Perfection is already within us

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IN CONVERSATION WITH SWAMI SHANTATMANANDA


SWAMI SHANTATMANANDA, Secretary of the Ramakrishna Mission, Delhi, shares the way his team is spreading Swami Vivekananda’s vision for the education of the children of India, and how the Ramakrishna Mission is realizing that vision.


 

Q: Welcome Swamiji. You are passionate about youth and you are passionate about education.

Swami: Yes.

Q: So can you tell us about the programs you are running and where they are headed? What is your vision?

Swami: For the Ramakrishna Mission, which has been in existence close to 120 years, there are two areas that have always been our specialties, namely education and medical service. Tens of millions of patients are treated in our medical facilities across the country. Similarly, several hundred thousand students are in our educational institutions. But in spite of our best efforts, even though we have a good number of residential institutions where students live in close proximity to our monks, it has been a long felt need that we should specifically address the issue of value education.

In India, a large number of institutions are doing value education, but in most cases it is done in terms of ‘dos and don’ts’. In the Ramakrishna Mission, we have completely moved away from this approach, and we have studied very deeply Swami Vivekananda’s ideas on education. In our attempt to design something specifically for school children, we took the help of a very beautiful institution called Illumine Knowledge Resources Private Ltd., with a huge team of qualified and committed people. So together we developed a program based on Swami Vivekananda’s ideas on education.

Close to 15 to 20 million students complete year 12 education in India every year, but not even 2 to 3 percent of these students get a chance to pursue higher education. And this leads to a lot of juvenile violence and other problems in the society. The reason is that once students complete year 12, they think they are educated and do not want to lower themselves to doing manual or physical jobs. Even an absolutely illiterate person who is a helper to a mason or a carpenter easily makes 30,000 rupees per month, but a so-called educated person can hardly earn 7,000 or 8,000 per month given the circumstances.

We found that the whole problem is in the wrong understanding of education. Swami Vivekananda has given a wonderful definition of education. He says, “Education is the manifestation of the perfection already in man.” This totally turns the current ideas of education in India on their head, where the flow of knowledge is from the outside to the inside, from the teacher to the student. In our program, consistently we have tried to prove that it is inside out.

It is what is within the student that has to be brought out. The teachers, the students, the system, the books, the labs, the parents, all only facilitate the bringing out of this inherent ability, strength, glory, etc. One proof that I can give is the following: say a teacher teaches chemistry to a class of 50 students. If the flow is from the teacher to the student, at the end of the year, all students should fare exactly the same in the final examination. But there is such a huge variation in the results, which only proves that it is not so much from the external source. What really comes out is what is within the student, facilitated by the teacher, book, etc.

So all of us should work to bring about this transformation. This is the basic idea underlying our program. We are currently running this program in 2,500 schools across many of the cities and some rural areas in India, and it is spreading. It is composed of 16 modules for each year group – for classes 7, 8 and 9, or 6, 7 and 8 – and we insist that the same teacher conducts the program for the same set of students for the three successive years. We give a 2-day training to the teachers for each class and we also provide a tool kit and teachers’ manuals. After the training we visit each class at least twice every year to see how the program is taking root, how the students are faring, how the teachers are able to deliver, and so on.

So far the results have been remarkable. Even physically challenged, speech impaired and partially blind students have shown tremendous enthusiasm and improvement after undergoing five to six modules. It is a stupendous initiative and there is no formal inclusion by the government in the system, so we are working hard to implement the program and at the same time find a slot in the curriculum. The program requires huge funding, and we are not charging the schools for this – we are raising funds through donations and corporate support. But it is a beautiful challenge.

We have instituted a Vivekananda Fellowship, so that youth who are really inspired to work for the people of our country can take up this fellowship after graduating or finishing a postgraduate degree. They can serve in this schools program for two years, during which time we give them very decent support. At the end of the 2-year fellowship they can decide to carry on with their studies or career. So that is how the program is managed.



Q: What sort of transformation have you observed personally in the children who participate in the program?

Swami: For the first time, children are feeling a new kind of identity. Normally they are quickly divided in a classroom into categories – bright, not so bright, and dull – and that is one of the important reasons why students are not able to connect within the classroom. In India more than 50% of students are not able to connect. They are sent to school to pursue education, but they are not interested because they think they are not that good, and they will not get into higher education. So how will a student in year 6 or 7 who feels like this do well?

Education is not just mere academics. Students can do anything that will give them the dignity, the fulfillment, the sense of achievement of standing on their own feet. Let them pursue that. So through this program we have been able to give a new identity to the students, so much so that no student feels that he or she is less than anyone else. That is the great leveler. Then they can feel happy coming to school, they can participate, they can do many things, and we tell them, “You explore. Huge avenues are there for all of you to do well.”

Ultimately, the students should understand their own dignity. Their greatness, their well-being, their respect and their dignity do not just consist in getting a white-collar job, or working as a computer professional or a doctor. Even if you shine shoes, if you understand that within you is the same immortal spirit as the most successful computer programmer in India, would it not give you that extraordinary dignity? You would always walk with your head held high. You will never feel you are less than the other person. You are also fulfilling a very important need in our society, a function in society, so in what way are you any less than a person who owns a big house and an expensive car?

It all boils down to your individuality, your understanding of your personality, your understanding of what you are, how you are. That’s what will give you that great dignity. In India we have a huge number of youths, but only when they have the orientation that each of them is no less than the others will we see a new society. Then any number of new initiatives will spring up. We can make it extremely challenging and wonderful for them, leading to the development of our country as a great nation. That is what we hope for.



Interviewed by ELIZABETH DENLEY


Swami Shantatmananda

About Swami Shantatmananda

Swami presently heads the Delhi center of the Ramakrishna Mission. He is deeply committed to the spreading of value education amongst school and college students and has been closely associated with the development of a number of insightful programs on value education, based on the ideas of Swami Vivekananda. He is passionately involved in interfaith dialogue leading to closer understanding between different faiths and is deeply committed to peace initiatives across the globe.

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