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Friday, October 15, 2010

Humility of Master Teachers

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

I am scheduled to give a seminar to young physicians who plan to make teaching as their career. The topic is “On becoming an effective teacher”. This is why I have been thinking about teaching and wrote about Dattatreya and Buddha in the previous blog.

The more I read and reflect, the more amazed I get at the greatness of the ancient rishis (sages) of India, and their humility. This essay is to support this observation.

For a starter, almost all the Upanishads and puranas (epics, legends) are written as answers to questions by ardent seekers. Bhagvat Gita came into being in answer to a question by Arjuna. In Bhagavata Purana there are sections consisting entirely of questions.

It is humbling to hear the words of Lord Krishna at the end of the Bhagavat Gita in Chapter 18, sloka 63. After expounding the entire essence of the Vedas, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna: "Ithi thay gnanam aakyaatham guhyat guhyataharam mayaa vimrushya ethath ashesheyna yatha icchasi tathaa kuru”. The meaning is: “I have declared to you the secrets of secrets. Reflect on it fully and act as you like”. Lord Krishna did not say: “This is what you should do”.

In the other classic, Yoga Vasishta, the sage Vyasa is teaching young Raama. At the end of Chapter 21, Vasishta says: “shruthva vichaarya cha iva anthah yath yuktham thath samaachara” , which means “Having heard and examined it within yourself, do what is proper”.

An entire Upanishad is called Prasna Upanishad. Prasna means questions! This is the “Questions Upanishad”. Four students , Sukesa, Satyakama, Kausalya and Kabandhi approach the rishi, Pippalada with their questions. Each chapter starts with a question by one of the students followed by the teacher’s answers. It is amazing to read the 2nd sloka which is a statement by the teacher. He says: “Come with faith and mental preparedness and ask your questions. I will explain, whatever I know”. (yadi vignayasyaamah vo vakshyaamyah)

Another famous passage is in Brhadaaranyaka Upanishad, Chapter 4, Section1. This is a dialogue between King Janaka and the sage Yaagnyavalkya. When Janaka asks a question, the sage answers by saying: “ Let me hear what anyone may have told you”. Starting where the student is at his state of knowledge is an extremely important point in teaching.

I have already mentioned Buddha.

One other master teacher I wish to refer to is Adi Sankara. He changed my spiritual directions through his writings. One specific sentence he wrote that attracted me to him is: “na hi prathyakshavirodhey shruthey praamaanyam” meaning that Vedas cannot be an authority as against observable facts! He follows this sentence by saying that even if hundred vedic texts say fire is cold and devoid of light, it is not so. I understand this statement as: “Don’t just swallow whatever is written, however sacred it is; Think”.

The attitude of our ancient sages shows their respect for the students as individuals and their trust in the student’s capacity to grow. This is good psychology of learning and of teaching.

This is the humility that I wish to bring to teaching because as William Cowper ( I think) said: “Knowledge is proud it knows so much; Wisdom is humble it knows so little”.