Ancient Indian Education System (From the Beginning to 10th C. A.D.)

In ancient India a child followed the occupation of his father, either religious or professional and his training in that particular field was provided by his father in his house. Over a period of time two system of education developed, the Vedic and the Buddhist. As the name indicates in the former system Vedas, Vedangas, Upanishads and other allied subjects were taught while in the latter system, thoughts of all the major school of Buddhism was taught. While Sanskrit was the medium of instruction in the Vedic system of education, Pali was the medium of instruction in the Buddhist system of education. But both system offered vocational education apart from religious education of their respective faiths. There was also a purely vocational system of education wherein master craftsmen and artisans taught their skills to students who worked as apprentice under them.

Uniqueness of Ancient Indian Education: From time immemorial, India has explicitly recognized that the supreme goal of life is self-realization and hence the aim of education has always been the attainment of such a fullness of being. But at the same time it was also recognized that different individuals have naturally different inclinations and capacities. Hence not only the highest philosophy but also ordinary subjects like literature and science as also vocational training find a place in ancient education system. The education system of ancient India may claim to be unique in the world in many respects like-

  • The State and the society did not in any way interfered with the curriculum of studies or regulating the payment of fees or hours of instructions.
  • Another special characteristic of ancient Indian educational system was it was fully and compulsorily residential. The student had to live in the house of his teacher for the whole duration of his studies and learn from him not only what was taught but also observe how his teacher responded to different situation arising in daily life and learn from it.
  • Stress was laid on having a personal relation between the teacher and the taught. Each student used to meet the teacher separately and learn from him through separate instruction and guidance.
  • Education was absolute free and the teacher looked after the primary needs of the students including food and clothing.
  • The Indian system of education upheld the dignity of labour. Hence even a student aiming at the highest philosophical knowledge was duty bound to do some manual labour daily such as collecting fuel, tending cattle, etc.
  • Education in ancient India was more of seminar type where students used to learn through discussions and debates.

Aims of Education: The aims of education were to provide good training to young men and women in the performance of their social, economic and religious duties. Also preservation and enrichment of culture, character and personality development and cultivation of noble ideals were the other aims of education in ancient India.

Commencement of Education: In the Vedic system, education of a child commenced at the age of five with the ceremony called Vidyarambha. It was marked by learning the alphabets for the first time and offering worship to Goddess Saraswathi. But it was only after the ceremony called Upanayana that a child used to leave his parent’s home and go to stay in the house of his teacher to commence his study. He was now called Brahmacharin. Upanayana ceremony was held to Brahmin boys at the age of eight, for the Kshatriya boys at the age of ten and for the Vaishya boys at the age of twelve. In the Buddhist system of education, a child commenced his education at the age of eight after an initiation ceremony called Prabrajya or Pabbajja. This ceremony was open to person of all castes unlike the Upanayana ceremony where only the Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya caste were eligible. After the initiation ceremony the child left his home to live in a monastery under the guidance and supervision of his preceptor (monk). He was now called Sramana and used to wear a yellow robe. In the Vedic system of education a Bramachari after finishing his education was eligible to become a Grihasta or householder, in the Buddhist system of education after finishing his education, a Sramana was given a full status of monkhood or Bhikshu.

Education of Women: A high standard of learning and culture was reached by Indian women during the Vedic age. In addition to training in the arts of housekeeping they learnt music and dancing. Like boys, girls had to undergo the upanayana ceremony. There were two classes of educated women, Sadyodwahas– who prosecuted studies till their marriages and Bramhavadinis who did not marry and pursued their studies though out their lives. Women were also taught the Vedas and Vedangas, but the extent of their study was restricted only to those hymns which were necessary for the Yajna (sacrifice) or other ritualistic operations. Women sages were called Rishikas. The Rigveda mentions the name of some of some of the famous women seers like Ghosha, Apala, Lopamudra, Visvavara, Indrani, etc. who composed hymns. During the Upanishad period we find scholarly women like Maitreyi and Gargi taking part in public debates and discussions with philosophers and sages.

Subject of Study: The main subjects of study in the Vedic system of education were the four Vedas, six Vedangas (phonetics, ritualistic knowledge, grammar, exegetics, metrics and astronomy), the Upanishads, the six darshanas (nyaya, vaiseshika, samkya, yoga, mimamsa and vedanta), puranas (history), tarka shastra (logic), etc.

The chief subjects of study in the Buddhist system of education were the three Pitakas (sutta, vinaya and abhidhamma), the works of all the eighteen schools of Buddhism, hetu-vidya, sabda-vidya, chikitsa-vidya, etc. The Vedas were also studied for acquiring comparative knowledge.

The art of writing was known in India for a long time. Those who wanted to become religious leaders had to learn several scripts. In Jaina works like Samavaya Sutra and Pragnapara Sutra reference to 18 different scripts are available. Buddhist literary works like Lalitavistara and Mahavastu mention different types of scripts in vogue. While the former refer to 64 types of scripts the latter to about a dozen types of scripts. Regarding the curricula of school students, the Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang says that children began by learning the alphabet and then began the study of five subjects like grammar, arts and crafts, medicine, logic and philosophy. This was the general scheme of studies for laymen of all sects. Other subjects of study were law (dharmashastras), arithmetic, ethics, art and architecture (silpasastra), military science (dhanurvidya), performing arts, etc.

Vocational Education: A majority of people earned their livelihood by following various professions. Ancient Indian literature refers to sixty-four arts which include weaving, dyeing, spinning, art of tanning leather, manufacture of boats, chariots, the art of training elephants and horses, art of making jewels, implements and equipment, art of dance, music, agriculture, building houses, sculpture, medical science, veterinary science, the profession of a chemist, manufacture of perfumes and a host of other professions. In the vocational system of education young men used to work as apprentices under a master for a number of years and gained expertise in their respective professions. The apprentices were taught free of cost and provided with boarding and lodging by the master.

Methods of Learning: In ancient India close relationship existed between the pupil and the teacher. The teacher used to pay individual attention on his students and used to teach them according to their aptitude and capability. Knowledge was imparted orally and the different methods of learning were-

  • Memorization– The preliminary stage of learning was learning by heart the sacred text through indefinite repletion and rehearsal by both the teacher and the taught.
  • Critical Analysis– This was another method in which knowledge was comprehended. It was through critical analysis that Sri Ramanuja and Sri Madhvacharya differed from their teachers on the interpretation of the Brahmasutra composed by Sri Shankara and later came out with their own interpretation of the Brahmasutra. Madhvacharya even made his teacher subscribe to his view which shows that gurus were open to new ideas and views articulated by their students.
  • Introspection– Sravana (listening), Manana (contemplation) and Nididhyasana (concentrated contemplation) of the truth so as to realize it was another method to study Brahma Vidya (Vedanta).
  • Story telling– The teacher used stories and parables to explain. This was the method Buddha used to explain his doctrines.
  • Question and Answer method– In this method the pupils used to ask questions and the teacher used to discuss at length on the topics and clear their doubts.
  • Hands-on method– For professional courses including medical science, students/apprentices used to learn by observation and through practical method.
  • Seminars– The students also gained knowledge thought debates and discussions which were held at frequent intervals.

Period of Study: It took 12 years to master one Veda. Hence depending upon the wish of the student to learn as many subjects, the period of study varied. It was 12 years, 24 years, 36 years or 48 years. A graduate was called Snataka and the graduation ceremony was called Samavartana.

 Types of Teachers:

  • Acharya was a type of teacher who taught his pupil Vedas without charging fee from the pupils.
  • Upadhyaya was the one who adopted teaching as a profession to earn his livelihood and taught only a portion of the Veda or Vedangas.
  • Charakas or wandering scholars toured the country in quest of higher knowledge. Thought not normally competent as teachers they were regarded as possible source of knowledge by Satapatha Brahmana. Hiuen Tsang was struck with the knowledge gained by some of the wandering teachers (called Bhikkhus and Sadhus during his times) and who had accumulated a treasure of knowledge by constant travel and who used to gladly impart it to others.
  • Guru was the one who used to lead a gruhasta life and earn his livelihood after imparting education to his disciples and maintain his family.
  • Yaujanasatika were teachers famous for their profound scholarship that students from distant places, as far as from a distance of hundreds of miles would come to seek their guidance.
  • Sikshaka was a teacher who gave instruction in arts like dancing.

 Educational Institutions:

  • The Gurukul was the house of the teacher who was a settled house-holder. After the initiation ceremony a child would leave his natural parents and reside in the house of his preceptor or Guru till the end of his studies.
  • Then there were Parishads or Academies where the students of advanced learning gathered and enriched themselves through discussions and discourses. Being seat of learning they were originally conducted by three Brahmins. But the number gradually increased till it was settled that a Parishad ought to consist of 21 Brahmins well versed in philosophy, theology and law. During first century A.D. association of literati were convened at regular intervals in Tamilnadu which was known as Sangam. The purpose of these gathering of scholars was to adjudge the literary excellence of works submitted for criticism and to set the standard in Tamil style. These gathering were patronized by kings.
  • Goshti or Conferences was a national gathering or Congress summoned by a great king in which representatives of various schools were invited to meet and exchange their views. In one such conference called by king Janaka of Videha, the great scholar Yajnavalkya won a special prize of 1000 cows with horns hung with gold.
  • Ashramas or hermitages were another center where students from distant and different parts of the country flocked together for learning around famous sages and saints. For example the Ashrama of Bharadwaj at Prayag was a very big Ashrama where princes like Bharat used to study. Another Ashrama was that of Naimisha located in the forest of Naimisharanya headed by sage Saunaka. Here ten thousand pupils and numerous learned teachers and scholars held constant discussions and debates on religious, philosophical and scientific topics. Another famous Ashrama was that of sage Kanva on the banks of river Malini, a tributary of the river Saryu.
  • Vidyapeeta was an institution for spiritual learning founded by the great acharya, Sri Shankara in places like Sringeri, Kanchi, Dwarka, Puri and Badri. The Vidyapeeta had a teacher whose influence extended to thousand villages round about and was presided by a Jagadguru.
  • Ghathikas was an institution of highest learning where both the teachers and the taught met and discussed and where by the clash and contact of cultured scholars the highest knowledge could be obtained in religious literature.
  • Agraharas were settlements of Brahmins in villages where they used to teach.
  • Mathas was a place where pupils used to reside and received instructions both religious and secular. These mathas belonged to both Shaiva and Vaishnava sects and were normally attached to some temples or had some temples attached to them.
  • Brahmapuri was a settlement of learned Brahmins in parts of towns and cities or in any selected area where education was imparted.
  • Vihara was a Buddhist monastery where all subjects concerned with Buddhism and its philosophy was taught.

 Famous Educational Institutions:

  • Takshasila: This was a chief center of learning in 6th century B.C. Here sixteen branches of learning were taught in different schools; each presided by a special professor. There were schools of painting, sculpture, image making and handicrafts. But this university was reputed for its medical school. One famous student of this medical school was Jivaka who cured king Bimbisara of Magadha and the great Buddha. Jivaka had studied here for seven years under the Rishi Atreya.
  • Nalanda: Renowned for its cosmopolitan and catholic character, the University of Nalanda was famous for its faculty of Logic.
  • Vallabhi: While Nalanda was the famous seat of learning in eastern India, Vallabhi was the renowned seat of learning in the western India. If Nalanda was specializing in the higher studies of Mahayana Buddhism, Vallabhi was the center for the advanced learning in Hinayana Buddhism. Secular subjects like Arthasastra (economics), Niti Shastra (law) and Chikitsa Sastra (medicine) were also taught here and like Nalanda students from all parts of India used to come here to study. Students who graduated from this university used to be employed in the royal courts as administrators with huge responsibilities. Just like Nalanda University was destroyed by Muslim invaders, Vallabhi also met the same fate.
  • Vikramasila: The University of Vikramasila was renowned for Tantric Buddhism.
  • Ujjain: It was famous for its secular learning including mathematics and astronomy.
  • Benaras was well-known for teaching theology.
  • Salotgi in Karnataka was an important Centre of learning. It had 27 hostels for its students who hailed from different provinces. This college was richly endowed in 945 A.D. by Narayana the minister of Krishna III with the revenues of houses, land and levies on marriages and other ceremonies.
  • Ennayiram in Tamilnadu provided free boarding and tuition to 340 students. Other important centers of learning in South India were Sringeri and Kanchi.

High Standard of Education: The quality of education imparted in ancient India was unparalleled. Hence in spite of various hardship and hurdles students from different parts of the world flocked to Indian universities. Amir Khusrau (1252-1325 A.D.) mentions that scholars have come from different parts of the world to study in India but no Indian scholar have found it necessary to go abroad to acquire knowledge. Indian scholars were in great demand abroad. Caliphs like Al Mansur and Harun Al Rashid (754-809 A.D.) sent embassies to India to procure Indian scholars. Astronomical treatise like Brahmasiddhanta and the Khanda Khadyaka of Brahmagupta and the medical books of Charaka, Susruta and Vagbhatta were translated to Arabic. As a home of knowledge and wisdom ancient India produced scores of scholars on various subjects like Buddha and Shankara (philosophy), Kautilya (political science and administration), Sushruta (surgery), Charaka (medicine), Kanada (physicist; propounder of atomic theory), Nagarjuna (Chemistry), Aryabhatta and Varahamihira (Astronomy), Baudhayana and Brahmagupta (mathematics) and Patanjali (yoga) to name a few. The knowledge of ancient Indians in the field of metallurgy was extraordinary as it is evidenced by the Iron pillar at Delhi which till now has not rusted though exposed to elements since hundreds of years. How such a huge column was casted is still a mystery to scientists. The lofty temples found in Karnataka, Tamilnadu, Odisha and Khajuraho to name a few shows the expertise which ancient Indians had in Structural Engineering. As the whole world knows, the concept of zero was a contribution of ancient Indians.

The Decline: With the invasion of Muslim conquerors nearly all the centers of higher learning of the Hindus and Buddhists were destroyed. Nalanda was burnt to the ground in 1197 A.D. and all its monks were slaughtered. Kanauj and Kashi were looted and plundered. Temples and educational institutions and libraries were put to destruction and they were replaced by mosques. In spite of such merciless and extensive destruction, Hindu educational institutions remained a living reality. They sustained strength from its inherent vitality and vigour and maintained the Hindu education system. Even during the reigns of terror and turmoil, merciless persecution and wanton destruction, the Hindu culture and scholarship continued to survive, though it had to migrate to more congenial regions within the country. (B.N.Luniya – Life and Culture in Medieval India, Kamal Prakashan, Indore. 1978, p. 271).

While the Buddhist system of education was extinguished, the Vedic system of education found patronage in the southern peninsula in places like Hampi, Sringeri and Kanchi. It was under the patronage of Vijayanagara rulers that the Vedic savants Sayana and Madhava wrote commentaries on the Vedas. It was in the south that Ramanujacharya, Basaveshwara and Madhvacharya propounded the philosophy of Vishishtadwaita, Shakti Vishishtadwaita and Dwaita. With regards to the vocational system of education many new crafts and skills were introduced in India after the advent of Muslim into India and till the establishment of British rule in India, many industries like textile manufacturing, ship building, jewelry making and other allied industries flourished which shows the skill and expertise Indians had and in turn the knowledge they had received from their teachers. The products of Indian industries not only fulfilled the needs of Asian and African countries, but were also in great demand in the markets of Europe.

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Comments

  • Anil Kumar  On September 29, 2014 at 7:27 am

    worth reading information.. let it reach our policy makers so that we can make some revolution again in India..

  • badrinarayan  On October 5, 2014 at 6:06 am

    we had a wonderful system of education . why not go back again to the same system. those who arenot interested can leave the country.

  • Vivekanandhan Muthusamy  On December 30, 2014 at 5:39 pm

    i looked for this and find a good one.

  • ThinkTank  On February 16, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    That education was best for that time period ,due to technological advancement todays methods are changing but unfortunately the contents are lost.
    Very basic idea of education “learning” &”Charater building” has been lost to “Grades” & “livelihood” ,entire focus has now shifted to get knowledge sufficient to aquire livelihood

  • Angels JK  On May 30, 2015 at 7:20 pm

    I read very proud that our ancient education system is unparalleled.
    I’m just worry about the lost of the system.
    We as now, keep more affection on our children do not allow to go to hostel. But in ancient days after 8 years a parent is ready to leave their children for 12 years.
    Thinking about that is too difficult nowadays.
    I hope every parent is facing a challenge in Adolescent Parenting.

    Great reading and could feel proud of our ancient education which is the best.

  • Dr BS Prasad  On June 7, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    feeling of very proud about our ancient appropriate and high standard education system and at the same time sorry for the present system where we are selling degrees without any objectivity. intellectuals need to join to bring back our own education system.

  • Shivaraj S Huchhanavar  On August 15, 2015 at 1:28 pm

    Many thanks to you, for providing very decent narration of ancient Indian education system, let us try for its revival.

    • Abdurahman Mk Abdurahman Mk  On July 15, 2016 at 5:12 pm

      Very good

  • Bhagwat Chate  On August 20, 2015 at 5:51 am

    Hi ,

    It’s amazing, wonderful, fabulous!!! I think need to reintroduce in today’s education system. Then our people will never go abroad for studies.

    This will bring revolution in India. Government need to look here seriously and start this type of residential schools and colleges.

    This will bring best changes in society. Hopeful policy maker will think on it..

  • Dharma Teja  On September 28, 2015 at 1:38 pm

    Excellent Work! Very Impressive!

  • Vitalis Koech  On October 24, 2015 at 7:15 am

    thnx 4 ur descriptions

  • rajkumar  On December 2, 2015 at 5:18 pm

    Supobbbbbbb.I like this…

  • sundar  On January 20, 2016 at 2:20 pm

    Excellent work. it is amazing and wonderful

  • Dilip Mehta  On January 27, 2016 at 10:23 am

    Very enriching article, can you please let me know the source of this information, I am also doing research on ancient education system of India, your help will go long way to support the revival of the system in present time

    • S.Srinivas  On January 28, 2016 at 3:43 am

      Dilip, This article is mainly from my lecture notes prepared long ago, some of the sources I have forgotten. I have referred to B.N.Luniya’s Life and Culture in Ancient India, chapter 16 on Education and General System of Education in Vedic Age by Mrs Rama Chaudhuri. Best of luck for your research endeavour.

      • Dilip Mehta  On February 15, 2016 at 12:10 pm

        thank you for sharing

    • Narendra  On February 12, 2016 at 3:04 am

      Dilip:

      I am also interested in the field and doing research and would like to chat with you. Please let me know if you have an interest.

      • Dilip Mehta  On February 15, 2016 at 12:09 pm

        Narendraji: we can surely chat up on this topic of mutual interest and our nation

      • Dilip Mehta  On February 15, 2016 at 12:11 pm

        my email id is dilipharpreet@gmail.com

  • amino.eco  On March 7, 2016 at 5:43 pm

    …i read the decline of hindu educational institution at last paragraph. It is a history that before Babur muslim didnt reached to nalanda how they can burnt it in 1197. Wrote true history. By the way there us not aby written history of how Nalanda university get burnt.
    History is essential to a national ideology, butvit has to be a shared history to binda people together. It cannot be a history dominated by only one identity. It must be inclusive.

    • S.Srinivas  On March 9, 2016 at 12:15 pm

      It was not Babur but a Turk, Bakhtiyar Khilji who set fire to the Nalanda university

  • cganesh  On June 27, 2016 at 5:14 pm

    Reblogged this on panindiahindu.

  • nikitarenu  On July 25, 2016 at 2:13 pm

    Very very useful article. Holistic information about education in ancient India

  • Uday Kiran Chintam  On August 22, 2016 at 11:24 am

    Reading worthy, it shows out strengths in ancient days…. great India……

  • vidya  On February 23, 2017 at 6:48 am

    Excellent Information about education system in Ancient period.

  • R. SRINIVAS  On May 12, 2017 at 6:05 am

    I LIKE THIS MORE AND IT VERY USEFUL TO THE MODERN STUDENTS TO LEARN ABOUT ANCIENT SCHOOLS

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