The Indian Spirit and Indian Education – Part 4

Author: Beloo Mehra; Published in the Annual Issue (2016-17) of Sri Aurobindo’s Action, West Bengal, pp. 85-105.




 The modern Indian social-cultural mindset, for the most part, is occupied with a conception of life that emphasizes materialistic, utilitarian, mechanistic and rational view of life and universe. As a people we Indians have tried to assimilate the Western view of life (which we have wrongly understood as ‘modern’ way of life) so much so that we forgot that a different conception of life and existence is possible. And when the pendulum swings to an extreme, in our zeal to get back to our ‘roots’ we end up professing rigid and narrow-minded approaches, in the process denying value to anything and everything that may not have its origin in the Indian culture. Neither extremes are healthy for an integral development of the society and its individuals. Our education must not be built on such extreme approaches, it should rather be based on a conception of life that seeks to harmonise and integrate matter and spirit, East and West.

Indian conception of life is not about a purely materialistic view of existence nor is it about a life-denying spirituality. It is actually a meaningful synthesis of both matter and spirit. The emphasis is not only on the spirit but also on the form because it is through form only that the spirit manifests or reveals itself. In Indian view, form becomes important because in the form dwells the spirit. So all Life, all experience actually become our means to gradually prepare ourselves for the path of the spirit. Indian spirituality, at its core, is life-affirming. In a truly Indian education we will have education of and for the mind and heart intricately woven with the education of and for the spirit.

A study of India’s past reveals that Indian spirituality is in fact the basis of all life, including all creative and intellectual pursuits such as art, literature, philosophy, music, mathematics, science, etc. A true Indian education must be grounded in this understanding of spirituality. Spirituality that motivates growing minds and hearts to experience all the joys of life and living and to expand and deepen their seeking for truth through all that life has to offer; spirituality that takes up all the intellectual, creative, vital energies and colours them in its own truth. In order for such a wave for life-affirming spirituality to take over a people’s consciousness, opulent vitality and opulent intellectuality are essential.

Learners in such a view of education are to be offered as much opportunity and freedom as needed to discover the normal mental possibilities of their intellect, will, ethical, aesthetic and emotional beings, but then these beings are also raised up “towards the greater light and power of their own highest intuitions.”[1] Such a view of spirituality-based education does not exclude anything from its scope, “any of the great aims of human life, any of the great problems of our modern world, any form of human activity, any general or inherent impulse or characteristic means of the desire of the soul of man for development, expansion, increasing vigour and joy, light, power, perfection.”[2] Such a view of education “must not belittle the mind, life or body or hold them of small account: it will rather hold them of high account, of immense importance, precisely because they are the conditions and instruments of the life of the spirit in man.”[3]

In the current social-political climate of India a conflict (misguided, if I may add) has been created between what is ‘secular’ and what is not. Directly connected with that is a fundamental question faced by our educational institutions – should schools and colleges be secular or not? It may require a dissertation to go into the history of the word ‘secular,’ and about what it implies and what it doesn’t. It will also be a digression from our purpose here to discuss the extent to which the ‘secularism’ as understood in its present and past social, cultural, political, intellectual and philosophical contexts of the West, where the term and the concept originated, does or doesn’t make sense in the Indian present and past social, cultural political, intellectual, and philosophical contexts. Better to just say that in India we have had a much longer tradition of sarva dharma sambhava.

First, is important to understand what this Indian ideal means. But before that, it is important to understand what Dharma means.


“Dharma in the Indian conception is not merely the good, the right, morality and justice, ethics; it is the whole government of all the relations of man with other beings, with Nature, with God, considered from the point of view of a divine principle working itself out in forms and laws of action, forms of the inner and the outer life, orderings of relations of every kind in the world. Dharma is both that which we hold to and that which holds together our inner and outer activities. In its primary sense it means a fundamental law of our nature which secretly conditions all our activities, and in this sense each being, type, species, individual, group has its own dharma. Secondly, there is the divine nature which has to develop and manifest in us, and in this sense dharma is the law of the inner workings by which that grows in our being. Thirdly, there is the law by which we govern our outgoing thought and action and our relations with each other so as to help best both our own growth and that of the human race towards the divine ideal.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Volume 19, pp. 171-173)

[Interested readers are encouraged to explore this series on Matriwords for further reading on the meaning of Dharma.]

Because dharma is not same as religion (though this wrong translation is widely prevalent), there has been a great amount of misinterpretation or wrong understanding or superficial discourse surrounding this phrase. Sarva Dharma Sambhava means all dharmic ways, all seekings for the truth leading to the final aim of life, the Divine source, are equally possible and can harmoniously co-exist. It is important to note that this does not mean that ‘all religions are equal or same’ or that ‘all paths to truth are equal or same.’ [For more on this, readers are encouraged to read this article or listen to this excellent talk here.]

This truth of India sarva dharma sambhava, which is actually much deeper than the modern west-centric concept of secularism, has implications for not only the political future of India, but also its social, intellectual, cultural life. And certainly for Indian Education.

If by ‘secular’ we mean only that which acknowledges, accepts and values only the material or temporal view of existence, and all the matters of spirit are left to that which goes by the English word of ‘religion,’ then perhaps a true Indian Education should not be secular. At least not in this limited view. But the alternative of Indian education becoming a religion-based one isn’t the correct one either. We need to think in an Indian way.

To begin with, we must re-examine and reflect upon the Indian concept of dharma which is not same as religion. In fact, the word ‘religion’ is perhaps not suitable at all when we speak of the Indian spiritual culture and traditions. Dharma, as we have seen above, is a uniquely Indian idea which can’t be merely translated as duty, religion, code of conduct, ethical rule, moral law, or other such English language words. It is none of these and yet may have something of these. It transcends all these limiting and limited terms and yet includes some things from each of these. It is individual and universal at the same time. It is fixed and evolving at the same time, it is eternal and yet gradually progressive. It is of a person, and cosmic at the same time. It is an inner guide, which must be discovered individually, and yet must be a part of the larger dharma of the group, the nation, humanity to which one belongs. 

This unique concept of India must be the basis for Indian educational thought and practice. Many practical applications may be possible in this regard.[i] But without digressing let us go back to the more pressing issue at hand – integration of spiritual and secular in Indian education.



[1] Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 16

[2] ibid., p. 33

[3] ibid., p. 34


[i] I believe the profound ideas of dharma, the law of gradual inner growth and evolution through experience, can also be applied to a very large extent in the actual workings of educational institutions. Without digressing too much here, let me quickly suggest that to begin with, the idea of infinite differences between individuals has one of its most direct policy-making implication favouring a greater decentralization of educational decision-making and allowing as much individualization as possible. Schools in different neighbourhoods must be given greater, much greater autonomy in determining their curricula and teaching practices keeping in mind the communities from which they draw the majority of their student population. Of course, this must also be done keeping in consideration the general guidelines for learning competencies as provided by the state educational boards and other relevant bodies. But given the immense size and sheer diversity of our country, it is perhaps also time to rethink the necessity and relevance of state level or national level educational governing bodies. Perhaps it is also time now to rethink the role they should play in the total overhaul of the national educational system. Perhaps it is also necessary to consider creating smaller, more localized and decentralized bodies directly responsible for and in-charge of the specific contexts, requirements and concerns of the schools in their local areas.

Hiring policies for teachers must also be rethought in the light of greater individualization that must be necessary to allow learners with varied temperaments and natures to feel their way through their self-discovery processes. For younger learners, parents may be given more opportunities to become part of their children’s learning processes in classrooms because they are the ones who are most closely familiar with their children’s temperament and nature. Pedagogical innovations must be encouraged to allow greater individualized learning, even in classrooms with a large group of students. Greater flexibility in assessment of student learning must be allowed.

Schools must gradually figure out the much needed balance between imposing an outer discipline and facilitating learners to gradually find their sense of inner guidance and self-discipline. While allowing the learners to grow in a multifaceted way by giving them opportunities to develop all their parts — physical, intellectual, emotional, aesthetic, ethical — education must never forget that ultimately all these parts are instruments of that inner being which gradually grows through them, and it is that which alone can be the source of the true inner guide which learners and adults need to walk through their lives. Even an intellectual acceptance of this idea can help guide those in the decision-making roles in educational institutions and other apex bodies in their work. The tendency to erect a system of strictest possible rules and regulations may gradually wither away and in its place we may find a more humane and individual-centred flexible system of broad guidelines and directions.  

Many such practical approaches can be thought of and introduced in a gradual manner. But the practical also finds its true purpose and effectiveness when seen in the light of the larger ideal that guides it. What is most essential, therefore, is to recognize that these and many other practical ways, methods, means and approaches are not taken up simply for the sake of trying out something new or different. Rather, they must be consciously implemented with the larger purpose of helping prepare the children and youth of India to become true embodiment of the deepest values and ideals that India stands for. Because only then, these future generations will become capable and confident enough to offer their best possible contributions to the greater good of their country as well as the larger world and humanity. One can become truly global only after one has become truly national. It is all about gradual progress. 


Have you read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3?

5 thoughts on “The Indian Spirit and Indian Education – Part 4

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  1. Excellent comments on Dharma. It is one of those words, I think, that should not be translated, but rather, let other cultures make the effort to enter into the vast, multidimensional meaning.

    I find the term “swadharma” helpful in terms of how it can be applied to specific subject areas and in fact, to any area of life. But I’m afraid it takes some inner development to truly do this – to be able to look within, not relying on outer structures and guides, to see/feel/intuit what the “fire” within is seeking to bring forth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely. It is much easier to talk/write about things like dharma and swadharma than to ‘live’ them. Personally I have often felt that life would become so simple and easy if one knows exactly what is one supposed to do 🙂 If only one knew what is one’s dharma at a particular point/stage in life. And because we generally don’t know our swadharma or are at different points in the journey of discovering it, we struggle through various life situations. Maybe that is how we are sometimes supposed to figure it all out!
      Thanks Don for another insightful comment. Really good to have such interactions on this forum.


      1. Here’s a good one on carrying out one’s dharma. I just read, in the NY Times, that the judge – Kimba Wood – in the Trump case (I assume you have heard about this – they seized materials from his lawyer’s office and the judge has to decide whether Trump can see the materials before the prosecutor does) has worked out a quite remarkable and fair set of decisions, taking into account the need of all parties.

        I can only imagine the extraordinary pressure on her from many different sides (wiht the possibility, I bet, of personal threats if her decision goes too far against what Trump wants). She appears to be carrying out her dharmic decision with equanimity.

        So here’s a situation I’ve been in:

        I’m reviewing a case where someone has applied for disability compensation (in the US, that means getting money – when you’re under age 62 – because you are physically or psychologically unable to work).

        In the case I’m thinking of, the man had an IQ around 70, meaning an adult with the intellectual ability of a 9 or 10 year old child. He was in severe physical pain, and severe depression. He could not afford housing, so he had set up a tent along a river embankment here in Asheville. He had to move his tent every day otherwise he would be arrested and put in jail.

        When I tested his IQ, it came out to 71.

        Now, technically, there is absolutely NO statistical difference between a 70 and 71 IQ. However, the judges for disability cases are EXTREMELY literally minded and psychologically inept, so no matter what I explain in my report, they will say to themslves, “Well, the cutoff for intellectual disability is 70, and this man has a 71 IQ, so he is not intellectually disabled.”

        So, here’s where the dharmic decision comes in. There are numerous answers on the IQ test that require some subjective decision about whether to give zero, 1 or 2 points. But I don’t know he has come out with a 71 IQ until I finish scoring the rest of the test.

        I could go back and change one of my decisions, just one, and easily make it a 70 IQ. I know that technically, this truly makes absolutely no difference, but according to psychology board regulations, I shouldn’t do this.

        The thing is, that one point may make the differenc between this man dying in the woods or getting shelter (if he gets disability compensation, he could be eligible for nearly free housing and utilities – paid for by his disability check).

        So, should I change that one point?

        (Note – I’m afriad I’m not going to answer what I did here online, as it involves ethical regulations, but I’ll leave it to others to imagine what they might have done)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. These are great examples to illustrate how fine a line one has to walk on in order to live one’s dharma. Also, your personal example shows remarkably well how dharma is not exactly same as a mere mental idea of law or ethics. Thanks Don for sharing these.


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