A Lifelong Process
N. V. C. Swamy
banchi tavat shikhi; As long as I live, so long do I learn.’
- Sri Ramakrishna
is usual convention to classify the subject of education under
two categories - secular and spiritual. This is a Western
concept. So far as the East is concerned, there is no distinction
between the two. They are inextricably linked with each other
and any division is only artificial. Nevertheless, this division
has taken deep roots in our psyche. Hence we will approach
the subject matter of this article from this point of view.
quotation cited above is from a saint, who considered spiritual
experiences far superior to mere knowledge of the world. However,
we will examine how it applies to both types of education,
secular and spiritual. We commence with secular education,
by which we mean the kind of education imparted in schools
and colleges, leading to degrees and diplomas.
following incident occurred several decades ago, in the late
1950s, when I was a student at the Indian Institute of Science,
Bangalore. The details were narrated to me by a fellow student
who was at that time doing her doctorate in pharmacology at
the Institute. One day when she was sitting in her office
doing some work, there was a knock on the door. When she asked
the caller to enter, in came an elderly gentleman in his sixties,
wearing white pants, shirt and coat, a tie askew, a pair of
chappals and a white turban. He took a seat and said, ‘I say,
I am told you have studied something of microbiology. Would
you mind teaching the subject to me?’ My friend told me that
she was taken aback when the gentleman introduced himself.
Every day, for a month, the gentleman would come to the Institute
to sit with my friend for a couple of hours to learn microbiology.
He later went on to apply his learning to the study of the
physiology of vision and wrote a book about it. The name of
the gentleman? C V Raman.
is it that motivates a person like Raman to decide to learn
an entirely new subject at such an advanced age? He had already
done his best research work by that time and had already won
the much coveted Nobel Prize. But there was that urge in him
to learn, an urge that was not too particular about where
or from whom he could learn something new. He was an example
for what Sri Ramakrishna meant when he said: ‘As long as I
live, so long do I learn.’
usually associate learning with educational establishments.
We consider a person educated, if he or she has gone through
the schooling system, entered college and graduated from a
university. That is supposed to mark the end of the learning
process. This is the common understanding of what education
means. It reminds me of a story I heard long ago. A noted
professor of astronomy from a highly reputed university was
once invited to a formal dinner. He was seated next to a young
lady in her late twenties. During the course of the dinner,
the young lady asked the professor about himself. The professor
replied, ‘I am a student of astronomy.’ The young lady looked
at him up and down, at his grey hair and elderly face, and
exclaimed, ‘You mean you are still studying astronomy? I finished
it long ago in my college!’ It is obvious that the word learning
meant different things to them. For the young lady, learning
was over with graduation from the college. For the professor,
who had a broader perspective of knowledge, learning was a
is an unfortunate fact that the system of education we follow
in India is not geared to the learning process. It is oriented
more towards providing information in the form of facts and
figures, which should be reproduced faithfully in tests and
examinations. The more the facts that can be reproduced, the
brighter and more intelligent the student is rated to be.
But ask any student a few days after his examinations how
much he remembers of what he had learnt during the previous
year; very few of them would confidently reply that they remember
everything. This is because they have been trained like racehorses,
which run a fast pace and are totally spent by the end of
the race. I often wonder how many students would be able to
answer their examination papers once again if they are given
the same one month after the examinations are over!
remember a nice story I had been told when I was young, which
is a reflection on the kind of formal education we receive.
A father and son went for a walk one evening. It started drizzling
and they took shelter below a tree. The father thought that
he would use this state of enforced inactivity to educate
his son about the cardinal directions. He explained to the
boy where east, west, north and south were. The boy learnt
it fast and the rain also stopped. The father took his son
home and proudly told the boy’s mother about what their child
had learnt. The mother was immensely pleased and asked the
boy, ‘Tell me, my pet, which is east?’ The boy replied promptly,
‘Let’s go back to the tree.’
is the moral of the story? It is a commentary on our system
of secular education. Having gone through this system of education
and having been involved in using this system in teaching
for almost half a century, I can confidently say that our
education system divorces us completely from the world around
us. All the subjects taught in schools and colleges - be they
science, history, geography, sociology or psychology - impinge
on our daily life. But we are hardly aware of it, because
the system of education is such that knowledge gets confined
within the covers of textbooks.
was made aware of this facet of our educational system by
a great man, Prof. Satish Dhawan. I was teaching aerodynamics
at that time to students at the Indian Institute of Technology,
Madras. I had invited Prof. Dhawan to our Institute. He was
at that time the director of the Indian Institute of Science
at Bangalore and was shortly to take over as chairman of the
Space Commission. We were going by electric train to Chromepet,
since he had a lecture at the Madras Institute of Technology,
of which our current President, Dr Abdul Kalam, is an old
student. On the way, he suddenly asked me, ‘Would you like
to see Benard cells?’ I was taken aback, since this is a laboratory
experiment to demonstrate convection rings in water or air.
I was wondering what he was talking about, when he pointed
to the sky and said, ‘There are your Benard cells.’ I saw
the beautiful pattern in the sky which I had never observed
before. It was then that Prof. Dhawan told me, ‘See, your
aerodynamics is all around you, not necessarily only in the
textbooks.’ Did not Sri Ramakrishna also display the same
capability of keen observation, which is so well borne out
by his wonderful parables? Maybe he had this capacity because
he was not spoilt by book-learning!
are two words in the English language which are in common
use and sometimes used synonymously. They are literacy
and education. They appear to have almost the same
meaning, but there is a subtle and important difference between
them. Literacy implies a general acquaintance about a subject.
A literate person is one who knows how to read and write,
and use this knowledge in daily life. Education, on the other
hand, stands for more than a nodding acquaintance of any subject.
It involves a deeper study leading to knowledge in depth.
An educated person is one who has a broad knowledge of any
subject and is capable of discussing it intelligently.
an example, let us consider one of the hottest topics today,
namely, environment. One can gain a lot of information about
this subject by reading a few general books or newspaper
articles, or even seeing television programmes. This is environmental
literacy, which tells us what is meant by environment,
what its importance for the planet is, how it is being mishandled,
what are the grave dangers facing humanity, what needs to
be done at the short-term or long-term level, and so on. There
are lots of literate people who can read and write having
this kind of literacy. But that does not make them educated.
is another group of literate people, who have made a deep
study of the technical aspects of environment. They are people
who have specialized in certain areas of environment, who
teach the subject at advanced levels, who are invited to contribute
research papers or articles to magazines or journals, and
whose voice is heard with respect. They are the educated experts
in that field.
statement of Sri Ramakrishna comes to mind at this stage.
He used to say, ‘There are some who have heard of milk, some
who have seen it and some who have drunk it.’ Only the last
know what milk really is. The literate are those who have
heard of milk or maybe even seen it. But the educated are
those who have actually drunk milk and are in a position to
say what milk tastes like.
Beginning of Education
education imparted in schools and colleges makes us literate,
but does not really educate us. One may argue that even if
schools and colleges can only make us literate, there are
always advanced courses where one can get oneself really educated.
One can always join a postgraduate programme and feel satisfied
that one has really learnt something. If that also is not
considered adequate, there are always doctoral programmes.
Maybe that is the end of one’s educational career as a doctorate
really makes one a fully educated expert. This was the impression
I also had. But as soon as I completed my doctorate, I was
in for a rude shock. My professor congratulated me and told
me that my real education started then! He explained to me
that whatever I had undergone up till then was only a preparation
towards real education. Even a doctorate is only a training
programme, like the earlier programmes we go through in schools
and colleges. That is as far as the formal educational programme
can carry us. It teaches us the methodology of learning. Real
education starts only from that point.
best way of appreciating and understanding this is to become
a teacher. There are two types of teachers. The first type
consists of those who are content with what they have been
taught in formal educational institutions and go on teaching
it to students year after year without any change or updating.
These are teachers who make use of their own student notes
for teaching others. One could even predict what the teacher
is going to teach if one had a peek into the lecture notes
of one’s seniors!
once had an opportunity to serve on a committee for selection
of teachers. The chairperson of the committee was a highly
distinguished educationist. All members of the committee were
very much impressed by a candidate, who had a teaching experience
of fifteen years. Only the chairperson was not. When we asked
him for the reason, he made a very pithy remark: ‘Don’t you
see? He doesn’t have an experience of fifteen years. He has
one year’s experience fifteen times over!’ It is people of
this type who have never cultivated the art of learning.
the other hand, there are also teachers who are constantly
alert and try to keep themselves up-to-date with the latest
developments. They are the real learners. I had a teacher
in my college days who was in his late fifties and on the
verge of retirement. One day he burst into the class and exclaimed,
‘You know, boys, I have just heard that a new instrument has
come into the market. I have placed an order for it and as
soon as it is received, we will all learn how to use it for
better accuracy.’ He was a learner in the truest sense of
the term. Every one of us would have encountered someone or
other in our lives who exhibited that zest for learning, for
refreshing or improving one’s knowledge for the sheer pleasure
Ramakrishna was a learner of that type. Whenever he heard
that there was a God-lover in Calcutta, he would ask his nephew
Hriday to take him to that person. He would approach that
person with all humility and ask him, ‘I am told that you
love God and that you have had some experiences. Could you
please tell me about them?’ His sincerity and the charming
way he would make his request would literally bowl over that
person, who would consider himself blessed by Thakur.
Becoming a Learner
does one acquire this skill? It is mostly by keeping one’s
eyes and ears open. A person who always swims in pools may
encounter problems when he is asked to swim in the sea. The
water in the sea is not calm as in the pool, nor is it shallow.
The only method is to plunge into the sea and practise in
stages. This requires two qualities: intense desire and hard
work. Only those who have these qualities have the chance
to become real learners.
is a well-known fact that all children learn from imitation.
They pick up words, phrases and even sentences from the talk
of adults. In this sense, they educate themselves. But something
happens the moment they start attending school. Self-education
stops and forced learning begins. The former needs a lot of
time and is a slow process. A pre-school child has plenty
of time at its disposal and time is of no consequence to it.
Hence self-learning becomes possible. In schools the learning
process gets accelerated and becomes tighter. Learning slowly
transforms into cramming of information and the child is no
longer capable of self-learning. However, this capacity lies
dormant and when exercised comes to the surface again. In
a way, the formal education system hardly gives any time to
the child to exercise its capacity to learn by itself. After
the end of the period of formal education, there is one more
chance given to us to go back to self-learning. Those who
are able to utilize this chance are the eternal learners and
creative people. Those who are not, remain content with what
they have learnt formally. But even they are sometimes forced
into self-learning by the exigencies of circumstances. These
are common experiences in all human societies.
in the Spiritual Realm
has been discussed above is from the point of view of what
is usually called secular knowledge. Are these facts
applicable to spiritual knowledge also? Much more so.
As a matter of fact, self-learning is the only way that one
can acquire Self-knowledge. This was the discovery of the
ancient sages of India, who have left behind the records of
their experiments in the Upanishadic texts. This is true not
only of the Upanishads, but also of practical sciences, like
raja yoga. We will now consider briefly how self-study plays
an important role in this field.
methodology of learning recommended by the Upanishads is the
triune method of shravana, manana and nididhyasana.
Shravana refers basically to hearing, but also includes
reading, discussions and the like. Manana is contemplation
of what has been studied or heard. Nididhyasana is
concentration on the subject to the exclusion of everything
else. Usually, the initial knowledge about anything has to
be acquired through a guru, because he is the dependable authority
on the subject. Manana and nididhyasana depend
on one’s own effort, with some guidance from the guru. The
role of the teacher is only as a guidepost. The journey has
to be undertaken by us with our own efforts. The following
example from the Taittiriya Upanishad is a good illustration:
approaches his father Varuna with a desire to know Brahman.
The father says that ‘food, vital force, eye, ear, mind and
speech’ are the aids to the knowledge of Brahman, and after
having given him a few hints, tells the son to ‘find out for
yourself’. Having heard this instruction from the father,
the son has to think for himself and contemplate on what he
has heard. He discovers that the body is Brahman. When he
approaches his father to verify this discovery, the father
does not give any discourse. He simply tells his son, ‘Think
some more and find out for yourself.’ After successive steps,
the son finally realizes that ananda, or Bliss, is Brahman.
This realization does not need any further verification from
the father, because it is the son’s personal experience.
we notice in this example is the process of self-education.
Based on a few hints given by the father, the son has to discover
the answer by a gradual process of contemplation and meditation.
There is no spoonfeeding involved. This was the way disciples
were trained by teachers in the ancient Vedic culture who
encouraged self-analysis. It is the constant thread running
through the Upanishadic literature. No wonder the ancient
gurukulas were able to produce such spiritual giants who dot
the pages of the Upanishads.
same methodology is to be seen in the Yoga Sutras of
Patanjali. The very first aphorism tells us that what follow
are a set of instructions, not for discussion but for practice.
Education in yoga does not stop with the
learning of the theory of the sutras, a few asanas and pranayamas.
It is a lifelong practice and a learning process at the same
time. Only those who are capable of learning continuously
throughout their life can become successful yoga practitioners.
as a Learner
is indeed a lifelong experience and there is no doubt about
it. We continuously learn through our experiences, both good
and bad, mostly through the latter. But this is more like
a knee-jerk reaction. We respond to the situation in which
we find ourselves placed. The kind of learning great people
like Sri Ramakrishna refer to is of a different type altogether.
They draw lessons from their experiences, which enrich their
lives and serve the needs of others also in the process. A
perusal of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna will amply
bear this point out. It is full of parables and stories about
Vedantic principles, but based on mundane experiences. We
too have undergone such experiences; we too have seen whatever
he observed. For us they are mere occurrences, for him they
were indicators of profound truths. To be able to observe
ordinary events and draw profound conclusions from them is
the hallmark of genius. That is real learning. The
seers, the prophets, the trailblazers are such learners; they
are the ideals to be followed. The philosophy they pursue
is aptly summed up by Sri Ramakrishna when he says, ‘Javat
banchi tavat shikhi.’
author wishes to thank Kum. Heisnam Jina Devi, Lecturer, Swami
Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana, Bangalore, for her
help in the preparation of this article.)