Published: 15th October 2019
Why Gitanjali JB wants to put the soul and spirituality back in Indian education
Born in Balasore, Gitanjali JB, Founding Member and CEO of Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh, is a multi-hyphenate who is an educationist, entrepreneur, a black belt in karate and more
We all know who Sonam Wangchuk is, thanks to 3 Idiots. This thought leader and education reformist has done a lot for Ladakh and its citizens. Perhaps one of his most significant contributions has been as the Founding Member of Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh (HIAL).
Another lesser-known face, albeit a formidable one, is Gitanjali JB. Born in Balasore to a mother who used to say that ‘girls should be brought up like boys’, she went on to study at Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar and encompassing all her learning from the coastal state, she worked in the corporate sector for six years, she established a publishing house Helios Books, transformed AUM Hospitals in Puducherry and of course, became the CEO of HIAL.
How she bumped into innovator Wangchuk is a very interesting story. The 46-year-old reached out to him, they met and by the end of that meeting, “We were finishing each others’ sentences,” she shares. Today, HIAL, her dream project, is an institute to reckon with and will be her focus for the next 10-15 years. After that, who knows? A book is underway and in between brushing up her karate skills (she is a black belt, by the way) and dropping by Bhubaneswar for Odissi practice, she plans to read - and then some. Recently, she took to the stage at TEDx Hyderabad 2019 and blew us all away with her wise words. So we asked her about what makes her proud of HIAL, about ballet (yes, she is a trained ballerina too!) and her latest initiative Peaceful Warriors. Excerpts from an inspirational chat:
HIAL is technically Gitanjali's fourth start-up
While you give your parents the credit for giving you their trust and freedom, how would you say you were influenced by your experience of living in Balasore and your time spent at XIMB? What lasting impressions have they left on you?
I could become what I am today because of the trust and freedom with which my parents brought me up. My mother used to say in the early 70s when I was growing up that girls should be brought up like boys. So I was amongst the first girls in Balasore to ride a bicycle during that time. I was allowed to explore everything and decide for myself which career I wanted to pursue, which city I wanted to live in, which philosophy to follow and who to marry. They had the humility to accept that they do not know what is right for me and allow me to choose that for myself. They always had full confidence in me and my decisions that I would choose the best option necessary for my progress.
A small-town upbringing, like the one I had in Balasore, Odisha, in a joint family instills in you important values like living together and putting others first. You grow up trusting the world around you because it is a safe place to live in where almost everybody knows everybody else. There is a sense of belonging to the community of which you are a part and that stays with you for the entire life! At XIMB, I was deeply influenced by two of my professors, DP Dash who taught Systems Thinking and Indranil Chakraborty who taught Organisation Theory. They went beyond commerce and profits and spoke about interdependence and inter-relatedness of systems and phenomenon!
How was your experience of meeting Sonam Wangchuk in 2017? When was it that you realised that your goals align when it comes to HIAL? Take us through how your association began...
It was a WhatsApp message 'The next learning revolution’ forwarded by a friend of mine that first introduced me to Sonam Wangchuk’s idea of the university that he was envisioning. I got in touch with him as he and I were traveling to Mumbai from Leh and Chennai respectively on the same dates and we decided to meet. A meeting that was supposed to be for an hour extended much beyond that, even to the next day! There was a lot of alignment in our thoughts about education like learning by doing, relevant curriculum and so on that we were finishing each others’ sentences! He invited me to visit Ladakh to see the project.
HIAL is my dream project because it is a canvas that connects all the dots of my personality: that of an educator, researcher, entrepreneur, administrator and also a performing and martial artist. As the Founding CEO, I raise funds, design curriculum, supervise the design and construction of the buildings, initiate setting up live labs or enterprises where students work and learn. I also teach karate to the students at SECMOL under my initiate Peaceful Warriors which aims to make any girl in India a black belt.
On stage: Gitanjali took to the stage at TEDx Hyderabad | (Pic: TEDx Hyderabad)
Tell us about how it is to work with someone like Wangchuk towards a goal so wholesome.
It is interesting to work with Sonam Wangchuk because, like me, he also believes that anything is possible, anything is doable, he has a new idea every day which he wants to implement. And this childlike curiosity and wanting to do things resonates very much with my personality as well because all my life, I have attempted and done new, different and impossible things.
HIAL for me is that experiment that has the potential to change the way higher education is happening not only in India, but the whole world.
Do you think this institute's model is replicable in other parts of the country? Are their plans to expand? Because there is a need for more such institutes...
The four principles of HIAL are a curriculum that is contextual, a pedagogy that is applied and experiential, an approach that is inter-disciplinary and a problem-solving methodology that blends indigenous wisdom with modern technology! And yes, this can be made replicable everywhere. But we do not believe in scaling up into chains of schools and universities, instead, we believe in growing organically. Most of the Ivy Leagues are single institutions and not chains. But we believe in the exchange of ideas, students and faculty so that we can learn from one another and do things in the contexts that we understand. We would like many educators from India and abroad to visit us, learn from our experience and we learn from theirs and contextualise the learnings to our environments.
She likes to take a weeklong break and go to Japan for Karate or Russia for ballet or to Bhubaneswar to practice Odissi dance or to the Himalayas for a trek
You have been a part of this education system for so long now, what do you think is its need of the hour?
Our education system, unfortunately, suffers from two main problems. First is that worldwide, it is a remnant of the industrial age where classrooms of students are treated as batches of raw materials to be processed in the same way. It is not focused on what the student needs to flower, but transacts an objective curriculum written by a third party without any relevance to the needs and context of the child.
Secondly, in India, the education system suffers from a post-colonial hangover where we have lost our vernacular and indigenous wisdom and hence, our sense of self-respect has been eroded!
The need of the hour, therefore, is two-fold. First is to make education child-centric, contextual and applied. Secondly, it is to rediscover India’s uniqueness and culture and make it a part of everyday living because it was naturally sustainable and in harmony with nature. Also, the purpose of education is the discovery of one’s soul, but spirituality is not part of today’s narrative in education.
As the theme for TEDx this time was 'Limitless'. What is it that makes you feel limitless? Also, our education system is limited in some ways, doing away with which limitations do you think can free it up so that it can reach its full potential?
Human potential is limitless. Humans are designed to outgrow the limited egoistic consciousness steeped into suffering, disease and death into becoming universal beings. The purpose of life is to be enlightened like Buddha or Mahavira or Vivekananda! That is the limitless human potential that is never exploited, but is wasted during one’s existence on Earth! Once we recognise this and believe in this, we are given limitless opportunities to grow and impact the world.
The education system is limited in many ways. The curriculum is outdated and is not dynamic. It is designed neither by the teacher nor the student, but by a third person. The manner of teaching is limited in classrooms, there is very little experiential and immersive teaching-learning that happens, it is limited by the life skills that it imparts to the learners, it does not help the development of the whole person and is only limited to mental education. The biggest limitation is that it is copied from the western paradigm of education which does not talk about spirituality in any way. The very purpose of education in the Indian paradigm is the discovery of one’s soul, but this is not even talked about in modern education. Words like soul and spirituality are absent!
When education is designed to proceed from the near to the far, from local to global, from contextual to universal and is taught in a manner that is applied and experiential, it will reach its full potential. Finally, we have to bring in the narrative of spiritual education into the mainstream. Spirituality is what India has stood for and even today, the whole world is looking at India for answers to the problems that it has created using linear and reductionist approaches to problem-solving.
In all her glory: Gitanjali certainly aced it at the event | (Pic: TEDx Hyderabad)
You've explored more sectors than most of us put together — corporate, entrepreneurship, education, ballet, karate, publishing and so much more. Which sector was the most difficult for you?
Every one of them was challenging in their own ways and that is what I enjoy. I am a start-up person. I thrive in chaos. I love a blank drawing board or a blank canvas to paint the vision of something. When these projects grow to a size that systems work and are in place, I like to hand it over to competent people and like to move to the next chaos. So, HIAL is technically my fourth start-up or the fourth chaos and I am loving it. The most difficult one, however, was the hospitals project because of my lack of domain knowledge, which is medicine, limited my ability to make a change there. I believe that one can move into any sector and learn it which is what I did with my engineering and publishing businesses, but the hospital was a different ball game.
What can we expect from you next? Which field are you going to venture into?
HIAL will be my focus area for some time at least for the next 10-15 years. Every new skill that I add to myself will be towards that. For instance, I am learning the Ladakhi language now. I hope to be fluent by the end of the year. I am writing a book Education for Tomorrow: An Integral Approach and plan to have it published it by next year. I plan to delve deep into the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and the Works of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo and also study all the educationists in depth.
She does not go to any outer specific place for a break. She takes the help of music and meditation
When the duo researched, they found out that HIAL is the world’s first in several ways:
- HIAL is the world’s first Doer’s University that follows the pedagogy of learning by doing and immersive teaching-learning practices.
- It will be the first Mountain University in the world that will focus on all the issues and problems faced by the mountain world like climate change impacting glaciers melting at an alarming rate, flashfloods, valley greening in the high altitude desert terrain of Ladakh, urban migration of youth leaving the villages empty, menace of waste generated through irresponsible tourism to name a few.
- The students will be working not on staged projects but real-life and real-time problems mentioned above and working towards solutions as a part of their course and learning.
- For this HIAL is setting up live labs that generate resources to run the university while the students get free education, thereby making the education free as was the case in ancient India, students pay with their hard work, sweat and creativity!
"I cannot choose any one sector for a lifetime because it is limiting. The only business I can choose for a lifetime is the business of evolving to grow into a more and more holistic and integral individual toward self-realisation," says Gitanjali JB
Two recent projects from HIAL that they are proud of are:
- Their fellowship project started with the planting of a 600 m2 of forest using indigenous plants and indigenous techniques of soil preparation and plantation techniques. If this pilot succeeds, then this will be scaled up to 20,000 m2 next year as the ambitious vision of HIAL is to have 70 per cent of its 200-acre campus green with forests and plantations!
- Their entire campus is off-grid, solar passive housing structures and they started the fellowship this year when they had just one such structure that would triple up as a classroom for fellows during the week, office space during the hours in between and living quarters for some of them who live on campus. They are proud of the fact that we manage to live on the desert land in the middle of nowhere with limited basic resources like water, yet initiate the fellowship, conduct the education confluence and work amidst these challenging circumstances to give shape to the project.
Take a bow: Gitanjali on stage | (Pic: TEDx Hyderabad)
For more on her. check out in.linkedin.com/in/gitanjalijb