Learning to Unlearn|Sep 14, 2013 4:05 AM| by:

Our Education

A considerable movement is visible nowadays against the existing system of education in our country. The educa­tion imparted here is not worth its name. Education is that which develops our faculties, life’s vigour and man­hood. But the education of our country consists only of learning by rote a few unintelligible mantras, a few mean­ingless prattles and of forgetting them again after some time. It stands only for “passing examinations”, and the aim of “passing” one examination after another is only to acquire the technique of earning more and more money. Such an arrangement went on quite well so long as its immense hollowness had not come to the notice of any­one or perhaps it was not felt necessary to take notice of it. But today our eyes are opened and we realise, to our utter dismay and amazement, that “passing examinations” does not necessarily mean earning “money”! Hence the doubt has surfaced that education may not after all mean passing of examinations.

However, the charges levelled against the education of our country may be summed up as something stupen­dously unreal. No other example can perhaps explain better than the one given by Srijut Pramatha Chowdhury to demonstrate beyond doubt the unreality or falsity of this education which is not only ludicrous in nature but frightful as well. A Law student explains Immovable and Movable Properties as follows: Immovable property is that which does not move, e.g., a hill; and Movable property is that which moves, e.g., a river!! We are liable to appreciate adequately this pretentious erudition even with a double note of exclamation.

We therefore find it quite possible that far from being a means of acquiring knowledge, education may even destroy the little common sense that man possesses. However, the example cited above may be an extreme one or an exception, but there is nothing to doubt about the fact that there are some innate defects at the very root of the educational system which gives birth to this kind of thing. We read only for the sake of reading, we never think even by mistake whether there exists or there should exist a relationship between the reading and the truth, reality, world and life. We have simply discarded this basic truth that the flowering of knowledge comes through common sense, that the fulfilment of knowledge is attained only when it combines with common sense. The domain of knowledge devoid of common sense is but a fool’s paradise!

But why have things come to such a pass? Whence have come this unreality, this lack of common sense in the system of education in our country? We hear people saying from all corners that it is the foreign language and the alien ideas emanating from this foreign language that are responsible for this situation. The reason why we lack familiarity with the material world and its objects is that between objects and our mind there stands a wall, a curtain which represents this foreign idea, this foreign language. Instead of the names which make the objects easily familiar to us, which make them appear before our eyes with concrete forms as soon as we hear them, we see, we hear the names imported from another country. We want to be accustomed from the very outset to the forms which others have seen, others have thought of, discarding the forms with which we have a daily familiar intimacy. That education which introduces the child to his own “bap” [father] with the word “father” and makes one mad for Daisy, Celandine instead of Bakul, Shefali, is nothing but rank falsehood and no wonder that its re­sults would be a big mare’s nest. Therefore, if we want to reform our education, if we want to make it real, we will have to eschew, first of all, this foreign pressure and take refuge in our indigenous form, name, idea and language. The Bengalees must learn through the Bengali ways of thinking, and if not possible through the thought, then they must learn through the Bengali language, all the more because if the language is indigenous then the thinking automatically becomes indigenous. Have we not been acquainted with this world through the language that came to our lips along with the breast-milk? What else can help to build a living relationship with the world?

The truth of these views expressed by those who are in favour of making the vernacular as the medium of in­struction at the outset of educational reforms cannot be denied in any manner. But, we still feel that this truth is by and large a truth on the surface, it is not going to touch the very root of the problem. For, language is a thing external to man and the amount of emotion it generates is also external to him. But if a change has to come in man, however little it may be, it will come from inside to outside and not otherwise. That our educational life is artificial is not so much because of a foreign language and foreign ideas, but because of the presence, even from beforehand, of an artificiality or its seed within ourselves, within our psyche. Man himself was artificial from the beginning and, therefore, everything in him grew artificially. Foreign language and foreign ideas have facilitated this artificiality, they have just made it more lent, they have not, truly speaking, created it. We also feel that had we remained sincere from within, then that very sincerity would have found expression even in a foreign language and in foreign ideas. Christ was not wrong when he said: “There is nothing from without a man that, entering into him, can defile him but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.”

In one of his articles titled “Bangalir Mastiska 0 Tahar Opovyavahar” [The Brain of the Bengalees and Its Misuse] Sj. Prafulla Chandra Roy once threw some light on the fact that there existed a sort of indigenous artificiality in our education and practice even before the inception of the English education. Being indigenous, it was as much a thing of our inner heart as it was dreadful. When we wrote volumes after volumes to explicate the word ‘Atha’ (Now) in the phrase ‘Athato brahmajijnasa’ (Now, therefore, the enquiry into Brahman), when we racked our brains day in and day out, year in and year out over the knotty problem as to ‘whether the vessel holds the oil or the oil holds the vessel’, we cannot boldly say that we then had a very solid common sense. There­fore, the shortcoming that turns us sore with the modern education is a very ancient one, it has penetrated into our bones and marrows, and it is for this reason that it has been able to hold such a sway on us.

This shortcoming is fairly ancient and therefore we shall first dwell on it from the standpoint of history. ‘Dreamy East’ – this is the term they use to denigrate us. We are day-dreamers, that is to say, we indulge in dreams, we build castles in the air, we remain engrossed in lofty ideas and in the heights of argumentation leaving aside the real, the concrete, i.e., the material world and the hard realities of life. This is something which may or may not belong to our nature, but there is nothing to doubt that we did once get overwhelmed by its influence and even today we are suffering from its consequences. The culture that was prevalent in our country during the Vedic age and during the era of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata was practical and not materialistic as you would call it. The battle of Kurukshetra dealt the first blow at the root of that culture. From the day when the Kshatriya power of the country was almost decimated, our life took a new course, a new veil fell upon our lives. Even after accepting wholeheartedly the need and useful­ness of the kingdom of dharma and the brahministic ideology brought about by Kurukshetra, we must say that brahminism weakened the genius of the Kshatriyas, that dharma was established in a depressed atmosphere that discredited Karma. We are not raising here the questions as to whether, had there been no Kurukshetra, we would have become as ultra-materialistic as Europe or even an uglier asura than Europe or whether we could have kept intact the divine spiritual riches representing the glory of India. What we mean to say is that as in the heart of evil there lies the seed of good, similarly, in the heart of good also there lies the seed of evil. After the battle of Kurukshetra, Lord Buddha dealt the second blow on the action-oriented intelligence of India and her materialistic pleasures. The practice of asceticism of the Buddhists lifted the soul of India to a different level weaning it away from this world and this life. And last in the line came Shankaracharya with his philosophy of Mayavada – ‘the most unkindest cut of all’. With this weapon, he severed even the thin umbilical-cord of relationship that existed between the worldly truth and the truth of the soul in the spiritual practice of India. Thenceforth we became engrossed with the aksarabrahma alone, and, not only did we forget that the ksara too was Brahman but we learnt as well to deny it, decrying its reality.

The soul-force of India thus gradually started recoiling into itself holding in check the outer knowledge in its attempt to awaken the inner wisdom. Then came the foreign pressure, the subjection to foreign rule only to help this trend and to continue this movement. The more the alien hand took control of active life, the more the domain of life-force became restricted for us and we tried more and more to cling forcefully to this inner world as though to make good the loss. We could not see any more with our eyes open, and we tried to see what could be seen with eyes closed. It is not that one cannot see anything with one’s eyes closed, but certainly not with eyes closed due to weariness or pressure from outside.

Nor do we intend to say that the whole of India had become averse to work, inclined to meditation or that she had lost completely the joy of life and creation. No, it is not that. In a magnanimous soul like that of India, it is not at all surprising that the waves of a tremendous activity, of a vibrant dynamic life, surge up from time to time even in her state of inertia, even in her ages of depression. Besides, it has also to be regarded as fairly natural that there always exists in some part or other a tenuous subterranean flow of that life and activity. But, on the whole, the fact is that, looked at from the stand­point of India’s soul, we find the stamp of the other-world, of the beyond upon it becoming gradually deeper and deeper wiping off all signs of this world, of this mundane existence. It has belittled the world while working for the world, it has forgotten to partake of the joy of this worldly existence in a simple and easy manner. This will be understood if one compares this trend with the evolutionary trend of Europe. We are not raising the question as to whether this trend of Europe is ideal or not. If we do not get the nectar, what shall we do with wealth alone? This is true. But, for the sake of the nectar, is there any necessity of vilifying wealth by using terms such as illusion, delusion, infatuation, hell and so on. If one has the skill – karmasu kausalam (skill in works) then even this wealth, these worldly objects can provide us with the nectar.

Now, all that we want to say is that our modern education has developed by establishing this sort of an extremely other-worldly ideology that is ingrained in this country. We have considered Karma [action] as an obstacle to liberation, and in trying to erase this Karma, we have, in fact, succeeded in learning how to evade it. We have, in our brains, sharpened the instruments of subtle logical arguments for solving the problems of the world, or else, forsaking all sanity and all works we have gambolled in bacchic emotions and feelings and, in the end, have fallen utterly unconscious. When this is the state pervading the country, then there is no wonder that whatever education, whatever culture that has sprouted in its midst will only be artificial. In its alien covering this artificiality has fortunately come to our notice, though in its indigenous garb we could not recognise it – here lies all the difference.

Leaving apart India as a whole, we shall now say something about Bengal. This is because it seems to us that this artificiality in education is not so much evident in other provinces as it is amongst the Bengalees. Besides, there is a speciality in the artificiality of the Bengalees. A question comes up in the very first place. Indeed, the Bengalees have never been able to effectively deny the world, reject work. The cult of Shakti or the Mother-Power of the Bengalees is a thing peculiar to Bengal. For what blemish then have the Bengalees, despite being sadhaks of Shakti, lost the knowledge of reality in such a manner? The answer is: the emotionalism of the Bengalees. The Bengalees have not invoked Shakti through work; they have done it through emotions. While worshipping Shakti, they have wept and got lost crying out ‘Ma, ‘Ma.

It is because of this excessive emotionalism that the Bengalees have so easily turned towards the foreigners. We shall not say anything about the Muslim era. Nowhere in India has the influence of the British, of the West, come about and spread as swiftly and as effort­lessly as it has in the heart of the Bengalees. No one else can become a true copy of an Englishman as a Bengalee can. The Bengalees have thus revealed the plasticity and the state of instability of their heart. Emotionalism, fickleness and restlessness of heart rush towards ever-new attractions. In order to keep Bengal awake, active and joyous, they want newer and newer stimulants. That is why they become so easily intimate with the new – samvandhamabhasanapurvamahuh (convey your greetings before forging relationship with someone) and this is very true for them.

Now, what is the natural consequence or the natural mode of expression of this vital exuberance, of this emotional effervescence, of this imaginative enchant­ment? It is verbosity – the joy of speaking. As a result, the Bengalees got enamoured of the English through English literature and language. The beauty and the novelty that they perceived in the English language, in its ‘vak’ [expression] struck the heart of the Bengalees before anything else and it is from this that all the changes and innovations have come in the domain of his imagina­tion, in the arena of his life. The Bombayites are not like the Bengalees; they possessed some practical knowledge, that is why they borrowed commerce and politics from the British and looked at the English education and culture from this angle. I cannot say from which angle exactly the Madrasis looked at this English education and culture but certainly not from the angle of literature at least. But the Bengalees are born litterateurs, that is, to exchange words is as though their whole life and work and religion; it is through this aspect that they turned towards the British and recognised them.

Indeed, it has become rather proverbial that the Bengalees are glib in talking – they have right from their birth the gift of the gab. And Bengali literature too is a proof of it. Pompous words, ornate sentences, i.e., arranging only words upon words decoratively – this constitutes the bulk of Bengali literature. Instead of making the meaning absolutely clear, presenting the inner experience, the inner realisation in a living manner, the Bengalees prefer an ostentatious display of language:‘wreathing words with words to elicit applause’

Even the ancients could seize upon this temperament of the Bengalees – that is why the Gauriya-style [Traditional Bengali style] has earned so much celebrity. The Gauriya-style stands for a gaudy display of words, i.e. eloquence. Madhusudan created his vast sea-of-words only to assuage the tongue of the people of Gaur [Bengal]. In order to illustrate how to parade one’s finesse in manipulating words or how to enchant the mind through the artistry of words, we refer you to Vidyapati — if we go to the early period of Bengali literature, and to Satyendranath — if we come right down to the contemporary days.

The Bengalees have no direct acquaintance with the material object; they rest content tagging only a name to the object. They can recognise a thing only through its name, a thing without name is indistinct, incomprehen­sible to them. In Western psychology, human beings have been classified according to the predominant sense-organs of a man, for example, the visual type, the auditory type etc. Amongst these, the Bengalees may be categorised as the verbal type – as fluent speakers. To put it differently, a particular section of people require a form, a figure or something, which can be held before their eyes for under­standing or for realising a thing. Even to understand or make them understand a theory, they require an outer form of that theory – these are the people of the visual type. There is another class of people who understand things with the help of sound, cadences of music (auditory type). Then again, there is yet another class of people who require an element of scent or smell (olfactory type). Some understand through eyes, some through ears, some still through nose; but the Bengalees understand through their tongue – not sight, nor smell, nor hearing, they require speech or denomination.

Neither by sight or hearing, nor by contact or touch but it is by name that the Bengalees identify a thing. It is not by relating a thing to another but by relating the name of a thing to that of another that the Bengalees want to build their world. The Bengalees will hesitate to accept these words of the Western poet — What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet ­but their own poet, at the very first stroke of his pen, made Sri Radhika utter these words at the very outset —

Dear Mate! Who made me hear
the name – Shyam?
Through the ears it entered in my heart’s core
And made my whole being restless.


O! So much sweetness is there
in the name — Shyam.

That some of our godheads have hundred names, some even a thousand names, is an indication of how deeply the Bengalees — nay, the whole of India more or less — have perceived the glory of a name. The godhead to whom we accord as many names as possible becomes as though more living to us and as though we understand him all the more clearly. Speeches, words, names – all these are necessary; it may also be admitted that they have an intimate, an inextricable relationship with knowledge, even, with material knowledge. But though a name is the identity of an object, it is not the object itself. In spite of the fact that this distinction is axiomatic, we tend to forget it very easily in actual practice. Once we put the label of a name on a particular object, we think that we have understood the object fully, we have grasped the object itself. It is thus that we, forgetting the object or the thing and leaving it aside, continue to live with its shadow and it is with this shadow that we deal. It is thus that verbosity results inevitably in unreality. It is for this reason that our logicians and pundits consider the absence of common sense as the sure sign of a philosopher, of an erudite scholar. It is for this reason that our poets and litterateurs keep themselves aloof from concrete realisa­tion and it is for this reason also that our politicians believe that through public meetings and speeches, through agitation alone, the country will be liberated. Our students are indeed inheritors of this character and of this mentality of the collectivity.

The reason behind the fact that our education, the education of the Bengalees, has turned out to be artificial may be traced in these three lines or movements of the sadhana of our life. That we have become separated from life, from action, from the reality is primarily because of our desire to rush only towards the heaven, towards the Impersonal Self while considering this earth, this body as something inferior and, secondly, because of creating an intoxicating dreamy world brought forth from our passionate feelings and emotional outbursts and taking a plunge into it and remaining engrossed in it. Thirdly, it is due to the excessive attachment to words rather than to the object itself. These three together made our inner being, our inner initiation false and, as a consequence, foreign ideas and the foreign language could succeed so easily in making all institutions that are expressions of that inner being and all education that is the basis of that initiation, all the more artificial and all the more inane.

Therefore, in order to change and reform the sys­tem of education, what is needed first and foremost is to change and reform these three inner movements. If those who want to introduce Bengali in place of English in the University and rest satisfied with this introduction alone, then we do not expect it to be especially effective. Even then, we will be doing the same thing as we are doing now, but we will vomit out in Bengali instead of in Eng­lish – this may be the only difference. Even if we say that education has to be imparted in pure Bengali, in the Bengali of the Bengalees, inasmuch as the Sanskritised Bengali is to us as false as English, even then it cannot be said forcefully that we will be able to acquire or augment our knowledge of reality. If the sense of reality is not aroused within, then even the very simple and plain words will expose that very falsehood, that very artificiality. What is most important is the thing within; if we can become true there, then the true sense will find expre­ssion even through the foreign idea or the foreign language. Of course, it has to be admitted that for awakening the true spirit of the Bengalees, the ways of thinking and the language of the indigenous Bengalees are an easy means – but we consider it as secondary, it is not of primary importance.

The whole being of the Bengalees has to be taken hold of and given a solid jerk – the type of relationship they have with the world and the manner in which they deal with it have to be changed radically. They have to know the world through work instead of through words; they have to examine each object tangibly instead of just hearing or taking its name. The pressure they have so far put on the tongue and throat has to be removed and spread instead on the muscles of all parts of the body. In other words, an attempt to keep education animated and well-nour­ished, pursuing it amidst such life-currents, amidst a liv­ing contact with things all around. And we have in­stances to show that such a thing was there also in our ancient sylvan India. When the seeker came to the Rishi to have the knowledge of Brahman, the Rishi instructed him to tend cows (Satyakama-Jabala Conversation, Chhandogya Upanishad). We can look down upon it as forced labour for the master but there is no doubt about the fact that this was only a part of the educational system of that age.

True education is always that which is related to practical life. When we walk through life involving ourselves in its multifarious activities or dealing with its varied objects, various problems and solutions as well as various thoughts and ideas crop up in our mind. When we relate them to life and when they bear fruit, we then acquire a wealth of rich and varied ideas and experiences — these in fact constitute education, for true education is not possible by any other means. There are three stages or steps in education. As there are five sheaths in the human body, so also we can say that there are three sheaths in education. Firstly, word or speech — this is only an outer cover, a material support. Secondly, meaning or sense — words strive to express, to seize this inner meaning, this essence. But there is a deeper level to this inner meaning also which is the third stage in education – it is the feelings of the heart, the realisation of the soul. Our education teaches only words, as we have seen in Hamlet – ‘words, words, words’; sometimes a faint presence or a shadow of the second stage is visible in a few seekers. But our education has failed to rise to the third stage. True education, living education is but that which shapes, which evolves responding to the needs of the inner being, according to the movement of the soul’s quest.

Besides, there is an intimate and inextricable relationship between life’s field of work and the inner being’s quest for Truth, between the movements of the body and the rhythms of the soul – with the help of the one and remaining within the one, the other becomes enriched, conscious, well-formed and harmonious. Education too is nothing else but a sort of spiritual science. As it is in spiritual science—

‘This wisdom is not to be had by reasoning, nor by brain-power, nor by much learning’

so is it in education—it does not become complete with the gymnastics of mind, intelligence, reasoning or memory alone. As in spiritual science one has to perform some rites and ceremonies, so too in education one needs to fulfil some formalities in order to give a form to the instrument and sharpen it in the midst of all the activities of life. But, for that matter, one should not misunderstand that the ideal of our education is materialistic, utilitarian or that we intend to banish from our system of education the abstruse or abstract thinking, reasoning or the tradi­tional wisdom. We are not even that kind of pragmatic or down-to-earth people who are against reasoning for the sake of reasoning, thinking for the sake of thinking, reading for the sake of reading. We do not express the view that every thought has to be translated into action, each idea into force, each name into material object or that the thought, the idea or the word which we do not thus get in a physical form is baseless or meaningless. The object of meditation has to be attained mainly through meditation, the object of mind mainly through mind. But that is not the point; the point is this “attainment”, this “realisation”. The thing is that what we “attain”, what we “realise” is always an “object”; but, there is no such compulsion that it has to be a “material object”. The whole question is the means, the method of education – the way we learn.

Every single thing, be it abstract or concrete, has two parts or aspects: outer and inner. The instrument of education, i.e., our mind, representing the faculty with which we apprehend a thing, has also two parts – partly an outer and partly an inner. Unreal education is that in which we try to grasp things with the surface mind – then we obtain only the outer aspect of a thing. Real education is that in which we perceive the inner aspect of a thing with the deeper part of the mind. To perceive things with the inner mind is called “attainment”, “realisation”, and it is on this count that we have termed education as a spiritual science.

Our endeavour towards this realisation, towards an inner perception is helped by our physical efforts, our application in work and our trying to gain mastery over life. We learn to see with our inner being in the very same manner in which we are accustomed to see things with our physical eyes. If the physical sense of reality in a person remains obscure, his intellectual sense of reality and even his spiritual sense of reality too turn out to be vague. Shankaracharya had indeed a profound realisa­tion of the Impersonal Brahman and notwithstanding what was in his conscious mind, this spiritual realisation found a pure expression and a safe refuge in a physical reality, unconsciously though, by his stupendous accomplishments in his active-life.

Education has to be founded upon the urge for action and attempts have to be made to build the mind on the inspiration of life. Without a large capacity of life and the energy of a free vital, the mind, the intelligence can never become competent, vigorous and dynamic. As a matter of fact, the virus of disease entered in our educa­tion, in our mind the day when our vitality started to be on the wane; the day when the Kshatriya-spirit dwindled the decline set in and the true brahministic genius disappeared. The vast and profound ocean of life began to dry up exposing immense expanses of sand, with one or two dying, slow and slender streams here and there. Bereft of vitality as a man becomes a carrier of various diseases and overwhelmed by them loses his common sense and stuffs his brain with a heap of thoughts, worries, imagination and fancies which are baseless and without head or tail and further makes a mountain of a mole-hill owing to a decline in the capacity of his nerves, turns his pain into agony and waits only for death after a good deal of lamentations, so became the whole body of the collectivity of our country. We lost our vitality, capacity to bear life and at the same time, the balance of our life-institution too was lost. There was no trace of any system to direct what to do, where, how and to what extent.

We must acquire mental excellence, we must also have sharp intelligence, lively ideas. But they must take their stand on the strength of the vital, on the vast integral ananda of life; then and then only will they be stable, cohesive and harmonious. ‘Agnim ile purohitam’ – we invoke the Fire whose seat is there before us in the forefront, the Fire who is the embodiment of life’s energy. It is this Fire who calls down all other gods, urging them to manifest and it is through the energy of this Fire that Knowledge and Gnosis, Ila and Saraswati, awaken.

Our mind is sick, that is why ill health has crept into our education. To make our mind sound and healthy, we must make the whole of our life full of joy and vigour, we must awaken in us the godhead of integral life. This is the initiation that lies at the root of education and it is for our educational reformers to see how we can get this initiation.

– 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.)

(Written originally in Bengali and published in 1926, the collection of essays titled ‘Shikkha O Dikkha’/Education and Initiation, is as relevant today.)