The huge middleclass India of today is not satisfied with a fractured idea of India, an India whose past is inglorious, an India which has to negate its core values to accommodate the sensitivities of minority communities. It has got a glimpse of its greatness and is excited by it. It is reviving the timeless idea of India. How education fits into this idea of India is the focus of this article. First, we will consider the key features of ancient Indian education. Then we will look at what we can borrow and adapt to the modern context. The idea is not to recreate the past but to borrow relevantly to create a modern, harmonious and integrated society capable of the highest contribution to the world.
The Idea of India
The Nehruvian idea of India holds that India is a conglomerate of communities, castes and religions that is culture agnostic. The thinking was that such a conception of India will foster communal harmony. It is evident, however, that this idea did not bridge the communal divide. Instead it has ended up alienating a large proportion of its Hindus. The resultant Hindu pushback is seen by the adherents of the Nehruvian idea as majoritarian and Islamophobic.
The point, nevertheless, is that there has always been a Dharmic idea of India. It is neither majoritarian nor does it suffer from any phobia. It sees India as a land of myriad thoughts, customs and practices woven together by a strong cultural thread. For millennia it was bound by Dharma. It is when Dharma weakened that foreign invasions became possible. The Dharmic idea however survived the severe trial and tribulations thanks to the sacrifices and perseverance of our ancestors. Current events would indicate that the forces of Dharmic renaissance have gathered momentum.
What is the Dharmic idea of India? The idea is founded on the experience that humans are spiritual beings. Derived from this experience are the laws of living designed to create harmony within the individual, in society and in nature. These natural laws are what is termed as Dharma. At the individual level duties guide action. At the societal level adherence to group responsibilities ensure harmonious functioning. Nature sustains all life, it is a mother to be respected and nurtured. This is very different from the western view of nature being there for man’s pleasure.
The idea of ‘secularism’ is deeply embedded in Dharmic thought. This is the reason why our founding fathers did not feel the need to describe the republic as secular. It was inserted via the 42nd amendment in 1976 during the Emergency. In the west, secularism was a reaction to an exclusive and regressive Christianity. It separated ideas of the spirit from the running of the state. In the Dharmic conception, spirit cannot be separated from any human action since all creation is an expression of the indwelling spirit. Harmony depends on embracing the spiritual and not by denying it. Second, the religious ideas are subjected to rational scrutiny and all interpretations are seen as a valid view of the truth. Thus, plurality of thought and religious practices is at the core of Dharma. The basis of Dharmic ‘secularism’ is a celebration of diverse religious thoughts, its application in governance, social interaction and individual action.
If we were to reclaim the legitimate Dharmic idea of India, what are the implications on education? We look at the salient features of ancient Indian education and see what can be applied to modern times.
Education in Ancient India
The Vedas were considered so sacred that it became imperative to transmit them from one to the next generation. This was what drove the need to create an excellent system of education. Education was universal, all varnas and both genders were required to be educated. There were rules governing the relationship between teacher and students.
The gurukula was usually located on the outskirt of the village in natural surroundings. Society at large supported education, by feeding students and donating to the gurukula. Education was individualised, each student moving ahead when ready. The monitorial system entailing senior students teaching the juniors, is considered modern in the west, but existed in India in the hoary past.
The teacher was highly revered. In no other society, past or present, was the teacher given so much importance and accorded such great respect as in ancient India. Teachers too took their responsibility very seriously. They were honour bound to teach every deserving student, to teach all they knew and to treat the student as their own child. Students too held the teacher in deep reverence and readily served him.
The mix of subjects point to an astonishingly liberal education. Value education was imparted through Vedas, Puranas, Mahabharata, Ramayana, Panchatantra. Secular knowledge included geography, astronomy, astrology, mathematics, sciences, agriculture, commerce, military education. The arts such as music, dance, sculpture were taught to develop the creative side of the personality.
The Aims of Ancient Indian Education
- Character Building
Educationists in ancient India attached the greatest importance to the formation of character. Character was seen as even more important than the preservation of the Vedas. An orthodox thinker like Manu states that a man of good character with a mere smattering of Vedic knowledge is to be preferred to a person well versed in the Vedas but who is impure in his habits.
The system was designed by our ancients for character building. The student was under the teacher’s supervision for intellectual as well as personality development. Rituals like upanayana (initiation ceremony) were designed to impress that student life was a consecrated one.
The importance of character was paramount in a social system which worked more upon the basis of individual responsibilities and ethics than transactional rules.
- Development of Personality
Self-restraint, self-respect and self-reliance developed personality.
The Brahmacharin phase demanded that students live a simple life shorn of luxuries. This cultivated the habit of self-restraint. This in turn cultivated a strong mental makeup not easily dissipated by distractions. The loftiness of Upanayana impressed unto the student the divine nature of education thus installing self-confidence. Samavartana (graduation ceremony) was designed to impress how important the graduate was to society. This instilled self-respect.
Power of discrimination and right judgement came from the stress on values in the curricula. These were not taught as revelations or edicts to be followed without question. These were bristling with controversies and students had to understand all sides, form his own opinion and defend their thesis in fierce yet not unruly debates.
The freedom of interpretation of Vedas and superlative achievements in diverse fields of knowledge point to intellectual freedom and creativity of the highest order.
- Development of Social Efficiency and Civic Responsibility
Stress was laid on social duties and responsibilities. Graduates were expected not to lead a self-centred life. They were to perform their duties efficiently and conscientiously as sons, husbands, fathers and were expected to give to charity. There were codes of honour for each profession. The social structure was built on the edifice of Dharma and required very little government involvement.
- Preservation of Heritage and Culture
The commitment to transmit knowledge was intense and a sacred duty of the teacher. The goal was more cultural than utilitarian. The heritage of the past was divided into many different branches and different groups specialized in them. This made Hindu scholarship deep.
The preservation of ancient culture has had a lasting and positive effect. Respect for elders, obedience to parents, veneration of teachers, gratitude to savants last even till today as a result of the preservation of ancient culture. The Vedic, Puranic and philosophical works have survived to a large extent. This despite the destruction of temples and universities by Islamists and the uprooting of our indigenous education system by the British.
Borrowing From the Past for a Strong Future
In the 19th century the British starved the village of funds which sounded the death knell for the glorious tradition of education in India. It killed Sanskrit and with it the access to sanskriti (culture & heritage). The cultural renaissance in progress begs the question as to what we can borrow from the past to prepare for a strong future. Here are some suggestions:
As pointed out earlier education was for all in ancient India. Fortunately, great strides have already been made in getting children into schools today. As per Ministry of Human Resource Development statistics, the enrolment ratio in schools stands at 96.9% in 2014. Girls too are getting enrolled. The Gender parity index which is the ratio of number of girls to corresponding number of boys stands at 1.03 at primary level, 1.01 at secondary level and 0.92 at Higher Education level.
- Emphasis on Quality
The quality of education, however, requires a major lift. The annual dropout rate at the secondary level is a high 17.86%. The NCERT conducted a National Achievement Survey in 2015 measuring performance in English, Mathematics, Science and Social Science. In all tests rural schools performed much worse than urban schools and government-run schools fared significantly worse than private schools. Another indicator of quality is the pass percentage. In the 10th board exams the pass percentage stands at 75%.
- Revive the Status Accorded to Teachers
This one factor coupled with quality can transform education in India. To start with we need to attract superior talent into the teaching profession. How do we do that? By giving teachers greater autonomy to devise pedagogy, making the profession more remunerative and most importantly reviving the reverence accorded to teachers. While the remuneration should make the teacher’s life comfortable, it is the reverence that will attract the best talent. Significantly, it must also help to transform the student teacher relationship.
- Develop Critical Thinking
With the fast pace of changes taking place in the world, the new entrants in the work force need to be equipped with problem solving, creative and critical thinking skills than with mere knowledge. The pedagogy needs to change from an information focus to an analytical and creative focus.
- Develop Character & Personality
- Yoga is very much part of our heritage. Modern research on Yoga proves its benefits in developing all facets of personality namely physical, emotional, social, cognitive and spiritual. Yoga should become an integral part of education.
- Including Ramayana, Mahabharat, Panchatantra in Literature courses will sensitise students to the nuances of Dharma.
- Courses in the basics of philosophy should include the Darshanas or the twelve systems of Indian philosophy. This will help spread Indian philosophical knowledge and introduce concepts of Dharma, purushartha, the great tradition of debate and spirituality. It will show how the Indian system respected diverse thoughts.
- Revive Sanskrit
The damage done by the loss of Sanskrit is immeasurable. Without Sanskrit we have lost the access to sanskriti (heritage). It is important to equip school graduates with the ability to read and interpret Sanskrit texts. An added incentive is that Sanskrit is recognised as a computational language and will hone the Indian prowess in the field of Information Technology. In time it is possible Sanskrit could become a link language for all India.
- Focus on Regional Languages
Each regional language has a rich tradition of literature. A focus on regional languages will help enrich us with the vast body of such literature. Students should learn the dominant language of their state as well as at least one other Indian language.
- Focus on Arts, Music, Crafts
Many thinkers have said that knowledge without sensitivity is dangerous. Finding the space for arts, music and crafts helps in developing the right brain and equip students to use faculties other than pure intellect.
- Depoliticise History
The history being taught to us needs to be revisited. I do not subscribe to making history a prisoner of any ideology. The recommendation is a telling of history factually and as seen from the native point of view.
The history of the ancient period was distorted by the European historians for two reasons. First, to justify colonisation of India and second, to concoct European civilisational superiority. Later, the Marxists distorted history to dilute Hindu achievement and whittle down Islamic excesses, ostensibly in the interest of communal harmony. We mention some of the distortions here:
- Aryan Invasion Theory is completely speculative, without the backing of archaeological, textual or linguistic evidence. The motivation was to justify colonisation. India was painted as a land with a history of foreign occupation. A disastrous fallout of this theory is the creation of the false Aryan-Dravidian racial divide which still reverberates in the politics of today. This distortion needs to be corrected forthwith since the evidence for it is non-existent.
- A damaging consequence of the distortion regarding foreign occupation is that the vast and sublime body of Indian knowledge has been given a foreign parentage. Vedas were written by Aryans, Astronomy came from Greeks, Mathematics from Arabs, Thirukkural was influenced by Christian thought and so on. This too needs rectification based on evidence.
- Our ancient texts like the Vedas, Bhagwat Gita, Ramayana, Mahabharat have been interpreted through colonial and Marxist lenses. While we cannot stop anyone from interpreting these texts from whatever point of view, we need to ensure that the mainstream version is as envisaged by our rishis.
- Caste discrimination and oppression is portrayed as an intrinsic problem of Hindu society and its almost sole defining feature. There is no denial that discrimination existed but was it sanctioned by the sashtras? Did it have anything at all to do with Dharma? This is what makes it so important to study the difference between varna, jaati and caste and to bring out the British contribution to making the caste system rigid. This understanding will make clear that varna was a logical ordering of society not linked to birth, that jaati was a system of guilds where individuals were free to change jaati. It was in the colonial period when caste became rigid and not without a little help from the British.
- The Marxist historians have no qualms in diluting ancient Indian history. It is painted as strife torn, rife with upper caste oppression, dishonour of women, ill-gotten temple wealth and primitive superstition. Its sublime knowledge, harmonious and wealthy society, evolved pluralism is all by the way. To be brutally honest this view of ancient Indian history is nothing short of an assault on Hindu society. The facts will tell the story that our ancestors created the greatest civilisation in human history.
- The worse distortion is of the Islamic period. While the Hindu past has been denigrated the Islamic period has been copiously whitewashed. By placing the Khaljis, Tughlaqs, Bahmanis, Lodis and Mughals on par with Harihara, Bukka, Krishnadevaraya, Marathas, Sikhs, Jats and Rajputs we deny the valour of the later lot in resisting and ultimately defeating Islamic imperialism to save our religion. Treating the invaders on par with native rulers prevents us from celebrating them as freedom fighters just like we do those who fought British imperialism.
The Islamic zeal which led to genocide, enslavement, large scale destruction of temples and other forms of cultural vandalism have been whitewashed. The stated purpose for doing this was not to endanger communal harmony. Anything suppressed surfaces when the time is ripe. Such artificial attempts at communal harmony have failed. It is time we viewed this phase of our history as it was.
There are three themes. First is the heroic resistance by the natives that saved our civilisation. Second, the inner strength of Sanatana Dharma that ensured it was not annihilated. Third, we need to understand why India weakened, what were the real reasons why it lost to the Islamic onslaught. The lessons not learnt from this traumatic past had an echo in the 1962 China debacle, the genocide of Pandits in Kashmir and the on-going conflict with Pakistan.
Draft National Education Policy 2019
It is heartening to know that the draft National Education Policy has touched on many of the points discussed here.
- It recognises the gaps in the quality of education and has recommended a well thought out program for reducing and re-inducting drop outs. The policy recognises that children increasingly fall behind their grade level and recommends a tracking process and special attention to reduce the gap.
- Drawing inspiration from ancient India, the policy is very explicit about reviving the elevated status of teachers. It recommends merit scholarships for B.ED. programs, incentive for rural posting, autonomy in teaching methods, career management and continuous training.
- Development of critical thinking is another focus in the policy. It recommends reduction of information load and a shift away from rote learning. It recommends questioning, critical thinking and creativity.
- The policy recognises the rich tradition of Indian literature. It suggests excerpts from great Indian authors be taught. It specifically mentions Tagore, Sarala Das, Raghavanka, Amir Khusro, Kabir, Panchatantra and Jataka as examples but is silent on Ramayana, Mahabharata and
- The policy is bold on teaching of languages. It is premised on the finding that children learn best in their mother tongue and young children have the capacity to learn multiple languages. It proposes instruction in local language, learning of other Indian languages, learning of Sanskrit and parallel instruction in English from 8th grade onwards.
- The policy recommends exposure to arts, crafts and music and continuing with at least one art form through the school years.
The greatness of the ancient Indian education lay in the emphasis on character building, a great intellectual tradition bristling with debate and amazing broad-based knowledge. It is commendable that the draft education policy has taken inspiration from the ancient India. However, the policy stops short of making Sanskrit compulsory and introducing Ramayana and Mahabharata. We have to await the recommendations of Indian Council of Historical Research to see how far they go in depoliticising history.
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Atul Sinha founded and runs a leading Strategic Brand Design Company. His interest in Indic culture and history led him to pursue a PhD program at SVYASA, Bangalore. He writes on Vedanta and Indic Culture.