The guru shishya parampara has lessons for modern education systems
Several scholars and social commentators are making the link between the rising tide of overt nationalism and a discomfort over the democratic nature of some educational spaces in India today. Janaki Nair, the feminist and historian from JNU, wrote yesterday in The Hindu that:
“The moral panic that has gripped large sections of the Indian public is… related to the fears about the democratising opportunities offered by campuses today. In this expression of outrage, the newly moralising Right ….. aims to replace critical thinking with worship, forms of hard-won equality with structures of deference, and forms of new community-building with a return to the ideal of the patriarchal “family”.”
She goes on to cite an example that is a bit uncomfortable for me. She sees in the Indian Council of Historical Research’s program to institute fellowships that will foster a Guru-Shishya parampara a patriarchal design. She says that shishyas will be tied in “a relationship of obedience and honour, rather than thinking and debating”. She sees this as a problem.
While I buy her point about the important place of critique and question in the process of learning (refer my earlier post on this issue), I’m not sure her understanding of guru shishya parampara is accurate. I’m no authority on the subject, but I’ve been a shishya, first of Hindustani classical music for many years and in recent years of kathak. In these years, I’ve interacted with many gurus and shishyas, heard many stories of how the gurus learnt and experienced first hand the complexity of this relationship and my comments are limited to the learning of the performing arts.
The relationship between the guru and shishya has some prescribed rules. Broadly, the shishya is expected to train rigorously and usually has limited freedom until this period of training is completed. This period may vary. Modern gurus permit their shishyas to perform in public much earlier than what was the norm a generation ago. Once the shishya is past her training period, she is not only free to make her own adaptations and improvisations to her art but is in fact expected to do so, while taking the traditions of her guru and gharana forward. A good guru will appreciate out of the box thinking, though the tolerance to deviating from the gharana’s essential style may vary. In the classical arts, learning is a lifelong process. In the traditional form of the gurukul, theoretical training involved both reading and debates among students and with the guru. The education was not designed to be a one-way dictatorial process and Prof Nair seems to imagine, though the status of the guru was (and is) undoubtedly exalted, with respected to her many years of rigorous sadhna and the exalted knowledge derived from this.
There are many positives to this model in my view – a long period of sustained interaction, an expectation of commitment, peer-to-peer learning and the setting of high standards. I do not believe the guru shishya parampara is in conflict with freedom of expression or dissent; yes, it is a system in which charting your own path comes after years spent learning the basics and that is the nature of the kind of knowledge the system was designed to impart.
In today’s far more transactional education system, with its short-term targets and restricted rather than expansive curriculum, the guru shishya parampara often finds itself out of sync. That I do perceive. I also feel that our dislike of religion-based politics must not blind us to the positive aspects of our traditions. And so, instead of writing it off, we must reflect on how to weave in some of its positives into our discourse on pedagogy and education.
Survival mantra: Condemn violence, re-invent secularism as our guiding light
It could be true, that inverse relationship between brawn and brain. I haven’t been as alert mentally since I started going to the gym regularly, but today I’m resolving to snap out of that stupor and get back to my blog and my work with total concentration.
I’ve been following the controversy following Home Minister Shinde’s remarks about Hindu terror. And thinking about the intense feeling of discomfort I have about that particular faction of our society. Yechury’s editorial in The Hindustan Times today about zero tolerance reveals the sordid history of the RSS and their commitment to military means to achieve their wins. It also exposes the essential fascism in their ideology. This scares me (despite growing up in a very much Hindu family). Because I was brought up in independent India with the clear understanding that secularism is very much a value we fought for and want to keep fighting for, that this is a deeply ingrained belief.
As I grew up, various incidents influenced me- the 1984 riots, Babri Masjid, Mumbai blasts and the general observations of how citizens in a city as cultured and nuanced as Lucknow got polarized and compromised in the crush of religious fear and machoism. Yet, my belief in secularism as the ideal to aspire towards never wavered.
Today, an urban practitioner in rapidly urbanizing, rapidly growing India- I hear disparate voices all around me. I know that religious identity continues to be the strongest one for many in this country and, while I do not think that is wrong, I am pained by having to accept that secularism no longer seems to be the agreed upon framework of taking this country forward.
The world over, religious fanaticism seems to be overpowering the voices of tolerance. I often wonder, why? Is it cyclical, moving closer and then way from fanaticism, clannishness? Or are we essentially an irrational and violent race and occasionally we get lured into more rational thinking by great people like Gandhi or Martin Luther King who for some reason all seem to happen around the same time?
In my analysis, it all boils down to managing anger. Just like we learn to manage anger and frustration in our personal lives, or should at any rate, collective anger also needs to be managed. When the management tool becomes skewed and leaders would rather incite, and preach retribution and revenge, violence and terrorism appear as very logical alternatives to those in a group. In the absence of reason, no one is able to break the tit for tat and the war goes on…
This is a war on our senses, on our liberties. It is a war that threatens to annihilate the beauty from our lives and marry us all into a culture of violence and retribution, which can only lead to sadness and more anger. It is a vicious cycle. We must break out of it. Secularism is one way to break out of it. Perhaps we must change the way we see secularism- not as a society sans religious affiliations, but as one where each group is tolerant of the faith and the cultural practices of the other strains that co-exist with it, an within that larger fabric of India, Asia, the world.
I would respect that Hindu leader that came out and punished perpetrators of violence from within its folds, same goes for the Islamic leadership. Religious leaders must condemn violence and be unabashed in naming all those who incite it. If they continue to shield murderers, no matter which religion they belong to, they are doing a huge disservice to us all. By luring people into the false cocoon of us-versus-them on hand and by alienating all those of us who refuse to support violence, on the other.