There is an example of this last in one of the oldest Upanishads, the Chandogya. (This must be at least 600 BC, and according to tradition, is much older than that. Our teacher quoted this example in one of his early lectures. There is a boy, Swetaketu. Dr, Shastri said in his talk that this was a naughty boy. That isn’t in the Upanishad nor in Shankara’s commentary on it; but our teacher had access to some tradition which evidently said so. His father was a learned Brahmin, and who one day said to him: ‘Svetaketu, you are now twelve years old and you should go and study under a teacher. No‑one in our family has ever been just a Brahmin by name.’ The duty of a Brahmin is to study spiritual texts. Manu the Law-giver says: ‘An elephant made of leather and a Brahmin who lacks piety and learning – there is nothing there except the name.
That is what he said to his son.’ Our teacher commented: ‘This is the way to treat naughty children. Find an ideal which they can identify themselves with, and present it to them.’
So Svetaketu went off for twelve years and he did study with a teacher. He came back. He had worked hard. The father had knotted the pride of family to the ideal of learning, and it had strengthened the desire to master the subject. To that extent, it had achieved its end. But the pride did not end when the twelve years of study ended; on his return, he was very very proud of the fact that he was so learned.
Now the pride of family had become a hardened knot, and therefore an obstacle. No truly learned man thinks he knows everything; he finds that his ignorance has increased with his knowledge.
Svetaketu’s father said to him: My boy, you are very proud of your learning.
Did you ask your teacher for that instruction by which the unknown becomes known? The young man no doubt wondered to himself; ‘That wasn’t in the syllabus’. He just said: ‘No, will you teach me? So then the knot was untied and he became humble again. Or rather, one could say, it is not such much a question of being humble, as of learning to look straight at the facts.
Here is a more modern example of the same thing: a useful knot between the honour of a family and the efforts that have to be made, and the disadvantage when the knot becomes tight and hard, with a narrowing effect on the whole personality. In the first half of the Twentieth century. Many regions of India were ruled by Princes, some of them of very ancient lineage. A great failing of the British overlords was, their race prejudice. A Prince once remarked: ‘The capital of my ancestors was one of the great cultural, and incidentally financial, centres of the world when the British forbears were running about half-naked in woad, trying desperately to resist the Romans. Yet I am not allowed to set foot in the Calcutta Club.’
In spite of their resentment, some of the Princes sent their sons to be educated at a College for Princes founded and run by the British. They recognized that there were some valuable things that could best be learnt in that bit of foreign environment which had been set up in India. The school was run rather like an English so-called Public School and the head-master could tell some interesting stories. For instance, one of the new boys was finding it difficult to settle down to study. His father was the Rajah of the state of Tewari.
The headmaster, whose name was Berkley, used to inspect each class once a week. He would sit at the teacher’s desk, and the form master would then present him with what he judged to be a typical piece of the work of each boy during the week. The boys would come up in turn, and the head would comment on the work. When the new boy’s turn came, the form master laid the exercise book in front of the Head; it was covered with blue-pencilled corrections. The Headmaster glanced at a few of them, and delivered his verdict: ‘A poor piece of work. You will have to do better than this.’
The boy’s eyes blazed, but he stood at attention, and said nothing; then he went back to his place.
At the first break period, however, Berkley said there was a knock at the door of his study, and this boy came in. ‘What is it?’ asked Berkley.
‘Perhaps, Sir, you cannot be expected to know, but we of the royal house of Tewari are never criticized in front of others. Never, Sir.’
‘But that was very poor work, and it has to be criticized.’
‘Sir, my father has sent me to you, and told me to obey your orders. I will, Sir. Our royal house is fearless. Tell me to put my hand into the fire there, and I will. (Berkley said that he believed the boy would have done it.) But we are never criticized in front of others.’
I found myself wondering how Berkley would handle the situation. He said that he told him: ‘Your father has sent you to me to learn, and not only the books. He wants you to learn other things, and one of them is just this: to accept criticism when you have not done your best, whether others are there or not. You may show the heroism of your royal house by putting your hand in the fire, but he wants you to learn the heroism of standing criticism in front of others. And if you do your best, you will not be criticized.’ He added that afterwards that boy, though not gifted intellectually, did work hard.
In this case, the knot of the pride of the royal house got tied up with the idea of status ‑ never to allow criticism in front of others. It had to be untied. When it could be untied from that, and tied to the idea of working hard so as to avoid criticism, the knot could serve a useful purpose, like the knot on a parcel. But he had also to be able to untie it from that too, and be able to endure merited criticism without being upset. If knots can be tied and untied freely as occasion requires, they are useful; but if they congeal and harden, they are a great obstacle.
© Trevor Leggett
Titles in this series are:
Part 1: Loosening the Knot of the Heart
Part 2: Swetaketu was a naughty boy