Perspectives

Convocation Address at Indian Institute of Technology, Madras To Humanities and Social Sciences Graduands

30 September 2019 IIT-Madras, Chennai, By Makarand Paranjape

Makarand R. Paranjape is an Indian author, poet, and humanities professor. He has been the Director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla since August 2018. Prior to that he was a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India for 19 years.

Commencement speeches constitute a relatively new and not altogether significant genre of public eloquence in India. But in other countries such as the United States they are a big deal. This year’s commencement speakers included journalist and author Fareed Zakaria at Ohio State University; businessman, politician, and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg at MIT; Apple CEO Tim Cook at Tulane; TV star Oprah Winfrey at Colorado College; and Angela Merkel at Harvard. Commencement speeches by Steve Jobs, Bill & Melinda Gates (at Stanford) or J. K. Rowling (at Harvard), to name just a few, are famous and cited the world over.

But I am not sure you know that perhaps the oldest recorded convocation exhortation in human history occurs in the prathama (or opening) valli of the Shikshadhyaya section of the Taitiriya Upanishad (c. 6th century BCE). In the 11th anuvãka (section), the teacher encourages the graduating students thus:

‘सत्यं वद। घर्मं चर। स्वाध्यायान्‌ मा प्रमदः।’ ‘Satyam vada; dharmam chara; svãdhyãyãn mã pramadaha’ – ‘Speak the truth. Abide in the dharma. Never be slack in your studies’ (Taittireeya Upanishad: 1/11).

The second section called Brahmavalli opens with the famous shanti mantra which was a part of your pledge:

ॐ सह नाववतु ।
सह नौ भुनक्तु ।
सह वीर्यं करवावहै ।
तेजस्वि नावधीतमस्तु मा विद्विषावहै ।
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥
Om Saha Naav[au]-Avatu |

Saha Nau Bhunaktu |
Saha Viiryam Karavaavahai |
Tejasvi Naav[au]-Adhiitam-Astu Maa Vidvissaavahai |
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih ||

Meaning:
Om, together may we two progress; (in our studies or in noble endeavours, teacher and student, or those gathered, depending on the context).
Together may we two enjoy (our studies or any other noble activity, teacher and student, or those gathered, depending on the context),
Together may we perform (our studies or other noble activities) with vigour (and deep concentration).
May what has been studied by us be fill us with brilliance (of understanding and profound knowledge).
May it not give rise to hostility (due to ignorance, jealousy, and lack of understanding).
Om Peace, Peace, Peace.

Later in the same Upanishad are the famous verses, ‘मातृदेवो भव। पितृदेवो भव। आचार्यदेवो भव। अतिथिदेवो भव।’ – ‘Matruvedo bhava, pitrudevo bhava, atithidevo bhava’ – ‘Know your mother to be like unto a God; know your father to be like unto God; know your teacher to be like unto God; know the unforeseen visitor to be like unto God’ (Taittireeya Upanishad: 1/11).

The teacher then says, ‘यान्यनवद्यानि कर्माणि। तानि सेवितव्यानि। नो इतराणि।’ – ‘Yãnyanavadyãni karmãni, tãni sevitavyãni, no itarãni’ – ‘O disciples! Only do those actions which are in accordance with the shastras and society. Do not perform actions that oppose this’ (Taittireeya Upanishad: 1/11). ‘यान्यस्माकं सुचरितानि तानि त्वयोपास्यानि। नो इतराणि। ये के चास्मत्व्छ्रेयांसो ब्राह्मणाः। तेषां त्वयाऽऽसनेन प्रश्वसितव्यम्‌।’ – ‘Yãnyasmãkam sucharitãni tãni tvayopãsyãni, no itarãni, ye ke chãsmachchhreyãnso brãhmanãhã, teshãm tvayã’’sanena prashvasitavyam’ – ‘Moreover, only adopt our good conduct, nothing else. After leaving here, if you find a teacher better than us, then respect him, pay homage to him by offering him a seat’ (Taittireeya Upanishad: 1/11). I love the the openness implied in what to do if you find a better teacher than even the great Rishi imparting these lessons. No need to cling to what you’ve learned or to the person of the teacher. Today, the cultists who exalt their masters could well benefit from such sage advice.

The teacher, having imparted this timeless lesson, concludes: ‘एष आदेशः। एष उपदेशः। एतदनुशासनम्‌। एवमुपासितव्यम्‌।’ – ‘Esha ãdeshaha, esha upadeshaha, etadanushãsanam, evamupãsitavyam’ – ‘This is our final injunction. This is the teaching. Go forth, live according to this’ (Taittireeya Upanishad: 1/11).2


II

Some years ago, when my daughter graduated from a small liberal arts college in upstate New York, the commencement address was delivered by Garry Trudeau, the famous cartoonist and creator of Doonsbury. Trudeau was both influential and inspiring, besides being witty and impressive. The speech, as commencement addresses are wont to be in North America, was over an hour long. After all, speakers on such occasions are not only famous, but very handsomely compensated. But it was a very warm day, with the parents of the graduands seated outdoors in the sun. Midway through it, I found myself dozing off.

Thankfully, my speech will not allow you that luxury. I will not only be brief, but also refrain from trying to match great graduation speeches. That is because this morning we have heard an outstanding speech by a serving Prime Minister such as I am sure none of the graduating students in the world’s most famous colleges and universities have had the privilege of listening to. You guys sure are lucky!

This brings me to the crux of the matter: we are fortunate to witness and participate in the birth of a new India. One hundred and ten years ago, writing in the inaugural issue of his journal, Karmayogin (No.1, 19 June 1909), Sri Aurobindo declared:

A nation is building in India today before the eyes of the world so swiftly, so palpably…. This nation is not a new race raw from the workshop of Nature or created by modern circumstances. One of the oldest races and greatest civilisations on this earth, the most indomitable in vitality, the most fecund in greatness, the deepest in life, the most wonderful in potentiality, after taking into itself numerous sources of strength from foreign strains of blood and other types of human civilisation, is now seeking to lift itself for good into an organised national unity.

But Sri Aurobindo didn’t stop there. He made a prophecy that we are “sure to succeed because the freedom, unity and greatness of India have now become necessary to the world.” But what is so special about us that we should succeed while other are destined to fail? We must succeed, according to Sri Aurobindo, because “The task we set before ourselves is not mechanical but moral and spiritual.”

India’s svaraj was not merely political independence, but much, much more. It’s imperative is nothing short of integral perfection:

Of that task politics is a part, but only a part. We shall devote ourselves not to politics alone, nor to social questions alone, nor to theology or philosophy or literature or science by themselves, but we include all these in one entity which we believe to be all-important, the dharma, the national religion which we also believe to be universal.

Indeed, Sri Aurobindo believe that Indian had a special mantle among the nations of the world as well as a unique mandate: “Our aim will therefore be to help in building up India for the sake of humanity – this is the spirit of the Nationalism which we profess and follow.” Instead of we needing the world, Sri Aurobindo says that the world needs us. That is because India is to lead the evolutionary progress of humanity:

We say to humanity, ‘The time has come when you must take the great step and rise out of a material existence into the higher, deeper and wider life towards which humanity moves.

The problems which have troubled mankind can only be solved by conquering the kingdom within, not by harnessing the forces of Nature to the service of comfort and luxury, but by mastering the forces of the intellect and the spirit, by vindicating the freedom of man within as well as without and by conquering from within external Nature.

Our problems cannot be solved only by harnessing the forces of nature of organizing the external conditons of life towards greater and greater comfort and luxury. To change the world, in inner transformation, a shift in consciousness is mandatory. That is why, Sri Aurobindo says, Asia is rising, and “For that work the freedom and greatness of India is essential, therefore she claims her destined freedom and greatness, and it is to the interest of all humanity, not excluding England, that she should wholly establish her claim.’” Furthermore, Sri Aurobindo had a special message to the youth of India: “We say to the individual and especially to the young who are now arising to do India’s work, the world’s work, God’s work, ‘You cannot cherish these ideals, still less can you fulfil them if you subject your minds to European ideas or look at life from the material standpoint.’”

Don’t these rousing words of Sri Aurobindo ring even truer today? Don’t we all know that the purpose of our education is not only to satisfy our material needs or to build a social system that is purely mechanistic? All around us we see dissatisfaction and anxiety, not to mention privation and confusion when just one aspect of our individuality is given importance at the cost of everything else. Isn’t it obvious that what we need is integral development, which can only come out of integral wisdom. Isn’t it equally evident that the Humanities and Social Sciences have a vital role to play in this integral wisdom and development of the whole human personality?

Coming back to IIT-Madras, a task for the humanities could be write a sort of sthalapurana local chronicle that combines the intellectual and cultural history of the area with a history of material culture, including metallurgy, weaving, and temple-building. This my friend Raman Srinivasan, an alum of IITM has tried to do. He points out how Appaya Dikshitar (1520-1592), who married into a Velachery family, probably worshipped at these very temples such as the Dandeeshwara Siva, Adipurishwara, Jalakantheswar, Peeliamman, and Yoganarasimha.

Let me end with some anecdotes from my own journey. Many years ago, long before you were born, I was a young lad in this very city, trying to find myself and my future. I had enrolled in a pre-university course in a famous college on the outskirts, with Physics, Chemistry, and Math as my electives. I indented to follow my brother, who was about to complete his BTech in Electrical Engineering from IIT-Bombay. One day, in an JEE prep class, I had an epiphany. I didn’t want to be an engineer after all, solve problems in math, or study any of the sciences formally. I wanted, essentially, to read and write, perhaps also to walk and talk; I wanted to make literature the mainstay of my life.

My mom panicked. She said, “Don’t be a fool; if you fail, we don’t have the means to open a shop or business for you.” Her English professor told me, “If you are prepared to sell Surf from door to door, go ahead.” But my dad supported me. He said, “Do whatever you want, but be the best you can be.” I’m not sure I’ve lived up to his advice, but I’ve never looked back after making that momentous decision quite on my own. I remember how anxious I used to feel about my future in those days. “Don’t worry; you’ll do very well,” one of my teachers, who seemed to see some spark in me, tried to assure me. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t believe. Those were the dark days of the Emergency. The future seemed rather bleak. Yet, in following one’s dream, unexpected opportunities do open up; life does take strange and unforeseen turns.

You’ve heard from the introduction that I got both my Master’s and PhD degrees from one the great engineering schools of the US, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was, believe me, like a factory. To put myself through graduate school, I taught Rhetoric or English composition to Engineering majors. I learned how to write in those frozen mid-Western winters when I took the first bus at 7:33 a.m. to make it to my 8:00 class, come snow or sleet. Back in India, I began at the University of Hyderabad, but soon got a job at IIT-Mumbai at a much higher pay-grade. My Vice-Chancellor made it a prestige issue and matched the higher pay, something quite unprecedented. I became the youngest Reader in English at the age of twenty-nine.

But my karmic connection with the IITs did not end. In a few years, for personal reasons, I moved to Delhi. I was offered positions twice at IIT-Delhi, again something unusual, that too by the same Director, Navin C. Nigam. When he interviewed me a second time, he asked, “Haven’t we seen you before?” I replied, “Yes, Sir, but that was for an Assistant Professorship, which wasn’t good enough for what I had to offer.” He looked up, not entirely pleased. Luckily, I got the job, this time as Associate Professor. I served in this position at IIT-Delhi for nearly six years.

Before becoming Director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, I’ve been as Professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, just across the street, for close to nineteen years. During this time, I’ve been associated with several IITs as a member of their selection committees. I am convinced that the IITs are one of India’s best-run educational systems. They build great individuals, both at the student and the faculty levels. They also have an admirable work-ethic which inculcates great pride in and loyalty for the institution.

Earlier, I quoted at such great length from Sri Aurobindo because I believe that at last the time has come for us to rise up as one to fulfil his prophecy. The time has never been more propitious. In this new India, integral humanities, as just elucidated by Sri Aurobindo, will have a great role to play in the shaping of our collective future, not only in India but elsewhere. Today, the world needs India as much or much more than India needs the world. In this new dawn and future-in-the-making, I hope all of you play a valuable and dedicated role. This great institution, of which you are privileged to be graduates, has served you well; it is time for you to return the compliment by serving India and the world well. You need feel no anxiety about your future. The future of India is bright as is your own future. Do well, wherever you are and whatever you do.

Thank you and all the best.