History and Context
c.7th century CE. Xuanzang (602-664 CE, also known as Hiuen Tsang), a peripatetic Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, traveller, and translator, defied his Kingdom’s ban on travel abroad and came overland to India. Over 16 years (629-645 CE), his travels in India took him to Kashmir, Mathura, Ayodhya, Prayaga, Varanasi, and Nalanda among other places. At the famed Nalanda academia, he schooled with Buddhist Masters including Silabhadra. When he returned to China, he shipped 657 Sanskrit texts centred on Mahayana and Hinayana on twenty packhorses. To his surprise, Emperor Taizong welcomed him as a national hero and set up a large centre of learning in Xi’an, which became the seat of new age thinking for scholars from all over East Asia that drew on thesis of karma, rebirth, perception, and consciousness and influenced generations of thinkers across the Continent.
Over 2000 years before Xuanzang set foot in India, we had shown the world our academic brilliance through Sushrutha, Kanada, Aryabhatta, Chankaya, Adi Shankara and Madhvacharya, among others. Maharishi Kanada developed the foundations of an atomistic approach to Physics and Philosophy and spoke of anu or atom and its indestructible nature in the Sanskrit text Vaiśeṣika Sūtra c.2200 years before John Dalton propounded the atomic theory. India has been home to pioneering seats of learning in Takshashila (founded c.3000 years ago), Pushpagiri (c.1800 years ago), Nalanda (c.1600 years ago), and Shankaracharya Peethams (c.1200 years ago), that has attracted learners and educators from across the world in subjects as diverse as agriculture, philosophy, mathematics, archery, military arts, surgery, medicine, astronomy, futurology, magic, commerce, music and dance, long before Cambridge or Oxford or Harvard were even born. Archaeological discoveries at Harappa and Mohenjodaro have shown that India’s academic originality and brilliance translated to an incredible era of economic prosperity that made her the most advanced country in the world at that time.
In the 21st Century, India will overtake the US and China to become the most prosperous nation once again, after a hiatus of c.350 years. So, how do we as a nation regain our intellectual leadership and vigour and emerge once again as a global pioneer and inventor that will be at the heart of human civilization and progress? For this, India needs a National Doctrine where four key aspects need to be true – Mindset, Structure, Building Blocks, and Values. Let us start with Mindset, in this piece.
Mind over matter
“Nothing exists, except the mind and its ideas,” said Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753, Irish Philosopher), quoting from the subjective idealism of Vijanavada Buddhist Scholars (c.400 CE). Scientists from Albert Einstein to Niels Bohr to David Bohm to Stephen Hawking had concluded that we exist in a three-dimensional paradigm – mind, matter, and consciousness. The explosive discovery of God’s Particle or Higgs Boson in a tunnel one hundred meters below ground on the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva confirmed that energy was neither created nor destroyed but simply converted to mass. This has underpinned Indian philosophy c.3000 years ago through the principles of quantum physics that is tethered in concept of energy as continuum and enshrined in Vedanta as Srishti (creates), Sthithi (maintains), and Pralaya (destroys).
To regain this position of pre-eminence, we need to foster a new mindset – one that questions and asks for analytical rigour not the blind acceptance of myths, opinions, and beliefs – and that builds on Indian thought. We need to transition from Macaulayian practice of the mid-19th Century (that was in fact borrowed from the Romans) where we unquestioningly adopted, borrowed, and followed an alien and enslaved approach to knowledge gathering and operating a Society. Modern Philosopher-Educationist Koneru Ramakrishna Rao believed that westernisation of India’s education system had made Indians devoid of original thinking and developed a mindset of looking with awe at anything Western, while undervaluing one’s own culture and native ethos.
Imparting education rooted in our spiritual milieu while enlarging the thought process through innovative ideas and technology will deepen our understanding of our intellectual lineage and broaden our horizon of impact. Swami Vivekananda said, “Learn everything that is good from others, but bring it in, And in your own way absorb it, do not become others.” Learners and Educators need to be imbued with this spirit of Indian inquiry, a mindset that does not rely on blind belief but searches for answers and evidence through relentless research, debate, and dialogue, as well as having openness to new Indian thought. In short, we need a new and reimagined education system.
If antiquated curriculum has been the bulwark of our education system, then empirical measurement of Learner’s progress through the system of exams are its fault line. This comes from thinking that what gets measured gets done. In a post-colonial world, it builds a false sociological narrative of progress based on unitary dimension and robs Learners of ownership over their own didactic destiny. When this is combined with competitive intensity driven by a large population and increasing demand for skilled workforce, we end up with an inverted pyramid of colossal mediocrity and unemployable people and a society divided with deep fissures that ferments irrevocable unrest.
Bottom-up and top-down
To execute on changing the mindset requires rewiring the system in two directions – at once. One, change the way our children are taught in schools. Two, infuse skilling at the centre of educating our Learners in universities, colleges, and schools. Our schools need new curriculum, content, and certification rubric. For the curriculum, the country must build on Indian thought blended with the latest ideas and technology from the West. In conclusion, India needs a hybrid form of education that enables a Learner to learn from anywhere and anytime without the constraints of physical boundaries. To measure a Learner’s progress should be their choice so we can foster auto-didacts who recognise that success in life will come from knowledge that is certified, so they become employable.
To improve learning outcomes, Central, State and Local Governments must leverage Virtual Open Schooling or Digital Schooling as complementary to physical schooling in their ecosystem. This will need reskilling and up-skilling of c.10 million Educators in the country so they can take live classes, coach Learners through interactive communities and immersive platforms, and administer-evaluate-distribute proctored assignments and exams digitally.
The India Skills Report 2019-20 states that only 46% of Learners are deemed employable. In some states like West Bengal – erstwhile intellectual hub of India – only 5% of Learners are employable. Skilling is at the heart of learning. To make our young population future-ready, India needs to start skilling Learners from an early age. Generic arts, commerce, economics, and science streams must be infused with higher order skills like Data Science and Artificial Intelligence, and soft skills like working English and business etiquette, so that today’s Learners become employable, join tomorrow’s workforce, and make an impact for India’s economy to accelerate.
India has an excellent higher education academic platform – with IISc, IITs and IIMs emerging as centres of excellence – to learn from and build on. This platform has produced outstanding scholars, scientists, and achievers in diverse fields. Patents filed by IITs has increased from 599 in 2015-16 to 726 in 2019-20 taking innovation to a new high in India. Schemes such as STARS, IMPRESS, IMPRINT, PMRF, SPARC, STRIDE have promoted India-centric research projects that have become inter-disciplinary and transnational in outcome.
We will be Viswa Guru once again when we elevate our institutions of learning – from K12 to Higher Education to Vocational – into world-class Centres of Knowledge Excellence like Takshashila or Nalanda or Pushpagiri that fosters a mindset of research and innovation, of instructional leadership and of ethical behaviour, and is rooted in Indian principles and built on Indian thought. With this one aspect of National Doctrine, India can unleash thousands of Sushruthas, Kanadas, Aryabhattas, Chankayas, Adi Shankaras and Madhvacharyas. As Adi Shankara (788-820 CE, Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker, Philosopher, and Teacher) said in his work Atmabodha, “Samsarah svapnatulyo hi ragadvesadisankulah. Svakale satyavadbhati prabhode satyasadbhavet.” The world, filled with attachments and aversions, and the rest is like a dream, It appears to be real if one is ignorant, but becomes unreal when one is awake.