Integrating India’s Heritage in Indian Education – Part 1

By turning their back on their rich cultural heritage, Indians have denied their own an education which not only gratifies the intellect but also the soul.

Integrating India’s Heritage in Indian Education – Part 1

“Indian” education?

Few countries boast such a rich cultural heritage as India, yet the average Indian student is exposed to almost none of it. Such is the painful paradox of “modern” Indian education. The degenerate outcome of colonial policies reinforced rather than reformed after Independence, India’s educational system fails to instil into young Indians a dynamic awareness and understanding of their country’s achievements and civilizing influences in various fields and at various epochs, including today. Slogans such as “unity in diversity” have acquired a hollow ring, especially when what constitutes and nurtures this “unity” is carefully kept out of sight.

The unspoken line of thinking underlying this attitude is that India’s cultural heritage is basically useless to students: in the rat race for jobs, it would only be dead baggage to them. Cultural heritage is fine for political speeches, museums, and to attract foreign tourists, but not for teaching: no one should doubt that all useful knowledge comes from the West. India cannot, therefore, generate knowledge: her ultimate ambition should only be to become an efficient recipient of knowledge generated elsewhere. No longer the land of Knowledge, only a pale colony.

Macaulay would have been delighted to see how faithfully we have followed his dictums. To anyone with a living culture, it should be clear that such an attitude can never foster self-confidence in students. It leaves them at best ignorant of, and at worst inimical to, what India has stood for in world history. It ingrains in them a subservient mindset that sees the West as the ultimate reference point. Not that Indian education should be anti-West, of course, but why should it be so hostile to Indian culture both in theory and in practice?

In reality, to integrate Indian culture and heritage in the curriculum would do students a great service: it would equip them with a more concrete knowledge of their country and the mind of its people, which can only help them in any professional life; it would give them a sense of belonging to a stream of civilization instead of being meaningless individuals drifting in space and time; it would instil in them some of the great values that India stood for at the peak of her creativity, such as truthfulness, courage, and a harmony between individual and collective dharma; it would enrich and refine them, bring them a deeper perspective of things, and ultimately a greater ability to deal with life’s challenges by helping them towards a balanced and harmonized personality. Are such lifelong benefits contemptible? Are they not part of what a meaningful education should provide? And can mugging up a few dry facts about past dynasties, wars and betrayals provide them?

Great Indians on Indian education

India’s pre-Independence thinkers often warned against the evils of the British system of education and called for a free India to design her own educational system. Swami Vivekananda complained long back that English education made the student

“a mass of negation, lifeless and boneless … Education is not the amount of information that is put into your brain and runs riot there, undigested, all your life.”1

 Sri Aurobindo wrote in the first decade of the twentieth century:

“In India … we have been cut off by a mercenary and soulless education from all our ancient roots of culture and tradition….2 The spiritual and intellectual divorce from the past which the present schools and universities have effected, has beggared the nation of the originality, high aspiration and forceful energy which can alone make a nation free and great. To reverse the process and recover what we have lost, is undoubtedly the first object to which we ought to devote ourselves….3 Much as we have lost as a nation, we have always preserved our intellectual alertness, quickness and originality; but even this last gift is threatened by our University system, and if it goes, it will be the beginning of irretrievable degradation and final extinction. The very first step in reform must therefore be to revolutionise the whole aim and method of our education.”4

Rabindranath Tagore agreed, and remarked, “All over India, there is a vague feeling of discontent in the air about our prevalent system of education”—a statement whose topicality few of us would dare to dispute. He found that Indian students:

“never have intellectual courage, because they never see the process and the environment of those thoughts which they are compelled to learn — and thus they lose the historical sense of all ideas, never knowing the perspective of their growth…. They not only borrow a foreign culture, but also a foreign standard of judgement; and thus, not only is the money not theirs, but not even the pocket. Their education is a chariot that does not carry them in it, but drags them behind it. The sight is pitiful and very often comic.”5

It would be tempting to continue with more thinkers, for instance the great art critic Ananda Coomaraswamy:

“No more crushing blows have ever been struck at the roots of Indian National evolution than those which have been struck, often with other, and the best intentions, in the name of Education…. The most crushing indictment of this Education is the fact that it destroys, in the great majority of those upon whom it is inflicted, all capacity for the appreciation of Indian culture. The ordinary graduate of an Indian University … is indeed a stranger in his own land.” 6

Independent India, for reasons we shall not go into here, turned her back on such great minds and decided to perpetuate a system hostile to the foundations of Indian culture. Our aim is clear: not only the Indianization of Indian education, but its modernization—which includes its demoronization. The disease is equally clear, and deep-rooted. Are there any remedies?

The power of a question

To reform India’s education, we need to address two central issues: that of content, and that of method. The latter is straightforward: it should certainly begin with a considerable lightening of syllabi and examinations, an emphasis on understanding and creativity rather than on mechanical memorizing of dry facts, an encouragement to debate, inquiry and questioning; also constant research by and orientation of the teacher, without which none of the above is possible. A true teacher is not expected to just read out the textbook like a tape player, while the students act as mere tape recorders; unfortunately, this caricature of teaching has become a widespread reality in India.

In 1974, out of the blue, a pupil in a French elementary school asked his maths teacher, “Sir, where do numbers come from?” The teacher was stumped, mumbled some lame explanation, went home and realized that he knew nothing of the origin of numbers. Georges Ifrah resigned his job and started travelling round the world, visiting libraries and museums, consulting experts, and studying all the while the evolution of numbers and mathematics in every civilization. To pay for his expenses, he would take odd jobs while on the move, becoming a taxi driver here or a hotel’s night watchman there. Twenty years later, the result was a monumental Universal History of Numbers 7 which covered every epoch and civilization: a 2,000-page reply to his pupil. The book became an unprecedented bestseller when it was released in France in 1994. Incidentally, out of its 2,000 pages, nearly 800 were about India and her contributions to the field, which drew Ifrah’s unreserved admiration.

The child’s question to Ifrah was the result of healthy pedagogy. In India, we can hardly picture a student presenting a teacher with a challenge of this sort—and sending him or her around the world in search of the answer; more often than not, the student would be promptly rebuffed. Indian education has all but killed the spirit of inquiry and the power of original thinking, at a time when India needs them so much.

There would be much more to say on teaching methods and pedagogy, but we will limit ourselves here to the elements outlined above, which form part of the indispensable foundation, and concentrate on the question of content.

Integration in practice

In recent years, a number of schools and colleges, dissatisfied with the cultural desertification that has struck generations of young Indians, have gone for the obvious solution: introduce a course on Indian culture, heritage or ethos. Such courses range from basic to very elaborate ones, and a well-designed course is certainly a boon to the student. Yet, however welcome in the present context, this is not the ideal, long-term solution, for two reasons: First, it risks adding to the student’s already heavy burden, unless it takes the place of pious but ineffectual “moral instruction” periods and is made really enjoyable and living. Second and more important, it sends a subtle message that Indian culture is a “separate” topic, unrelated to the others: you learn mathematics, geography, civics, and also Indian culture. In other words, Indian culture has little to do with the mainstream disciplines.

What is the alternative? Irrespective of whether a school has adopted a culture course or not, and leaving aside the long-term solution of an overhauled syllabus at school and college levels (which is not likely to happen soon in view of the paucity of vision among our policy makers and educationists), I suggest that there are simple ways in which a teacher of goodwill in any discipline can, at the very least, introduce a few concepts or elements from India’s cultural heritage. This hardly takes any time, and moreover, public schools at least have much freedom in the first years, often till class 9.

In a broad view of the issue, any integration of India’s heritage in the regular teaching should aim at three results:

 1. Integration of values. This can most effectively be done through the use of stories, of which Indian literature is an endless source. The teacher should keep in mind a clear distinction between universal values (e.g. courage, truthfulness, selflessness) and specifically Indian values, not necessarily found in other cultures (e.g. unity of and respect for all life, harmony with nature and the universe, non-violence coupled with the use of force for dharmic purposes).
2. Integration of elements of India’s heritage in every discipline.
3. The ultimate objective is to convey something of the Indian worldview and show how it is growing more and more relevant in today’s world. The
inspirational potential of this worldview should be conveyed.

Continued in Integrating India’s Heritage in Indian Education Part – 2
References / Footnotes

1. Swami Vivekananda, “The Future of India,” Complete Works (1948 edition), vol. III, p. 302.

2. Sri Aurobindo, “The National Value of Art,” Karmayogin November 20, 1909 in The Hour of God (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972),           p. 231.

3. Sri Aurobindo, Karmayogin, September 25, 1909, in Karmayogin (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972), p. 210.

4. Sri Aurobindo, The Harmony of Virtue (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972), p. 127.

5. Both quotations are from Tagore’s Centre of Indian Culture (Visva Bharati, 1988 reprint).

6. Ananda Coomaraswamy, Essays in National Idealism (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1981), p. 96-97.

7. Georges Ifrah, Histoire Universelle des Chiffres (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1994). English translation, The Universal History of Numbers

About Author: Michel Danino

Born in 1956 at Honfleur (France) into a Jewish family recently emigrated from Morocco, from the age of fifteen Michel Danino was drawn to India, some of her great yogis, and soon to Sri Aurobindo and Mother and their view of evolution which gives a new meaning to our existence on this earth. In 1977, dissatisfied after four years of higher scientific studies, he left France for India, where he has since been living. A writer of numerous books including the bestseller, The Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati, he is currently a member of ICHR and a visiting professor at IIT Gandhinagar. The Government of India awarded him the Padmashri (India's fourth highest civilian award) for his contribution towards Literature & Education.

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