|Making Vedanta relevant to today's children|
|Sanatana Dharma School|
|Bhakti, Rationality and Logic|
|Conclusion and references|
Sanatana Dharma School
A weekly Sanatana Dharma school has been operating in the ... Hindu Temple for the past 2 years. The rationale behind this is to transmit the Vedantic underpinnings of Indic Hindu culture in the process of teaching the Indic wisdom traditions of Sanatana Dharma using contemporary methods of presentation. It had long been been felt that there was a need for a structured education of members' children, so that they both make sense of the concepts underlying the modes of worship at the Hindu Temple, and also learn to develop a healthy sense of self.
The classes are of about an hour every Sunday morning, timed to coincide with the school semesters so that parents find it convenient to get their kids to attend, and the kids consider it as a routine part of their education. The typical attendance has been of about 35-45 kids on any given day, and the age range is between 5 and 15 years. Children below 5 yrs. also have a separate section, which is out of the scope of this discussion. There are about 5 teachers in the group, of which 3 play a primary role, and 2 help when required. Of these primary teachers, 2 are professors holding Phds at the University ..., and 1 is a practicing engineer holding two masters degrees. The classes are supplemented by other group activities like competitions where public speaking on relevant topics is encouraged, and Annual Camps with a variety of activities.
The content of the classes is structured in three main sections, the "Sloka", the "Theory", and the "Story". Care is taken to ensure that the three modes of presentation are consistent and supplement each other in the child's learning. Basically, the sloka section deals with the principal, popularly known slokas that are typically recited in the temple as part of the Puja & Arati (services); the Theory section deals with explaining the key concepts that make up the mainstream understanding of Sanatana Dharma and putting it all in context; the Story section delves into the wealth of India's civilizational experience with Dharma, primarily via a telling of the Ramayana, the Srimad Bhagavatam, and the Mahabharata (which has just commenced).
Vedanta Basics for Beginners
Since the goal aspired for is to teach and demonstrate the synthesis of Sanatana Dharma as an expression culminating in the Vedanta, we have to work with a simplified framework containing the basics of Vedanta. What are the basics of Vedanta, and are they open to simplification, so that can be made intelligible to kids? Let us look at some of the ways in which we have tried to keep in mind the implicit structure of this Vedantic basis when we teach in our school.
From Ref. 6:-
"The system of Vedanta derives its doctrines from the Prasthana Traya, which comprises the three great textbooks viz., The Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras. Vedanta is the clearest and most comprehensive summary ever made of the perennial philosophy; hence its enduring value is meant not only for Indians, but for all mankind.
The quintessence if Vedanta Philosophy is found in the four great declarations (Maha Vakyas) of the four Vedas. These are arranged in the following ascending order:
1. Prajnaanam Brahman (Consciousness is Brahman).
2. Tat Twam Asi (That Thou Art).
3. Ayam Atma Brahma (This Self is Brahman).
4. Aham Brahma Asmi (I am Brahman)
The first Mahavakya gives an objective definition of Truth. It declares that the Consciousness, the spiritual core that makes one's personality layers dynamic and active, is the Consciousness that pulsates in all beings and pervades everywhere.
The second Mahavakya is addressed by a master to a disciple after having defined that Brahman is Consciousness. He declares the greatest truth "That Thou Art"; Oh! Disciple, that Brahman which is nothing but Consciousness, is not yonder in the clouds to be achieved as a posthumous reward, but is right here & now, to be experienced as the Atman within- your own self." [Ref. 6 Pp. 84-85]
Once past the first two, the seeker is led to the next, and then to the final Mahavakya "I am Brahman"
So, who is this "I"?
Though it is difficult to relate to these above statements in our mundane daily experiences, all of us have had these experiences, or are believed capable of having the experiences for ourselves that will substantiate the above statements.
The importance is, of course to have the vocabulary that understands the context in which these statements are made.
It might not be a stretch to say that by growing up immersed on the culture in India, we've an advantage that our kids growing up here haven't had. There is some background of verbal, and more importantly, non verbal understanding & usage of these concepts, which is at least implied if not directly stated in our conversations, & relationship to our selves, and to others. What about those who've not had the advantage, like our kids?
It might be interesting to recap, or to put in a structured manner the Vedantic basics we are talking about, so that the Mahavakyas make more sense.
Who Am I (Self, Life, and the World)
This sort of question is probably the most fundamental questions a person could ask, and the model of the Self, and the model of the "I" in it are fundamental to the answer. As we are aware even after a cursory brush with our philosophies, the identification of the Self with one's body is considered the very ignorance that proper vidya, or learning is supposed to cure.
To oversimplify somewhat for brevity, this basically involves the definition of the "felt body", i.e. the subjective sense of "This is what I am". For clarity, this is not just the "material body" which can be seen and measured by the senses, but the "experienced self". No contradiction with Science, or Biological descriptions here, one should note. We might call this Vedantic description the hierarchy of the Self, from the Gross Material Body (Biology) to the Subtle Atman (i.e. the Gross "Body" to the "Mind" from Annamaya Kosa, Pranamaya Kosa, to Manomaya Kosa->Vijnanamaya Kosa -> Anandamaya Kosa and the "Mind" as heirarchically the Manas, Ahamkara, Chitta, Buddhi, and finally, the Atman. The "mind" being embodied in the being, there is not a clear cut distinction of where the body ends & mind begins.)
It is easy to see from this, that Vedanta transcends the usual Mind/Body split, or duality, through which we typically see the self.
To get a pictorial representation, please refer to the "Pancha-Kosa" sketch on Fig 1 [Ref. 6, Pp. 69]
" The Rishis made a thorough study and scientific analysis of the structure of a human being and formulated his spirituo-physical personality. They discovered that human personality comprises the divine spark of life, called the Atman, with five layers enveloping it.
The Atman, or the Self, is represented in the diagram by the sacred mystic symbol Om. The five concentric layers of matter enveloping the Atman are called sheaths or "Kosas". The term "sheath" indicates that it is a mere covering for something, which is more vital. Just as the sword and its sheath remain separate from each other, so too, there is no mutual contact between the divine spark of life, and the matter vestures covering it. [Taken from Ref#6, Pp. 69]
Fig 1 : "Pancha-Kosa"; The five distinct Sheaths; or The hierarchy of the "felt Body/mind/Consciousness"
Why it is relevant
How do the basics of Vedanta relate to our children? Do children need exposure Vedanta? If yes, are they old enough to understand, and what presentation methods could be used? Here, we can look at examples of what we are trying to do in our Sanatana Dharma Sunday School' to show the connection, and to demonstrate that it is indeed worthwhile to attempt sharing the simple basics of Vedanta with kids, as well as adults.
As explained earlier, we are attempting a judicious blend of lectures, sloka chanting, and story telling so that the "sense" and "experience" of bhakti & jnana is felt, along with the "theoretical" explanations so that the children are able to use the framework to start reasoning for themselves.
The world is a complicated place, and it is the task of parents & teachers to prepare the child to live successfully in it. Over and beyond what the "regular" school offers, our responsibility is to teach our kids the civilizational knowledge that is in our traditions, our philosophy and classic literature. These have contemporary relevance, since basic human nature hasn't changed significantly over the millennia since, say, the Mahabharata was written.
For example, the idea of "telling the truth" is an example of a value one needs to inculcate in the child. Is this as simple as just telling the child "Always speak the truth"? Is memorizing of simple rules like this enough? The subtleties involved in discriminating between good & bad ( one's dharma ) thoughts and actions are understood only through experience, and a comprehensive framework that allows the person to process events in their lives. The rich lore of stories in the Epics & Puranas are gems polished over the ages that show the hearer the richness and diversity of life, and models of decision-making, with the explanations of the all important "why".
As an example, we could look at the episode in the Mahabharata's "Drona Parva" where Yudhishtir utters the famous lines "avaktavyam abravid råjan hata˙ kuñjara ityuta" ("the king is dead, or the elephant" - [MB: 7.164.106cd]. The way this "lie" is dealt with in the story itself, and in subsequent commentaries, exemplifies how well our ancients understood the complexities of the notion of "truth". (as the well regarded author J B Priestley is reputed to have said: "Truth is better thought of as a tree, and not as a flagpole"). Philosopher Jonardon Ganeri, student of the famous B K Matilai, carries out a thorough discussion on truth in his paper (Ref. 4) where he brings in truth as understood in the whole main current of Indic thought, using references to Gita, Upanishads , and ManuSmriti ( Ref 4; (6) pages 18-22 ) For good measure, he also uses the work of the Western theologian John Henry Cardinal Newman ( Ref 4; pages 2-6 ) to make his ideas clear to those in the Western traditions who may not have a good sense of Indic traditions.
Per classical Indian Philosophy, the following are key to the idea of truth operating in real life circumstances. These are notions of (a) truth being a part of a set of values which taken together lead together to the desirable outcome of "dharma"; and (b) the idea of establishing the right of the recipient to be told the truth. The way Bhishma, in the later "Shanti Parva" explicates the multilayered nature of truth, and also gives practical guidance and explanations to Yudhishtir on this matter can be considered one of the most masterful ever.
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