Learning: a Lifelong Process

‘Javat banchi tavat shikhi; As long as I live, so long do I learn.’ —– Sri Ramakrishna

Education as Learning
It is usual convention to classify the subject of education under two categories-secular and spiritual. This is a Western concept. So far as the East is concerned, there is no distinction between the two. They are inextricably linked with each other and any division is only artificial. Nevertheless, this division has taken deep roots in our psyche. Hence we will approach the subject matter of this article from this point of view.
The quotation cited above is from a saint, who considered spiritual experiences far superior to mere knowledge of the world. However, we will examine how it applies to both types of education, secular and spiritual. We commence with secular education, by which we mean the kind of education imparted in school and colleges, leading to degrees and diplomas.
The following incident occurred several decades ago, in the late 150s, when I was a student at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The details were narrated to me by a fellow student who was at that time doing her doctorate in pharmacology at the Institute. One day when she was sitting in her office doing some work, there was a knock on the door. When she asked the caller to enter, in came an elderly gentleman in his sixties, wearing white pants, shirts and coat, a tie askew, a pair of chappals and a white turban. He took a seat and said, ‘I say, I am told you have studied something of microbiology. Would you mind teaching the subject to me?’ My friend told me that she was taken aback when the gentleman introduced himself. Every day, for a month, the gentleman would come to the Institute to sit with my friend for a couple of hours to learn microbiology. He later went on to apply his learning to the study of the physiology of vision and wrote a book about it. The name of the gentleman? C V Raman.
What is it that motivates a person like Raman to decide to learn an entirely new subject at such an advanced age? He had already done his best research work by that time and had already won the much-coveted Nobel Prize. But there was that urge in him to learn, an urge that was not too particular about where or from whom he could learn something new. He was an example for what Sri Ramakrishna meant when he said: ‘As long as I live, so long do I learn.’
Learning v Schooling
We usually associate learning with educational establishments. We consider a person educated, if he or she gone through the schooling system, entered college and graduated from a university. That is supposed to mark the end of the learning process. This is the common understanding of what education means. It reminds me of a story I heard long ago. A noted professor of astronomy from a highly reputed university was once invited to a formal dinner. He was seated next to a young lady in her late twenties. During the course of the dinner, the young lady asked the professor about himself. The professor replied, ‘I am a student of astronomy.’ The young lady looked at him up and down, at his grey hair and elderly face and exclaimed, ‘You mean you are still studying astronomy? I finished it long ago in my college!’ It is obvious that the word learning meant different things to them. For the young lady, learning was over with graduation from the college. For the professor, who had a broader perspective of knowledge, learning was lifelong process.
It is an unfortunate fact that the system of education we follow in India is not geared to the learning process. It is oriented more towards providing information in the form of facts and figures, which should be reproduced faithfully in tests and examinations. The more the facts that can be reproduced, the brighter and more intelligent the student is rated to be. But ask any student a few days after his examinations how much he remembers of what he had learnt during the previous year; very few of them would confidently reply that they remember everything. This is because they have been trained like racehorses, which run a fast pace and are totally, spent by end of the race. I often wonder how many students would be able to answer their examination papers once again if they are given the same one month after the examinations are over!
I remember a nice story I had been told when I was young, which is a reflection on the kind of formal education we receive. A father and son went for a walk one evening. It started drizzling and they look shelter bellows a tree. The father thought that he would use this state of enforced inactivity to educate his son about the cardinal directions. He explained to the boy where east, west, north, and south were. The boy learnt it fast and rain also stopped. The father took his son home and proudly told the boy’s mother about what their child had learnt. The mother was immensely pleased and asked the boy, ‘ Tell me, my pet, which is east?’ The boy replied promptly, ‘Let’s go back to the tree.’
What is the moral of the story? It is a commentary on our system of secular education. Having gone through this system of education and having been involved in using this system in teaching for almost half a century, I can confidently say that our education system divorces us completely from the world around us. All the subjects taught in school and colleges-be they science, history, geography, sociology or psychology-impinge on our daily life. But we are hardly aware of it, because the system of education is such that knowledge gets confined within the covers of textbooks.
I was made aware of this facet of our educational system by a great man, Prof. Satish Dhawan. I was teaching aerodynamic at that time to students at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. I had invited Prof. Dhawan to our Institute. He was at that time the director of the Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore and was shortly to take over as chairman of the Space Commission. We were going by electric train to Chromepet, since he had a lecture at the Madras Institute of Technology, of which our current President, Dr Abdul Kalam, is an old student. On the way, he suddenly asked me, ‘Would you like to see Benard cell?’ I was taken aback, since this is a laboratory experiment to demonstrate convection ring in water or air. I was wondering what he was talking about, when he pointed to the sky and said, ‘There are your Benard cell.’ I saw the beautiful pattern in the sky, which I had never observed before. It was then that Prof. Dhawan told me, ‘See, your aerodynamics is all around you, not necessarily only in the textbooks.’ Did not Sri Ramakrishna also display the same capability of keen observation, which is so well borne out by his wonderful parables? Maybe he had this capacity because he was not spoilt by book learning!
Literacy v Education- a must read
There are two words in the English language which are in common use and sometime used synonymously. They are literacy and Education. They appear to have almost the same meaning, but there is a subtle and important difference between them. Literacy implies a general acquaintance about a subject. A literate person is one who knows how to read and write, and use this knowledge in daily life. Education, on the other hand, stands for more than a nodding acquaintance of any subject. It involves a deeper study leading to knowledge in depth. An educated person is one who has a broad knowledge of any subject and is capable of discussing it intelligently.
As an example, let us consider one
of the hottest topics today, namely environment. One can gain a lot of information about this subject by reading a few general books or newspaper articles, or even seeing television programmes. This is environmental literacy, which tells us what is meant by environment, what its importance for the planet is, how it is being mishandled, what are the grave dangers facing humanity, what needs to be done at the short-term or long-term level, and so on. There are lots of literate people who can read and write having this kind of literacy. But that does not make them educated.
There is another group of literate people, who have made a deep study of the technical aspects of environment. They are people who have specialized in certain areas of environment, who teach the subject at advanced levels, who are invited to contribute research papers or articles to magazines or journals, and whose voice is heard with respect. They are the educated experts in that field.
A statement of Sri Ramakrishna comes to mind at the stage. He used to say; ‘There are some who have heard of milk, some who have seen it and some who have drunk it.’ Only the last know what milk really is. The literate are those who have heard of milk or may be even seen it. But the educated are those who have actually drunk milk and are in a position to say what milk tastes like.
The Beginning of Education
The education imparted in school and colleges makes us literate, but does not really educate us. One may argue that even if schools and colleges can only make us literate, there are always advanced courses where one can get oneself really educated. One can always join a postgraduate programme and feel satisfied that one has really learnt something. If that also is not considered adequate, there are always doctoral programmes. Maybe that is the end of one’s educational career as a doctorate really makes one a fully educated expert. This was the impression I also had. But as soon as I completed my doctorate, I was in for a rude shock. My professor congratulated me and told me that my real education started then! He explained to me that whatever I had undergone up till then was only a preparation towards real education. Even a doctorate is only a training programme, like the earlier programmes we go thorough in schools and colleges. That is as far as the formal educational programme can carry us. It teaches us the methodology of learning. Real education starts only from that point.
The best away of appreciating and understanding this is to become a teacher. There are two types of teachers. The first type consists of those who are content with what they have been taught in formal education institutions and go on teaching it to students year after year without any change or updating. These are teachers who make use of their own student notes for teaching others. One could even predict what the teacher is going to teach if one had a peek into the lecture notes of one’s seniors!
I once had an opportunity to serve on a committee for selection of teachers. The chairperson of the committee was a highly distinguished educationist. All members of the committee were very much impressed by a candidate, who had a teaching experience of fifteen years. Only the chairperson was not. When we asked him for the reason, he made a very pithy remark: Don’t you see? He doesn’t have an experience of fifteen years. He has one year’s experience fifteen times over!’ It is people of this type who have never cultivated the art of learning.
The Real Learners
On the other hand, there are also teachers who are constantly alert and try to keep themselves up-to-date with the latest developments. They are real learners. I had a teacher in my college days who was in his late fifties and on the verge of retirement. One day he burst into the class and exclaimed, ‘You know, boys, I have just heard that a new instrument has come into the market. I have placed an order for it and as soon as it is received, we will all learn how to use it for better accuracy.’ ‘He was a learner in the truest sense of the term. Every one of us would have encountered someone or other in our lives who exhibited that zest for learning, for refreshing or improving one’s knowledge for the sheer pleasure of it.
Sri Ramakrishna was a learner of that type. Whenever he heard that there was a God-lover in Calcutta, he would ask his nephew Hriday to take him to that person. He would approach that person with all humility and ask him, ‘I am told that you love God and that you have had some experiences. Could you please tell me about them?’ His sincerity and the charming way he would make his request would literally bowl over that person, who would consider himself blessed by Thakur.
On Becoming a Learner
How does one acquire this skill? It is mostly by keeping one’s eyes and ears open. A person who always swims in pools may encounter problems when he is asked to swim in the sea. The water in the sea is not calm as in the pool, nor is it shallow. The only method is to plunge into the sea and practise in stages. This requires two qualities: intense desire and hard work. Only those who have these qualities have the chance to become real learners.
It is a well-known fact all children learn form imitation. They pick up words, phrases and even sentences from the talk of adults. In this sense, the educate themselves. But some thing happens the moment they start attending school. Self-education stops and forced learning begins. The former needs a lot of time and is a slow process. A pre-school child has plenty of time at its disposal and time is of no consequences to it. Hence self-learning becomes possible. In schools the learning process gets accelerated and becomes tighter. Learning slowly transforms in to cramming of information and the child is no longer capable of self-learning. However, this capacity lies dormant and when exercised comes to the surface again. In a way, the formal education system hardly gives any time to the child to exercise its capacity to learn by itself. After the end of the period of formal education, there is one more change given to us to go back to self-learning. Those who are able to utilize this chance are the eternal learners and creative people. Those who are not, remain content with what they have learnt formally. But even they are sometimes forced into self-learning by the exigencies of circumstances. These are common experiences in all human societies.
Learning in the Spiritual Realm
Whatever has been discussed above is from the point of view of what is usually called secular knowledge. Are these facts applicable to spiritual knowledge also? Much more so. As a matter of fact, self-learning is the only way that one can acquire Self-knowledge. This was the discovery of the ancient sages of India, who have left behind the records their experiments in the Upanishadic texts. This is true not only of the Upanishads, but also of practical sciences, like raja yoga. We will now consider briefly how self-study plays an important role in this field.
The methodology of learning recommended by Upanishads is the triune method of shravana, manana and nididhyasana. Shravana refers basically to hearing, but also includes reading, discussions and the like. Manana is contemplation of what has been studied or heard. Nididhyasana is concentration on the subject to the exclusion of everything else. Usually, the initial knowledge about anything has to be acquired
through a guru, because he is the dependable authority on the subject. Manana and nididhyasana depend one’s own effort, with some guidance from the guru. The role of the teacher is only as a guidepost. The journey has to be undertaken by us with our own efforts.
The following example from the Taittiriya Upanishad is a good illustration:
Bhrigu approaches his father Varuna with a desire to know Brahman. The father says that ‘food, vital force, eye, ear, mind and speech’ are the aids to the knowledge of Brahman, and after having given him a few hints, tells the son to ‘find out for yourself’. Having heard this instruction from the father, the son has to think for himself and contemplate on what he has heard. He discovers that the body is Brahman. When he approaches his father to verify this discovery, the father does not give any discourse. He simply tells his son, ‘Think some more and find out for yourself.’ After successive steps, the son finally realizes that ananda, or Bliss, is Brahman. This realization does not need any further verification from the father, because it is the son’s personal experience.
What we notice in this example is the process of self-education. Based on a few hints given by the father, the son has to discover the answer by a gradual process of contemplation and meditation. There is no spoonfeeding involved. This was the way disciples were trained by teachers in the ancient Vedic culture who encouraged self-analysis. It is the constant thread running through the Upanishadic literature. No wonder the ancient gurukulas were able to produce such spiritual giants who dot the pages of Upanishads.
The same methodology is to be seen in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The very first aphorism tells us that follow are a set of instructions, not for discussion but for practice. Education in yoga does not stop with the learning of the theory of the sutras, a few asanas and prayanamas. It is a lifelong practice and a learning process at the same time. Only those who are capable of learning continuously throughout their life can become successful yoga practitioners.
Genius as a Learner
Learning is indeed a lifelong experience and there is no doubt about it. We continuously learn through our experiences, both good and bad, mostly through the latter. But this is more like a knee-jerk reaction. We respond to the situation in which we find ourselves placed. The kind of learning great people like Sri Ramakrishna refer to is of a different type altogether. They draw lessons from their experiences, which enrich their lives and serve the needs of others also in the process. A perusal of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna will amply bear this point out. It is full or parables and stories about Vedantic principles, but based on mundane experiences. We too have undergone such experiences; we too have seen whatever he observed. For us they are mere occurrences, for him they were indicators of profound truths. To be able to observe ordinary events and draw profound conclusions from them is the hallmark of genius. That is real learning. The seers, the prophets, the trailblazers are such learners; they are the ideals to be followed. The philosophy they pursue is aptly summed up by Sri Ramakrishna when he says, ‘Javat banchi tavat shikhi.’
(The author wishes to thank Kum. Heisnam Jina Devi, Lecturer, Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana, Bangalore, for the help in the preparation of this article.)
Learning annihilates itself, and the most perfect is the first submerged; for the next age scales with ease the height, which cost the preceding the full vigor of life. ——- Bunsen
By Dr. N V C Swamy
Copyright Prabuddha Bharata

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One Response to Learning: a Lifelong Process

  1. Krishna says:

    good article

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