Do we Want a Brave New India of Uniformly Literate Mechanics?

A commentary on our approach to education using Ananda Coomaraswamy's classic essay on the subject
Do we Want a Brave New India of Uniformly Literate Mechanics?

One of the central themes of The Dharma Dispatch is dedicated to education or more appropriately, its rescue from the collective forces of soullessness and de-spiritualization both of which are the consequences of treating humans as nothing higher than mere economic units. The term “beasts of burden” was quite prevalent at least till the late 1980s. A singularly mindless pursuit of all-encompassing automation has ensured that a cardinal animal whose evolution was almost concatenate with human evolution almost stands on the verge of extinction today: the horse. But for the existence of race courses and spoilt-rich businessmen, it would have gone completely extinct by now. Another animal whose evolution we can trace to a similar antiquity is the donkey. When I was growing up, donkeys were ubiquitous even in large cities: its home was the Dhobi Ghat. How many donkeys we spot today? Indeed, the rapid disappearance of these two gentle friends of the human is a fit subject for a sensitive poet to author a profound elegy.

As we sow so we reap.

We have heartlessly kicked out these wonderful animals that have so selflessly served the human civilization since its dawn. And we have become the new beasts of burden. This has happened due to a fundamental shift in our attitudes to the key questions of life. One such shift is the replacement of philosophy with economics. Or to put it more bluntly, with money. The collective net consequence of this shift has been a near-total obliteration of the human’s innate capacity to merge with Nature. At no point in human history has the fear of the night been so successfully but so tragically overcome. Every major city and town across the world are lit up artificially throughout the night. Is this our attempt to somehow overcome and overwhelm the yawning spiritual darkness within? A great significance of the night or darkness is also rest. A verifiable daily reality is also a common urban complaint: insomnia. Because we have forgotten how to rest we no longer have access to the basic human function of sleep. We have forgotten how to rest because our current worldview teaches us that anybody can become say, a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffet or a Jeff Bezos; and the only route to become like them is unceasing hard work. See how neatly this ties in with the aforementioned point about humans as the new beasts of burden?

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That brings us to the other important point: an overarching shift in who we regard as role models and heroes. Just half a century ago, our heroes were largely derived from the warrior class, truly eminent political leaders, freedom fighters, litterateurs, and spiritual stalwarts like Swami Vivekananda. Today they have been replaced by entrepreneurs, businessmen, movie stars, and phoney spiritual Gurus whose multinational empires can easily rub shoulders with the Bill Gates of the world. To put this in a different fashion, we no longer have societal guides and mentors who derive respect and their words are obeyed just by being. I’m sure they exist but their numbers are quickly dwindling and the very fact that they are largely unknown is another proof of the fact.

All this has occurred due to the aforementioned fundamental shift, which has obviously spread its soul-sucking claws to the vital realm of education as well. I have not read the much-discussed New Education Policy but from reading its highlights, I see nothing radically original. Perhaps it has some genuinely good elements but as they say, the proof is in the pudding and it is too premature to pass any judgement.

What I’ve said so far is nothing new. These consequences were anticipated more than a century ago by truly brilliant minds upon whose wisdom I rely. One such fantastic work is a long form essay, The Bugbear of Literacy by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, published quite fittingly in 1947. It remains highly relevant till date.

The essence of The Bugbear of Literacy is rather straightforward. It is a frontal attack against the arrogant colonial Western notion of what it regarded as education and culture. Coomaraswamy quotes a representative line of this notion: “The greatest force in civilization is the collective wisdom of a literate people,” and proceeds to rip it to shreds. This statement couldn’t have arisen sans Europe’s heartless and genocidal colonization and plunder of Mother Earth. The same West which needed Aristotle and classical Greek and Rome to usher its Renaissance slaughtered him in the 20th century after it convinced itself that only might was right.

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Aristotle was entirely consonant with the unparalleled Darshana of our own Rishis when he said that culture is not necessarily related to literacy, and that a cultured man could also acquire literacy either by accident or interest. But the truth in its converse was greater: literacy doesn’t guarantee culture.

And then Coomaraswamy bombs the nest of this Western notion of the absolute supremacy and compulsion of literacy with a simple sentence:

our industrial system can only be operated and profits can only be made by men provided with at least an elementary knowledge of the “three R's.”

As we noted earlier, this was an early warning against the consequences of regarding humans as mere economic units. And what does an education system premised on this sort of notion produce? Coomaraswamy answers:

the literacy actually produced by compulsory mass education often involves little or no more than an ability and the will to read the newspapers and advertisements. [Emphasis added]

Indeed, Ananda Coomaraswamy’s far more profound contemporary, D.V. Gundappa echoes the same warning when he repeatedly warns people from reading too many newspapers. He had the authority to say so: he was an editor and journalist for sixty years.

And what exactly was at the root of such an education policy? What was the inherent evil?

If…you are planning to industrialize the rest of the world, you are also duty bound to train it in Basic English… American is already a language of exclusively external relationships, a tradesman’s tongue—lest the other peoples should be unable to compete effectively with us. Competition is the life of trade, and gangsters must have rivals. [Emphasis added]

Think about it for a moment. Think about the English we use in India today. Think about the badly mangled contractions and neologisms whose etymology rebels against every known principle of linguistics. Think about the phrases we unthinkingly use as accepted truths. Think about the idioms we drop as profound wisdom. Most of them are horrible Americanisms that have no past and their shelf lives are akin to the newly introduced “disappearing messages” on WhatsApp.

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Ananda Coomaraswamy calls this sort of education as “industrialised literacy,” which is an unqualified force for the destruction of all that is profound, invaluable and enduring. He says this education destroys the memories of entire cultures, and the appalling erosion of the memories of our own Sanatana culture is perhaps its greatest proof. This education is actually an alien imposition, a conquest worse than a military occupation. Because, “ to impose our literacy (and our contemporary "literature”) upon a cultured but illiterate people is to destroy their culture in the name of our own.” [Emphasis added]

One area where this all-round destruction has occurred is our oral tradition which is older than history itself. A good portion of the singers and poets of say, the Bhagavata Melas, Ram Katha, Puranas, Harikathas, etc were illiterate but they had unmatched power to swoon thousands of people with their renditions. And they had this entire cultural treasure in their head and heart. Even a drop of what they had in their head flowed into their heart and then flowed out like the Ganga in their voices, it drowned the masses in a profound deluge of emotion, piety and aesthetic joy. Their “literate” descendants became pathetically-paid labourers in mills and factories. This is how the aforementioned destruction of cultural memory translates in real life.

This is savagery, not education.

And what has this “education” produced as its nightmarish end result? Has it resulted in a nation of happy people? As experience shows us, quite the contrary. The explosion of the psychiatry industry is the other great proof of this fact. So what kind of nation has this “education” created? Coomaraswamy quotes Karl Otten:

Universal compulsory education, of the type introduced at the end of the last century, has not fulfilled expectations by producing happier and more effective citizens; on the contrary, it has created readers of the yellow press and cinema-goers. [Emphasis added]

The inseparable companion of education is learning. And this was the Sanatana view of both education and learning:

From the earliest times, Indians have thought of the learned man, not as one who has read much, but as one who has been profoundly taught.

That sort of teaching and learning comes not from mere literacy or books but from a deeper place. It requires centuries of patient culturing before it becomes National Character. Bharatavarsha was and remains such a culture despite one and half centuries of British and American assaults on its educational core. As we noted elsewhere, rescue this core before it is too late. One effort at this rescue is not policy, but a fundamental re-shift of our attitudes.

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At the very basics, the chief goal of this re-education should be to create citizens in the true sense of the word, and not economic units. D.V. Gundappa coined a highly original and all-embracing Indian term for citizen: Rashtraka. The word is not easily translatable to English but it generally means a person who is patriotic, who is deeply attached to his nation and its culture, obeys its cultural laws, fosters its civilizational heritage and is courageous enough to risk his life to protect and safeguard all of this. Does our current education system produce this type of Rashtraka? Consider our present situation: we are still unable to overcome our national cowardice that prevents us from declaring something that has self-evidentiary value as Vande Mataram as our national anthem. Our feeble hearts tremble at prescribing the Bhagavad Gita and stories from our sacred national literature as lessons to our children. These are our natural, unarguable cultural boundaries akin to how the Himalayas, the Sapta Sindhu and the Hindu Mahasagara are inseparable parts of this sanctified land.

Let’s consider a relevant pointer in this regard. Think about say, a verse of Bhartruhari. One of my most treasured joys includes listening to an extraordinary exposition of his Subashita, “Kshutkshamopi” by Shatavadhani Dr. Ganesh. His exposition lasted a full ten minutes of absolute majesty expounding on just four lines. The more he dug, the more wealth tumbled out. Poetics, grammar, etymology, prosody, rhythm, context, usage, beauty and nuance hidden in these four lines of poetic Kshatra. Dr. Ganesh concluded that we can delineate the entire philosophy of aesthetics using this one verse.

What was the education that created a Bhartruhari and giants like him? Literacy? Definitely. But when one reads his body of work, it becomes clear that literacy played just a small part in his overall education. Ananda Coomaraswamy’s words perfectly apply to Bhartruhari: he was profoundly taught.

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The Sanatana approach to education is like Sanatana Dharma itself. One of the implications of the word eternal is immortal, that which has an inbuilt quality of endurance and a superb capacity to transcend and outlast time and space. The alternative is to fashion an education policy which will create and breed and usher in a “brave new world of uniformly literate mechanics.”

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