The Four Pillars of Learning

7 Jun

Dr. Karan Singh, India’s Member of Parliament Rajya Sabha; President of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), and India’s Ambassador to UNESCO; 9 February, 2013: Address to Salwan Media’s One Globe 2013: Uniting Knowledge Communities conference (OG’13) on the Four Pillars of Learning. (excerpted)

Dr. Singh discusses the Four Pillars of Learning: Learning to Know; Learning to Do; Learning to Live Together; Learning to Be.

The first pillar of learning, was Learning to Know, the Gyan Yog, as we say [in Sanskrit], ‘ā no bhadrāḥ kratavo yantu viśvataḥ’ (1.89.1 Rig Veda) : let noble thoughts come to us from every side. That has been very much part of our tradition. What is happening now is an explosion of information. Every five years the quantity of information doubles. Without that, there is a danger that we can get washed away in a tsunami of information – there is so much information available now that we must not lose sight of the fact that for a proper education we’ve got to abstract education. And from education we’ve got to distinguish because otherwise we tend to get lost in the brutality of what we do. And therefore I think it is immensely important that our students learn to ask questions, the questioning mind has to be there.

Information-education does not simply mean pushing information into the minds of children. They must be prepared to ask where our dialogue falls in civilization – in the Indian Vedic civilization the Upanishads were dialogues, very sharp questions were asked by their schooling students; the Jain tradition was dialogue; Buddha himself personally dialogued for 60 years as he walked across the plains of India. So the dialogue I think, is particularly important. And we have to realize that this is a life-long learning.  You’ve got to learn every day. I continue to learn; on my 80th birthday, I was given the iPad for the first time. I’ve written 20 books, travelled around the world, never used a computer. The fact that the human race can exist without a computer for thousands of years is something that the younger generation refuses to believe. But, the fact is, that is has. And the fact is that I’ve started learning the computer now – so one continues to learn as you go through life.

The capacity to learn, the urge to learn, they create a spark that must never be extinguished. So I think the first point would be, as we talk of the first pillar of learning, learning to know – it is certainly an information society, but its constantly being out-dated – all the chemistry, all the physics, all the geography that we learnt at school is now out of date. But if we have learnt that capacity to learn, there our education has led us.  Teachers have upgraded their knowledge so that they can pass it on to the younger generation.

The second pillar is Learning to Do, Karma Yog.  It doesn’t really matter what you are doing. There is a marvellous quote from Martin Gardner, in a book I think, called The Ambidextrous Universe, in which he writes, ‘A society that honours philosophy because it considers it to be a noble profession, and looks down on plumbing because it considers it to be a lowly profession, will get the worst of both worlds – neither its theories, nor its pipes will hold water.’ So, the thing is really not what you are doing –  it’s how you are doing it. You have a quest for excellence. I am doing this through dedication.

There’s a story of when the great Brihadeshwar temple was being built by Raja Raja Chola thousands of years ago in Thanjavur, probably the greatest temple in India – and he went one day to inspect the work. He came upon a man who was cutting stone, he said, “What are you doing?”  “I’m cutting stone.” He went to the next man who was also doing the same thing. He said, “What are you doing?” “I’m earning a living for my family”. He went to the third man who was doing the same thing, and said, “What are you doing?” He said, “Sir, I’m building a great temple.” So it’s just a question of the attitude. The first one was just a tamasic one, he was doing something mechanically; the second one was earning a living; but the third one realized that he was building a great temple. And what are we trying to do today? We are trying to build a great temple of knowledge. We are trying to build a sane, harmonious, and equitable global society. It’s a very great task and we cannot do it unless we learn to do it with all our heart and soul.

Learning to know, Learning to Do, and the third pillar, Learning to Live Together. And perhaps this is the most significant one, because we are now living in a world that has been mentioned, has been unified by technology. It’s astounding, you pick up a small machine and you press a few buttons and you talk to somebody in New York. I still don’t know how it works – I don’t know whether you do or not – I cannot understand that if you can’t hear somebody in the next room, how can you hear somebody from New York, but you can do it now with a tiny machine, and we have 1.1 billion people, we have zero-nine-nine -million mobiles – almost everybody in India has a mobile, that’s tremendous. But learning to live together means that we have to teach values of living together. Otherwise you find even today, even as I speak, there are fundamentalisms, there are fanaticisms, there are hatreds, there are conflicts going on around the world even today. There have been more conflicts in the world since the end of the 2nd world war than there were during the war. More people have been killed, are being killed as they are today. Some in the name of religion, some in the name of nationalism, some in any other name. So we have, despite all our tremendous technological brains, we have not yet been able to overcome the essential conflictual relationships that exist in human society – and for that, learning to live together has got to be the transmission of values.

Education is not only the transmission of information, it’s the transmission of values.

First of all, there are family values. Family is where the value system first begins. If the family is full of tension, if the family is full of negativity, then the student is not likely to be able to live a harmonious existence. For family values, which revolve around two axes, the parent-children relationship, and the husband-wife, or the man- -and-woman relationship. These are changing. The joint family has broken up as it had to. The nuclear family is also in danger. And therefore these tensions that arise in the family, something has to be taught. They have to be taught how to look after each other. The parents have to be taught and the children have to be taught. The parents must realize that they cannot run the lives of their children. Indian parents tend to be too possessive. We want to run the lives of our children, not as possible, as Khalib Gibran says, ‘Your children may come through you, but they do not belong to you.Each child comes with his or her own karma and therefore the parents must realize that and the children must realize it – that simply revolting against the elders, simply having a negative attitude towards existing situations is not enough. If they have, they must first of all recognize and accept, what has been given to them, and then move on. And the man-woman relationship, again in our tradition, it is neither the old or the absurd tradition of in the east of the woman walking three paces behind the man, nor the equally ridiculous custom in the west of the woman walking three paces ahead. I find that very peculiar. The real place is for the woman to walk side by side, ardhangi, equal co-sharers in the adventure of life – that is the correct relationship. This reminds me of a very amusing story – there was somebody in some country – I will not name the country for fear of a diplomatic incident – and he was posted there, and women used to walk three paces behind. He went off back to his country. And then 10 years later he happened to be posted there again. And now, he noticed that the women were walking three paces ahead, so he said to his friend, ‘You know I’m very impressed, you’ve had a social revolution in 10 years,’ his friend said, ‘No no, that’s not it, we’ve had a civil war, and there are many unexploded mines lying around’. So that’s not the way we want to treat our women! We want to have the woman and the man both – because the feminine and the masculine is not simply for the outer world, it is within us – each one in our psyche has the masculine and the feminine genes if you like, consciousness. And there has to be an integration finally, between them.

Then we have to teach societal values – punctuality, in India. And cleanliness – you know, simple things. The other day, I was at a crossing in New Delhi – and a car, a posh car drove up, the man put down his windows and threw out an empty bottle of mineral water – I mean that’s not done anywhere in the world – you can’t do that. But there’s no awareness, there’s no societal value – we cannot clutter. We’re the biggest clutterbugs in the world, in India. We’ve got to clean, we’ve got to be neat, we’ve got to organize ourselves – societal values – helping the people who are less fortunate. Helping the weaker people, not this bullying and badgering. So unless we change our attitude toward society, unless we realize that we are part of society, and that we have a debt to society, and we have to repay that debt through our actions and activities, we will never build a harmonious society.

So there are family values, there are societal values, there are interfaith values. The values are universal. The values of love, of compassion, of kindness, of helpfulness, of respect to elders, of respect to other members of society. We have got to teach these, and we have got to realize that learning to live together is a very significant thing.

And we have to teach environmental values – if our children have no idea of the importance of the environment – in our tradition we have these marvelous hymns to the waters, to the rivers, to the mountains, to the lakes, to nature, because we looked upon, our seers looked upon, the human race as part of nature. We do not accept the fact that we are endowed with some divine will, so that we can destroy other species as we like. We are also part of the evolution of life on this planet. And therefore the environment is part of us, we are part of the environment. We have to repay our debt to the environment. Otherwise the way we are spoiling it now, we are going to destroy this world sooner or later.

And then finally we have to have global values to teach that we are very proud of being citizens of particular countries – the Americans are proud of being Americans, Indians are proud of being Indians, the Burkina Faso people are proud – but the point is there are 200 different nations in the world – you can have 200 nationalities, but unless you finally transcend these, where is the global society? One Globe is your key – we have the ideal definition of One Globe – Vasudeva Kutumbakam : The World is a Family.

If you go to our houses of parliament, I’m not going to comment about what happens in parliament – that I’ll leave our television viewers to judge. But if you go to the parliament building on the first gate, there’s a beautiful verse:

Ayam nijah paroveti gananam laghuchetasam

Udarchahtanam tu vasudhaiva kutumbakam

[meaning]: this is mine that is yours – is a  narrow and constricted way of looking at things – udar charitina – for those of the greater consciousness – Vasudeva Kutumbakam – the world itself is a family. Five thousand years ago, the concept of One Globe or One World, and that is what you must develop. The world is a family. Not only is the world a market – a market is all very well – but a market is essentially an exploitative structure while a family is a supportive structure. And so through this concept, that although we are proud to be residents of our country, we’re also proud to be global citizens. In fact I think that two things should be done: every passport should be stamped ‘India: Planet Earth’; ‘Greece: Planet Earth’, and in every classroom, should hang that beautiful photograph taken by NASA – you remember, the photograph of Planet Earth taken from outer space. We’re the only generation to have seen what our world looks like from above, and that, that photograph should hang in every classroom. So that people realize that we are denizens of a tiny speck of dust hurtling through outer space, so beautiful, and yet so fragile.

And the final value, Learning to Be – perhaps the most important. What is our inner consciousness? Are we aware of the depths of the human psyche? Are we aware of the luminosity that exists hidden within us? In every religion in the world, they talk of the light within. The Bible calls it the ‘light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world’. The Muslims call it the ‘Noor e Ruhani’; The Hindu seers say ‘Vedah vehtam varsham mahantam adityavardam tamasum paratah’: I have seen that great being shining like a thousand suns beyond the great darkness.

The many splendoured light of the atma, the many splendoured light of spiritual consciousness. Do we ever plumb those depths? Or do we just skim across life, and before we know it has passed us by? Life is not a meaningless journey from the womb to the tomb. Life is a unique opportunity for spiritual growth and development. If we’re learning to be involved, developing our inner capacity, realizing the spirituality that dwells in every being.

So these four pillars are there, education is something which is very much more complex than simply computers. The computers may think they are very complex but there are things more complex than the computer. And that is the human mind, the human consciousness, and that is what we must develop. Friends, that is what you’re all here for, I think, to work on. And I sincerely hope that India gives you the inspiration to understand the various dimensions of education. We have a marvellous definition for education:  sa vidya ya vimuktaya: learning is that which liberates. Liberates us from fear, liberates us from fanaticism, liberates us from fundamentalism, liberates us from narrow thinking and moves us into the realization of a global society.

– Dr. Karan Singh, India’s Member of Parliament Rajya Sabha; President of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), and India’s Ambassador to UNESCO

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