classes in other ancient civilizations. Their influence can be understood through several key aspects:

Religious Custodians

  • Guardians of Zoroastrianism. The Magi were the guardians and interpreters of Zoroastrianism, the dominant religion in ancient Iran, founded by the Prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra).
  • Sacred Texts. They were responsible for preserving and reciting the Avesta, the sacred Zoroastrian texts. These texts included hymns, liturgical works, and religious teachings.

Role in Rituals and Ceremonies

  • Conducting Rituals. The Magi conducted various religious rituals and ceremonies integral to Zoroastrianism. These rituals often involved fire, a central element in Zoroastrian worship.
  • Spiritual Leaders: Their role in these rituals reinforced their position as spiritual leaders and intermediaries between the divine and the people.

Social and Political Influence

  • Advisors to Kings. Like Brahmins in India, the Magi often served as advisors and counsellors to the rulers and had considerable influence in the royal courts.
  • Moral and Ethical Guidance. They provided moral and ethical guidance based on Zoroastrian teachings, which influenced laws and governance.

Cultural Impact

  • Preservation of Traditions. As custodians of religious knowledge, they played a crucial role in preserving and transmitting Zoroastrian traditions and beliefs.
  • Contribution to Literature and Arts. Their influence extended to cultural aspects, including literature, arts, and the interpretation of cosmic and natural phenomena.

Educational Role

  • Centres of Learning. Though primarily religious, their educational role included teaching about Zoroastrian philosophy, ethics, and perhaps even sciences and arts related to religious practices.
  • Transmission of Knowledge. Their teachings were instrumental in shaping ancient Iranian society’s worldview and ethical framework. 

Economic and Social Status

  • Land and Wealth. Like many priestly classes, the Magi often held economic power through landholdings and patron donations.
  • Varied Occupations. Over time, some Magi engaged in various occupations, including agriculture, trade, and political roles.

Evolution and Challenges

  • Interactions with Other Cultures. Their influence changed significantly as ancient Iran interacted with neighbouring civilizations, such as the Greeks, Romans, and Islamic empires.
  • Religious Challenges. The rise of other religious movements and political changes in the region impacted their role and status within society.

Jewish Contributions to Knowledge

The Jewish community’s substantial contributions to various fields of knowledge, notably reflected in their considerable representation among Nobel Prize winners, are rooted in a deep cultural emphasis on education and scholarship. 

Cultural Emphasis on Learning

  • Education as a Core Value. Education has historically been a central value in Jewish culture. Studying religious texts like the Torah and the Talmud is not just a religious activity but is also seen as a moral and intellectual pursuit.
  • Early Literacy. Even at a young age, the emphasis on literacy and textual analysis fosters critical thinking and a deep appreciation for knowledge.

Historical and Religious Context

  • Diaspora and Adaptability. The Jewish diaspora’s experience, living as minorities in various countries, often placed a premium on intellectual and academic achievements to navigate and succeed in different societies.
  • Religious Intellectualism. The Rabbinic tradition encourages questioning, debate, and detailed analysis of texts, cultivating a culture of intellectual rigour.

 Contributions Across Disciplines

  •  Diverse Fields. Jews have significantly contributed from physics, chemistry, and medicine to economics, literature, and peace efforts.
  •  Innovation and Research. Many Jewish scholars have been at the forefront of groundbreaking research and innovations, often driven by a cultural ethos that values inquiry and exploration.

Influence of Socio-Political Factors

  • Responses to Persecution. Historical challenges, including persecution and discrimination, led many Jewish individuals to pursue excellence in academia and professional fields as a means of social mobility and security.
  • Global Networks. The widespread diaspora and the need to maintain cultural and intellectual ties across different countries fostered a rich exchange of ideas and knowledge.

Nobel Prizes and Academic Achievements

  • Overrepresentation in Nobel Laureates. Despite being a small percentage of the global population, Jews have won a disproportionately high number of Nobel Prizes, a testament to their intellectual contributions.
  • Impact of Individual Achievements. These achievements are not just a source of pride for the Jewish community but have significantly impacted global scientific, literary, and peace efforts.

Legacy and Modern Impact

  • Influence on Modern Thought. Jewish thinkers, scientists, and writers have significantly influenced modern philosophical thought, scientific discovery, and cultural landscapes.
  • Educational Institutions. Jews have been instrumental in founding and developing some of the world’s leading universities and research institutions.

Cultural and Ethical Dimensions

Ethics and Social Justice. The Jewish tradition’s focus on ethics and social justice has informed much of their intellectual contributions, emphasizing not just knowledge for its own sake but for the betterment of society.

Interplay of Tradition and Modernity. The ability to balance tradition with modernity has enabled the Jewish community to contribute to contemporary discussions while preserving their unique cultural identity.

Education as a Tool of Power: Control of Information

 Education as a tool of power is a pervasive theme throughout history. Controlling access to knowledge and education has often been strategically employed to maintain and reinforce power structures. This dynamic can be understood through several key aspects:

  • Gatekeeping Knowledge. Historically, the ruling classes or elite often controlled educational institutions and the dissemination of knowledge. This control allowed them to influence public opinion and maintain their authority.
  • Selective Education. By limiting access to education, these groups could ensure that critical and potentially subversive ideas were not easily spread among the masses. 

Education and Social Hierarchies

  • Reinforcing Class Divisions. Restricting education to certain social classes helped perpetuate existing social hierarchies. This was evident in many societies where education was the aristocracy’s or the wealthy’s privilege.
  • Caste and Race-Based Exclusions. In some societies, such as caste-based systems in India or racial segregation in the United States, education was systematically denied to lower castes or racial minorities to maintain a subservient labour force.

Religious Control Over Education

  • Religious Institutions as Educators. In many cultures, religious institutions were the primary educators and thus controlled the type of knowledge imparted. This often included moral and ethical teachings that supported the status quo.
  • Limiting Secular Knowledge. By focusing on religious education, these institutions could limit exposure to secular ideas that challenge existing power structures.

Gender and Education: Literacy as Power

  • Exclusion of Women. Historically, women were often denied formal education. This exclusion was a strategy to maintain gender roles and prevent women from challenging their subordinate status in patriarchal societies.
  • Literacy and Authority: The ability to read and write was a powerful tool. Those who were literate had access to information and the ability to participate in governance and commerce, whereas illiteracy kept large portions of the population dependent and less empowered.

Colonialism and Education

  • Imposing Foreign Education Systems. Colonial powers often imposed their education systems on indigenous populations. This undermined local cultures and languages while promoting the colonizer’s values and worldview.
  • Creating a Compliant Elite. Colonial education aimed to create a local elite loyal to the colonizers who could help administer colonial policies.

Modern Implications

  • Ongoing Issues. The legacy of using education as a power tool is still evident in modern educational access and quality disparities.
  • Education as Liberation. Education has also been seen as a tool for empowerment and liberation, with movements advocating for universal education to break down power structures.

Education as a Pathway to Advancement

The impact of knowledge on social mobility is a significant aspect of social dynamics throughout history. Access to education and knowledge has frequently provided individuals and groups a means to transcend their original social status and climb higher in the social hierarchy. This can be explored through several dimensions:

  • Breaking Barriers. Education has historically been one of the few ways individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds could break into higher social and economic classes.
  • Professional Opportunities. Gaining knowledge and skills through education often opened up otherwise inaccessible professional opportunities, leading to better economic positions and social status.

Meritocracy and Intellectual Talent

  • Merit-Based Systems. In societies that value meritocracy, intellectual talent and educational achievements could sometimes override birth or class.
  • Civil Service Exams. A notable example is the imperial examinations in India, which provided a pathway for individuals, regardless of their social background, to enter the bureaucracy.

Industrial Revolution and Beyond

  • Changing Economic Landscape. The Industrial Revolution and subsequent technological advancements created new industries and professions that valued specialized knowledge and skills.
  • New Middle Class. This shift enabled the rise of a new middle class, comprising individuals who gained wealth and status through education and employment in emerging sectors.

Higher Education and Social Mobility

  • Universities as Equalizers. Through the establishment of universities and institutions of higher education, social mobility was facilitated, particularly by those that provided financial aid and scholarships.
  • Academic Achievement. Success in academia became a recognized route to improving one’s social and economic standing. 

Impact on Marginalized Communities

  • Breaking Cycles of Poverty. For marginalized communities, access to education has been crucial in breaking cycles of poverty and social exclusion.
  • Empowerment and Representation. Education empowers these groups to achieve representation in professions and areas of society from which they were historically excluded.

Global Perspectives

  • Variations Across Cultures. The impact of education on social mobility varied across different cultures and historical periods.
  • Colonial and Post-Colonial Contexts. In colonial and post-colonial societies, education often became a means for indigenous and marginalized populations to attain rights and recognition.

Modern Education and Social Dynamics

  • Continued Relevance. Education continues to be a key determinant of social mobility in the modern world despite ongoing inequality in educational access and quality.
  • Lifelong Learning. The concept of lifelong learning and continuous skill development reflects the ongoing importance of knowledge in social and economic advancement.

The modern landscape of knowledge and its accessibility presents a stark contrast to historical scenarios. This change offers insights into how the dynamics of power and knowledge have evolved.

Democratization of Knowledge

  • Widespread Education. Unlike in the past, where education was a privilege of the elite, modern societies generally advocate for and often provide universal education. This has significantly democratized access to knowledge.
  • Information Technology. Access to information has been radically transformed with the emergence of the digital technologies and internet; barriers previously erected by geography, social standing, or economic constraints have been eliminated.

Shift in Power Dynamics

  • Reduced Monopoly Over Knowledge. Certain classes or institutions historically had a near-monopoly over knowledge. Today, this monopoly is vastly diminished, leading to a more level playing field regarding access to information.
  • Empowerment of the Masses. With broader access to knowledge, individuals and groups that were historically marginalized have more opportunities to challenge existing power structures and participate more actively in societal decision-making processes.

Changing Nature of Work and Economy

Knowledge Economy. In contrast to the past, where land ownership or industrial capital were primary power sources, today’s global economy increasingly values knowledge and innovation.

Skill-based Employment. The labour market increasingly favours skills and knowledge, allowing for social mobility based on merit and talent rather than birth or social status.

Globalization and Cross-Cultural Exchange

  • Global Connectivity. The interconnectedness of the modern world facilitates the exchange of ideas and knowledge across cultures, leading to a more diverse and enriched global intellectual landscape.
  • Cultural Influence. While this has led to greater cultural understanding, it also raises concerns about cultural homogenization and the dominance of certain ideologies.

Challenges in the Modern Context

  • Information Overload. The vast quantity of information at one’s disposal can be daunting and occasionally results in the dissemination of false information.
  • Digital Divide. Despite the progress, a digital divide still exists, both globally and within societies, affecting equitable access to information.

Education and Critical Thinking

  • Continuous Learning. Continual technological and scientific progress requires individuals to maintain a commitment to continual learning and flexibility.
  • Emphasis on Critical Thinking. Modern education systems increasingly focus on developing critical thinking skills, preparing individuals to navigate and interpret vast amounts of information.

Policy and Governance

  • Educational Policies. Governments and institutions are crucial in shaping policies that ensure equitable access to quality education.
  • Informed Citizenry. A well-educated population is essential for the effective functioning of democracies, as it leads to a more informed and engaged citizenry. 

Technological Advances and Knowledge Dissemination

Technological advances have played a transformative role in democratizing knowledge and challenging traditional social hierarchies. The dissemination of knowledge in the modern era, fuelled by rapid technological progress, has reshaped how information is accessed and shared, leading to significant societal changes:

  • Widespread Access. The internet has been a game-changer in making knowledge more accessible. Data that was formerly only accessible at elite academic institutions is now accessible to everybody with an internet connection.
  • Global Connectivity. The internet has connected people globally, facilitating the exchange of ideas and knowledge across geographical and cultural boundaries. 

Social Media and Information Exchange

  • Rapid Communication. Social media platforms have revolutionized information dissemination, allowing for rapid and widespread communication.
  • Empowerment of Individuals. These platforms have empowered individuals to share information and mobilize collective action, challenging traditional gatekeepers of knowledge and power.

Open-Source and Collaborative Platforms

  • Collaborative Knowledge Creation. Platforms like Wikipedia and open-source software communities embody the spirit of collaborative knowledge creation and sharing.
  • Democratizing Innovation. These platforms have democratized the innovation process, allowing anyone to contribute to and benefit from collective knowledge.

E-Learning and Online Education

  • Online Courses and Resources. The proliferation of online courses, educational resources, and e-learning platforms has made high-quality education more accessible.
  • Lifelong Learning. These resources provide continuous learning and skill development opportunities, essential in today’s rapidly changing job market.

Impact on Traditional Institutions

  • Challenging Established Institutions. The ease of accessing information online challenges traditional educational institutions to adapt and evolve.
  • Hybrid Learning Models. Many educational institutions now incorporate online resources and digital tools, creating hybrid learning models.
  • Digital Divide and Inequality
  • Persistent Inequalities. Despite these advances, the digital divide remains a significant issue. Access to technology is still unequal, particularly in underprivileged and rural areas.
  • Efforts to Bridge the Gap. There are ongoing efforts by governments, NGOs, and private entities to bridge this digital divide through infrastructure development and education programs.

Information Quality and Critical Thinking

Misinformation and Overload. The ease of publishing and accessing information online has led to challenges in ensuring the quality and accuracy of information, highlighting the need for critical thinking skills.

Educational Focus. Modern education increasingly emphasizes digital literacy and critical thinking to help individuals navigate this complex information landscape.

Changing Workforce and Economy

  • Knowledge-Based Economy. The technological revolution has accelerated the transition to a knowledge-based economy, where information and skills are critical economic drivers.
  • New Job Opportunities. This shift has created new job sectors and roles, offering new avenues for social mobility.

Islamic Teachings and Religion

The role of Maulvis, or Islamic religious scholars, in modern society is multifaceted and significant, particularly within Muslim communities worldwide. Maulvis serve as custodians of Islamic teachings and often teaches in madrassas (Islamic religious schools). Their influence and importance can be understood through various dimensions:

Religious Guidance and Education

  • Custodians of Theology. Maulvis are responsible for interpreting and disseminating Islamic theology, jurisprudence, and ethical teachings.
  • Madrassas Education. Madrassas serve as institutions that impart religious instruction, encompassing the Quran, Hadith (Verses of the Prophet Muhammad), Fiqh (The Jurisprudence of Islam), and various other Islamic sciences.

Spiritual Leadership

  • Community Leaders. Maulvis often serve as Imams (prayer leaders) and spiritual guides in mosques, offering guidance and counselling to community members.
  • Religious Rites and Ceremonies. They play a crucial role in religious ceremonies, including prayers, weddings, and funerals.

Social and Community Services

  • Moral and Ethical Guidance. Maulvis often addresses moral and ethical issues facing their communities, providing guidance based on Islamic teachings.
  • Community Development. Many engage in community development activities, including education, charity, and welfare services.

Interfaith Dialogue and Social Harmony

  • Promoting Understanding. Maulvis can play a crucial role in interfaith dialogue, promoting understanding and respect among religious communities.
  • Countering Extremism. By promoting moderate interpretations of Islam, they can counter radical ideologies and foster social harmony.

Adapting to Modern Challenges

  • Contemporary Issues. Modern Maulvis often address contemporary issues like education, technology, and globalization from an Islamic perspective.
  • Relevance in Modern Contexts. Their ability to interpret Islamic teachings in the context of modern challenges is crucial for the relevance and vitality of the Muslim community.

Influence on Youth and Education

  • Shaping Beliefs and Values. As educators, Maulvis significantly influence the beliefs, values, and worldviews of young Muslims.
  • Balancing Tradition and Modernity. They play a crucial role in helping young people navigate the complexities of maintaining their religious identity in increasingly globalized and diverse societies.

Challenges and Criticisms

  • Diverse Interpretations. The diverse interpretations of Islamic teachings by different Maulvis can lead to varied understandings of Islam among followers.
  • Need for Reform. In some contexts, there is a call for reform in madrassa education to include more secular subjects and modern pedagogical methods.

Global and Political Context

  • International Influence. In the globalized world, the teachings and perspectives of Maulvis can have international implications, influencing diaspora communities and international Muslim discourse.
  • Political Role. In some countries, Maulvis play a significant political role, influencing or directly participating in governance.


The role of knowledge in shaping social hierarchies offers profound insights into the dynamics of power throughout history, highlighting the complex interplay between societal structures and control over information. Historically, ruling classes, institutions, and colonial powers utilized education control as a strategic means to maintain power. This restriction of knowledge access reinforced existing social, political, and economic hierarchies, underscoring the importance of education in societal development. The struggle for equal educational opportunities is thus seen as pivotal for social empowerment.

Education and knowledge access have historically been crucial drivers of social mobility, enabling individuals and groups to ascend social hierarchies. Although complex and multifaceted, this transformative power of education is universally acknowledged as a catalyst for social advancement. The evolution from using knowledge as a power tool to a more equitable access scenario marks significant progress in democratizing knowledge, altering power dynamics, and fostering broader social participation and empowerment. Nevertheless, modern challenges like information overload and the digital divide persist, necessitating continuous efforts to bridge education and technology access inequalities.

Technological advancements have dramatically reshaped knowledge dissemination, democratizing information access and challenging traditional social hierarchies. These changes have opened vast opportunities for learning and empowerment and introduced challenges like the digital divide and the necessity for enhanced digital literacy. This ongoing evolution continually reshapes the future landscape of education, work, and societal structures.


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