sreyas ca preyas ca manushyam etah
tau samparitya vivinakti dhirah
sreyo hi dhirobhi preyaso vrnite
preyo mando yoga-ksemad vrnite
(Translation: Both the truly good (sreyah) and the ephemeral pleasant (preyah) present themselves to man. While the heroic wise person (dhirah) discriminates carefully between the two and chooses sreyah over preyah, the fool (mandah) chooses preyah, desiring to acquire and preserve various sense-objects.)
Are we preparing our youth to take to the heroic wise path of the dhirah, the fulfilling path of sreyah? The evidence, unfortunately, points heavily to the contrary. The vast majority of our ‘educated’ population are clearly on the mandah’s path of preyah—with a focus almost entirely on enjoying various sensual pleasures, amassing wealth and acquiring power at any cost. Cynical as it may sound, there is some truth in Theodore Roosevelt’s famous remark: ‘A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.’
According to ancient wisdom, the thirst (trsna in Sanskrit) for happiness is a natural craving in all sentient beings, and arises from a sense of separation from our Source. It is but natural that we should seek to quench this thirst in all kinds of ways, beginning with sense-pleasures, wealth and power. The mandah’s way of preyah is indeed how we all begin our lives, but in an enlightened culture, we are meant to be aware of, and to rise above, the entrapment of our lower nature. We are meant to discover and manifest in our lives our true higher nature, governed by sreyah. Should not our education facilitate and inspire this full flowering of the human potential? At present, it would appear that this ‘flowering’ is limited to highly specialized and narrow domains, and even here, the powerful forces of preyah tend to prevail and overwhelm.
Existential challenge for youth in India
There is so much pressure on our youth from all sides—parents, society, media—to succeed in the rat race that they fail to look inward and discover where their true inner calling lies. Many of them are driven into aspiring to become engineers and doctors, while their aptitudes may well lie elsewhere. Even those who discover through their college education that their aptitudes indeed lie in the fields of core engineering and medicine find themselves strangely compelled to abandon their calling, falling a prey to the relentless forces of preyah sweeping across our culture. Thus we see some of the best IIT students, who would have made excellent engineers and researchers, ending up in finance and software, tempted by the mind-boggling salaries they are offered. Indeed, they are persuaded to do so by their own parents, who celebrate their success at being able to earn, in a short time, wealth that they have not seen in their entire life-times. The media also pitch in to hail IIT students who break records in salary offers. Likewise, in the field of medicine, even the best students, who find that they have a natural calling for healing, abandon this calling to choose the most popular and lucrative options (currently, radiology), with their parents more than willing to invest huge amounts in their education, in the hope of gaining a huge return on their investment.
Hardly anyone pauses to reflect and ask: wherefore, whither? These basic questions often emerge at a later stage—the so-called mid-life crisis. It is, of course, never too late to take to the path of sreyah, but it is not easy to do so, when the brilliance of one’s youthful energy has ebbed away, and one finds oneself burnt out, fatigued and rather disillusioned with life. It takes significant courage, inspiration, discipline and aspiration to become a dhirah! Besides, often, we find people in their later years looking more for solace and therapy, rather than authentic growth.
The crisis we witness within ourselves is reflected in the chaos we see outside, for which we are all collectively responsible—the terrible disparity of poverty and abundance side by side, the growing pollution and irreversible damage to ecological balance and the environment, the unbridled corruption at all levels, and the incapacity of politicians and leaders, nearly all of whom seem to be lost in the trappings of preyah. It is so easy to get submerged in a feeling of hopelessness, and yet nothing can be more damaging to us than to lose hope and faith, and get into the blame game and a sense of being victimized. We need to do all that we can, in our limited spheres, to move ourselves and inspire others along the path of sreyah.
Self-Awareness at IIT Madras
At IIT Madras, we have been exploring various ways of introducing ‘inner’ development in education. These have been mostly extra-curricular in nature, using various fora, such as Reflections and Vivekananda Study Circle, involving mostly talks and discussions, which dwell on diverse themes. We realized the need for a sustained structure in these programmes in order to meaningfully serve the objective of facilitating authentic inner transformation. Thus we came upon the idea of developing a regular course that is part of the curriculum, and not just something ‘extra-curricular’. We wanted the course to be exploratory in nature, unlike the other courses in the Institute. The approach had to be open rather than prescriptive, while at the same time aiming to be deep and transformative.
We have run this course four times since January 2012, and the response from the students who credited the course and others (including a few faculty) who audited the course has been overwhelmingly positive. Based on their request, we now offer an advanced course, starting from January 2014. This ‘free elective’ course, titled Integral Karmayoga, deals with the theme of spirituality in work.
IITians are by nature intellectually inclined; but too much thinking can be a handicap when it comes to holistic development. Our students and faculty train themselves to think a lot, because thinking indeed is a primary function in the academic world, where spoken sentences commonly begin with ‘I think…’ It is relatively rare to hear anyone here say ‘I feel…’ While thinking indeed is a tremendous strength in academics, and in general in reasoning and ideation, it needs to be supplemented by a healthy development of other human potentials for holistic and balanced growth.
This obsession with thinking is a widely prevalent disease in modern times. It is truly a disease because it puts us ill at ease—something that we are sometimes dimly aware of. To be able to get free, even temporarily, from this imprisonment—being ‘locked up’ in our heads—can indeed feel liberating.
Freedom, delight and awareness
One may be surrounded by great beauty, by mountains and fields and rivers. But unless one is alive to it all, one might just as well be dead.
It is ironical that even while living amidst the beautiful sylvan surroundings at IIT Madras, the vast majority of IITians seem to move about completely unaware of the immediate presence of wondrous and live nature all around us. We remain locked up in our respective narrow mental worlds, and not necessarily engaged in solving brilliantly the many technological problems of the world! In fact, if only we were aware, we would quickly discover that most of our mental activity is random and unfocussed, often revolving endlessly around routine chores or petty concerns and anxieties.
Students are pleasantly taken by surprise when we shift outdoors for some of our ‘Self-Awareness’ classes under the shade of a beautiful banyan tree. They are even more surprised when we talk about the importance of doing nothing, of just being, simply aware, of being centred. All that they have to do is to pay quiet attention and to be keenly aware of all that they experience. This often turns out to be a collective transformational process.
Students begin to find value in such simple yet profound states of being. We try to expose them to various kinds of simple exercises in awareness. For example, sitting together, we sometimes try to reawaken our own experience of the world of our infancy. Everything—from a little ant to a huge tree—appears to be so fascinating, so alive, so mysterious, so delightful!
It is so important, so very important, to experience this daily. The naturally beautiful and harmonious surroundings in the 640-acre forest at IIT Madras, where we live and work, offers us the perfect ambience for this. We make use of the gift of sensory perception—the very same senses that can trap us in preyah—for something sublime, filled with authentic well-being, beauty and harmony, which constitute the very nature of sreyah. How wonderful it would be if we could learn to soak ourselves in this spirit and remain centred in such awareness more often, anywhere, even in the midst of the hustle and bustle of daily life!
Delight at work
For who could live or breathe if there were not this Delight
of existence as the ether in which we dwell?
From Delight all these beings are born,
by Delight they exist and grow,
to Delight they return.
(Delight (ananda), unfortunately, is not something we experience frequently, and the students know this only too well. It is necessary for all of us to find delight in the work we do and in the relationships we have.)
We simply do things because others have said it is important to do these things, or because we believe they are required for our survival. Such work is either uninteresting or involves much struggle. It is only on rare occasions that we find work that is delightful and rather effortless and perfect. In such rare moments, we feel as though we are part of a flow and that some mysterious higher force is at work through our being. How wonderful life would be if these moments enter into our lives more frequently! This requires us to identify our life purpose, the very purpose for which we have been born. Throughout the course, we encourage students to discover those activities that bring them delight and a profound sense of fulfilment, something that the usual motivations of preyah, such as money and fame, cannot grant.
Other aspects of self-awareness
Learn to live within, to act always from within... instead of living in the surface, which is always at the mercy of the shocks and blows of life.
Our course on Self-Awareness is exploratory in nature. It has many elements, all of which are aimed at inner transformation for an authentic and fulfilling life. The students learn to look experientially into their own selves, and their understanding is reflected in the many assignments they are required to do. Essentially, they have learnt the importance of disengaging and stepping back into the wideness of awareness, and so remaining centred and inwardly calm even under difficult situations. Many report significant improvements in their relationships and work culture. A few have also reported clarity in discovering their life purpose.
We sincerely hope that this course will contribute in an enduring way to the awakening and flowering of the students who have undertaken it.