Education is the process by which people’s abilities and talents are developed. Education, in this broad sense, is also everything that is learned and acquired in a lifetime: habits, knowledge, skills, interests, attitudes, and personality. From this standpoint, people become educated not merely by attending schools, but by the total experiences of life. They learn through direct experience, imitation, and self-teaching. They learn from parents and friends, from such institutions as temples and libraries, from recreational and social agencies such as clubs and playgrounds, and from the newspapers-magazines, cinema-television, radio, and the like.
In a narrower sense, education is the systematic, organized process of teaching and learning that centres largely in some form of institutions: schools, colleges, and universities. What was the system of education in ancient India? The earliest clues were contained in the Rigveda, which was composed in the very early Aryan era. It was followed by the other three Vedas: Sama, Yajur, and Atharva. Then the sages wrote the Brahmanas and Aranyakas to explain the Vedas. Then came the Upanishads, composed around 550 BC giving a spiritual exposition of the Vedas. Lastly, the epic Mahabharata was composed around 300 BC, followed by the epic Ramayana. These texts have been a great source of inspiration, education, information, and integration across the country, over many centuries.
In practice, ‘education’ was deeply rooted in the Vedas from which were drawn principles of ethics, good behaviour, and values in life. It meant systematic instruction, schooling, and training in preparation of life or some particular task. It had a spiritual underpinning and was taught in the sacred classic language of Sanskrit. Scriptures and grammar, codes of law, philosophic and literary works formed its content. Notably, in ancient India, there was equality of opportunity for men and women to study. There were many famous women like Maitreyee and Gargi who excelled in the learning and exposition of the Vedas, and some even composed new literary works. In Atharva Veda, it was exhorted that women should not marry until they finished their education. As time went on, this ideal position of women gave way to rigid and extreme postures, where women were devalued and not allowed to access education, reflecting on the insecurity of the times, because of the multiple invasions which began to rock the country from 200 BC and continued till AD 1400.
Another important aspect of education in ancient India is the gurukul system of the postvedic period in which boys studied at the ashrams (residences) of the gurus (teachers), who were men of great erudition and learning, generally belonging to the Brahmin community. Boarding and lodging were free in addition to education, but the disciple had to serve the master loyally and unswervingly. The studies were rigorous and long in the oral mode and lasted at least for 12 years. There were many centres of gurukul learning all over India. Buddhism and Jainism (from around 300 BC to AD 800) took this educational legacy to higher planes. It is said that the world’s first university was established in Takshila in 700 BC. In 4th century BC, the legendary Nalanda University in Bihar was a great centre of Buddhist religion and learning, and attracted scholars and students from China, Java, Indonesia, and Thailand. It is believed that Lord Buddha himself delivered many lectures there.
Like the Vedic Age, Buddhism and Jainism also treated women well and allowed them access to education. Women could become monks or Bhikkunis and many of them took to religious education by choice. The main areas of excellence of the Jains in ancient days were in mathematics, astronomy, and geography.
The value of pi; the art of navigation; the knowledge of Ayurveda; the concept of zero; and the decimal system—were all inventions that emanated in India. Such was the great tradition of education in our country, which, unfortunately started declining since AD 647, with the death of Harsha Vardhana, the last great ruler of the Hindu empire. With the invasions of Mahmud of Ghazni from around the beginning of the 11th century, many of our ancient Sanskrit, Buddhist, and Jain texts were destroyed, and with the beginning of the medieval period, we lost that great educational legacy.
Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee
Editorial Director, Niyogi Books