Saturday, 28 February 2015

Good News: In Different Languages

My first post for this month of February 2015 was about two author interviews I did regarding my book on Indian National Education. It gives me a good feeling to see that the last post for this month is also about my book. About some good news about the book, including some positive endorsements and reviews of the book. 

First up... 

Dr. Sampadananda Mishra, a well-known Sanskrit scholar, winner of the prestigious national award, Maharshi Badarayana Vyas Samman, Director of Sri Aurobindo Foundation for Indian Culture, Sri Aurobindo Society, Pondicherry, and author of several books on Sanskrit and Indian Culture has endorsed my book with some very encouraging words:
"I have gone through the book and would recommend to all those who are interested in excellent book on education."
What an honour for my book! Really. 

Some more good news about the book came my way in the past few days. The book is now also being sold at SABDA, the official book distribution agency of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry. Each book that is sold through SABDA goes through their internal review process and is only then approved for sale. Because this book is inspired by the vision and thought of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, it is really an honour for me to have the book reviewed, approved and distributed by SABDA. 

What makes this next piece of news especially good is that it is about a Hindi language review of my book. The book is written in English, of course, but the reviewer, Eeshaan Mahesh is an accomplished Hindi writer and a teacher of Hindi. The review was published in a Hindi monthly magazine, Samyak Bharat, an important and widely distributed publication primarily highlighting the issues and challenges faced by marginalized sections of the Indian society. 

कुछ दिन पहले मेरी पुस्तक की एक समीक्षा हिंदी की एक पत्रिका सम्यक् भारत में छपी थी।  ईशान महेश  एक अध्यापक हैं और अनेकों पुस्तकों के लेखक हैं । श्री राम और श्री कृष्ण के जीवन चरित्र पर आधारित उनके उपन्यास बहुत प्रशंसनीय रहे हैं, साथ ही साथ पर्यावरण को लेकर बच्चों के लिए लिखी उनकी पुस्तक भी बहुचर्चित रही है। इस समीक्षा में उनका कहना है --  
हमारी शिक्षा प्रणाली एवं व्यवस्था के विषय को लेकर वैसे तो अनेकों पुस्तकें, शोधपत्र एवम लेख इत्यादि निरन्तर प्रकाशित होते हैं। अधिकतर इनमें भारतीय शिक्षा के क्षेत्र की कई विकट समस्याओं के समाधान अथवा निवारण के महत्वपूर्ण सुझाव भी मिलते हैं।
डॉ. बेलू मेहरा की हाल ही में प्रकाशित पुस्तक - ABC's of Indian National Education - एक नई सोच को हमारे सामने प्रस्तुत करती है। डॉ. मेहरा, जो एक अध्यापिका और यूनिवर्सिटी प्रोफेसर रह चुकी हैं और भारत एवं अमेरिका में अध्यापन का एक लम्बा अनुभव रखती हैं, अपनी इस पुस्तक के द्वारा हमें यह सोचने पर बाध्य करती हैं -- भारतीय शिक्षा में भारत कहाँ है ? अंग्रेजी वर्णमाला के २६ अक्षरों को अपना आधार बनाकर यह पुस्तक कई महत्वपूर्ण विषयों को हमारे सामने रखती है, और प्रत्येक अक्षर से जुड़े एक शब्द  के द्वारा अनेकों प्रश्नों को भी उठाती है।
क्या हमारी शिक्षा प्रणाली विधार्थियों को भारत के इतिहास , वर्तमान एवं भविष्य के बारे में सही रूप से शिक्षित कर रही है? क्या हमारी शिक्षा वर्तमान और आने वाली पीढ़ीयों में एक स्वतंत्र सोच रखने की भावना का संचार करने में समर्थ है?  क्या हम स्वयं एक स्वतंत्र सोच रखते हैं? क्या हमारी शिक्षा व्यवस्था विधार्थियों को देशप्रेम का सही अर्थ समझा पा रही है ? क्या हमारा समाज आज केवल परीक्षा में अच्छे अंकों से पास होना और शिक्षा समाप्त  होने पर एक अच्छी नौकरी पाना ही शिक्षा का संपूर्ण ध्येय मानने लगा है ? क्या शिक्षा और आध्यात्म का कोई मौलिक सम्बन्ध है ? और यदि है तो इस देश में जहाँ सदियों से आध्यात्म हमारी सर्वप्रथम धरोहर रहा है हम अपनी शिक्षा व्यवस्था में इस सम्बन्ध को कैसे भूल सकते हैं ?
ऐसे और कई प्रश्न हैं जो इस पुस्तक के द्वारा डॉ. मेहरा हमारे सामने प्रस्तुत कर रही हैं।  शिक्षा के क्षेत्र से जुड़े सभी व्यक्ति, चाहे वो शिक्षक हों या अभिभावक, चिंतक हों या प्रशासक, इस पुस्तक से प्रभावित होंगे क्यूंकि इस पुस्तक का मूल विषय हर भारतीय से सम्बंधित है। सरल शैली में लिखी यह पुस्तक भारतीय शिक्षा के क्षेत्र में एक नयी सोच हमारे समक्ष रखती है।
मैं आभारी हूँ ईशान महेश की इस बेहतरीन समीक्षा के लिए, और आशा करती हूँ की शिक्षा क्षेत्र से जुड़े और भारत माँ के एक स्वर्णिम भविष्य का स्वपन देखने वाले लोग इस पुस्तक में उठाये गये कुछ प्रश्नों पर विचार करेंगे।


The second review was written by Chitra Raman, a US-based proud parent of a musically gifted young woman with autism, a writer and a special education advocate. Her publications include analyses and commentary on culture, the human condition, Hindu philosophy and special education.

Her well-writtten review, recently published in Swarajya, has actually given me a totally new way to understand my own work. She used a fascinating analogy of a puzzle game called Lokulus, based on the Loculus of Archimedes, to describe what the book tries to do. In her words:
"I can think of no better analogy for what Beloo Mehra has accomplished with her little primer on how best to put the “Indian” back in “Indian education.” Stakeholders in the contentious field of education tend to be like the tiles of the Lokulus puzzle — angular and inflexible in terms of their opinions, diverse and individualistic in nature, uncompromising in their claim to space. If some tiles are grouped the wrong way, one is obliged to exclude certain others.
"But instead of cursing the shape or the box that it came in, if one takes a step back and applies a fresh perspective to assembling the whole, then all tiles can be accommodated. Not only do they all fit together, they do so in a variety of permutations.
"This book is structured around 26 interrelated ideas, each chapter theme corresponding with a letter of the English alphabet. Mehra’s perspectives are imbued with the incandescent idealism of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Her method of introducing us to that idealism is by no means didactic. Rather, it is akin to opening up a fresh portal and stepping back to give the reader the choice to examine, introspect, and either accept/reject that perspective or contribute to its further refinement."
To read her full review, click here.

I am immensely grateful to Chitra for this wonderful review.

But what makes me feel really good about Chitra's review is what she wrote to me in a personal email about the book. According to her, the main strength of this book is that it is inspired by idealism and not ideology. As the author, I felt totally understood when I read that. Thank you, dear Chitra!

Linking this with ABCWednedsay, G: G is for Good.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Difficult Decisions

A new post in the series - Reminders to self

This morning my husband and I had a long talk with our gardener. About five trees in our garden. We had similar talks before but without much seriousness. Today we had to come to a serious decision. Mindfully, carefully thought out decision.

You see, our garden space is actually quite narrow, and the previous owners of the house had planted several trees while the house was being built. Some of these trees were perhaps not really planted with much careful thought, especially not with a consideration of the fact that trees grow big and bigger. As much as we are grateful for the fact that we have a nice green space in our home which is a great source of joy and beauty, we are also beginning to get concerned about the location of these trees.

They are planted too close to the boundary wall, in fact the trunks of two neem trees are already beginning to cause some cracks in the wall. There is a very tall teak tree with its beautiful trunk, but it has become too big for its place and is really leaning heavily on the boundary wall. There is also one part of a flowering oleander tree which is beginning to look worrisome. And then there is a big palm tree with a heavy root system planted very close to one of outer walls of the house itself.

The solution has to be drastic. Just a few months ago also we had been through a lot of drastic action in the garden (read about that here). And now this.

A part of my heart cries when I think of what will be happening in my little garden in a few days.

But I have already started thinking about what I will be planting in the places left vacant. Of course, no trees that tend to grow big and bigger. Plus I take comfort in the thought that we may still be able to save part of the oleander tree. I also plan to save as much of the wood from the trunks as possible and use the log pieces to make stands for potted plants.

There is however a part of me that can't come to terms with what I am about to witness. It has taken me a long time to be convinced of what must be done. Ever since moving into this house more than three years ago, we knew this time would come sooner or later. And we had been somewhat preparing in advance by carefully doing some planting of smaller trees, vines and bushes which will eventually fill up those corners left behind by the big trees.

But still it hurts.

My thought goes to all the trees that have been removed from the face of the earth because we, the people needed to build roads, buildings, flyovers, bridges, houses etc. My thought goes to all the trees that had to be cut down because we, the people needed nice looking furniture and floors. And paper. And more paper.

My thought goes to all the trees that were cut down simply because we didn't know better.

Am I being hypocritical here? Here I am thinking about all those trees that have been cut down from times immemorial and those that are being cut down as I write this. And yet soon I myself will add a few more to the total count of the 'cut down' trees.

I can persuade myself by words such as -- my situation is different, I have no choice, I can't let these trees cause damage to the house. I can also arrogantly think to myself -- didn't I do my bit for the trees by buying all the refurbished second-hand wooden furniture for my home instead of buying new? Don't I recycle? Don't I do composting? Etc etc....I can do all these things to feel comfortable with my decision. But I should not.

I don't know what I am feeling really. Maybe I don't want to know. Because a part of my heart is still crying. Only one thought comes to mind -- Compassion for our Mother Earth. When will we begin to practice that?

Maybe we can begin to practice by consuming less. Less paper, less plastic, less electricity, less petrol, less water. Less things.

Maybe we can begin to practice by being kind to all things around. By gradually becoming mindful of the material world around us.

Maybe we can begin to practice by creating green spaces, even if they are small balcony gardens. Or indoor gardens with a few potted plants.

Maybe we can begin to practice by planning our little green spaces more thoughtfully, more consciously. So we don't have to make some difficult decisions few years down the road.

Yes, that's the lesson I am learning today. Being more mindful, being more thoughtful, being more considerate. Because true and sincere compassion requires mindfulness, awareness and humility. It requires that we be non-judgmental and non-arrogant.

Not easy things to do. Especially when we are so used to thinking that we know what is best for the world and for everyone else in the world. Especially when we are so used to forgetting that there is a force much higher than our very limited intelligence which is leading the world to a higher harmony, much higher than we can ever conceive or imagine, despite or through all the chaos and destruction and turmoil we see around us.
Indiscriminate compassion is the noblest gift of temperament, not to do even the least hurt to one living thing is the highest of all human virtues; but God practises neither. Is man therefore nobler and better than the All-loving?
To exalt one virtue,—compassion even,—unduly above all others is to cover up with one’s hand the eyes of wisdom. God moves always towards a harmony.
                                                                                               ~ Sri Aurobindo (Aphorisms) 
Do I find comfort in these words? Sure I do. Contemplating on these words today is a compassionate thing to do, for myself.

But in addition to feeling the compassion in these words, I also find them teaching me an important lesson -- that of compassion as a means to a greater harmony. Compassion as a means to becoming mindful -- of my choices, my actions, my thoughts, my awareness. This is the lesson I hope to keep in my heart.

To read previous post in the series, Reminders to self, click here.
To read more posts in the series, click here.

This is my contribution to the unique global movement called 1000 Voices for Compassion.  Today,  the 20th February 2015, over 1000 bloggers worldwide are publishing posts about compassion. It is an effort to spread goodness and compassion in a world torn by strife and violence.

Linking this with #1000Speak, #1000 voices for compassion  #HinduEnvironmentWeek

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Family Project: Being the Second Fiddle

Some months ago my husband got an idea to write a scholarly paper. In his professional career as an engineer-scientist-researcher he had obviously written many papers. But this time he wanted to write a paper in an entirely different area. In Social Sciences. Somewhere bordering the fields of Management and Organizational Studies.

That's not all. He wanted to do it in the light of Sri Aurobindo's social philosophy, something he and I have been studying in our own ways for a few years now, sometimes in a class setting, sometimes on our own. Given our very different academic trainings, we naturally have somewhat different paths into the oceanic wisdom that is Sri Aurobindo's social-philosophical thought. But that very difference in our 'entry' into the ocean makes our discussions about it quite interesting -- both in the class and outside!

But that's still not all. He also suggested that we should do this work jointly. Yes, write a joint paper. Now that's where the 'interesting' can also become 'challenging'. And it did. But I will be telling only half the truth if I don't add here that as we worked on the paper it also became an enjoyable challenge :)

I remember I was in Delhi at the time when he started compiling the initial notes and preparing a preliminary draft. Through emails and phone discussions we sorted out some of the ideas. After I came back home we started putting more meat to the bones, more substance to the initial outline.

There were interesting discussions, healthy disagreements, and timeouts. Some of the conversations happened while cooking, over meals, and during evening walks. All in all, it was quite a family project, with all the plus-es and minus-es :)

And before anyone asks, how did we decide who would be the first author of the paper, let me say that that was never an issue of discussion. The bulk of the analysis and the original idea in itself was his baby, I was chiming in and adding my 'take' on things -- both in terms of the content as well as the organisation of the paper -- as we went along. So I had no problem being the second fiddle on this one!

After several rounds of rethinking, revising, restructuring, reorganizing, cleaning up and editing, the final draft was ready to be sent out to a few individuals who had been guiding us -- directly or indirectly -- in our study of Sri Aurobindo's social philosophy. This was done to get their feedback and comments on whether the direction we had taken in our analysis actually made sense. After carefully thinking through the feedback we went back once again to our draft and made appropriate adjustments and revisions.

The final outcome is a paper that has recently been published in a journal called Sraddha, a quarterly journal of Sri Aurobindo Centre for Research in Social Sciences, Kolkata.

Will I do such a family project again? You will know in due time.

Here is a sneak peek into the paper, for anyone interested.


Published in Sraddha, Vol. 6 (3), pp. 96-112

In his social philosophy Sri Aurobindo emphasizes the need to examine the profound psychological factors behind the economic motives and causes of social and historical development. As per his framework, both an individual as well as a society progress through distinct psychological stages – symbolic, typal, conventional, individualistic/rational, and subjective. He also explains the inner meaning of these successive phases, the necessity of their succession and their purpose.

This paper is an attempt to apply this psychological-sociological framework to understand the evolutionary process of an organization. The analysis presented here is introductory and opens up a new approach to understand the cyclical processes through which organizations may go through in their growth journeys. Relevant examples have been used from a case study of one particular business organization, Aravind Eye Hospital, and in a few instances, personal work experiences of the first author are also included to illustrate the point.


The paper is presently available only in print version of the journal, but may also be available in electronic version in near future. Check back here for updates. Or if someone is really interested in reading it right away, they may contact the second author via this blog! 

Linking this with ABCWednesday, F: F is for Family

Saturday, 14 February 2015

From the Teacher's Desk

Dear V,

I am touched by the lovely card you sent me from across the seas. Thank you so much for your heart-felt words of love and gratitude. I am so happy that the work you started many years ago has finally come to its fruition. Your persistent effort and will to continue the work despite all the delays and challenges finally paid off. I am very happy for your well-deserved accomplishment, and grateful to have been a small part of the process in its early days.

Thank you for the beautiful gift you got for me when you visited your son in another distant land. The fact that you thought of sharing with me a little momento from your time spent in the warmth of your family's love says so much.

With this little gift of love, aquired in one part of the world, transported to another and finally sent with such sensitive care to yet another part of the world, you have tied together three different outer places. But more importantly, the spirit behind your gesture speaks to me of three different ways of overcoming inner distances -- with gratitude, rememberance and love.

Gratitude, for all that the other has given one in one's journey, no matter how long or how little or how far the two travelled together.

Rememberance, for staying with that feeling of gratitude, because it is so easy to forget in our rush to move on to the next excitement of life.

Love, for what is love without gratitude and rememberance.

I remember the times and talks we shared together, sitting in my office or on the steps of the building entrance. I am reminded of our works together, of learning with and from each other. I am reminded of the joy we experienced in our roles, that of a learner and a facilitator, and of the ease with which these roles often switched. Yes, they did. Because without that there wouldn't have been this connection that manifests today -- in your sending the card and the gift from so far away, and in my writing these words. After all those years.

I remember some words I had read some years ago. Words from a teacher and seeker, someone whose words you and I must have also read together at some point in our shared learning journey, all those years ago.
I don't know exactly where you are on your journey. But I suspect that your journey, like mine, is towards trying to come into a deeper understanding of what it means to live divided no more. If we can come to a deeper understanding of what this decision might mean for us in the context of education, we will have done something well worth doing. 
~ Parker Palmer, The Grace of Great Things: Reclaiming the sacred in knowing, teaching and learning  
I think in our own little ways through our given roles as learners and facilitators, we each tried to do something worth doing. In our meetings, in our discussions, in our emails, in our works. In the context of education. In life, which is an education. None of that could have happened if we didn't remember to do it in love. With love. Love for the purpose that joined us in our different journeys when we walked together for a few years. The purpose of wanting to "live divided no more...the decision to no longer behave differently on the outside than one knows one's truth to be on the inside." (Palmer)

These words make me feel happy today that we knew a little bit of each other's journey back then. These words make me feel content that today after all these years even though we may not know much of each other's journey, we know for sure that we are still trying to walk the path of gratitude, rememberance and love.

Thank you for remembering.

With love and best wishes, 

A small package that started its journey many thousand miles away across the seas and reached my doorstep a few days ago made me want to write this. A love letter to all my students, past, present and future.

To read last year's Valentine's Day special post, click here.


Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Current Events 7: Thirst to Understand

A new post in the series: Satyam Shivam Sundaram
A series featuring inspiring words from various sources, words that speak of timeless truths, words that remind me of the deeper and hidden truth behind surface events and phenomena, words that shine light when all seems dark, words that are just what I need - for this moment and for all times to come. 

Crossostephium artemisioides, common name: Chinese lavender
Spiritual significance: Thirst to Understand; Very useful for transformation

Indians reading this blog surely know what day is today. The day Delhi elected its new Chief Minister and a new assembly. For me, this day just became another opportunity to grow as a learner.

I have no interest in going into the nitty-gritty of all the politics of the election campaigning, the role of the media, its biases and fairnesses, the failures or successes of one or the other political party's campaign strategies, etc. I leave that to those interested in the day-to-day political drama.

I am also certainly not interested in analyzing the results of the election, the what, why and how of these. I leave that to those interested in the outer phenomenon of short-term gains or losses, short-term could be anywhere from 50 days to 5 years.

While I continue to remain interested in how and why there abound so many gross misunderstandings and wrong understandings among large sections of so-called educated urban Indians about terms like 'communalism', 'secularism', 'progress', 'development', etc., for the moment I am letting that pass.

As a student of Sri Aurobindo, I remain interested in the larger principles. The wider picture. The deeper truths behind the outer picture. It doesn't mean that I don't have any preferences, but to whatever extent possible I try to constantly weigh my preference in the growing light of those larger principles, that wider picture and those deeper truths.

Am I always able to do so? No. I am merely a learner struggling to keep my preference away. But something tells me that I must constantly try despite my struggles and failures, for that is the only way to deepen my own understanding of the larger truths that are constantly being, or are yet to be worked out through all the ebbs or flows of time, through all the wins and losses in political elections, in the life of my country. This is the only way I will not stay limited to a cursory view of the outer phenomena, outer facts that are here today and gone tomorrow.

India lives in millenniums, as the wise have said. And there is also the wonderful cyclical theory of evolution in the form of chaturyugas that India has given to the world, which can help explain a lot about the recent current events. But that's also a discussion for some other time.

Today, I seek inspiration elsewhere.

The seeking began with a thought that came to me this morning as I browsed the internet for election results. As I read a few articles, I realised that I had actually quite a lot to say. But immediately the next thought came -- does it matter what I think? Mine is and will remain yet another opinion, which doesn't really mean anything in the cacophony of opinions and analyses out there. What really matters is the truth. Or truths. Or truths that help me move away from my mental preference or opinion and walk slowly toward the real reality.

I wrote this update on my Facebook page:

"Another day when I am happy I am no longer a dilliwali...but I am equally happy for all those who prefer dharna politics in national capital :) Go Delhi Go...wherever it needs to go in order to come back saner and wiser, less interested in freebies and more interested in some real long-term work. The best part is that Delhi isn't India. Nor is one party, any party, the real cure for all that ails India. India will win only when Indians learn what is India to begin with."

Today, I seek inspiration in a search for some answers to these questions:

What is India? What are the larger principles that I am interested in contemplating upon today? The deeper truths that I believe will help India win her true victory?

Here is where my search led me to:


Each nation is a Shakti or power of the evolving spirit in humanity and lives by the principle which it embodies. India is the Bharata Shakti, the living energy of a great spiritual conception, and fidelity to it is the very principle of her existence. For by its virtue alone she has been one of the immortal nations; this alone has been the secret of her amazing persistence and perpetual force of survival and revival. (Sri Aurobindo, Complete Works, Vol. 20, p. 57)


There are always two classes of political mind: one is preoccupied with details for their own sake, revels in the petty points of the moment and puts away into the background the great principles and the great necessities, the other sees rather these first and always and details only in relation to them. The one type moves in a routine circle which may or may not have an issue; it cannot see the forest for the trees and it is only by an accident that it stumbles, if at all, on the way out. The other type takes a mountain-top view of the goal and all the directions and keeps that in its mental compass through all the deflections, retardations and tortuosities which the character of the intervening country may compel it to accept; but these it abridges as much as possible. The former class arrogate the name of statesman in their own day; it is to the latter that posterity concedes it and sees in them the true leaders of great movements. (Sri Aurobindo, Complete Works, Vol. 1, p. 651)


Wherever thou seest a great end, be sure of a great beginning. Where a monstrous and painful destruction appals thy mind, console it with the certainty of a large and great creation. God is there not only in the still small voice, but in the fire and in the whirlwind.

The greater the destruction, the freer the chances of creation; but the destruction is often long, slow and oppressive, the creation tardy in its coming or interrupted in its triumph. The night returns again and again and the day lingers or seems even to have been a false dawning. Despair not therefore but watch and work. Those who hope violently, despair swiftly: neither hope nor fear, but be sure of God's purpose and thy will to accomplish.

Wherefore God hammers so fiercely at his world, tramples and kneads it like dough, casts it so often into the blood-bath and the red hell-heat of the furnace? Because humanity in the mass is still a hard, crude and vile ore which will not otherwise be smelted and shaped; as is his material, so is his method. Let it help to transmute itself into nobler and purer metal, his ways with it will be gentler and sweeter, much loftier and fairer its uses. (CWSA, Vol. 13, p. 209)


Be very careful to follow my instructions in avoiding the old kind of politics. Spirituality is India’s only politics, the fulfilment of the Sanatana Dharma its only Swaraj. I have no doubt we shall have to go through our Parliamentary period in order to get rid of the notion of Western democracy by seeing in practice how helpless it is to make nations blessed. India is passing really through the first stages of a sort of national Yoga. It was mastered in the inception by the inrush of divine force which came in 1905 and aroused it from its state of complete tamasic ajñanam [ignorance]. But, as happens also with individuals, all that was evil, all the wrong samskaras and wrong emotions and mental and moral habits rose with it and misused the divine force….It is only when this foolishness is done with that truth will have a chance, the sattwic mind in India emerge and a really strong spiritual movement begin as a prelude to India’s regeneration. No doubt, there will be plenty of trouble and error still to face, but we shall have a chance of putting our feet on the right path. In all I believe God to be guiding us, giving the necessary experiences, preparing the necessary conditions. (Extract from a letter of Sri Aurobindo to Parthasarathi Aiyangar, 13 July 1911)


I write, not for the orthodox, nor for those who have discovered a new orthodoxy, Samaj or Panth, nor for the unbeliever. I write for those who acknowledge reason but do not identify reason with Western Materialism; who are sceptics but not unbelievers; who, admitting the claims of modern thought, still believe in India, her mission, her gospel, her immortal life and her eternal rebirth. (Sri Aurobindo, Collected Works, Vol. 12, p. 63)


To see more posts in the series, Satyam Shivam Sundaram, click here.

To read more posts in the series, Current Events, click here.

Linking this with ABC Wednesday, E: E, Elections

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Should Dance Educate? How?

Sri Aurobindo once wrote:
The first and lowest use of Art is the purely aesthetic, the second is the intellectual or educative, the third and highest the spiritual. By speaking of the aesthetic use as the lowest, we do not wish to imply that it is not of immense value to humanity, but simply to assign to it its comparative value in relation to the higher uses. The aesthetic is of immense importance and until it has done its work, mankind is not really fitted to make full use of Art on the higher planes of human development. (CWSA, Vol. 1, p. 439)
What made me recall these words this morning?

I recall them because of a Dance programme I attended last evening. It was an Odissi dance performance by Nayantara Nanda Kumar. The performance was actually part of a dance theater production titled "Beyond Names" which also included storytelling and poetry recitation. Produced by Secundarabad-based organization named Our Sacred Space, Beyond Names "celebrates the paths by which we seek the Essence. Whatever way we choose to acknowledge it. It is but One Energy - to which we assign the name of our choice." (programme brochure).

It was this programme description on Auroville's website that prompted me to go for it. Particularly the idea behind the title itself, Beyond Names. A movement through the various forms to the essential one formless, through the varied names to the one eternal nameless. This sounded very inviting.

The programme started off with the usual invocation to the gods, the universe and the audience, with the dancer performing Panchadevata Mangalacharan (salutations to five deities - Ganesha, Jagannatha/Vishnu, Rudra, Surya, and Shakti). This was followed by Sthai Nato, a pure nritta piece.

For the abhinaya component of the performance, a touching Hindi poem about a barbaric act of violence committed during communal riots was evocatively recited by the dancer's mother, a librarian and storyteller, while the dancer portrayed the emotions of the story through her performance. And this is the point where I found a certain part of my mind becoming a bit more active than I would have liked at a dance performance.

The dance combined with the storytelling was definitely meant to evoke a certain kind of educative experience. But for me, somehow it felt more like a mentalised education, at times briefly touching an emotional chord because of the emotional content of the story. It failed to become a deeply moving experience that could have touched a much deeper part of the heart, maybe even the soul.

After all, arts are meant to be an education for the soul. Not just mind and heart. But that depends on the readiness and preparedness of the learner too, I suppose.

Maybe I wasn't receptive enough last evening, maybe I failed to open widely and deeply enough to take 'in' the experience. Or just maybe I couldn't 'feel' a movement away from the names and forms to the Nameless and Formless, from the seen to the Unseen, from the violence to the Peace.

All the pieces that came after the abhinaya (Prayer for Peace - Moving Meditation, Transforming Anger, Jung ya Aman) ended up solidifying this mental educative experience further. There was no dance in any of these pieces, they were more theatrical pieces incorporating words, gentle movement, poetry recitation, and a video clip of an interview with a spiritual teacher.

What were all these pieces about, starting with abhinaya? Going back to the programme brochure, they were meant to address the following:
"We are witnessing a revival of fundamentalism of various hues. We are encouraged to believe that the religion we profess is the "best", unlike the "other" that is rabid/discriminatory/primitive, little realizing that it is the notion of "best" that contains the seed of violence.
"War is but the orchestrated version of the violence that we allow in thought, word and deed. War brutalizes both victor and vanquished and makes violence acceptable, leaving a trail of broken homes, broken families, broken lives...
"Beyond Names asks: Can we not evolve ways that are non-judgemental, inclusive, loving? For, in truth, there is no "other". To hate another is to hate embrace another is to embrace ourselves. Is that not the Essence that all of us be able to live in peace with ourselves?"
Sounds great. And as I read the brochure standing outside the auditorium before the programme, I was actually quite looking forward to the experience. I was looking forward to witness how the dancer and rest of the performers would take me to a deep place within where these mental questions of violence, war and fundamentalism would gradually and gently ease into a place of awareness, even if only a momentary awareness, of that Essence that is beyond all names and beyond all forms, that just IS.

But sadly, that never happened for me. The experience didn't take me to that place. Even with the last piece, which was a dance performance titled Moksha and Shanti Mantra, which ended rather quickly before I could really 'immerse' into it or 'flow' with the vibration of Peace this was meant to evoke.

The experience just kept me mentally engaged with the questions such as -- why an exclusive focus on only one "name" or one "form" of fundamentalism, why use a sensationalist-headlines type of story to illustrate the deep-rooted-ness of a ruthlessly violent part of all imperfect human nature, why not use dance and movement to express the idea of mindfulness instead of the words of a spiritual teacher, why not use a video clip of dance instead of a video clip with words, and a few more.

I came out of the auditorium not sure of how I felt about the whole experience. And that's what made me recall the words of Sri Aurobindo that I quote at the beginning of this post. Particularly the part about the educative function of the arts, particularly Indian forms of dance and drama.

Which brings me today to some more questions. (Are you surprised?)

What should be the role of dance and theater in education? What kind of educational experience should dance and theater evoke? How and in what ways should dance and theater evoke a learning experience? Should they touch only the outer layers of the viewer's mind and heart as last night's performance did for the most part? Or are there ways possible through which dance and theater can take the audience to a place beyond mind, even if it is for a split second, where a mental answer is not required because the questioning mind there is silent and finds an answer in the stillness itself? What is the place and purpose of experiment in Indian classical dance performances?

And as my husband and I kept discussing some of these questions during our drive back from the auditorium last evening and continuing that over our Sunday-special idli breakfast this morning, I was reminded of another passage from Sri Aurobindo. These are the words that help me reach to that place of silence within where the questioning mind stops.

Speaking of a true all-encompassing, life-affirming spirituality of the future and its all-inclusive connection with all activities of life and world, he writes this about the Art of a future society founded upon a true spirituality:
"The highest aim of the aesthetic being is to find the Divine through beauty; the highest Art is that which by an inspired use of significant and interpretative form unseals the doors of the spirit. But in order that it may come to do this greatest thing largely and sincerely, it must first endeavour to see and depict man and Nature and life for their own sake, in their own characteristic truth and beauty; for behind these first characters lies always the beauty of the Divine in life and man and Nature and it is through their just transformation that what was at first veiled by them has to be revealed. The dogma that Art must be religious or not be at all, is a false dogma, just as is the claim that it must be subservient to ethics or utility or scientific truth or philosophic ideas. Art may make use of these things as elements, but it has its own svadharma, essential law, and it will rise to the widest spirituality by following out its own natural lines with no other yoke than the intimate law of its own being." (CWSA, Vol. 25, pp. 229-230)
Image: Nayantara Nand Kumar, Source

abstract dance, where the body makes patterns in space and there is no particular meaning attached to any gesture or movement. Even though mudras are used vastly in nritta, they are not used to convey stories.

a tradition of story-telling in Indian classical dances, Abhinaya is a word made up of: abhi- ‘towards’ + nii (naya) - ‘leading/guide’. It literally means a ‘leading towards’ (leading the audience towards a sentiment, a rasa). Dancers bring forth stories based in myth or even contemporary commentary to invoke a certain response in the audience.

Linking this with ABC Wednesday, D: D is for Dance

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

BLEW: On Blogging, Learning, Education & Writing (and a bit about NRIs & ex-NRIs too)

It is always a humbling and learning experience when we are asked to talk about ourselves and our work. Last couple of weeks saw me answering some interesting questions about myself, my book, some pesky issues related to Indian Education, my writing and some personal lessons I am learning along the way.

In this post I share my answers to some of the questions -- four, to be precise -- that I found most thought-provoking in two 'author interviews' that came my way. Though many of the questions made me think about what I wanted to say, the questions I have chosen to highlight here are somewhat special. That is because they touched upon all the four activities I am engaged in -- blogging, learning, education and learning. These questions compelled me to do some serious pondering to be more certain that I present my most honest and sincere thoughts on the issues being raised.

I heartily thank Namrata of Writer's Ezine and Ruchika Batra of Namaste Happiness for giving me such wonderful questions to reflect upon.

Now without further ado....


INTERVIEW I - for Writer's Ezine

From being an academician to becoming a blogger and now a published author. How does it feel? What is the role you are closest to?

Aah, that’s an interesting question! Short answer – it feels very good!

I would say it has been quite a fascinating and rewarding journey so far. As an academician also I was always interested in writing for a broader audience. In fact during my tenure as a professor I was quite involved, for a number of years, with a couple of online discussion groups, focusing on issues related to India, Indian society and culture. And I would often write articles based on such discussions for online magazines, with an objective to bring out some important topics in the larger societal discourse. Some of those articles actually generated intense discussions, and I grew both as a thinker and writer as a result of this exercise. 

My blog, as you know, is inspired by my ongoing study of the works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother (his spiritual collaborator). This means that it is inspired by and focused around a particular vision of life, living, reality, existence, art, beauty, love, individual, society, world, nation, politics, spirituality and everything. I should add that it is perhaps the widest and deepest and highest vision, the most complete and integral view that I have come across in my seeking. I try to stay as faithful as I can to my guiding inspiration. This also means that I avoid writing on topics and issues that may be trending or being promoted by blogging websites or forums if in my view they don’t fit with my guiding inspiration. I also avoid writing for blogging contests, product promotions and other such things, because of this very reason.

So do I enjoy blogging with this ‘focused’ inspiration? Of course, I do. Otherwise I wouldn't be doing it for almost two years now (my blog will be 2 this April). It gives me an opportunity to deepen my learning, it helps me see the inter-connectedness of a deeply spiritual view of reality and existence with the very living, throbbing and real situations in life – my life, life of the society, life of the nation or the world. 

As for the role of an author, well, I would say I don’t really see this as a new role for me. I have been published a few times before, in academic books and journals. At that time it was part of my role as an academic. Sure, ABC’s of Indian National Education is my first ‘full’ book as such and therefore, very special.

For me, this role of an author has now shifted quite a bit. I am not writing because it is a part of my professional role, I am writing now because I see it now as a means to my inner growth, it helps me practice a few life lessons such as how to develop patience, how to work without an expectation of reward, how to develop a combination of contemplative and critical mental faculties through writing, how to deepen concentration and avoid scattering of thoughts and many more. It is this aspect of writing (whether it is for my blog or for any other websites where I have been published or for this book or any others I may write in future) that I find most satisfying and personally meaningful.

Education which is supposed to be the very base on the future of our country lies, at times becomes the shakiest one with donation seats, paper leaks and other such scams surrounding it from time and again. Of late the new generation is considering foreign shores purely for the ease in lifestyle it offers. Do you see the future of it changing anytime soon?

You are very right about paper leaks, donations for admissions and other such things that we hear about from time to time. These things are totally unacceptable. But you see, I happen to think that the fundamental cause for why such things happen rests in the completely misguided view of education we have come to accept as a society and nation. Education has ended up only as a means for social success, a doorway to socio-economic upward mobility and a key to enter the hallowed chambers of ‘economic elite’ in the society. 

While no one can deny that a good education should help prepare learners for a meaningful vocation in life, but to see education as only that and nothing more than that poses a huge problem. Why are parents willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money for a seat for their child in a reputed school or college? Simply because they know that a certificate or stamp from that institution or a degree in a certain professional field will ensure a good economic future for their child? Why would someone hatch up an elaborate plan to leak an examination paper? Because they know that what matters in the ‘market’ out there is only the test results, not the actual learning. The mindset that leads to such problems is the fundamental cause. And that mindset is the product of the present model of education that is based on a completely materialist and industrialist view of individual and society.

Do I see it changing anytime soon? That’s a tough one. But I sincerely hope that some serious discussion happens on how we need to rethink the fundamentals of our education. In my book also I have emphasized this need for serious rethinking. I also believe that there are some good schools in India where a more holistic view of individual and society is the basis for educational and pedagogical practices. But those are still very few and far in between. We need that spark to become a fire on a much wider and vast scale. 

As for the current generation preferring to go abroad, well, I would say that this is not really a new phenomenon. Indians have been migrating to many different parts of the world for hundreds of years, for various reasons. But certainly, over the past several decades and particularly in the case of migration to the so-called developed countries in the West, we may say that one of their main motivators is perhaps an easier and more comfortable lifestyle. But in many cases we also see young Indians going abroad for higher education. In fact, higher education becomes an entry point gradually leading to settling there as a professional and attaining that comfortable lifestyle they are after. 

I myself have my PhD from the US, and I lived and worked there for about 15 years. And because my entire experience in the US was in the higher education system, I have also understood that there is a great value in gaining that kind of exposure, especially for someone who is interested in pursuing an academic life of teaching and research. There are many positives of American higher education – its overall emphasis on academic rigour, independent inquiry and interdisciplinary and flexible learning being some of them – which can be very helpful for broadening one’s outlook and deepening one’s knowledge in one’s chosen discipline or field of study. So I would say that such opportunities should be encouraged. 

At the same time, for the last couple of decades we have also been seeing a reverse movement – that is people who were settled abroad, particularly in the US and other Western countries, have been moving back to India. I know several such families and individuals. My husband and I are also one of those ex-NRIs. Of course, different people have different reasons for coming back to India, but for many the reasons have also to do with increased economic opportunities in India (while simultaneously the reduced opportunities in their adopted countries because of global economic recession). So in a way that is a good thing, I would say. 

But the larger question, and particularly that concerns the topic of Indian education is this – how can we create world-class higher educational institutions right here in India, which are also based on a view of education that is fundamentally Indian in its spirit? At present, even our best institutions like our IITs and IIMs may also fall short in this, because for the most part they too are based on the same old idea of education being a means to social and economic success alone and the role of education being only limited to prepare an individual to become a ‘productive’ member of the society. This mindset has to change before we can hope for any meaningful outer change in the educational scenario.

To read the full interview, please visit Writer's Ezine by clicking here.


INTERVIEW II - for Namaste Happiness

What are your thoughts on making spirituality a mandatory subject to be taught in schools?

I am not in favor of introducing Spirituality as a separate subject – mandatory or optional – in school or college level of education. That will never work, and not just because there can be no unanimous understanding of what spirituality really means. There is always a very real danger of reducing spiritual education to book-based religious or moral education, which will be a regressive movement. Spirituality is not something that can be taught as such, it is fundamentally an approach to life, a vision for what it means to be an individual and the aim of individual life, as lived in the society and as lived within.

Let me clarify a bit more. I would rather see our education being wholly guided by a spiritual view of the aim of human life and the role of education in helping the individual prepare himself/herself for that aim of life. In my book, particularly in chapters VII, XI, XXII and XXIII, I have dealt with this issue in rather detail. Let me share just a few key ideas from there.

First of all, our education must be grounded in the true Indian understanding of life-affirming spirituality. Spirituality that motivates growing minds and hearts to experience all the joys of life and living and to expand and deepen their seeking for truth through all that life has to offer; spirituality that takes up all the intellectual, creative, emotional energies and colors them in its own truth.

A truly India-centric education will be based on the spiritual view that proper and gradual development of all parts of an individual is essential not as an end in itself but as a means to grow in one’s soul, because the soul manifests and expresses itself through its outer instruments of mind, heart, and body. Everything else begins to take on a different and deeper meaning when this fundamental view becomes the basis for all our work in the field of education.

Would you like to share some of your epiphanies under the guiding light of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother? (any three)

This is a very difficult question! But I thank you for making it easier by asking me to list any three. So I will do that.

I don’t and will never claim to know much of the infinitely wide, deep and high philosophy and wisdom of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. I have merely tasted a few drops of the vast ocean of their highly profound Vision so far, but that has been enough to convince me that each drop carries an endless ocean within itself. So based on my admittedly limited understanding, I would say that the three most practical life-lessons I am trying to learn and re-learn and practice, to whatever little extent that is possible given my myriad imperfections of mind, heart, will and effort, are:
  1. The life that we live inside of us is just as real or perhaps more real than the life we live outside.
  2. Don’t look for the work that you know will make you happy, but try to find happiness, meaning and contentment in all the work that comes to you.
  3. Don’t look for the reason behind everything that happens to you in life, you can never really know it all with your mind.
To read the full interview, visit Namaste Happiness by clicking here.


To read more about my book, click here.
To read some reviews of the book, click here, here and here.