Among all things that influence a human's life, the most important one is perhaps education. And, broadly speaking, education has two roles to play. One is to empower humans to earn his/her living and live in a respectful manner in the society. And another is to help humans in the process of spiritual evolution. These two roles are not disconnected from each other and, for most people, actually go hand-in-hand. It is not an either-or situation. Most human beings need to sustain themselves respectfully in the society as well as make spiritual progress. And in ancient India, both these roles of education were played by the same centres of learning (called gurukul). The teacher who taught economics also taught the art of inner well-being. And in fact, all the branches of learning, be it economics or music or sword fighting or anything else, had spiritual progress as their end goal. As Aurobindo once said, "Everyone has in him something divine, something his own, a chance of perfection and strength in however small a sphere which God offers him to take or refuse. The task is to find it, develop it & use it. The chief aim of education should be to help the growing soul to draw out that in itself which is best and make it perfect for a noble use."
As time went by, the beautiful amalgamation of the twin roles of education started to slowly break apart. Economics was no longer seen as a means of spiritual progress, and spirituality began to be falsely equated with asceticism and other-worldliness. And more unfortunately, a clear demarcation between the centres of learning also began. Conventional schools started being reserved for worldly education and separate monasteries started being created for spiritual education. Even today, there are very few colleges and universities that properly expose their students to our great spiritual traditions. And similarly, there are very few spiritual organisations that expose their monks/members to the vagaries of worldly life. Over the last few years, several academic institutions have started Yoga classes for their students, but in most cases it is mere lip-service without any seriousness. And though many spiritual organisations are nowadays engaged in social service, most of their monks find it hard to connect to today's youth.
A separation of academics and spirituality is one of the worst things to happen to a society. And that too in Indian society, where these two aspects of education were seen as two sides of the same coin, the male and female aspects of the same reality, the Shiva and Shakti. A small ray of hope is the fact that over the past few decades, several reputed spiritual organisations in India have started universities and colleges to impart holistic education to our youth. However, this is not really a solution and, in fact, may further aggravate the situation. And the main reason for this is that today's spiritual organisations have become more exclusive than inclusive. Members of one spiritual organisation do not trust those from another spiritual organisation. Followers of one Guru hardly talk to followers of another Guru, no matter how respectful both these spiritual organisations and Gurus may be. Yoga is said to be union of the individual being with the universal being. But when the individual being is not able to see beyond his/her small circle of Guru-bhais, where is the scope of the bigger union?
Most of the serious problems that our society is facing cannot be solved merely by use of academic ideas. It is imperative to provide spiritual insights to human beings so that they can expand their horizons and see beyond their limited wants and desires. For this to happen in a meaningful way, it is necessary for academic institutions to take spiritual education seriously. But how is this going to happen? We can't simply outsource this to spiritual organisations since they will mostly promote their own teachings and Gurus which might lead to further divisions among students. But we can't also keep the spiritual organisations away since they have a lot of expertise in this domain and can act as catalysts for the spiritual reaction to commence.
The first step for every academic institution to take is perhaps to identify a set of spiritual organisations which provide practical tools of transformation that do not require worship of a particular God/Guru and are open to debate and discussions. Fortunately, such organisations do exist and are more than willing to participate in the process of education. Once such organisations are identified, they must be provided with the required resources in order to conduct their programs and must also be regularly reminded to keep away from excessive self-promotion. It is also very important to organise regular discussions and conversations between teachers from different spiritual organisations. It is easy to sound convincing when one is the only person speaking, but the true worth /depth of an individual is brought out when s/he engages with another person who has a different perspective. Spiritual organisations do have their flaws, but so do academic institutions. It is very important for academic institutions to trust at least a few spiritual organisations, and it is very important for spiritual organisations to respect the ethos of academic institutions. In the absence of this mutual trust and respect, it is eventually the future generation that suffers!
Academic analysis of the scriptures of various spiritual traditions also has a very important role to play. Like engineering must go hand in hand with science, the practical and philosophical aspects of spirituality are equally important. Scholarly studies of the scriptures of various spiritual traditions needs to be encouraged. Socrates was undoubtedly a great man, but so was Patanjali. Both have a lot to teach the modern youth and it will be a pity if any one of them is not given due importance. An ideal academic institution is perhaps one that uses Patanjali's Yoga for spiritual education and the Socratic method for imparting worldly knowledge. For the sun to rise in the east, it must set in the west and vice-versa. The process of rising and the process of setting are equally important and one cannot claim prominence over the other. The knowledge traditions of east and the west are complimentary and are both needed for a harmonious development of the modern society.