The Bhāratīya Higher Education System
Elementary education was open to all the children in the village. The teacher would decide if the student had satisfactorily progressed or not. At the end of elementary education students underwent training in one field or another.
What were the options available to train for a vocation/profession?
There were predominantly three kinds of training. Some of these professions were on-the-job training and had barely any textual study while some others had some amount of textual study along with practical job training and yet others were text based intense academic training.
Creative arts and crafts were learnt from a young age and the nuances were mastered as the student matured. It was similar for the performing arts also.
Did the society play a role in the student deciding on what to pursue? Some professions were specific to the jāti of the student i.e., only children born into the same families were permitted to learn these professions. There were some other professions which were open for anybody to pursue. [However, this openness and closeness varied depending on the external threats and other social factors. There was more closeness in jatis when the threats were higher.]
The professions that were jāti bound included the study of the VEdas (Brāhmanas) and trade and banking (Vaiśyas).
Engineering professions (smiths, carpenters, architects, masons and so on), cloth weaving, arts (stone sculpting, metal statue making, sketching, painting and so on) were followed by the members of the same jāti but also allowed for apprenticeship from the others. The other professions – such as medicine, mathematics and astronomy, poetry and literature – also predominantly had the children learning from the parents but there were no objection to others’ learning them based on personal approval of the teacher/guru. The children followed the family tradition by and large; however, there was no rigidity in this.
Unskilled jobs such as goods vending and general labour did not have any restriction on jāti.
Jobs that included defiling work such as butchering, leather work, cremation, cleaning etc., were done by those who were considered outcastes or untouchables.
Work such as fetching forest produce and medicine, snake and rat catching, acrobatic troupes and some such works closely related to nature and natural abilities were pursued by tribal people who were also outside the classification of the main society.
How did skill training take place? A significant percentage of the people had a traditional family vocation that was skill and experience-based knowledge. All training was through instruction (from a senior member) and practice. Farmers, cloth weavers, potters, craftsmen and artisans, bankers and businessmen, martial artists and fighters and many such professions had very little or no textual or theoretical study beyond elementary education to pursue their vocation.
How did other study-based training take place? It is a well-known fact that the earliest Universities were established in Bharata. They were established across the nation and were supported by the kings. The university at Vārāṇasi was very famous all over the globe at the time the British arrived. In 1783, Prof A Maconochie was full of praise for the highest qualities of studies of the ‘Hindoos’ (as Indians were referred to at that time). He mentions astronomy, antiquities, religion, Government, poems, history, traditions and fables of Bharata. He mentions Banares (Vārāṇasi) as the centre of all these studies
In his book, ‘History of Indigenous Education in the Panjab,’ G. W. Lietner says, “Thousands belonged to Sanskrit or Arabic colleges in which Oriental literature and systems of Oriental Law, Logic and Philosophy and medicine were taught to the highest standard…Through these schools there breathed a spirit of devotion to education for its own sake and for its influence on the character and on religious culture.”
There were, parallelly, āśramas run by gurus for students pursuing medicine, astronomy, philosophy, mathematics and several other studies where they followed the gurukula system. The āśramas were attached to the guru’s home where the students stayed during the period of study. Eminent teachers’ fame spread far and wide and students often travelled long distances and spent years under in the āśrama to study from these gurus. The teacher’s fees were given as per the student’s ability and was known as gurudakṣiṇa. Some teachers had endowments in the form of land (known as mānyam, made by local landlords) to meet their expenses.
In 1824, the collector of Malabar sent details of 1,594 scholars who were receiving education in Theology, Law, Astronomy, Metaphysics, Ethics and Medical Science in his district from private tutors.
The collector of Guntoor observed that theology, law, astronomy, etc. in the district were privately taught to some scholars or disciples generally by the Brahmins learned in them, without payment of any fee, or reward, and that they, the Brahmins who teach are generally maintained by means of maunium land which have been granted to their ancestors by the ancient Zamindars of the Zillah. It appears that there are 171 places where theology, laws and astronomy, etc. are taught privately, and the number of disciples in them is 939.
Madras Presidency reported 1,101 schools (with 5431 students) of higher learning, Rajahmundry heading the list with 279 such schools. Trichnopoly had 173, Nellore 137 and Tanjore 109. The scholars learnt the Vedas, Law, Astronomy, Poetics or Music and so on according to their specialization.
Apart from Vārāṇasi, Kaśmīr, Mithila, Nabadwīpa were well known as centers of learning for students coming from all over the country. In the South, institutes for higher education were attached to large temples.
The institutions of higher learning at Nabadwīpa were known as ṭols. The ‘ṭol’ buildings were nothing but thatched chambers with mud walls. The ṭols were open to all castes, but the teachers were exclusively Brahmins. In Bengal and Bihar, the ṭols depended on voluntary gifts or grants of lands by rich people. The teacher in a ṭol provided his students with free shelter and tuition. The students received their food and clothing either from the teacher or from local shopkeepers and landlords or by begging. Sanskrit language and literature was the main subject of study in these ṭols.
Mention may be made of Tirhut and Thaṭṭa in Sind (now in Pakistan). There were nearly 400 students at Thaṭṭa studying theology, philosophy and politics. Multan was another centre of Hindu learning. It was famous for the study of astronomy, astrology, mathematics and medicine. Sirhind in Punjab was famous for its school of Ayurvedic medicine.
How did Vedic and religious training take place? Study of the VEdas took place at the VEda Pāṭhasālās which were mostly attached to temples or to maṭhas run by monks. The students lived a very frugal lifestyle and had to beg for their food every day. Gurudakṣiṇa was given to the guru to the best of the student’s ability as a mark of respect.
Leitner's Report says: "The Vedas were, comparatively speaking, little taught in the Punjab in Ranjit Singh's time, the teachers chiefly coming from the Dekkan"; but, he adds that in Sanskrit and in Grammar, "Punjab Learning was proverbial throughout India, whilst Punjabi Pandits also excelled in Niaya (Logic), Mimansa, the Dharmshastras, Vedant and Sankhya (six Shastras), Patidhant and Siddhant (Astronomy)".
Islamic studies took place in Madarssas attached to mosques.
How did Martial and Physical Training take place? Martial arts and physical training was provided to anybody who wanted to learn them. Usually the training for fighting techniques took place in specially prepared grounds known as akhādas. It was compulsory for the traditional fighters, warriors, policemen and sportspeople to learn these techniques. However, learning them was open to all communities. Scholars of some Veda Pāṭhasālās were also trained in these techniques. The training required strict disciplines to be followed by the students.
In summary we learn that education was widespread and available to almost everybody and were not confined by geography. Most girls obtained elementary education from home and some went on to become scholars by continuing to be tutored at home. There were very few girls in schools and even fewer in colleges. The only people who predominantly were not able to avail education from the social set-up were the outcastes who were considered untouchables. They educated their children in their own professions.
Knowledge gain was through formal as well as informal sources. Certification was by the teacher based on personal observation of the student. Age to begin and complete schooling was not rigidly fixed. Similarly age to begin training for a profession also depended on the profession and was not rigid. There were vocations and professions that could be chosen by the students based on their abilities and interests. Some traditions were strict about who could learn them while other traditions were open for all.
Higher education was obtained from home or community, from āśramas run by individual gurus, from local colleges, from Veda Pāṭhasālās and Madrassas and also from universities.
We find that almost all the funds required for education were met through philanthropy and charities. Infrastructure of educational institutions consisted only of what was required for living essentials and for progress in learning.
Education was not burdensome to the student or the family. In this way education was meaningful and fulfilled the needs of the individual as well as of the society.
What kinds of professionals made up the society before the British arrived?
(Will continue in the next part)