Education and knowledge are often not the same thing.

By Jitendra Savanur

A perspective on modern education.

Albert Einstein said, “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything one learned in school.” This quote depicts the weariness of the education system prevalent back in his time, a system not very different from what we have today. Yet almost as if by second nature, we equate education with wisdom. Education and the subsequent degree received are seen as a trophy, a proof of one’s wisdom and knowledge, one’s ability to make a difference in the world. While that is true to an extent, from the standpoint of values and ethics the world has not seen any significant uplift in recent years. The word “education” is derived from the Latin word educare, which means to bring up, rise, nourish, train, or mound. It stems from the idea of bringing out a person’s innate qualities and powers and giving him or her scope to develop and be nourished. When someone’s innate qualities are nourished and developed, the positive impact he or she can have on the world will be truly meaningful.

Far from fulfilling its true purpose, the scenario with the education system nowadays has taken a very sad turn. Today, more degrees are being awarded than required in all industries combined. The result? Unemployment, or employment in a sector completely unrelated to one’s domain of education. And within all this, values and ethics appear to be a distant dream. Whether the fault is the quality of education being offered or the receptiveness of the student, the result is that today’s education system seems inadequate even for the basic skill development that is supposed to be a natural result of education in a recognized institution.

Education or Knowledge as a Means to Spiritual Enlightenment

When Srila Prabhupada spoke at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he knew that the university was one of the topmost places of education, attracting top scholars from all over the world. So he asked his audience if the university had a department that studied the soul. For him, mundane education and mundane scientific research, however materially advanced they may be, always occupy a place subordinate to the science of the soul and the science of Krishna consciousness.

In his purport to the second verse of the ninth chapter of Bhagavad-gita, Prabhupada writes: “There are so many departments of knowledge all over the world and many huge universities, but there is, unfortunately, no university or educational institution where the science of the spirit soul is instructed.” Prabhupada envisioned a society in which all our abilities, including our intellectual prowess, could be utilized in the service of Krishna, enabling everyone to come to the platform of perfection through one’s natural occupational tendencies. This society, in which Krishna is at the center of our endeavors, is spoken about in Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.2.13):

atah pumbhir dvija-shreshtha
svanushthitasya dharmasya
samsiddhir hari-toshanam

“O best among the twice-born, it is therefore concluded that the highest perfection one can achieve by discharging the duties prescribed for one’s own occupation according to caste divisions and orders of life is to please the Personality of Godhead.” In any society there is inevitably a division of roles in that some of the people are the brain of the society (intellectuals), some are administrators, some belong to the agrarian and the business classes, and finally, some to the labor class. And the success of this division of roles is when all the classes cooperate with each other for the highest purpose, which is to please the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

Is Education Enough?

But is education in and off itself enough for self-realization? No, say the Vedas. While listing the qualities that constitute knowledge, Krishna mentions amanitvam (humility) and adambhitvam (pridelessness) as the first two (Bhagavad-gita 13.8). It is pertinent to note that high education or philosophical expertise are not even in the list of these qualities mentioned by Krishna. Queen Kunti goes one step ahead and says that qualities like beauty, high birth, and education are hindrances on the path of bhakti (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.8.26). This is indeed a strong thing to say, given that she herself belonged to the Kuru family. The reason for her stance, Vaishnava commentators explain, is that material accomplishments like beauty, high education, and good birth can make us proud of possessing them, and pride is unfavorable to the path of bhakti, Krishna’s words above being the testimony. The blinding potency of pride that these accomplishments bring is enough to keep us bound to this world forever. And truly, more often than not, the education we receive in today’s world does not, in any way, push us to inquire into life’s ultimate truths.

When Lord Chaitanya was traveling throughout South India, He met a brahmana at Sri Rangam. This brahmana was trying to read the Bhagavad-gita, when it was apparent that he could not read the Sanskrit properly. The other brahmanas in the temple were having a good laugh at this. But what caught Lord Chaitanya’s eye was that the brahmana was shedding tears of love as he was reading the Gita.

When asked by Lord Chaitanya the reason for his tears, he said, “My guru told me to read the Bhagavad-gita daily. Though I’m not able to read the Sanskrit properly, I’m trying to make an effort as per the order of my guru. When I remember the magnificent form of Krishna as He was instructing Arjuna, I am filled with ecstatic happiness.”

Hearing this, Lord Chaitanya embraced the brahmana and declared that He considered him the foremost scholar of the Bhagavad-gita, because he had the most important qualifications to understand the Gita’s message – humility and devotion.

The Importance of Education

The beauty of the path of bhakti is that whatever we possess can be engaged in the service of God. There is no need to reject or give up something we are good at to advance spiritually. When we use our accomplishments in the service of God, the accomplishments, though temporary, become spiritual. Ultimately, the distinction between material and spiritual is the consciousness with which we perform our actions. Prabhupada stressed this point time and again by quoting Rupa Goswami from Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu (1.2.255):

anasaktasya vishayan
yatharham upayunjatah
nirbandhah krishna-sambandhe
yuktam vairagyam uchyate
prapanchikataya buddhya
mumukshubhih parityago
vairagyam phalgu kathyate

“When one is not attached to anything, but at the same time accepts everything in relation to Krishna, one is rightly situated above possessiveness. On the other hand, one who rejects everything without knowledge of its relationship to Krishna is not as complete in his renunciation.” The more we are able to connect our actions to Krishna, the more spiritual they become, although they may externally seem identical to materialistic actions. The Vaishnava kings of bygone ages like Yudhishthira, Parikshit, and Kulashekhara had this consciousness when they ruled their subjects. Considering their subjects children of God, they would strive for their subjects’ material as well as spiritual well-being and happiness. Thus, though each of us has to act in some way, the path of bhakti offers a sublime way to spiritualize our actions.

Also, Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita (3.21),

yad yad acharati shreshthas
tat tad evetaro janah
sa yat pramanam kurute
lokas tad anuvartate

“Whatever action is performed by a great man, common men follow in his footsteps. And whatever standards he sets by exemplary acts, all the world pursues.” By the dint of his or her education, someone may be able to influence many people.  If such a person takes to spiritual life, that will inspire many more to turn towards spirituality. In that way, education and a subsequent position in the world can work to encourage common people to turn to God and improve their lives, thus fulfilling the highest goal of the varnashrama system, which is to please Lord Krishna.

The examples of Prakashananda Sarasvati and Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya are worth noting here. Both of them were highly learned in the nondualistic interpretation of the Vedas and were greatly respected as Vedic scholars by common people. But after their hearts were transformed by their conversations with Lord Chaitanya, thousands of people followed suit and took to bhakti the way they did.

Adding One to the Zeroes

As Martin Luther King, Jr., rightly said, “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.” There is a general lack of a sense of direction in what we do. When we turn towards spirituality, our skills get a positive direction towards which they can be engaged. As Prabhupada often said, all our accomplishments are like zeroes, but when we worship Krishna with them, we add a one to the list of zeroes, giving value to all of them. So if one has an inclination to pursue higher education, then one can certainly do so and at the same time, maintain one’s spiritual values and pursue one’s spiritual goals. This way, one can use one’s higher education and spiritualize it in furthering the mission of Krishna consciousness. Thus, whatever situation we are in, educated or illiterate, whether we possess a degree or we don’t, we can take shelter of God and move upwards in our journey of self-realization.