In Praise of Question Mark…

Ramana Sir shared following message today:

“The question mark bows down to sign of exclamation, All queries are surrendered and pure bliss results. What a beautiful depiction of Gurupurnima.”

Actually I wanted to blog on Guru Pournima (16th July, Tuesday) but somehow couldn’t.

The above may have different/deep meaning which is beyond my grasp. So I’m not going to comment on that and reveal how shallow I am 😊

I’ll just share some thoughts on Exclamation vs Question. I guess the quote above implies that students who are full of doubts bow before Exclamation mark (i.e. Teachers, don’t know how apt that analogy is), surrender to him and get enlightened.

Well, it’s a nice thought on devotion to teachers but I view it differently.

Between Exclamation (appreciation, or “wow” effect) and Question mark (doubts, curiosity) I would rate Question mark higher, more prominent.

“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned” said Richard Feynman.

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its reason for existing.” said Albert Einstein.

It is safe to say that Question marks/curiosity is the main driving force behind all human progress.

Exclamation mark is about conformance, accepting and applauding the norm. It’s not always bad. But it is definitely bad to always conform and never question.

Friedrich Nietzsche put it well: “He who has a WHY to live for can bear almost any HOW”. Question marks give us purpose.

Also, bowing before a teacher or surrendering to someone and getting answers is very superficial thought. My right wing frenemies (“friendly enemies”) would be happy reading this: it’s a Western (or non-Indian) idea. It suits the “student-teacher” type of Education system which has a fixed curriculum, set questions and definitive answers. The “Guru-Shishya” tradition is much broader and sublime – it’s essence cannot be captured in “Teacher-Student” frame.

Guru-Shishya tradition is not about Shishya (student) asking questions to Guru (teacher) and then enlightened Guru providing ready-made answers. It is more about Guru showing the path, giving direction and helping Shishya learn.

There is a beautiful Sanskrit Shlok (verse) about how learning takes place:

आचार्यात् पादमादत्ते पादं शिष्यः स्वमेधया ।
सब्रह्मचारिभ्यः पादं पादं कालक्रमेण च ॥

AchAryAt pAdamAdatte, pAdam shiShyaH swamedhayA |
sa-brahmachAribhyaH pAdam, pAdam kAlakrameNa cha ||

Meaning: [Learning/education comes] one fourth from the teacher, one fourth from own intelligence, one fourth from peers/classmates, and one fourth only with time.

Our learning has four components:

  • Self – without the seed, the tree is not possible.
  • Guru/Teacher – a good gardener ensures a better tree
  • Peers/environment – environment plays a key role in nurturing the tree
  • Time – Some things can be learnt only through passage of time. It can also be considered as Patience or Experience

So Guru is not the Exam Guide which has 100% answers to all your question marks. He is one of the key elements. In fact searching for and finding a proper Guru is also one of key steps in Indian education system – just like other ancient education systems including the Chinese.

Finally, I would like to end with a quote in support of Question Mark (or doubts). This quote is attributed to Charles Bukowski and Bertrand Russell. So not sure who said it first.

“The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”

P.S.: Tag line of this blog “I doubt, therefore I might be” shows my bias (and sympathy) for the Question Mark! Unfortunately some misconstrue it as negativity. Anyways, I’ll write “In praise of negativity” some other day 🙂

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