When Ananda Coomaraswamy prophetically declared about eighty years ago that education was the most unfortunate and tragic of all problems that India faced, the statement encompassed all facets of education. Including teachers. Indeed, the abysmal trajectory can be couched in the yawing chasm that separates an Acharya and a Teacher. A discerning and wise person will see titles and honorifics as obstacles to the attainment of excellence and/or self-realisation. For example, what title can and will justify the full gamut of the legacy of the contemporary Rishi D.V.Gundappa? But Swami Vivekananda, in his characteristic[i] style, predated Ananda Coomaraswamy’s caution when he thundered:
The education that you are getting now… is not a man-making education, it is merely and entirely a negative education. A negative education or any training that is based on negation, is worse than death. 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. [Emphasis added]
History is the clearest proof of the repeated and unerring ambush of ego that invariably leads to the recurrent cycles of downfall and destruction of entire civilisations. In this cosmic scheme of things, and perhaps to console oneself, we can say that education is a minor but fatal casualty. But in India, it appears that this fatality has been entirely self-created, its acceleration becoming more intense and feverish with each decade after “independence.” Amid this pervasive pall of national woe, we can take solace by recalling some luminous rays, even from a fairly recent past.
The contemporary literary colossus, Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa narrates one such illuminating episode in his Bhitti.
The name Babubhai Jashbhai Patel will ring a faint bell perhaps only in Gujarat. He was a two-time Chief Minister of the state, first representing the short-lived Janata Morcha (1975-76) and the second, Janata Party (1977-80). Earlier, he was a cabinet minister under Morarji Desai in the (United) Bombay State.
But there was another side to Babubhai Jashbhai Patel. He was an ideal teacher who upheld the finest Sanatana traditions of learning. In 1957-58, he became the Vice Chancellor of Sardar Patel University in Gujarat.
Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa joined the Sardar Patel University in the winter of 1960. A week after he arrived there, Babubhai sent for him.
This is what happened next, in Dr. Bhyrappa’s own words.
Babubhai Patel (BP): “Are you comfortable in the hostel?”
Dr. Bhyrappa (SLB): “Yes”
BP: “It seems you eat outside in hotels. Why don’t you eat in the hostel itself?”
SLB: “With students….” I expressed my embarrassment.
BP: “If students see that the teacher is eating with them, it makes an impact on their behavior. You can also give me independent reports on the food quality and other aspects. Sahanau bhunaktu.” He concluded his gentle insistence with a smile.
I agreed to begin from tomorrow.
BP: “The Philosophy Department has just begun here. You don’t have all the books you need. I’m sanctioning five thousand rupees immediately. You go to the Standard Book shop in Mumbai, stay there for two days, select all the books you want and ask them to dispatch immediately. Next year, I’ll sanction more money.”
I felt very happy. I went to Mumbai and selected the books. In those days, five thousand rupees could purchase a significant number of books.
The hostel food was of a high standard both in taste and hygiene. Dal, vegetable, soft rotis with delicate folds, rice, and curd. Two meals per day. You had to pay twenty-eight rupees at the end of the month. Measured by the standard of living in 1960, no hostel could afford to offer this kind of food at such low prices. There was a reason for this.
Vice Chancellor Babubhai Patel would make surprise visits to the hostel canteen at lunch time and eat some dal, a roti, and a spoonful of vegetable. He would personally inspect the rice to see if there was any stone bits, husk, etc in it or whether the curd had turned sour. He would also keenly observe the cleanliness and hygiene of both the kitchen and the entire surrounding.
One day, a group of about twenty students met the Vice Chancellor. A delegation of sorts. Before he called them in, he sent for the warden, two lecturers, and me. The complaint of the students: “The same kind of food every day. We’re bored. We need a sweet dish every Sunday. On one Sunday of the month, we need non-vegetarian. Please instruct the warden accordingly.”
The Vice Chancellor observed the students once more. He knew the names of six students in the group. He also knew the names of and businesses that their respective fathers were engaged in. Keeping that in mind, he asked: “You’re all friends?”
“Hundred and five students live in this hostel. Only twenty of you have come to me. The remaining eighty-five aren’t your friends? Or have you formed a sub-group or something?” The students were stumped at this and didn’t know how to react. The Vice Chancellor continued:
“Maganbhai, I know your father has a flourishing business in Uganda. Dhirajbhai, I also know that your father is building a new mill. Manubhai’s father’s commission business is in full swing. All you twenty students are sons of wealthy people. This food has become monotonous for you. We need to hear what the other eighty-five students say.
If you feel that the taste of the food has become monotonous, we can instruct the cooks to alter it. Instead of dal, we can have Kadi or some other dish. A sweet dish every week, non-vegetarian every month…how much would it cost per head? Last month, it was twenty-eight rupees. I already discussed with the warden on how to reduce it to twenty-five rupees without sacrificing the quality.
It is difficult for poor students to afford twenty-eight…even twenty-five rupees. I have already identified several such poor students. I’m still unable to figure out how to stop them from discontinuing their studies because they can’t afford the cost.
Let’s do this. You guys form a subcommittee. The duty of the subcommittee is to go to the market, identify fresh vegetables and buy them at a good bargain. Think how much money you can save by this method. Some folks take more servings than they can eat. Think of all that wasted food. Think of how much can be saved by stopping this practice. Some cooks burn more firewood than is necessary. That needs to be rectified. Overall, the cost of meals should come down to twenty-five rupees.
Those of you who have the money, you can go to Anand on Sundays and eat all the sweets you want. You can also go to a big restaurant once a month and eat non-vegetarian to your heart’s content. But you must not impose the choice of your palate on other students here.
And understand one more thing: in our ancient Gurukulas, whether it was the son of a king, a wealthy businessman, a carpenter, blacksmith, cowherd…all the boys had to shave their head. All of them used to wear the same kind of clothes. All of them took care of the cattle and worked in the fields. They went to the nearby villages, uttered Bhavati Bhikshaam Dehi and took their food. In other words, they had to either earn food on their own or accept it as Bhiksha. They never took anything from either the king or a businessman. This is the true meaning of the sloka, sahanāvavatu sahanaubhunaktu. What’s the meaning of saying, ‘we don’t want the food that our own classmates eat, we want lavish, expensive food?’ At least during your studenthood, imbibe the feeling within yourselves that all of you are equal. Also, because you have money, try to avoid visiting restaurants.”
Not a single student replied. When I saw their expressions, it became clear that none of them had the moral strength to even utter a word. However, it was also clear that this profound philosophy merely remained on the surface but didn’t penetrate their inner core and melt their emotion.
Ever since the disappearance of the likes of Babubhai Patel, the everyday verifiable reality in our universities can be couched in the other meanings of the word, “Vice.” Merriam-Webster dictionary assigns the following meanings:
a : moral depravity or corruption
b : a moral fault or failing
c : a habitual and usually trivial defect or shortcoming
[i] Swami Vivekananda: Lectures from Colombo to Almora: The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol 3: Advaita Ashrama.