Question the guru. Question the sanskars.

Indian newspapers recently carried stories of the police allegedly using mumbo-jumbo tantriks to talk to the dead to solve murder mysteries.  Soon after came stories of a reputed media house publishing a book that claimed to unravel the journey of the soul and life after death. Later a well-known computer scientist supported the police’s attempts to talk to the dead. A few months prior to this was the Unnao gold dig where archeologists started digging for gold based on a seer’s dream. These are just a few of the countless cases of irrational behaviour that are so blatant and mainstream in India.

Why is it that despite science being such a prized subject in schools and colleges, do Indians do so badly at adopting a scientific approach?

I appreciate that there are other countries and cultures that also suffer from irrational behaviour, but I will restrict the scope of this article to what I think might be the cause of such behaviour in India.

The answer has many facets, but the primary suspect is our distinction between “education” and “sanskar” and the “guru” culture we have inculcated.

The Indian idea of ‘sanskar’ warrants mute submission to superiors and elders. It expects you to never question the guru and the written word. To make matters worse, sanskars also often come with rituals that are also meant to be followed blindly.

QuestionsBlind faith in the guru and/or the text, is somehow supposed to answer (silence?) all the questions that the child might have. A student in India is never groomed to question or challenge what he is being taught.

“Sanskar” is a mix of religion, mythology and beliefs and is supposed to be much more than mere education. So hardly any Indians take pride in what education has achieved in India, but a humongous number take great pride in Indian sanskars!

Although I can understand that the “sanskar pride” bit might help people feel good about themselves and their Indianness, it is far more harmful than might be obvious. It not only belittles proper education but also adds some mystic supernatural power to all that’s categorized as “sanskar”. If a sanskar has merits that can be scientifcally proven, it should be part of the mainstream education system. But if the merits cannot be scientifically proven, people can very well continue their research, but the idea should not be part of the child’s upbringing. Encouraging the child to dream and getting him to believe in falsehood are two very different things.

(I am intentionally not giving examples here. I hope you see the overall point and I don’t think arguing over the nitty-gritty of individual sanskars will achieve much.)

This isn’t a new phenomenon though. It’s been the same approach for generations, and to make matters worse, questioning has even been considered blasphemous.  These days we at least update the material to be blindly reproduced, but for hundreds of years, it was pretty much the same text being blindly passed on from one generation to the next.

The whole point of education is to pass on human learning over the generations and to push students to question, examine, explore, think and move forward. Education is supposed to make the student go “Wow, is that how it really works” or “Wow, can I really use that to do this?” or “That doesn’t make sense. Prove it to me”…

But as of today, the Indian education and sanskar system only seems to aspire to make students good at blindly reproducing stuff. “This is how it has always been. So it is true. Reproduce exactly as stated in the text”

Even supposed education-related sanskars only expect the child to be obedient and respectful towards the parents, gurus and the holy texts.

We are so not used to questioning things that all you tend to achieve by questioning Indian history is that you get a rampaging mob at your door.

So we have millions of highly educated Indians who are great at using the tools of science and doing exactly as told in the science text, but are found woefully inadequate when it comes to adopting a scientific approach to their work or even their basic day to day activities.Science

So we get rocket-scientists placing rocket replicas in temples, computer-scientists worshiping computers, doctors supporting pseudo-sciences and engineers wearing amulets to ward off evil.  Godmen and spiritual gurus probably have the easiest time duping the “sanskari” educated Indian, as that’s one person who is least likely to question them.

My son is in the first standard at a reputed school. He was recently asked to learn a few times-tables by heart. So when asked 3×9, he is supposed to answer 27 in a fraction of a second. However the amusing part is that he was told to learn the tables by heart before he was taught multiplication. He is supposed to answer 3×9 even when he has no idea what that means!

I and my wife tried to explain to him what multiplication and A x B means, but we didn’t think it was fair to tell him to learn the tables by heart, when he had little understanding of the underlying concept. We have written to the school about it and are currently awaiting a reply. He is likely to take a hit in his exam, and while we are ok with that, many parents, maybe rightly so, would not be ok with that.

Having said that, it’s really not the school’s fault. It’s just the way our systems have worked for ages. Ratta Lagao, Guru Key Paeer Chuo. “Mug it up. Bow to your gurus” .

Curiously, the teachers who are truly respected by students, are the ones who do not demand respect but instead toil to be worthy of the students admiration and respect. Respect should not be a free, no-obligations bonus that comes with being a teacher. Teachers and mentors are vital for learning. However I do believe that we should stop putting the guru on a pedestal and beyond all questioning.

I recently bought a children’s book about Einstein, and surprise surprise, Einstein was considered a poor student at his first school. He only thrived when much later he found teachers who welcomed and encouraged his many questions. What do you think would have happened to Einstein in India?

The best option for Indians who care, seems to be to push the schooling system to junk rote learning and the ‘never question the guru’ approach. All centers of learning need to actively encourage students to think and question each and every thing.

Teachers also need to stop using the words “learn this by heart”. Being able to reproduce text from memory has long been confused for knowledge. However in an age when most answers are a smartphone click away, “by heart” has little value. Information is not knowledge. Teachers also need to give up the “guru” hangover. It’s great if you are respected by students, but stop expecting the students to respect you only because you are their teacher.

Children today are being bombarded with information but unfortunately few parents and teachers are equipping them to examine that information and make sense of it.

If India aspires to ever be a thought leader, it is high-time we get our children to think, question and examine. Else we will continue to be stuck doing monotonous back-office stuff, with little hope of the achieving the kind of wealth(knowledge)-generation that’s essential for a prosperous India of the future.


PS: I am writing this post two days after India’s independence day and two days before the first death anniversary of rationalist Dr. Dabholkar. “Now” is always a good time for course correction…