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Belgaum Youth Convention lecture

Education for uncertain times

This is the topic I gave to the organizers of this program when they asked me what I would speak
on. Let me tell you the reason I chose this topic.

Long ago, we had a great Swami in America. He was one of the pioneers in the Vedanta
Movement in USA. One day he gave an advertisement in the newspapers. He would give a lecture on
‘How to make money using Vedanta’. Hundreds came. The Hall was overflowing. The Swami started
speaking. He said, “I do not know how to make money using Vedanta. I gave this topic only to attract you
all to come to my lecture. I know about Vedanta, about Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. I will
speak on these topics. This is the only way I can force you all to come and listen to this great message.”

Of course, those were days before the Consumer Courts, else that Swami would have got sued for
a refund on the entry tickets!

My case is also similar. I don’t know what education is meant for uncertain times. I just gave that
topic so that your interest levels would be high for what I really have to say today! I hope I don’t get sued
by you all! I know about Swami Vivekananda and what he said about Education. I will explain that
briefly today.

In my opinion, all education is always meant for uncertain times. Why? Who can really predict
the future? All we can do is assuming that there are these skills that are needed in the near future, say, five
years max. We can impart those skills hoping that you will indeed be using those very skills in your life.
But we don’t know. If there is any Board or Council or University that says that they have it all figured
out, I beg to differ. They are just taking a shot in the dark. They don’t know for sure. No one can know
for sure what the future will be like. Just a little while ago, Dr Subramanian told us how the entire
education system is meant to keep the institutions busy and that they are really imparting nothing!

Who exactly is shaping the future of this world? Can we ask this question? Yes, we can. Can we
answer this question? I don’t think we can. The factors that actually work and give shape to the future of
this world are too many. That is why nobody, not even the best computers, can predict what the world
will be like in twenty years’ time. When we don’t even know what the world will be like when our
children will be working, how can we design a curriculum for their education today? Does this mean that
all our education is in vain? Now, that is something I will deal with presently.

When I was a student, we used to study something called ‘First Order Differential Equations’. It
was tough. We all struggled hard to understand it. But we all did it. We all had to do it. Later on when I
used to work, I had a colleague. Every day while punching out of the office, he would tell me, ‘Ravi, one
more day has passed, and I still haven’t used First Order Differential Equations in my work!’ It was a joke
between us, you see.

We will teach you many things in school and college. We don’t know if they will ever be useful
to you. But there is one important result we are all aiming for through all this exercise that we are all
doing. We are teaching you, and you are all learning from us. The details of education, such as computers
and coding, or history, or literature, etc. are beside the point here; we can argue interminably about these
things. The exercise of education is meant to unleash something inside you. It is about this vital thing that
Swami Vivekananda has elaborated. In all his lectures and letters, you will find him talk about education
Belgaum Youth Convention lecture

again and again. But nowhere will you find him specifying details such as what subjects should be taught.
Then what did he say about education? What should be the outcome of education according to him?

I wish to highlight three important ideas today.

Firstly, you will have to learn ‘how to learn’. As a result of all this exercise that we call school
and college education, what exactly are we looking for? This entire exercise should enable you all to learn
about your own mind. You must be able to understand how exactly your mind understands things. You
must be able to understand how you translate ideas into action. That knowledge is the outcome we are
looking for. If you get this, you will be able to face the future. Whatever situation comes in your life, say
thirty years from now, if you know how your mind works, you will be able to pick up new skills,
whatever is relevant then, and move on with your life. A great American thinker called Henry Adams
once said, “They know enough who know how to learn.”

You all know that famous definition of Religion given by Swamiji. ‘Religion is the manifestation
of the divinity already in man.’1 This is one of his more famous statements. You will find it on calendars,
stickers, magazines, everywhere. But what you may not know is that Swamiji has given over fifty
different definitions of Religion! All of them look at Religion from a different perspective. He once said,
‘My Religion is to learn.’2 We all know Swami Vivekananda to be a Hindu monk. All political parties in
India today are using Swami Vivekananda to appeal to the so-called Hindu vote bank. I wonder what they
have to say about this statement made by the same Swamiji! Learning is my religion, he says.

Of course, some scholars of Swami Vivekananda’s works may point out that he is just translating
into English the statement ‘I belong to the Vedic Religion’. The Sanskrit work Veda means ‘learning’
also. Hence, this statement will mean ‘I believe in the Vedas and hence I am a Hindu.’ But semantics
apart, learning is so important for Swamiji that he will even swear by learning!

In one place, Swamiji says “(Education) is the systematic development of the mind. To me the
very essence of education is concentration of mind, not the collecting of facts. If I had to do my education
over again, and had any voice in the matter, I would not study facts at all. I would develop the power of
concentration and detachment, and then with a perfect instrument I could collect facts at will. Side by
side, in the child, should be developed the power of concentration and detachment.”3 This is basically
what I am trying to explain to you. You must learn how to learn. Today, psychology has a new word for
this idea. It is called ‘Metacognition’. But the idea is the same as what Swamiji said, “If I had to do my
education all over again, I would only learn how to concentrate my mind. I could use it anywhere.”

Secondly, the entire exercise of education is meant to develop some faculties, some qualities, and
some capabilities in you. This whole set of qualities in your personality, is called ‘Character’. Swamiji
said, “It is the patient up-building of character, the intense struggle to realize the truth, which alone will
tell in the future of humanity.”4 So, there you have what this great Swamiji had to say about Education for
uncertain times. Develop Character. It is Character alone that enables you to face the future, a future that
will forever be uncertain, unpredictable.

1
Complete Works: Vol-4: What We Believe In
2
Complete Works: Vol-1: Lectures and Discourses: The Hindu Religion
3
Complete Works: Vol-6: Lectures and Discourses: Concentration And Breathing
4
Complete Works: Vol-8: Epistles – 4th Series: To Mr. E. T. Sturdy on 24th April, 1895
Belgaum Youth Convention lecture

What qualities are we speaking of? There are so many. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics mentions
so many of them. The Christian books also enumerate a whole set. They have even categorized them into
cardinal and secondary.

Having worked in Education for so many years now, I wish to point out three character qualities
on which we need to concentrate: Time-consciousness, Sense of duty, and Joint effort.

Time-consciousness: The essential outcome of education is to awaken a sense of time in you all.
Time is a resource. You will have to use it properly. Time gets used up, whether you do something or not.
Time just passes by, never to return. How did you use your time? At any moment, you will feel you are
using time well. Are you? Time is one of the major connecting links between all of us. If even one of us
doesn’t have time-consciousness, he will waste all of ours’ time. What right do you have to waste my
time?

You may argue by saying that when you don’t even know what you need to concentrate on, how
can you know if your time is being properly used or not? That brings us to the next quality I hold
important in students.

Sense of duty: All of us are meant to do something very, very specific at any given moment of
time. There is no vagueness about that at all! That something is called ‘Duty’. You are meant to do that.
Are you doing it?

What are students meant to do? You know very well what you are all meant to do. Are you doing
it? Nowadays students go to College, you know for what? To set the College right! To teach the Principal
and the Professors a lesson! In most of our Universities today, we have Students’ Unions. College
students feel that they are using their time most profitably by participating in Union activities. I have
worked in various parts of India. In most places I have seen this disease.

I was once sitting in the chamber of the Education Commissioner of that State. Suddenly about
fifteen youths entered the office. They just made themselves comfortable in his office. The
Commissioner, a very senior IAS Officer, politely pointed out that he hadn’t asked them to sit. One of the
youths said, “Sir, I am the President of this State’s Students Union. I have Cabinet Minister’s status!”
This is education for you!

I was looking after a Higher Secondary School once. One day, when the classes ended at 3.30pm,
some 6-7 students of Class-XII barged into my office and said, “Swamiji, we have planned to start a
Students Union in our School. We need your permission.” They were not asking for my permission. I was
experienced enough to understand that! They were just informing me. I told them that I would reply the
next day during the Morning Prayer assembly. The next day, after the Morning Prayer, I told all the
students, “Yesterday, some 6-7 students came to meet me. They are all here. They want to start a Students
Union in our School. I know that forming a Students Union is your democratic right. So I will certainly
give my permission. I must however inform you all one important thing. Any of you can approach me at
any time of the day or night with any problem you may have – academic, personal, financial, or social. I
am available for you. This is how it has been going on till now. You all know it. But once the Union is
formed, I will not allow any of you to meet me directly. I will deal only through the Union. In a way, my
work will become reduced. Now, I want you all to discuss amongst yourselves and let me know by
Belgaum Youth Convention lecture

evening.” By 3.30pm, those 6-7 students came into my office, all dejected. The students had all strongly
berated them. So, no Union would be formed. But a new problem had cropped up. A couple of those boys
were weeping. I asked them why. They said, “Swamiji, Mr….had given us Rs. 2 lakhs for forming the
Union in our School. We have already spent about Rs. 50,000. Now, we have to return it!” Well, well,
well! I then took those boys in my vehicle to the house of Mr… who was the sitting MLA of our place.
He was seeking for re-election and hence this rigmarole. I explained the whole issue to him. There were
some more important persons of the society in his house and they all heard it. He immediately said, “Arre,
Swamiji; why did you have to come for this? Forget the whole thing. Let the boys return the remaining
amount and let us forget the whole issue.” So this is education for you!

I keep getting invitations from various Colleges for speaking at their programs. They are all
organized by their Students Unions. In one such program, the ‘organizers’ informed me that they had
invited foreign speakers too. I told the ‘organizers’ that I would attend if they invite two important
speakers from abroad. These Students Union leaders have a great sense of power, you see. They have
access to huge funds. They agreed and asked me who I wanted. I said, “Invite the General Secretary of the
Students Union of Harvard University and of the Oxford University.” They couldn’t invite them. Do you
know why? Those Universities don’t have a Students Union! They study. They don’t waste time in bull-
shit!

Swamiji repeatedly said that privileges spoil the capacity for doing hard work. The sense of duty
is closely connected to working hard. I spoke so much about Students Unions. I know all students don’t
do such nonsense. But, the trend is the same in almost all students. They may not participate. But they
observe. They learn that if you get to a position of power, you will get privileges. Once you get that, your
life is settled. No more hard work is needed. Recall that idiot’s statement: ‘I have the status of a Cabinet
Minister!’ Yesterday, a beautiful museum was inaugurated in our Town Center here, you may know.
There are replicas of many items that Swamiji used. There is a similar museum in Belur Math also. I saw
a replica of the trunk that Swamiji used when he travelled all over the world. It is a huge trunk. This is the
Prophet of the modern age. This was the trunk he used. Nowhere do you find any reference to an assistant
or helper during his extensive journeys all over the world. He carried his own large suitcase everywhere!
The Prophet of the modern age did not claim any privileges. He did not say, ‘I have realized the Truth. An
incarnation of God, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, has certified my status as a realized soul. And he has
authorized me to do good to the world. That is the reason I travel so much. Now, you can’t expect me to
carry my own ugly, large trunk everywhere. What will happen to my status as a Prophet?’

A young Engineer was attending a job interview. After the interview was over, the interviewer
asked him, “Do you have any questions?” The young man asked, “Sir, what will be the salary?” The
interviewer said, “You are a fresher. We will put you on two years’ probation, during which period, we
will pay you Rs.10,000 per month. After your probationership is completed, we will put into the
Rs.16,500 scale. Understood?” The young Engineer replied, “Yes Sir. I will join after two years.”

This is what happens with privileges! You lose the edge which will actually develop you. You
start searching for short-cuts, which actually don’t exist in life.

Thirdly, there is the issue of working conjointly with others. We are all very good when we
work alone. As a group, we suck. There seems to be a genetic problem with us. We simply cannot work
together. We are suspicious of one another. We are hypercritical of one another. We are excellent Judges
Belgaum Youth Convention lecture

of others’ faults and terrific lawyers of our own. Swamiji exhorted us again and again to develop this
quality. School and college education is, in fact, a very good system for developing this quality. All we
need to do is – become aware that we need to develop this quality. A mob is not an organization. We
can’t form an organization out of the masses on a railway platform. Something else is required for
working together meaningfully.

A person was walking on a road and saw two people working. One of them was digging a hole in
the ground. Another came behind him and put all the dug up mud back and closed the hole. Again and
again these two people were doing this. This observer saw for a long time and tried to figure out what was
happening. When he couldn’t understand it at all, he went up to them and asked what they were doing.
One of them replied, “Sir, we are doing a Govt project here on afforestation. I dig a hole in the ground.
Another person comes and puts a sapling in that hole. A third person comes after that and fills up the hole
with mud. Today, the second guy is absent!” So, people have worked sincerely. Money is spent by the
Government. But the end result is zero! This is what happens when we do not learn to work conjointly!

Before I end, I wish to point out one more idea given by Swamiji. I do not myself understand
this idea very well. But Swami Vivekananda uttered it. It is true. I will tell you what he said. I will leave it
to you to understand it in your own light. In a very important lecture he delivered in India after his return
from the West, he said, “If the fisherman thinks that he is the Spirit, he will be a better fisherman; if the
student thinks he is the Spirit, he will be a better student. If the lawyer thinks that he is the Spirit, he will
be a better lawyer, and so on.”5 You are students. Swamiji says that if you can think that you are the
Atman, you will be better students! Just give this idea some thought when you are free. How would this
work? What is meant by ‘thinking you are the Atman’? This seems to be a challenge that Swamiji throws
at you. Take it up and see if he is wrong.

That brings us to the end of my lecture. This is all I wanted to tell you today. You see, we have so
much education in our country. Hundreds of crores of rupees are spent annually. But, what is the result?
We are recognizing problems in our system. We are trying to solve them too. Yet, we seem to be stuck
somewhere. And our leaders don’t seem to have a clue of what is wrong. I believe the problem lies in
ignoring Swami Vivekananda’s ideas on education. There seems to be some kind of resistance to
Swamiji’s ideas in us. His words appear to soothing, yet, we do not want to accept them wholeheartedly.

There was a zoo in a city. There was a fruit-garden adjacent to this zoo. One day, the owner of the
fruit-garden complained to the zoo authorities that the giraffe in the zoo was eating all the fruits of his
garden. The zoo authorities held a meeting and decided that the compound wall would be raised to 20
feet. That would prevent the giraffe from sticking its neck into the garden. After some more days, the
owner of the fruit-garden again complained that the giraffe was still eating the fruits. This time, the zoo
authorities raised the compound wall to 50 feet. There was no chance of the giraffe sticking its neck even
by jumping now! But, after some days, the owner of the fruit garden again complained that the problem
was still not solved. This time, a committee was formed to study the giraffe day & night to determine how
it stole the fruits. Do you know what the committee found? The gate between the zoo and the fruit-garden
used to be kept open. The giraffe would simply walk into the garden, eat whatever it wanted and would
come back!

5
Complete Works: Vol-3: Lectures from Colombo to Almora: Vedanta In Its Application To Indian Life
Belgaum Youth Convention lecture

So, Swamiji’s ideas on education are the lock for that gate. Let us put that lock so that our efforts
will bear fruit.

There was a great Swami here in Belgaum. He was the founder of this Ashrama. I went to him
many years ago, when I was young. You see, I had studied Swami Vivekananda and the Upanishads in
my own way. In those books, it is mentioned that if you wish to learn spirituality, you must approach the
learned ones and formally apply for apprenticeship. So I went to him and said, “Swamiji, will you please
train me?” He got real angry and said, “I don’t train anyone. I am not in this training business! But, there
is one thing: if you wish to get trained by yourself, you are welcome to stay with me.” This, I believe, is
real education. You get yourself educated. No one can make you educated. You cannot be trained. But, if
you wish, you may train yourself adequately. All resources you need are available in this world.

So there is no point in finding fault with the Government or Institutions or Schools and Colleges.
That is what we do. We say that we went to College for 10 years but nobody taught us anything. As if
teaching you is somebody’s responsibility! Teaching yourself is your own responsibility. That is real
‘Education for uncertain times’.

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