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Question the Question

I have been teaching for almost 35 years, although I do not have a penchant for it. What I like most is studying, not teaching. But teaching seems to be my karma. As soon as I began learning Sanskrit, I also began teaching it. It seemed that I was always being approached to teach something or another. The truth is—I have learned more from teaching than from studying. Teaching has now become part of my daily life, although I prefer and relish studying more. 

Different teachers have their own styles of teaching. Some teachers do not allow questions during their lectures; questions may be asked only at the end of a lecture. Others allow questions at any time. I belong to the second category.

In my simultaneous roles of student and teacher, I have good experience in asking as well as answering questions. I have also had various types of students asking questions. Sometimes the questions bring out the finer details of the subject being taught. Everyone benefits from such questions. Sometimes, however, the questions being asked are irrelevant, not formulated clearly, or trivial. Such questions benefit neither the questioner nor anyone else. They are waste of time, and oftentimes annoying. But in modern times, the teacher is expected to never get annoyed and to remain tolerant and respectful of the students. Gone are the days when teachers ruled the roost. I experienced that generation of teachers as a student. 

Babaji 2002 studyingTo illustrate what it meant to study under a traditional teacher, I will relate an incident. I had just begun studying Tarka Saṅgraha from Svāmī Śrī Śyāma Śaraṇa Ji Mahāraja Nyāyacārya, a very renounced and learned ācārya of Nimbārka Sampradāya, and one of my two main teachers. It must have been my second or third class. I was sitting on the floor in front of him, listening very attentively. While listening, I felt an itching sensation on my right ear and started scratching it. He noticed this and became infuriated. He rebuked me heavily, “Don’t be frivolous. If you want to study under me, be serious and pay attention.” I stopped immediately and in my next 22 years of education under him never dared to do anything like this again. Those words still ring in my ears and the whole picture is fresh in my mind. This does not mean that he was an irate person. He was very loving and kind and would pour his heart into teaching. Sometimes while teaching higher books on Nyāya, he would get stuck on some deep philosophical point. Then he would say, “Let us stop the lesson here.” He would not move unless the point was clarified. Afterward, he would suddenly come to my room and say, “Satyanārāyana, I understood the point.” He would explain it to me and then leave. He taught me until the last day of his life. Where can you find such teachers now? In modern times, the teacher must respect the students. In the material world, everything goes in cycles, like a Ferris wheel!

I submit this article primarily as an appeal to my students to be judicious in asking questions. If others benefit from this article—that is their grace upon me. Based on my experience as well as my study of śāstra, which was primarily in a question/answer format, I have made twelve categories of questions, as described below. Among these, the first four are desirable types of questions. One can see their examples in śāstra. The remaining categories are unwanted questions and a disturbance to the subject being taught, as well as to the students.

Different types of questions:

1.     Loka-hitam Praśna —A question that brings good to everyone

These are the best type of questions because they and their replies bring delight to the speaker and benefit anyone who hears them. Such questions are not related specifically to the questioner but to humanity at large. Examples of such questions can be found throughout śāstra, especially in the Śrīmad Bhāgavata, the cream of all śāstra. In the first chapter of Śrimad Bhāgavata, sage Śaunaka asked six questions to Śrī Sūta Gosvāmī. The latter was so pleased with the questions that he honored Śaunaka before responding to the questions. He said:

iti sampraśna-saṁhṛṣṭo viprāṇāṁ raumaharṣaṇiḥ
pratipūjya vacas teṣāṁ pravaktum upacakrame

munayaḥ sādhu pṛṣṭo ’haṁ bhavadbhir loka-maṅgalam
yat kṛtaḥ kṛṣṇa-sampraśno yenātmā suprasīdati

Ugraśravā, the son of Romaharṣaṇa, was delighted by the compelling questions of the brāhmaṇas. After first expressing his appreciation for their words, he began to reply:

“O sages, you have questioned me in a highly significant manner, beneficial for the entire world, because thorough inquiry about Śrī Kṛṣṇa, as conducted by you, is itself that by which the self is completely fulfilled.” (SB 1.2.1 and 1.2.5)

One can imagine the delight and enthusiasm Sūta would have felt, hearing these questions. The same can be seen when King Parikṣit inquired from Śrī Śukadeva Gosvāmī. After hearing the question of the king, the latter began his reply by first appreciating the question. He said:

varīyāneṣa te praśnaḥ kṛto loka-hitam nṛpa
ātma-vit-sammataḥ puṁsāṁ śrotvyādiṣu yaḥ paraḥ

“O king, this question of yours, submitted with a view to the welfare of the world, is most excellent. It is approved by the knowers of the Absolute for it is the topmost subject of all that is worthy to be heard by human beings.” (SB 2.1.1)


2.     Sva-hita Praśna—A question for one’s own good

Such a question is primarily for the good of the questioner, as it is related to his personal life. Others may also benefit from its reply. An example of this is Śri Vyāsa’s question to Nārada regarding the cause of the former’s dissatisfaction although he had worked for the welfare of humanity (SB 1.5.7). Although the question was specific to the questioner, it brought welfare to all because the questioner was engaged in the welfare of humanity. Based upon the reply of Śri Nārada, Śrī Vyāsa manifested Śrimad Bhāgavata. It is to be noted that in the verse describing the manifestation of the Bhāgavata, the verb cakre (past participle form of root kṛ, “to do”) is used (cakre sātvat-saṁhitām, SB 1.7.6). The verb cakre means “composed or manifested.” The verb, however, is used in ātmanepada, and thus implies that he did so for his own good. As an alternative, the past participle cakāra could have been used in place of cakre. This is in parasmaipada and would have implied that he did so for the welfare of others. 

Another example of a sva-hita question is when the boy Dhruva approached the sage Nārada to teach him a method to obtain a kingdom not attained by any of his predecessors. He said:

padaṁ tribhuvanotkṛṣṭaṁ jigīṣōḥ sadhu vartma me
brūhyasmat pitṛbhir brahman nanyair apy anadhiṣṭhitam

“O brāhmaṇa! Please tell the proper method to me, who am desiring the best position in the three worlds that has not been attained by my forefathers.” (SB 4.8.37)


3.     Viṣaya-śodhaka Praśna—A question that brings clarity

This is a question that helps to clarify the subject being explained by the teacher. When an attentive and intelligent student listens to a lecture, he tries to grasp it in a cogent manner. If he feels that something does not make sense, or seems illogical, he then raises a question to clarify it. An example of this is seen in the story of King Śisupāla attaining sāyjya-mukti upon being killed by Śri Kṛṣṇa. King Yudhiṣṭhira was very surprised to witness this. Therefore, he posed a question to sage Nārada. The gist of his question was: “Śisupāla was envious of Kṛṣṇa from his very birth. He uttered abusive words whenever he saw Kṛṣṇa. This was a big offense on his part. As an outcome of this, he deserved to suffer in hell. Instead, he obtained mukti, which is so rare. How is it possible?” (SB 7.1.15-20). Such questions help other students to understand the topic better. They are also very pleasing to the speaker because they indicate the student is paying attention (SB 7.1.21).


4.     Prasaṅga Praśna—A question related to the topic under discussion

This question is similar to the previous one. Both help to make the subject clearer. The difference is that the previous question is related to the cogency of the subject presented while the present one is related to some details or historical facts. This is how the stories in the Purāṇas are presented. Śaunaka asked the famous six questions to Sūta Gosvāmī in the first chapter of the Bhāgavata. Sūta Gosvāmī replied to these in chapters two and three of the first Canto. The last question was about the shelter of dharma after the departure of Kṛṣṇa from the earth. Near the end of the third chapter, Sūta said that dharma at present is sheltered in the Bhāgavata, which he compared to the sun. Hearing this, Śaunaka raises a question about the appearance of the Bhāgavata. And this is how the book proceeds—one topic or story leading to another.


5.     Ati Praśna—An improper question

Certain questions are inappropriate to ask. It is not that anyone can ask any question. Just as with our friends and relatives, we should not ask embarrassing questions, so also with a teacher. Certain things are personal, not to be spoken in public or only to be revealed in confidence. Śaunaka says that a guru reveals confidential knowledge only to an intimate and affectionate disciple (SB 1.1.8). It implies that such knowledge is not to be revealed openly. For example,  it is forbidden to reveal one’s spiritual experience, practice, mantra, japa-mālā, iṣṭa-deva, and guru. One can refer to Hari-bhakti-vilāsa (2.147, 17.130, 131, 255) for such a prohibition. Manu Smṛti (2.110, 111) and Mahābhārata (Śānti Parva 327.51) say that one should not reply to an improper question or an unqualified student. 

In Bṛhad-araṇyaka Upaniṣad (Third chapter), there is a description of a debate in which the winner would be awarded 1000 cows. Sage Yajñavalkya accepts the challenge. Different people come to debate with the sage. The sixth part of the chapter describes Gārgī questioning the sage Yajñavalkya. She shoots question after question at the sage and the latter continues to reply. The final question is, “By what are Brahma-lokas [the world of Hiraṇyagarbha] pervaded?” Hearing this, the sage seems annoyed, and replies, “O Gārgī, do not cross the limit of your inquiry, lest your head falls off. You are questioning about a deity that should not be questioned.” Gārgī was trying to understand Hiraṇyagarbha through reasoning but Hiraṇyagarbha transcends all reason. Thus, it was an improper inquiry.  


6.     Viṣayāntara Praśna—A question not related to the topic

As is clear from the name, such a question is posed by an audience member who is not comprehending what is being described and may be disinterested in it. The subject may be about Kṛṣṇa-līlā, and the question may be asked about Rāmacandra abandoning Sītā Devī. A reverse example of this is in a Sanskrit adage: āmrān pṛṣṭaḥ kovidārān ācaṣṭe—“While asked to describe mango trees, he starts explaining about the Kovidāra tree.”


7.     Kaṇḍūti Praśna—A question like an itch

Some people just have an itch to ask a question. They do not give any thought to what they are asking. They can ask a question without paying any attention to what was just explained clearly. I call it an itch because the person is very impulsive in asking the question. Sometimes the questioner will not even let me complete my sentence, not to speak of the point I am trying to make. Just like when we feel an itch, we immediately want to scratch without any delay or thought.


8.     Bāliśa Praśna—Childish questions

Just as a small child asks mindless questions to his parents, the student does the same. If the parents do not answer, he will move on. He is not hung up on the question. In the case of the previous type of question, the student must be answered; otherwise, he feels upset. That is the difference between the two categories. As an example, somebody asked in the class, “I have two doubts to ask.” I said, “Ok, go ahead and ask.” The person asked the question and I replied. Then I waited and he did not ask the second doubt. I also did not remind him that he wanted to present two doubts. He completely forgot the second doubt. Moreover, what he asked was not a doubt but a question. Below I will describe the difference between the two.


9.     Vitaṇḍa Prāśna—A provocative question

Some students pose questions to provoke the speaker. They want to make the speaker angry, put him in a bad light, expose his weaknesses, or refute him. This can be done in a planned manner or unconsciously due to one’s critical nature. It is certainly not very pleasing to the teacher. 


10.  Prajalpa Praśna—A rambling question

Some questioners are not sure what they want to ask. They are unable to formulate the question and go on rambling. The distinguishing mark of such a question is that the teacher has to ask, “What exactly is your question?” Most of the time, the student cannot answer clearly and continues rambling. Such a student is not clear in his head.


11.  Darpa Praśna—A question to show one’s scholarship

Such a questioner wants to impress his co-students with what he knows. This may be done to gain respect among the co-students. He may also have the intention to minimize the position of the speaker. 


12.  Nirarthaka Praśna—A question that serves no purpose

Such a question is related to the subject; it seems valid and important. However, it has absolutely no educational value. Knowing its reply does not add any value to the knowledge of the student. An example of this was seen in my Bhāgavata class while describing the Brahma-mohana-līlā. Brahmā stole the calves and cowherd boys. Śrī Viṣvanātha Cakravarti describes that the calves and cowherd boys that were stolen were not the real ones but a creation of māyā. The reason is that the associates of Kṛṣṇa are immune to Brahmā’s māyā. Yogamāyā hid the real calves and cowherd boys, and Kṛṣṇa expanded Himself into an equal number of calves and cowherd boys. Brahmā returned after one year and saw that everything was going on as usual. He was astonished to see the calves grazing and Kṛṣṇa playing with His friends. The question posed to me was, “Did Brahmā see the actual cowherd boys or the ones that were manifestations of Kṛṣṇa?” I answered that he saw the ones that were manifestations of Krṣṇa. I would like to ask the questioner, “What difference would it make to Brahmā, you, or anyone, which set of boys Brahmā saw? How does it enrich your understanding of this līlā?” I may be wrong, but I cannot see any value in this question. The matter did not end there. Someone persistently asked, “Were they expansions of Kṛṣṇa or did the actual cowherd boys turn into Viṣṇu forms?” I answered it but did not see any value in this question.

We should also know the difference between a doubt, saṁśaya, and a question, praśna. They have different meanings, although these words are used interchangeably by many students. A doubt signifies uncertainty. It implies that there are two or more possibilities, and one is not sure which one is true. 

Babaji teaching