What the Masters Said: Rescue Indian Education Before it is too Late

The first of a two-part series delineating the wisdom, diagnosis and solutions that our past masters and savants like Swami Vivekananda, Ananda Coomaraswamy and R.K. Mookerji offered about the urgent problem of education in India
What the Masters Said: Rescue Indian Education Before it is too Late

यस्तु विज्नानवान् भवति युक्तेन मनसा सदा।
तस्येन्द्रियाणि वश्यानि सदश्वैव सारतेः॥

He who is possessed of supreme knowledge by concentration of mind,

must have his senses under control, like spirited steeds controlled by a charioteer

This uplifting verse from the Kathopanishad (III.6) perhaps best captures the ancient Indian ideal and approach to learning and education.

This verse occurs in the context of Yama teaching the young Nachiketa the secrets of Brahma Vidya (Knowledge of the Supreme Reality), and the underlying principle of the control of the senses and concentration of mind which characterises the general Indian outlook towards learning. Indeed, concentration in itself is viewed as an intermediate step towards the ultimate goal of realising the Self. Thus, for example, a Sthapati’s (sculptor, temple builder) training necessarily includes the subtext of the fact that his learning and its eventual application are directed at accumulating virtue as opposed to merely building a religious structure. Concentration leading to both the student and the expert and the scholar and the creator immersing himself in a meditative state is one of the greatest secrets to accomplishing the sublime and the exalted.

This profound conception and outlook not only applies to learning and education but is also reflected in the organisation of the traditional Indian society, which stood the test of time until it was rudely, violently interrupted and overwhelmed by brutal waves of successive, alien Abrahamic invasions and an extended spell of colonialism. At the heart of the Indian approach to education lies a simple idea: to offer the “best scope for the development of the individual” according to his or her temperament, intelligence and so on.

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Another distinguished and distinctive trait of ancient Indian education is its emphasis on the personal and intimate nature of imparting and receiving knowledge. Those that conceived and designed the method of ancient Indian learning had mastered and gained deep insights into both Jnana and Prajnana, terms that are untranslatable. Sri R.K. Mookerji explains it beautifully.

The pupil must find the teacher. He must live with him as a member of his family and is treated by him in every way as his son. The school is a natural formation, not artificially constituted. It is a hermitage…functioning in solitude and silence. The constant and intimate association between teacher and taught is vital to education…[T]he pupil is to imbibe the inward method of the teacher, the secrets of his efficiency, the spirit of his life and work, and these things are too subtle to be taught…

In other words, an ounce of experience is worth more than reading a hundred books. This sort of system also places enormous responsibility and accountability on the part of the teacher to lead by personal example. He must constantly introspect and evaluate his own lifestyle, conduct and character. Even if a graduate didn’t exactly become the world’s foremost scholar, this system ensured that he would always be a model citizen. That in turn translates in real life into an enormous reduction in policing and the necessity for inventing newer laws, which in turn means that to that extent, State interference in the lives of private citizens is kept minimal.

It is for this and other related reasons that until the advent of the destructive British system of education, the Indian Guru Parampara (Lineage of Gurus) was revered across the nation. Further,

The making of man depends on the human factor. Here, the personal touch, the living relationship between the pupil and teacher make education. The pupil belongs to the teacher and not to an institution or the abstraction called the school. A modern school teaches pupils by “classes”, and not as individuals with their differences.

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This lament by R.K. Mookerji has its distinguished ancestors hailing from an entire tradition of great rooted Indian scholars and intellectuals and Gurus ranging from Swami Vivekananda, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Dharampal and others. As history is witness, the near-total destruction of this system of education and its criminal replacement by the British colonial system of education continues to produce assembly-line human machines, which contemporary society treats merely as economic resources, and nothing higher. This is not man-making or character-building much less, directing and elevating the gross human on an inward quest which is where real education lies awaiting discovery. This is industrialisation of education in its worst form. Almost five generations of Indians have mindlessly digested it and see no higher purpose in life than a feverish, impatient, ruthless and lifelong quest after the base. The clairvoyant savant Swami Vivekananda foresaw precisely this consequence more than a century ago in this caustic lament:

The child is taken to school, and the first thing he learns is that his father is a fool, the second thing that his grandfather is a lunatic, the third thing that all his teachers are hypocrites, the fourth, that all the sacred books are lies! By the time he is sixteen he is a mass of negation, lifeless and boneless…We have learnt only weakness.

Indeed, it is because we have not only learnt this weakness but we have made weakness our lifestyle that we can no longer see what the great Swami foresaw.

Contrast the attitude and underpinnings of colonial education with the Indian conception of parents and the Guru as akin to God, and the full extent of the cultural and civilisational damage that was wrought upon India will become clear. We shall take leave of R.K. Mookerji after examining this superlative insight he gives on the intertwined relationship between the teacher, the taught and knowledge itself:

Knowledge did not then exist in the form of Manuscripts...which could be stored up in a library like household furniture, for knowledge was the furniture of the mind, while the teacher himself was the living and walking library….for thousands of years, even up to the time of Kumarila…it was considered sacrilege to reduce the Veda to writing, for learning was not reading but realisation, and knowledge was to be in the blood, as an organic part of one’s own self.

That this exalted conception carried itself unbroken up to the mid-1900s can be evidenced from D.V. Gundappa’s pen picture of Mahāmahopādhyāya Hanagal Virupaksha Sastri, one of the foremost scholars of Vedanta

Sri Sastri frowned upon printed texts and generally did not rely on them. He insisted on learning the texts by heart. On one occasion, he saw me holding a printed book in my hands, and said, “Even you have started holding printed books these days?” On another occasion, he was discussing Advaitasiddhi at lunchtime. I had a printed version of the work in my hand to follow the discussion and that edition contained several printing mistakes. Sri Sastri, who knew the entire work by heart, immediately exclaimed with a smile, ‘See, that’s why I say you should not rely on printed books!’

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And now we can turn to Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy who perhaps remains one of the staunchest defenders of the Indian tradition of education in the spirit of what Sri David Frawley terms an Intellectual Kshatriya.

Unfortunately, the trajectory of Indian education after "independence" appears to be a deliberately crude mockery of all these eminences who correctly understood the fact that if Sanatana Bharatavarsha's soul has to be reclaimed, if the fundamental impulse of her once-throbbing culture has to be recovered, education is the master key to accomplish it.

To be continued

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