The Foundation and Value of Language Education in the Indian Tradition

The Foundation and Value of Language Education in the Indian Tradition

The sorry state of language education at the primary level is the consequence of designing textbooks based on political ideologies, caste, religion and other harmful factors. Recovering the foundations of our educational system will help mitigate these ills.


This is a translation of the author’s original Kannada essay titled bhāṣābodhakagaḻa nelebelegaḻu published in the volume titled, bhāṣābhṛṃgada benneri.

Translated by Sandeep Balakrishna.  

ONE OF THE TRAGEDIES OF OUR TIME is not prescribing evocative literature at the level of primary school instruction.

To the learned and the scholarly community, it’s not necessary to spell out what is meant by evocative literature. But for the purposes of easy understanding, it can be described thus: any literature, (no matter its form) which through the solemnity of its ideals, appeals to people of different ages and temperaments. At every stage, it remains meaningful from the perspective of beauty and refinement, grows with readers, walks step-by-step with them as a companion in the path of life, lends a supportive shoulder, offers solace and illuminates their life — this can be termed as evocative literature. The words of Maha Kavi Kumaravyasa illustrates the model of evocative literature: “To the kings this work [his magnum opus, Karṇāṭabhāratakathāman̄jari] is Heroism, to the Brahmanas it is the essence of the Vedas…”

But in the recent decades, it appears that attention hasn’t flowed in this direction. It is tragic that the Government has kept numerous chicaneries of religion, caste, regionalism, and political ideologies in mind and has continued to design textbooks, which resemble manifestos. In this project, history and language textbooks have become the first sacrificial goats.

The goal of making language textbooks for children simple, easy, and attractive is certainly praiseworthy. But when all these features work towards creating non-evocative literature, all such efforts will end up becoming fruitless. Besides, in recent times, language textbooks are really no different from those of history, social studies, science, and general knowledge. The subjects that have gained currency in recent times like environmental concerns, caste-religion harmony, nation building and leaders who played a decisive role in it… these occupy a major part in textbooks meant for teaching language.

None of these subjects are useless or undesirable. But these deserve to be properly included in science, general knowledge, social studies, and history respectively. Language instruction occupies a separate realm. It has its own specialty. It chiefly works through literature and grammar. Here, literature preserves its identity through Rasa (Feeling), Dhvani (Suggestion) and Vakrōkti (Poetic Expression) at all times. Sans these, it will never become literature in the truest sense of the word. If language and literature attempt to perform the tasks of other topics or branches of knowledge, which are the disciplines that will perform the task of language?   

Today, linguistic and literary studies and the disciplines of political science and sociology have become so inseparable that it’s almost as if no distinction exists between them. This sort of Advaita might well be an ultimate ideal. Likewise, this sort of inseparability might even be welcome or inevitable at some level. But only chaos will remain if no due difference is retained between each such discipline — at least from the perspective of systematizing education and research — owing to prejudice and lack of foresight.

Because every food item that we eat finally becomes united in our stomach, do we cook Payasam, Sambar, Curd, Holige, and Lemon-rice together in the same vessel? First, there is the Dvaita of each item during its cooking process. Next, there is the Viśiṣṭādvaita involved in savoring their mixture: i.e., relishing the taste of each dish’s optimal consistency after the whole meal is served on the plantain leaf. Finally, there is Advaita when the meal is offered as a Yajna to our digestive fire. This is the proper procedure!

In this, each stage has its own significance and priority. The turmoil induced by blind feelings of superiority and inferiority doesn’t exist here. Nor does exist the pretense of hypocritical equality. What exists is the convenience of practical sense culminating in the harmony of spirituality, friendship, and cooperation.

Therefore, it is not an auspicious sign when today, ill-informed and half-cooked vegetative promiscuity conducted in the name of research in our literature, art, and cultural studies are introduced even in the primary levels of education.  

It is also not advisable to impart the realities of the world around us in a brutally frank tone at the primary school level. In this regard, it is worth recalling the caution of the great Telugu writer, Viswanatha Satyanarayana in his pre-independence novel (Veyyi paḍagaḷu – Thousand Hoods of a Snake). Accordingly, all lessons in language textbooks must not merely report the external physical characteristics of say, the cow, coconut tree, stars and so on. For example, “this is a cow, the cow has four legs, and two horns. It gives milk…this is a coconut tree. It is very tall. Its leaves are long…” and so on. Instead, the system of instruction must be such that it evokes the value of each of these items.

If we can consider the aforementioned example, we can say that the lesson on the cow must include the story of the Punyakoti cow or that of King Dilipa and the cow, Nandini. Or the lesson on coconut trees must resonate with the suggestion of the magnanimous life of a coconut tree, which drinks salt water and gives us pots of sweet and tender coconut water. For example:

प्रथमवयसि पीतं तोयमल्पं स्मरन्तः
शिरसि निहितभारा नारिकेला नराणाम् |
ददति जलमनल्पास्वादमाजीवितान्तं
न हि कृतमुपकारं साधवो विस्मरन्ति  ||

prathamavayasi pītaṃ toyamalpaṃ smarantaḥ
śirasi nihitabhārā nārikelā narāṇām |

dadati jalamanalpāsvādamājīvitāntaṃ
na hi kṛtamupakāraṃ sādhavo vismaranti  ||

In gratitude for the little water it consumed in its infant years, a coconut tree, bearing weight on its head throughout its life, gives sweet water abundantly to humans. Noble people never forget any help given to them.

In lessons describing stars, the strands of the story of Dhruva must necessarily be embedded. Indeed, the chief aim of literature is to enkindle the consciousness of values. Where is the foundation for and what is the merit of any writing that doesn’t reverberate with values?

Values don’t merely mean an awareness of social, political and scientific realities. Values are experiential sensitivity of feelings, ideals, and universal experiences – this is its chief basis. It’s true that awareness of ideals emanates from physical or practical realities. It is from the physical realities of “cow,” “coconut tree,” and “stars” that we are aware of linguistic and non-physical features and actions like “four,” “two,” “tall,” “long,” “shining,” and “white.”

But logic is only related to matter, characteristics, action, and genus. But while language has both the ability and responsibility to direct and interpret all these logical aspects, there is more to it. Language also has the strength and the responsibility to echo emotions, to point towards the value of the soul, all of which transcend the aforementioned logical features and are only accessible to experience.

Therefore, in the teaching of language, there is an inevitability and an expectation for all fashions of the physical world to find fulfillment in the evocative Bliss of Rasa (Rasānanda) rooted in the experience of idealism. Any endeavour that forgets or rejects this Bliss will ultimately be meaningless.

In light of the discussion so far, the aspects related to the world of values rooted in suggestion (Dhvani) will never be imprisoned in the confines of time, space, and trends. Which is why they will never be outdated or misplaced. Therefore, it is our first duty to constantly imbibe these profound elements within us. The designs and patterns of gold jewelry might go out of fashion but gold itself won’t. And memorization is the inheritance of this gold. In this regard, I would like to pray to readers to recall the article that I’d written about the role of memorization in learning. [This refers to an essay titled dhvanipūrṇaprāthamikapāṭhyakrama appearing the same volume]. The word, Smriti or memory is also used in the sense of Smarane or “recall.” This word not only applies to the root, Smara (Kama, God of Sensual Desire) in the linguistic sense but also in the semantic sense.

When we put virtuous things (i.e., things unopposed to Dharma) into the basket called Smara (Kama), it becomes a Purushartha. Else, it will fall in the ariṣaḍvarga (Six Deadly Vices). Kama is chief among the Purusharthas, and it occupies the first place in the ariṣaḍvarga as well. Therefore, memory and knowledge must not be restricted merely to information-centric adventures like quiz. When they extend themselves to the realms of values and universal experience, everything will be noble, beautiful, and joyous.   

OUR CULTURE AND TRADITION is cyclic, not linear. Which is why the very first lessons that a child learns in India, namely, the Ōnāma (or Om Namah), the Raghuvamśa, Rāmāyaṇa, Bhagavad-Gīta, are also the lessons marking the completion of education. Even while we conjugate or decline various word forms in different cases and numbers, we begin with Rāmaḥ rāmau rāmāḥ, Hariḥ harī haryaḥ and not with Ghaṭaḥ ghaṭau ghaṭāḥ, or Sandhiḥ sandhī sandhayaḥ. It goes further. Even in our school copybooks we used to write, “Rama went to the forest,” and not any random lesson.

This is our culture of learning.

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