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Friday May 24, 2024
My Turn:
A Quest for Education
Vol: 1 Num: 2    Spring 2006
My mother didn’t use her quest for education for direct financial benefits but the intangible benefits that she realized were huge.

Several times during my childhood and in later years, I heard the argument from my parents and other advisers that the quest for educational excellence is a worthy life goal in and of itself.

An instance of this advice was given to my mother by my father in the 50s when they were a young, newly married couple finding their feet in Berkeley, California.

My father was pursuing his doctoral degree in statistics and my mother was happily exploring golden California. Soon, she started to get strong advice from my father to pursue higher education, even though she may not be intending to use it to get a job or earn money at any point in her life.

My mother entered a graduate level program in Asian Studies at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. By attending lectures by Zen-guru, Alan Watts, and learning about spiritual stalwarts like Suzuki, Sazaki and Sneaky, she immensely improved the quality of her own life and that of her family over the years, as she puts it.

My mother never actually used this education to earn a living. There were never any tangible or financial benefits directly tied to her education. Though the intangible benefits were huge. The whole family agrees about this.

What exactly were these intangibles? To begin with, it helped her to leave her cloistered existence in her tiny apartment for a fruitful pursuit every day. It gave her a clear sense of purpose. She felt empowered as a young woman who had never stepped out of her village in northern India before she arrived in the US. In the long run, it helped her to grow intellectually and made her more self-confident, especially in unfamiliar surroundings.

She was able to use some of her insights in the education of her children, by instilling in them a sense of context and perspective in life. It also eventually helped her to develop a strong interest in publishing and marketing books in philosophy written by my father later in her life.

She also developed a lifelong interest in things ethereal, for example, yoga, vegetarianism, natural remedies, and, lo and behold, Tolerance and World Peace! She now continually attends and participates in such other-worldly pursuits.

Moving from particular to general, what is the rationale for a quest for education, devoid of a desire to get a job?

Indian philosophy is a ready source of inspiration. In it, the educational endeavor is referred to as vidya. This is to be distinguished from gyana as in gyana-yoga, later expounded beautifully by Shankara in his Vivekchudamani. Gyana, as referred to in Vedanta, is the knowledge of the self or brahman, one of the three yogic pillars of karma, gyana and bhakti.

Vidya, on the other hand, is a way station, if you will, on the path to achieving moksha through any of the three yogas. Vidya is a milestone, a necessary but not sufficient condition, to making a human being more prepared to pursue yoga. It can be used in a variety of ways, depending on the proclivities of the individual.

The pursuit of employment and financial well-being is just one of these options where the Vidya can be usefully employed. But more importantly, Vedantic thought envisages a deeper, more exalted reason for the pursuit of Vidya or education, namely, as an aid for perfection through yoga in any of its three forms, ultimately leading to Nirvana.

Econometrically, Vidya is an instrumental variable where the objective function is a purpose higher than the here and now.

Vidya can be an instrument of an enlightened self, a self that develops a broader world view of the good life, a life that encompasses the well-being of all human beings and living objects, irrespective of their link to one’s own life.

Vidya can also be an instrument for developing ideas for social uplift, ideas that would take one from the class room to the wide world of hope and freedom.

Vidya can inspire, and propel individuals to harmonize, galvanize, and move mountains, via truth and non-violence, in other words, vidya can inspire us to transcend vidya, stated so eloquently by Rabindranath Tagore, in Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear
and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been
broken up into fragments by
narrow domestic walls
Where the clear stream of reason
has not lost its way in the dreary
desert sand of dead habit
There, my Father, let ME awake!

Nishkam Agarwal is an economist based in Columbia, Maryland.


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