Achala, Destroyer of Ignorance

In my recent work trip to New York City, I had a chance to visit again the fabled Met Museum. In this latest visit I had an interesting encounter with a mythical fantastic persona: Achala, the Destroyer of Ignorance. I immediately linked him to our current situation, precisely due to Ignorance, in both the Washington shutdown and the Puerto Rican debt crisis. But I also connected it to my first job, being a teacher.

So, in a sense, I am -and all teachers are- destroyers of ignorance. Does it sound like the Avengers?

Painting of Achala the Destroyer of Ignorance.

Achala, Destroyer of Ignorance, with Consort. Nepal 1522. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

However, the interesting stuff doesn’t end here. The legend at the portrait’s side reads:

Crowned, jeweled, and grasping a sword, Achala cuts through the veil of ignorance. His left hand, holding a vajra-tipped noose to catch the ignorant, gestures in admonition. He is locked in sexual embrace with his consort Dveshavajri. The pair visually expresses the bliss of enlightenment that can be achieved by the combination of the right knowledge (prajna, female) and the right method (upaya, male).

It strikes me that we find this dualism -a bit naive, if you will- of a combination of two components: Knowledge and Method as essential pieces to obtain the enlightenment and thus the destruction if ignorance. It is certainly fascinating that the metaphor of the combination is sexual, and the artwork is surely tender and hard at the same time -Achala’s tender embrace with his consort, Dveshavajri, accompanied by his menacing sword-grasping.

Also, it strikes me that this is mythology. And I am working with the myths of teaching, learning and technology in my Zen of Teaching project. Often I have dealt with the myth of knowledge and method. In our schools and universities, it is the imperative dualistic construction of the whole educational infrastructure. Which my hyper-dialectic antennae vibrate about. The myth goes like this:

If we can marry (look how the sexual myth is accompanied by language figures of speech, east meets west!) some good chunks of knowledge with the right pedagogic method, and we embody this process in a teacher within a classroom, then, voila, we produce learning.

I have often said that this easy, simplistic model of teaching and learning is adopted and implemented throughout our educational system. Students are convinced that -by some magic induction- they will have learned the lesson at the end of a class session. Without any active part, without any studying, without any will of it being so, without taking responsibility. Of course, then , if students learn at the end of the lesson, then we can measure -assessment!- their learning at the end of said lesson with a nice 1-minute essay.

I believe reality is a bit more complex. You’ll learn a bit within the class lesson, student, but you’ll learn, really learn -not just remember- only if you spend some scarce resource of yours -time, energy, work- by applying yourself at it. Of course, we all know that informal learning is always working in the background. And it works by immersion. But it is not the main component of an academic education.

Anyhow, the Nepali painting is magnificent, elegant and inspiring.

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About Antonio Vantaggiato

Professor, web2.0 enthusiast, and didactic chef.
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