Freedom

August 1, 2017

Trees that thrive on this planet,

clusters of plants in bloom with joyous fragrance,

creepers that throng those trees,

healing herbs, weeds and grass and such:

By what profession do they live?

 

Men may not plough, nor sow,

not raise bunds, nor water their crop

but if the skies grant rains,

will not the land abound

with trees and various grains and grass?

There is not a thing I fear

Oh men, embrace my religion

and toil not!

 

Tax not your flesh and body

Nature shall yield food.

See, your task here is to wield love.

– Subramania Bharati

(Translated by me)


விடுதலை
———-

இந்தப் புவிதனில் வாழு மரங்களும்
இன்ப நறுமலர்ப் பூஞ்செடிக் கூட்டமும்
அந்த மரங்களைச் சூழ்ந்த கொடிகளும்
ஔடத மூலிகை பூண்டுபுல் யாவையும்
எந்தத் தொழில் செய்து வாழ்வன வோ?

மானுடர் உழாவிடினும் வித்து நடாவிடினும்
வரம்புகட்டாவிடினும் அன்றிநீர் பாய்ச்சாவிடினும்
வானுலகு நீர்தருமேல் மண்மீது மரங்கள்
வகைவகையா நெற்கள்புற்கள் மலிந்திருக்கு மன்றோ?
யானெ தற்கும் அஞ்சுகிலேன்,மானுடரே,நீவிர்
என்மதத்தைக் கைக்கொண்மின்,பாடுபடல் வேண்டா;
ஊனுடலை வருத்தாதீர்; உணவியற்கை கொடுக்கும்;
உங்களுக்குத் தொழிலிங்கே அன்பு செய்தல் கண்டீர்!-

– பாரதி

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Learning – Its purpose and impact: From the Tamil Sangam Age to the Cyber Age

July 10, 2017

[This is the full text that I had prepared for a speech at IIT Chennai. The actual speech delivered there was shortened due to time constraints. I have broken the text into 3 parts: The first part has a bit of my personal experiences; the second part focuses on references to learning in early Tamil literature, and a look at the situation of education in India in the recent past;  the third part deals with contemporary issues. One may choose to read the whole essay or only the parts that are of interest to you – they can be read together or independent of each other.]

Reading at a Table - Picasso

Reading at a Table – Picasso

“For the learned, every nation and every place is theirs;
why then, doesn’t one keep learning till death,”
– Thirukkural by Thiruvalluvar.

(1)

Educators have a pet peeve. They say only a lawyer advises on issues of law, a doctor on medicine, an engineer on his field, an artist on art and so on. But everybody has something to say about learning. That is because everybody learns. While educators may have a major role to play in learning, learning is not the preserve of educators or educational institutions. Learning may happen because of them, it may happen despite them, and it may well happen without them.

How we learn, why we learn and what me must learn are questions crucial to the human civilisation today.

What I intend to speak about learning has a lot to do with how I myself have learnt, and still learn. I have been to premier educational institutions, and have worked in large corporates. But I was continually plagued by the questions, what was I learning, and how was my learning relevant to the society that I lived in. I incidentally started translating Thirukkural, the ancient Tamil text by Thiruvalluvar. I also started to read deeply about Gandhi, and works by Gandhi. My questions didn’t go away – they got deepened. I saw a big mismatch between what we were learning and doing, and the impact of all that on my own inner self, and the society around me. I decided to quit my job, and corporate career. I started training students on leadership – righteous and compassionate leadership – using the tenets of Thirukkural and Gandhi. While my efforts may have helped inspire some students, I still felt a void. I began feeling that sitting inside a classroom, listening to a lecture, watching fancy multimedia slides, and doing pre-designed activities, however absorbing they may be, is not how children, or adults, learn. Learning, I began realising, emerges from and has to be rooted to the society, to its culture and Nature.

Despite rampant urbanisation, a large part of India still resides in its villages, and I too, decided to shift to a village. Along with my wife and daughter, we are now learning farming and various other aspects of life from the village. Yet to forego our vanities, we run a learning centre at our home, which we call ‘Payilagam’. It is a free, open space for the village children to come, read books from our library or play games or do homework or clear doubts, be themselves and do what they want to. It has been an excellent opportunity for me to learn about learning. Our nine year old daughter doesn’t attend formal school, and has been learning naturally from the rich experience she is gaining from her environment, and the people and books around her.

With this little personal background, let me proceed deeper into the subject of interest for us today: learning. Learning, I would like to emphasise again, has to be rooted to the culture, society and nature. The impact of learning is today measured by the exam scores, the entrances that one clears, employability, earning potential and depth of knowledge. But we have reached a point where not many of us really care about the impact of our learning on the society. Cultural continuity has been lost in our learning, which in turn, negatively impacts the societal relevance. ‘Let Nature be your Teacher,’ said William Wordsworth. But much of our modern learning has taken us too far away from nature. In the course of this speech, I shall devote some time to each of these aspects.

Firstly, culture. An understanding of one’s culture, and aligning our learning to our culture, will, one can understand intuitively, enhance learning. However, our education systems, on the one hand, think learning is universal and local culture has nothing to do with it. There has been a disdain towards our learning heritage, and many of us seem to think that our education started with Macaulay. There is no need for us to seek a false sense of superiority, but to have an understanding and rootedness is essential. Being rooted to one’s culture, will give the thrust to embrace all other cultures. Of course, there will be, and has to be points of departure from certain aspects of the cultural past. But an understanding is a must for making those departures too. As a first step, I first seek to understand our culture of learning.

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Dharampal: Unravelling the Unknown India

June 2, 2017

(To be published in the Sarvodaya Talisman magazine.)

I

There are very few books that can completely challenge our beliefs, instilled by decades of modern education and colonial conditioning. The first encounter with the writings of Dharampal could do this to anyone. I definitely went through that transformative experience, when I first read The Beautiful Tree, a few years ago. It helped me understand the historical background to the disillusionment of Gandhi with the modern education system, which I share with him, and his subsequent conception of the Nai Talim system. Later, during my interactions with Ramasubramaniam of Samanvaya, who has worked closely with Dharampal during his last years, I heard a good deal about his work and his personality. Ever since, I’d been thirsting to read more of Dharampal, and was collecting and going through his books available online (primarily from the wonderful website of Arvind Gupta). That thirst has now been quenched to a fuller extent by the ‘Essential Writings of Dharampal’, compiled by his daughter, Gita Dharampal, and published by Publications Division of India (and at Rs.135, quite an appealing price).

The book covers many of the major works of Dharampal: The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteen Century (1983), Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century (1971), Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition (1971), India’s Polity, its Characteristics and Current Problems (1992), Some Aspects of Earlier Indian Society and Polity and their Relevance to the Present (1986), The Madras Panchayat (1972), Bharatiya Chitta, Manas and Kala (1991), and Reconsidering Gandhiji (1984).

[Though I set out to write a review for this book, the essay has grown to be an overall introduction to Dharampal, covering texts outside this book too.]

Dharampal1

Poring through the archives, in India and Britain, of the various written accounts of the early British administrators of India, Dharampal vividly brings to life, the eighteen century India. This pre-colonial India of Dharampal is in complete contrast with the pre-colonial India of the history books, which is entrenched in popular imagination. Not many Indians doubt the glory of ancient India, its achievements in philosophy, literature and science. But most Indians also believe that the glory belonged to a distant past, and that when the British came, they met a civilisation in shambles, waiting to be pulled out of dark ages into the modern era: a region of famines, poverty, illiteracy, infighting, sati and untouchability. The eighteenth century India was, of course, a region deeply wounded by many centuries of foreign invasions; but despite those repeated invasions, Dharampal establishes that India was a ‘functioning and relatively prosperous society’ in the eighteenth century. It was not the British who pulled India out of destitution, but it was their colonial rule that pushed India deeper into destitution and decay.

II

A distant history is not difficult to come to terms with: it can be glorified or dismissed with ease. What we did or didn’t do during the Indus Valley period, or the Vedic ages or the Sangam age, may have no immediate implications on policy making. The distance of time allows us to view those with pragmatic detachment, though strongly tinged with nostalgic euphoria. But the history of our recent past is much more crucial, and ineluctable. The awareness about the efficacy of the social and political structures that existed just before the advent of the British could have huge ramifications on our present and future policies. It is this efficacy of the Indian system that the educated Indians question. Our colonised and corporatised minds are unable to comprehend the viability of any system that has not been tried and tested in the West. As Jayaprakash Narayan, wrote in his foreword (not part of this book) to Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition,

“After the first few years of euphoria since Independence, a period of self-denigration set in during which educated Indians, particularly those educated in the West, took the lead. Whether in the name of modernisation, science or ideology, they ran down most, if not all, things Indian. We are not yet out of this period. I am not suggesting that what is wrong and evil in Indian society or history should be glossed over. But breast-beating and self- flagellation are not conducive to the development of those psychological drives that are so essential for nation-building, nor so is slavish imitation of others.”

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Seine at Govindanur

January 8, 2017

Writer Payon has been sharing many wonderful paintings of acclaimed painters on his Twitter account. I’ve been saving some of the paintings. I showed them, this week, to the children at our learning centre.

Haseen, who was upset with me till then, as I had inquired about the tussle he had with his brother and another boy on their way back from the class the previous day, was the first one to join. (“Appa, Haseen anna would become alright, if you offer to show some movie on the laptop,” my daughter had suggested.)

After going through most of the paintings, he himself chose one, (Gabriele Münter “On the Seine”, 1930) and started drawing. Sahana and Tamilselvi joined him as well and drew their own interpretations. Jumana, who had been troubling everyone with her naughtiness, lended them the crayons for colouring.

“Akka, do you have those Bangalore biscuits,” asked Jai. We had run out of them long back, and offered them other biscuits.

The learning centre took on a new hue. We started clicking some pictures. A joyous sensation gripped everyone. Unexpectedly, a celebration got staged.


Dhyanavanam – A unique experience

January 1, 2017

An entirely new experience was in store for us last week. We had gone for a training workshop, organised by Dr.Raja and Kalpana, the couple who work in Gandhigram University, and have become close family friends over the last few years. This time, the training was held outside the University campus, at Dhyana Vanam, an ashram nearby.

Dhyana Vanam is run by Father Korko Moses – a saffron-clad Jesuit Priest. He manages the ashram, spread over 6.5 acres, mostly alone and with the occasional help of priests who come for training. It has been 5 years since the area has received decent rains; the adjoining dam is dry; yet, there is a bit of greenery left. The mercy of the small showers that morning had added a glow to the green.

Father Korko lives a simple, monastic life. His bedroom offered a sight that I’ve never come across. In the room, built as a pyramidal structure, there was a cot, over 4 feet tall, and a thin mattress over it; there was a makeshift bathroom at one corner. There was nothing else in that room.

“For the first time, I am seeing a room with no material objects,” I commented.
“A few of my possessions are in the office,” he clarified.

The program started after four girls lighted a lamp, and Mahirl Malar sang a song from Thirumurai.

In the large hall, where the program was held, there were pictures of Dalai Lama, Vivekananda, Francis of Assisi, Rumi, Mahavira and other spiritual leaders. He shared with the children, an outline about each of them. There was a picture of Jesus, seated in Padmasana. He said he sees Jesus as a Siddha saint.

Father Korko considers Swami Sadhananda Giri to be his Guru, and has spent many years in Bengal, learning Yoga from him. This Catholic priest has also assumed another name – Swami Saranananda. He has written a book, Yesu Nama Japam in Bengali, and has translated it into English and Tamil.

There is a separate hall for meditation, set amidst serene surroundings. The wall facing the door, has in its middle, a picture which brings together symbols of 12 different religions. On top of it is, inscribed in bold fonts, the Tamil phrase from Thirmoolar, “There is but one religion, and one god.” In the middle of the picture, the figure of a meditating saint is seen.

Founders of all religions attained an enlightened state after deep meditation, says Father Korko.

In front of the picture, Gita, Bible and Koran, are placed open. On the book shelf in the room, several copies of these scriptures were present.

On the first day evening, the 30 children, aged between 10 and 15, quietly sat through a 1-hour session of bhakti songs, the multi-religious song of Vinoba Bhave, meditation, reading of a passage from Bible (related to the couplets from Thirukkural that we saw that day). Father Korko briefed the children about the 12 religions represented in the central picture. He told stories of Buddha.

The meditation ended with an ‘arati’ for the central picture.

We assembled again, at 6am the next morning. After a few physical exercises, we had another round of meditation and singing for an hour. This time, instead of Bible, Father Korko chose a few passages from Gita, and asked me to read aloud. Dr.Raja sang the song of peace, ‘Shanti nilva vendum.’

Later, when I cited Dharmananda Kosambi, who in his well researched and reverent work on Buddha, disputes some of the popular tales as improbable, Father Korko agreed, “Yes, they are myths. Myths are built around all prophets within a few years. These myths are useful to explain their philosophies.”

In between our training sessions, he taught the children Korean dance. They were thrilled.

When Nedya took a session on birds, the children could easily appreciate the connection between people and nature.

The task of taking classes based on Thirukkural was now simplified. In a way, it seemed redundant. When children could see righteousness and love personified by a simple man, right in front of them, what is there to express through words.

The children were split into small groups and sent into the village, to visit at least 5 houses, converse and mingle with the villagers. At some houses, dogs barked at them; at a couple of houses, people did the barking; but largely, people were friendly, invited them inside and offered them something to eat. Though the drought has robbed them of all revenues and jobs, there is moisture left in their hearts.

There is nobody willing or trained, yet, to take over the Dhyana Vanam from Father Korko, and, though he is not someone to be too fussed about future, his longing for a potential successor can be sensed. He feels that this place will be more ideal for seekers than devotees. Though there is no organisational resistance to his work, there doesn’t seem to be any great support either. He travels abroad every year to conduct meditation sessions, and also conducts retreats at the ashram. He raises sufficient funds for running the ashram through these activities. He also holds alcohol de-addiction camps.

He wanted to learn the song on Shiva (Oli valar vilakke) that Mahirl had sung. He asked her to sing again, and recorded it, and noted down the lyrics. He opined that the raga of the song must be Ananda Bhairavi. We didn’t know for sure, who the author was (Thirumaaligaithevar). He took us to his library. The library had the entire collection of Thirumurai in over 20 volumes. He also had the complete collection of Max Muller’s works on Eastern sacred texts. Having left for Bengal at the age of 18, and having spent 38 years of his life there, he felt that he couldn’t gain sufficient exposure to Tamil works.

At the end of the two days, during the feedback session, one young girl mentioned, “I asked the Father if Hindus can read Bible. He said yes. I liked it very much.”

That openness and appreciation for other thoughts is one of the key insights the children would have gained in those two days.


Subsidizing the digital rich

December 11, 2016

Will all those who crib about subsidies for the poor, now rally against the various digital subsidies for the rich?

It is requiring careful observation to distinguish between ads by the government and the corporates. Both appeal to our patriotism and the need to go cashless. And use the same Model.

I am beginning to believe that some credit card product manager is running this country. This is exactly how we used to sell credit cards – service charge waiver, additional insurance, etc. What next – Reward points? Cashback? Balance transfer? Modi-autographed mugs?


Language of War

December 11, 2016

Svetlana Alexievich writes in her book, Chernobyl Prayer, ‘Reports on Chernobyl in the newspapers are thick with the language of war: ‘nuclear’, ‘explosion’, ‘heroes’. And this makes it harder to appreciate that we now find ourselves on a new page of history. The history of disasters has begun.’

Going through all our posts and media reports, it is obvious that we have also slipped into the language of war. Surgical strike, carpet bombing, collateral damage, death, jawans, anti-national, rationing. And the history of surveillance has begun.