Friday, June 5, 2009

Education and Tracking Down A Trail of Ants

[Developed from the author’s talk to a group of 100 teachers at the end of a summer workshop]

“All your teaching is centred on what has no use,” said Hui Tzu to Chaung Tzu, the great Taoist master of ancient China.

Chaung Tzu replied: “If you have no appreciation for what has no use, you cannot begin to talk about what can be used. The earth for example, is broad and vast, but of all this expanse, a man uses only a few inches upon which he happens to be standing at the time. Now suppose you suddenly take away all that he actually is not using, so that all around his feet a gulf yawns, and he stands in the void with nowhere solid except under each foot, how long will he be able to use what he is using?”

“It would cease to serve any purpose.”

“This shows the absolute necessity of what is supposed to have no use,” said Chuang Tzu.


No river runs straight from its mountain source to the sea.

Canals run strait to their goals.

But no one writes poems about canals. Poetry is written about rivers. No one makes legends about canals, legends are made about rivers. We do not take sacred baths in canals and pray for the welfare of our ancestors; that is done in rivers. We have no canal goddesses, only river goddesses.

Education should not be like canals. It should be like rivers. Education should have room in it for a lot of ‘useless’ things. Like a lot of leisure, a lot of idling. Like space for friendships. Like time for daydreaming. Like exploration without any focus, as children did in a bygone era when they would wander about with a friend for hours at a stretch. For aimless wanderings.

Those wanderings were what enriched the soul of man.

Children should not be educated to be like canals. They should travel to their destinations like rivers travel to the sea.

In life, it is the journey that counts.

Today’s education leaves the soul of man starved. And this leads to life on a starvation diet. In the middle of riches and technology unconceivable in the past, man’s soul starves today.


I love a story called Tracking down a Trail of Ants that I read many years ago:

“A week before school opened, I walked the route my first-grader son would take to school. I walked slowly and it figured out twenty minutes. But when he walked it alone, he was ten minutes late the first two days of school. Puzzled, I walked with him the third day. The twenty minutes was all right, as far as it went. But I’d failed to consider such side trips as:

Tracking down a trail of ants from a sidewalk into a lot.

Critical inspection of a display of trinkets and bicycles in a store window.

An educational pause to watch a man change a tire.

Swing around half a dozen phone poles.

Friendly overtures to three stray dogs and one brown cat.

In short, I had forgotten I was six years old once myself.”


Education should enrich the human soul. And that enrichment takes place best with ‘useless’ things.

Don Harold writes in the Reader’s Digest, under the title Pick More Daisies:

“If I had my life to live over, I would try to make more mistakes. I would relax. I would be sillier than I have been this trip. I know of very few things that I would take seriously. I would be less hygienic. I would go more places. I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers. I would eat more ice cream and less bran. I would have more actual troubles and fewer imaginary troubles.

You see, I have been one of those fellows who live prudently and sanely, hour after hour, day after day. Oh, I have had my moments. But if I had it to do over again, I would have more of them – a lot more. It may be too late to unteach an old dog old tricks, but perhaps a word of forewarning from the unwise may be of benefit to a coming generation. It may help them to fall into some of the pitfalls I have avoided.

If I had my life to live over, I would pay less attention to people who teach tension. In a world of specialization we naturally have a superabundance of individuals who cry at us to be serious about their individual specialty. They tell us we must learn Latin or history; otherwise we will be disgraced and ruined and flunked and failed. After a dozen of so of these protagonists have worked on a young mind, they are apt to leave it in hard knots for life. I wish they had sold me Latin and history as a lark.

I would seek out more teachers who inspire relaxation and fun. I had a few of them, fortunately, and I figure it was they who kept me from going entirely to the dogs. From them I learned how to gather what few scraggly daisies I have gathered along life’s cindery pathway.

If I had my life to live over, I would start barefooted a little earlier in the spring and stay that way a little later in the fall. I would play hooky more. I would shoot more paper wads at my teachers. I would have more dogs. I would keep later hours. I’d have more sweethearts. I would go to more circuses. I would go to more dances. I would ride on more merry-go-rounds. I would be carefree as long as I could, or at least until I got some care – instead of having my cares in advance.

More errors are made solemnly than in fun. The rubs of family life come in moments of intense seriousness rather than in moments of lightheartedness. If nations – to magnify my point – declared international carnivals instead of international war, how much better that would be!

In a world in which practically everybody else seems to be consecrated to the gravity of the situation, I would rise to glorify the levity of the situation. For I agree with Will Durant that “gaiety is wiser than wisdom.” I doubt, however that I’ll do much damage with my creed. The opposition is too strong. There are too many serious people trying to get everybody else to be darned serious.”


Recently a young man wrote to me. He was until recently my student in one the most prestigious educational institutions in the country. He has a wonderful job with an organization any young man would be proud to associate with and draws a salary of about a hundred thousand rupees a month. Recently married, he has beautiful, young, educated wife and a happy family life. But his life is filled with a sense of meaninglessness, a sense of emptiness. He wanted to know what to do.

This happens because our education today is too focused – too narrowly focused. It leaves no space for ‘useless’ things. It leaves no space for tracking down trails of ants from sidewalks into lots. It leaves no space for critical inspections of displays of trinkets and bicycles in store windows. It leaves no space for the educational pause to watch a man change a tire or to swing around phone poles. It leaves no space for friendly overtures to stray dogs and brown cats.


Today we have no time for any of the most beautiful things in life. No time for sunrises, no time for sunsets, no time for watching the moon or the clouds. No time to sit down and watch the rain and the winds and the trees dancing together.

No time to pick daisies.

No time to watch the dance of spotted butterflies on green leaves.

I remember seeing a Hollywood film some years back. In one scene in the film, we see a handsome young couple making love. They are both financial executives on the Wall Street. They are clothed as they have sex – they are in a great hurry and there is no time for removing clothes. And as they have sex at a feverish pace, they have their cell phones in their hands. Throughout the sex scene, they talk into their phones nonstop in a high pitched, urgent voice – with their customers. They cannot take a break from their business transactions even to have sex. Who knows, they might end up losing tens of thousands of dollars in those few minutes.

In contrast, let me give here a description of a lovemaking scene from the Bheel Bharath, the Mahabharata of the tribal Bheels who live in the border districts of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan.

Soon after her marriage to Shantanu Raja, one night Ganga is filled with a strange restlessness. She calls her maids long before dawn and tells them they are going for a sea bath. She bathes in the sea and sports with her maids in the water.

By then it is the golden dawn. The lord of the day has begun to make his appearance in the eastern sky. She puts on fresh clothes and walks back to her palace with her maids. Her steps are indolent as she climbs up the stairs to her cloud palace. There, in her palace, she finishes all the sixteen shringaras and thus ready, tells Shantanu, “Come, Raja, let’s go to the orchard. Let’s take a walk in the garden.”

Shantanu puts on his yellow dress, looking like a fresh bridegroom. He puts on his golden crown, his pearl necklaces and wears his slippers with serpent hoods. With bottles of saffron and musk in his hands, he climbs down the steps of the cloud palace taking leisurely steps.

Everything is wonderful in the garden – the orchard looks delightful, with mangoes everywhere. For long they wander through the gardens in exquisite idleness and then settle down in the shade of the champa hung with flowers. They spend all their time in the garden, engaged in sweet, intimate talk.

Soon the sun begins to set in the western sky. Birds have come back to their nests. Ganga tells Shantanu, “Come, Raja, let’s go back to the palace.”

Back in the palace, Ganga warms water in a copper vessel and tells Shantanu, “Come, it’s time for your bath.” The king takes his bath and afterwards puts on fresh golden yellow clothes. He puts on his necklaces, combs his hair and does all the sixteen shringaras.

Ganga cooks a five-course meal and serves it to her husband in golden dishes. She combs her own hair and fills the parting of her hair with sindoor. After finishing her sixteen shringaras, Ganga spreads the royal bed. She sprinkles saffron and musk on the bed. The bed now exudes the intoxicating scent of musk. She spreads soft flowers on the bed.

The young king and queen play a game of chaupad. The stakes go up, the stakes come down. And when it is that time when the yogi sleeps and the bhogi seeks his pleasure, the king and the queen have their sports of love lying on their bed in each other’s arms.


As we can see, sex here is not a crude physical act of mating, nor a fierce battle of lust, but a beautiful communion, leisurely and unhurried, aesthetic from beginning till end, spiritual in its essence – an act of worship at the altar of life so that fresh life could be invoked within a woman’s womb. The preparations are thorough. Ganga bathes in the sea before sunrise, comes back and finishes all the sixteen traditional items of shringara and then invites Shantanu to spend time with her in the palace gardens. The sun has already set and parrots have found their roosts when Ganga brings her man back to her cloud palace. She heats water for his bath, and while he is bathing, prepares an elaborate dinner for him. She serves the food in dishes of gold, and then gets ready herself with the sixteen shringaras once again. Careful attention is paid to every detail of the preparation of the bed on which they would make love. Flowers, fragrances are all used to create the right ambience. In this fragrant, beautifully decorated room, they sit and play a game of chaupad. It is only then that the king and the queen slowly move into the acts of making love.

As we read the description of the lovemaking of Ganga and Shantanu, we get a feeling that this is exactly how love should be made. The man and the woman float gently into the intimate world of sexual love, smoothly, blissfully. There are no sudden, hasty acts, it is like the coming into existence of an orchestra where everyone of the several elements fit in, in perfect harmony.

But the world is fast moving away from this world of Bheel Bharath towards what we saw the young executives doing in the Hollywood movie.

Because we have no time today.

No time for living. No time for ‘useless’ things.

Our education does not believe in wasting time in ‘useless’ things.


In my younger days in Kerala, Onam, our traditional harvest festival, lasted for twenty days. Today it is just one day.

Kathakali, the classical dance drama, used to be a five night affair, and sometimes longer still, each night’s performance lasting until the early hours of dawn. Today it is rarely one night long – usually it is no more than a ninety minute thing.

There was a time when wedding guests came and stayed for weeks. Today they do not spend even the day.

We have no time today.

Not long ago it was said that technology will free man from work and men will be able to spend all their time in leisure activities. Alwyn Toffler was one of the futurologists who predicted this.

That is not what we see around us today.

We do not see more people stopping by ant trails. We do not see more people picking daisies. We do not see more people taking time to smell roses.

James Truslow Adams tells us this cute story, Time for the Soul:

“A friend of mine, a distinguished explorer who spent a couple of years among the savages of the upper Amazon, once attempted a forced march through the jungle. The party made extraordinary speed for the first two days, but on the third morning, when it was time to start, my friend found all the natives sitting on their haunches, looking very solemn and making no preparation to leave. “They are waiting,” the chief explained to my friend. “They cannot move farther until their souls have caught up with their bodies.”

I can think of no better illustration of our own plight today. Is there no way of letting our souls, so to say, catch up with our bodies? If one thinks over the sort of life led in innumerable homes a generation ago, our immense speeding up in the process o f living today is clear. People then, as we say, ‘had time.’ Now no one ‘has time.’”

Because our education does not see ‘the absolute necessity of what is supposed to have no use.’


No comments:

Post a Comment