On Teaching Philosophy

A certain man exhibits the best art through his performance;

another has the power of communicating as his special qualification.

He in whom both these qualities are combined

deserves to be the head of the teachers.

(Kālidāsa in Mālavikāgnimitra 1.16)

My teaching philosophy is simple – putting ones soul into what one is teaching. I agree with Kālidāsa above when he says that it is a challenge to be a good scholar (performance) and a good teacher (communication) at the same time. Best teaching method is the simplest way of teaching. Kālidāsa himself, unlike many other ostentatious poets of Sanskrit literature, owes his glory to his lucid style and clear and beautiful expressions. The success of a teacher lies in – as one of my teachers would put it – making otherwise tedious Indian logic understood to a primary school student. Simplicity of style and accuracy of expression is the best policy for a teacher. That said I would like to share some thoughts and concerns.

I am indeed too impressed by the social cause that the newly emerging universities like Azim Premji (APU) in India stand for. I always thought that one thing that would give me an inner satisfaction in life was social service, but I could never indulge into it for the reasons unknown to me. I don’t know if my belongingness to the breed of “children of conflict” has something to do with it. As one of my friends one day said – “your conflicted past is shaping your future where you are questing for resolving those conflicts even though unknowingly.” This indeed is one reason why I think there can be no better opportunity than doing social service through education, especially in case of the conflicted zones like Kashmir. If I can ever help a disadvantaged child living in a remote village bereft of opportunities to think through his/her own ideas and make him/her learn exploring himself or herself, I would be very happy.

There is a gradual, but steady competition emerging amongst the newly manifesting social scientific academies in India. These certainly are the sings of a positive change. At the same time one wonders how the ideas like bringing “Ivy League education here in India” would sound to a student who should learn about Said’s Orientalism in the same “Ivy League of India”. Doesn’t this sound like what Sheldon Pollock would call ‘Deep Orientalism’. It might be easy to be ones own friend rather than being ones own ‘intimate enemy’. Polishing a beautifully carved marble statue is easy. What is difficult is to chisel a beautiful shape out of a crude piece of marble. What potent role does a top class educational institute play in shaping its students who are already the top creamy layer? I do agree these issues are problematic and they deserve deeper thinking. After all higher education in India is going through a process of churning right now.

I think we all agree that education in India has suffered in the past and continues to experience hardship while still trying to make a steady progress. However, India cannot afford to stick to premodern, colonial or nationalistic methods of education anymore. The idea of education was very different in premodern era: guros tu maunaṃ vyākhyānaṃ śiṣyās tu chinna saṃśayāḥ | (“For the silence of the teacher is the discourse [itself] that takes away the doubts (ignorance) of the students”). The idea of ‘transmission of knowledge’ did bring down the Vedic scriptures to us, but today there is no place for the idea of ‘transmission’ in education. ‘Although physically resident in the twenty-first century we cannot mentally inhabit in ancient India with considerable enjoyment.’ I think the idea of education should be perceived through an epistemological insight and not simply inferred from a metaphysical eye.

While APU believes that the focus in India should be making good teachers at the school level, I believe that the priority should be given to students who in turn will make better teachers tomorrow. My first priority has always been students. I have always stood up by my students. I am fanatically caring about students and their academic needs. For producing better students who could be even better teachers in future, while the emphasis certainly should be on education and development, I think there are more dynamic dimensions attached to it. That is to say that I believe disciplines like Education can also be taught and made more stimulating by means of bringing students closer to literary traditions those they are already a part of. Was it T.S. Eliot who said – “Literature is the hand maiden of philosophy”? Here I have the literary traditions of South Asia in mind — the stuff Sheldon Pollock has been discussing in his works, for instance. Besides the classical literary traditions in Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, Prakrit etc., I would also like to see students doing a critical study of vernacular literary traditions in India. This, I think, broadens the idea of Education we are talking about.

What has often struck me deep is why the social scientific study of religious traditions of South Asia is not encouraged in India. Here, I am not trying to import the idea of establishing departments of religion in every Indian university following the American model. What I am thinking, instead, is if Indian subcontinent continues to face a huge number of problems emanating from extreme religious ideologies and where diverse religious identities come into a conflict with each other, is it not vital for new generations to have a better, clearer and unbiased understanding of various interpretations of all the religious traditions practiced in South Asia from a social-scientific perspective? The socio-political dynamics of a country like India is so closely connected to the concepts of several religious ideologies and for what reason does India choose to ignore them in academia. Was it after partition India became haunted by the idea of religion and they never bothered to talk about the social scientific study of religion. No one ever cared seriously about humanities and social sciences, as Pollock has repeatedly pointed out in his lectures. Having said what I wanted to, it is my dream to establish two such centers in India in distant future one each for the study of South Asian religions and South Asian literary traditions. This may sound too ambitious at this time, but it is just my dream. I am already happy to see that there are various academic bodies in India coming up with such mandates.

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2 Comments on “On Teaching Philosophy”

  1. elisafreschi says:

    Very interesting, Mrinal, and very generous of you to conceive such ambitious projects. The passage about the importance of studying religions is a perfect way to explain the direct relevance of this kind of research also for political purposes. A great way to bridge two worlds.

  2. Mrinal says:

    Thanks Elisa. I appreciate it.


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