From a first reading of ‘As I Am, So Is My Nation’
Review: There is good news for book lovers. The second edition of former Minister of Education Thakur Singh Powdyel’s ‘As I Am, So Is My Nation’ has come out of the press as a refreshing contribution to the rich corpus of South Asian writing in English.
An impressive collection of twenty-seven chapters, the work represents the author’s deep understanding of many of the questions we ponder as citizen, parent, son, daughter, educator, leader, builder, bearer, or philosopher.
The book’s free-flowing poetry, rich wisdom and penetrating insights give it the qualities of what the seventeenth century English poet John Milton called “a good book”, one that embodies the “precious lifeblood of a master spirit”. The recurrent theme of “harmonized perfection” weaves its many pieces together as a fine work of art.
Through striking illustrations and telling allusions, the book argues that our ability to understand and appreciate the wisdom of interrelatedness (or oneness) and how it influences our daily life is determined by how the mind is nurtured at home, in school, in office, and in society. Hence, works of art, architecture, history, language, literature, or the values of democracy or diversity will only sustain on the strength and character of the mind.
The celebrated American writer Henry David Thoreau once said that “A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint”. ‘As I Am, So Is My Nation’ is a celebration of our innate ability to cultivate goodness. This capability develops through intelligent training of the sense faculties. Reading the chapter ‘Gifts of My Life’ brings all of the reader’s senses to full play – imbibing the majesty of the sun or the moon, the sound of solemn prayer or poetry, raindrops or sweet laughter. The book’s many powerful images evoke a sacred sense of affinity with nature as well as a painful awareness of how the human mind is continually exposed to the trivial and how it deprives itself of what truly sustains it.
‘As I Am, So Is My Nation’ is characterized by discerning allusions to our everyday actions in relation to nature. Throughout, the reader can’t help feel a riveting sense of guilt regarding what human beings do to the natural world. For example, “We burn the forest and kill the trees, hunt the deer and trap the hornbill … We foul up the air and besmear the seas … We do violence to the source of our life”. The many pithy references to our everyday actions such as “throwing rubbish into the river”, “writing filth on the walls” or “carving dirt on the desk” challenge the reader’s own actions and mental habits. The book inspires the reader to commence living on its hints about the good life.
To the developing mind, home and family are the “cradle of tenderness”. It is here where the values of love, goodness and grace, care and kindness, health and happiness, diligence and gratitude are learnt. Nurtured in the rich and enduring values of the family, a person learns to cultivate a kind of friendship outside the family domain that “knows no colour or community, race or religion, ethnicity or nationality”. Hence, “the circle of our friendship depends upon the size of our heart”, argues the book. Such friendships in turn nurture societies that are sustained by the enduring values of fellow-feeling and tolerance.
The irony of modern education, the author argues, is that “its inspiration comes from the open market and not from ideals and visions that elevate the mind and expand the heart”. Therefore, the role of school education is important. Deeply reflective yet starkly real, pensive and philosophical yet closely familiar and practical, the chapter ‘This, My Temple of Learning’ (the school) evokes the reader’s own memories of early life in school and provides a nostalgic, and at times sad, reminder of how the latter shaped the inner and outer characteristics of one’s personality. The school is the “home of plenty”. Here children from different backgrounds and experiences meet – those from “towns and villages, hills and valleys, farm-houses and road-side huts, rich mansions and humble shelters” – to celebrate diversity and construct their dreams together. The chapter offers penetrating insights into what school curricula and teaching can do to children’s intellectual, emotive and social development. Such an educational system will need teachers who come to school with their “unbroken, harmonious and committed self”.
An outstanding quality of the book lies in the depth of understanding it demonstrates regarding culture. It argues that culture “advances and blossoms through respect, sensitivity and honesty”, which will be possible through good education. Good cultural education nurtures goodwill and tolerance. No wonder, the ancient Greeks defined a ‘cultured’ person as someone with a “finely tempered nature” and in whom the quality of “harmonious perfection” manifested spontaneously.
The book’s stance on the pursuit of happiness as a development goal is clear and uncompromising. What is important in doing so, it argues, is the need to live its ideals through commitment and disinterested pursuit in one’s own life. This makes moralizing about GNH less valuable and acts, for example, of respect for nature or affirmation of truth and honesty in daily life, more meaningful and of positive benefit to self and others. Hence, “GNH is a template to set our own house in order. But if lived well, the examples set could also encourage efforts to “set the world in order”, the book argues.
The author confesses that the work is in some ways a statement of the way he has lived his life. Yet, the living may not have been as perfect, he admits, as it is dreamt in the many chapters of the book. Inspired to want to start life afresh on the books’ key messages, the reader is convinced, page after page, that a simple way to begin to contribute to nation-building is by realizing the power of the inner journey and what it does to a person’s mind and character.
Coming from one of the country’s finest thinkers and writers, ‘As I Am, So Is My Nation’ is a precious gift to all those in search of a meaningful life. Everybody – teacher, student, parent, civil servant, lawmaker, law enforcer, gardener, artist, scientist, culture bearer – must read it. It is so relevant to our times.
Contributed by Dorji Thinley
Dorji Thinley (PhD) is Director of Research and External Relations in the Royal University of Bhutan