This article is an exploration of creativity as well as the more elusive notion of insight. I do not know if I am at all qualified to write such an article. But, then, is anyone? Can anyone claim to be an expert on creativity? Perhaps even those regarded as highly creative would hesitate to pronounce a verdict on creativity! Mine will thus be only an attempt to enquire into the various meanings and implications of creativity, and suggest a possible process and role for insight in our daily lives.

According to the dictionary, ‘creative’ means ‘having the power to create, ’ and ‘characterized by originality of thought and execution’; there is the sense of ‘bringing forth’. Here creativity is being equated with imaginativeness, originality and inventiveness. Probably these are just the qualities we have in mind when we refer to creativity in ordinary conversation. We are all familiar with creativity in the arts (music, painting, sculpture, cinema direction, writing fiction, dance and drama); here we may think of Beethoven, Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and so on. Much less familiar is creativity in science and mathematics. Somehow, to most people, creativity is a term applied only to the arts. Why have we given so specialized a meaning to this term, so that it has relevance only in art and painting and music? To many, creativity in mathematics may even seem to be a contradiction in terms! Yet who would deny that Ramanujan was creative, or Riemann, or Newton?

What relationship has creativity with the ability to see the nonobvious in the obvious, or to see a question where no one sees one? In the sciences one sees inspiring examples of such ability. Think of Copernicus asking about the movements of the heavenly bodies and after careful observation asserting that the earth goes around the sun, when nothing could be more obvious than that the sun goes around the earth once each day. Think also of Archimedes in the bathtub, stumbling upon a ‘eureka’ experience on the principle of flotation; or Newton in the apple orchard, asking questions that led to the theory of universal gravitation. All of these individuals demonstrated the ability to probe deeply into everyday life situations, going well beyond mere surface appearances.

As teachers we need to be concerned with creativity in teaching. Here I will only dwell briefly on the teaching of mathematics. Can we give students the opportunity to ‘create’ mathematics (say by deriving formulas, posed as open-ended problems, or by solving real-world problems)? Surely this is feasible. Once one starts to look for ideas, they become available in abundance: devising paper-folding proofs of algebraic identities and geometric theorems; finding the sum of the integers from one to some given limit; the problem of the Königsberg bridges; Pick’s theorem on the areas of plane figures; the Euler-Poincaré formula for convex polyhedra; finding the sum of the angles of a star-shaped polygon; devising visual ‘proofs without words’ for geometric theorems and innovative proofs for Pythagoras’ theorem; also searching for analogues of Pythagoras’ theorem; devising ways to trisect a line segment using compass-and-ruler and so on. Clearly the list is potentially inexhaustible.

As a teacher, one wonders: does the learning of technique in some way take away from creativity? Technique is certainly important. But if we make the mastery of technique and skill the central thing in education, would not creativity get stifled? (This may be just what is happening in our Indian educational system, with its straitjacketing focus on the mastery of examination topics and techniques.)

Now one asks: Is there only creativity in some ‘field’ or other? Is there not such a thing as creativity in daily life? Surely, creativity in the human field would be of tremendous significance; but we must know what it means! Also we must ask whether there is any relationship between creativity and happiness? Is it not true that happiness is a byproduct of living creatively? If one were to live one’s life creatively each day, then one would never think about unhappiness! It seems to me too that as long as one is not living creatively, the experience of boredom in our lives is inevitable.

To a teacher, a relevant question is whether the quality of questioning or seeing that engenders creativity can be taught, or nurtured in some way. How might we ensure that students experience the joy of creation during their student days? Which activities would help in this aim, which problem solving experiences, what kind of exposure? No matter how one looks at the question, it seems vital that children experience—at first hand—the joy and vitality of creation, and know the sense of ‘being alive’ that it engenders. It is an experience that we all must have—by rights. Moreover, what does it mean to ‘educate creatively’, to exploit the daily crises that occur in the class or hostel, so that children grow up to be vital, creative and responsible human beings?

Why is it when faced with adverse happenings and circumstances, some sink into despair, others lapse into cynicism and bitterness, and yet others arrive at a creative insight? In asking about such a response to life’s challenges—a response involving an insight that can change the course of one’s life—two examples come to mind. One is Arjuna asking fundamental questions about life in the middle of the battlefield, and having a divine philosophy revealed to him. Another is Gandhi on the railway platform in South Africa, refusing to succumb to the humiliations of being treated as a second-class citizen and coming up with a philosophy of action that was to have such momentous consequences.

What are some of the factors that throttle this kind of creativity? Probably fear is its greatest enemy; also factors such as conformity, rigidity, the desire for uniformity, the worship of success, and commitment to an ideology.

It may appear that when strong social or religious constraints operate, creativity must necessarily suffer; but this may not be so. The finest counter-example I can give is the whole phenomenon of Islamic art: of local artisans working within the confines imposed by religion (which forbade any representation of the human form), yet coming up with the most beautiful forms of art (namely, the mosaic that is so typical of the Islamic world).

The French mathematician Henri Poincaré, who was not only highly creative in mathematics but also had a very deep interest in understanding the issue, reportedly identified four stages of creativity. From this one may draw out a parallel schemata for creativity and insight in daily life. The stages he identified were:

  • Preparation (trying to solve a problem by all available, normal means—you try everything that you know);
  • Incubation (nothing has worked, and you give up; in frustration you move on to other matters);
  • Illumination (the answer comes in a flash, when you aren’t even looking for it: while you are having a bath, or are on a walk; or during a meal; or just as you wake up from a deep sleep); and finally,
  • Verification (your training and reasoning powers triumphantly reassert themselves, and you find a solution).

Perhaps such an analysis sheds some light on the supremely important question of creativity in daily life and in human matters. In parallel to the list that Poincaré made, I would list the following four stages of creativity in the human field:

  • Living with intensity in relationship and establishing a human community (a crucial first step—life has to be lived with passion and intensity; there is both despair and joy in living in this way, and one has to be prepared for everything);
  • Reflection, self-awareness and quietness (giving yourself time each day for reflecting on things, writing a journal, going for solitary walks, being ‘alone’ with nature and so on; the importance of a protected space of this kind cannot be over-emphasized);
  • Insight (seeing something about yourself or about your relationships, or any human matter, all of a sudden; it is entirely unplanned and unpremeditated, and cannot be willed into existence; it could come as you are listening to a child speaking; or while you are watching a game, or hearing yourself in conversation, or looking into a ditch on the roadside during an evening walk and observing the flowers hidden there—flowers that are ‘born to blush unseen and waste their sweetness on the desert air’);
  • Investigation (a crucial last step: working out the implications of what you saw; unless this is done, the insight could simply wither away in a short span of time; but if worked out fully, it could change the course of your life.)

The question sometimes gets asked: does creative insight necessarily have to be expressed? The answer is, I think, that it will inevitably express itself, finding—if necessary —its own language; there is probably no choice involved in the matter. When one feels passionately about something, or sees something for oneself, something fresh, then such an insight will inevitably express itself. One does not need to master a technique to do so, though a technique may eventually evolve. The finest example one can give for this is that of Krishnamurti finding his own lexicon, as it were, to describe the ‘jewel’ that he had stumbled upon. As he described it in his inimitable way, ‘When one is in love and wants to write a love letter, one does not need to be told how to write; one simply writes!’

Living as a human community, whole and as ‘one body’ (as Krishnamurti urged us to do), has perhaps never been done, in all of history. Can a community of educators do it? To do so requires that we throw ourselves fully into the task of living with creativity and passion.