Restoring the Sacred in Education
by Come Carpentier de Gourdon on 21 Jan 2013 34 Comments

In the course of human history, education has evolved through some major stages. First, at the origins of mankind, education was an initiation into the behavioural codes, rites and customs of the tribe, intended to permit and facilitate communications among its members and with the natural and supernatural environment. It enabled survival by passing on the knowledge gained within the community.


As societies grew more complex and organized, education developed and branched off into various sections related to diverse areas of expertise and activity, religious, agricultural, political and the like. In most cases, human activities were grouped into three occupational sectors which gave rise to the three “Indo-European” classes, which are in fact found among non-IE peoples as well: the three dwija varnas of Vedic India respectively identified in the modern age as priests, warriors and craftsmen/traders/peasants or in Latin, according to Dumezil, as oratores, bellatores et laboratores. Each had its specific forms and subjects of education, learning and initiation although they shared a common heritage within each socio-geographic culture and area.


Education kept a similar function, purpose and meaning in almost all regions of the world for many centuries, although it varied considerably with local histories and geographies until the Age of Enlightenment that gradually arose Western Europe from the Renaissance onwards brought about a radical change.


Paradoxically, in the name of “Enlightenment”, that new stage in civilisational evolution led to a drastic review of the traditional notion of  Enlightenment (samadhi prajna, vajra citta, illuminatio, lumen gloriae, tajalli) as an outcome of spiritual (gnostic, hermetic or simply religious) initiation. Although many of the 18th century Enlightenment thinkers belonged to the  ideological family of Free Masonry which based its legitimacy on a secret knowledge available to its initiates, they often adopted a materialistic and reductionistic worldview which led pari passu to a purely “lay” or secular concept of education, devoid of any religious basis and even hostile to or at least distrustful of any “revealed truth” or traditional knowledge rooted in divine illumination or supernatural experiences.


To the transmission of knowledge (sampradaya, parampara), the new secular theory of education substituted the “tabula rasa” of the medieval scholastics, to be filled with facts and data gathered through a systematic process of observation and experimentation codified through what came to be known as the scientific method. This is how “certain” and definitive knowledge was expected to be acquired, accumulated and transmitted, irrespective of the hoary conclusion that the beginning of wisdom is the realization of our ignorance.


In the Biblical context, the endeavour of Western Enlightenment (as opposed for one to the Indian notion of Enlightenment, vidyajyoti) is a challenge to the Divine similar to the building of the Tower of Babel. Less obviously though, its claim to rely only on proven, certain knowledge sounds hollow once it is realized that all notions about the universe and ourselves in it are relative, provisional and conditioned by our perception, intellectual and technical abilities, as the theory of the observer as participant in modern physics tellingly illustrates.


The end-result of the socio-cultural transition we have just described is that “modern” education, although claiming to provide definitive, operational knowledge about everything, is in fact a tool kit of functional, empirical or theoretically-based, constantly changing knowhow about the material and “cultural” world, devoid of any trustworthy and verifiable insights about the underlying realities and mechanisms which account for the existence of all things, including our own. Because of that innate and fundamental limitation, it is a process to dispense aparavidya which can be translated not as ignorance but rather as “nescience” or as erroneous or misleading knowledge according to Buddhist and Vedantic epistemology.


Is it surprising, in this context, that increasingly education is seen and dispensed within the hierarchies of power as a passport to a more or less remunerative profession, a visa to a land of economic security, and at best a license to rise to an authoritative position in society?


In that sense, contemporary secular education is not so different from its “primitive” ancestor, alluded to at the beginning. It consists largely of a set of rites and customs useful to operate in a national and now increasingly globalised society. We call them beliefs when they are observed in a technically undeveloped culture, but assert that western modern practices on the contrary are rational and grounded in objective knowledge. The essential difference in character between today’s education and the ancient systems which still survive in some parts of the world is that the latter have their source in transcendent metaphysics or mythology and provide guidance to the soul in a quest for self-discovery utterly is missing in secular “education” (better known until the middle of the last century in France as “instruction”, and more aptly described as training) priding itself in a materialistic determinism which, though calling itself agnostic, builds its own “gnostic” system that excludes all that it cannot explain according to its own rules (i.e. the Scientific Method).


Beginning as a spiritually based initiation individually dispensed to the most gifted disciple, education has become a quasi-industrial mass product, indeed a commodity that is bought and sold at steadily rising prices. It is not surprising that the pride of place in the modern educational system is held by business and management training and by other disciplines that promise the best opportunities for financial profits, among which are the medical and legal professions.


In parallel the fine arts, literature and culture in general are increasingly losing their connection with initiatic wisdom revealed through a combination of learning from a traditional master (guru sisya parampara) and meditation, becoming mere exercises in self-expression and especially of mental and physical instinct, disabilities or existential malaise which reject the very notion of beauty, shun the quest for harmony (rta) and affirm a nihilistic narcissism legitimated through financial appraisals and speculation like any other commodity.


The myth of secular modern education as objective and “value free” has been exposed by the increasing power of political correctness in its curriculum. Thus a large number of traditionally held views on a vast number of social, political and cultural issues has become unacceptable, while some long proscribed or forbidden opinions and practices are becoming mandatory under the diktats of the “enlightened” Intelligentsias (though they are minorities) of the “advanced” western societies.


How to restore the sacred


At this crossroads, the notion of sacredness which was at the core and source of initiation has practically disappeared from it and needs to be revived and replaced as an axial concept, although it is problematic to re-conceptualise it in a science-driven, secular and multi-cultural, multi-religious (rather than post-religious) age.


Like post-modernism and post-industrialisation, the notion of a post-religious mankind is appearing hollow and inaccurate. There is indeed a new religiosity emerging everywhere in countless shapes and guises, just as there is a new industrialization taking place. Such new religiosity, whether fundamentalist, “New Age” or non-denominational and individually practiced, bears witness to the permanence of the awareness of and need for the Sacred in the human mind. Hence, there is a growing trend in Academia to study the emergence of what is called the “post-secular age”.


Definitions are always useful the word “sacred” is related to the concept of holiness or wholeness, integrity, inviolateness, undiminished totality. In Samskrit it translates as arya (agios, in Greek). It is also connected to the notion of mysterium, (musterion in Greek), the secret revealed only to the mystes: initiates, mystics. It is a treasure that must be discovered by means of a quest. Thus education must be linked not solely with the acquisition of knowledge but also, and more importantly, with the recognition of the transcendent and immanent unknowable which induces reverence (tremendum numinosum). When the world is “disenchanted” and bereft of its “divine” dimension, it is a desolate void filled with irrelevant and meaningless objects and events.


By definition, the experience of the sacred seems to be rooted in a particular spiritual initiatic tradition for almost all people. The difficulty in our secularized world in which religions are afraid of each other and intellectuals are often trying to exorcise conflict by banning them to the periphery of society is to find a common language for sacredness, acceptable for all mankind.


That requires that a system of “translation” or equivalences be used to illustrate the universality of what is being taught. Unfortunately many religions are ancestrally hostile to such demonstrations of the “philosophia perennis” resumed here in the Indian aphorisms: ekam sat vipra bahuda vadanti because of the political fact that they reduce their monopolistic authority over their own followers and deprive them of their claims to exclusive and privileged knowledge of the truth.


However the globalised academic system potentially is a tool to reach out to most people in the world. There is perhaps no better source to devise a universally appealing “scientific” non-denominational pathway to sacredness than yoga as defined in Patanjai’s Yogasutra.


Yogasutra’s analysis of initiation and illumination; some parallels in Christian symbology


Christianity is still a shaping force for much of the world’s theological and philosophical evolution, directly or “a contrario”. Even secular western ideologies are impregnated with Judeo-Christian notions, generally stripped of their metaphysical underpinnings. It is therefore important to find explanatory analogies in Christian symbology, which also apply pari passu to Judaism and Islam in order to show the universal, non-culturally specific nature of Yoga’s epistemology and soteriology. On the other hand, yoga as the essential expression of Hindu thought is naturally attuned and convergent with most other traditional spiritual systems from Asia, Africa and the Americas, whether Buddhist, Taoist or animistic, while being consonant with the current insights provided by physics, biology and the neurosciences. Therefore, we truly have a “cosmically” relevant teaching in Patanjali which provides a basis for education, adaptable to all local cultures as it is grounded in cosmology, physics and psychology.


A critical aspect of Yogasutra’s mapping of reality is that the mind (manas) is described as an intermediary, a two-way mirror, between the material world (prakriti) and consciousness (citta) which is permeated by the all seeing purusa, the Spirit in the western theological sense, and which can see the mind only when the latter is coloured or infused by a material object of perception. However purusa’s perception of objects through and within the mind is passive and purely contemplative, devoid of reflections or interpretations. In that way it is pure knowledge.


Christian Mysteries of Incarnation, Passion and Redemption, interpreted anagogically as the Gnostic schools did, provide us with a metaphorical illustration of this process. When he descends into the world of matter, Christ, the Sun of Consciousness, the Son of the Father (Purusa) is not affected by it, but he partakes in it through his identification with the “Son of Man” Jesus at his baptism in the water of the Jordan. In the Vedas, the third and highest guna, Sattwa, is evoked as the water as distinct from the fire of Rajas, related to fire and suffering: the passion of consciousness when it becomes involved with the material world. Christ - who baptizes through Fire and not in water - suffers the Passion through his perception of all things in mind and body but yet remains unscathed and unaffected in his “Christos” immutable Self which is the Lord (Svamin) of all Creation (sva) without beginning or end, just as the moon trembles when it is reflected in a moving body of water while remaining in fact unaffected in its celestial orb.


The mystery of Incarnation is an allegory for the samyoga if we refer to the various Christian  mystics, such as Meister Eckhart, Thomas a Kempis, Angelus Silesius, Jakob Bohme and John of the Cross who meditated on it and likewise, Resurrection, Salvation or Redemption are part of a yogic ontological process (moksa), both symbolic and physiological, at the end of the Soul’s (consciousness) exile into the ‘vale of tears” or into the netherworld (inferis) from where it rises “on the Third Day, freed from its bonds (baddha) and shedding its mental and physical shroud, into the Light of its own Source according to a symbology familiar to Neo-Platonists.


The method and goal of meditation is to cultivate kaivalya, the detachment of consciousness from the material creation, including the mind through which the latter becomes pervaded with that consciousness (prapta caitanyopagrahasvarupa). Brahman (The Father) then manifests itself to the mind in the light of perception (Holy Spirit) in a way that even Patanjali does not fully explain as it is indeed the Mysterium Magnum.


Hence, the recognition of the limits of reason does not leave us in the despair of nihilism nor in the morass of materialistic skepticism, but rather opens us to the stunning flash of Samadhi prajna: the unitary perception devoid of linguistic and conceptual adjuncts or qualifications, also known as Vajra citta: thunderbolt awareness: the pure flow of infallible knowledge inherent in sattwik consciousness which Jesus expressed by saying: “My Father and I are One” and “I am the Alpha and the Omega”. That is the true Enlightenment that the Yogasutra calls atisobhava, and for which the allegories in the Gospels are “sitting at the right hand of the Father” and “he shall judge the living and the dead”.


Such a practice seems far removed from the tasks and potentialities of mundane education as we understand it nowadays, but yet it is both its highest mission and its simplest vocation: to reveal the light in all human beings so that they can find their own guidance and acquire true discriminating knowledge by themselves. That goal must be instilled in the child at the youngest possible age, as is symbolized by the initiation ceremonies practised in most religions, from the tying of the sacred thread to baptism.


Partly through the familiar agency of myths or “fairy tales”, the young mind, still free from many extraneous memories and prejudices, can be prepared more easily to meditate on the seed objects of perception that Patanjali proposes, as a semantic preparation to the gradual acquisition of contemplative cognition.


The author is Convener, Editorial Board, World Affairs Journal. The article is based on a presentation to the World Education Congress on Education, January 2012

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