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Education – Our Broken Intellectual Infrastructure: Time To Envision “Our” Own


विद्यां ददाति विनयं, विनयाद् याति पात्रताम्।
पात्रत्वात् धनमाप्नोति, धनात् धर्मं ततः सुखम्॥

vidyA dadAti vinayaM, vinayAdyAti pAtratAM |
pAtratvAddhanamApnoti, dhanAddharmaM tataH sukhaM

“Education is that which sows the seed of humility and Moral Character, a well-rounded Character readies you to learn Life and Livelihood Skills. Skills help you in contributing to society and to create Wealth. Wealth allows you the comfort to practice Dharma, through which you realize your ultimate nature, which is Happiness”.

This shloka from “Hitopadesha” reflects the cultural ethos of Indic education. While the deeper philosophical import is limited by translation, yet one cannot miss the practical hierarchy of objectives, and its alignment with the ultimate goal of realizing sat chit ānada. This in essence sums up the essence of Indic education.

To trigger a forest fire or light a lamp to banish darkness?

Another National Education Policy (NEP 2020) has been adopted, and soon its implementation will begin. A task more onerous than even defense, space or nuclear programs. For it is only a few times a nation can afford itself an opportunity as momentous as this; to change its education policy.

Steps taken today will decide the future texture of our society, and the changes affected will be irreversible and generational. So, what kind of spark will the NEP ignite? We need to be certain about the answer and we can ill afford to be casual. Any misstep will be brutal for our future.

Why not an indigenous education system that is uniquely ours?

Our current education system operates within a paradigm of historical context when the intent was to subjugate and colonize. The new approach has to be in a fresh context, given that we are now free of that terrible yoke.

We must take this approach without a need to be politically correct, or a desire to borrow piecemeal, or to concoct something inadequate, or to even pick trends, just because they are popular. Every paradigm must be questioned. For example, why 10+2, or 5+3+3+4, why not 7+7+7+7? But more on this later.

We have for far too long force fitted borrowed educational systems ever since we discarded our own. It is time now to confidently curate something indigenous on the lines of what had served us so well in the past, bringing to us in its wake more than adequate glory. Indigenous attempts ultimately prove to be robust. Take for instance, our space and nuclear programs. And who knows, like Yoga, the world may rush in to adopt what we come up with. At least let us begin afresh!

Incarcerated in a 1000-year-old prison

Amidst our annual cycle of celebrating Republic and Independence Days, we have missed opening the doors to a prison where education has been locked up since a millennium. Every so often it cries for attention, but in the din, we miss noticing and hearing its cries. It has been 75 years since, but it continues to languish, eagerly waiting to break free and allow its wisdom to once again nourish the intellect of our nation. Let us allow that to happen.

Is “OUR” education system really ours?

In the context of organically evolved systems, no. What we see today is a residue of what was left post many assaults that our land bore for more than a thousand years. In fact the battle scars, cuts, and bruises of these assaults are construed as today’s educational system. Organically evolved systems whether social, political or economic evolve over millennia.

They are essentially a codification of convenient practices followed by a set of people in a finite geography over a long period. They are rooted in the culture of that society, are mature, robust & flexible and have the innate wisdom to remain contemporary – until and unless they are deliberately disturbed by abnormal external stimuli.

Like most indigenous systems “our” education system too was an organic system, unique in structure and content. This system aligned with the physical, mental, intellectual and spiritual development of the student.

At a correct stage of physical development and after the “Upanayanam” ceremony a child was sent under tutelage of a revered Guru to his Gurukul. The Guru who had deep experiential wisdom would identify a child’s proclivity based on guṇa-s or inherent qualities; Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas.

While strengthening a student’s moral character, the Guru would trace the furrows in the delicate mind using a scientific process that involved rituals, storytelling, mantra chanting, physical exercise and such. This process helped channelize the hidden potential of the child’s guṇa-s in a way that would help the child later in its chosen field of occupation.

Once a Guru was satisfied with the intellectual readiness on part of his ward, the student would be advised to proceed for apprenticeship under an Acharya, who was usually an expert in a chosen field of craft.

And this system worked. It produced masters such as Aryabhat, Panini, Patanjali, Sushrut, Charak and Kanad. It gifted us advanced treatises in Mathematics, Astronomy, Surgery, Alchemy, Medicine, Economics, Philosophy and more. It gave us incomparable artistic masterpieces in Sculpture, Painting, Music and Dance that have stood the test of time. The system must have had fluid interplay of theory and application.

After all what can otherwise explain the scientific advancements, the exquisite architecture, great strides in astronomy, massive scale of ship building etc., all of which stand testimony to this day. This type of education must have also been supported by practical mercantile pursuits in an era of vibrant domestic and international trade. But all this was before its destiny was inorganically assaulted.

A short trip inside the 1000-year-old prison

At the beginning of the second millennium when Indic education experienced horrific disturbances induced by extraneous cultures, it was caught unawares. Mainly due to two reasons. Statecraft and political disunity.

First, our education system served a rather self-sufficient, composite, and homogenous society not known for colonizing or martial expansion. Thus education for us was never a part of the organized statecraft and remained largely in private domain.

Classics like Kautilya’s Arthshastra corroborate this. Kingly grants, private donations, seva, and apprenticeship served the modest economic needs of this system. So, when it was exposed to machinations of organized statecraft it never retaliated, and succumbed easily, quickly.

Second, the post Gupta Empire subcontinent saw multiple kingdoms emerge. Although different schools of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism and their education systems were prevalent, the subtext was always Indic.

Organic evolution would have eventually ironed out the differences through dialectics as exemplified by later debates between Adi Shankara and Mandana Mishra. But it was not to be. Polity had weakened and was ripe for external attack. And thus “our” education system was caught in a series of ideological onslaughts.

1. The Physical Onslaught

Since education was in the private domain and its ultimate objective was congruent with that of the spiritual, this system was inextricably linked to the temple ecosystem. It is no coincidence that Kashi, an important spiritual center, was also a significant center of learning, and so were Kanchi, Ujjain, Sringeri, and others. Even great universities like Nalanda, Vikramshila, Vallabhi, Pushpagiri etc. had spiritual-religious connections as indicated by their iconography.

Turkic-Afghan invasions began at the start of the second millennium. Since their culture was iconoclastic, temples were in their direct line of attack. These temples not only supported the spirit of our education but also were a repository of physical infrastructure such as classrooms, books, libraries, teachers’ quarters etc. All of this suffered collateral damage. At times destruction was of epic proportion.

Bakhtyar Khilji’s razing of Nalanda would make the recent incident at Bamiyan look like a harmless paper cut! Anyway, this destruction continued with varying intensity till the time of Aurangzeb. Temples were razed, and replaced with mosques, pāṭhaśālā-s, tol-s and vihārā-s with maqtab-s or madrasa-s, and the content, the pedagogy, developed over millennia was unceremoniously replaced with that which was fairly recent, and uni-dimensionally religious, definitely not indigenous.

2. The Mental Onslaught

…..a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia…” – T B Macaulay

Barring a hiatus of 70 years when Marathas ruled the larger part of the Indian subcontinent, and tried to rebuild temples, and resurrect related educational ecosystems, the British were the ones who began the mental onslaught on us. And they did this knowingly, emphatically, with a presumption that everything oriental was inferior.

Education was an effective tool of the British statecraft, and unlike the earlier Islamic onslaught, their style was suave and beguiling, and they targeted the delicate mental veneer of individuals and communities alike. To realize their objective, the British found willing partners in missionaries who had already arrived on our shores. Education in any case was their preferred route to evangelize, especially for the Jesuits.

The Church, and the administration thus found it convenient to have complementing objectives. Once again Indic indigenous education was caught in the historic crossfire. The objective of education thus switched from that of being self-reliant, self-developed, to that of subjugation and conversion. And those who readily aligned with the British were given a passport to a better livelihood.

3. The Intellectual Onslaught

Third in the assault trilogy came from the left. Left movements were already active at the turn of the previous century. In the tumultuous years leading up to our independence, the left had significant influence in policy making. Even the Indian National Congress (INC) had a left faction in the Congress Socialist Party (CSP).

Left ideology does not subscribe to ethno-nationalism, so there was no way Indic education would find favor with them. In fact, since the left relied heavily on student movements, they significantly influenced the education system to suit their ideology. Most universities ended up with a leftist tilt which later unfortunately manifested in our choice of economic models, industrial planning, and foreign policy.

The after effect of that intellectual onslaught continues till date, and is perhaps the reason why many who arrogate themselves to the “intelligentsia tag” belong to the left.

4. Post Independence Self Goal

As if this onslaught by extraneous ideologies was not enough, we continued to mete out similar treatment and perhaps with more disdain, even after our Independence in 1947. The couplet attributed to Firaq Gorakhpuri best encapsulates the travesty:

हमें तो अपनों ने लूटा, गैरों में कहाँ दम था,
मेरी कश्ती वहां डूबी, जहां पानी कम था…

hamein to apnon ne loota, gairon mein kahaan dam thaa,
meree kashtee vahaan doobee, jahaan paanee kam thaa…

Roughly translated; “what others could not achieve in my destruction, my own excelled at it….” The first three decades were in fact an abridged version of what had transpired over a millennium!

The nation’s first education minister for eleven years was Maulana Azad an eminent Islamic scholar born in Mecca, followed by BL Srimali, Humayun Kabir (editor of Azad’s Biography), Muhamandali Chagla, and for a short while, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. Whether they succeeded in laying a strong foundation is left to individual judgement but in the context of introducing an indigenous Indic education system, they surely did not.

The end of tenure of these first five ministers culminated in the setting up of the Kothari commission to sketch contours of our education system. But by now ignoring our traditional age-old local educational system was institutionalized.

The commission in its core, as also the consultative committee had “experts” from every part of the western world. From the US, UK, France, Sweden, Russia and even Japan… but not a single Indic scholar! Western education simply returned through the back door!

And finally, after the congress split in 1969, and after Mrs. Gandhi came back to power, the left exercised significant political clout. Nurul Hassan, a committed leftist headed the education and culture ministry for 5 years up to the emergency years.

This period many concur was when our education system saw a systematic academic brutalization of Indic education both in content and in methods, what bore the brunt especially was history, and humanities, two areas essential to formulate a nation’s grand narrative.

Some honest attempts were made by Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, and the Atal Bihari governments. But what had been ruined over a millennium would take some serious business and a determined intent to rebuild. The Modi government chose Smriti Irani to do just the job, Prakash Javadekar followed, and now the onerous responsibility falls on Dr. Ramesh Pokhriyal “Nishank”.

Meanwhile, Indic education expectantly waits to be pulled out of its solitary confinement in this 1000-year-old prison!

The Soul is Still Alive

Attacks, whether physical, mental, or intellectual, can never destroy the soul. Indic Education is the soul of our current education system. It still peeps from beneath all that debris. Credit perhaps goes to our Indic values, nurtured at home, and imparted through rituals, Puranic literature, and so on. Every so often its strength manifests when CEOs, businessmen, and leading personalities attribute their success to these values.

Envisioning an Indigenous Education System for the World

Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. Hopefully our education will not be condemned inside yet another ideological prison. At least let us make a new and fresh beginning. Let us integrate everything from the best practices from all around the world, but why isolate what was ours. Rather than a “New system with an Indic flavor” why not an “Indic system with a Global flavor”?

Few checkboxes to break-free from the many paradigms:

Structure – Beyond the Paradigm.

Why not a 7+7+7+7 system of schooling, an Indic format, rather than that of 10+2 or 5+3+3+4 or some other? Indic scholars will vouch for its relevance and alignment with the physical and mental development of the student. Why stay with formats that emerged from contextual needs of other societies?

Specifically those of the post industrial revolution Britain, and post cultural revolution France, which were merely transplanted elsewhere. Similarly, if Germany and Italy could conceptualize a Kindergarten and Montessori, shouldn’t we attempt something original too?

Content – Remove the Debris of Ideology.

There is popular awareness about content manipulation in history and humanities. But even hard sciences like Math, Physics and Chemistry were not spared of ideological biases to establish academic hegemony of Western science over Eastern.

In Math for example, pratyaksha pramāṇa or cognitive proof of direct perception, an accepted concept in Indic Math, was discarded in favor of axiomatic concepts of formal Western Math. Fun transitioned to boring formulae. Perhaps this is the reason why our kids prefer soft subjects over Math and hard Sciences!

Liberal – Let Us Ensure It Is Not A Red Herring.

Liberal education seems to be a popular trend. But what does it really mean? There seems to be a lot of connotations than a definite answer. Closest one can construe is, either a move away from hard sciences, or to facilitate easy switching between subjects, or that which allows one to be a generalist and specialist at once.

In absence of any formal definition, perhaps the real reason then for its recent popularity is the one mentioned in the previous point, waning interest in hard sciences due to content manipulation. Or is “holistic” the word that we are looking for? If so then the Indic values forever espouse holistic. Who could be a better example than Dr. Kalam? A rocket scientist, and a Veena exponent! Let us not merely borrow a trend because it is popular.

Rote-Learning – There is a Case For This Too.

The enthusiasm to diss rote learning is only matched by the popularity for liberal learning. But the derisive enthusiasm to project it as something Indic is mischievous. Rote learning in its current context belongs to the systems that we borrowed from. In its Indic context it was a deliberate academic tool at a particular stage of mental development.

It was designed for concepts such as Mantra Sadhana, with mathematical meterage, and scientific ability to impact energy flow in a desired direction. Such deep significance needs intelligent consideration, lest we throw away the baby with the bathwater in our misplaced enthusiasm to be politically correct.

Skills Education – is not blue collarization

Another popular trend. But when and how did the current system become unskilled? And what exactly do we mean by that term? Training beauticians and motor mechanics or producing a job ready workforce is not skills education. That is vocational education. If we continue to confuse the two, we will walk right back into the trap of history.

Skills education in the Indic context is about transitioning theory into useful application, and not about transitioning education into a job. The former is about effort, whereas the latter is about result. Indic education was never devoid of skills that it needed any specific emphasis.

Epic theoretical treatises always had their accompanying applications arms in every subject, ranging from architecture to surgery. Skills were integrated in our education philosophy. Why sciences, even our spiritual theory had an applied arm, in Yoga for example!

Teachers – from Shishukul to Gurukul, let us get the focus back

The famous shloka “Gurur Brahma, Gurur Vishnu…” exemplifies importance accorded to teachers by the Indic society. Students sought teachers in our system. It is a travesty of industrialization of education that teachers now seek students to make a quick buck. Institute takes precedence over teachers.

Landbank ownership and access to funds are deemed to be qualifying criteria to become an educationist, and not an internal calling to nurture minds. Anyways, EdTech has disrupted education, and it is only a matter of time that teachers will be back on centerstage. And good teachers will possibly overtake the best of institutes even in commercial success.

Even the concept of “Pupil Teacher Ratio” should be reassessed in the context of EdTech. Emphasis should shift from quantity of teachers to quality of teachers.
Measurement – not just about “how much” but “in what direction”

Budgetary allocation as a fraction of GDP may not be a correct measure to assess attention given to education. After all investment in education can never be measured in terms of project IRR and ROIs. A fresh set of measurements needs to be configured. It is not about “how much” is being spent but “where and in what direction and with what results”.

For example, the future of education is more about digital, and less about physical infrastructure. Budgetary allocation for a massive cloud based virtual university by the government will prove more efficient and effective than for brick and mortar.

Funding – allow market access

Contributing to the cause of education is not alien to our society. Many may want to invest if stock and bond market access is allowed in this sector. And in an altruistic spirit they may even accept a lower but fair return.

Statecraft – consider education as a potent Soft-Power

“Our” education suffered because it was never a part of our statecraft. An indigenous education system can be an effective global soft power like Yoga and other entertainment.

There is something unique about the Indic ethos that makes even our armed forces a preferred choice for deployment amongst peacekeeping forces around the world! Reason is, we as a society do not harbor any expansionist or imperialistic intent and believe in the concept of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, that the world is one family….and what could be better than an indigenous Indic education system for the world to realize that.

We can’t afford to delay any longer. We need to free our indigenous education from foreign shackles, from the prison we have confined it to. Borrowing here from a poem penned by the Education Minister himself, who seems to say the same thing in these lines:

नहीं देर करना,सागर में तरना……
हे शक्ति! आ तू इन्हें दीप्त करना
जो सुप्त हैं उनमें जागृति भरना |

nahin der karnaa, saagar mein taranaa……
hae shakti! aa tu inhein deept karnaa
jo supt hain unamein jaagrti bharnaa |

May the light of wisdom shine bright and awaken those who are asleep….for we cannot afford to delay any further

Featured Image source: Govardhan Eco Village


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