Illuminations: Passages for contemplation

I thought of collecting together some of the short passages that are given in the Illuminations book and creating a blog post around them. If you go through these stand-alone passages, some of them may strike you as meaningful or intriguing. If you have a discussion with another person (or persons) about the meaning of the passage(s) that struck you, some or all of the following may happen:

a. You may see that your perspective is different (sometimes radically) from the perspective of others.
b. You may notice how the meaning gets built up as the conversation proceeds. As if you are collaborating with the person(s) to build a common meaning.
c. You may notice that the passage served the purpose of starting the conversation but the collaborative meaning-making may take the conversation to a totally different place.
d. You may find the process joyful and exciting and it may open you up to many new insights.

Here are some of the passages. Give the process a try…

1. No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.

2. A bud unfolds into a blossom, but the boat which one teaches children to make by folding paper unfolds into a flat sheet of paper.

3. Comfort isolates; on the other hand, it brings those enjoying it closer to mechanization.

4. Beauty in its relationship to nature can be defined as that which “remains true to its essential nature only when veiled.”

5. One must work, if not from inclination at least from despair, since, as I have fully proved, to work is less wearisome than to amuse oneself.

6. Enthusiasm applied to things other than abstractions is a sign of weakness and disease.

7. Myth embodies the nearest approach to absolute truth that can be stated in words.

8. Association with human beings lures one into self observation.

9. Evil knows of the Good, but Good does not know of Evil.

10. Once, when Denys and I had been up, and were landing on the plain of the farm, a very old Kikuyu came up and talked to us:

“You were up very high to-day,” he said, “we could not see you, only hear the aeroplane sing like a bee.”

I agreed that we had been up high.

“Did you see God?” he asked.

“No, Ndwetti,” I said, “we did not see God.”

“Aha, then you were not up high enough,” he said, “but now tell me: do you think that you will be able to get up high enough to see him?”

“I do not know, Ndwetti,” I said.

“And you, Bedâr,” he said, turning to Denys, “what do you think? Will you get up high enough in your aeroplane to see God?”

“Really I do not know,” said Denys.

“Then,” said Ndwetti, “I do not know at all why you two go on flying.”

Illuminations Workshop at Bangalore

Last week I was part of a workshop for parents and teachers of Udhbhavaha school in Bangalore. The methodology (based on A.K. Saran’s ‘Illuminations’) was to read through some short passages, discuss them in small groups and then present it to the other participants. The passages are taken from the works of authors like Ananda Coomaraswamy, Franz Kafka, Simone Weil etc. who have written about modernity and its effects on us. The words are mostly not very complicated but a participant told me that she was having trouble understanding many passages and I asked her to give me a specific example. She pointed to:

“Association with human beings lures one into self-observation.” (This is from ‘Wedding Preparations in the Country’ by Franz Kafka)

I told her what I thought it meant and told her it was just my interpretation and she had to try to figure it out for herself. I also went through one or two more passages with her and when she got into her small group discussion she seemed to have an easier time with the passages. The first thing that you notice when you get into a group discussion is that everyone comes up with different, sometimes contradictory, interpretations and this opens us up to different ways of looking at things. Over the course of the discussions we realize that what we take to be the certain meaning is actually very tentative and the passages are open to many interpretations.

I was wondering why she was having trouble understanding passages written in simple language and talking to her I had a moment of insight. I realized that she was trying to get a clear, certain meaning out of the passages because her long educational training taught her to not tolerate any tentativeness. She needed to close the loop on each of the passages by fixing the meaning in her head and many of the passages were not allowing her to do so. It made me realize that there were two different paradigms involved here. The paradigm of the certain pushed hard by mainstream modern education and the paradigm of the tentative that is probably related to the older slower-moving world that had the unknowable mystery of life itself as its centre.

‘In Broken Images’ by Robert Graves seemed to put this whole experience in its proper context. The poet says:

He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.

He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images.

Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.

Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact;
Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.

When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.

He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.

He in a new confusion of his understanding;
I in a new understanding of my confusion.

The Illuminations Workshop

The Illuminations workshop organized by SIDH was held between 2nd and 6th November 2022, at the Songtsen Library in Dehradun. This was the first time we were trying a workshop of this kind and we were not sure about how it would go. The feedback from the 18 participants leads us to believe that the objectives of the workshop were at least partially met and the workshop was a success. In this blog post I would like to talk about the process we followed and what surprising results emerged from it.

‘Illuminations’ is a book by Professor AK Saran in which he advocates a method of breaking out of the spell of modernity. This does not mean rejecting modernity but seeing the ill-effects at the individual and societal levels and letting us work towards a more conscious engagement. The book is divided into two parts—part 1 lays out the method and part 2 is a collection of 125 passages. The idea is that people reading through the carefully selected passages written by modern writers may be struck by one or more of them and this will help them go deeper and see through their assumptions and misconceptions about modernity.

The way our workshop was structured was that we spent a day going through part 1 of the book and laying out the context and the method we were to follow. The remaining time was spent in reading through and discussing the passages in small groups of 4-5 people and then presenting the group’s understanding to everyone else. Some things that happened during the workshop were:
– The setting of the workshop and the way it was held ensured that everyone participated in the discussions.
– The understanding of what a passage meant got built up slowly as the discussions proceeded.
– The process was highly collaborative in spite of the participants being of differing ages, educational qualifications, levels of understanding etc.
– The collaborative nature of the workshop meant that participants built up the group understanding by adding their unique perspectives to what the previous speaker was saying.

An example from the workshop will illustrate the process. The following sentence was one of the passages for study:

“A bud unfolds into a blossom, but the boat which one teaches children to make by folding paper unfolds into a flat sheet of paper.”

Think for a minute about what this can mean. The discussion among the participants yielded the following insights:
– A bud is natural but the paper boat is man-made.
– The bud unfolds by itself but the paper boat needs to be folded and unfolded.
– It is easy for us to imagine that we are ‘doing’ something as we make the paper boat but there is nothing to ‘do’ for the bud unfolding.
– In our schools we are making and unmaking paper boats without realising that the project of learning is about letting buds flower into blossoms.

We will record a YouTube video going into more details about the workshop but I hope this gives a flavour of the conversations that happened. Going by the feedback we got from the participants, the workshop was a success!

Modern Traditional Schools?

I recently read, and started thinking about, A.K. Saran’s proposition that, today, we cannot be practising Hindus because Hinduism is inextricably linked to a Hindu samaaj* and today there is no functioning Hindu samaaj left. I got to thinking about all the still surviving parts of our Hindu samaaj. These would be our languages with their stories and songs, our puja and temple practices, our festivals, our food practices, our women’s dresses, our sadhus and their satsangs etc. You can easily add many, many more items to this list. Then how are we to believe that there is no ‘living’ Hindu samaaj left? Let me use some examples to explore this.

1. A friend of mine who is married to a Chinese lady told me about his marriage rituals. He said that they had a registered marriage but they had a choice of what dress to wear for their wedding celebrations. They could choose dresses from any of the various Chinese dynasties. The process included trying out various options and narrowing down on the one they liked. The photographs he showed me looked very ‘traditional’!

2. Yesterday, I was at a friends place and his children go to a school that openly talks about ‘Bharatiyata’. All the adults, parents and teachers, of the school are ‘didi’ and ‘bhayya’ to the children. This, however, only works inside the school boundary and the children call all adults ‘uncle’ and ‘aunty’ when they are at home. This is no problem if it does not confuse us that we are developing our ‘Bharatiya’ identity in school with this artificial behaviour.

I hope that you get the point. A traditional samaaj is not something that we can artificially create by choosing practices from an existing set of options according to our liking, like a buffet meal. It is something that has evolved organically over countless generations. A random set of surviving ‘traditional’ practices does not imply that we are part of a living traditional samaaj. Extrapolating from Saran saab’s idea, we can see that what we have today are the pieces of a broken samaaj. There is no way that these pieces can be reverse-engineered to arrive at a ‘living’ samaaj. There is no going back!

So, given these realities, what can we do? Firstly, we can try to understand things AS THEY ARE (however painful or confusing that is) and not construct false or rosy images about how we think they SHOULD be. And over the next two-three generations, if there appears a strong, clear-headed, confident, rooted generation of men and women, then Bharatmata may start speaking to (and through) them again and a samaaj may again be born. Today, we can perhaps hope and pray and work towards imagining this generation into existence. What do you think?

[* What is meant by ‘samaaj’ here is the social, economic, material, interconnected, comprehensive, web of human relationships that Ravindra Sharma Guruji used to talk about from his eye-witness perspective. Unlike other ‘religions’, everything related to what we call Hinduism was inextricably woven into this samaaj. For example, the Jajmani system, that ensured honourable and sacred work (and exchange of commodities) for everyone, cannot be segregated from the practice of Hinduism. Or, in celebrating a festival, the goods that would come to our homes included artefacts made by many Jatis and this was an integral part of the festival]

Takamori Lecture: The Crisis of Mankind

This is a book by Professor A.K. Saran based on a lecture he gave in 1981 at Takamori, a small village in Japan, to assembled religious and spiritual leaders from all over the world. Professor Saran’s lecture was very well received and was later expanded and rewritten as a book. Professor Saran started his lecture with two stories which he said represented in seed form all that he wanted to say in the lecture. The first story is from ‘Out of Africa’ by Isak Dinesen and it illustrates a central problem of modernity and its novelty seeking ways. It goes like this…

Once, when Denys and I had been up, and were landing on the plain of the farm, a very old Kikuyu came up and talked to us: “You were up very high today,” he said, “we could not see you, only hear the aeroplane sing like a bee.”

I agreed that we had been up high.

“Did you see God?” he asked.

“No, Ndwetti,” I said, “we did not see God.”

“Aha, then you were not up high enough,” he said, “but now tell me: do you think that you will be able to get up high enough to see him?”

“I do not know, Ndwetti,” I said.

“And you, Bedâr,” he said, turning to Denys, “what do you think? Will you get up high enough in your aeroplane to see God?”

“Really I do not know,” said Denys.

“Then,” said Ndwetti, “I do not know at all why you two go on flying.”

Everything Professor Saran writes seems to be difficult to read and understand. But I think we must make a sincere effort because his work has the power to let us see through the fog of modernity. Here are three excerpts that I hope provide you an incentive to read the book.

Excerpt 1: (From the ‘Publisher’s note’ by Samdhong Rinpoche)

“The lecture presents the vital question concerning the real nature of the enormity of Hiroshima, Nagasaki: it shows, in an unparalleled decisive manner that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are by no means the results of an aberration, but—shocking and hideous as it is—only the culmination of the normal natural working of the inherent ‘principles’ on which our whole modern civilization is founded.”

Excerpt 2: (From chapter 1)

“The self-grounding project (of modernity) is based on what may be called the Postulate of Self mediated Universal Knowability. . . . the faith that whatever there is in the universe can be fully known and man shall, in course of time, know all; for modern man has the required equipment for achieving this universal knowledge; that though at any given stage in the history of human knowledge there are vast areas that have remained outside man’s knowledge, they are not unknowable and one day they will—shall—be “conquered” and that there must come a day—in any case, in principle if not in history!—when nothing remains unknown to man. The word ‘self mediated’, it is obvious, does not refer to immediate, intuitive or Revelatory knowledge. Such knowledge, in fact, is not admitted by modern man as ‘scientific’ knowledge: that is, as knowledge at all.”

Excerpt 3: (From chapter 1)

Traditional man realises, just as Socrates did, that the lighted area between the abysses of birth and death, however vast and bright, stands constantly undermined by man’s ignorance of his origin and end. Modern man has yet to achieve this awareness. Being aware of the precariousness of all humanly acquired knowledge and gifted with Faith, traditional man depends on Revelation for his knowledge of his origin and destiny; and on divine grace for transcending the tremendous, infinite gap between his finite human faculties and his eternal, divine destiny. Modern man, for the first time in history, postulating self-mediated universal knowability himself sets his destiny.

The Illuminations Workshop

‘Illuminations’ is the name of a book by Professor A.K. Saran, a critic of modernity and one of the great scholars of modern India. The byline of the book ‘A School for the Regeneration of Man’s Experience, Imagination and Intellectual Integrity’ gives us an idea about the book. The book is based on the insight that we have to break out of the trap of modernity if we are to live a full life. The technique the book advocates is to read, contemplate and discuss short paragraphs taken from the works of some insightful modern philosophers. The contemplation and discussion about the paragraphs that catch our attention can potentially help us see through the veil of modernity.

In the workshop on ‘Illuminations’ participants will read through the abridged text of the book and discuss the short paragraphs (that we shall provide) among themselves and with the facilitators. We invite you to a 4-day retreat to engage in this contemplative conversation.

The following excerpt from the book will shine a light on the context of the workshop:

“The idea of this School originates from the conviction that modern higher education in India has totally failed in all important ways and the universities and all other wings of the educational establishment are working towards the perpetuation and reinforcement of a deadening of the mind and imagination of those who go through them. . . . Further, there is the conviction that the ruling elite of independent India inherited from its former Masters the task of strengthening inertia and promoting intellectual degeneration and it clings to this alien heritage with a vengeance; it is clear, therefore, that no matter how loud and persistent our talk of radically changing the inherited educational structure, there is no prospect whatsoever of any real transformation being effected by the ruling political and cultural elite. In fact, it is strange and depressing to find that behind the scene all political parties in India reveal an ominous unanimity with regard to this negative conservatism in educational theory, policy and practice.

If any effort towards the regeneration of Man’s experience, imagination and intellect is to be made, it has to begin and continue outside and independently of the present educational, political and cultural establishments. The universities are dead today. . . . The worship of the dead that rules our academic establishments today is closely allied to the neo-colonial politics that dominates our country, and naturally draws its strength and prestige from the State and the political parties. And yet we hope and pray that there will arise an intellectual group, particularly from among the youth, that will slowly and steadily become deeply aware of our wretchedness as a people and the necessity of a dignified and courageous response to it. The School proposed here is a form of this hope and prayer. Perhaps it would assist in the birth of such a group. It is a big need today.”

Workshop details:

Venue: SIDH campus at Kempty near Mussoorie (See the video below for the campus tour)
Dates: 2nd November, 2022 (arrival by evening) to 6th November, 2022 (Departure after lunch).
Contact: (Write to me if you want to know more or to register)

Hinduism in Contemporary India

This week’s post has some excerpts from a very interesting book ‘Hinduism in contemporary India’ by A.K. Saran.

Excerpt 1:

“One, a sacred or traditional society, say, the Hindu society, cannot be understood in a non-traditional frame of reference; and, two, the sacred and the secular are not two types of social systems in some order of succession or co-existence. Even more mistaken is the view that the sacred-secular or the traditional-modern represents a kind of continuum. In truth, the sacred (the traditional) constitutes and affirms, while the secular (the modern), insofar as it denies the Sacred or the Tradition, undermines and denies society.”
From the chapter titled ‘Religion and Society: The Hindu View’

Excerpt 2:

“Hinduism’s starting point is neither God nor the Creation (the universe, the world). It is the simple but inexhaustible question: Who am I?… The question is possible only from a plane on which knowledge and life, theory and practice, thought and action, form a unity. Hinduism does not require anyone to ask this question, but if I do ask it and it makes sense to me, I am bound to go on asking it until I find the answer or fail to find one; it is, however, not a question which I can drop at any time of my life. An analysis of this question will lead us into practically all the essential principles of society.”
From the chapter titled ‘Religion and Society: The Hindu View’

Excerpt 3:

“It is in Gandhi that we find the most uncompromising Indian opponent of modern technological society. This is of crucial importance in the present context; for the core of values of the Indian tradition cannot survive in a technology-centred society. Gandhi realized this with unfaltering clarity. This is vastly more important than his attempts to reform and modernize many aspects of the surviving Hindu orthodoxy. For he was not only against the domination of modern technology; he was also, and equally vehemently, opposed to consumption-centred competitive society. It should not be difficult for anyone to see that if his vision of a village-centred, aparigraha-minded society had been realized, or were to be realized, this would be nothing less than the restoration of the traditional values; for in traditional thought there is no room for revivalism, no going back to the past—the tradition can be only renewed through the reaffirmation of first principles, and not through any resuscitation of old institutional forms. Soon after its independence, India repudiated Gandhi completely and formally.”
From the chapter titled ‘British Rule and the Indian Value-System’

Excerpt 4:

“Today there is no living Hindu society in India. The process of decay of Hindu society and religion, which must be distinguished from Hindu spirituality, began very long ago. It reached a decisive phase during India’s encounter with Islam and continued in a different form throughout the comparatively brief but radically significant period of British rule. It has taken another form in Independent India. So far, I, for one, have seen no signs of a genuine renewal. And the future is dark; more so because our vision is obscured by a false light.”
From the chapter titled ‘The Crisis of Hinduism’

I am still processing the insights that this book opened up for me. I will probably read it through once more. If you found the excerpts interesting, you can buy the book here. There is also an interesting YouTube video about Saran saab’s work here.

A radical spokesman of Tradition: A.K. Saran

“Knowledge is, paradoxically, a knowledge of the Unknowable, a thought of the Unthinkable, a vision of Things unseen, an audition of Sound unproduced. It is ultimately knowledge of That which shines forth when we see or hear or think, and is then alive in us, being the only seer, hearer, thinker – itself unseen, unheard, unthought within us. All formulations of traditional knowledge are thus indirect and symbolic, all learning a remembering and all education a rekindling. Traditional methods of education accordingly are graduated forms of indirect communication.”
– From ‘Illuminations’ by A.K. Saran

Of the 500 copies of ‘Illuminations’ printed by Central Institute Of Higher Tibetan Studies (CIHTS) in 1996, I could still find copies to buy in 2018. That, and the fact that most people in India have never heard of A.K. Saran, is a sad commentary on how we treat our wisest men. I was so inspired by reading Illuminations that I bought many more books in the series. All of them written in luminous, inspired, difficult-but-addictive prose (and some poetry), moved me deeply.

In this post I want to talk about ‘Illuminations’ which I consider a very important book for people with an interest in education. But, I can provide no links to it as there is practically nothing about A.K. Saran or his work available online. What I will do instead is to copy passages from the book as answers to hypothetical questions from a reader. I hope you get the flavour of A.K. Saran’s wisdom.

Reader question: Illuminations is a proposal for a new type of school that awakens us from the unconsciousness induced by our schools. Is my understanding correct?
A.K. Saran: Indeed, it is unbelievable but true that our entire academic and educational establishment – schools, colleges, universities, institutes of advanced learning, research centres, research projects, seminars, conferences – is working incessantly, formally and informally, to keep us etherized upon the table, trying to ensure that we may never have the scorching but maybe the cathartic experience of the flames. Excess of chloroform is our fate.

Reader question: How will the school work?
A.K. Saran: The plan for this school is simple. A small group consisting of postgraduate students and young teachers from different universities (and also from outside them) and a few scholars (both from and outside academia) with varying degrees of familiarity and intellectual affinity with the aims (and the doctrines) of the school will be invited to live together at a carefully selected place for a period of two to four weeks or so. The idea of living together is important. What we have in mind is something deeper and richer than just the requirement that the participants should not be scattered but lodged at one place and should breakfast, lunch and dine together. We envisage not only a gathering but an in-gathering of the participants. There should be a general feeling for the goodness of living a shared life, the intellectual deepening and enrichment being an integral part of it.

An anthology of passages and sentences from diverse sources has been made. This will serve as a kind of sourcebook which will be circulated to members of the school in the hope that each one of them according to his or her mental level and habit will be hit hard by one or the other passage. The community setting and the presence of scholars of different levels and types of intellectuality are then expected to provide help to the participants in delving deep.

Reader question: How is it possible to get through to minds conditioned and saturated by modernity?
A.K. Saran: The first requirement of such a situation is to get out of the tradition-modernity antithesis or dichotomy. Education aims at truth, and not at desired types of mentality. The second requirement is to create a free, uncluttered intellectual space so that there can grow genuine receptivity in the minds shaped and equipped by the present educational system for gullibility of one sort or another. The third requirement of our present pedagogical situation is to restore the internal relation between knowledge and action, theory and praxis, thinking and living; a relationship that modern education completely disrupts.

Reader question: There are many ideologies and we are taught that truth is relative. What do you think?
A.K. Saran: A crucial first step towards intellectual and political freedom is to realize that freedom of thought is defined by love of truth, not by intellectual philandering, by mastery of passions, not by passion for opinions, by the ability to think originally and upstream, not by a sort of monomaniac search for and pursuit of the novel and the exotic. Intellectual and political freedom is constituted by the opportunity to pursue the ultimate good, not by the liberty to ‘think’ what one likes and do what one wants to do.

About Professor A.K. Saran:

Professor A. K. Saran (1922-2003) is known as one of the most radical spokesmen of Tradition in today’s world. Following contemporary exponents of the Perennial Philosophy such as Ananda Coomaraswamy, Rene Guenon, Marco Pallis and Frithjof Schuon, Saran especially took on the negative side of the task as his vocation – i.e., breaking of the “spell” by which modern man has been deluded into the suicidal pursuit of a mirage, becoming utterly forgetful of who he is and of the eternal truths that Tradition embodies.

Serving for a long time as a teacher in the fields of social sciences at various universities, both at home and abroad, Saran’s consistent endeavour was, thus, to work out thorough internal critique of those pseudo thought systems of modernity. This internal critique – critique proceeding dialectically from within the very system that is being critiqued – is of a quite unique kind; in spite of certain seeming similarities, Saran’s critique of modernity is totally distinct from fashionable discourses like that of “alternative outlook”, “new age”, “postmodern”, or “postcolonialism” – all of which, for Saran, are simply new devices for masking the truth.
From the blurb on the dust jacket of one of A.K. Saran’s books

Links for further study:
A.K. Saran at the ‘Studies in contemporary religion’ website here.
The Coomaraswamy Foundation set up by students of Professor Saran has a website available here.