Friday Review

The idea of nurturing

At the seminar.

At the seminar.   | Photo Credit: 01dfr Gnostic Centre1

That the Gnostic Centre’s 19th anniversary seminar begins with a few minutes of meditative silence is fitting. Outside, the centre and its vast, expansive greenery sit in scorching sunlight. Inside the auditorium, the mood is peaceful; the cool stone floor drawing out the heat from our bare feet.

The silence segues into a measured start to the seminar, titled Evolutionary Potential of Education: Contemplative Dialogues’ and divided in two sessions, one that aims to discuss the future of education in light of the Wisdom Traditions, and another on New Experiments and Experiences in Higher Education. Moderating the first session, Ameeta Mehra, Chairperson of the Centre, begins the first session, invoking the metaphor of a “yajna”. “Everyone here is a consciousness stakeholder in this process of education, not financial or a corporate one. We've all carried a flame somewhere in our hearts, aspiring for an education that can bring out the best in a human being, an integral education. We begin the yajna with our ahutis (offerings) into this agni, this flame, not of ghee and oblations, here, but of our knowledge, aspirations, life’s work, and perhaps our sincerity.”

After short introductions by each panellist, that covers their work and their own take on the future of education, Ameeta moves on to more detailed, in-depth questions. Present at the session are Indologist Bettina Baumer, one of the foremost expounders of Kashmir Saivism , Guru Vajradhara The 12th Kentish Tai Situpa, Buddhist master, Kavita Sharma, President, South Asian University, author and expert on Indian folklore, Madan Gopal Singh, a professor at Delhi University, writer, composer and singer, as well as an expert on Sufi and Sikh traditions, Partho, educator and writer with more than 26 years in the field of education and the study of Sri Aurobindo’s Evolutionary vision and education, and Vladimir Iatsenko, who has been teaching Vedic Studies and Sanskrit in Auroville since 1993.

The conversation starts with a deceptively simple question. Ameeta asks her panellists to cull out the core spiritual ideas of their traditions that can contribute towards an education that shapes the evolutionary future of society.

The responses are, as one would expect them to be, diverse, and yet, uncannily similar. Beginning with the mundane, Sharma first says that “getting rid of all the board exams and annual exams will transform the education system immediately, because those are such levellers into mediocrity.” She goes on to speak of the four purushartha culled from the Upanishads – dharma, artha, kama and moksha. “They are based on the idea that you need money, and that there is desire, but both of these should be embedded in righteousness, in dharma, and when you earn or fulfil your desire through righteous means, which means you sustain and nurture the people and environment around you, then you get moksha, and moksha is not some heaven outside, it is equanimity, it makes you accept life with its ups and downs”.

The conversation moves smoothly between each panellist, a kind of common thread developing as they go along, that gently tugs at differences in opinions and unity of cause. In every tradition, the idea of consciousness resonates, and Singh brings in the idea of ‘conscience’, adding another layer to the discussion.

At one point, Ameeta draws in a comment from Shailendra Mehta, Provost/Vice Chancellor of Ahmedabad University and a panellist for the second session of the seminar. He asks the audience to look at the history of higher education in the world, which he estimates to be roughly 2600 years long. “For 1800 years, 6th Century B.C to 1197, India had the finest universities in the world, not one or two, but seven of them. The whole world came to India. Then for the next 700 years, literally at the same time when the universities in India were destroyed, Oxford and Cambridge came up and Europe carried the baton for 700 years. Then, just when Europe was coming down, because of Nazis and the Second World War, America picked up the baton and has been carrying it since. We forget that India dominated for 1800 years, and we forget this was not just because of knowledge but also institutional innovations.”

His contribution to the discussion leads to the next question the panellists seek to explore, one that looks at the key steps, structures and ways by which India can revive an education for the future, a system that takes the best of the wisdom traditions and the knowledge and the power that came with it. Singh believes that it is an emphasis on conscience that matters, while Guru Vajradhara brings up the idea of the commercialisation of education. “Nalanda, Taxila, Vikramshila, all these institutions did not sell education. It was given with devotion, compassion and dedication. This is very different from modern form of teaching.”

Expanding on this idea, Sharma refers to the shift from exclusive education to mass education in the middle of the 18th Century. “Mass education led to universalisation of school education and then mass higher education.” She also clarifies that while in gurukuls and ashramas, the teacher and students did not have a transactional business with each other, there were huge endowments of land and money all given by the people, and to a certain extent, the state.”

The idea that emerges suggests that as structures are set up, the spirit that lies behind their creation is lost, and what remains then is a mechanical following of rules. “What we need to find is a system that can bring these three together, the message of the Gita, of the action and faith, not in one personal god but faith in what you are doing, faith in a higher consciousness and knowledge”.

At this point, Ameeta touches upon the idea of atheism, and wonders at how it can be brought into the folds of the wisdom traditions, which do believe in some sort of divinity or higher consciousness. The question is answered succinctly by the panellists, who each echo the idea of wisdom traditions concentrating more on the faculties of consciousness (seeing, feeling, touching, being), and their development, instead of the divine. “The creation of personal god is a much later tradition, an easier one created for the average person, who might find it hard to get to abstract concepts,” says Sharma. Baumer adds that it is possible to have a conscience without religion, and Singh, an atheist himself, speaks of porous identities, laughingly calling atheists ‘creative schizophrenics’.”

It is a loaded session, endless in its scope and too vast to document without leaving out threads. The question from the audience that follow bring on even more ideas to the fold – concepts of diversity, secularism and the possibility of giving a concentrated deep evolutionary education to a large mass of people. The ‘yajna’ Ameeta begun ends successfully, and the offerings have been rich indeed.

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Printable version | Aug 8, 2020 12:44:17 AM |

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