Teaching: Reviving the guru-shishya parampara

‘Happy Days’ to all the gurus and their shishyas, and may they together bring about the much-needed transformation that will take humanity to another level

My father-in-law, Dr H.B. Dingley was a specialist in tuberculosis and the medical superintendent of LRS Tuberculosis Hospital in South Delhi until his retirement in 1983. He was also a lifelong teacher, as Associate Professor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, situated across the road from Safdarjung Hospital where I did my internship in 1972-73. Papaji, as we fondly called him, was also a pulmonary surgeon, and I took the opportunity, which was not available in my internship postings at the Safdarjung Hospital, to assist him in operations on the lung.

The internship is the time when the young doctor begins to think about specialization if s/he is interested, though some start even in medical school years. I remember discussing specialization with Papaji, and what he told me: ‘What does it mean to be a specialist? It means taking a keen interest in a particular subject and going deep into it until you know all that is be known about it, then keep learning.’ The implication was that anyone with the passion to pursue any line of study as a lifelong process could become an expert in the subject chosen, without necessarily getting a degree – except that where the public domain is concerned one does need to formalize such acquisition of knowledge (and skills) by an accredited body, so as to differentiate genuine ones from potential quacks, and thus people would know who to go to.

But I am sure that my dadi, for example, did not need any degree to qualify as a specialist in the preparation of the yummiest masala that she used to make on the roche carri! And of course she must have learnt it from her mother or grandmother.

And so we come to teaching and the transmission not only of knowledge – and skills where this is applicable – but also of values to the student, as it was Teacher’s Day on September 5th. For recall, this date was chosen in honour of Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, philosopher, who was born on September 5th 1988. He taught at the University of Oxford for nearly 16 years, and later became President of India.

An extract from a tribute paid to him on his becoming President of India in 1962 would be appropriate at this stage: ‘The election of Dr S. Radhakrishnan to the Presidency of the Republic of India is one of the romances of cultural history of the country. It brings to a fitting climax his exceptionally successful career as a university professor in pre-Independence India and crowns his splendid work of creative interpretation of Indian culture in its philosophic and spiritual dimensions in the living idiom of modern Western thought. His professorship at Oxford marked the West’s recognition of this signal service.

‘Long before he was sent to Moscow as Ambassador of free India, the professor had made a world name as India’s cultural ambassador, in which role he had often given voice to the higher conscience of humanity. He had displayed a courage and a forthrightness in condemning oppression of all kinds – racial, imperialist, plutocratic, bureaucratic, theocratic.’

Nowadays, if you ask any teacher, s/he will tell you that the job is no longer the same as before: it has become more difficult and more challenging, as teachers have to cope not only with directives which are often cut off from reality, but also face increasingly defiant children – and parents too for that matter. Like with doctors, many of them express the opinion that they would not like or advise their children to take up their profession in spite of which, in the medical profession at least – probably law too –, many a child follows in the parents’ footsteps.

Isn’t a pity indeed that we have come to such a pass? What is ailing the traditional ‘noble’ professions? There was no doubt a great justification for the appellation noble applied to some professions – in medicine, relieving the unbearable suffering caused by pain; in teaching, guiding tender minds to maturity and preparing them to be the future leaders of the world, for which they need not only knowledge but more importantly values. For it is values that will make them relate harmoniously to their total environment which comprises both non-living and living things, the latter being made up of plants, animals and living things. For this reason, I believe that teaching is the noblest among the noble professions.

This dimension of the why and how of our relationship with all of existence began with imparting knowledge of oneself to begin with, which was then enriched with knowledge of where we come from, what is the meaning and purpose of our life and what is its final destination, and how we are to lead our life: in ancient India, that was known as apara vidya or ‘Higher Knowledge’. It was imparted through prasna-strotra or question-answer sessions in sylvan settings with the shishya or student seated on the ground and the guru or teacher sitting cross-legged on a slightly elevated platform.

‘Lower knowledge’, on the other hand, was of the kind that was needed to transact with the world so as to make a living: it comprised arts and sciences that were imparted too in conducive settings, many of them being ashrams found in the forests. This kind of environment had a kind of magic, calming effect on the students, and this naturally enhanced the learning process. At the former Otter Barry school of my days, known as ‘l’ecole Baichoo’, some teachers used to conduct classes of the senior school students in the shade of a big jamalac tree with the pupils sitting in a circle on the grass underneath.

As Christopher Mendonca writes in ‘The Speaking Tree’ (Times of India, September 5th 2017):

‘The tradition of holding our teachers in reverence is steeped in traditions of the East. It grew out of an acknowledgement that learning is not something to be hoarded; it is to be passed on. The wisdom that the sages of old acquired was synonymous with knowledge in as much as it meant not just scriptural knowledge or assimilation of information but knowledge gained from experience of life’s lessons. Since life embraces all without distinction, its lessons become a shared experience. In this experience the teacher and student enter into a relationship in which both are students and teachers of one another. There is no room for superiority.

‘In its origins, all teaching was ultimately spiritual. The advent of modern science has tended to blur the lines of congruence between knowledge and wisdom. Acquiring ‘knowledge’ is now synonymous with acquisition of power. Aren’t we confusing knowledge with information?’

Further, ‘the guru-sishya parampara of ancient times was a great tradition that enabled holistic education and made possible for teachers and students to find dedicated time to grow in their relationship in the teaching-learning process.’ Those were ‘teachers who touched our hearts, not so much by what they taught us, but by empowering us to be fully human.’ (italics added) Nobody can dispute that transforming the student into a full human being is indeed the ultimate goal of teaching – and that it rests on the triad of a competent and human teacher, a willing and receptive student, and parents who support both the teacher and their child.

I find the symbolism encoded in the ‘Speaking Tree’ most apt. The teacher is the straight, robust trunk whose roots go deep and draw continuously from ancient wisdom. The leaves represent the students who are borne upwards towards higher and higher realms of knowledge. They then take off and detach from the teacher, yet remain connected with the store of wisdom by means of the roots that they throw downwards to be refreshed and nourished constantly by it.

Belatedly – but it’s for always – ‘Happy Days’ to all the gurus and their shishyas, and may they together bring about the much-needed transformation in teaching and learning that will take humanity to another level.


  • Published in print edition on 8 September 2017

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