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Sri Aurobindo’s Speech on National Education in Bombay on 15 January 1908

by on May 25, 2012

National Education is a very vast subject. When I was told about the topic I did not in the beginning quite realise its implications. But as I started thinking about it, I immediately understood its importance. The sorts of difficulties about the idea of National Education that are encountered here do not present themselves in Bengal. Here in the Bombay Province it is not clear to many or it is not understood properly by them as to what exactly does National Education mean. The term ‘National Education’ with a specific connotation is suspected and men of wisdom dismiss it. On the other hand, in Bengal the necessity to explain the concept of National Education does not arise at all. There may be people in favour of it or against it; but National Education is something that is taken by them as an actual fact, something that has been experienced by them. There is no necessity in Bengal to explain it or discuss it to convince people about the sense it carries. But in your Bombay Province it has, at present, only a verbal implication. It has not yet gone beyond mere talk. That is also perhaps the reason why people are suspect of it.

I am surprised that certain persons here ask me about National Education, about what exactly it means. There are those who wonder if there can be anything like a national education at all, particularly in the context of teaching, say, mathematics. They are at a loss to see in what manner it could be called ‘national’. Honourable Gokhale does not state that he does not understand the meaning of the term ‘National Education’; yet it is obvious that he has not really grasped its significance. At the National Congress, which was held in Calcutta, a Resolution about National Education was passed. But unfortunately as the Surat Congress did not take place, it could not be introduced there. However, Hon. Gokhale made certain modifications in the Resolution about National Education passed in Calcutta. In his consideration these modifications are of least importance. But my opinion is exactly opposed to his opinion. Perhaps Hon. Gokhale is not fully aware of the factual situation in Bengal vis-à-vis National Education. The word ‘National’ appears in this Resolution three times and there is no doubt that this has been done with a certain intention. The alteration suggested by Hon Gokhale does not speak of National Education; instead it introduces terms such as ‘Independent System of Education’. This has a different association and it does not really convey what we intend through the phrase ‘National Education’. The Subjects Committee at Calcutta introduced the word ‘National’ three times. It was not for nothing was this done. National Education should be imparted in a national spirit. This was the Resolution passed at Calcutta. Not even a single word of it can be altered or dropped.

National Education must be on national lines and must be under national control. Why we have to qualify this education by specifying it as ‘national’? Such a question may well be asked by many. These people maintain that, firstly, we are not a nation at all; therefore there cannot be the question of education being national. According to their thinking, what we call as a nation is an imaginary thing; it is not a reality. In India, they say, there are thousands of castes and sub-castes, innumerable sects and sub-sects, any number of religious creeds with differences of opinions and practices. In that case the use of ‘national’ in the Indian situation becomes meaningless. But these people do not understand what exactly is meant by a nation. They try to suggest that only when these castes and creeds are abolished can a nation come into existence. But this line of argument, that all people in the country should have one religion and there should be only one caste, is fallacious.

Religion and caste cannot be the distinctive characteristics of a nation. If you look at the geographical map of India, it certainly appears to be a big country, but it cannot be called a ‘nation’—this is what these people maintain. But we view it differently. To us, from the very geography of the country, it appears to be quite distinct from other countries and that itself gives to it a certain national character. Italy stands out in the same manner, separate from her surroundings, and in 30 years it became an independent nation. The inner and outer constitution of India, the customs and culture of its people, its religion, etc. etc. have an independent character different from the rest of the world. It has its foundations in the ancient past.

Those who object to this concept harp upon saying that India was never a nation. It is therefore imperative for us to understand what exactly is meant by the word ‘nation’. When we propose that National Education should be imparted, it is implied that we need not throw away the traditional background and instead introduce brand-new ideas and idealism. If we see the history of the country it is obvious that we did have a system of National Education. Look at our philosophy: what is in the individual is also in the universal. Of course a nation is a living entity, full of consciousness. It is never a thing made up, something fabricated. A living nation always grows; it must grow. It must attain higher and loftier heights. It may happen after a thousand years or it may happen in the next 20 years, but happen it must.

Our personality, our constitution is made up of three parts. We have three types of body, gross, subtle-physical, and causal. In a similar way the nation has three bodies. According to our philosophy it is not just the outward appearance, of the gross body, that makes a complete man. All the three bodies have to be taken into account; only then can we get some understanding about him. As in the case of man, so in the case of a nation. To think about our nation is first to think about our motherland. Stretching from the Himalayas in the north to Kanyakumari in the south, its boundaries are formed by the seas in the East and the West. Ganga, Jamuna, Narmada, Krishna, Godavari flow here unceasingly; here we have ancient cities, tall and imposing temples as well as artistically constructed palatial houses. Such is the part of this earth, known as India. It is that picture, that figure which comes in front of us when we talk about our nation. This is the gross body of our nation. Bankimchandra’s song Bande Mataram describes this aspect very beautifully,—33 crores of peoples living on this land with their happinesses and afflictions, with their good and bad desires. All these are a part of its subtle-physical. These are the aspects which, though may undergo changes in the course of time, yet always remain in the body; in the seed state, as permanent as the atom. They are present there and, being the origin, it is out of them that the future takes shape. This is the causal body of the nation. But that is not enough. According to our scriptures when we think of man, we not only think of the present but also of the past and the future. The same is applicable to a country. When we speak of rivers, mountains, cities, etc. of our country we do not keep in mind solely the present, not at all. What we speak of is the history of 5000 years. Does not the figure of Emperor Akbar stand in front of us when we utter the names of our cities Delhi or Agra? That is why we must, while speaking about the nation, also recollect the great achievements of our ancient people.

In this way Shivaji, Ashoka and Akbar at once become an integral part of our nationhood. This is taken for granted. In the same way, we immediately remember the Rishis of very ancient times who lived in this land. When we look at Japan we recognise that they never forget their ancestors. They offer their lives as a sacrifice for the sake of their country. This sense of sacrifice is always present in the Japanese blood. When a warrior fights for his country he recalls those sacrifices. This is something we must learn from Japan. We must learn how to honour the ancestors and keep their memories. In that awareness in them is always present their nationhood. Whatever you will do today, you are not going to do it for your sake. It will be to pay the debt you owe to them. This we must never forget. Not only your ancestors; the generations to come are also an organic part of the country. If we have to envision an Indian nation, it is in that sense that we should proceed. We should not be carried away by the Western advancements, get subdued by their achievements. When we think of our nation and our national character on such a global and universal level, then we truly dedicate ourselves to the cause. Surely there shall arise great thinkers, great statesmen, heroic warriors, mighty army chieftains to lift up the country. This may not happen immediately, today; but it shall certainly happen. The term ‘nation’ is full of such a meaning, full of such a significance; it is not simply a convenient political word.

In Bengal, while formulating the concept of National Education, we keep in front of us this grand idea of nationhood. We can now appreciate how in consonance with this lofty and noble concept the details have been worked out. We shall take the simplest subject of geography as an illustration. Just imagine the way this subject has been taught presently in government and private schools! The students are told about such and such country with such and such set of districts, with offices of those districts; this is the kind of information imparted in geography classes. What is its use? But according to the ideas of National Education when we teach geography, we teach it in a different way. The first thing we tell the children is that India is our Motherland. In this way we first make them aware of the gross body of the nation. We tell them about our rivers Ganga, Jamuna, Narmada, as what these rivers are, and not just where they flow. In these schools in Bengal, while describing the Avatarhood of Shivaji in Maharashtra, we explain to them what this Maharashtra is. Speaking about Punjab we tell the children about the Punjab of Ranajit Singh. Speaking about the geography of the Himalayas we in our National Schools teach how the land of Himalayas has become holy because of its Rishis. We also teach the geography of other nations; but what we impart to them is its importance in the context of our country. Similarly, like geography, the history of the country is taught to the students of Bengal in the national context. The teaching of history cannot just be when and how a certain king was crowned and how long he ruled over his kingdom, or when was the Battle of Plassey fought. Such are not the aspects on which we lay emphasis. In what manner in ancient days did the Aryans form the nation, or how today’s Marathas became Marathas, or the Bengalis became Bengalis, or the Punjabis became Punjabis,—such are the things we teach in history. In the process it will not matter much if a student fails to tell when was the Battle of Plassey fought. In short, we consider that true history is not really taught by the present-day governmental methods of teaching. Similarly, as in the case of geography and history, in Bengal’s National Schools we teach philosophy also differently. We explain to the students in our National Colleges in what way is our philosophy greater and more comprehensive as compared to other philosophies of the world. In governmental schools the degree holders know what Schopenhauer has to say, but they have the least knowledge about the spiritual foundations of our thought. It should also be recognised that whatever philosophy the students will learn in colleges, that they must try to put into practice.

Not that the programme of National Education which we have started is altogether new. It was initiated and practised long ago by our forefathers. Thus Shivaji’s greatness had its foundation in National Education itself. Based on that were the achievements, and fame, of Ashoka or Akbar. It is that which will ever ring in our ears throughout the country. The majesty and grandeur of ancient Rishis will be made known the world over. From the National Education programmes nothing that is useful or worthwhile or consequential is discarded.

This kind of National teaching is not provided in government schools. In those schools the load of great European thinkers is put on the tender minds of our students. But European thought and European way of life are quite different from our thought and our way of life. At the same time it is true that, while considering the ancient as well as modern thought, the present progressive European thought should not be kept aside from our purview. In our reformations we should certainly introduce these; whatever is acceptable in them can also be adapted suitably. What is most important is that, in the process, our roots do not get affected. Like Japan we must make use of the Western science. But while implementing these ideas, we should not be blind to the achievements of our forefathers. As an example, in government medical colleges the students remain unaware of our Ayurvedic science. There are many occult and valuable truths behind it. But the Western system has no access to them. Yet this is not to assert that whatever is ours, is always the best.

As far as political aspects are concerned there are many, many things that we have to learn from the West. Democratic governance is one which we must learn from Europe. While providing National Education we do not keep the students away from the political aspects. Not only that; the system of People’s Rule is what we observe and impart to the students. Simply taking care of industry or commerce is not enough, is not proper, and this is exactly what we tell them. Merely on the basis of trade and commerce no country can really rise to its loftiness. This is not what we learn from history. No country survives for too long wholly on the basis of these commercial operations. Europe pays special attention in formulating its policies towards the development and growth of its industry and commerce. What kind of industry and commerce should be proposed is always kept in mind by it. While imparting National Education to our students we bring to their attention these several factual aspects. That is why our students learn what the Arts and Sciences are. They do not just know something about them. Many vocational subjects such as carpentry, smithy, are also taught to them. The result is that when a student comes out from our schools he does not find it difficult to make a monthly earning of Rs. 25-30. While imparting such a National Education in a National way, the special emphasis is on creating a future Hindi Rashtra. In this regard we have to bear in mind several systems of education. Principal Paranjape may speak of mathematics alone, but certainly that is not enough. The one thought that impels us to provide National Education is as to when this Hindi Rashtra will occupy a place in the company of other nations, will be great among other nations in the world. Our learned and accomplished people must be great as people in other countries and this is always borne in our mind.

In our schools we give education up to 5th Standard in the mother tongue of the students; teaching the children through English is dangerous. Very often it is said that in our mother tongues we do not have adequate vocabulary for teaching different subjects. But our answer is simple: first experience it. The 7th Standard in our National Schools is equivalent to the Intermediate Courses conducted by the Universities. In our colleges we conduct a four-year educational course. A college student generally studies one single subject and for that purpose special emphasis is given for the use of English language. In spite of that English is not given primary importance in our system of National Education; it has the status of a second language. A student must be able to stand on his own; that somebody will carry him on his shoulder is never the objective of National Education. Each one should support oneself and not helplessly look at others. Self-reliance is the basic principle we keenly endeavour to imbibe in a student. This is the line of approach we follow in Bengal. We have absolutely no expectation of help from the government. On the contrary, with the government support the idea of National Education is likely to get weakened.

Perhaps Hon Gokhale may now understand and appreciate what exactly we mean by National Education. This may also make it clear why we intended to put a specific Resolution about National Education in the National Congress Committee at Surat. What has been done in Bengal, I have put it before you. If you are keen to know more about it, I suggest you to visit us. Those who have doubts in their minds, that National Education is an impossibility, for them we throw a challenge that they should witness its accomplishments in Bengal. Let them come and confirm it for themselves. National Education in a National way and under National supervision is what we have initiated in Bengal. In this respect three zamindars have helped us in a great way. Raja S. C. Malik donated a lakh of rupees, the Maharaja of Mymensingh three lakhs and a zamindar from Gorakhpur five lakhs. When they offered these donations, they put a condition that they would take back the entire sum if we should accept even a single paisa from the government. The reason is that, when the government spends money on education, it does so with a specific intention, of creating a certain kind of attitude in the minds of the students. That attitude is nothing but an implied faithfulness to the government. Generally the government has the intention of introducing public reformations primarily to make the functioning of the government smooth.

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