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Maheshwar Prasad Varshney

September 5, 2011

Our interview subject is M. P. Varshney, a vānaprasti who can often be found at the Celestial Knowledge Foundation.

Kush: You were involved in the establishment phases of many engineering colleges, including the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur), Motilal Nehru Regional Engineering College, King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi, and the University of Technology (Baghdad).  What were some of the common challenges that you faced?

M. P. Varshney: The challenges faced in the 4 projects relating to establishment of new engineering colleges specified by you had little in common.  This will be clear as I talk of each one of these in succession.

  1. Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.  It was conceived on the lines of MIT in the USA to be the only institute of excellence in India for advanced technological studies and research.  Things went on in this direction in the beginning, but soon four more IITs were established for political considerations and subsequently the number increased to seven.  Now, under orders from the government another eight IITs are being set up with no buildings, equipment, faculty, etc. and students for undergraduate studeies admitted therein are studying in the existing seven IITs that were and are already short in the number of faculty members for their normal operation.  Thus the lofty ideals of setting up one IIT (at Kharagpur) have been thrown to the winds.  Personally I learnt a lot about the problems faced in setting up the electrical engineering department at IIT Kharagpur that stood in good stead in my career.
  2. Motilal Nehru Regional Engineering College, Allahabad.  This was one of ten engineering colleges set up for providing facilities primarily for undergraduate engineering education in different regions in India and did not aim at being colleges of excellence like the five IITs existing at the time.  The idea, no doubt, was good but execution faulty.  At the college mentioned, all the powers (administrative, academic, etc.) were vested in the principal, an engineer returned from the state irrigration department who had no experience or knowledge at all about engineering education.  This led to many problems that persisted for years even after that individual was finally removed.  Being head of electrical engineering department there, I was thus faced with problems and challenges in setting up the department, laboratories, etc. in the new engineering college.
  3. University of Technology, Baghdad, Iraq.  This was a project aided by UNESCO where some necessary equipment was supplied by UNESCO and international experts were deputed to advise the local authorities in setting up the new university.  There then existed a college of engineering as part of the Baghdad University and they were opposed to the setting up of this new center for higher engineering education.  Unlike India, the number of Iraqis qualified to teach were inadequate and many foreigners were recruited for teaching jobs.  Language was another barrier as teaching was done in English of which the students had poor knowledge.  Also the administration was in the hands of poorly qualified personnel who would manage not to abide by the advise of the experts.  Te funds provided by UNESCO were in accordance with an agreement with the Iraqi government at a higher level politically and that resulted in a number of challenges and problems where the experts had no say.
  4. King Mongkut’s University of Technology, Thonburi, Thailand.  This too was a UNESCO assisted project.  There was similarity in the challenges faced here as those at the University of Technology, Baghdad.  Here the project consisted of upgrading an existing Thonburi Technical Institute to a higher level where students would get university degrees instead of a lowe rlevel technical diploma.  There was opposition from the nearby existing college of engineering at Bangkok University, similar to what the position was in Baghdad.  The faculty at the institute was poorly qualified for upgradation and no foreign teachers were recruited.  The authorities waited that the faculty members who had been sent abroad for higher studies under UNESCO fellowships come back.  In fact much more could have been achieved with greater cooperation and coordination with Thai authorities.

K: So in one word, politics. 

You are an electrical engineer by formal education, but for two decades now you have been primarily been studying the Bhagavad Gītā.  There exist electrical engineers who have attempted to understand the Gītā using the math and science of today, for example Robert W. Newcomb using field theory.  Should one attempt to understand the Gītā through the lens of modern science and engineering, or does it require a completely different thought process?

MPV: I am of the opinion that it may not be possible to understand the Bhagavad Gītā, or for that matter any text related to spiritual studies, which is what Bhagavad Gītā primarily is, using the so-called scientific process.  The Bhagavad Gītā makes a distinction between the spirit and matter, and primarily deals with spirit soul, while the other deals with material phenomena exclusively.  Even though the spirit and matter coexist, the twain never meet.  Spirit and matter, being diametrically opposite, it seems unlikely that any reconciliation between the two approaches may be possible.

Lav: Interesting thoughts on the distinction between spiritual and material phenomena.  As you know, the name of this blog is information ashvins and that both of us have invested some time thinking about the nature of  information.  In some of my writing, I have tried to make a distinction between matter and information, or energy and information.  To me it, seems that information is intertwined with, but somewhat distinct from material phenomena.  What do you think about informational phenomena?

MPV: It’s my view that information, energy, and matter come under one and the same category.  Spiritual (soul) consciousness is distinct from material consciousness and as I mentioned earlier, the twain don’t meet.  To quote Albert Einstein: “When I read the Bhagavad Gita and reflect about how God created this universe everything else seems so superfluous.”

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3 comments

  1. Insightful post. I did want to comment on M. P. Varshney ji’s thoughts on multiple IITs being set up without much infrastructure. I believe all the initial IITs started from temporary locations and then moved on to permanent locations.

    Also, the IITs are public (central government) universities, whereas MIT is a private university. Had MIT been a public university, I’m sure we would have seen multiple MITs across the US, just like there are multiple state universities. I wonder if there is any state school in the US that does not have multiple campuses?


    • Having worked at the first and the then only IIT at Kharagpur almost from its beginning, I disagree with the statement that “all the initial IITs started from temporary locations and then moved on to permanent locations”. In fact the intake of student started there only after suitable buildings, laboratories, and faculty etc. were in place at permanent locations. This is unlike what is being done now in the eight new IITs being set up under orders of the government.

      At the time of India’s independence in 1947, there existed only a handful of mediocre engineering colleges, where the duration of studies [only undergraduate, of course] was accelerated from the normal three years to two years towards the end of the second world war under orders of the government. There were hardly any big industrial and business houses then except the Tatas and the Birlas and there was no general concept of private technical institutes or universities. Tata’s Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore and Birla’s Institute at Pilani were the only private institutions then. It is half a century later that the setting up of private institutions started.

      It is not proper to compare institutions in USA to those in India or elsewhere. In the USA private institutions and universities have been the norm for generations, in fact from the very beginning. In India the only way was for the government to set up one IIT on the lines of MIT which was world’s premier institute 150 years ago, is the premier institute today, and is likely to remain so in foreseeable future, in spite of the large number of institutions, both public and private, existing now in USA.


  2. […] is different in different societies.  But let me leave this line of thinking to wiser folks like Nanaji.  Please say Ram Hari to him for me now that you’ve landed in North India. Like this:LikeBe […]



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