Characteristics of Ancient Indian Educational System

– Dr. Raj Kumar, Assistant Professor, Institute of Advanced Sciences, Dartmouth, MA.

It is sad to see the status of the current educational system. Whether it is student-teacher relationship, related to fee, control of the state or central government, mental/ethical development of students, imparting social responsibilities or providing pure knowledge…..everywhere you will find flaws and need some serious introspection. These are the few reasons why we have fewer enrollments in higher studies (out of ~ 140 million High school students in India only 1.8 million students opt for postgraduate or MPhil or PhD). Other issues are: having less trained workforce and unemployment rates among higher educated personnel (among literates unemployment rate is higher among better qualified, unemployment rate is 7.23% among illiterate and 10.98% among literate (2011 census)). Although the primary objective of modern educational system is to satisfy modern societal needs, but it is not able to address this adequately. So I thought to look into what kind of education system was available in ancient times, and how that system operated.

The ancient education system can be best described by the following verse from Vishṇu Puraṇa.

तत्कर्मयन्नबन्धायसाविद्यायाविमुक्तये। आयासायापरंकर्मविद्यऽन्याशिल्पनैपुणम्॥

Tatkarmyannabandhāyasāvidyāyāvimuktaye।  Āyāsāyāparṁ karmavidya’nyāśilpanaipuṇm।।

 (Vishṇu Puraṇa 1-19-41)

That is action, which does not promote attachment; that is knowledge which liberates. All action is a mere effort/hardship; all other knowledge is merely another skill/craftsmanship.

The above quotation is the best portraiture of the Indian educational system in the past, and the Vedas form the basis of such a system. The word ‘Vidya’ is derived from the root vid, to know, which the same root as Veda is. Since the entire educational system is based on the Veda, Vidya garnered by Veda enables a person to know the truth regarding the universe and the individual relationship with the universe. The Rishis understood that student should have self motivation to succeed, and teaching should suit the natural inclination of a student. It’s the duty of a Guru to test the student and impart knowledge in the subject of his/her liking. That’s why in ancient times a teacher/guru provided only suggestions/advice to his students, and students needed to put their hearts and minds behind that to assimilate the knowledge.

This educational system teaches consciousness, self-control and purity of thought and action. A person who is not selfish and well-educated leads a pure life, conquers avarice by generosity or hatred by love. Such a person does not bother about caste, creed or color. All these distinctions come when education leads to the patch of commercial contracts, but when it inculcates purity, selflessness and self-realization, then it makes individual to realize the ideals of uplifting. It is clear that this system is based on the idea of attaining perfection without degrading self or humanity as a whole. This system is based on three fold system of Vidya; a) Parā-Vidyā, b) Aparā-Vidyā, and c) Kāla. Parā-Vidyā helps one to attain pure-consciousness, Aparā-Vidyā teaches the law of nature and the cause of other phenomenon, and Kāla deals with kauśala (applied science) (Ramdasi PhD thesis).

guru_shishya

Vedic education starts with an intimate relationship between teacher and the student. The relationship between the teacher and his students starts with a religious ceremony called Upanayana. By Upanayana ritual teacher impregnates his student with his spirit, and start students new birth. After this student is known as Dvija (born afresh; Agarwal, 2011). In this education system, student finds his teacher, live with him as family member, and treated by teacher as his son in every way. The school was in natural surroundings, Hermitage, away from urban distractions, and function in solitude and silence. In the words of Rabindranath Tagore: “A most wonderful thing was notice in India is that here the forest, not the town, is the foundation head of all its civilization. Wherever in India its earliest and most wonderful manifestations are notices, we find the men have not come into such close contact as to be rolled or fused into a compact mass. There, tree and plants, river and lakes, had ample opportunity to live in close relationship with men. In these forests, though there was human society, there was enough of open space, of aloofness; there was no jostling. Still it render it all the brighter. It is the forest that nurtured the two great ancient ages of India, the Vedic and the Buddhist. As did the Vedic Rishis, Buddha also showered his teaching in the many woods of India. The current civilization that flowed from its forests inundated the whole India.

Every education system is always associated with the social life of the time. In ancient time, the society was divided into four categories or Varṇās; the Brahmaṇa, the Kṣatriya, the Vaiśya and the Śudras. Education was given in the beginning mainly to the first three Varṇā of the society.  Initially, everything was taught to all the three classes. During the Vedic ages, persons of the same family group followed different occupations according to their individual taste. As time passed on and Varṇās were required to do some imparted duties (mainly in post-Vedic era or Upaniśad era), subjects got divided according to Varṇās. Birth not occupation then came to be regarded as the basis of the caste system. The Brahmaṇas learnt the Vedic texts, the Kṣatriya learnt the Veda, science of warfare and Arthsastra, and Vaiśya were taught commerce, agriculture, etc. Śudras were not entitled to formal education, they are apprenticed under the skilled individual in their trade and craft. In fact, for a time being they were also allowed for formal education. In the Baudhāyana Grihya Sutra, ŚudraRathakār was allowed to have the Upanayana Sanskar (Bakshi et al., 2005). Budhayana says: “Let him initiate a Brahmaṇa in Spring, a Kṣatriya in Summer, A Vaiśya in Autumn, a Rathakār in the rainy season or all of them in Spring”.

वसन्तेब्राह्मणामुपनयीतग्रीष्मे राजन्यं शरदि वैश्यं वर्षासुरथकारमिति।  सर्वानेववा वसन्ते।

Vasante brāhmaṇāmupanayῑtagrῑṣme rājanyaṁ śaradi vaiśyaṁ varṣāsurathakāramiti। sarvānevavā vasante।।

(Baudhyana Grihya Sutra 2-5-6)

Notably, ŚudraRathakār is defined in this book as an offspring of a Vaiśya male and Śudra female.

In addition to this four Varṇās, there are four Āśramas which an individual is expected to experience in his/her lifetime; the Brahmacharya, the Grhastha, the Vanaprastha, and  the Sanyasa. These Varṇās and stages of life give us an idea of the aims and ideals of the ancient Indian education system.

Education was free and it was the teacher’s responsibility to take care of the primary needs of the students. Debate, discussion and seminar are essential parts of learning involving listening, contemplation, comprehension, self study and recall (Ramkumar, 2014). Rote learning was the technique used for elementary education. At the secondary level Vedic studies and writing was introduced, and higher education consisted of advanced study of the metaphysical subjects. Several schools were operated those days such as Pariśad, Tola, Forest colleges, Court schools, Temple colleges, Mathas, Ghatikas, and Agraharas (https://ithihas.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/ancient-indian-education-system-from-the-beginning-to-10th-c-a-d/). Teachers had designation according to their methods of teaching: Acharya (teach Vedas without charging fees), Upadhyaya (taught a portion of Veda or Vedangas as his profession), Charakas (wondering teachers), Guru (imparting education to his disciples), Yaujanasatika (teachers with their profound scholarship), and Sikshaka (teaching arts like dancing) (https://ithihas.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/ancient-indian-education-system-from-the-beginning-to-10th-c-a-d/).Various schools specializing in subjects like philosophy, law, the sacrificial ritual, astronomy, grammar and logic appear to come into existence since 500 B. C. Under the Brahamic auspices, universities like Takhsila were established. University curriculum included physical sciences, arts, literature, philosophy, logic, mathematics, astronomy, medicine and theology. In the course of time distinction between Arts and Science were drawn and practical pursuits were included in the arts. In later Vedic era, they evolved and expanded the curricula in all the fields of knowledge. With the expansion of education system, enrollment increases, which necessitated in development of various branches of specialization. This also amalgamated various school systems to create universities like Takshila and Nalanda (Sakunthalamma, 1994). These universities had various departments with specialties. In those days the departments were –

  1. Agnisthana: This was the place where fire worship and other prayers took place. Probably here the performance of religious rites and rituals were taught.
  2. Brahmasthana: This was the department of the Veda.
  3. Vishnusthana: In this department Rajnti, Arthanti and Vārtā were taught.
  4. Mahendrasthana: This was the department where military sciences were taught.
  5. Vaivasvatasthana: This department is for Astronomy.
  6. Somasthana: Department of Botany.
  7. Garudasthana: This was the department which dealt with the transport and conveyance.
  8. Kartikeyasthana: In this department the science of organization of military, patrolling and battalions, and the army was taught.

The examination was an oral one. The student was required to give oral answers in a congregation of scholars. If he satisfied them, he was given a degree or title, somewhat similar to the PhD dissertation defense today. The consensus of the scholar’s opinion was essential for obtaining such a title.

There are evidences that girls were admitted in the Vedic schools or Charanas (Agarwal, 2011). A Kathi is a female student of Katha school. There were hostels for female students and they were known as Chhatrisala. Though the state did not include education as one of the subjects under its administration, the head of the state and other wealthy merchants, etc., encouraged these activities with their endowments. After the student completed his course (in general, 12 years of learning), the school organized Samavartna Sanskar, which is similar to convocation today. Taittirῑya Upaniśad’s verse 1.11.1 describes address of Guru to his students, in which he exhorts to speak truth, practice social ethics and not to neglect the pursuit of knowledge. They were also advised not to forget the debt to the Gods and ancestors. According to Taittrῑya Upaniśad’s verse 1.11.2, students were specially asked to see God in their mother, father, teacher and guest. Students were also advised to give gifts to their teachers sincerely and according to their means. Finally the teacher ended his address with the words that what all he said was the import of the Vedas, the divine scripture, which was to be meditated upon.

References:

Sankuthalamma V. (1994). The trends of education in ancient India. PhD thesis, Shri Venkateshwara University, Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, India.

Agarwal, V. (2011). Principles of Education. Chapter 1. Lakshay Publication, India.

Ramkumar, A. M. (2014). “Gurukul to University”: Ancient education system and the present day. Golden Research Thoughts, 3, 1-5.

Ramdasi, N.R. Visualising Indian heritage digital library metaphor. Research paper of PhD thesis. C- Dac, Pune.

Bakshi S.R., Gajrani S., and Singh, Hari (2005). Early Aryans to Swaraj. Volume-3, 25 – 26.

 

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5 thoughts on “Characteristics of Ancient Indian Educational System

  1. Nice article Dr. Raj!
    You gave the example of Śudra–Rathakār from Baudhāyana Grihya Sutra in which his education can be initiated in rainy season and in the very next line you mentioned Śudra–Rathakār as an offspring of a Vaiśya male and Śudra female. As in Indian tradition, mostly a child is known by his father’s name. So, do you think here in Baudhāyana Grihya Sutra Śudra–Rathakār was allowed for formal education only because of his father lineage?

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    • Very good point. I don’t have a definite answer. My response is as follows:

      As far as I know, Manusmriti had very different views on that. Manusmriti says ” If a Brahman or any upper cast, who marries a Shudra woman, degrades himself and his whole family, becomes morally degenerated, loses Brahman status and his children too will attain status of shudra.” But what you are saying may be possible, because later Vedic period diluted Manusmriti.

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    • Dr Aparna ji,

      My comment is limited to how a child was known, in ancient times.

      It is not true that child was mostly known via his/her father’s name.

      For example I will quote names of few personalities, referred after their mothers….and this does not appear to be exception at all.

      Gangeya – (Bhishma)

      Satyavati-suta – (Vyasa)

      Saubhadra – (Abhimanyu)

      Draupadeya – (sons of Draupadi)

      Kaunteya – (for Karna, and also used for Pandavas)

      Recently there was a discussion on social media, in some context (possibly gender) and this subject came up and numerous individuals quoted such names (backed by specific shlok) and the list was very long.

      Regards,

      Nilesh Oak

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The real question is if there is a systematic description in the texts what will be the progeny if parents are from different varnas. The second question is which one is older – Bodhayana grihya sutra or Manusmriti?

    Another point on the side is how the Indian constitution accepts marriage between so called upper caste and SC/ST or OBC to decide the reservation?

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    • What I know Manusmriti describes something about progeny. But in the Vedic text, we need to check.

      Manusmriti should be oldest. It’s real date is unknown. However, Bodhayana Grihya Sutra is compiled between 7th to 8th century BCE.

      Indian Constitution or Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 does not mention this. They only mentioned about criteria of marriage and they allowed marriage in sapindas (five generation in case of the father and three generation in case of the mother). But this question comes in front of the full bench of Bombay High Court in 2010. In 2012, Supreme Court of India also endorsed the decision given by Bombay High Court.

      “When a woman born in a scheduled caste or a scheduled tribe marries to a person belonging to a forward caste, her caste by birth does not change by virtue of the marriage.”

      “In an inter-caste marriage or a marriage between a tribal and a non-tribal, there may be a presumption that the child has the caste of the father. This presumption may be stronger in the case wherein the inter-caste marriage or a marriage between a tribal and a non-tribal the husband belongs to a forward caste. But by no means the presumption is conclusive or irrebuttable and it is open to the child of such marriage to lead evidence to show that he/she was brought up by the mother who belonged to the scheduled caste/scheduled tribe.”

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