My angry interlocutor in Birmingham, having suffered quite some laughter from the audience, stomped out angrily from the temple. On his way out he saw Padma and my two PhD students who had come along with us, and were watching the proceedings with deep interest.
“HE HAS ONLY BOOKISH KNOWLEDGE! YOU HAVE TO LEARN FROM AN ACHARYA!”
He ranted to my PhD students who were there: NOT LEARNING FROM AN ACHARYA IS LIKE TRYING TO GET A PHD WITHOUT AN ADVISOR!
Padma remarked to me, grinning from ear to ear: “Wow! You made him REALLY MAD!” My student, deeply steeped in formal Sanatana Dharma training in his childhood to the point where he claims to be tired of the “preaching’, chuckled: “if you are trained by an Acharya, the first thing you must learn is not to get angry when you lose a debate. Our whole tradition is one of debate!”
Very interesting questions. Let me take the PhD one first. A big difference is that in a PhD program, we may have a guide, but there is a reason why people sign up in a good university to get a PhD, not at the advisor’s hut. It is to benefit from the Universe of knowledge avenues that are available in a University. One learns far more “through the eyes of one’s classmates” (as one my ex-Dept. Chairs taught me as he demolished my argument on why small classes were better than big classes) than from the Advisor. So it is quite wrong to ascribe all learning in the PhD program to one advisor. My students would laugh out loud if one suggested that they learn more from me than I from them.
There is of course a second difference. At least where I have been privileged to guide PhDs, I get to select them with extreme care. The selection is through a process that demands excellence. Those whom I select are, and I can say this with pride, demonstrated through quantitative, objective metrics, to be the best in our Institution, and the Institution these days, particularly our School, shows up at the very top of the US News and World Report rankings. So what makes these students different? Sure, they are all “talented” and “academically excellent”. But the best of them are selected because they think independently. The most important metric for a PhD to graduate, as my own thesis advisor used to say, is that they can disagree with their advisor and prove their point, proving that they can stand up on their own in intellectual reasoning and (in our case) problem-solving. Clearly, someone who just parrots what they memorized from some “Guru” as Divine Truth, and aims just to get that diploma to hide under, do not meet this criterion. They would not survive a month in our research group.
Now for the first question. Back when I was in 4th grade, I was in an Islamic School. There were 16 girls and 8 boys in our class, which made for a horrifying environment. The Majority was always terrorizing the Minority, trying to get us in trouble with Teacher at every single opportunity, bless their dear vindictive souls. Competitiveness seemed uppermost in their minds.
As the only non-Muslim in the class (pretty-much the whole school!) I was given the clear freedom to do whatever I wanted during their Islam classes. However, as any red-blooded elementary school denizen would know, sitting around alone is absolutely no fun at all, so I used to go and stand around listening to what they were saying.
One day the class was outdoors in the beautiful mountain weather of central Sri Lanka, the deep blue sky overlooking green paddy fields and the (inviting, muddy, but deserted and out of bounds) soccer field. We stood in a circle around the Maulavi as he lectured. After a while, perhaps sensing that his audience had mentally drifted off, he stopped and asked a question. The class just blinked at him. When no one spoke up, I raised my hand, and answered the question, and the Maulavi smiled and commended me for getting it right, and gently wondered what the rest of the class was doing.
IMMEDIATELY one of my dear Majority Gender friends protested, in a rare departure from the usual genteel Rules of Combat: “Narayanan cannot answer that! He is not a Muslim!”
Shocked, embarrassed silence. Then the Maulavi gathered his wits and spent the rest of the lecture hour lecturing my angry classmate, with her reddening cheeks and gathering tears, and the whole class, about how wrong that was.
All real Gurus have always taught SIMPLICITY and welcomed all learners too. And I am proud to have learned a little from a wide spectrum of such Gurus. My parents who insisted on daily evening prayer before a lighted lamp every day, in a land where we were surrounded by those not of our faith. My siblings. My friends and colleagues. My teachers in school and college. My dear little classmates, who eventually presented me with an Autograph book asking me never to forget them – and how could I? Their Maulavi. Their Indonesian Headmaster who insisted on respecting my beliefs and protected my freedom while welcoming me. Once I got into a (fair) fight with his son, where I was terrified to get into any fight with him, until he goaded me with insults that no 4-th grader can tolerate, and which ended with said son going home bawling and in tears. I lived in terror for the next few days, until the HM came by, called me aside, patted me on the head and quietly thanked me for teaching his son a much-needed lesson. Back in India, my upbringing in a deeply traditional ancestral home, surrounded by the most deeply religious Brahman community, not 100 yards from the Thekke Mathom, most hoary school of Vedic education in southwest India. Swami Ranganathanandaji’s 1-hour lecture that gave me a lifetime of assurance. The numerous Conversionists who asked me if I wasn’t on a path to disappointment at the doors of Heaven which were open only to those who were Born Again. Their preachers who screamed: “And WHY do the Heathen Rage?” causing all the Congregation to turn around and look at me in curiosity. My unknown interlocutors on various Internet fora who sharpened my understanding under the merciless anvil of no-holds-barred debate. And then my professors in colleges both in India and the USA who taught me objective evaluation of concepts, and most of all, yes, my professor, steeped in the Vedas himself, who gave me the “Upa Nishad” of explaining the central core structure of the Vedas, with the encouraging declaration:
“This is all there is to it.”