Life is a progression of circumstances and situations, some of which we are prepared for and others we aren’t. The objective of education is to provide enough knowledge so that we are prepared for most if not all situations. At the very least, the process of education would like to ensure that one has developed the necessary mental faculties to address problems of all types. However, in the digital age, we often consider information as knowledge and a form of power. Data, information, and knowledge are three distinctive things. While they are finely interrelated, they aren’t the same. Education’s objective – therefore – is also to ensure that people understand their distinctiveness. However, the education that is heralded as the savior of mankind often fails to provide this perspective.
Data is raw unorganized facts. When the data is processed, organized and structured it becomes information. Knowledge does not only imply understanding the difference between data and information, but also its applicability and shortcomings. Knowledge can be experiential or theoretical, direct or indirect, through education, experience and even both.
Books provide us with data and information. However, it becomes knowledge only when someone understands and assimilates it. If you are literate, it’s possible for you to read all the books in the world without ever understanding them. Data and information provided in books become ‘knowledge’ only when an individual grasp it in a way as to find its application in day to day life. “Bookish knowledge” is verily data or information, untested by personal experience.
Here is an ancient Vedic folklore that puts thing in perspective. A pompous scholar who had significant information about Vedic texts including Vedas, Upanishads and the like was travelling across a river on a boat. To spend time he decided to have a conversation with a fellow traveller. “Have you read Vedas?” he asked. The traveller replied “I have heard about them but never found time to read them.” “Is that so? Then your 25% of life is wasted!” declared the scholar before firing another question. “Have you read Upanishads?” “No” said the traveller. “Then another 25% of your life is wasted!” declared the scholar. Soon the boatman shouted “There’s a crack in the hull and the boat will be sinking soon!” “Do you know how to swim?” asked the traveller to the scholar. “I was so immersed in the knowledge of the Vedic texts that I never found time to learn swimming.” “Then your entire life is now going to be wasted.” came the curt answer from the traveller.
According to Rishis (Vedic sages) knowledge to be called so must have practical application. Without practical application, it’s verily pseudo-knowledge or information at best. The internet has become a jumble of data and information with statistics, personal anecdotes, opinions, and facts, which lack context, citations, and disclaimers. Most “facts “are not substantiated by experience, time or context to become known. Unless one can find the utility of facts through some application, they do not become known. What follows from knowledge is wisdom. Wisdom is then the ability one gets through knowledge. Wisdom enables one to see things in data and information, i.e., possibilities and drawbacks that most people can’t.
Currently, education is a process that hinges upon getting into a good institution, gaining a lot of information and data and then regurgitating the same on answer sheets. While the original thought is valued, it is mostly only found in the higher realms of postgraduate and doctoral degrees. For the most part, education is a means of gaining a skill set to attain livelihood, which relies on learning and memory.
The Vedic sages had a different perspective on education. In the Vedic age, education happened to be a three step process. This consisted of Shravan or learning, Manan or memorizing without manipulation and Nidhidyasan or continuously assessment of memorized data and information through application, experience and retrospection.
Today mantras are considered by many to be a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation, as a Vedic hymn or even a statement or a slogan repeated frequently. Mantras during the Vedic era were a system by which realized knowledge was turned into a hymn for students to memorize easily. Students would then reflect on the mantras and then develop their understanding. This was at all levels of education. The thinking process was inculcated from the beginning. We must remember that it was a time when printing technology had not even been conceived, so books were in scarcity. Hymn (which were essentially poems) were easier to memorize as well as recollect.
Vedic seers believed that unless acquired information wasn’t stored without distortion or personal bias, true understanding or knowledge wasn’t possible. Therefore, students were made to memorize the mantra (hymns) before they were given their true meaning. This was by far a better way to transfer knowledge from Shikshak (teacher), Acharya (professor) or Guru (Mentor) to Shishya (student). The Guru-Shishya parampara (tradition), which was the basis of education, was essentially in place not only because in absence of printing technology books weren’t available easily, but also because books on their own cannot explain fine nuances and can be open to misinterpretation without relevant context. So a shishya (student) would have to seek refuge in a shikshak, acharya or guru to learn anything that he may so desire.
Vedic shikshak-shishya parampara (tradition) was also extended to trades like carpentry, smithy, stone carving, and martial arts along with spiritual knowledge.
During the Vedic era, there were no real expectations from a student. The student did not pay hefty donations. Admissions to a shikshalaya (school), Vishwa Vidyalaya (university) or gurukul (guru’s family) were possible only through humility and merit. The student wouldn’t then have to do menial works at the guru’s home as a “seva” or service. And once the education was over “gurudakshina” or gifts to Guru were something shishyas would give in lieu for the skills they learned from the guru. Gurudakshina was given as the way of showing gratitude and ensuring that Guru was provided for so that the tradition of education would continue. It was not mandatory, the Dakshina given to the Guru was from the student’s own efforts based on the skills he had acquired while under the Guru. It was not a parental or ancestral wealth that was given.
For most, the Guru was considered dearer than ones parents. In Gurupaduka Stotra, Adi Shankaracharya says “Life without guru is a sham… even if you’ve everything in the world without having the pleasure of touching the guru’s feet the bliss is seldom achieved.” But it’s important to note here that the guru (mentor) isn’t same as Shikshak or Acharya. While Shikshak or Acharya could also be a Guru; but it wasn’t possible until the material expectation of receiving something from the student was completely removed. The student was not a means of earning wealth for the Guru. Gurus were realised beings, quite capable of taking care of themselves in all spheres of life.
The skill of Nidhidhyasan, the most crucial element of the education process, was something Shishyas practiced even after they became gurus to other shishyas. Nidhidhyasan, or continuous contemplation of all attained data and information, was a lifelong process. Gurus of the Vedic era were clear, that facts were not eternal truths. Facts change with time and context. What is a fact today may not be a fact tomorrow? Therefore relevance of facts has to be tested from time to time. If they fail the test shishyas were advised to let go of such data and information. Relevance was eternal, as well as supreme. This was also considered as the foundation of wisdom.
Although Gurus were revered everything that was learned from them was eternally put to test and worked upon. The knowledge were improved upon with experience and then passed on to the next generation or if it was considered irrelevant it was simply let go after serious contemplation. The hallmark of Vedic wisdom was neither blind belief nor blind reverence.
To conclude let me recollect another interesting tale from the Vedic folklore: Yogeshwara (grandmaster of yoga) Shiva was once teaching his students about spirituality, meditation, and morality. After the end of the course, Shiva decided to test his disciples. He asked them to do something that was completely unethical, unjust as well as immoral. The students were in a complete dilemma for they believed in following their guru blindly (although Shiva himself never taught that). Not knowing what to do – most hung their heads. But one of the students grabbed Shiva’s own ax and attacked the Yogeshwara by hitting him hard on the head. The others were flabbergasted. Shiva, however, was delighted. He hugged his young disciple.”You are my ideal student. You resisted immorality by not bothering about the cost, emotions as well as consequences.” Shiva then gave the young man his ax as a mark of appreciation. The injury is said to have left a scar on Shiva’s face owing to which Shiva also got a nickname “Khanda Parashu” – the one hit by an ax. The young man came to be known as “Parashurama” – the one with the ax. Moral: No guru is above morality, law, justice or his teaching (Dharma).