Thursday, 10 April 2014

I is for India, How to Teach about India

As stated in the opening post of this series, an important goal of Indian National Education must be to help learners gain a healthy love and pride for their motherland and a deeper awareness of the Indian spirit. We explored this partly in the previous post.

But facilitating such a learning about India, and especially about the deeper Indian spirit is not an easy task. For that matter, teaching about any culture is challenging. But India poses a rather big challenge because of its extremely rich diversity and a great many contradictions that can often make it difficult to dig deep into that one thread of inner unity running through it all.

In his book, The Elephant, the Tiger & the Cellphone: Reflections on India in the Twenty-first Century, Shashi Tharoor makes some very interesting points about India's diversity:
  • Any truism about India can be immediately contradicted by another truism about India.
  • The singular thing about India….is that you can only speak of it in the plural.
  • How can one portray an ageless civilization that was the birthplace of four major religions, a dozen different traditions of classical dance, eighty-five political parties and three hundred ways of cooking potato?
  • The short answer is that it can’t be done – at least not to everyone’s satisfaction. 
Pavan K. Varma in his book, Being Indian: The truth about why the 21st century will be India’s, writes:
  • India is a difficult country to characterize, and Indians not easy to define, especially today when they are in a transition, emerging from the shadows of history into the glare of a globalizing world.
  • The whole point of Indian-ness is its pluralism: you can be many things and one thing. 
Makarand Paranjpe in his thought-provoking book, Decolonization and Development: Hind Swaraj Revisioned makes the following points:
  • India offers a culture of plural possibilities, but also a culture with certain emphases. 
  • A continuous, authentic tradition of creating spaces for enlightenment and liberation in the broadest possible sense exists more abundantly in India than anywhere else. 
  • There is a distinct Indian way of thinking which is not restricted to India, but [Indians] have better access to it than the West does. 
  • There is no one truth about India. There are several contending truths.
All the above are correct. So what do we do now? We just give up on this goal because either it can't be done to everyone's satisfaction or because there are several contending truths about India.


In fact, these arguments provide the very reason and make it even more necessary for Indian children and youth to discover the different truths about India and explore if there is a higher, wider, deeper Truth what binds all these other truths into a unity that is rich in diversity. [see more about diversity in a previous post.]

#bindupopli   #indianeducation
Paranjpe's argument that there is a certain cultural emphasis and a distinct Indian way of thinking offers the clue. What is it? Sri Aurobindo answers this in one famous line -“Spirituality is indeed the master-key of the Indian mind; the sense of the infinite is native to it.” In the same paragraph he says,
…she [India] saw that the physical does not get its full sense until it stands in right relation to the supra-physical; she saw that the complexity of the universe could not be explained in the present terms of man or seen by his superficial sight, that there were other powers behind, other powers within man himself of which he is normally unaware, that he is conscious only of a small part of himself, that the invisible always surrounds the visible, the suprasensible the sensible, even as infinity always surrounds the finite. (CWSA, Volume 20, pp. 6-7)
This sense of Infinity behind all that is finite, Invisible behind all that is visible is an essential characteristic of Indian culture. Seen in this light, all the visible and finite truths about India find their place in the larger invisible Truth about India, the Truth described beautifully by Sri Aurobindo as:  “Behind everything in life there is an Absolute, which that thing is seeking after in its own way; everything finite is striving to express an infinite which it feels to be its truth” (CWSA, Vol. 25, p. 112).

In an essay published elsewhere, I reflected upon my experience of listening to some contemporary music and poetry in the light of this Truth about India. I concluded that piece by saying:
When we speak about spirituality being the master-key of the Indian mind, and a sense of infinite being native to it, I am beginning to realize that we are not only speaking of the heights of excellence and those wonderful accomplishments achieved by certain gifted individuals who are able to tap into this master-key of spirituality. I humbly suggest that we examine a little more deeply whether the ‘wonder’ that is possible by accessing this inherent master-key of spirituality happens only in these extra-ordinary achievements or accomplishments, or whether it also manifests itself in our day-to-day ordinary acts of living and working in many different fields of human activity…even including listening to music or enjoying poetry. Perhaps it indeed is a matter of the inner attitude regardless of what activity one is engaged in!
I now believe that this is what is needed in Indian education too. A way to teach about India, perhaps the only way to teach about Indian spirit is by tapping into this master-key of Indian mind - both for educators as well as the learners. Because then alone we can be sure that we don't ignore any of the contending partial truths about India. It will require some deep thinking on the part of educators, but it can be done.

#bindupopli #indianeducation
It will require educators to first tap into their own sense of curiosity about their internal master-key, and from there create outwardly a learning experience which may help students transcend, even if it is only for a few minutes, the narrowness or limitations of their environments and their sense of identities. Thoughtfully prepared lessons that allow ample room for free exchange of ideas among learners, carefully selected learning material that motivates learners to dig deeper and seek further, and mindfully planned group projects that encourages learners to practice the "thesis, antithesis, synthesis" intellectual exercise can be starting points for educators who may want to do this.

In addition to a mental or intellectual appreciation of the deeper Indian spirit, perhaps something more can also be done. It may also be possible to facilitate those moments when learners can experience a sense of inner quietude or even a vast infinity within and without. Inspiring and uplifting music can be very helpful in creating such a learning experience [see more on aesthetic education in a previous post]. Quiet concentration, introspection, nature walks, contemplative writing, meditative movement and dance - these and many such ideas can be made a key component of regular school curriculum and children's overall learning experience and environment.

As always, the question comes - do we have an intention to do this?

[A side note: At a time when the whole wide world is discovering and beginning to value the benefits of asana and meditation practice, it is indeed sad that in its own birthplace we witness ideological battles over the incorporation of this as part of the regular school experience of India's future generations. It is true that some progressive private schools are now starting to incorporate asana as part of their physical education programmes, but there is so much un-grounded and base-less fear still in the minds of policy-makers and educational administrative bodies that this could be wrongly taken as bringing "religion" into education, and that too "Hindu" religion. What will happen to the "secular" nature of our country? And so the argument goes...What has "modern" education done to the so-called intellectuals of our times? One really wonders! I can go on and on about this debate but I will stop here. Suffice it to say that all of this misunderstanding happens because Indians have refused to or forgotten to look into the very fact that religion as a word doesn't really apply to Indian spiritual traditions, which led to the emergence of yoga as an inner science or inner discipline. They refuse to accept the fact that the rigid separation between sacred and secular is NOT an Indian cultural concept. In a future post in the series, I will take up this topic of integration of spiritual and secular in Indian education.]

~ Paintings by Bindu Popli


This post is written for the A-Z Challenge, April 2014. The theme I am exploring is - Putting India back in Indian Education

Click here for the previous post in this series.

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