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Gandhi's Critique Of Education

Paper being presented at Seminar on ‘Fresh Look at Hind Swaraj’ Being organized by the Gandhian institute of Studies; Varanasi, from April 20 to 22, 1982.

One of the greatest tragedies of modern India is that we have completely misunderstood the true meaning of the word ‘swaraj’ as used by Gandhi. He stated very clearly that “Real home-rule is self-rule or self-control.” In other words, our freedom lies not in merely liberating ourselves from foreign rule but from the rule of the passions. This basic fact has been overlooked by us, with the result that India after independence has been totally different from the India of Gandhi’s dreams.

But Gandhi was wise enough and shrewd enough to anticipate this development. “I know that India is not ripe for it“, he admitted as early as 1921 in his Word of Explanation to Hind Swaraj, and added that while he was working in his individual capacity for swaraj as defined in terms of self–rule, his ‘corporate activity’ was “devoted to the attainment of Parliamentary Swaraj in accordance with the wishes of the people of India”.

But times are changing fast. From many different corners of the world, there are indications that the human race is, at long last, getting ready to listen to the true (rather than purely political) meaning of the word swaraj. As Marilyn Ferguson has explained at length in her wonderful book, “The Aquarian Conspiracy”, a “leaderless but powerful network” whose “members have broken with certain key elements of Western Thought” is at work to bring about a major but silent revolution of a staggering nature, and with profound consequences for all of mankind. Unfortunately, India has so far lagged behind in this awakening, but this seminar itself may be an indication that a re-appraisal of Gandhi‘s true message could perhaps be round the corner.

Nothing of what Gandhi has said in ‘Hind Swaraj’ can really be understood properly—in fact, the whole thesis is liable to be distorted dangerously unless the true meaning of ‘Swaraj’ is taken into account. This applies to his denunciation of modern gadgets and technology such as the railways, to his warning against lawyers and doctors, to his condemnation of western civilization, to his advocacy of nonviolence. But most important of all, it applies to his views of education. To most of us, educated as we are along the western pattern, his declaration that education of this kind is simply “no use” may seem shocking, but that is because our ‘modern’ education has blinded us to certain important facts. So, as a first step, let us take a brief look at that basis of the education that we have received.

The basis of modern education is traceable to the philosophy of Rene Descartes (1596-1650), who made a strict partition between mind and matter, treating them as totally independent compartments. This partition enabled him to come up with the reductionist approach to questions—what these days is called the ‘analytical faculty’—and it is this faculty that forms the basis of all education today. This Cartesian partition turned out to be a wonderful method for studying the behaviour of matter, and starting with Newton (who based his work on the philosophy of Descartes) we made startling discoveries and much progress in this direction. As Descartes himself predicted, his method seemed to give us the key to man becoming “the master and possessor of the Nature”. So effective was his method, and so intoxicating its success, that his reductionist approach is practically identified these days with education itself, and rules the roost in all disciplines both in the physical and social science.

There is one single word with which the revolution that Descartes, and later Newton, brought about is identified: think. It is word that is considered sacred in modern education, and undoubtedly the thinking capacity of man has increased by leaps and bounds over the last 400 years. But if we reflect carefully, we will realize that we are taught to think primarily about things, very rarely about the thinking process itself. In physics we are taught to think about sub-atomic particles of incomprehensibly small sizes and speeds incomprehensibly large, but what makes us comprehend such incomprehensible things—that delicate link between mind and matter—is hardly touched upon. In the medical sciences we are taught to think about things such as muscles and nerves, organs and skin but the wonderful faculty that gives life to these, the consciousness that distinguishes the live body from the dead, is considered ‘out of bound’ to science. Even in psychology, supposedly the science of the mind, we try to analyze the other’s mind, not our own, and the fact is we can never understand the functioning of anyone’s mind until and unless we understand our own.

So modern education teaches us to think about everything but the thinking process itself. We thus remain ignorant of our own inner selves, especially of how much of a slave we are to selfish motives, to passions, to the meanest of inner drives. We perform what we are convinced are good acts, unaware that at the bottom of our motivation is a desire for reward, for recognition, for honour, for a ‘good return’ on ‘investment’ made in the form of a temporary sacrifice. So, instead of serving others through these good acts, we end up serving our own ego. And bad acts are performed in abundance, for the simple reason that we do not recognize them to be bad—our education has provided us no facility for such recognition. Herein lies the key to understanding one of the greatest problems of our age: the yawning gap between the preaching and practice of our ideals. ‘Thinking’ at an abstract level has enabled us to identify ideals such as equality, liberty, fraternity, etc. as being desirable, but because this thinking is rooted in things outside of us, we look upon others rather than ourselves as responsible for putting them into practice. When we ourselves deviate from these ideals, we are hardly even aware, for we are totally unaware of how our mind has deceived us into these violations.

In order to really put those ideals into practice, a necessary but not sufficient condition is to learn to think about our own thinking, the operation of our inner self. This enables us to recognize how far we are removed from the ideals that we subscribe to in theory. Then comes the next, and critical step: to learn to control our own thinking. Only one who is a master of one’s own thoughts, rather than a slave to them, can truly practice any ideal. Mastery over one’s thoughts results in subduing one’s passions and ushers in the ‘self–rule’ that Gandhi was referring to when he talked of ‘swaraj’. Education required for such mastery is very different from that which emanated with Descartes’ philosophy, and leads in the direction of becoming ‘master and possessor of one’s own Nature’ rather than merely control over the material bodies and forces around us.

Fortunately for us, such an education process does not have to be invented, but merely rediscovered. It formed the fountainhead of the teachings of the saints and sages of all religions, and is the quintessence of Indian thought. In the golden ages of the past, it may not have been by Indians at large, but it certainly was available to the genuine seeker. That is why Gandhi insisted that “the civilization India has evolved into is not to be beaten in the world”.  He was not referring here to institutions such as the caste system, but to the education processes by which a human being (and hence society) could become truly civilized. At the heart of this education process is a set of practices by which we can become universal, can learn to identify with every being rather that just with the narrow self (which, incidentally, is the highest expression of ‘ecology’, a word fast becoming popular these days). It is these practices, spiritual in their essence, that formed the basis of every thing that Gandhi did or said, especially in the field of education. Our meager efforts to keep alive his concepts of ‘basic education’, ‘bread labour’ etc. have been a failure precisely because we have lost sight of his (and our) spiritual moorings.

As Gandhi made very clear, spiritual education does not exclude the analytical variety that we are used to these days. The important point to be borne in mind is that analytical education by itself does not enable us to become better (i.e., more humane) human beings—as is evident from the fact that in the modern curricula there is scope for learning about and putting in to practice everything ranging from space shuttles to micro-chip processors, from genetic engineering to heart transplants—but not simple human values such as compassion, love, honesty, morality or even wisdom. Gandhi did give the reductionist or analytical approach to education “its place”, as he put it, but only in a framework wherein “we have brought our senses under subjection and put our ethics on a firm foundation.”  He was, in effect, echoing Buddha’s advice:

“Learning is a good thing but it availeth not. True wisdom is obtained by practice only. Practice the simple truth that the man there is thou. In this lies happiness, in this lies immortality.”

Education processes by which ‘the simple truth that the man there is thou’ (which, incidentally, mounts to the same as Christ’s famous dictum: “Love thy neighbour as thyself”) can be realized form the basis of all mystic training, but has been sadly neglected in modern civilization. Surprisingly and fortunately, exciting developments in modern sciences are pointing the way back to them. It began with two revolutions that shook the foundations of the Newtonian-Cartesian paradigm in physics—quantum theory and relativity theory. The fact, the ‘giants’ responsible for these theories made pointed references to the education processes that Gandhi had in mind in ‘Hind Swaraj’. For example, Erwin Schroedinger has explicitly suggested in his book “What is Life” that quantum theory is leading us to the non-dualistic frame work of the Upanishads. Niels Bohr was so impressed by the ‘yin-yang’ symbol and its resemblance to quantum theory’s complementarily principles that he included it in his coat of arms. And the great Einstein went to the extent of declaring that “I do not arrive at the fundamental laws of the universe through my noblest mainspring of scientific research.” Further, he defined this cosmic religious experience in terms that are very much in accordance with the education processes towards attaining the ‘advaita’ state as taught by our ancient sages:

“The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significance whole.”

Until recently, these hints by Einstein, Bohr, Schroedinger, etc., were ignored by the educated world: they were too revolutionary to be handled within the existing framework. Just as India was not ripe for Gandhi’s concept of swaraj, the world of science was not ready to face up to the deep philosophical implications of relativity and quantum theory. But in the last ten years, a number of brilliant scientists are at work ushering in a new world–view, a new paradigm that would on the one hand reflect the discoveries of 20th century science and on the other hand provide an eminently suitable background for implementing Gandhi’s ideas regarding education. For example, there is that young Austrian physicist Frit jof Capra, who has caused quite stir with his book “The Tao of Physics” which beautifully brings out the striking parallels between modern physics and mysticism. There is the renowned psychologist Robert Oranstein from the California Medical Center, whose research attempts to explain mystic teaching in terms of development of the right hemisphere of the brain, relegating our present education to an imbalanced development confined to the left hemisphere. Then there is Arthur Young, inventor of the bell helicopter, who has spent over 30 years to develop a revolutionary theory of evolution using 20th century science as its basis: a theory in which, as in ancient thought, every human has the potential to become divine by taking to the mystic education processes that overcome the ego.  E.F. Schumacher, father of the appropriate technology concept, had also strongly recommended (in the book he wrote just prior to his death) the adoption of this kind of education as the only solution to our individual as well as social problems. The list of brilliant minds who are working in this direction is long, and includes such well-known personalities as the physicist David Bohm, the neurophysiologist Karl Pribram, the psychologist Carl Rogers and astronaut Edgar Mitchall.

This is not the place to go into details of these developments, but it may help to see how, in many vital aspects education of the kind we are used to differs radically from education of the kind Gandhi recommended, and which is being re-discovered as the paradigm unfolds itself:


  • Modern Education as presently practiced

  • Gandhian Education / if practiced keeping in mind real meaning of “Swaraj”

  • Aim is to acquire knowledge and aims at human transformation

  • Method involves gathering information through sense perception and processing information through analysis

  • Method stresses transcending senses and control over thought. Sense perception, but relegated to secondary role.