Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Qualities of a good student

            A good student is identified by certain qualities that set him/her apart from the rest. Different cultures, different times have different standards. But in India, there seems to be some bedrock traits which really kept the intellect sharp and pure of any student. A good student becomes an amplifier of his Guru’s teachings. AdiShankara to Govinda Bhagavadpada, Swami Vivekananda to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Chinmayananada to Tapovan Maharaj are good examples of a good student who outshone their gurus in their brilliance, yet staying humble and true to their roots.

            What are these qualities? We will consider these qualities as needed not only in Spirituality, but also in regular life. These are not only for school/college kids, but also for each one of us. We are all students of life, if we choose to. Let us begin with a story from our Itihasa.

            In the early sections of The Mahabharata, there is a mention of a great sage Ayoda-Dhaumya who has three disciples Aruni, Upamanyu and Veda. One day, the Rishi bade Aruni of Panchala to go and stop a breach in the water course of a field.

            Thus ordered by the preceptor, Aruni found the breach was not easily mendable and seemed to be growing due to the gushing of the water. As a good student, he found no option to carry out his master’s command. He lay down on the breach and confined the water. As time passed on, Dhaumya was wondering where Aruni was. The other students responded he is acting upon his earlier command to contain the breach.

            A concerned Dhaumya went in search of Aruni, along with his other disciples. As he kept calling Aruni’s name, he heard a faint voice informing him that he was laying over the water course. The shivering, wet Aruni told him master that unable to find any suitable measure to carry out his master’s command, he decided to become a human embankment. The moved master gave him an honorific title Uddalaka – one who has raised above.  (There are many Uddalaka Aruni’s mentioned in different Upanishads. It will be very difficult to ascertain if they are one person or many spread across time, though one can infer the latter by conjecture)

            Aruni, a brahmachari boy, could have thrown up his hands in despair when the traditional methods of blocking the breach failed. He could have gone to get help. Instead he raised his personal commitment through his sharp intellect and action. Guru’s words are very potent. Guru Stotram extols it as “Moksha moolam Guru Kripa”.  It is important to note that only those teachers who direct us a step closer to SELF REALIZATION are real GURUS. Someone teaching at school or teaching us a skill like driving or cooking etc will not and cannot be a Guru.

Vidyarthee Panchalakshanam
            There is a wonderful Samskrita Subhashita, proverb, which captures the essence of a student.

काकचेष्टा बकोध्यानं श्वाननिद्रा तथैव |
अल्पाहारी ब्रह्मचारी विद्यार्थी पञ्चलक्षणम् ||

Kaaka-cheshTaa bakodhyaanam shvaana-nidraa tathaiva cha
Alpaahaari brahmachaari vidyaarthee pancha-lakshaNam

Agility of a crow (kaaka), concentration of a crane (baka), light sleep like a dog (shvaana), light eater (alpaa-haari), brahmachaari—these are the 5 qualities of a vidyaa-arthee.

            Let us dwell bit long on each of the five traits.

काकचेष्टा (kaaka cheshtaa)
Cheshtaa translates more like actions. Crow is characterized by curiosity. It seeks to explore. It is never tired of giving up. In fact, there is a Panchatantra story of how it got water from a pitcher having water. Crow is also a very social animal, always wanting to share. It demonstrates the power of a unified community.
            A good student must never be tied by dogmas. While respectfully learning and pushing the boundaries of knowledge, he/she must also test the boundaries of rigid dogmas. Drawing strength and inspiration from those who walked in front of us, a good student will be always willing to share. A good student is very industrious, never shirks from working hard. Keep chipping away at the task like a crow keeps pecking at its target.

बकोध्यानं (bakodhyaanam)
            A crane embodies the picture of concentration. Focused on its target, the crane keeps patiently waiting.

            A good student has 100% focus on the task on hand. To concentrate better one has to have clarity of purpose. A good mastery over the senses by Sama and Dhama is needed in case of spiritual students. Sama is internal restraint, more like control over sense organs, Jnana Indriyas. Dama is restraint of the karma Indriyas. A student of surgery cannot have the mind grazing everywhere while learning a live operation. This is easy to understand, but the same principle applies to a student learning algebra or driving or cooking or arts. Focus is nothing more than keeping the distractions away from the target. One gets a glimpse of it from Arjuna, when Drona tests all the princes to spot a dummy bird target. While the rest were also good in shooting arrows, the ability to focus very intensely set Arjuna apart.

श्वाननिद्रा(shvaana nidra)
A dog is always alert even in its sleep. It does not imply it is not enjoying its sleep. Its mind is always alert.

A good student must always have an alert mind. On one angle, he can learn to be a light sleeper, implying a sharper mind, it also implies that even during the down times, a student is alert to act.  Krishna highlights this as characteristic of a Muni – alertness. A slightly deeper meaning can also be extracted, as the ability to keep a desired state of consciousness even when surrounded in not normal conditions. Just as a dog wakes up alert and stays ready for action even in sleep, we must have a realistic connection to not just waking state while asleep, but also have turiya consciousness in waking state. This is often referred as Sahaja Samadhi.

अल्पाहारी (alpa ahaari)
Light eating is a factor directly linked to our ability to learn. We are the food we eat. This I interpret in two ways - The physical food and sensory food. We are seeing the effects of childhood obesity. This global epidemic is now even in under developed countries. This should be more like limiting junk eating for modern times. But also one can observe that heavy meals need time to digest. This channelizes more blood supply to the digestive tract and away from the brain. It is very easy to observe the drowsy effect everyone feels after a heavy meal. The ability to eat light does not mean eating sparsely or scarcely, nor does it imply eating less nutritious food.

Ahaar implies food, as we noted above, it can also apply for sensory food. Senses are our door way to reconnecting and rekindling the vasanas. Having Sama and Dama are implied by light eating (by the mind).

The common explanation given for a Brahmachari is abstaining from carnal actions. While this is true as it can be a sensory leak of energies, it must be noted Brahmachari is a compound samaskrita word – Brahma and Acharya. I interpret it as constantly living in the thoughts of Brahman. This can be done by selfless actions, devotion, knowledge and/or meditation. Having the mind revolve around Brahman, the only Truth, in higher consciousness, a good student is able to lift himself up. Refer Bhagavad Gita 6.5.

The mind when absorbed in higher ideals along with intellect forces the body to follow it. We the converse as a bad example, where our mind is distracted and centered around senses. This obviously splits our concentration.

            Even in Vedic times, there has been a great emphasis on the student qualities. One of the ten major Upanishads is Taittriya Upanishad, part of Yajur Veda. It is celebrated for profound, precise instructions. It is made of three segments, Vallis – Siksha valli, Ananda valli and Bhrigu valli. Each valli consists of Anuvakas, lessons.  We will focus only on the first portion of the 11th Anuvaka of Siksha valli for our theme.

satyam vada . dharmam chara . svadhyayanma pramadah . acharyaya priyam dhanamahritya prajatantum ma vyavachchetsih . satyanna pramaditavyam . dharmanna pramaditavyam . kushalanna pramaditavyam . bhutyai na pramaditavyam . svadhyayapravachanabhyam na pramaditavyam

Speak the truth. Do your duty (righteousness). Never swerve from the study of the Vedas. Do not cut off the thread of the offspring after giving the preceptor the fee he desires. Never swerve away from truth. Never swerve from duty (righteousness). Never neglect your welfare. Never neglect your prosperity. Never neglect the study and the teachings of the Vedas.

सत्यं वद (Satyam vada) – Speak the Truth
Satyam is the foundation of Hinduism. This is the highest discipline. In Chaandogya Upanishad, we see the son of a prostitute with an unknown father approaching a sage seeking Brahma Vidya. He speaks the only known information without deceit. The sage acknowledges that is a Brahmin trait and accepts him as a disciple though he is low born. Satyam is the last leg on which Dharma is standing in Kali Yuga, according to Bhagavata Purana, Cleanliness, Mercy and Austerity being the other three.

 धर्मं चर । (dharmam chara) Be righteous
Dharma is a non-translatable. Samaskrita is filled with so many words which are hard to translate. The primary reason being numerous meanings can be given to the same word. The above can also be read as Do your duty. The best we can translate is Follow Dharma.

 स्वाध्यायान्मा प्रमदः (swadhyayanma pramada) Don’t swerve from Swadhyaya – Study Daily
Swadhyaya implies pious study of holy books, recommended daily. Kanchi Shankaracharya used to often say, till the time the masses were daily reading Ramayana and Mahabharata, the overall peace of mind was much higher and there was less strife in the society. Once we have given it up, chaos has multiplied. Apart from Ramayana, Mahabharata, reading life of saints and sages, puranas, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads etc can be good choices. It also goes with the mindset of the student. For the bhakti inclined, there are numerous choices from Tukaram Abhangs to Purandara Dasa Padagalu or Tyagaraja Kritis and more. To the intellectual oriented there is a treasure trove ranging from Thevaram, Thiruvasagam to Upanishads. Complete works of Vivekananda is another treasure chest.

In the good olden days it meant only Vedas. Reciting Vedas daily was mandatory. Even Avvaiyar, a great saint poet said ஓதுவது ஒழியேல் (odhuvadhu Ozhiyel – meaning  DO NOT STOP RECITING) .  Though the modern secularists have mistranslated it to mean STUDY. Odhudhal is done with intonation. There is only one thing that is intonated in our culture. Vedas.

 आचार्याय प्रियं धनमाहृत्य प्रजातन्तुं मा व्यवच्छेत्सीः (acharyaya priyam dhanamahritya prajatantum ma vyavachchetsih) Having brought to the teacher the gift desired by him, enter the householder's life and see that the line of progeny is not cut off

We already saw in Fourfold Hinduism, that Grihastashrama is at the core of sustaining all the four Ashramas. It is critical to not neglect the future of human race. This is critical as they wanted to pass the spiritual message to the next generation. This can be translated as the importance of passing good traditions, good knowledge to the next generation. Also not to forget being thankful to the Guru by giving whatever he desires.

Krishna goes through an ordeal to revive the dead son of his teacher Sandeepany’s wife which he took as his command from his Guru. Drona also asked the Kuru princes to bring Panchala King Drupada to avenge his dishonor as a gift. The Pandavas saw victory where the Kauravas failed. Vishwamitra tacitly imparts knowledge of divine weapons to Rama, though he demands him to take Taraka head on. Guru Dakshina is mostly done for parting the vestigial connections of ego in the student. It can also be a genuine request that the Guru wants in exchange for his knowledge. Even if it not so, Guru’s wishes are more than a command for a good student.  

 सत्यान्न प्रमदितव्यम्।  (satyanna pramaditavyam) Do Not swerve away from Truth
The repetition of Satyam in one sloka again emphasizes the importance of Satyam to our Dharma. Here Dharma is Hindu Dharma, religion. I used the word to highlight the non-translatable nature of the word Dharma.

धर्मान्न प्रमदितव्यम्  (dharmanna pramaditavyam) Never swerve from duty (righteousness)
Following Dharma is again re-emphasized. It is important to recall Bhagavad Gita 3.35 where Krishna stresses the need to follow ones’ own svadharma even if it appears menial when compared to others’ glorious dharma.

कुशलान्न प्रमदितव्यम् (kushalanna pramaditavyam) Never swerve from welfare.
It is critical to keep welfare in the center of one’s focus. If all one does is sacrifice, then it creates a stress in one’s personality. If all one thinks is about one’s own self, with a bloated ego, one can hurt oneself of others. So welfare is stressed. It is important to note that these students who were about to reintegrate themselves back into the society needed this. They have been mentally habituated to minimums and could wrongly expect the world to conform to his attitude or worse still he could take all these repressions as a revenge on the society. Even for non-academic students, it makes sense to keep the well-being of everyone at the center.

भूत्यै प्रमदितव्यम् (bhutyai na pramaditavyam) Do not swerve from prosperity
Many believe that Hinduism is all about spiritual well-being and nothing in material plane. This sloka is a direct refute for such wrong ideas. Prosperity is emphasized. We may also recall from Fourfold Hinduism, the four purusharthas – Dharma-Artha-Kama-Moksha. Prosperity is not only in terms of Artha, but in all aspects.A well balanced personality can be more effective in the society or in one’s actions.

स्वाध्यायप्रवचनाभ्यां प्रमदितव्यम् (svadhyayapravachanabhyam na pramaditavyam) Never neglect the study and the teachings of the Vedas

This appears as a repeat not to forget the Vedas and what one has studied. The emphasis is best captured in Thiruvalluvar’s kural.

கற்க கசடற கற்பவை கற்றபின் 
நிற்க அதற்குத் தக

Karka Kasadara Karpavai Kattrapin
Nirka Atharku Thagai

Whatever you learn, learn it thoroughly. After you have learned, learn to apply what you have learned and live your life according to what you have learned.

            Learning it properly and applying what one has learnt are critical to the spirit of learning.

            Thus, we have seen the different aspects of a good student. Irrespective of our stage and age in life, we are all students of life. May we all apply these attributes and reap greater benefits in our individual life, so that we can be impactful in the society in a good way.

Om Tat Sat


  1. Again an outstanding master class from master particularly amazed at his seamless use of original Hindu- Sanskrit lexicon with modern day English..ithihasa..samaskrit...etc have become familiar terms now for most of us. The take away for me is the re-emphasis on' Satya' as the last surviving pillar of our age-the Kali yuga...For a rising India with propensity for mindless consumption (Loss of Austerity), harrowing social apathy (Loss of Mercy), less said the better about our struggling cities and towns on the hygiene aspect (Loss of Cleanliness), there perhaps was never a more critical moment in our existence as a nation when we needed to go back to our roots as it is now in the globalised world. Our national emblem reminds us from our coins and currencies --satyameva jayate...Truth alone Triumphs..............Thank you Satchit...grateful for the masterclass on the demystifying the vast ocean of the Hindu dharma..

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