Who is – and isn’t – a geographer?  This is an interesting question.  When you develop the geographer’s eye and the geographer’s ear … when you learn how to see and hear, the question goes away.

The Chief Guest was a geographer … he had a degree in geography and had taught it for some years. But now he is a rather high-up person in an administrative job in an education-related government department.

He was invited to the podium to deliver his remarks. He was certainly passionate about geography – we could see that. In his remarks, he said that a huge problem in geography education nowadays is that “it is being taught by non-geographers.”

I entirely disagree with this. I have always held that there is no such thing as a non-geographer. I was not sure if I should say something when it was my turn to speak or not.

After his speech, he excused himself saying, “I have to attend some urgent meeting” and left.  “Senior people” always have very urgent meetings to attend immediately after their own speech.

Next up was my colleague, Dr Muthatha Ramanathan, a brilliant geographer who is very passionate about the discipline of geography. She put the record straight by saying that there is no such thing as a “non-geographer”, and that there is a geographer in all of us with whom we need to connect.  It was a pity that the Chief Guest didn’t stay long enough to hear her. Her eloquence has stayed with me.

Your first academic term of the academic year is coming to a close. You are probably writing exams and stressing out over these. Soon, you will have a break for a few days at least. Perhaps you will travel somewhere nice, experience new places, people, things, etc. … all that geography is made of.

I want to share a few thoughts with you on what Dr Muthatha said that day.

The study of geography (or any other subject for that matter) is not just about memorizing unconnected “facts” and writing them out in an exam, and then feeling that you are finally rid of that pain-in-the-neck geography!

Nor is it merely an intellectual exercise of making connections. I know I emphasize that all the time and this entire series is about that. However, making those connections is still only a means to a larger goal.

When you see how things are interconnected, you understand not only nature, but also how nature and human beings connect with each other, and how human beings are also connected with each other. These are all valid topics in the study of geography. The more you understand these, the more you understand where you fit in – that you are not at all insignificant but that you are a valuable part of this grand web of connections, that your well-being is intimately connected with the well-being of people, animals, plants, the hills, the rivers, the contours, the valleys, and so on … even if they are far away from you and you don’t see them.

Nature is full of examples of such interconnections. The distant Sahara Desert, though it may seem to be lifeless, is vital for the existence of the Amazon rainforest. That, in turn, is vital for the well-being of not only the people living there, but also around the world – the Amazon rainforest is an important “lung” for the whole world.

When we breathe in Oxygen, at least a little of that has come to us from the Amazonian forest. The forest is, in that form, inside us … nourishing us and helping us be alive. Physically. If we recognize that and marvel at it, we become alive geographically also – that we are connected to that amazing ecosystem, far away from us, that we might never even see in person in our life.

It is believed that the water on Earth formed about 3.4 billion years ago. At least a molecule of the water you drank today is 3.4 billion years old. So much of your own body is water – 3.4 billion years old! Every molecule has been part of a large and long history of everything on Earth! You are not only in the present, only here, you are connected to all of history, of geography, of life, and of existence itself.

We inhabit this planet that is rotating at break-neck speed, revolving likewise, part of a vast cosmos that we still do not understand. We don’t know if there are other “Earths” out there, but we have this one now and we are part of it. We are made of the same stuff that it is made of. Many cultures view Earth as Mother of all things.

In 1966, when Dr M S Subbulakshmi was invited to give a concert at the United Nations, she concluded with a lovely hymn that had been composed by the then pontiff of the Kanchi Shankaracharya Peetha, Sri Chandrasekharendra Sarasvati. He had composed this Samskrtam hymn on the occasion of India attaining independence. (Smt Subbulakshmi used to conclude her concerts with this hymn.)

To me, it is a beautiful geographical hymn. Here is a very rough translation of it:

Espouse friendliness, the winner of all hearts

Look upon others also as your own self

Give up warfare and (unhealthy) competition

Give up aggression against others and conquest

Mother Earth is kaamadhenu to you

God is the father, the all-merciful

Practice restraint, be charitable, cultivate compassion

May well-being be to all peoples

In these beautiful lines, we can see the harmonizing of all of geography in action – physical, human, spiritual, cultural, ethical, and compassionate. The old idea of vasudhaiva kutumbakam – the whole world is but a family.

Such a desire for peace is natural to human beings. It is the nature of our inner geography – in our hearts, we hold places of peace, comfort, joy, hope, and self-worth. We also hold places of pain, suffering, despair, fear, and aggression. When we are able to imagine and build a geography that changes the “negative” places into the “positive” places, we are practising geography, the discipline. Far beyond the geography, the subject, that our textbooks offer us – and even that not very effectively, alas.

Thus, geography is deep within us. We inhabit it within us. We have more control over shaping them than we may realize. A good geography education would help us see these inner geographies and empower us to actively shape them to be compassionate, fair, loving, and wise.

This is what another brilliant geographer friend of mine, Dr Heidi Nast, calls “transformational geographies.”

I wish you happy holidays and hope that you are able to find your own “transformational geographies” very soon.

Things you can do:

  1. Watch, and listen to, Dr M S Subbulakshmi’s singing my favorite “geographical hymn” at the UN where she sang it for the first time.

  2. If you are studying Samskrtam, you can ask your teacher to help you learn the lyrics and the meanings of each word – this will give you access to both inner geographies and greater learning in Samskrtam.
  3. Every day, even if only for 5 minutes, sit alone, silently, with eyes closed and imagine the places in yourself where you feel good and peaceful – these could be an imaginary garden, a mountain, your grandmother’s house, your own room, anything. Whenever you feel stressed (like right now during term exams!), you will find that this kind of journey to your inner geographies will calm you and refresh you.

(A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition, 18 December 2014.)

Featured image: Commemorative stamp issued by the UN in honor of the late Dr M S Subbulakshmi. Source: https://tinyurl.com/ycucdbgg [Accessed on: 7 April 2022]

Post updated: 7 April 2022.

Links corrected, featured image added, video embedded, links to lyrics added.


4 Responses

  1. Sir,
    A good observation in deed. In this hurry for examination specific instructions in the class room, the real geography with its all interconnections are missed. Though the teachers are trained geography hands, they fail to express the interconnections of our life in its real sense using things around us.
    I’m teaching English at a PU college. It is really sad that the students hardly understand the onset of Monsoon when it arrives,but they can write answers when asked in the form of question paper! They are unable to understand the impact of bore wells in their land,but they can answer a question on misuse of groundwater! Sustainability is again one mark worth or three mark worth question, that’s all.
    We have failed to understand the inevitability of our dependency in it real sense….. more into by-heart learning…scoring a few worthless marks at the end…

  2. Sri Sadananda,

    Yes, what you describe is true. And sad. However, there *are* teachers out there who *are* capable of transforming the learning process. They need all our support.

  3. How true Dr. Bala! I am able to connect to these words “The more you understand these, the more you understand where you fit in – that you are not at all insignificant but that you are a valuable part of this grand web of connections” spiritually too. I keep telling children in particular adolescents that in this grand creation of God everyone of us have a responsibility to fulfill. When you water a banana tree, bananas grow only in that tree and only once. Similarly if we fail to do our work, that remains undone and none can replace that place. See how Spiritually & Geographically it is connected!! 🙂

    • Sri Murali,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I agree with you.

      The part about being a part of a grand scheme … I derive that from the late Dr D V Gundappa’s amazing work “Mankuthimmana Kagga”, which is often called the Kannada Bhagavad-Gītā. If you could read the original in Kannada, it would totally uplift you … so life-affirmative!

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