Where Is Our Education Leading Us?

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The Bhaktivedanta Swami Lecture, in honor of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

This is the first annual Bhaktivedanta Swami Lecture, given at Wits University in Johannesburg under the auspices of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust Africa. The lecture was given last March.

Since this is the first Bhaktivedanta Swami Lecture, let me begin by saying something about the person in whose honor it is named—and how what he taught is relevant to our topic today. His name is a long one: His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Scholars most often refer to him more briefly as “Bhaktivedanta Swami” or, increasingly these days, by the respectful title by which his followers most often refer to him: Srila Prabhupada.

I first met Srila Prabhupada in New York City in 1968. After a difficult journey on a sea freighter on which he had received free passage, he had come from India to America three years earlier, at the age of 69. He had long since left behind business and family affairs, and after years spent in study and writing, he had now come to America with little more in his possession than a few rupees and some trunkloads of books.

The books were the first three volumes of his translation, with commentary, of a Sanskrit epic known as Srimad-Bhagavatam, a book revered in India but little known in the West, a book of philosophy, culture, practical knowledge, and, above all, spiritual understanding.

Decades earlier, when Srila Prabhupada was in his twenties, his spiritual master had asked him to teach the message of the Bhagavatam—and other, related writings—in English. So that was what Srila Prabhupada was now doing.

The earliest of these writings, all in Sanskrit, are known as the Vedas, and so the tradition of wisdom they represent is known as the Vedic tradition.

The word Veda, which literally means “knowledge,” comes from the Sanskrit root word —to know—which is related to our English words “wit” and “wisdom.”

It was to teach this Vedic wisdom that Srila Prabhupada, in the last ten years of his life, came to New York and later traveled fourteen times around the world (including twice here to South Africa). It was also why he wrote a veritable library of books, with titles now translated into some ninety languages, including French, German, Chinese, Arabic, Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, and Swahili.

So what was this “Vedic wisdom” that Srila Prabhupada had come to teach? Why should we care about it? And what does it have to do with education?

Education for Dharma—and More

According to the Vedic tradition, education should aim at enabling us to achieve success in four objectives: religion, economic development, the satisfaction of our needs and wants, and finally liberation. This is not political liberation, but something far more important. I’ll come back to what that is in a few minutes.

When we speak of the first objective, that of religion, this does not refer to a sectarian dogma or creed. The Sanskrit word here is dharma, and it refers to something broader and deeper.

Dharma refers, first of all, to an essential intrinsic quality, what something or someone is naturally meant to do. The dharma of water is to flow. The dharma of chili, to be hot. The dharma of sugar, to be sweet. And the dharma of a living being, to serve.

The shopkeeper serves the customer. The worker serves the company. The doctor serves the patient. The teacher serves the students (and the parents). The citizen serves the nation. And besides that, or on top of that, we all serve our senses; we serve the demands of our tongue, our ears, our eyes, and so on.

And ultimately our dharma is to serve God. As a hand is part of the body and is therefore meant to serve the whole body, every one of us is a part of God and therefore meant to serve God.

We all serve in some particular occupation, and that is another meaning of dharma. According to our natural leanings and skills, some of us may serve as teachers, some as military or political leaders, some as business people or farmers, some as workers and technicians. The particular service we do is another aspect of our dharma.

While serving, we are meant to follow some basic moral principles: truthfulness, cleanliness, austerity, mercy. This too is an aspect of dharma—a multifaceted term.

And by serving in whatever our occupation, we should naturally achieve the second objective: economic development. We should have a roof over our head, clothes on our back, food on our table, money in our pocket.

And so we can achieve the third objective: We can satisfy our needs and desires.

What Does It Mean, "I Am Educated"

And finally we come again to the fourth objective: liberation. As I mentioned, this is not just political liberation. Rather, it refers to spiritual liberation, the liberation of the soul from material entanglement.

And this is something our modern education wants nothing to do with. Soul? That’s something that belongs to religion. What does that have to do with education?

But when the Vedic sages speak of the soul, they’re not merely talking about religion. They’re speaking of something fundamental, of the most essential object of all inquiry. The Sanskrit word they use is atma, another word rich in meaning. It can also be translated as “spirit,” or simply as “one’s self.” To know our atma is to know who we ultimately are. And how can one be an educated person if one doesn’t know who one is, or doesn’t even ask? To know what I should do with my life, I should first know who I am. And so the ancient Greek aphorism: “Know thyself.”

What is this “self”?

For the Vedic view we can turn to the Bhagavad-gita, the celebrated book of wisdom spoken by Sri Krishna. There, in Sanskrit, Sri Krishna says,

nasato vidyate bhavo
nabhavo vidyate satah
ubhayor api drishto ‘ntas
tv anayos tattva-darshibhih

“That which lasts is unchanging, and that which changes never lasts. Those who are seers of the truth have ascertained this by studying the ultimate nature of both.”

My body is always changing. At birth my body was that of a baby, and then I grew up and my body was that of a child, then that of a youth, and now I have the body of an older man. But while I have been changing from body to body, like a person putting on different clothes, I have always been the same person. What lasts throughout all these changes is the fact of my consciousness.

And so, the Vedic sages say, I am not my body. I am the spark of consciousness within the body.

This way of thinking is not merely theoretical. It has consequences, social, political, economic, and personal.

When I identify with my body I think, “I am white” or “I am colored” or “I am black.” “I am Zulu” or “I am Xhosa.” “I am American” or “I am South African.”

But the conscious self within the body is neither white nor colored nor black, neither Zulu nor Xhosa, neither American nor South African. For that matter, neither man nor woman.

And therefore when I think of myself—and others—only in terms of the outward body, not considering the inner self, I am in illusion, in ignorance.

And if I’m in ignorance, what does it mean to say I am educated?

Once Srila Prabhupada was invited to speak at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the finest of American schools of higher learning. And to the students and professors who had gathered to hear him, this is what he said:

“I see that in this institute you have so many departments of knowledge—chemistry, biology, astronomy, physics—but where is that department to study the difference between a living body and a dead body? Within the living body is the force of consciousness. Within the dead body that consciousness is gone, and no one can bring it back.

“The living body moves and acts because of consciousness, and therefore within the body, consciousness is the most essential element. Where is the department to study that?”

But of course there was no such department. We study nature, we study the world, but we don’t study the conscious force that moves the world. We don’t study the self.

Instead, we just take it for granted that the self and the body are the same. We misidentify the self with the body—”I am white,” “I am black,” “I am American,” “I am South African”—and on top of that illusion we build up our education, our science, our lives, our societies.

And so we focus on that which is changing, and we lose sight of that which lasts.

And when I think, in effect, “I am this body,” I think of that which is related to my body—or that which I can grab for it—as mine: My land, my slaves or workers, my gold, my diamonds, my colonies, my empire.

If something is mine, it is not yours. And so we compete for it, each of us trying to hold on to what we have and get our hands on what we don’t.

And this leads to conflict, to exploitation and injustice, to hatred and cruelty and brutality, and to rioting and war.

Or else we form partnerships and alliances. Why should this be mine or yours? Let’s call it ours and divide it fairly. This is what Srila Prabhupada called “thieves dividing honestly.”

What factually belongs to us? The land was here before we came, and it will still be here when we are gone. So too the people, the gold, the diamonds, the empires. How then are they ours?

And if we claim as our own what is not ours, are we not thieves? And how will thieves divide their stolen goods honestly?

According to the Ishopanishad, a Vedic text:

ishavasyam idam sarvam
yat kincha jagatyam jagat
tena tyaktena bhunjitha
ma gridhah kasya svid dhanam

“Everything within the universe, whether animate or inanimate, belongs to the person who ultimately controls them—that is, to the Supreme Lord. We should therefore accept only what we need for ourselves, what is set aside as our quota, and we should not grasp for other things, knowing well to whom they belong.”

When I own and control something, I say that it’s mine: my wallet, my cell phone, my dog, my car, my home. But whatever I call mine is factually only on loan. It is “mine” for a while, but not more.

Even my body—which I certainly say is mine—is mine only for some time. And even then, I can’t fully control it. I can’t, for example, stop it from getting old, nor from dying. So finally the grave or the funeral pyre takes it and says, “It’s mine.”

Yet here I am, thinking “I am this body” and claiming that whatever I can hold on to is mine. And because I can show a diploma, I am an educated person.

The architects of apartheid were certainly highly educated persons, and so too those who enforced it, but not from the Vedic point of view, because they were acting in the bodily concept of life. And that means ignorance.

The Ishopanishad says, “Those who follow a life of ignorance go downward, into darkness, and still further into darkness go those engaged in the cultivation of knowledge.”

In other words, having wrong-headed knowledge, wrong-headed education, is worse than having none at all. This isn’t to say that one shouldn’t be educated, but education should make a person finer, not more foolish or more vicious.

Equal Vision

The person who is factually in knowledge, Krishna tells us, sees every human being—in fact, all beings that live—with an equal eye.

When we see that the body is but an outward covering of the self and we see that the true self is the spark of consciousness within, then we can come to this true equality of vision. And this is the vision of the truly educated person.

Such a person can factually attain liberation in the spiritual sense of the term—liberation from the illusions of material existence.

This doesn’t require that one give up one’s family or give up one’s work. Rather, it calls for a change in understanding, a change in vision: from material (“I am this body”) to spiritual (“I am the lasting spark of consciousness within, and all living beings have the same spiritual nature”).

When the Vedic wisdom speaks of “all living beings,” it offers a vision in which goodwill and fellowship are to be extended not only to all other people—white, black, or whatever—but even to the animals, to the birds, to the fish, to the trees and plants—to all beings that live.

They too have consciousness. They too have life.

In the Bhagavad-gita Sri Krishna says that the learned person, the truly educated person, sees with equal vision the teacher, the cow, the elephant, the dog, and even a person who eats dog meat. Outwardly, these are all certainly different, but he sees within them all the same spark of life.

And so, Krishna says, “By seeing that all other living beings are the same in essence as oneself, the learned person sees the true oneness of all living beings, both in their happiness and in their distress. Such a person is genuinely connected with God.”

I want to be happy, and so too do all other living beings. And just as I feel pain, so too do all others. Why then should I not want all other living beings to be happy? And why should I cause any other living being needless pain?

And so the Vedic aphorism, sarve sukhino bhavantu: “May there be happiness for all.”

In practical terms, this implies a change of diet, from a diet that relies on cruelty and slaughter to a diet gentle and humane. To inflict pain and suffering on millions of animals through wholesale slaughter and then to expect friendship, peace, and tranquility among human beings is to live in a fool’s dream.

According to the Vedic wisdom, one result will come to us when we follow a life of ignorance—that is, of supposed knowledge that fails to go beyond the bodily concept of life—and a very different result when we cultivate a life of true knowledge, knowledge that begins with an understanding of our own spiritual nature and the spiritual nature of all living beings.

And so the Ishopanishad says that one should gain both material knowledge and spiritual knowledge side by side. In this way, one can go beyond material existence—beyond even death—and enjoy what the Ishopanishad calls “the nectar of immortality.”

Creating Our Future

For the body there is no question of immortality, and for the conscious self within the body there is no possibility of death. This is what the Vedic sages have seen by carefully considering the ultimate nature of both: both matter and spirit, both the body and the conscious self.

In the Vedic view, since the conscious self is immortal, after the death of the body it continues to exist. As we change bodies from that of a child to that of a youth to that of a person in old age, so at the time of death we move on to a new body, in another lifetime, in a continuous cycle of birth and death.

Now I am present in this room, and now you can see me, but it’s not that I popped into existence only when I entered the room. Nor is it that when I leave this room and you no longer see me I will cease to exist. Before coming to this room, I was present somewhere else, in another room, and when I leave here I will go somewhere else.

And so it is with consciousness, with the self. Now here we are, in our present bodies, but before we must have been elsewhere. And when we leave, again we must go somewhere else.

No one can create consciousness—no engineer, no scientist—nor can anyone destroy it. So what happens to it? According to the Vedic view, it always exists, and it travels from one life to the next, being born, living out a lifetime, and then dying and moving on to the next.

And so it is that we are born into different circumstances, sometimes rich, sometimes poor, sometimes healthy, sometimes diseased. Our circumstances in this life result from our actions in the life before, and our actions in the present life create the life we will have next, much as what we do in grade school might make us eligible to enter a certain sort of college and how seriously we apply ourselves in college makes a difference when we enter the job market. By our present actions we create our future. And all that we do in the present life is summed up at the time of our death.

This is a large topic, which time prevents us from pursuing here in much detail. But it is worthy of our further study because the ultimate problem of human life is not one of those problems we find in our newspaper headlines. It is the problem each of us must deal with, to which all the sages of the world direct our thoughts: the problem of death—and what, in the face of it, each of us should do.

The Education We Need

Earlier in this talk, I mentioned that according to the Vedic tradition, education should aim at enabling us to achieve success in four objectives: religion (or dharma), economic development, the satisfaction of our needs and wants, and finally liberation.

In the Vedic view, the ultimate goal is liberation, and the other three objectives are steppingstones along the way. Through dharma, leading a moral life while working in a suitable occupation, we earn what we require to satisfy our needs and wants, so that we can pursue an understanding of our ultimate purpose in life and taste, as the Ishopanishad says, “the nectar of immortality.” That is the ideal of Vedic education.

Vedic education endeavors not to stuff a child with knowledge but, above all, to build character, to instill the values of cleanliness, truthfulness, austerity, and mercy. It promotes economic development especially through a simpler way of life, in which we make proper use of nature’s gifts and live in harmony with nature. In this way it enables us to meet our needs, and it teaches us the art of being satisfied with what nature gives us, and not trying to scheme and exploit and bully our way into trying to get more, at the expense of the lives and happiness of others. And it keeps always in view that our present life is temporary and that its true purpose lies in spiritual realization.

But education as we know it today? Quite a different story. Morality and personal character are of little concern. And liberation is out of the picture. The focus is squarely on economic development—on making money. And for this our education trains leaders to build an over-industrialized world where millions of people can toil in mines and factories so that a few can live in luxury (with a middle class in between to serve as emerging target markets and consumer units). With such an education, we focus on meeting our needs and wants, and not only meeting them but expanding them, in the expectation that the more we get, the happier we will be.

This expectation is false, so the education we receive is a false one, leading us on to work like donkeys, with the carrot of happiness always dangled before our face at every step, sure to be ours if only we can just catch up with it.

Our poster for this evening’s program mentioned that the World Economic Forum ranked South Africa’s educational system as one of the world’s worst: of 144 countries, number 140.

And a year ago Mamphela Ramphele said, famously, that South Africa’s educational system is worse today than the “gutter education” the country had under the apartheid government.

But suppose that by some miracle of good government and educational reform—now we’re really talking miracles—South Africa’s educational system were to move up from the bottom of the list and join the ranks if not of Switzerland, Finland, and Singapore (numbers one, two, and three) at least of the United Kingdom and the United States (numbers 27 and 28).

Srila Prabhupada would say that this miraculously transformed educational system would still be a grand failure. Why? Because it would still be built on ignorance, on mistaking the body for the self, and on making the gratification of our bodily demands—the needs for eating, sleeping, mating, and defense—the central focus of our life.

The animals know of no higher purposes in life than to eat, to sleep, to defend themselves, and to have sex. Of course, as human beings we share these same needs. But human life is meant for a higher purpose. We may eat more nicely than the animals—in a restaurant or a hotel—we may sleep in a more comfortable bed, we may defend ourselves with guns and missiles instead of teeth and claws, and we may have sex with the aid of condoms and pills. And that may make us better animals, more polished animals, more sophisticated animals. But it doesn’t make us more than animals.

And human beings living as no more than animals will never be truly successful, nor even happy, to say nothing of achieving the ultimate goal of human life.

For that we need a truly higher education, one that begins in childhood and extends throughout one’s life, an education that enables us to understand the difference between the temporary body and the permanently existing conscious self. We need an education that enables us to see that whatever exists in this world is not our property, to be fought over or cleverly divided and exploited, but the property of God, the ultimate controller and owner of all. We need an education that teaches us how to work in harmony with nature, not against it, by living a simpler life, meeting our basic needs by depending on nature’s gifts. And we need an education that enables us to keep in view the ultimate goal of human life: to rise above what is illusory to what is real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality.

It was to promote this sort of education that Srila Prabhupada journeyed on that freighter to New York, that he came here to South Africa, and that he wrote so many books.

The knowledge found in these books is like gold. And I dare say it’s more valuable than all the gold ever found in South Africa. And this gold needs no mines, no exploited workers, no ruinous environmental impact, no international competition. It’s pure and beneficial, and it’s yours for the taking.

This doesn’t involve switching from one religion to another. Whatever our religion, whatever our culture, whatever our race, whatever our nationality, we can take advantage of this knowledge and benefit. Its value is universal, crossing all lines.

Gold is gold, regardless of where it comes from. There’s no question of Russian gold or South African gold, of Hindu gold or Christian or Muslim gold. Wherever we find gold, and from whomever we get it, it always has value. So too with knowledge. The Bhagavad-gita says, “There is nothing so sublime and pure as transcendental knowledge.”

“Such knowledge,” the Gita says, “is the king of education.” And I invite you to give it your open-minded consideration, with the utmost seriousness.

About the Author: 

Jayadvaita Swami

Jayadvaita Swami, a former editor in chief of Back to Godhead, heads the work of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust in Africa. He is currently writing a book-length "cross-cultural commentary" on the biblical book of Ecclesiastes.