Learning to Unlearn|Jan 16, 2010 5:02 AM| by:

Education and Initiation

In olden times, in our country, nay, in China, Egypt, Greece and amongst all ancient nations there was in practice a highly respected tradition which upheld that in order to have one’s education one must take refuge under a particular Guru. The learner had to take initiation from him to start with and only then he could begin his education. There could be no education without such an initiation. Today, large-scale movements concerning education are taking place all around us claiming that without a universal education, without a compulsory education, the progress of our country is not possible. In the midst of all these clamours and controversies, we have forgotten this hoary practice of the ancient world, or, if not forgotten, we do not at least feel the need to pay enough attention to it.

What is education? What we really mean by education is acquiring knowledge, getting introduced to tangible objects, gaining mastery over certain subjects or shastras. Or, instead of considering only the aspect of knowledge in education, if we intend to include also the other aspects of man, we may then say, in a general way, that education signifies cultivation of faculties, develop­ment of various parts of the being – intellectual, emotional and physical. No one doubts that there could be a difference of opinion regarding this ideal of education. But a question may arise: Is this the whole of education? Or, in order to make this education integral, is mere learning or some familiarity with shastras or the cultivation of some faculties its primary, intermediate and ultimate object?

What we expect from education is the development of faculties. It sounds well. But the problem is how to achieve it. From where have we begun, which system are we following? The present system of education starts from the study of subjects. Laying stress on subjects, it seeks to build man according to them; compelling him to be led by subjects, it tries to cast man in their mould. This is because somehow we have this ingrained notion that the thing to be learnt is completely different from man and external to him. What is to be learnt is self-evident, established in its own fullness, noble in its own useful­ness and something infallible, irrefutable. Just as he earns money, it is incumbent upon man to earn it, acquire it and accumulate it in his coffer. The prestige of the coffer-owner is commensurate with the riches his coffer contains. Philosophy or science, discourse or dissertation, governance of a State or warfare are but some such subjects, branches of knowledge or shastras. All this man has to know, conquer and master.

We have thus presented before man a variety of subjects for study. The thought that has inspired this action of the modern mind is this: which are the weapons man should be armed with? If he has to win in the struggle for life and survive in this world, what nobler means are needed for this purpose? Which subjects are to be mastered, which parts or faculties to be developed and to what extent? All these things are to be determined taking into account their benefits, their usefulness, in accordance with their need in the present context of the world. This need, however, depends on our outer experience, on the demands of Nature. The East India Company needed a few clerks conversant in English and this led to the birth of modern Indian universities.

Germany needed soldiers for the protection of her empire or for the sake of her super-expansion; hence she adopted an educational system run by the overriding dictates of the State. England is now contemplating reforms in education and that she feels the need for studying primarily physics rather than poetry and ancient literature is also the basis of this perception that for survival in the struggle of life we need more arms and ammunitions. And here at home, we are shuddering at the sight of the mounting number of illiterate people. Even behind this feeling there lurks the fear that perhaps we do not possess the required resources, that perhaps we will not be able to stand the competition with the West.

But we are unable to understand the simple error of all these ideas i.e. whatever may be the usefulness of arms in the struggle of life, that is not an important point. What we need first is man, the man who has realised in his heart of hearts the throb of life, the source of strength. It is not difficult for such a man to be well equipped with arms and ammunitions. As a matter of fact, the ill effects of the system that concerns itself only with education, that is, only with the mastery over subjects can be realised very easily. In the first place, such an education ignores the learner, it does not try to establish any simple and natural relationship with the learner, it does not allow him to realise deeply and firmly his inner life-pulses. He has been given a few selected subjects, he has been told that the proficiency in these subjects is a sign of culture or an imperative necessity of life. But it has tried little or nothing to know the views of the learner; he has not been given the chance to express his inner being which may have some say in it. He would have agreed, most likely, to all these things and followed very easily this selection-process of subjects had he got an opportunity to establish a spontaneous relationship with the system. From the very outset, a massive load of subjects has been thrust upon him and he has been commanded to master them all. In the second place, consequent upon what has been stated above, no recognition is being given to the existence of things like human personality, his individuality. All, without exception, have been led through the same system, all are being hammered and cast in the same mould. The individual is lost in the collectivity. The country, the nation must develop as a whole. We need, therefore, philosophers, scientists, ethicists and warriors. That is why the country has set up schools or machines for such an education and the educated people are being distributed all over the country’s market like goods manufactured by machines. But man, by this means, has lost his independence and his multi-faceted and vast spontaneity.

That this subject-oriented education is not the living thing of man’s life is substantiated by the fact that we have never been able to decide upon the correct way of selecting the subjects. We are always changing it, rearranging it over and over again or cancelling it once more to reshape it anew. But we are unable to grasp the right thing by any means. Sometimes we say that the main subject of education is religious texts and at other times practical subjects; now we advocate literature, now science; at times we even blend them in different ways. We advise sometimes that it is good to be specialised in one subject and at other times we advise that one must know all subjects or at least many subjects.

The history of the national education movement of Bengal is a very shiny example in this regard. The National Council of Education was set up in Bengal as the British universities were considered inadequate for imparting true education. Many had a lot of expectations, many had dreamt many dreams. Today the plight of that National Council of Education is pitiable and everyone bemoans it. But nobody seems to have delved deep into the reasons for this situation. The reason is that the National Council of Education was constituted on the very model of the British universities. Both followed the same pattern, the same policy; both wanted to impart education through the mechanism of subject-selection. But a mere change of curriculum does not necessarily effect a change of education. The English schools laid stress on English language, English literature, English history and now instead of these you put emphasis on Sanskrit and Indian literature, but what difference does it make since the fundamentals remain the same? The student of the national school learns a few more things about his country, while the student of an English school learns a few things more about another country, but is there a difference of heaven and earth between the two?

Let there be the culture of Sanskrit in our country, let everyone be well-versed in our national language, let everyone know the history of our country, let us enrich our national wealth acquiring all knowledge from abroad – all this is indeed necessary. But if we say that this is all or this alone is the main thing, that the principles of education should be founded upon this alone, then we are mistaken. What counts most is the people of our land. The riches of a man are not more valuable than the man himself. You cannot make a man by the acquisition of sensory knowledge of material things or through the mastery of various subjects. You may stuff him with all the sciences and shastras, still, for that very same reason, he may become as dead an object as the shastras themselves.

The basic point is that education begins with the student and not with the subjects. Education must be allowed to blossom from within the student, from the heart of the student – everything lies only there, the external ingredients have to be provided as and when needed as props and guides. For this, it is not enough to know the general nature of the student, the general psychology of the child – this is a truth which some people have begun to realise only recently. But every student has to be dealt with individually: the nature of the person, the force, the inspiration, the yearning that lie hidden in him, the specific quality with which he has come into this world – all these have to be observed and thoroughly comprehended. He has to be awakened to his soul, and, this is termed as initiation. He who has got initiation and has found his own strength, his own individuality, the divine being within him, will be able to discover easily his own wealth of knowledge.

Our national education or the existing system of education could not realise this truth. They have clung to the school as an imperative necessity and as the sole support. In the school everyone has to move in the same groove, follow the same method – one has to drag oneself along with one’s own class like the proverbial movement of the flock of sheep. In the end, when the time comes for selecting some particular subjects, one acts according to one’s own convenience or as chance ordains and one confines oneself up in one or more than one subject concentrating exclusively on them. The student moves like a machine dumb and dull, propelled by the practices and prejudices in which he has helplessly grown.

What he himself is, what his soul is, what represents his originality – all these have been crushed, no one knows when and where. That is why we often hear our educated youth lamenting as to what they have really gained after reading so much or learning so much. He has cultivated his faculties but not realised the fulfilment of his soul; he has not learnt to put his faculties in touch with his soul. His learning is only an imposition, similar to that of the golden veil over the soul – it is not the spontaneous radiance of the riches of the soul.

The reason why the proficiency in subjects or cultivation of faculties are not the main criteria of education is that man is not merely a sum-total of various faculties. The play of faculties works on the outer being of man; below the faculties there exists yet another profounder reality which is their source and in which lies their purport. It is the man himself, his uniqueness, his soul, the divine being in him. The cultivation of faculties is the fruit of education, at best its secondary means of support. The first and foremost thing is to get hold of the source, the seed – to awaken the inner being of the learner. This awakening does not come through the study of diverse subjects. Subjects are inanimate matter. How can a conscious being be awakened by their touch? That is why education begins through a spontaneous touch of the soul between man and man, through soul-exchange between the teacher and the student, between the master and the disciple, in other words, through initiation, as we have already stated.

It is not for nothing that we have used the term “soul-exchange”, just as the Guru observes keenly each disciple, so too the teacher must observe his student so that he may grow according to his own innate genius. But never should he treat him as a machine nor should he think that he would be able to guide him properly once he understands his inner mechanisms. The disciple or the student will progress by his own force, by the unfailing flowering of his own nature. The true Guru of a disciple is his own inner self. The outer Guru should try to become only a living example of the inner Guru. Unify­ing himself with the inner being of his disciple, the outer Guru should identify himself with the disciple’s inner Guru and allow him to be led only by the inspiration of that inner Guru. This is the essential principle of initiation.

He who has thus been initiated recognises his self, is established in his svadharma. The source of Mandakini-stream has now opened in him. This stream shall now flow ceaselessly through ever-expanding channels. Shastras, sensory knowledge of objects, proficiency in various subjects – all that we call education is but the application, illustration and expression of this initiation. Schools, books etc. are meant for supplying materials and information to acquire knowledge. Once knowledge springs up in somebody, a natural inquisitiveness will also blossom in him. We shall then see that inspired by the inner joy of learning, whatever subject he takes up for study, he gains mastery over it and his natural talent shines through it by virtue of his spontaneous concentration. Not only knowledge but all the faculties will also flower faultlessly as all the powers of the being are embedded therein in their fullness. Whatever is needed for establishing himself in this world – all the wealth and all the powers [vibhuti] – has now become a part and parcel of his being.

Nolini Kanta Gupta

(Nolini Kanta Gupta was a revolutionary, linguist, scholar, critic, poet, philosopher and a man of deep spiritual realisation. Author of nearly 60 books he was a Trustee of Sri Aurobindo Ashram.)