The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), the apex organisation assisting and advising the Central and State Governments in Education, recently instituted a scheme entitled Sri Aurobindo Memorial Lecture. The first lecture under this scheme was delivered by Manoj Das at the Presidency College auditorium, the University of Calcutta, on the 2nd of July 2008. This version of his talk is supplemented with a few illustrations

Of Roots and Branches

With the proliferation of newspapers and newsmagazines as well as the gradual increase in the number of their pages, reports and essays on important issues and topics, sometimes through special supplements, have become a regular feature and one such recurrent topic, no doubt, is Education. Also several volumes on the subject have been published, including a series by the UNESCO, during the past three decades than ever before. This shows on one hand that public interest in the subject has grown wider, but on the other hand, if I can be pardoned, the situation provokes one to wonder about the quality and character of this wider interest, for a wider interest alone is not a sure sign of a serious or deeper interest. The interest the media has cultivated among an even wider readership in a category of news that are billed out as art, culture and literature are rarely anything more than entertainment, glamour and items for titillation.

No doubt, the level to which the concept of Education can be diluted has a limit, unlike topics of culture such as art or literature. But the danger in the case of Education is less perceptible. When something ugly or vulgar is offered as art or music or dance, we can shut our eyes or ears to it, we can very well do without them, but when Education is presented as a discipline entirely devoted to external accomplishments, mastering ever new inventions in technology, promotion of career and prosperity, we may not find anything amiss in it because we need such opportunities; there is nothing vulgar or apparently degrading in them. The worldwide challenge of competitions and the demands of what is often termed as fast life does not give us respite enough to reflect on the question if what we accept as Education today is the genuine stuff, if Education did not have some greater role to play in our life than obtaining to us the aforesaid accomplishments and vocational facilities.

That brings to mind a brief dialogue, but a significant one. Thoreau and Emerson both had been students at Harvard. Once while the two celebrated alumni were reminiscing over their days in that famous university, Emerson said that by now their alma mater had several branches of Education. Thoreau, who was better acquainted with the ground realities, observed, “Yes, indeed, prolific branches there are; but what about the roots?”

With the passage of time things like lifestyle, fashion, communications and social and political structures are bound to change; but certain things do not change – a mother’s love for the child, the need of faith in our communion with one another in our daily life or our need for peace and progress, for example. The same applies to our basic trust in the necessity of honesty. We exclaim with appreciation, “What a wonderfully honest man is he!” We do not exclaim with the same emotion “What a wonderfully dishonest man is he!” We instinctively recognise the indispensability of such qualities for our collective survival. Maybe, it is even more subtle than instinctive, for according to a study (2007) published in the journal Nature, infants as young as six months can differentiate between good and bad elements, outdating the theory that children developed that sense along with their knowledge of language when they were about two years of age. A team of psychologists including Prof. Karen Wynn of Yale University, Connecticut, carried on a study on two groups of babies, the first aged six months and the second aged ten months, showing to them a climber trying to ascend a hill who was helped by one blob and hindered by another. Offered a choice between the two, the babies chose the blob helping the ascent.

Like these values that had not changed just as the Himalayas had not ceased to be overwhelming or a flower had not stopped being beautiful despite prevailing for millennia, the original role of education had not changed despite our ignoring it and that role could not have been more precisely stated than what the ancient Indian scriptures said, Sa vidya ya vimuktaye – Education is that what liberates.

Life, it was agreed, was the greatest university, but a certain outlook was required to be cultivated in the young to transform their transient experiences in the world into lasting lessons. From its very indeterminable beginning, Education in its classical sense had two aspects: first it cultivated in the student a quest for knowledge and next trained him or developed in him a skill for supporting himself in the existential sense as well as for playing a purposeful role in the community. Innumerable testimonies are there in the Indian tradition of literature and philosophy to suggest that the teachers of yore tried – and they must have succeeded in many cases if not in all – in striking a balance between these two ideals of Education for a considerable length of time. They studied the pravritti – the inherent inclination of the student and accordingly helped him to choose his vritti or vocation. If the vocation was already fixed by heredity, the pupil was taught the way of taking equal care, if not more, of his pravritti, that was generally in consonance with his swadharma, the inner law of his being.

It will take long to identify the historical forces that disrupted this balance, resulting in those who cared for only their inner self breaking away from the so called worldly life and those who led the typical life as social beings distancing themselves from their inner self. This unfortunate development, by now, had reached its culmination. We rarely remember that beneath our surface self dominated by our senses, craving for pleasure and pride and given over entirely to satisfaction of ambitions and desires, we had an inner self thirsting for truth and the knowledge of a different order – that liberates us from our bondage to ignorance.

But, such is the constitution of man that the satisfaction his surface self seeks does not come through a mere preoccupation with desires and ambitions. Hence the multiple innovations in the means of enjoyment and search for pastures new for pleasure.

A Confession and a Question

May I be allowed to bring in here the confession of a gentleman, as a representative illustration of the pattern at work. This is from one who was once a successful scholar, about ten years senior to this author, who as an entrepreneur proved equally successful but had just stopped short of reducing himself to a complete android. Let me put briefly his lengthy moaning.

“You know, like many other youths of the immediate post-independence decade I carried in me the residues of idealism that had inspired the best among my preceding generation, inspiring them to make so much sacrifice for the country. In the changed circumstance, I had two ideal ways open before me: either I become an element in the bureaucracy and serve the country honestly or contribute to the economic progress of my country through some independent enterprise. I chose the latter, for I had some dynamism in me. I do not know at which point of time I forgot my mission. It was, I’m afraid, a gradual but rapid process of decline that my mind was not alert enough to detect, or I could be deceiving myself, for the lure of affluence is irresistible for the average man, as I have seen. I found myself amidst a corrupt gang of associates and rivals and I could not have competed with them without being corrupt myself. To my amazement my college-day friends who were once equally idealistic like me and some of whom were by then either in politics and power or in the administrative service and whose help naturally I needed from time to time, seemed to have subjected their minds to the same brand of morphine.

“Thus together we continued to slip farther and farther down the path of moral paralysis. But there was still that puny substance called conscience somewhere deep in the self and at times it would hum a sad song; there was somewhere in me that forgotten love for silence and serenity that would nostalgically remind me of the poet Davies we studied in our High School: What is this life, if full of care; we have no time to stand and stare?” But the demand of exigency, of strike in the factory, of betrayal by a distributor, blackmail by hoodlums, sudden fall in export, to mention of a few, would push those precious moments down into oblivion. My children grew up amidst affluence and in their show of loyalty to me shouldered the burden both of my wealth and my worries, but without the idealism that had launched me into the adventure or the knowledge of the struggle I had put into it.

“My grandchildren grew up amidst a new culture or call it a want for of culture if you please, looking upon luxuries and the arrogance they breed as their birthright and divided their time between pleasure on one hand and the care of their early diabetes, blood pressure, etc on the other hand. I was condemned to look on as one of my grandsons, in his early thirties, was dying in the intensive care ward of a star hospital, suffering from a heart ailment. He had returned from the West, with the highest training available in management. Poor boy! The last query he made, before closing his eyes finally, was regarding the very first export deal he was handling. What was even greater pity, later I was confided to by his most intimate friend that the young man, already father of a kid, frequented an exclusive private club where he had been ensnared by a vamp whose pretensions to love – even a promise to marry him – my unfortunate heir took seriously. She exploited him thoroughly and by the time he grew suspicious of her loyalty, snubbed him as she had done to so many stupid opulent chaps. My grandson, unknown to us, was down in the dumps. This susceptibility to depression, I suppose, was probably the perverse left over of the one meaningful trait he had inherited from me – the feeling of guilt for any unethical propensity, while his colleagues in the club were uninhibited in their amours.

“You can imagine my agony when I found in his life and death nothing more worthwhile than the theme for a shoddy sentimental novelette. While the family wept, I only wondered, what was the use of all his super-specialisation in management if he could not manage his own petite mind and heart? What is the education we imparted to him if the very last question he must ask, even if it were to hide his real cause of anguish, should be nothing nobler than a routine export? What was the meaning of our having inspired him to study more and more, do better and better when it led to his forgetting that there were more worthy issues for reflection at that moment than an export humdrum? Now, in my eighties, I wonder what the meaning of my own life was either. In search of happiness I made my whole life a span of tension. I read the other day, what I had read fifty years ago, that a cosy bed-room costing a million is no guarantee for even a minute’s sound sleep. The truth overwhelms me now; but why had it no effect on me fifty years ago? I tell you, my friend, something was grotesquely wrong in the education we received. True, colleges in our time, unlike now, had not been cursed with careerism, but as I deeply reflect on what went amiss, I find that nothing in our system told us that life was not all that we lived on the surface, that there was an inner life, that there was an element called soul, that our true happiness or a true sense of contentment depended on it.”

Consumerism thrives on keeping us forgetful of the inner life. Glamour and dazzle constitute the life consumerism would like us to live; momentary sense-satisfaction, through power or pleasure, is the raison d’etre of our existence. Parents are grooming their children for realising this ideal. This even could pass, but the problem is it is proving to be more and more frustrating. There are some well-researched studies in this regard and I refer to one of them, The Price of Privilege by psychologist Dr. Madeline Levin. She observes that students today are much more smart and intelligent. As their parents have more resources to spend, they buy them cell phones, cars, other luxuries and provide them with enough money to spend at will. But they don’t give them love or intimate company. They have greater expectations from their children in terms of social and economic success. They drive the kids into the race for excellence, not excellence as human beings, but as status-achievers. And what is the result? I quote a few lines from Dr. Levin’s study: “We know that this group of kids has three times the rate of depression and anxiety disorders as ordinary teenagers, as well as substantially higher rates of substance abuse, cutting and suicide. The most dangerous feelings a child can have are of self-hatred; yet middle-class parents are unwittingly instilling those feelings by expecting so much.”

How much different is the situation in India? “In this age of instant gratification, fewer children and greater resources means that kids are indulged as never before,” says a report highlighting a study by the Mumbai clinical psychologist Narendra Kinger, who observes, “In such cases kids are unable to handle the occasional refusal and treat it as rejection. At times they may show anger and hatred by running away from home or withdrawing to their room, or even refuse to eat, or display negative behaviour. In extreme cases it may lead to suicide.”

The conclusion is the child must be taught to live with refusals to half of their demands. “Tough” love of parents can do that.

Indulgence was never the Indian way of love; a genuine concern could transmit to the child the necessary conviction that the love is the basis for refusal. One remembers that beautiful story of Mulk Raj Anand, The Lost Child. On his way to a fair and then passing through the festive fair with his parents the child is fascinated by so many objects and wishes his father to buy them for him. But the father refuses to oblige the child. Somehow the parents and the child are separated from each other in the jostling crowd and the crying child is found by a sympathetic soul. Eager to console the child he offers to buy him the very stuff he craved for a while ago, one after another. But the child now has only one need, “I want my mother, I want my father!”

An Associated Press report says that one-third of America’s younger children – babies through age 6 – live in home where the television is on almost all the time. Almost one child in five under 2 has a set, despite the American Academy of Paediatrics announcing serious warnings against this practice. The parents are not only apathetic to it, but also are proud about it. The report quotes a mom laughing and narrating how her “15-month-old sang the Mc Donald’s jingle, ba, ba, boppa, ba every time they drove past the golden arches.”

Ignorance of the devastating consequence apart, the reason the parents encourage their little ones to fall in love with this monster is obvious: They are exempted from devoting their attention to them. What is the situation in India? “Television viewing has become the Indian drug of choice. As the drug suppliers, offering more and more channels and inane programmes to fill them, celebrate the mass addiction, cautionary voices warning of the dangers tend to be lost in the self-congratulatory cacophony of the pushers and users, says Psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar. He says further, “Over the past two decades studies from many parts of the world have established the harmful consequences of television viewing. They find little mention in our popular discourse although their validity is no less than of studies which link smoking to various health problems. I am not even talking of the psychological impact of the content of television programmes. For instance, the relation between violence shown on television and the increase of actual violence is now clear cut. Only someone who is ignorant of facts can continue to doubt that television increases the propensity to violence.”

At the present rate of superfluity and affluence and its unholy but unavoidable ally, hedonism, today’s child is going to be the victim of unsuspected killers as he grows up. The report of the World Health Organisation, released in June this year, warns that as the people get richer, smoke, drive and eat more, non-communicable diseases will become bigger killers during the next two decades than the infectious ones. Dr. Ties Boerma, Director of Health Statistics for the WHO says that he sees more obese people and more smokers in capitals around the developing world. It should be mentioned here that TV watching and obesity among middleclass Indian children has been already asserted by survey.

But for the campaign against smoking that has lately gathered some momentum, greater addiction to that habit was inevitable. That is because a major temptation for smoking before it becomes an addiction is the urgency for a momentary diversion from nervous and worrisome mental preoccupations – and such preoccupations have multiplied.

The situation conjures up in my mind a comical scene: At the middle of a road there is a boulder, obstructing smooth passage. Atop the boulder rests a lamp. If you ask why is the boulder there, the answer is, to uphold the lamp. Should you ask why is the lamp there, the answer is so that the pedestrians or drivers avoid dashing against the boulder. We embrace tension in order to live, and we must live in order to go on experiencing tension. The illusion is both justify each other; the reality is both cancel each other, thereby rendering the whole phenomenon absurd. Alas, the list of factors adding to this condition of absurdity is long.

Values then and Now

Philosophers and thinkers have identified many a sign that differentiates man from the other creatures on our planet. One of them is, be he conscious of it or not, man lives by some values. Not that the value had to be necessarily lofty. The noted social reformer of Gujarat, Ravishankar Maharaj, devoted years to change the life of a tribe of hereditary burglars. One day, as he talked to a young practitioner of the tradition, the latter said with disarming frankness, “Maharaj, if you ask me to give up my practice, I will do so. But the fact is, Goddess Lakhmi, buried under the floors of some householders, shouts out to me as I pass by, asking me to liberate Her. Only then I dig a hole through the wall and enter the house and coup out the treasure.”

Alas, the values in which the masses believed have faded out one by one. Once men were ready to die for their kings; the culture is a distant memory. Religion was the most powerful, the most meaningful and satisfying value people upheld in their life and with which they justified their sorrows and sufferings – even their very existence. But today the tradition is kept alive more for political and egotistic purposes and for collective assertion of selfishness than for true faith, barring rare exceptions. If gods and goddesses are worshipped with greater hullabaloo than ever, it is not for devotion, but for festivity and competition among the local islands of communal ego. Not long ago we read that in a city that had been the home of some of the greatest intellectuals and spiritual giants not only of India but also of the world, a film actor’s image was ritualistically worshipped as a deity, making the devaluation of religious divinities complete. I also read a headline that the actor was shocked at this. For a moment I was consoled under the impression that at least he was sensible enough to feel shocked, until I read the text under it saying that he was shocked with delight.

If the age of institutional religion is past, Spirituality, the only alternative that could play with greater effect the role the religion at its best played, had not yet made a bold debut, not to speak of filling up the vacuum. Fake and pseudo-mystic cults, selling “cosmic cushions” for instant cosmic experience, or offering Nirvana through telephone, have usurped quite a vast space.

We all know how Curzon’s move for partition of Bengal created such an upheaval that the British rulers had to agree to “unsettle the settled fact”. But later developments brought about not only the partition of Bengal, but also the partition of India, thereby planting the most damaging blow to our value of nationalism and patriotism.

There was a time when the wealthy was looked upon as blessed by divinities and hence deserved respect. Today the wealthy are often hated and necessarily suspected, thanks to the notoriety earned by most of them for their greed, vainglorious exhibitionism, corruption and betrayal of the interest of the country.

Family values had broken down. This is not to say that the family relationship had vanished. That has so far survived the changing life patterns in India. But what had received the most horrendous jolt is the institution of social relationship, the trust men could have in men, particularly the reliance the masses had on those who are educated, for the fact is that most of the sophisticated criminals, swindlers of the people’s treasures and saboteurs of national security and manipulators of legal provisions to serve their impish interest are people with handsome degrees and diplomas. The respect the educated commanded till the other day, the term Vidya associating in the popular imagination a personality like Vidyasagar, the epitome of truth and nobility, is only a memory. In other words, the moral value that went with education had been reduced to zero. That reminds me of what the late Dr. Malcolm Adisesaiah, noted educationist who held an important position in the UNESCO once told us at Pondicherry: London was bombarded during the World War II. The state of aviation being what it was, the degree of accuracy with which the pilots hit their targets was surprising. The mystery was solved when, at the end of the war, it was found out that the bombers were those German students who got their higher education in London as British Council scholarship holders.

Print media as well as the media as a whole, commands no respect, however avidly it may be consumed. The sanctity with which the printed word was associated, had clean evaporated.

Perhaps the harshest blow to have fallen is on the relationship between the patient and the doctor, the later till lately seen by the common man as his godly saviour. The day the doctors of a major hospital in a state capital walked out at the call of their union literally leaving the hearts of their patients open or pulling out the oxygen masks from the unconscious trusting client at his mercy allowing them to “die like flies” as the reports said, they stabbed the most tender limb of social corpus. As if this was not enough, shortly thereafter the staff of India’s first mental sanatorium walked out for the same reason one afternoon, leaving the doors of the cabins open. The gleeful inmates, totally oblivious of themselves, stepped out to the streets, several of them to be crushed under the traffic.

Each one of these protesters was probably a good parent, a good spouse and a friend to you or I. How could they all of a sudden turn so inhuman, so pitiless? Obviously the education had failed to impart to them any value more than what was instinctive and indispensable for merely self-centred survival and career.

And who must occupy the vast space vacated by such values? The answer unfortunately is not any new set of values, but wrong values. They assault intelligence, common sense and higher tastes. Their immediate preys are the students. Let me refer to one such value. Several studies have shown how pop and rock music contribute to both physical and mental problems of the young. I quote from one serious study of the problem, The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom:

“…It has risen to the current heights in the education of the young on the ashes of classical music, and in an atmosphere in which there is no intellectual resistance to attempts to tap the rawest passions. Modern-day rationalists are indifferent to it and what it represents. The irrationalists are all for it. … But rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal to sexual desire – not love, not

Eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored. It acknowledges the first emanations of children’s emerging sensuality and addresses them seriously, eliciting them and legitimatising them, not as little sprouts that must be carefully tended in order to grow into gorgeous flowers, but as the real thing. Rock gives children, on a silver platter, with all the public authority of entertainment industry, everything their parents always used to tell them they had to wait for until they grew up and would understand later…

“Ministering to and according with the arousing and cathartic music, the lyrics celebrate puppy love as well as polymorphous attraction, and fortify them against traditional ridicule and shame. The words implicitly and explicitly describe bodily acts that satisfy sexual desires and treat them as its only natural and routine culmination for children who do not yet have the slightest imagination of love, marriage or family….”

The Indian film lyrics and what is in circulation as so called album songs are perhaps not lagging far behind in such unabashed suggestiveness, for the clever culture-vultures know that most healthy inhibitions could be eliminated through means that have some pretensions to culture. Academically sound studies have established how this process of reckless exploitation in the name of culture had found as its intimate allies in drug and violence, directly related to mercenary consumerism. In an era of rapid growth of global communication and exchange, we cannot expect such developments to remain confined to any one continent. In fact it has already become a world-wide phenomenon in the absence of any bulwark against its wicked network, often enjoying the patronage of powers that be.

Factors aggravating the Corrosion

Two prominent factors among those aggravating this process of corrosion of values are the media and the hawkers of career education. Let us briefly focus on the first factor first. As the veteran Hiranmay Karlekar, former editor of the Hindustan Times and co-founder of the National Union of Journalists bluntly states, “What is happening can only be described as the colonisation of the print media by television. The latter is imposing its culture on the former in the same way colonial powers imposed theirs on the colonised…they are acquiring the latter’s orientation towards entertainment in a competitive market whose ethos are increasingly influenced by television. The more serious publications still involve themselves in serious discourse. They too however are changing and, in an environment in which people demand to be continuously entertained and want to avoid thinking, their role as media of critical discourse is liable to be overshadowed by their role as media of entertainment. The minority of readers who are interested in the more serious parts of newspapers like editorials, reflective editorial-page articles, book reviews and in-depth articles in Sunday magazines, are rapidly becoming fewer in relation to the total readership. The majority of readers who mainly read sports, cinema and television news and give a cursory glance at the rest of it, are growing in number. The trend is destined to gain further momentum. As the market economy has society more completely in its grip, people drained by the effort to hold their own in an increasingly competitive environment, are increasingly inclined to seek nothing but entertainment outside working hours.” – (“The Media: Evolution, Role and Responsibilities” in Looking Back: Indian in the Twentieth Century by N.N. Vohra and Sabyasachi Bhattacharya)

What is more unfortunate and alarming, the role of media, by and large, is not confined to that of a chic entertainer, it is playing havoc with values. Not that it is fighting old values for new and progressive ones, it has mindlessly kept itself engaged in degrading and confusing values – spearheading a lamentable trend of cultural anarchy.

In September 2006 a women’s college in Chandigarh prohibits the use of cell phones during the class hours. Protests by students took an uncouth turn, the jean-clad young ladies climbing the parapet and smashing several objects, all properties of the college, but flower-pots in particular. An alert TV channel projected the scene in the evening, prominently showing the lady who was leading that vulgar spree of destruction.

We wonder what the lady’s guardians at home would be thinking of their daughter’s conduct. If they belong to the average sensible mentality, they would feel embarrassed if not disgusted and would probably take their ward to task; but imagine their predicament when a Mumbai film-maker rings up the lady and informs her that he had chosen her to play the lead role in his multi-crore production in the offing.

The big newspaper that had carried the picture of the chaos in the college on its front page does not think twice before claiming credit for being the courier of this silver luck to the girl. It repeats the claim, under slightly different pretexts, several times and does not forget to inform us that the girl has thanked the paper through a TV channel.

Whether the young lady could prove herself an artiste or not is a different issue. Maybe, there are more countable things than art for that glittery. In any case the producer got publicity worth a million, free.

Thus was rowdyism glorified and rewarded. What is remarkable, neither the newspaper, not the TV channel, nor the producer bothered to reflect on the effect of their conduct on the society; about the horrendous example they set before tens of thousands of young minds who stand on the crossroad of destiny. Alas, the newspaper also gleefully reported how the said lady is engulfed by a deluge of wannabes “all struck by glamour, all wanting fate to rewrite their ordinary scripts.” What an extraordinary ambition being promoted!

Glamour is the thing. Let us read from the same newspaper extracts from a report regarding Students’ Union election in a leading university in our very national capital, an event expected to be a grand opportunity for debates on issues purposeful, intelligent and intellectual: “Candidates for the Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU) elections may be parroting the expected lines at the hustlings, but on ground there is just mascara.. Lots of it as the ideal hamara neta aisa ho look to woo student voters is all about looking zany. That is where Prem Studios in Kamala Market comes in. A veteran in the business of giving DUSU aspirants that dream look since 1978, this time the only brief has been, says Umesh Sabharwal, managing director of the studio, “glamour, glamour and more glamour”

The paper interviews students. “For … a first year student of Economics and his friends, it is the DJ parties, free sandwiches and the cold drinks that will guide the choice. The group has so far been to three such parties, but the lack of drinks other than water was a definite letdown, feels … of B.Com (Hons).”

This author is omitting their names, but the paper not only gives the name of the young lady thirsting for some evocative drink, but also coddles her by printing her photograph, all smiles.

What is wrong with this tide – this collective resignation to the spell of hedonism – is not its immoral and unethical character, for one can argue that concepts of morality and ethics change from time to time. The situation is bad because it is against the spirit of evolution, because it is a negative reaction to the call for an adventure in consciousness. Hedonism not only fails to deliver the promised pleasure, it drains one of one’s zest for life, and leads to either self-destruction or anarchy.

Nobody can really be unaware of this situation, whether one be involved or not in the world of education. And, needless to say, what emerges is a portrait of gloom. Is there any remedial possibility involved in the spirit of education itself? Sometime ago this author read a summary of the Education for All global monitoring report covering till year 2005. The situation might have slightly changed, but it says that approximately 103.5 million children do not go to schools. About 800 million adults are illiterate. Of this seventy per cent live in nine countries of the sub-Saharan Africa and East and South Asia, “notably India, China, Bangladesh and Pakistan”. The report calls upon the governments concerned to undo the situation, but what is surprising and disheartening, those who have commented upon the report have, without exception, looked at Education as technology-intensive training. One comment stresses the importance of trade among nations and wishes education in the developing countries to be accordingly oriented.

Here lies the crux of the problem. Trade and technology are indispensable no doubt, but we seem to have forgotten that they are only parts of the external aspect of Education; they must not become synonyms of Education. They are designed to serve man; man is not designed to serve them. They are by no means to be shunned, for the Evolutionary time-spirit has placed them at our disposal so that we become more efficient masters of our environment. But trade and technology do not constitute progress, they are external aids for progress and the true progress is a growth in consciousness. Once in a while we come across an essay on Montessori or Bernstein or Sadler and their sophisticated theories, but they are in academic magazines with meagre circulations and are like a cry in the wilderness, for no theory or doctrine could stand the sudden and powerful sway of education for sake of trade and technology.

Coming to the hawkers of career-education, here are extracts from a report from Mumbai: “For the painfully shy Shitikanth, topping the fiercely competitive IIT entrance exam has been akin to wearing a crown of thorns. Ever since the results were declared, the bespectacled 18-year old’s life has been turned upside down. So much so that he fled his house in Patna and arrived in Mumbai on Monday a little past midnight to escape the long line of politicians, touts, coaching class tutors and other opportunists who had given him no rest since the Indian Institute of Technology declared him the topper. Unable to bear with the constant badgering and cajoling ‘please endorse our class’, ‘please appear in this ad’, ‘please be the chief guest’, – the reticent teenager did the only thing he could think of to retain his sanity. He cut and ran.” (The Times of India, 6 June 08)

An Evolutionary Crisis

How come so many sections of people, in the course of a few decades, could grow bankrupt of conscience, any capacity for circumspection, not to speak of introspection? No doubt the innate instinct of self-preservation obliges one to be self-centred; but there are any number of instances to prove that there is enough in us to inspire our thoughts and actions beyond the programme of mere survival or if anything more, survival with pleasure. History presents glimpses of ages when people were spontaneously concerned about one another while taking care of their self-culture. It is not as if we are lacking in ideals; but something in us that has come to the forefront makes a caricature of the ideal in the process of its execution. All of us must be having case in point of this irony in our daily life, but let me narrate a first hand encounter to make it clear.

It was a pleasant drive along a lonely and lengthy road flanked by a major lake and green fields. This author’s car stopped amidst a large number of vehicles, from bullock-carts to trucks. I woke up to the fact that there was a Rasta Roko, a Bandh. No more than twenty men with flags had brought all movements at both their ends to a grinding halt. The Satyagrahis (Followers of Truth!) as they called themselves, were inhabitants of the nearby village and they had a list of local grievances with which none of us taken hostage had the slightest knowledge nor anything to do. There were more policemen than the Satyagrahis, but they had been instructed to stand stoic.

I had, like hundreds on both the sides of the spot under seize had imperative works to attend, but were rendered impotent by a small gossiping and smoking throng, obviously elated at discovering their own potency. It was a summer noon. I got down and surveyed the travellers, men, women and children peeping out from the rural buses on their way to the town for legal, medical or other urgencies, anxious, worried and sweating. At one side of the road, under the solitary tree, was parked a cycle-rickshaw with two passengers – an octogenarian woman supporting a teenage lady who was in an advanced stage of pregnancy and in a state of swoon. The rickshaw-puller told me that they belonged to his village and as the young lady was in a critical condition, she had volunteered to carry her to the primary health centre another few kilometres away, but had been detained there for the past two exasperating hours. “I don’t think she can survive the ordeal,” he murmured in a sort of soliloquy and sighed.

I walked up to the leader of the Followers of Truth and, hands folded, appealed to him to let the single rickshaw pass. His voice charged with the spirit of democracy and socialism, the leader asked me, “How can you, though you seem to be somewhat educated, advise me to be partial?”

I stood educated in the theory of equality in action. But further enlightenment awaited me – regarding the ideal of freedom. As another gentleman stepped forward and asked, “Why should you block a road that belongs to the public?” one of the leader’s junior compatriots, eager to steal the thunder, retorted, “In free India every inch of place is owned by all the citizens of India.”

I realized that we the Indians had reached a silent consensus on redefining every ideal and principle our constitution and laws have given us. But was the situation in the world basically any different? Powerful nations can redefine the principles of international relationship, snubbing any dissent; freedom of expression can be reduced by media all over the world to unabashed sensationalism and gross vulgarity. The situation can be described only as a fantastic paradox. We know what is right, we agree collectively on what is desirable, but neither as individuals nor as collective entities have we followed the right or the desirable. There is something somewhere grotesquely wrong in our consciousness. This observation no doubt applies to India more than to any other country. When a European scholar pursuing a long-term research project in India articulated his anguish before this author in the following words, he was echoing the surprise of many others:

“I know India was the country where the grand quest for the meaning of life, death, suffering and joy began. It is here that the inimitable meaningful prayers of aspiration for God, Light, Freedom, Bliss and Immortality were spelt out in Sanskrit, the mother of all the classical languages of the world. Nowhere else was the conviction that life is a progressive journey towards a sublime end, birth after birth, was so clearly formed, nowhere was the theory of Karma so elaborately discussed, no other civilisation had assimilated lofty spiritual ideas in its rituals and daily life. How is it then one witnesses so much hypocrisy, fraud and dishonesty here?”

The only observation, not an answer, that can be made is we have failed the expectations our mighty heritage legitimately aroused and have fallen as a nation. Some clues to the enigma can be found in the total loss of values already discussed. But the immediate factor responsible for the sad state of affairs is the failure of the system of our education to inspire in the young the love for truth, the faith that our total consciousness reserves much more than what only a part of it, the mind with its faculties like intelligence and intellect have unfolded so far, the truth that with the creation of mental man the process of evolution had not come to an end.

As Sri Aurobindo looks at the situation, “At present mankind is undergoing an evolutionary crisis in which is concealed a choice of its destiny; for a stage has been reached in which the human mind has achieved in certain directions an enormous development while in others it stands arrested and bewildered and can no longer find its way.”

Education can of course liberate us from this impasse, for it can find the greatest support in that direction in the process and power of evolution itself, for, in a sense, evolution is a gradual realisation of liberation. The manifestation of the earliest forms of life as plants out of the apparently lifeless matter was a step towards liberation of the imprisoned consciousness. A far greater degree of freedom of consciousness – and an exercise of that freedom in infinitely variant ways – was possible with the emergence of the primeval creatures, from worms and insects to the whale and the dinosaur, from the birds to the beasts of incalculable varieties. That urge for freedom inherent in Nature, for releasing its possibilities and potentialities, took a new and hitherto most significant turn with the emergence of man and, needless to say, man is the only creature who had never stopped growing. With relentless zeal he had not only adapted himself to the changing environment, but also had obliged the environment to adapt to his demands. Emerging from the state of primeval Nature he had created for himself new worlds of art, architecture, literature, music, philosophy and spiritual quest. His activities and achievements in all these spheres have again meant nothing but the gradual realisation of his own potentialities, a joy in the freedom of experience, adventure and expression.

If the process of evolution itself is a movement of consciousness realising its own freedom from its bondage to material and other limitations, the 20th century we just left behind had been the witness to the most momentous events and ideas ensuring greater freedom for man in several fronts. Imperialism, colonialism, monarchy and feudalism all collapsed ensuring man’s social, political and economic freedom. Revolutions and reformations, emancipation of women from social taboos and discrimination, end of apartheid, all point in the same direction. Science and technology have played their role in according a greater dignity to the individual.

But these facts of outer freedom do not come to much – they even are vulnerable to misuse – unless there is achieved the other freedom, the freedom from Ignorance. Sri Aurobindo believes that the realisation of such a freedom is not only a possibility, but also is a certainty inherent in the very nature of evolutionary developments. The true role of Education is in preparing and helping man to arrive there – at a new phase of existence. Man is neither an accident nor a freak of Nature. He is an evolving being, awaiting his fulfilment. No doubt he had come a long way from his primitive state via a stage dominated by vital or raw life impulses, he has been a mental creature for long and has achieved marvels with his intelligence and intellect. But proud of intellect though we may be, Einstein warns, “We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has of course powerful muscles, but no personality.” (Out of My Later Years)

As the Italian thinker Preme Levi stated, “Normal human beings are biologically built for an activity that is aimed towards a goal.” A goal always implies a call to go farther than where we are. Till the forties of the 20th century, so far as India was concerned, the ennobling goal of freedom from the colonial rule kept the youths inspired. Since the achievement of that goal, we have been fed with the illusion of false goals, bereft of nobler values. We must replace them with the most optimistic goal, an aspiration for transcending the present dimly lighted state of our consciousness and entering a new phase of consciousness. In his great works such as The Life Divine, The Synthesis of Yoga, The Human Cycle and The Ideal of Human Unity, Sri Aurobindo had elaborately explained this inevitable future and educators could capture from these works a thrilling new purpose for their endeavour. Once we subscribe to a sublime vision, feel inspired by an extraordinary destination, our approach to our work spontaneously receives a new impetus. It is high time we prove our intolerance of the process of drugging the youth with debauched values and phoney ideals. We must restore the true philosophy of education and reconstruct the system.

Towards an Integral Education

There are exploration and experiments, though confined to limited spheres, in evolving principles of true education and their application. I quote a few words from Prof. Kireet Joshi, an educationist who has devoted untiring decades of his life in this direction:

“In the first place the latest Indian experiments in psychic education have given us the concept of fourfold personality, – the personality of Knowledge, the personality of Power, the personality of Harmony and the personality of Skill. It is further emphasized that the fourfold personality can be integrated by the power of the psychic being as also by the powers of higher domains of the Spirit. In pedagogical terms, it is affirmed that psychic education has no method and yet every method and the teacher can employ the three instruments of instruction, example and influence flexibly in every circumstance in respect of every child. This pedagogy also recognises the necessity of formulating new goals, new contents and new methods of education. It lays great stress on child-centred education and on life-long education, recognising that early childhood is the most favoured period of psychic education and recognising that once well begun in early childhood it has to continue throughout life, since integration and harmony of personality is a life-long process…

“This pedagogy emphasises the combination of pursuit of Truth, austerity and harmony and joy of free creativity. It counsels us not to encumber the child with a plethora of stuff that would bury and stifle the wings and breath of the child’s soul but to provide to each child the minimum programme of learning, and the basic requirements of self-education. Once the child has begun to practise the art of self-education, the teacher needs to provide each child the necessary facilities and learning materials appropriate to its inclinations, talents and actual or potential capacities, so that each child progresses at its own pace and according to its own natural rhythm as also according to its own judicious acceleration of progress. A time must come, sooner rather than later, when the child becomes conscious of its own living soul and guides its own processes of education….” (Kireet Joshi: Education at Crossroads)

The Mother founded the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education as a wing of Sri Aurobindo Ashram at Pondicherry to enable the student to apply to his or her life to the extent possible this vision of a new future for man. To a question why the Centre does not bestow any degree or diploma on a student, she made the following observation:

“For the last hundred years or so mankind has been suffering from a disease which seems to be spreading more and more and which has reached a climax in our times; it is what we may call ‘utilitarianism’. People and things, circumstances and activities seem to be viewed and appreciated exclusively from this angle. Nothing has any value unless it is useful. Certainly, something that is useful is better than something that is not. But first we must agree on what we describe as useful – useful to whom, to what, for what.

“For, more and more, the races who consider themselves civilized describe as useful whatever can attract, procure or produce money. Everything is judged and evaluated from a monetary angle. That is what I call utilitarianism. And this disease is highly contagious, for even children are not immune to it. At an age when they should be dreaming of beauty, greatness and perfection, dreams that may be too sublime for ordinary common sense, but which are nevertheless far superior to this dull good sense, children now dream of money and worry about how to earn it.

“So, when they think of their studies, they think above all about what can be useful to them, so that later on when they grow up they can earn a lot of money.

“For them study has no other purpose, no other interest.

“To learn for the sake of knowledge, to study in order to know the secrets of Nature and life, to educate oneself in order to grow in consciousness, to discipline oneself in order to become master of oneself, to overcome one’s weakness, incapacities and ignorance, to prepare oneself to advance in life towards a goal that is nobler and wiser, more generous and more true…they hardly give it a thought and consider it all very utopian. The only thing that matters is to be practical, to prepare themselves and learn how to earn money.”

The passages tell us all that Education ought to be and all that it is not today. Without a collective awakening to the ignored purpose of Education, the rapid corrosion of life by utilitarianism inevitably leading to hedonism, cannot be checked. It is the elite who are expected to realise this, to begin with. They can influence the authority or machinery controlling the systems of education to stop the macabre deterioration in the system we have already discussed. We must not feel helpless or too weak to do anything in this direction, for the true time-spirit will be with us. Despite the current signs to the contrary, the secret aspiration in our consciousness will guide us beyond the present imbroglio.

I conclude with a few more passages from the Mother – on her integral approach to Education:

“The education of a human being should begin at birth and continue throughout his life.

“Indeed, if we want this education to have its maximum result, it should begin even before birth; in this case it is the mother herself who proceeds with this education by means of a twofold action: first, upon herself for her own improvement, and secondly, upon the child whom she is forming physically. For it is certain that the nature of the child to be born depends very much upon the mother who forms it, upon her aspiration and will as well as upon the material surroundings in which she lives. To see that her thoughts are always beautiful and pure, her feelings always noble and fine, her material surroundings as harmonious as possible and full of great simplicity – this is the part of education which should apply to the mother herself. And if she has in addition a conscious and definite will to form the child according to the highest ideal she can conceive, then the very best conditions will be realised so that the child can come into the world with the utmost potentialities. How many difficult efforts and useless complications would be avoided in this way!

“Education to be complete must have five principal aspects corresponding to the five principal activities of the human being; the physical, the vital, the mental, the psychic and the spiritual. Usually these phases of education follow chronologically the growth of the individual; this, however, does not mean that one of them should replace another, but that all must continue, completing one another until the end of his life.”


About Manoj Das

For thousands of men, women and children of the past two or three generations, Manoj Das has been the very synonym of light and delight, whose writings in Odia and English inspire in his countless readers faith in the purpose of life and also open up concealed horizons of confidence and compassion in humanity a dire need today.