Saturday, 19 April 2014

Q is for Questioning

In an earlier post I shared an important message from Sri Aurobindo, from a letter he wrote to his brother in April 1920. He wrote:
"I believe that the main cause of India’s weakness is not subjection, nor poverty, nor a lack of spirituality or Dharma, but a diminution of thought-power, the spread of ignorance in the motherland of Knowledge. Everywhere I see an inability or unwillingness to think—incapacity of thought or “thought-phobia”....It is the one who can fathom and learn the truth of the world by thinking more, searching more, labouring more, who will gain more Shakti." (Archives & Research, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, April 1980, pp. 1-10)
In fact, in his essays on Indian culture Sri Aurobindo speaks unequivocally that one of the most important reasons for the decline of Indian civilization and culture was the loss of free intellectual activity.

The present system of education in India doesn't really encourage much independent thinking. There is an over-the-top emphasis on memorization and recall, merely for the sake of getting good grades in examination. Children are put under enormous pressure by their parents and teachers to do well in exams. Take a look at the picture on the right - what a creative way he has found to stay awake so that he can prepare for his exams!

And this cut-throat competition for higher and higher marks in the examinations has also spawned a great industry of coaching centers, private tuition and preparatory institutions which almost promise admissions in reputed professional colleges and institutes. Education has become more or less another business, and the actual business of helping learners grow into rational and thinking individuals has taken a backseat. 

As we saw in an earlier post on Mental Education, education must help develop the mind's capability to critically examine the inherent meaning and value of each thought or idea that comes across, and then decide whether or how this can be synthesized with the other thoughts and especially with the central idea that the mind is trying to impose as its light and guide for individual action and decision-making. This requires that learners must be given as much opportunity as possible to practice the important art and skill of independent thinking and questioning. 
We must begin by accepting nothing on trust from any source whatsoever, by questioning everything and forming our own conclusions....We must not begin by becoming partisans but know before we take our line. Our first business as original thinkers will be to accept nothing, to question everything. That means to get rid of all unexamined opinions old or new, all mere habitual sanskaras in the mind, to have no preconceived judgments. (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Volume 12, p. 41) 

Why or when did we stop questioning? Why or when did we stop thinking independently?

The problem is actually deeply rooted. We can go back to the days when the indigenous system of Indian education was systematically and ruthlessly destroyed by the colonizers who considered themselves on a civilizing mission to save the natives from their own cultures. In place of a culturally sensitive system of education we were given the so-called "modern" education based on the British/Western model designed for only one purpose - to provide the British administration a cadre of Indian clerks, uprooted from their culture and willing to act as complete servitors to the Empire and its interests, including oppressing their own fellow countrymen and women. For the purpose of this post I think this is enough of a historical lesson, and perhaps it is better to shift the focus more on the present-day status of things to see if we can trace down some trends and figure out some causes behind those trends.

One such trend resulting more or less directly from the colonial hangover has been that Indians have become quite good at imitating. Education in India is only one symptom of a wide-spread cultural disease of simply mindlessly copying the intellectual theories or fads that are popular in the hallowed academic circles of the West. The same can be said of copying the popular cultural fads or trends also- in music, film, literature, etc., but for now lets focus on education. If it is post-modernism, post-colonialism, post-feminism, post-freudianism...whatever it may be, Indian academicians are quite good at using these theoretical frameworks to make sense of the Indian experience without giving any independent thought to whether these theories in any way capture or even claim to represent any part of the trajectory of the overall social, cultural, or historical experience of Indians. All the European Enlightenment based notions of History, Time, Progress, Individual, Civilization - all these and more have become unquestioningly the basic groundwork for Indian social scientists and other academicians to make sense of the Indian experience. The colonization of the mind has been complete. It has been said by some that Indian scholars have been content with gathering data and have left the business of theory-building to the West. [1]

In real-world application, this tendency translates itself into a gradual loss of the habit of deeply thinking through the facts that are in front of us and becoming satisfied with the meanings provided by others. Indian thinkers (or rather non-thinkers) adapt or mould or even distort the actually lived Indian experience (sometimes to such an extent that it even becomes un-recognizable) in order to fit it into the concepts or theories or ideologies that are popular in the Western academy and intellectual circles. [In a paper I wrote some years ago I pointed out how this phenomenon shaped some of the intellectual discourse surrounding the very popular Indian Television series, Ramayana.]

Before we, the lesser mortals living our lives outside the halls of the esteemed academia, begin to rejoice thinking that we are not prone to these mindless aping habits that are the bane of only the scholarly types, let us think again. Think hard. We see innumerable examples of this almost everyday - even in our use of language and our understanding of the language. For example, the uniquely Indian word and concept of "adhikara", which actually means capacity to do something in particular, or a particular qualification or an authority arising out of the capacity or ownership which entitles the individual to ask for something specific, gets mistranslated as the English word "right" which is lot more generic and brushes away all kinds of differences - subtle and non-subtle - with one generalizing stroke. This has important implications for the social-cultural experience of people -- both as individuals and in a collective. Because once the idea that "all individuals must have the same right to everything" is accepted as the truth without any questioning or independent thinking, all our social, economic and political policies must be directed by this ideological truth, otherwise we run the risk of being labelled as non-progressive, regressive, conservative, fundamentalist or what not!

It even trickles down to copying the terminology without thinking, for example, in the fashion world sari becomes a drape, and a churidar becomes a pair of tights; or in cuisine dosa becomes a crepe, idli becomes a steamed rice cake, chapati becomes flat bread, so on and so get the idea...The same kind of lazy non-thinking trickles down to the most-often-seen situations when Indians begin to see the value of a certain Indian book or a certain Indian author or an Indian film-maker or musician or artist ONLY when the mighty West recognizes it by an award or an honour or some such thing.

Or when a so-called "alternative" reading of our ancient texts is defended simply because of an unquestioning acceptance of the ideology of academic freedom or "right to free speech" without even bothering to explore the possibility that some alternative readings might be nothing but only mis-readings and faulty readings. Such a non-thinking, non-questioning mental attitude doesn't only stop at defending the ideological truths it holds as sacred, it also aggressively rejects any opposition and even condemns it by labeling as regressive, fundamentalist, chauvinistic, narrow, and such things. No question is asked whether the scholar providing the so-called "alternative" reading has earned the "adhikara" to do so. No question is asked if it even makes any logical or rational sense to apply a certain theoretical framework to the study of religion, just because that framework is acceptable in other branches of social sciences. Through such a non-thinking acceptance of everything that is dished out at us, a new religion slowly takes birth, the religion of non-questioning! The end-result is that all wideness of mind and thought is lost, gradually.

All these examples have one thing in common. At the root of it all is the lack of independent thinking, lack of questioning. And the solution lies in a gradual and consistent training of the mind to question, to develop its capability to think rationally, to learn how to examine a situation or a thought from all possible angles, to practice the art of concentrating on a given problem in a focused yet widest possible manner, to learn how to synthesize different arguments in the light of a higher ideal. Such a training of the mind helps it to grow in wideness, plasticity and flexibility, and such a mind is capable of going from truth to higher truth in its ascent.

To do this in classrooms requires a big change in our approach to teaching. It requires us to remember the first principle of teaching that "nothing can be taught." It requires us to recall that meaningful learning is about joy of discovery and not just about accepting what the textbook says or what the teacher says in classroom. It requires us to encourage learners to question, to question everything and anything. That has been the one fundamental truth of all Indian spiritual culture. That will be true intellectual freedom.

Sri Aurobindo says the only way to recover our lost intellectual freedom is by liberating our minds from the servitude to authority, by "breaking all our chains." But this breaking of chains or this liberation from servitude must be from ALL, we can't simply replace one set of ideological superstitions with another. We can't simply give up one set of mental preferences or prejudices for another. De-colonization of the mind can't be about throwing away one set of colonial hangover to be replaced with another, even if that is our own mental construction. We must question everything. Everything.

This kind of deep inquiry, a fearless questioning and an intense curiosity to dig deeper is what schools must help facilitate. A grand goal? Surely it is. But if we have to survive and renew ourselves as a culture and as a civilization, there is no short cut, no easy way.



[1] Taking his cue from Ananda Coomaraswamy, Kapil Kapoor writes, "the 'educated' Indian has been de-intellectualized. His vocabulary has been forced into hibernation by the vocabulary of the west. For him, West is the theory and India is the data. The Indian academy has willingly entered into a receiver-donor relationship with the western academy, a relationship of intellectual subordination. This 'de-intellectualization' needs to be countered and corrected by re-locating the Indian mind in the Indian thought." 

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.