Eternal Education

Swami Vibhooti Saraswati

“Contemporary methods of education allow parents to give all the necessary comforts of life to their child, but what they get in return is, at best, a degree holder and egoist, a beautifully polished but undisciplined animal!”

Let me begin with a short story in relation to the above quotation by Paramahamsa Satyananda. Once the chief of a man-eating tribe in Africa won a scholarship to Oxford. During his time there he made friends with an Englishman. When his studies were finished, he invited his friend to visit him in Africa. Some time later the Englishman arrived in Africa and with some difficulty found his way to the friend's village. After settling into his room and bathing, he was invited to eat. Not having tasted anything quite like it before, he turned to his friend, the chief, and asked what it was. 'This', the chief replied, with a broad grin and a deep sense of pride, 'is the son of the chief we defeated in battle three days ago.' The Englishman was horrified. He jumped up, spitting out the food, and screamed at the chief. 'How can you do such a thing? Didn't you learn anything from your education at Oxford?' 'Of course I did,' replied the chief. 'Now I eat my rivals with a knife and fork!'

Aim and foundation of education

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati makes the following comment regarding education today: “Our education is job-oriented, not self-oriented, so it cannot make us aware of our deeper qualities and teach us how to use them. From the time of our birth we are programmed in a way which leads to a neurotic state.” Education is not merely an intellectual process for filling the head full of facts and conditioning the personality so it can perform in such a way as to live up to the expectations of others. It is not the programming of the superficial aspect of the individual so he can fit into a pattern or a box according to the acceptable norms of society. Education has to take place on all levels simultaneously – physical, vital, mental, psychic and spiritual. In other words, we have to consider the individual as a whole. And for this we need to give the child, from an early age, a sound philosophy of life.

What is the aim of life? Why have we come? What is the purpose of this process we all go through? We are not here only to pass exams, get a job and collect as many material possessions as we can. No, right from the beginning, the ultimate aim of life should be clear in the child's mind – discovering the inner spirit, revealing the hidden mystery within – the eternal man. Only then can he have a strong foundation and guideline for life as it unfolds spontaneously. Only then will he be able to truly live life, to flow from moment to moment with awareness.

Learning from life

For the yogic-minded, for those who have a broad vision and deeper understanding, the whole of life is a school, a university, a play-school. Each and every moment has a hidden wisdom to reveal, and to learn from life, from experience, we must keep the mind and heart open and alert all the time. And learning is not just for this life alone. It goes on life after life. In the next life we start from where we left off in our last birth.

Once a Sufi master was asked who his greatest teacher had been on the path of life. He replied that it had been a stray dog. The disciple was shocked and asked him to explain. The Sufi master thereupon related how he had been meditating by a river, when one day he could progress no further. As he sat contemplating this, a dog came by and, feeling thirsty, approached the river. However, seeing another dog already in the water it backed away and began to bark. The dog in the water barked back in the same way and finally the dog retreated. Many times it tried approaching the water and each time it was defeated. Finally, the dog became so thirsty that it took a running jump and plunged into the water, shattering its own reflection. On seeing this, the Sufi was suddenly able to understand that his own ego, his own projection of himself which was blocking his path, had to be faced and shattered. With this realization he was able to dive deep into meditation again and overcame the barrier which was standing between him and his own Self.

Evolutionary education

According to Swami Sivananda there are three aspects of the personality which need to be dealt with together in order for balanced growth and evolution of the whole personality – the head, the heart and the hand – symbolizing man's intellectual, emotional and practical nature. He says: “All must be trained by scientific, artistic and practical education – body, mind, psyche, intellect, emotions, spirit – all must develop together harmoniously. The inner man must be educated; only then will evolution be quick.”

Children must be taught how to handle all of life's circumstances, how to adapt and adjust to the environment and interact with all personality types. We must ensure that they have self-acceptance and understanding, strong characters and a strong will, but at the same time, they should have the ability to understand the needs and minds of others. Balanced, all-round personalities are preferable to neurotic geniuses. Above all, their higher faculties should be developed and they should be independent members of society, able to stand on their own two feet. So, along with intellectual knowledge, spiritual or yogic discipline should be imparted.

Education in the womb

Education covers the whole span of life and commences in the womb. It is said in yoga that the soul enters the foetus in the fourth month of pregnancy, and from about the fifth month, after it adjusts to its new home, it begins to imbibe from its environment. The formation of the child's personality begins here. According to Paramahamsa Satyananda: “You can train the child when he is in the womb rather than trying to change and brainwash him later on. Life in the womb is very powerful because you can change the entire structure of the DNA molecules.”

So, according to the lifestyle and ideals of the parents, the child comes into the world with maximum or minimum potential. Paramahamsa Satyananda has said that 95% of influence comes from the mother, so she has a tremendous impact on the initial education of the child and the formation of correct samskaras or impressions. If she practises yoga, chants mantra, has high ideals, positive thinking and a relaxed, balanced mind during the time of pregnancy, then that will definitely be seen in the quality of child she produces. If, when the child is in her womb, she visits an ashram and attends satsang with her guru, the child will most likely be born with spiritual and sattwic qualities. The child can even be born with an awakened or partially awakened kundalini if the parents are sincere yoga practitioners. However, if the mother is nervous, tense, a smoker and drinker, who watches violent movies on TV, the child will most likely be born with negative qualities.

Yoga for pineal health

By the age of seven the basic nature or prakriti of the child has been formed. It has already been decided whether he will be tamasic, rajasic or sattwic, good and virtuous or criminal and wayward. Paramahamsa Satyananda says: “Inner spiritual education received in the form of samskaras is completed by the seventh year. This is the conclusion of modern psychology and also of the Dharma Shastras, the Vedas.” Seven is also the age when the pineal gland begins to decay, and with that the major control on the functioning of the pituitary gland is unlocked. The sex hormones are then released into the blood stream and can lead to aggressive sexual behaviour. However, if this pineal gland can be kept healthy, sexual consciousness is delayed until the child has developed the mental and emotional stability to cope with the powerful hormonal drives.

In ancient times the rishis or seers gave a child three yogic practices to keep the pineal gland healthy and to ensure balanced growth and development. These practices, namely nadi shodhana pranayama, surya namaskara and Gayatri mantra, were taught at the age of eight.

Gurukul education

In the days of the rishis, once the child had been nurtured physically by its parents, and the first awakening of consciousness took place at the age of seven or eight, he was sent to the ashram of the guru for mental and spiritual nurture. The guru then became the dearest and most trusted friend and guide for walking the path of life towards its ultimate goal – discovery of the eternal spirit within. This entry into the home of the preceptor was a kind of rebirth on the spiritual dimension and took place before the sacred fire. At this time the child was given a new name according to his essential inner nature, and not according to his social identity. Then his scientific, moral and spiritual training began.

The method of teaching was the mnemonic technique of the oral tradition and covered a wide range of subjects: maths, literature, grammar, phonetics, etymology, prosody, demonology, divination, archery and other martial arts. Swami Sivananda writes: “In the days of the rishis every student in the gurukul had knowledge of pranayama, mantra, asana and the moral codes. All possessed humility, self-control, obedience, the spirit of service, self-sacrifice and the desire for higher truth.” Where do we find these things in our education system today? What has gone wrong with our society, with our culture today? How can we rectify the situation? Perhaps the answer lies in the impeccable, scientific and all-encompassing system of the ancient sages and their profound wisdom. Perhaps we should think seriously about reintroducing this gurukul system. Swami Niranjanananda even goes so far as to say: “An academic institution should only be run in an ashram environment, and all the schools, colleges and universities must become ashrams, so that the social, practical, moral and spiritual values can be imbibed in one go!”

Education in self-discipline

A very important aspect of education which is practically non-existent today is discipline. Self-control, self-awareness, self-understanding and self-discipline were inculcated at a very early age in the ashrams of the rishis. Life was very strict and spartan, even for the sons of kings, who were treated just the same as the poorer children. There were only two meals daily and nothing in between. The children were trained to be physically and mentally strong, able to bear all the vicissitudes and hardships of life with ease. They slept on mats of kusha grass on the ground and performed all kinds of work, collecting and chopping wood, tending the cows, carrying water etc. When they bathed they did not dry themselves, even in winter. As a result of this comprehensive education of the whole child, society received balanced, capable, responsible citizens who saw it as their main duty to give back to family and society as much as they could for the common good as well as for their own individual growth in accordance with dharma.

Guru and transmission of wisdom

The most important and unique aspect of the gurukul teaching under the rishis was that the student experienced the teacher as a transmitter of higher knowledge or wisdom. The guru was able to impart his wisdom psychically without the use of words; knowledge which by-passed and was beyond intellect. In the words of Paramahamsa Satyananda: “A highly charged energy spark enters one of the psychic centres in the brain – the consciousness then expands inwardly enabling the student to imbibe.”

For this transmission to take place there should be a bond of love, trust and respect between teacher and student. In ancient days this guru-disciple relationship was the highest ideal for the seeker of deeper knowledge, the one searching for hidden truth, and led to true wisdom as opposed to the mere intellectual knowledge imparted today. So, the guru was a very special and powerful link in forming the personality and destiny of the child and leading him in the way of dharma.

According to Swami Sivananda: “Education makes or mars civilization. Universities are the real custodians of the character, culture and civilization of a nation. Universities should not be mere cramming institutions. They must be sanctuaries of light and wisdom.” This was the case in the times of great enlightened sages like Kanva, Vasishtha and Vishwamitra. Their ashrams were highly respected centres of learning which kept alive the fires of both scientific and spiritual thought. The sages were the actual custodians of the land, not the kings who they advised.

Zen education

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868–1912), once received a university professor who came to enquire about Zen. Nan-in was a master of the tea ceremony. He served tea, filling his visitor's cup, and then went on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself and burst out, 'What are you doing? The cup is full; no more will go in!' 'Like this cup,' replied Nan-in, 'you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?'