The Ascent of the Spirit
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 3: Steps in Educational Methods

The fact that the human individual always visualises the world as an object outside himself, and feels almost helplessly dependent on it in a multitude of ways, obliges him to study it, and investigate its structure or constitution and know his relation to it. The subject (adhyatma) faces the object (adhibhuta) as an unintelligible expanse which sometimes entertains him by supplying his needs and fulfilling his cravings and at other times threatens him with dire consequences if he does not abide by the laws according to which it operates. This precarious situation of man in the world has forced him into a study of the world in all its manifestations. This is what we usually call the educational process.

And what do we do when we enter an organisation or an institution of education? Right from the initial stages of childhood up to what we may regard as the full maturity of the mind, the student is introduced into a series of studies and investigations by a gradational method in an ascending order of complexity and profundity of the subjects which are tabulated as the curricula of education. Generally, even before the child is put into the school, the parents commence its education at home by informing it of the much grosser forms of the knowledge of the world, in its immediate social implications and in its relevance to the daily routines at home—such as the names of the seven days in a week, the connection of the days with the seven planets presiding over the days, the names of the twelve months of the year and a smattering knowledge of the customs of the family, its traditions, its connections with the neighbours in the village or the town, etc. More orthodox circles brought up in a fairly religious tradition tell the child that there are gods ruling the world to whom everyone has to offer prayers everyday for material benefits—food, clothing, shelter, health, long life and protection from troubles and calamities in life. A daily prayer, a chanting of a formula or a hymn, either in the classical language of one’s land, or in one’s own mother tongue, to be recited everyday at appointed times of the day, are features which the child learns at certain homes even before it enters the school. More secular-minded persons with a modernistic attitude bring up the child in a purely material atmosphere of comfort and social manners and etiquette conducive to a life of pleasure and prestige in human society, divested of other elements which may not have a direct relation to physical comfort and satisfaction, or social dignity or approbation.

At the kindergarten stage and in the infant standards, there are what are known as the Three-R’s-reading, writing and arithmetic, in the most preliminary form of introduction: learning to write letters of the alphabet, coupled with their pronunciation side by side, simple addition and subtraction with methods of multiplication and division added on a little later. This practice may continue for one or two years or even three years as the case may be. Then the child-student is introduced to pictorial illustrations of historical personalities as well as geographical conditions of the nearest circumference of one’s habitation, say, one’s own district or even a smaller part of this division. The system grows slowly into interesting and catching stories of persons who are by common consent regarded as great ones either because of their deeds, or their character and conduct, or their knowledge and power in any conspicuous manner, which would stimulate the inquisitiveness of the child and draw out its instincts for seeking pleasures in those things which either stir up the normal seekings of its senses or the delights of its incipient personality which is to grow later on into what we call the ego. Songs and rhymes, plays and dramatic performances in the school contribute to accentuate these methods of teaching by giving them a more concrete form of visibility and appreciation.

In slightly higher classes, the method grows into an introduction to the study of preliminary grammar of one’s own language, sometimes coupled with such study of another language, as is usually done these days when the initial studies in one’s mother tongue are made to go hand in hand with an elementary introduction to the Sanskrit or the English language. Perhaps, in countries outside India, the substitutes may be Latin or French, as is the predilection, custom or interest of the country. However, the grammar of the language, though in its most elementary form, is usually regarded as a necessity. And grammar can go side by side with elementary ‘Readers’ in the language, beginning with single words and later on leading to groups of words and sentences. Sentences can develop into passages, may be of some anecdotes, stories or descriptions of familiar conditions of social life. Such reading can develop into writing the same, committing it to memory as far as it is regarded as a necessity. Simple arithmetic, of course, becomes an unavoidable item in any class of study. These are really the seeds of those subjects which grow and develop into outlines of language, history, geography and mathematics. Up to this level, the whole structure may be regarded as primary education imparted in what we know as primary schools.

In the higher stages of education, there are at present four grades known as the Lower Secondary, the Higher Secondary, the College and the University grades. In the first of these educational procedures, above the primary school level, there is usually a continuance of the preliminary methods with only a more intensive emphasis on the very same themes introduced in the primary level. The subjects do not change, generally speaking. There is only a supply of additional details and a slight take-over into a little more advance in the study of the subjects earlier mentioned. Grammar of the language, composition of sentences and easy narratives, stories which serve the double purpose of literary grace and historical information suited to this level, are the subjects in which training is imparted to the students. The basic subjects are, thus, language with its grammatical and literary sides, history, geography, arithmetic and elementary natural science dealing with the basic principles of botany, zoology and physiology, which may cover the bare outlines of plant life, animal life and human life. In the second stage above the primary school level, there is a further advancement made over the earlier methods of teaching and study, and the real foundation for what is known as education proper is laid here. The subjects covered are the same as those mentioned under the earlier level, with the added themes of outlines of the civic, social and political relationships of the human individual in relevance to a particular nationality, and morals and ethics as are applicable to the immediate concerns of the personal and social life. The subject of geography may touch relevant aspects of astronomy, such as the solar and planetary systems and their influence upon the earth as a planet and on life in the world as a whole. This is usually called mathematical or astronomical geography. Natural science advances into the study of the basic principles of physics, chemistry and biology in their proper connotation. Up to this stage of education, the latter stage does not exclude the studies of the earlier ones, but, while including all of them, makes an advance in detail as well as depth of information by degrees.

It is at the college and university levels that an entirely new shift is given to education by reducing the number of subjects into three, two or one, by stages, and the system of specialisation in the chosen subjects is introduced. The studies cover the major subjects known to the human mind: literature, mathematics, astronomy, geology and geography, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology (including psychoanalysis), aesthetics, economics, ethics, sociology, politics, world-history and world-culture. These are purely empirical studies. Students of philosophy take to an intensive pursuit of logic, epistemology, metaphysics, religion and mysticism, the last two including also the theory and practice of the techniques known as yoga. It is not that one takes up all these subjects at once for the purpose of study, but directs one’s attention to not more than one or two of these at a time, the study getting pin-pointed to one subject alone in the end. This is the final touch of specialisation, thesis-writing, etc. Special training in management, technology, industry, engineering, commerce, agriculture, military science, etc’, may form the interest of those whose aptitude is particularly suited for the same. This is to mention only the items of human enterprise in general in the career called education today. It is difficult to conceive anything else as a part of education in the modern definition of the term.

Now comes the occasion for us to ponder a while on what has happened to the educated man, meaning by education a knowledge of these tremendous subjects humanly conceivable. What is one to do with this knowledge? This is a difficult question to answer. And this is the difficulty of every modern educated person. What is one to do after coming out of the college or the university with all the qualifications that mankind may regard as the towering achievements of an academic career? The immediate answer to the question would be: search for a job or an employment, establish or at least join an industry or an economically productive occupation, or take to teaching. Even supposing that these ambitions are fulfilled, can any one imagine that life is complete with these achievements or is there anything left out of the scheme, due to which one may remain unhappy in spite of one’s educational qualifications? The central query is: Is the educated man happy? It is difficult to believe that we would get an answer in the affirmative. To demonstrate this truth, we have only to pick up a representative educated person and enquire into the state of the happiness in his life. We would be taken aback by surprise at the condition of the modern educated person. There are questions which will not be easy for any one to answer and these questions will persist in presenting themselves before the human mind even after the acquisition of the highest of the educational qualifications. The problems are something like these: We do not know how many desires and ambitions we have, and even if we could decipher a few of them, it does not look that they all can be satisfied in the set-up of this world. This makes one dejected and unhappy. It does not appear that a desire or ambition subsides even after its fulfilment; it gets rather more excited and asks for greater satisfaction proving thereby that it has not been satisfied. On an analysis it will be found that this psychological circumstance will never come to an end. A day comes almost in everyone’s life when it becomes incumbent on one to believe that there are no real friends in this world and any union can result in separation at the least touch at a weak spot in one’s personality, and suddenly there is a disillusionment of the entire perspective of life, and here one’s educational training does not come to help. The objects which appear to bring satisfaction to the senses are realised later on to involve one in inescapable complexities and one finds oneself thrown into a mire from which there is no easy extrication. And there is a persistent pressure from anxiety, tension and a repeated sense of insecurity in one’s life visible from all sides. There is, lastly, the threat of death which will not exempt from the operation of its laws even the greatest genius in the world. And one does not know when the call would come.

It is emphatically said that knowledge is power. It is also held that knowledge is virtue. And Indian metaphysics, in its last reaches, proclaims that knowledge is bliss. Now, does education mean acquisition of knowledge? Any sensible person would not deny that it is so. And what is the condition of the educated man of the world today? Has he power? Is he virtuous? Is he blissful? We would, on an enquiry, discover that our men of knowledge are not really men of power. They need not necessarily be virtuous persons, too. And bliss, of course, is far from their reach. If education is the process of the acquisition of knowledge, that is, if education is the same as knowledge, and if knowledge is defined in the above-mentioned manner, how is it that there is a gulf between education and its expected fruits? We find that the men of power are either the political leaders or the possessors of enormous wealth. The men of virtue are generally materially poor, whether this poverty is voluntarily embraced in the case of some or forced upon by circumstances as in the case of many. We may call them saints, ascetics, and what not. And these are not people who wield any kind of power in human society, at least in the sense power is usually understood in common parlance. Many of the good people are those who are harassed by outward conditions, the apathy of society and the ignorance of the public, all which would not endow a virtuous person with power that can be exercised in any manner. And who are the happy people, or those who enjoy bliss within themselves? Perhaps no one can lay claim to this coveted position. It is useless to say that some men are contented and happy and that they themselves accept this fact. On a scrutiny it would be found that it is not true. Here it is immaterial whether one is unhappy due to the irony of Providence, the injustice that is prevalent outside or the sorrow brought about by the feeling for unachieved ends in life. Whatever the reason be, the fact remains the same.

All this, in conclusion, would show that a serious catastrophe has befallen the educational process unless we are prepared to decide that education is not knowledge and that the educational process is not the way to its acquisition. But to hold that knowledge can be had by any means other than education would be to go at a tangent. For, how else can anyone acquire knowledge?

The predominant view is that knowledge is a means to an end. In the case of some, this end is economic welfare and gaining of wealth in the form of money, particularly, or power in society. This is the reason why educationally qualified persons seek employments in institutes, organisations, firms, the government, etc. This ‘end’ which is in view clubs within itself a subtle notion of a simultaneous acquisition of prestige and authority in society. A person in some socially valued employment would at the same time be regarded as a ‘valuable’ person, whether the nature of this value is clear to anyone’s mind or not. Why should an employed person be a person of prestige and dignity? The notion is very vague. Evidently, there is, underlying it, a feeling that such a person can be utilised as a ‘means’ to some other ‘ends’ covertly creeping within the minds of people. Also, prestige itself is something very nebulous and cannot stand scrutiny. It cannot stand scrutiny because it is a form of the vanity characteristic of the ego of man, whose constitution itself cannot bear scrutiny. Self-esteem is at the background of the notion of the general form of esteem which goes by the name of prestige. And this is one of the ‘ends’ sought through knowledge by education.

Why does one wish to be educated? Why is education valued? If we go to the root of the matter in answering these posers, we are caught up in a jigsaw puzzle, a vicious circle or, perhaps, we find ourselves in a fool’s paradise. We seem to be seeking something without knowing what it is, and what for it is sought. Are we merely following the herd-instinct, the emotion of the mob, or the gregarious urge which has no rational foundation behind it? Are we in a position to find a little time and leisure to delve deep into this most interesting Subject for our consideration?

Before we attempt a reasonably satisfactory answer to this problem, we may do well to place before ourselves the woe which the great savant Narada represented in the presence of the mighty Sanatkumara, as we have it stated in the Seventh Section of the Chhandogya Upanishad:

“O Sire, please teach me!”—with this request Narada came to Sanatkumara. And to him, Sanatkumara replied: “Tell me what you already know; then I shall speak to you further.” Narada recounted his vast learning when he said, “Great One! I have mastered the Rig-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, the Sama-Veda, the Atharva-Veda, Ancient History and Religion, Grammar, the Art of propitiating the departed ones, Mathematics, Divination and Augury, Chronology, Logic, Polity, the Science of the Celestials, the Science of the Sacred Knowledge of the Supernatural Realms, Demonology and Physical Science, the Science of Political Administration and Militarism, Astronomy and Astrology, the Science of Snake-charming, and all the Fine Arts. Sire, I know all these.

“Such a one am I, O Noble One, knowing all these Arts and Sciences, I know not the Truth! It has been heard by me from those who are like you, O Great One, that he who knows the Truth crosses over sorrow. Such a sorrowing one am I, O Noble One! Condescend, O Sire, to teach me, who am such a sorrowing one, to cross over to the other side of sorrow.”

And to him, the great Sanatkumara replied: “Verily, whatever you have learnt is indeed mere words, only name.”

But, how are all these learnings, all these Arts and Sciences, to be regarded as a matter of words, a mere name? Is there any explanation? Perhaps, here, we have some hint at the solution of the sorrow of mankind.