the Torch On
The relationship between the taught and the teacher
fascinates me. I suppose this is in part because I have enjoyed
the relationship from both ends. Yes, ‘enjoyed’ is the word. I had a rather long innings as one taught from
the Infant Class, as it used to be called those days, to the course-work
followed by the writing of the thesis towards a Doctorate in Philosophy,
all without much of a break and again a long innings as one teaching
undergraduates, postgraduates, and doctoral candidates. I can say for sure that my enjoyment was conditioned
both by traditional India’s conception of the relationship and the
modern European conception of it.
There was no sense of discontinuity or any resulting discomfort
in my stint as a student, thanks to my teachers, or at least some
of them. How do I know how, at a later date, my own
students found me as a teacher? More
of that latter, first the two conceptions.
With us in traditional India, there are two key words for the
teacher, guru and ˇchˇrya.
Earlier, both terms simply meant someone who initiates the
young to thesacred ritual. In
the course of history, guru came to be associated with the mysteries
of the quest, whether spiritual or artistic.
Guru was larger than life (guru means large after all); he
was the gracious master who transmited the torch of energy.
Acharya come to be associated with the determined search for
truth, whether philosophical or scientific.
The acharya was the elder pathfinder; indeed he aspires to
be excelled by someone he has taught (żisyˇd
icchet parˇjayam); he was the kind father, who initiated
the dialogue (vˇda-vivˇda) and transmitted
the torch of knowledge. We
in India were content to use the same correlative for both these terms,
one to be disciplined (áikŔa).
(In Islamic India, one comes across the terms ustˇd
and maulavĚ, which correspond, after making due allowances,
to the terms guru and acharya respectively, áˇgird
being the correlative of both). Modern
Europe, on the contrary, differentiates the two kinds of the taught;
pupil / élčve / SchŁler
and student /étudiant / Student. The pupil is the little
child led by the hand by the teacher, who may be the ordinary school
teacher or the eminent pathfinder among scholars.
The student is one who studies diligently and systematically,
whether in attendance to a teacher or simply pursuing knowledge in
the footsteps of those who have taught him earlier.
A moment’s thought will show that there is a certain correspondence
between the Indian and the European conception: between the guru and
the pupil on the one hand and again between the acharya and the student. So the two conceptions are not all that distinct, but there is a
difference nevertheless. In
traditional India, there is such a great weightage to the guru mode
that even an acharya stands in danger of shading into the guru and
so being implicitly followed. In
modern Europe, one sets a higher store by the student mode so much
so that even a school pupil stands in danger of being pressed into
diligent and systematic study. (The malady probably spread from France to
To reminisce about my teachers is thus for me to contemplate
the emergence of a fusion mode in my own relationship with them, fusion
of the guru and pupil mode and the acharya and student mode.
I was in my fourth school year, lucky to have the gifted Shri
Ranade for our class teacher who taught us everything from language
to science. In the course of a grammar lesson he inductively derived
the definition of ‘adjective’ through example, finally inscribing
it on the blackboard : An adjective (višeŔa¸a) is a word that gives us special
information about the noun, as in kˇ˝ˇ
gho·ˇ, where the first word qualifies the noun ‘horse’
as ‘black’. Up went a hand, my hand: “I have a problem,
doesn’t say anything about the noun as don-akŔarĚ (two-syllabled) would correctly have
about the second word, gho·ˇ. May be we should modify the definition so as
to read ‘special information about what the noun indicates’ rather
than ‘about the noun’ as such.” Shri
Ranade stopped in his tracks, thought for a minute, and actually revised
the definition on the blackboard and, showing his pleasure, said,
“You’re right, of course.” Needless to say, my admiration for my teacher
Looks as if I was destined to be a grammarian after passing
through an apprenticeship in literature with our class teacher, Shri
D K Kulkarni, in the last two years of high school, the tenth and
eleventh years in those days. He taught us English, literary selections,
grammar, and composition. He
used to encourage us to put questions about whatever he happened to
be teaching. The pleasure he took in this activity was so
obvious that the last quarter of the school hour often turned into
a discussion session. At one
point I asked him about some detail of English grammar that puzzled
me. Instead of lucidly explaining that point as he usually did, he suggested
that I look him up later in the teacher’s common room so that we could
talk about it. so, when I
saw him in the school recess I was naturally in some trepidation,
wondering what faux pas I had committed.
He quietly led me by the hand to the adjoining school library
hall, stopped at a shelf marked ‘Grammar’ and took out a couple of
volumes, The Philosophy of Grammar and Language: Its
Nature, Development and Origin, both by the renowned Danish scholar,
Otto Jespersen. Putting these
into my hands and suggesting that in future I take up puzzlements
with ‘this fine gentleman’. Wittingly
or unwittingly, a kindly school teacher had introduced me to a torchbearer,
who made sure that I later found early American Linguistic structuralism
not wholly satisfying.
Now comes my apprenticeship in English literature as an undergraduate.
Two of my teachers, Shri M.G. Bhate (who combined an MA in English
with a London School BSc in Economics) and Shri G.P. Pradhan (who
combined an infectious zest for literature with a jail term in India’s
Emergency in his future). Shri Bhate introduced me to the importance
of the scrutiny critics and the socio-economic background of
literature, and Shri Pradhan to the sheer enjoyment of literature
and placing it in the context of life.
In their differing ways, both had the ability to get even the
backbenchers in the class excited and to inculcate a love of Shakespeare.
(In later life, when it was suggested to me that a patriotic
Indian couldn’t possibly love English literature or that a socially
committed reader of literature ought not possibly indulge in the frivolity
of enjoying literary beauty I was, and still am, all incomprehension.)
And finally, my experience of doing a doctorate in an American
university, a far western outpost of European civilization.
I duly drafted my doctoral thesis on Marathi phonology and
morphology and handed in the draft to my research supervisor, Professor
Hockett’s red-ink pen, I was in some trepidation when he later handed
my draft back to me totally unscathed.
I was wondering to myself whether he found it too unworthy
even to touch with his red-ink pen, when he broke in : “You could
give it to the typist, no problem. Well, actually there are four spots wherein
you have in passing raised problems about some of my views on points
of linguistic analysis. In
two cases you have succeeded in convincing me of my error and in the
other two you haven’t but really you have argued your point well,
which is all that matters in a doctoral thesis.”
I was taken aback, unable to imagine an Indian research supervisor
doing anything of the kind. Having
recovered from the shock, I realized that I had duly earned the right
to call him Charles rather than Professor Hockett as I had been doing
so far. I was inoculated against
the colonial hangover for life.
Later, when I found myself in the shoes of a teacher, I wondered
from time to time how I fared as a teacher in the eyes of my students. Quite a few of them told me after we got to know each other better.
They told me about their puzzlement about me.
In sum, their puzzlement was as to whether I was a starlet
taskmaster or an indulgent senior friend, for I was both by turns.
They couldn’t place me; they couldn’t because they had no pigeonhole
for the fusion mode, being good Indians.
Mine was a fusion mode in quite another sense too.
I was doing a stint as a visiting professor in a university
language and literature department, lecturing on linguistic and literary
theory by turns. It was a
composite group of those doing their respective MA in English and
Marathi. Once I sought to draw a student out informally
on how my use of English worked in the classroom floor. He assured me that there was no problem even
with students of Marathi (as he was).
As he warmed to the subject, he casually remarked about my
fusion mode: “You have truly introduced us to the linguistic and literary
thinkers; it is as if the other day we were listening to a round-table
debate on poetic theory that was going on with Aristotle and Abhinavagupta,
Jµˇnešvara and Coleridge, Richards and
D.K. Bedekar participating.” It
was a humbling experience for me to realize that I had unwittingly
afforded my students such a globalizing learning experience and in
part repaid my debt (¤¸a) to my teachers.
Perhaps, my two fusion modes, the guru-pupil and acharya-student
mode on the one hand and the mode exploiting the double intellectual
inheritance, Indian and European on the other hand, are not two distinct
fusion modes at all but a single composite Indian-European globalizing
teaching mode after all.
This is an invited contribution to:
Dr. Ms. Viney Kirpal (ed.) You moved my life: Heartwarming
stories of teachers who mentored and taught us to dream.
Elgin, IL, Slough, Berks; New Delhi : New Dawn Press, 2004,
The author benefited from : Minoru Hara, ‘Hindu concepts of
teacher : Sanskrit guru and acˇrya’. In : Sanskrit and Indian Studies : essays
in honour of Daniel H.H. Ingalls, ed. Masatoshi Nagatomi et al. Dordrechz,
Netherlands : D. Reidel, 1980, p.93-118.