What was ancient Indian education like?

It is a million pities that a modern Indian is very much aware-let alone proud-of India’s heritage. In the long process of assimilation of foreign influences we have lost our own identity. After nearly half a century of freedom our educated minds are not free from foreign ideas and influences.

The SCHOOL seeks to give a critical evaluation and an awareness of our own past, to give ourselves an intellectually justified pride in ourselves. This is the purpose of this occasional “Classics on Education” column.

As far as we can trace Indian history we find a system of education, always in the hands of the clergy, open at first only to the sons of Brahmans, then spreading its privileges from caste to cast. Every Hindu village had its schoolmaster, supported out of the public funds, in Bengal alone, before the coming of the British, there were some eighty thousand native schools. The percentage of literacy under Ashoka was apparently higher than in India today.

Children went to the village school from September to February, entering at the age of five and leaving at the age of eight. Instruction was chiefly of a religious character, no matter what the subject; rote memorizing was the usual method, and the Vedas were the inevitable text. The three R’s were included, but were not the main business of education; character was rated above intellect, and discipline was the essence of schooling.

At the age of eight the pupil passed to the more formal care of a Guru, or personal teacher and guide, with whom the student was to live, preferably till he was pledged to continence, modesty, cleanliness, and a meatless diet.

Instruction was now give in the “Five Shastras” or sciences; grammar, arts and crafts, medicine, logic, and philosophy. Finally the pupils sent out into the world with the wise admonition that education came only one-fourth from the teacher, one-fourth from private study, one-fourth from one’s fellows, and one fourth from life.

From his Guru the student might pass, about the age of sixteen, to one of the great universities that were the glory of ancient and medieval India: Benares, Taxila, Vidarbha, Ajanta, Ujjain, or Nalanda.

Many of them have survived from ancient times till today. Benares was the orthodox home of Brahman learning. Taxila, in Alexander’s time of invasion, was known all over Asia as the seat of Hindu learning, its medical school the most respected. Ujjain was the seat of astronomy. Ajanta was for art.

Among the Buddhist monasteries of the late Gupta period none became as famous as that of Nalanda in Magadha, which was renowned alike for the magnificence of its establishment and the intellectual as well as moral pre-eminence of the inmates. Nalanda was founded soon after Buddha’s time to teach the Master’s philosophy. It was state supported. Nearly 100 villages were endowed. It had 10,000 students, one hundred lecture rooms, great libraries, and six immense blocks of dormitories. Yuan Chwang, the Chinese traveler, described its magnificence and the learned monks. The shady groves moved him and he stayed for five long years there. It was very difficult to get an admission to Nalanda University. The Chinese traveler tells us “Of these from abroad who wished to enter the schools of discussion at Nalanda, the majority were beaten by the difficulties of the problem. Only those good, in old and modern learning, were admitted (with) only two or three out of ten succeeding.”

The candidates who were fortunate enough to gain admission were given free tuition, board and lodging, but they were subjected to an almost monastic discipline. Students were not permitted to talk to a woman, or to see one, even the desire to look upon a woman was held a great sin, in the fashion of the hardest saying in the New “Testament”.

The student guilty of sex relations had to wear, for a whole year, the skin of an ass, with the tail turned upward, and had to go about begging alms and declaring his sin. Every morning the entire student body was required to bathe in the ten great swimming pools that belonged to the university. The course of study lasted for twelve years, but some students stayed thirty years, and some remained till death.

The resident monks were esteemed not only for their learning but also for their high character, so much so that they were, according to Hiuen Tsang, looked up to as models all over India. The monks spent their time wholly on study and debates and the monastery had a long line of distinguished alumni to its credit. Nalanda and Valabhi were the two places in India where advanced students generally repaired to complete their education. The eminent men who crowded to these places discussed possible and impossible doctrines and, after the testing of their views by wise men, became renowned for their wisdom.

The long list of subjects of study which embraced various branches of sacred and secular learning extending from the four Vedas and the Itihasa, Purana down to snake-charms and the arts of singing, dancing and preparing unguents. In the eighteen branches of learning were included the four Vedas, the six Vedanta’s, Purana, Nyaya, Mimamsa, Dharmasastra, Dhanurveda, Gandharaveda and Arthasastra. The records of the Gupta Age prove that the fourteen (or the eighteen) vidyas were regarded as not being beyond the achievements of learned Brahmanas.

In his general account of India, Hieun Tsang observes that the children, after finishing a work called `the Twelve Chapters’ are introduced in their seventh year to a group of five sciences, viz (a) the science of sounds or grammar, (b) the science of arts and crafts, (c) the science of medicine, (d) the science of reasoning, and (e) the science of the Internal.

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