Education in the Vedic Age
September 19, 2011 § 5 Comments
The origin of the history of education in India can be traced to the Vedic Age, the age in which the sacred scriptures such as Rgveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, Atharvaveda, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanisads revealed the highest knowledge to mankind through our ancient rsis. Our rsis who imparted the knowledge to seekers, evolved methods by which this knowledge could be acquired, conserved and transmitted to the posterity. And from these methods was evolved a system of education. As S. C. Ghosh observes: “The highly developed state of civilization among the people of the Indus Valley presupposes existence among them a system of education”(Suresh Chandra Ghosh, The History of Education in Ancient India 3000 BC to AD 1192, New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 2001, p.1)
This ancient system of education was aimed at moulding the young pupils into individuals capable of living a perfect and full life – based on the principles of Dharma. As Chidambara Kulkarni has briefly put it, “The ancient Indian system of education was … a comprehensive scheme of perfecting the individual personality in all its facets – physical, moral, intellectual, religious and spiritual”(Vedic Foundations of Indian Culture, Bombay: Shri Dvaipayana Trust, 1973, p.107). Knowledge in this system is not confined to the intellect, it is actual realisation and it must reveal itself through thought, word and deed. Brhadaranyaka Upanisad prescribes three steps of learning ‘sravana’, ‘manana’, and ‘nididhyasana’:
Atma va are drastavyah srotavyo mantavyo nididhyasitavyo maitreyi atmano va are darsanena sravanena matya vijnanenedam sarvam viditam. (II 4.5)
O Mythreyi, it is the Self that should be seen, heard of, reflected on, and meditated upon. Verily by the seeing of, by the hearing of, by the thinking of, by the understanding of the Self, all this is known.
The following verse too pertains the means for acquiring knowledge:
Tameva dhiro vijnaya prajnam kurvita brahmanah.
Nanudhyayadbhahunchabdan, vaco viglapanam hi tat iti.
(Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, IV. 4. 21.)
Let a wise Brahmana after knowing him alone practise (the means to) wisdom. Let him not reflect on many words, for that is mere weariness of speech.
Thus the Vedic education aims at perfection and freedom. And this is the import of the well-known sruti “Sa vidya ya vimuktaye” (That is real education which liberates).
Our ancient sages also envisaged the need for ecological balance for the welfare of human beings as well as the inanimate things. A life based on Dharma is aimed at by Vedic education. Dharma is described as “a set of values that sustains the creation without which very existence of it would be threatened”.
Subject of study:
Brahmanas and Upanisads mention a wide range of subjects that were taught in the Vedic period. Hymns of the four Vedas were given the prime importance. Other important subjects were Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanisads, Vedangas, the six systems of philosophy – Nyaya, Vaisesika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta. V. M. Apte in his brief account of education in the Vedic age, observes:
With the development and elaboration of the institution of the sacrifice and the growth of a vast literature connected with it, the problem of the preservation of this literature became very acute, particularly because during the age under discussion the whole of it (the Samhitas and Brahmanas, including the Aranyakas and Upanisads appended to them) was looked upon as Sruti or revealed literature. The Vedic literature must therefore have formed the chief subject of instruction and the vital part of education. (“Social and Economic Conditions” ‘The Age of the Later Samhitas’, The History and Culture of the Indian People: Vol. I The Vedic Age, ed. R. C. Majumdar et.al., Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1971, pp. 458-459)
But the main emphasis was on Atmavidya because once it is mastered, all other subjects can be mastered easily. The Vedic system of education imparted knowledge at two levels or stages – one about the world of senses – science, humanities, arts and crafts of the times; and two, about Brahman – the eternal pure consciousness which is the higher stage of education called para-vidya. Education was considered complete only when both the stages were completed. The higher knowledge teaches that one universal soul permeates all beings and that the individual soul is a part of this universal soul, and hence the individual and the society are not separate entities but one whole. Subsidiary subjects such as Siksa, Kalpa, Vyakarana, Nirukta, Chanda, and Jyotisa were also taught as they are aids to the study of the Vedas – Vedangas. Other subjects developed in the Vedic age were Philosophy, Yoga, Physiology, Arithmetic, Geometry, Algebra, Astrology, Astronomy and Music, because these had significance in the life of the age.
The teacher or acarya in the Vedic age was responsible not only in imparting knowledge – religious as well as secular, but also in moulding the character and personality of the pupils of his asrama. The acarya of the gurukula system was an affectionate father, an effective teacher, and a person of high moral and spiritual qualities. He maintained discipline by the influence of his personality. He was sincere and honest to his work. He taught with his heart and soul. He also performed the functions of a householder performing the five daily yajnas and observing vows. He led a disciplined life.
The student in the Vedic school was called brahmacarin. He had to dedicate his life for the sake of gaining knowledge, leading an enlightened life. In his formative life he must lead an austere and disciplined life. He had to strictly abide by the rules of conduct and behaviour stipulated by the rsis. The Upanisads clearly describe the qualities required for a brahmacarin. A student had to be calm, patient, self-restrained and self-denying. The student’s prayer included his longing for the realization of a full life. Sayana prescribes four processes – sauca (purity), santosa (contentment), tapas (penance) and swadhyaya (self-study) for the realization of a student’s aims. In the gurukula system the teacher always instructed the pupils to speak the truth, and practice virtue.
As for the methods of teaching, recitation, dialogue and self-study were the three stages. The pupils were taught to consider pursuit of knowledge as the highest yajna in their life.
Thus the main aim of the Vedic educational system was to produce a rational individual, free from passions, full of universal affection, continuously self-educating and striving to reach the highest goal. His rationalism, his attitude of universal love, his entire personality had their roots in experience. His learning must reveal itself through his thought, word and deed. He must cheerfully fulfil his obligations to his family, caste, village and country. He must be emotionally alert to sacrifice his good for the good of all.
(Chitambara Kulkarni, Vedic Foundations of Indian Culture, p.119)
Vedic age had, thus, a system of education in which “hearing, chanting and memorizing, played a great part, assimilation of idea took place through a well- planned life of service to teacher, contemplation, all under his guidance. Thus the educated ones in that system were men who had not only knowledge but also character”. (Swami Gauthamananda, “Values in Our Education”, Values: The Key to a Meaningful Life, Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1996, p.84). Education was not mere scholarship but a tapas pursued through Yoga. As Kulkarni points out: “…the ancient Indian system aimed at providing the student, in addition to a high degree of intellectual training, with the spiritual and ethical strength so that he would grow to be a full man” (Vedic Foundations of Indian Culture, p.114). And the system succeeded in producing men whose sole concern in life was to spread universal happiness and harmony.
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