To be or not to be

Nidhi Gaur

Shakespeare’s Hamlet contemplates death and suicide in a soliloquy – To be or Not to Be. To us, this dilemma comes as an essential modern life choice. To be or not to be a student of science or history, an engineer, or a teacher – the dilemma pursues us at every juncture of life. It compels us to consider our choices and persists till we learn to ignore it. Our decision leads us either on the path of self-realization or it silences us forever.

Charles Taylor (1991), in The Malaise of Modernity, explains that to be true to oneself is a pressing requirement of modernity. Everyone has an original way of being, Taylor argues. It is an individual’s responsibility to discover and become their true self. He illustrates how through the discrediting of the older order this space for the individual was carved out. Today, an individual is identified by the merit he has achieved. This individual has to look for opportunities to grow and decide his course of life.

As early as 1909, Mahatma Gandhi introduced us to this idea of modernity. He linked modernity to truth and non-violence by keeping the individual and self at the centre. In Hind Swaraj, he explains truth in relation to self. Finding one’s truth is an individual’s journey within his self. He argues that an essentially non-violent person is one who can fearlessly follow his truth. And to be able to live fearlessly is swaraj. To experience swaraj, an individual needs to be aware of the potential of his physical, intellectual and spiritual self. He needs to strengthen these parts of self to follow his truth. We call it self-discipline. Together, these two lead to an increased reliance on his self to realize his truth. Thus, Gandhi situates swaraj within the realm of practice.

Illustration: Bhargav Kumar Kulkarni

Practice of swaraj does not come easy for any individual not even for Mahatma Gandhi. In the introduction to Gandhi’s autobiography, Tridip Suhrud (2018) illustrates how effectively he used the ashram system to practice swaraj. Practitioners of swaraj need support of a community of like-minded individuals. In Hind Swaraj, he acknowledged this connection between education and swaraj. He realized the need for a school community rooted in the practice of swaraj to facilitate its development in children.

Fortunately, we have a living example of his educational philosophy in Anand Niketan, a Nai Talim school in Sevagram ashram, Wardha. A few years ago, during my doctoral research, I observed two class-III girls (Anu and Bihu) spinning thread in the school. Anu noticed Bihu having trouble concentrating. Her hands and the movement of the spindle were out of rhythm. “It could be because her spindle has very little thread on it, so spindle’s speed is unmanageable for her,” Anu hypothesized before offering help. Spindles were exchanged. But Bihu was still out of rhythm. The thread kept breaking. Anu asked Bihu to stop spinning. By gradually reducing the spindle’s speed, Anu also stopped spinning and returned the spindle with thread intact. Anu inspected the thread and tore away bad quality thread. By rejecting the thread, Anu asserted herself. She was aware of her capability and associated her work with her identity. In a Nai Talim school, an eight-year-old girl can choose to be herself and shows ownership towards her work. While in mainstream education, parents and teachers agonize over children’s lack of ownership for their work. Children feel compelled and dissociate themselves from schoolwork.

Anu’s ability to hypothesize and to put it in practice must be noted. While hypothesizing, she is reflecting on her observations and experience. We are living in the times when adults are seen behaving unreasonably. For instance, when the Janta Curfew was imposed, we saw a number of processions adults took out to celebrate its success. How does one explain such mindless behaviour? At this point in time, we need a pedagogy that facilitates the development of reflective ability in children.

Nai Talim initiates an individual’s journey to self-exploration and reflection. Once this process begins, the individual learns to hold on to one’s truth even in adverse situations. This is satyagraha. It begins at the moment an individual chooses to be himself.

The author is an Associate Editor at Ektara Trust. Her doctoral work examined the role craft-based education can play to address gender socialization of rural children. She can be reached at [email protected].

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