A radical spokesman of Tradition: A.K. Saran

“Knowledge is, paradoxically, a knowledge of the Unknowable, a thought of the Unthinkable, a vision of Things unseen, an audition of Sound unproduced. It is ultimately knowledge of That which shines forth when we see or hear or think, and is then alive in us, being the only seer, hearer, thinker – itself unseen, unheard, unthought within us. All formulations of traditional knowledge are thus indirect and symbolic, all learning a remembering and all education a rekindling. Traditional methods of education accordingly are graduated forms of indirect communication.”
– From ‘Illuminations’ by A.K. Saran

Of the 500 copies of ‘Illuminations’ printed by Central Institute Of Higher Tibetan Studies (CIHTS) in 1996, I could still find copies to buy in 2018. That, and the fact that most people in India have never heard of A.K. Saran, is a sad commentary on how we treat our wisest men. I was so inspired by reading Illuminations that I bought many more books in the series. All of them written in luminous, inspired, difficult-but-addictive prose (and some poetry), moved me deeply.

In this post I want to talk about ‘Illuminations’ which I consider a very important book for people with an interest in education. But, I can provide no links to it as there is practically nothing about A.K. Saran or his work available online. What I will do instead is to copy passages from the book as answers to hypothetical questions from a reader. I hope you get the flavour of A.K. Saran’s wisdom.

Reader question: Illuminations is a proposal for a new type of school that awakens us from the unconsciousness induced by our schools. Is my understanding correct?
A.K. Saran: Indeed, it is unbelievable but true that our entire academic and educational establishment – schools, colleges, universities, institutes of advanced learning, research centres, research projects, seminars, conferences – is working incessantly, formally and informally, to keep us etherized upon the table, trying to ensure that we may never have the scorching but maybe the cathartic experience of the flames. Excess of chloroform is our fate.

Reader question: How will the school work?
A.K. Saran: The plan for this school is simple. A small group consisting of postgraduate students and young teachers from different universities (and also from outside them) and a few scholars (both from and outside academia) with varying degrees of familiarity and intellectual affinity with the aims (and the doctrines) of the school will be invited to live together at a carefully selected place for a period of two to four weeks or so. The idea of living together is important. What we have in mind is something deeper and richer than just the requirement that the participants should not be scattered but lodged at one place and should breakfast, lunch and dine together. We envisage not only a gathering but an in-gathering of the participants. There should be a general feeling for the goodness of living a shared life, the intellectual deepening and enrichment being an integral part of it.

An anthology of passages and sentences from diverse sources has been made. This will serve as a kind of sourcebook which will be circulated to members of the school in the hope that each one of them according to his or her mental level and habit will be hit hard by one or the other passage. The community setting and the presence of scholars of different levels and types of intellectuality are then expected to provide help to the participants in delving deep.

Reader question: How is it possible to get through to minds conditioned and saturated by modernity?
A.K. Saran: The first requirement of such a situation is to get out of the tradition-modernity antithesis or dichotomy. Education aims at truth, and not at desired types of mentality. The second requirement is to create a free, uncluttered intellectual space so that there can grow genuine receptivity in the minds shaped and equipped by the present educational system for gullibility of one sort or another. The third requirement of our present pedagogical situation is to restore the internal relation between knowledge and action, theory and praxis, thinking and living; a relationship that modern education completely disrupts.

Reader question: There are many ideologies and we are taught that truth is relative. What do you think?
A.K. Saran: A crucial first step towards intellectual and political freedom is to realize that freedom of thought is defined by love of truth, not by intellectual philandering, by mastery of passions, not by passion for opinions, by the ability to think originally and upstream, not by a sort of monomaniac search for and pursuit of the novel and the exotic. Intellectual and political freedom is constituted by the opportunity to pursue the ultimate good, not by the liberty to ‘think’ what one likes and do what one wants to do.

About Professor A.K. Saran:

Professor A. K. Saran (1922-2003) is known as one of the most radical spokesmen of Tradition in today’s world. Following contemporary exponents of the Perennial Philosophy such as Ananda Coomaraswamy, Rene Guenon, Marco Pallis and Frithjof Schuon, Saran especially took on the negative side of the task as his vocation – i.e., breaking of the “spell” by which modern man has been deluded into the suicidal pursuit of a mirage, becoming utterly forgetful of who he is and of the eternal truths that Tradition embodies.

Serving for a long time as a teacher in the fields of social sciences at various universities, both at home and abroad, Saran’s consistent endeavour was, thus, to work out thorough internal critique of those pseudo thought systems of modernity. This internal critique – critique proceeding dialectically from within the very system that is being critiqued – is of a quite unique kind; in spite of certain seeming similarities, Saran’s critique of modernity is totally distinct from fashionable discourses like that of “alternative outlook”, “new age”, “postmodern”, or “postcolonialism” – all of which, for Saran, are simply new devices for masking the truth.
From the blurb on the dust jacket of one of A.K. Saran’s books

Links for further study:
A.K. Saran at the ‘Studies in contemporary religion’ website here.
The Coomaraswamy Foundation set up by students of Professor Saran has a website available here.

The towering genius: Ananda Coomaraswamy

In an article written in 1915 titled ‘What has India contributed to human welfare’, Ananda Coomaraswamy says:

‘If we regard the world as a family of nations, then we shall best understand the position of India which has passed through many experiences and solved many problems which younger races have hardly yet recognized. The heart and essence of the Indian experience is to be found in a constant intuition of the unity of all life, and the instinctive and ineradicable conviction that the recognition of this unity is the highest good and the uttermost freedom. All that India can offer to the world proceeds from her philosophy. This philosophy is not, indeed, unknown to others – it is equally the gospel of Jesus and of Blake, Lao Tze, and Rumi – but nowhere else has it been made the essential basis of sociology and education.’

The full article is available online here. However, because this blog is about education, I will point you to another very insightful essay he wrote criticizing the British education system. It is called ‘Education in India’ and is the 9th chapter in ‘Essays in national Idealism’. The essay is available here and the full book is available for download here.

The following are some excerpts from the essay. You can see that the essay sounds completely contemporary a century after it was written:

‘The system of education set up by the British creates antinational tendencies by ignoring or despising almost every ideal of the Indian national culture. Most students lose all capacity for the appreciation of Indian culture and become strangers in their own land. Indian culture, whether Hindu or Muhammadan, is essentially religious. Regardless of the example of almost every Indian ruler since history began, the Government completely ignores Indian culture. The schools are not part of Indian life (as were the tols and maktabs of the past), but antagonistic to it. The education is really based on the general assumption- nearly universal in England- that India is a savage country, which it is England’s divine mission to civilize. The facts were more truly realized by Sir Thomas Munro, when he wrote that “if civilization were to be made an article of commerce between the two countries, England would soon be heavily in debt.”

Here are some of the points of view which are intrinsic in Indian culture, and must be recognized in any sound educational ideal for India; but are in the present system ignored or opposed:—

  1. The almost universal philosophical attitude. In India, even the poorest peasant may say that “All this is maya.” Consider the deepening of European culture needed before the peasant there could say that “The world is but appearance, and by no means Thing-in-Itself.”
  2. The sacredness of all things. The antithesis of the European division of life into sacred and profane. In India religion idealizes and spiritualizes life itself, rather than excludes it.
  3. Etiquette. There is a Sinhalese proverb that runs, “Take a ploughman from the plough, and wash off his dirt, and he is fit to rule a kingdom.” “This was spoken,” says Knox, “of the people of Cande Uda (the highlands of Ceylon) because of the civility, understanding, and gravity of the poorest men among them. Their ordinary Plowmen and Husbandmen do speak elegantly, and are full of compliment. And there is no difference between the ability of speech of a Country-man and a Courtier.” There could be said of few people any greater things than these; but they cannot be said of those who have passed through the ‘instruction machines’ of today; they belong to a society where life itself brought culture, not books alone.
  4. Control, not merely of action, but of thought. Concentration, one-pointedness, capacity for stillness.’

About Ananda Coomaraswamy:

I couldn’t find it again, but I remember an interview where Ananda Coomaraswamy’s son is talking about the number of languages his father was proficient in. The son who thought that his father knew some 25 languages was surprised to find Ananda Coomaraswamy in the Chinese section of a library. Upon asking, Ananda said that yes he knew Chinese but didn’t consider himself very good at it, which is the reason why he hadn’t told his son about it. Here are some quotes that can inspire you to delve deeper into the large body of his work:

“It is almost impossible to slot Coomaraswamy into a single category for he was all of them: philosopher, historian, art historian, polyglot, cultural anthropologist, metallurgist, mineralogist, archaeologist, art collector, and a revivalist. Coomaraswamy is in the same league as Swami Vivekananda or Dayananda Saraswati.”
—Sandeep Balakrishna, author (The full article from which this quote is taken is linked below)

“Over sixty years have passed since the death of Ananda Coomaraswamy; yet his writings remain as pertinent today as when he wrote them and his voice echoes in the ears of present day seekers of truth and lovers of traditional art as it did a generation ago. In contrast to most scholarly works which become outmoded and current philosophical opuses which become stale, Coomaraswamy’s works possess a timeliness which flows from their being rooted in the eternal present.”
—Seyyed Hossein Nasr, University Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University (Quote from the World wisdom website linked below)

Links for further study:

Sandeep Balakrishna’s profile of Ananda Coomaraswamy
About Ananda Coomaraswamy’s life and work at the World wisdom website

Gently reminding us of who we are: Dharampal

I think that someday all Indians will know about Dharampalji, one of the great scholars of modern India. His collected writings that runs into five volumes has the potential to shift our entrenched perspectives about who we are, to change our self-image built on colonial lies. However, this week I am going to focus on his long essay, Bharatiya Chitta, Manas and Kala, that is part of volume 5 of his collected writings. The full essay is also available for download at the Centre For Policy Studies website here.

Excerpt from the essay:

To solve the problems of life on this earth, and to restore the balance, the divine incarnates, again and again, at different times in different forms. This is the promise that Srikrishna explicitly makes in the Srimadbhagavadgita. And, the people of India seem to have always believed in this promise of divine compassion. It is therefore not surprising that when Mahatma Gandhi arrived in India in 1915 many Indians suddenly began to see him as another Avatara of Vishnu.

The state of India at that time would have seemed to many as being beyond redress through mere human efforts, and the misery of India unbearable. The time, according to the Indian beliefs, was thus ripe for another divine intervention. And it is true that with the arrival of Mahatma Gandhi the state of hopelessness and mute acceptance of misery was relieved almost at once. India was set free in her mind. The passive acceptance of slavery as the fate of India disappeared overnight, as it were. That sudden transformation of India was indeed a miracle, and it had seemed like a divine feat to many outside India too.

But though Mahatma Gandhi awakened the Indian mind from its state of stupor, he was not able to put this awakening on a permanent footing. He was not able to establish a new equilibrium and a secure basis for the re-awakened Indian civilisation. The search for such a secure basis for the resurgence of Indian civilisation in the modern times would have probably required fresh initiatives and a fresh struggle to be waged following the elimination of political enslavement. Unfortunately, Mahatma Gandhi did not remain with us long enough to lead us in this effort, and the effort consequently never began.

It seems that the spirit that Gandhiji had awakened in the people of India was exhausted with the achievement of Independence. Or perhaps those who came to power in independent India had no use for the spirit and determination of an awakened people, and they found such awakening to be a great nuisance. As a result the people began to revert to their earlier state of stupor, and the leaders of India, now put in control of the state machinery created by the British, began to indulge in a slave-like imitation of their British predecessors.

The self-awakening of India is bound to remain similarly elusive and transient till we find a secure basis for a confident expression of Indian civilisation within the modern world and the modern epoch. We must establish a conceptual framework that makes Indian ways and aspirations seem viable in the present, so that we do not feel compelled or tempted to indulge in demeaning imitations of the modern world, and the people of India do not have to suffer the humiliation of seeing their ways and their seekings being despised in their own country. And, this secure basis for the Indian civilisation, this framework for the Indian self-awakening and self-assertion, has to be sought mainly within the Chitta and Kala of India.

Gandhiji had a natural insight into the mind of the Indian people and their sense of time and destiny. We shall probably have to undertake an elaborate intellectual exercise to gain some comprehension of the Indian Chitta and Indian Kala. But we can hardly proceed without that comprehension. Because, before beginning even to talk about the future of India we must know what the people of this country want to make of her. How do they understand the present times? What is the future that they aspire for? What are their priorities? What are their seekings and desires? And, in any case, who are these people on whose behalf and on the strength of whose efforts and resources we wish to plan for a new India? How do they perceive themselves? And, what is their perception of the modern world? What is their perception of the universe? Do they believe in God? If yes, what is their conception of God? And, if they do not believe in God, what do they believe in? Is it Kala that they trust? Or, is it destiny? Or, is it something else altogether?

About Dharampal: (Written for this blog post by Pawan Kumar Gupta, December 10, 2020)

Dharampal jee dropped out of college in 1942 soon after Mahatma Gandhi’s call for “Quit India”. He never went back to formal education after that. But he was a keen observer and in the words of the great Buddhist scholar, philosopher and intellectual in the traditional manner, Professor Samdhong Rinpoche, an “original thinker”. So his education continued – he was socially and politically active. He worked closely with Mira Behen, and Jaiprakash Narayan. He wrote a scathing letter, addressed to all Members of Parliament after the debacle of the 1962 war with China, calling Pandit Nehru a traitor. He was arrested and finally had to leave the country.
While living in London he started delving deep into the British archives in the India Office Library, a huge section in the British library. His research was inspired by something Gandhi jee said in London in 1931, when he referred to the amazing educational system that existed in India – covering a large part of the country, completely autonomous and managed by the local community – just before India was colonized and how it got uprooted under the British occupation. Very few in India had any idea about this or believed that any system of education for the common ordinary people even existed in the country before the arrival of the British. But Dharampal jee decided to explore the British records of those times (late 18th and early 19th century), believing Gandhi jee’s words. His painstaking research spread over several years, yielded rich dividends, and revealed to him various facets of our past – from indigenous Science and technology to the agricultural practices to the thriving economy of the country and, of course, the education system. Not just these, but he got a deep understanding of the British ways of doing things, their perspective and the manner in which Indians behaved and looked at life. We need to appreciate the fact that when Dharampal jee was doing his research there were no computers or photocopying machines. He had to read, take extensive hand written notes and then painstakingly type them out. My guess is not even 20% of his research has been published till now and many of the books are out of print.
Many of us believe that “Bhartiya, Chitta, Manas and Kala” came out of his years of tapas – research, observation and trying to understand the Indian mind and swabhava. Indian mind, swabhava, ways of doing things, organizing the world around and perception has been very different from the western mind and now the modern Indian mind. What made India a vibrant society and what has happened to us now? Perhaps this essay gives us a direction in which to ponder and find answers.

Links for further study:
Pawan Gupta talking about Dharampal on YouTube in 3 parts. Part 1 . Part 2 . Part 3 .
Centre of Policy studies Dharampal archival collection (with over 15000 pages)

Sahajta aur samarthya: Ravindra Sharma

About Ravindra Sharmaji and a small story from the video:

Ravindra Sharmaji (known as Guruji by everyone who knew him) was from Adilabad in Telangana, which was part of the Nizam’s Hyderabad and was not much affected by the British destruction machine. Guruji used to say that till the 1980’s the traditional systems that must have operated across India still operated there. Being inclined towards the arts and crafts, Guruji apprenticed himself with craftsmen and learnt many traditional crafts like making statues with clay and stone, pottery, metalwork etc. In this process he also developed a deep understanding of the jatis who have traditionally worked these crafts. What comes across from all the talks that Guruji gave was a picture of the completeness, the poornata, of our traditional society in all its sahajta and samarthya. It is not possible to extract meaningful ‘bullet points’ from the talk linked above but let me give you a single story (from 14:40 minutes) to start a discussion here and to entice you to listen to the full video. Guruji says…

The methodologies of teaching and learning were very diverse and interesting. There were no time constraints. No sitting in this or that way etc. There was a great singer from Adilabad called Narayan Rao. He went to Baroda to become a chela of Fayaz Khan Sahib. He was one of the crowd of chelas and stayed near the Guru for many months. The Guru, of course, was totally oblivious of most of his many chelas including Narayan Rao. And one day when the Guru was singing a new taan, Narayan Rao unthinkingly said, “Wah ustaad.” This was the only voice from the crowd of chelas sitting in front of the Guru. Khan sahib stopped in mid-song and imperiously asked, “Who said that? Who said wah ustad?” When Narayan Rao tentatively put his hand up, he was asked who he was. Narayan Rao told him he was also one of the chelas. “Oh, so you are one of my chelas,” said Fayaz Khan Sahib, “Why did you say wah ustad?” Narayan Rao timidly said that he thought that the new thing the Guru had done was great. Khan Saheb said, “Oh, you understood that it was a new thing. You can now go back and teach using my name.” Narayan Rao’s studies were officially over.

Some more about Ravindra Sharmaji:
This is what I wrote about Guruji in ‘Smriti Jaagran Ke Harkaare’ published by SIDH.

I met Guruji, Ravindra Sharma, for the first time at a Samvaad at SIDH. Set in the quietness and majesty of the Himalayas, the SIDH campus at Kempty was the ideal place to hear Guruji reminisce about his unique experience and worldview. This was around 2 years ago and some 20 people had come together for the samvaad. I had gone through every YouTube video and piece of information about Guruji on the internet and I was awed that I got a chance to be near him for seven days.

What I noticed was the gentleness and unhurriedness of word and action, the grace with which he moved through the spaces, the attention he paid to whoever was talking to him and the humor and sense of fun that was always visible just below the surface. Guruji used to say that our old architecture showed its poornata by not being needy for further decoration. Empty rooms in modern houses shout out to us to fill them with things. Whereas our old houses are poorna and are not needy of things. I like to think that Guruji radiated this type of poornata. In his unselfconsciousness and sense of ease he could be quietly sitting in a crowded room without drawing attention to himself in any way. And yet when he started to tell his stories, informally at the dining table or formally in a lecture hall, all of us listeners would be mesmerized.

Others would have said this before but it struck me that Guruji embodied the sahajta that he talked about. I wish that I had got more time to overcome my natural shyness and become part of his inner circle of students and well-wishers and friends. I wish that I had spent time at Kalashram and had sat and listened to Guruji’s gentle voice tell anecdotes and histories of the land of his experience that has now become a familiar and inspirational land of my dreams.

Links for further study:
Wikipedia page
Channel on YouTube