Under The Silent Tree
I spent a considerable part of my morning glancing nervously and repeatedly at this sight.
As the reader may be able to tell from the officious looking (quite unreadable) posters on the MDF paneled walls, I was at a bank. I grew up in Bombay, I am street smart, I am fiercely independent, I drive a car, I consider myself to be a woman of the world… I am terrified of banks. As I sat nervously waiting for the scowling, stern looking woman behind the counter to call me for my turn, a young lady, in a bright yellow saree approached me. She needed help in filling up a form in English.
So clearly my bancophobia (such a word exists) is not apparent on my face. I filled her form for her and checked it twice and then once again to make sure that I had filled it in correctly. As I looked around me, it dawned upon me that this was the greatest equalizer. Sitting in a bank, next to a multitude of people, several of who were illiterate and feeling as inadequate, as lost, as small as any of them, while the machinations of cash, credit and debit flowed all around us. My city bred manners, my erudite English, my fancy education fail me in a bank and I am as unequipped as the young lady who could not write in English… no wait, she is not the one unequipped… she had the courage to walk into this formidable building, find the next lady who looked like she could write English, speak to her in a language that they did not share, get her form filled up, withdraw her cash and leave.
As I watched bright-yellow-saree leave, I thought about my school education and the epic failure that it was. I went to a very simple, nondescript, girl’s-only school in Bombay. A parade of eccentric women taught us from textbooks, locked up in classrooms, occasionally glancing up to quickly reprimand us if our attentions wandered away. Conformity was valued almost as much as was a good handwriting. We learnt the tables by mindless repetition, we walked, never ran; we marched but never climbed a tree; we learnt to knit, sew and cook but never discussed current affairs or politics; we learnt to copy what was drawn on the blackboard, but never learnt to see the leaves on a tree. We learnt in excruciating detail the exploits of Shivaji Bhonsle (I can probably tell you what he ate for breakfast) and several other prominent men; while stories of women who changed the course of history were reduced to a few cursory paragraphs squeezed in as an afterthought.
Asking far too many questions was frowned upon and the only evidence of intelligence was good marks. A good memory and the capacity to recall and write (neatly) on reams of paper was enough to score well and find a seat in a decent junior college, with fewer windows and even more soulless ghouls dishing out ‘knowledge’ by repetition. With a background in schooling like this, it is not surprising at all that I have been an excellent student, scoring very high marks; but today, I recall nothing of what I learnt, and nothing that I was taught prepared me in any way to face life or even myself. The question of what is the right education is doubly important to me, I have a young child who has a joyful, curious mind… and I teach.
So reading Jiddu Krishnamurti and Rabindranath Tagore has been one of many tremendous beginnings. It is intimidating to attempt this paper, given the very short time that I have spent immersing myself in their writings, but I see this as only a beginning and that must do for now for courage.
What drew me immediately to Krishnamurti’s writing is his total and unequivocal rejection of all authority and the sense of urgency with which he asks us to question everything, examine our self-image, abandon all our prejudices and follow no one. I resonate with the thought that learning is dynamic, never static. He says, “if you are learning all the time, learning every minute, learning by watching and listening, learning by seeing and doing, then you will find that learning is a constant movement without the past.” (1)
He places utmost importance on the awareness and the understanding of the self, the self as what is and not what it could be; and in his schools, the emphasis is on teachers and students both learning together, learning about totality and the wholeness of life. “Academic excellence is absolutely necessary, but a school includes much more than that. It is a place where both the teacher and the taught explore not only the outer world, the world of knowledge, but also their own thinking, their own behaviour.” (2)
How powerful is this idea?! I have had several challenging jobs, but if there has ever been an expansion of the mind, a movement towards wholeness of intellect and spirit, coupled with a quiet sense of rootedness, it has only been when I have been a teacher. And this has largely been because of the young people that I have had the privilege to listen and learn with. I have said this many times, so much of teaching is listening, so much of learning is listening. It is not standing at the head of a class and performing to a rapt audience who is furiously taking notes, it is in fact giving time and attention to someone while he or she is trying to work things out for themselves, with just that careful gentle nudge or push towards newer thoughts and directions. Krishnamurti considers the relentless accumulation of second hand knowledge to be an escape, an escape from our inadequacies and insecurities that leads to eventual misery. Mainstream education promises the false security of highly paying jobs, glittering careers and all the razzle-dazzle of ‘success’ as it is deemed today, but does nothing towards creating an empathetic and compassionate human being, who is in harmony with herself, the other, nature and the world at large.
I find so many similar strains in Rabindranath Tagore’s thoughts on what education should be. He says, “the highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence. But we find that this education of sympathy is not only systematically ignored in schools, but it is severely repressed. From our very childhood habits are formed and knowledge is imparted in such a manner that our life is weaned away from nature and our mind and the world are set in opposition from the beginning of our days.” (3) Much like Krishnamurti, at the core of Tagore’s theory is the importance of the complete and harmonious development of the individual. He encouraged his students to be fearless, self critical, full of inquiry, rooted in the culture and traditions of everything Indian, yet looking outward towards the world. Tagore recognised the importance of harmony and beauty in the surroundings where learning takes place so that the education imparted could be suffused with the spirit of joy, creativity and celebration.
Tagore talks about the power of education that is ‘one with life’, that which brings with it real freedom… and resonating with Krishnamurti, freedom from prejudice and passion. Tagore believed in absolute freedom for the student, intellectual freedom, freedom of action, to make decisions, to worship and make choices, but this freedom came with the responsibility that the student must practice a temperament that is of equanimity, balance and harmony.
“Freedom is entirely different from revolt. There is no such thing as doing right or wrong when there is freedom”, (4) says Krishnamurti. The freedom that Krishnamurti talks about, in essence may well be the same as that which Tagore talks about, but I find one to sound like the gentle patter of rain, clothed in poetry and mysticism, while the other is like a hailstorm of rational thinking, logic and relentless questioning! True freedom that exists in the present, with no burdens from the past, a freedom not just of the dictates of authority from without, but freedom that comes from rejecting the authority that has been sculpted within us through years of conditioning, following like sheep, our rigid opinions, the useless information that we have amassed, our borrowed ideals… now that freedom must lead to a mind that is truly seeking… yet ever still and silent.
I have a 7 year old, who for reasons I have no control over, goes to a mainstream school. She finds that her two most important worlds; school and home; often collide and do not collude. In all my earnestness to listen to her, for her to discover who she is at her core, for herself, I often ask her, in response to a question directed at me, what she thinks about the question, what she thinks the answer could be. Sometimes I am met with a lazy, you-tell-me-what-to-think response, and at other times, I see a child struggling to make sense from within, from her lived experiences… but always the response is held up to me for validation, for a green tick mark.
Most mainstream schools teach the same thing over and over, with scant regard to the ambiguous greys of life, they clearly separate the right answers from the wrong. Individuality is not nurtured or even paid any regard to, imaginative thought or a child’s individual nature is contorted to fit into the narrow frameworks of conventions and the blind acceptance of popular ideology. The self is lost in this noise of conformity. It worries me that obedience can win one a golden star. It worries me when during the PTM’s I watch and listen to anxious parents focus on what their children are not, rather than what their children are. Tagore too speaks of an unempathetic system of education that does not permit a child her childishness. He says, “children are punished because they fail to behave like grown-up people and have the impertinence to be noisily childish.” (5)
Teachers demand of children attentiveness and the rigid concentration of mind, not acknowledging the many ways in which children learn. Tagore says children learn best by the dispersion of mind, through stumbling upon surprises and new facts. I couldn’t agree more. We could learn a lesson or two from children. The younger ones are so much more in tune with their inner beings, more self aware, they feel emotions so much more viscerally and are emphatic and clear in their choices, they dance to their own tune. We are not listening.
We shake our children empty of the playful, rich worlds that they bring with them, and fill in its place, stuff and nonsense. We empty them of their innate sense of wonderment, awareness or oblivion (they may be one and the same) and fill it with the senseless data of a world that is of little concern to life, nature, feeling or living.
“We have to find out what it means never to conform and what it means to live without fear. This is your life, and nobody is going to teach you, no book, no guru. You have to learn from yourself, not from books. There is a great deal to learn about yourself.” (6) Krishnamurti extols us to discover anew our own place in this vast mystery called life and living. Both Tagore and Krishnamurti talk about the spiritual evolution of the self, Krishnamurti advocates doubt and questioning the status quo as a method for spiritual enquiry, while Tagore speaks of the education of feeling, Bodhersadhana, which he distinguishes from the education of the senses and the intellect. He speaks of a spiritual evolution that leads to oneness with the omnipotent, universal spirit… the One. “In everyday life our personality moves in a narrow circle of immediate self- interest. And therefore our feelings and events, within that short range, become prominent subjects for ourselves. In their vehement self- assertion they ignore their unity with the All.” (7) Tagore talks about a mystical sense of unity that abides within each of us, that is ever moving from its finiteness toward a divine infinity, a coming together of fragments to make a whole. The awareness of the self or the Oneness within us extends itself, growing through love and empathy towards nature, to the nation, to the world and its people. The creative expression of art, music, dance and poetry; the living closely and in harmony with nature; celebrating the coming of seasons were the perfect vehicle for revealing this inherent unity with its underlying principle of eternal joy and love. Tagore says, “in our everyday world we live in poverty; our resources have to be husbanded with care; our strength becomes exhausted and we come to our God as beggars. On festival days, we display our wealth and say to Him that we are even as He is; and we are not afraid to spend. This is the day when we bring to Him our gift of joy. For we truly meet God, when we come to him, with our offerings and not our wants, and such offerings need Art for its vehicle.” (8)
I find this to be one of the fundamental differences between Tagore and Krishnamurti, while Tagore bases the finding of oneself, or one’s core through the creation of music, song, art and dance, a filling of the cup with creativity and celebration; Krishnamurti bases it on an emptying of existing notions, thoughts, fears, prejudices to finding a state of silence and a living stillness. And from this quiet, still and living space, one may find order, one can begin to be attentive and aware.
Both Tagore and Krishnamurti speak with the deepest love and regard for nature. Both readily acknowledge the tremendous teacher that nature is. Krishnamurti talks about the disconnect that we seem to have with all things living and of the discordance that this brings to our lives. He exhorts us to try and establish a deep and enduring relationship with nature, he speaks of a healing that takes place when we are with nature. He says, “Education is not just to pass examinations, take a degree and a job, get married and settle down, but also to be able to listen to the birds, to see the sky, to see the extraordinary beauty of a tree, and the shape of the hills, and to feel with them, to be really, directly in touch with them.” (9) It is only when we are connected to nature and are able to have a conversation, in a silent rhapsody, with the breeze that rustles a tree, or a worm that wriggles underfoot, that we can begin to have a relationship with humanity. While speaking of a tree, he says “if you establish a relationship with it, then you have relationship with mankind. You are responsible for that tree and for all the trees of the world. But if you have no relationship with the living things on this earth, you may lose whatever relationship you have with humanity, with human beings.” (10)
In perfect consonance with this, Tagore speaks of the importance of nature that far surpasses any teaching that takes place in a class. In his school, learning was woven around nature with classes held in the open air and under trees. Children went on nature walks and were encouraged to follow the life cycles of plants, animals and insects. Nature’s intrusion into a lesson with a sudden shower or the burst of birdsong were welcomed and the children would often run away to climb a tree or dance in the rain. He says, “To alienate our sympathy from the world of birds and trees is a barbarity which is not allowed in my institution.” (11)
I walk by a little school everyday on my way to work. Often I stand by the walls and let the voices of the little ones wash over me. And every single time, I am reminded of the position of privilege that I occupy, that my daughter occupies. The little ones spend most of their day in school, stuck behind crowded wooden benches, repeating with all the power in their little lungs, what the teacher reads out from a book or writes on the blackboard. I am also reminded of the countless children who only come to school so that they may have at least one decent meal to eat. Everything I read about what education should be, what true learning is, then just melts away into grandiose notions conceived by men of leisure and means.
I don’t have answers. Its like climbing one of Escher’s staircases which go up and down, yet nowhere in a continuous loop. Yet, I do understand and know that true learning may only happen when there is free will and the desire to learn. And this learning is not bound by time, space or a teacher. As an educator I must be empty of my prejudices, I must listen and I must wait. Rather than make a fish fly, or much worse, attempt to cast my students in my own mould, I must recognise the individual, recognise the journeys that they have made and the ones that they are yet to make.
And in this journey of learning together, I must, along with my student, hope to be as compassionate, as curious and as interested as I would like them to be. And the only constant would be the continuous expansion of my self by learning. Always learning.
(1) Krishnamurti, J. Freedom from the Known. New York: Harper & Row, 1969. Print.
(2) “What is a ‘Krishnamurti School’? — Krishnamurti and Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Nov.2016.
(3) Singh, Ravi, and Sohan Singh Rawat. “Rabindranath Tagore’s Contribution In Education.” VSRD Internation Journal of Technical & Non — Technical Research IV.VIII (2103) : 201–08. Web. 5 Nov. 2016
(4) Krishnamurti, J. Freedom from the Known. New York: Harper & Row, 1969. Print.
(5) Tagore, Rabindranath, and Mohit Kumar Ray. The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore. New Delhi: Atlantic & Distributors, 2007. Print.
(6) Krishnamurti for Beginners: An Anthology. Madras, India: Krishnamurti Foundation India, 1995. Print
(7) Tagore, Rabindranath. Creative Unity. New York: Macmillan, 1922. Print
(8) Tagore, Rabindranath, and Mohit Kumar Ray. The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore. New Delhi: Atlantic & Distributors, 2007. Print.
(9) Krishnamurti, J. Krishnamurti on Education. London: Krishnamurti Foundation, 1974. Print
(10)Krishnamurti for Beginners: An Anthology. Madras, India: Krishnamurti Foundation India, 1995. Print
(11)“Rabindranath Tagore on Education.” Infedorg. N.p., 2014. Web. 05 Nov.2016