THE MAN AND HIS PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE

M S Swaminathan, Father of Indian Modern Agriculture, turned 80 on August 7, 2005. An extract from Scientist and Humanist-M S Swaminathan, a book by R D Iyer:

It is difficult to describe M S Swaminathan-the scientist, the administrator, the social worker, the visionary, the philosopher-in terms that do not smack of hagiography. If there is a single fault that he can be accused of, it is his inability to say 'no' to anyone who approaches him for help or advice. Being a totally relaxed person, he brings a calming effect on the visitor too, and listens carefully and calmly. One can get easily carried away by his courtesy and compassion. Nevertheless, behind that soft exterior is a man of determination and indomitable spirit, who goes about his tasks with missionary zeal.

It was Swami Chinmayananda, the greatest modern exponent of the Bhagavad Gita, who once wrote, "A man firmly established in wisdom is tranquil, and his equipoise is never broken even when he is investing his entire energies in the world outside for the service of mankind." Those prophetic words seem to so aptly fit the personality of Swaminathan whose hallmark is tranquility. In spite of all the years spent away from home, Swaminathan is a staunch swadeshi in his thinking and living. In spite of having occupied the highest chairs in India and abroad, and having been decorated with innumerable awards and accolades from all corners of the globe, Swaminathan has always led a simple, unostentatious life, and continues in the same rhythm even today.

His main inspirations have been Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. From these great masters, Swaminathan has imbibed a spirit of tolerance, compassion for the poor and downtrodden, and an egoless state of mind. Above all, the Gandhian philosophy of "Be the change you want to bring about" is deeply ingrained in his thought and action. To his students, and to the farming community also, he has always stressed the need to "learn by doing". The emphasis was on the practical applications of science for the welfare of the poor. The green Revolution was the result of making farmers take to the new dwarf wheat varieties and the improved technology. It is his belief that it is the small farmers (who are in the majority) who will bring about the change, the transformation, once they learn how to do things the better way.

It has been said of Ramana Maharshi of Arunachala that each look of his contained a shower of grace, every smile of his a divine assurance that Man is God. In the last analysis, the ego does not exist, as it is only a figment of our imagination. When one has learnt to be still, one is. Ramana hardly ever spoke; he conveyed profound truths through silence. Yet, those penetrating eyes moved the whole world.

In his esteem for Gandhiji's and Ramana Maharshi's ideals, Swaminathan was greatly influenced by his uncle, Professor K Swaminathan, who moulded his outlook and view of life from childhood. Professor Swaminathan brought about a fusion of the thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi and Ramana. Writing about his uncle in 1995, Swaminathan said: "If there is one lesson to be learnt from the life and work of KS, it is that true happiness comes from giving and not acquiring, from caring and not from exploitation, and from self-transcendence and not self-gratification or self-glorification." According to him, the 100 volumes of The Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi, edited by Professor K Swaminathan, constitute the greatest epic of our times.

As a teacher, Swaminathan has no parallel, in his sincerity and thoroughness of approach, clarity of thinking and expression, and his amazing coverage of the subjects he taught, giving the latest references. I have had the privilege of attending all his classes in Cytogenetics. Radiation Genetics, and Mutation Breeding at IARI, during the late 1950s to the early 1970s, and there was never a dull moment in his well-attended lectures. In a fine article titled, "Teachers Must Be Passionate" written for the Home and School magazine in October 1968, Swaminathan has dwelt at length on the qualities needed to be a good teacher:

"The first concerns the attitude of the teacher in the classroom. By this I mean the degree of association or the way the teacher identifies himself or herself with the task in front of him or her. This is very important, as it can make a great impression on the student. When I think of my own teachers, the only people who come to my memory are those who were passionate in their teaching. It is not what they taught that was important, but the way they did it, the seriousness of purpose, and their identification with the students. As a teacher myself, I have covered much of the same ground for many years: but if I consider a course as a monotonous repetition, then I can neither make the students enthusiastic nor can I feel enthusiastic myself. On the other hand, if every lesson is regarded as an experiment and a new experience, then it becomes exciting for both sides.

Of course, teaching is also partly a gift, but partly it is an attitude of the mind. The seriousness with which the teacher undertakes his or her responsibilities will determine its effectiveness. An earnest teacher establishes a two-way feedback relationship between the student and the teacher. The student soon becomes an admirer or follower of the teacher. Hence, it becomes all the more important that the teacher should set a worthwhile example. Teachers should neither dissuade students from asking questions, nor try to escape answering them. To be told that 'this will be taught in the next class', does not reflect credit on a teacher. Another thing is, one should not bluff."

Swaminathan is also an excellent research guide who takes great pains to help his students at all stages of their theses programmes. Often, when he sat with a student to examine his cytological slides, if he found the microscope dirty, he would take out his own handkerchief and start cleaning it himself with a smile. Invariably, the ashamed and surprised student got the message, and the instrument would be clean the next time!

Has he ever been provoked, angry over anything or anybody, one might wonder. It is difficult to imagine Swaminathan losing his temper. I can recall only one occasion when he raised his voice in a C V Raman-like harangue: "Let dogs bark. The caravan of Science will march on." This unexpected outburst was in response to repeated insinuations and aspersions casts on his colleagues, questioning the validity of their findings by a section of the audience in the IARI auditorium in 1971 when he was the Director. This reaction stunned the audience, who dispersed quietly. On an earlier occasion, when a colleague in the Botany Division of IARI used data from Swaminathan's thesis and published it in a foreign journal without even acknowledging the source, he was shocked. Instead of admonishing the offending scientist, Swaminathan just put up a note on the notice board, that theses could be borrowed from the library only with the written permission of the concerned author and the guide. The offender later became a Director of another ICAR Institute!

Such was the magnanimity of Swaminathan. In fact, he was often accused of "backing the wrong horse", but he believes that we have to fight our own battles, and "in life, one gets what one deserves and not what one desires, and He knows what one deserves" as Swami Chinmayananda has said. In this Zakir Hussain Memorial Lecture delivered at Delhi University in September 1970, Swaminathan Said, "Psychologists believe that within each of us, there dwells a captive spirit struggling to find fulfillment, and each one has the need to succeed by his own efforts. Therefore, we should work with rather than work for others. The latter situation produces an expectation of gratitude on the one hand, and resentment at having to be obliged, on the other."

Swaminathan brings to bear on his work a missionary zeal which is infectious and a sense of dedication, which is inspiring. It is hard to keep pace with the lightning speed of his thought process, and the follow-up action. In spite of so much pressure of work, Swaminathan knows the art of relaxation. Even in the middle of important meetings and seminars, he manages to catch fleeting 'cat-naps', but his mind is ever alert. He invariably manages to bring life and meaning to every meeting he presides over, through his amazing powers of grasping the most essential points. Soon after each meeting, he will dictate the proceedings to his secretary and meticulously finalize it the same day or the next. Likewise, he finds time to answer every letter he receives, promptly and precisely. He has fine-tuned these Spartan habits from the very beginning, since he realizes the value of not only his time but also that of other people. And, what a pleasure it is to read his letters! I have received many of them, written from hotels abroad on their letterheads, which shows he can find time for anyone and everyone, whatever be the demands of work.

I have never heard him condemning anyone for his/her faults, even of his critics who have always been around. Borlaug once wrote to him, "There is no remedy for jealously. The only remedy is to ignore." Swaminathan believes in Gandhiji's faith in humans: "Do not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is a vast ocean. If a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty." In the current turmoil of global unrest due to widespread terrorism, Gandhiji's message of tolerance rings so true and relevant.

To my mind, Swaminathan combines in himself the genius and courage of a C V Raman, the charisma and dynamism of a Jawaharlal Nehru, the deep compassion and non-violence of Mahatma Gandhi, and the ego less state of a Bhagavan Ramana-a rare recombinant indeed!

R D Iyer was born on May 25, 1935 in Tirumangalam, Tamil Nadu. A specialist in plant tissue culture, he began his teaching and research career in cytogenetics and applied botany at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, in 1958. He has been associated with Dr M S Swaminathan since then in various capacities, and was awarded Ph.D. in botany under his guidance. He has received the ICAR's Jawaharlal Nehru Award for outstanding post-graduate research in Plant Breeding and Genetics and has served the Government of Mauritius as Adviser, Plant Tissue Culture, from 1987 to 1989. Retiring as Head of the Division of Genetics and Biotechnology at the Central Plantation Crops Research Institute at Kasargod, Kerala, Dr Iyer is currently involved in the establishment of a modern R&D laboratory for the conservation, evaluation, and rapid multiplication of Ayurvedic medicinal plants at the Arya Vaidya Sala in Kottakkal. Besides his scientific pursuits, Iyer has been an active worker of the Chinmaya Mission.



Monkompu in Kerala Swaminathan's ancestral village
Swaminathan's father M.K Sambasivan (seated middle) with Rajaji and Devadas Gandhi

Lauching the 'children for happiness' movement

Dedication of the Swaminathan Hall at IRRI, Los Banos


Explaining the features of the dwarf wheates to Lal Bahadur Shastri


A.T Natarajan, Swaminathan's first Ph.D student, offering fecilitions on his 60th birthday, with Shankar Dayal Sharma looking on


In the rice farming systems field at Los Banos, the Philippines

Chairing the Governing Board meeting of the Iwokrama International Centre for Rain Forest Conservation and Management, Guyana.



Receving the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, Manila

A view of MSSRF


With Norman Borlaug, C.SUbramaniam, and Federico Mayor at MSSRF

With Nelson Mandela



Corazon Aquino conferring the Golden Heart Presidential Award of the Philippines on Swaminathan


Receving Honorary Doctorate from the University of Bologna,Italy, the oldest University in the western world



At the presentation of the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, USA, along with Everett koop



Receving the ceres (Freedom from Hunger) Medal from Jacques Diouf, Director General of FAQ



Receving the UNESCO Gandhi Gold Medal from Federico Mayor, Director General of UNESCO

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