Learning to Unlearn|May 16, 2007 10:44 AM| by:

The New Approach to Education in India

“In any country, the best education to give to children consists in teaching them what is the true nature of their country, its particular qualities and the mission their nation has to fulfil in the world, its true place in the terrestrial concert. To that should be added a large comprehension of the role of other nations, but without the imitative spirit and without ever losing sight of the peculiar genius of their country.” – The Mother

A General Consensus

“The most ingeniously complete machine for murder that human stupidity ever invented, and murder not only of man’s body but of man’s soul,… the Moloch to whom we stupidly sacrifice India’s most hopeful sons…”(1) Such was Sri Aurobindo’s impression of the system of education prevalent in India when he had a chance to see it first-hand in Baroda, about a hundred years ago.

Have things changed ever so much since? One wonders. Writing in the Arya in 1920, he observes, “All that appears to be almost unanimously agreed on is that the teaching given in the existing schools and universities has been bad in kind and in addition denationalising, degrad­ing and impoverishing to the national mind, soul and character because it is overshadowed by a foreign hand and foreign in aim, method, substance and spirit.”(2)

Earlier, he had occasion to point out some specific defects:

“If the physical training it provides is contemptible and the moral training nil, the mental training is also meagre in quantity and worthless in quality. It trains the memory and provides the student with a store of facts and second-hand ideas. The easy assumption of our edu­cationists that we have only to supply the mind with a smattering of facts in each department of knowledge and the mind can be trusted to develop itself and take its own suitable road is contrary to science, contrary to human experience and contrary to the universal opinion of civilised countries.      To give the student knowledge is necessary, but it is still more necessary to build up in him the power of knowledge. Much as we have lost as a nation, we have always preserved our intellectual alert­ness, quickness and originality; but even this last gift is threatened by our University system.”(3)

The Net Result

What has been the net result? We have on our hands a population of which seventy per cent (4) is totally illiterate, and therefore almost wholly cut off from the main cur­rents of modern thought and knowledge, even in matters that directly concern their day-to-day living. They find themselves helpless both in regard to the oppressive and ignorant customs which tradition forces on them and the strenuous demands that are put upon them by the rapidly changing economic and political situation; they accept what is offered them by the unscrupulous demagogue or the listless official. Meanwhile their numbers continue to increase at an alarming rate, as they always do among an ignorant and poverty-stricken mass, rendering almost nugatory the well-meant schemes of the nation’s planners.

Among the so-called educated classes, the unemploy­ment problem is assuming dangerous proportions. Some of the highly educated youth of our nation are being attracted to violence and murder; the rest grumble, seethe with discontent, swell the slums in cities and form a potential danger to the safety of the State. All this happens because their education has been badly planned, insufficiently executed; has left them helpless to meet the realities of life, wasted most of their talent; has hardly given them any ideals worth the name, made them apathetic.

A Matter of Priority

Surely, if we are to build a great nation, we must reorganise our education, give it the very first priority.

Instances culled at random from recent world history will show that it is an indispensable need. Leaders of the Japanese Restoration of 1867 were keenly alive to this need. One of the very first things they took in hand within five years of the end of the old regime was to make education free and compulsory for all, boys and girls alike, in a country where class distinctions were more rigid than our caste, and women outside the very highest society had little chance of any formal education. The result was the “miraculous” transformation of Japan within a single generation. The “miracle” was possible be­cause of the sagacity of the men who led Japan during this period.

Following the Japanese example, China, within ten years of the humiliating Boxer Rebellion revolutionised her entire educational system as a first step towards moder­nity. She “established a network of modern schools of all ranks, provided for a thorough modern education for her princes and nobles, and added to the intellectual educa­tion a thorough grounding in military knowledge and the habits of the soldier…”(5) Mustafa Kemal could remake Turkey because he made the education of the Turkish masses his personal concern. Napoleon gave France her modern look when he set up her present educational system. England could become a democracy only after Disraeli had decided, “We must educate our masters.”

The Ultimate Ends in View

But first we must be clear in our minds as to what exactly we want.

If it be our intention to become a second-hand edition of England or Japan or America, nothing could be easier than to take over their system with whatever slight changes that might fit them to Indian conditions. “… to take over the English, German or American school and university or some variation on them with a gloss of Indian colour is a course attractively facile and one that saves the need of thinking and of new experiment; but in that case there is no call for this loud pother about nationalising education, all that is needed is a change of control, of the medium of instruction, of the frame and fitting of the curriculum and to some extent of the balance of sub­jects.”(6) If training our people to be good Indian citizens and patriots be our sole claim to distinction, then also there need be nothing very peculiar about our system, “since the training to good citizenship must be in all essentials the same whether in the east or the west, England or Germany or Japan or India.”(7)

Or is it the intention that Indian education in the future must scrupulously follow the pattern of our past, not only in principle, but also in all the details, in so far as they can be recovered? “…does it signify that we are to reject modern truth and the modern method of science because they come to us from Europe, and go back to the imper­fect scientific knowledge of classical India, exile Galileo and Newton and all that came after and teach only what was known to Bhaskara, Aryabhatta and Varahamihira? Or how should be teaching of Sanskrit or the living indi­genous tongues differ in kind and method from the teaching of Latin or the living modern tongues in Europe? Are we then to fetch back to the methods of the ‘tols’ of Nadiya or to the system, if we can find out what it was, practised in ancient Takshashila or Nalanda?”(8)

“Indianism” versus “Europeanism”

It is obviously not the intention that India of the future should become an exact replica of the India that has been. “The living spirit of the demand for national education no more requires a return to the astronomy and mathematics of Bhaskara or the forms of the system of Nalanda than the living spirit of Swadeshi a return from railway and motor traction to the ancient chariot and the bullock ­cart. It is the spirit, the living and vital issue that we have to do with…”(9) “The mere inclusion of the matter of Indian thought and culture in the field of knowledge does not make a system of education Indian… It is not eighteenth century India, the India which by its moral and intellectual deficiencies gave itself into the keeping of foreigners, that we have to revive, but the spirit, ideals and methods of the ancient mightier India in a yet more effective form and with a more modern organisation.”(10)

The idea of a true national education challenges the validity of the assumption that it is the European pattern of civilisation that “we have to acquire and fit ourselves for, so only can we live and prosper… It is the civili­sation… that has long offered itself as the last and impera­tive word of the mind of humanity, but the nations of Asia are not bound so to accept it, and will do better, taking over in their turn whatever new knowledge or just ideas Europe has to offer, to assimilate them to their own knowledge and culture, their own native temperament and spirit, mind and social genius and out of that create the civilisation of the future. The scientific, rationalistic, industrial, pseudo-democratic civilisation of the West is now in process of dissolution and it would be a lunatic absurdity for us at this moment to build blindly on that sinking foundation. When the most advanced minds of the occident are beginning to turn in this red evening of the West for the hope of a new and more spiritual civilisation to the genius of Asia, it would be strange if we could think of nothing better than to cast away our own self and potentialities and put our trust in the dissolving and moribund past of Europe.”(11)

“Cultural Integration”

But at this point a question may be raised: where is the necessity of keeping our separate identity when the whole world seems to be coming close together both culturally and in every other way? Sri Aurobindo himself has recognised that “The earth is in travail now of one common, large and flexible civilisation for the whole human race…”(12) But this in his view does not imply that all distinctions will be blurred as is the fond hope of some ardent supporters of “cultural integration”. For he hastens to add that into this common civilization of the future, “each modern and ancient culture shall bring its contribu­tion and each clearly defined human aggregate shall introduce its necessary element of variation. In the working out of this aim, there must necessarily be some struggle for survival. The fittest to survive will be here all that can best serve the tendencies Nature is working out in humanity, – not only the tendencies of the hour, but the reviving tendencies of the past and the yet inchoate tendencies of the future.”(13)

It is here that India can contribute much by preserving her spirit and shaping her educational system in line with that spirit.

A National System of Education

But before we examine in detail how that can best be done, let us clear our minds of another persistent notion that might stand in the way. What, it may be asked, can be meant by a purely “national” system of education, when the “mind of man is the same everywhere and can everywhere be passed through the same machine and uniformly constructed to order?” The answer is: “That is an old and effete superstition of the reason which it is time now to renounce. For within the universal mind and soul of humanity is the mind and soul of the individual with its infinite variation, its commonness and its uniqueness, and between them there stands an intermediate power, the mind of a nation, the soul of a people. And of all these three education must take account if it is to be, not a machine-made fabric, but a true building or a living evoca­tion of the powers of the mind and spirit of the human being.”(14)

“The basis of a man’s nature,” Sri Aurobindo explains elsewhere, “is almost always, in addition to his soul’s past, his heredity, his surroundings, his nationality, his country, the soil from which he draws sustenance, the air which he breathes, the sights, sounds, habits to which he is accus­tomed. They mould him not the less powerfully because insensibly, and from that then we must begin. We must not take up the nature by the roots from the earth in which it must grow or surround the mind with images and ideas of a life which is alien to that in which it must physically move… There are souls which naturally revolt from their surroundings and seem to belong to another age and clime. Let them be free to follow their bent. But the majority languish, become empty, become artificial, if artificially moulded into an alien form. It is God’s ar­rangement that they should belong to a particular nation, age, society, that they should be children of the past, possessors of the present, creators of the future. The past is our foundation, the present our material, the future our aim and summit. Each must have its due and natural place in a national system of education.”(15)

Sanat K. Banerji


1. Induprakash, 1894, “Bankim Chandra Chatterji.”
2. SABCL, Vo!. 17, p. 191.
3. Old writings, published for the first time in Mother India, April 1953
4. This an old figure given by the author and although the rate of literacy has increased since then,
the fact of the matter is that India is still far from becoming a literate nation – editor.
5. Karmayogin, SABCL, Vol. 2, p. 230.
6. A Preface on National Education, SABCL, Vol. 17, P. 192.
7. Ibid., p. 193.
8. Ibid
9. Ibid., p. 194.
10. “The Brain of India”, The Harmony of Virtue, SABCL, Vol. 3, pp. 330-31.
11. Preface on National Education, SABCL, Vol. 17, pp. 195-96.
12. The Ideal of Human Unity, SABCL, Vol. 15, p. 300.
13. Ibid
14. A preface on National Education, SABCL, Vol. 17, p. 196.
15. A System of National Education, SABCL, Vol. 17, pp. 204-05.

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  • http://Website Indu

    I do believe like millions of people that Sri Aurobindo was undoubtedly a visionary whose thoughts catapulted through time zones with utmost accuracy and precision and that his philosophy at times seems to be like a ‘Crystal Ball’ predicting futuristic societies.

    However, I do differ in my thoughts with Sanat K Bannerji reflected in ‘The New Approach to Education in India’. In recent times as never before we have overtly and recklessly harped on the philosophy of overlooking syllabus oriented teaching… in our frenzy to sound different and maybe to redefine the meaning of education. These clichés are juggled. No education can be precise, focused or indoctrinated until and unless we have a basic framework which may be termed as simply as a syllabus, curriculum.

    I do wholeheartedly second Sanat K. Banerji’s ideology of rising from truth to higher truth but truth must never deviate from its fundamentals, its norms and its basic root of the reality of life which will be chaotic without guidelines.

    Dr. Indu Khetarpal
    Principal, Salwan Public School