Dialogue  April-June, 2011, Volume 12 No. 4

Ideal of Education in Traditional Indian Thought 

Ashok Vohra*


The Indian society from the earliest times has always placed a premium on teaching and learning. It is regarded as the noblest of all pursuits and an Indian is cajoled all his life to learn from others irrespective of their sex, class, caste or creed, and to teach what he has learnt to those who do not know. The process of learning and teaching, in the Indian tradition, is dialectical in the sense that one is taught to respect his teachers, mentors and scholars by taking their teachings seriously and having faith (Shraddha) in them , but at the same time accepting only those doctrine that stand the scrutiny of analysis, tests of proof and satisfy intellectual understanding. Nothing is regarded as the gospel truth; therefore there is no place for dogmatism in the Indian tradition. Only that has to be accepted as knowledge which stands the scrutiny of reason, the experience of the teacher and the taught. Upanishads teach us to constantly seek, have a deep passion for truth, be always alert, and forge ahead without taking any thing for granted in a complacent spirit. The seers and teachers of the Indian tradition while imparting their knowledge to their students tell them “I have seen; I have realised; and you also can see; you also can realise”. The idea behind asserting it is that the knowledge being imparted by the teacher is not something that he has bookish or theoretical knowledge of, rather it is something of which he has a direct experience. They ask the pupils to accept what is being taught to them as a hypothesis to begin with, but the pupils are asked to authenticate it with their own experience.

Buddha too had 2500 years ago preached the scientific temper when he, a few months before he passed away, said to his disciples:

                This I have said to you O Kalamas, but you may accept it, not because it is a report, not because it is a tradition, not because it is so said in the past, not because it is given from the scriptures, not for the sake of discussion, not for the sake of particular method, not for the sake of careful consideration, not for the sake of forbearing with wrong views, not because it appears to be suitable, not because your preceptor is a recluse, but if you yourselves understand that this is so meritorious and blameless, and when accepted, is for benefit and happiness, then you may accept it.1  

It is not that importance of reason, like the scientific temper of which it is a synonym, was also unknown to the Indian tradition. The classical literature of India, namely the Upanishads, the Gita, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavata too lay emphasis on reason as the source as well as foundation of all knowledge. However it asserts that in case experience and logic contradict, the experience has to be given priority and logic has to be treated as faulty. History of Indian thought is a history of relentless spirited debates and rigorous discussions which are strictly logical even in the Western sense of the term.

That in India it has always been imperative for every individual to be involved with the educational process is clear from the scheme of varnashrama dharma which has been prevalent in one form or the other at all times. In fact the child was initiated into the formal educational system quite early in life soon after the upnanayana (acceptance as a pupil by the teacher) ceremony at the age of eight. According to it, it was essential for every individual to observe celibacy (brahmcharya) and devote himself to studies in the first quarter of his life. Assuming that a person shall ideally live for one hundred years, it was ordained that a major portion of first twenty-five years would be devoted to acquiring formal as well as informal education. The main objectives of imparting education were: to develop the latent personality of the pupil, making his covert talents overt, to manifest his hidden capabilities, broaden his outlook on life, sharpen his intellect, and make him an enlightened being who leads a life of righteousness. This was done by making the individual undergo the process of shravana (listening or hearing the already established doctrines), manana (self reflection on these doctrines), and nididhyasana (comprehension).

Besides religious austerities and practices the students were taught Vedas, Vedic literature, grammar, logic, philosophy. In addition they were also taught vocational subjects like medicine, surgery, weaponry, science of warfare, astronomy, architecture, statecraft, polity, the art of governance, jurisprudence, industrial arts, mining and metallurgy, music and dance etc. So, they were imparted both para and apara vidya – knowledge leading to emancipation and the knowledge required for dealing with arts and crafts, and day to day affairs of the world we live in.

Initially, education was imparted by gurus – teachers at their own abode which were called gurukulas. “A gurukula” according to DP Singhal “was generally located within a town or village, but sometimes it was a little removed, situated in quiet and beautiful surroundings”2. At the end of the education of the pupil he was generally examined by the teacher and at times by an assembly of experts in the chosen field. He was allowed to go home only after the teacher or the assembly of experts was satisfied of the pupil’s attainments. But it is worth noting that the individual gurukalas were not the only educational institutes. “Apart from these gurukalas”, Singhal asserts “there were special institutes to promote research and advance study, called, in Rigveda, Brahmana- Sanghas. These academies of learned people were called parishads in the Upanishads and were actively patronized by kings who participated in their proceedings. These parishads organized public debates and the men of learning were richly rewarded and honoured”.3 

Taxila (Takshasila) in the far north-west is the oldest known university. It functioned from seventh century BC to the third century BC. It mainly imparted secular education or what can be called apara vidya. For religious, spiritual studies or para vidya Kanchi in southern India, around the beginning of the Christian era, became a seat of learning. With the advent of Buddhism and Jainism many monasteries took upon themselves the responsibility of providing education.

The best known among them is the Mahavihara at Nalanda. It was a recognized university for postgraduate, research and advanced studies. Because of teachers like Nagarjuna, Silabhadra, and Asnaga among others, ongoing and continuous intensive intellectual and cultural activities, students from all parts of Asia were attracted to study there. As contrasted with Takshasila where there were neither any set of rules for admission and examination nor any centralized administration, in Nalanda rules for admission were rather strict and the students had to periodically undergo examinations. Only one out of three students was able to succeed in seeking admission to this hallowed university. There was also a hierarchy of administrative officials. Kulapati or vice-chancellor was at the apex of the hierarchical system. Many other universities, notable among them being Valabhi in Kathiawar, Vikramsila and Odantapuri were established. “These universities played a great part in the preservation, development and transmission of culture in ancient India, and provided excellent centres of international contact. They were the centres of religious and humanistic learning; vocational training was given, with the assistance of guilds, on a father-son, or master-craftsman apprenticeship basis”4. According to the Radhakrishnan “The curriculum at Taksasila appears,to have included the Vedas and the Vedangas as also the eighteen arts which comprised of medicine and surgery, astronomy and astrology, agriculture and accountancy, archery and snake charming. Students at Nalanda often spent as many as twelve years studying the Vedas and the Upanishads, the works of Mahayana Buddhism and Jainism, the systems of philosophy and logic. Nalanda was a Buddhist centre but, the atmosphere and work of the institution appear to have been very similar to those of the Hindu centres, with a, close relationship of the teacher and pupil, with individual instruction diversified by public discussions”. The success of these institutions of higher learning, teaching and research, therefore, was grounded in their secular character. These universities were “custodians of religion and piety, philosophy and culture” and “produced some of the greatest learned men in ancient India and inculcated a sense of honesty and integrity”5

They were able to achieve such high standards because in them there were no caste restrictions and students were admitted and teachers were appointed on the basis of their merit and talent. It is also worth noting that “the system of education remained the same throughout ancient history. There was hardly any appreciable change. . . Both in the Buddhist monasteries and in gurukulas, rules followed by teachers and pupils were generally the same”6. Changed social and political situations, combined with the arrogance, conceit and isolationist tendencies of the teachers ultimately led to a downfall of these great institutions of higher learning.


Even five hundred years of foreign rule, enforced mandatory serving the dictates and interest of the alien rulers, and unwittingly accepting the system of education that was designed primarily to help the alien rulers strengthen their rule and consolidate their interests was not able to erase from the collective memory of the Indians the ideal educational system that prevailed in India before the foreigners’ arrival. The ideal system of education, as has been said above, imparted education which made a synthesis between the material and the spiritual aspects of life. It did not ignore the apara vidya – the knowledge of the material lived world – with para vidya, the knowledge of the spiritual world. It recognized that an investigation into the nature of both is necessary and they complement each other. While apara vidya deals with the lived world of change, the ephemeral loka – universe that is revealed to us by our five senses and other instruments which act as an aid to the senses for example microscopes, telescopes, hearing aids etc. Such knowledge is expressed in propositions and is governed by logic, grammar and linguistics. It is positivistic knowledge about the affairs of our lived world. It can be taught and learned in classrooms in a detached manner.

The subject matter of para vidya is that which is changeless, abiding and enduring. It deals with what is lokatita or lokottara that is transcendental reality – the reality which is beyond the five senses. It is intuitive in nature and is the subject matter of direct experience of the self. It is the knowledge by knowing which, as the Mundaka Upanisad says, everything is known. It is that knowledge  by which yaya tadaksaram adhigamyate – by which that imperishable reality can be realized. That the Indian tradition synthesized the two and thus made a distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘wisdom’ can be illustrated from the following narrative from Chandogya Upanisad between Narada – a highly accomplished student and Sanatkumar – a well known spiritual teacher. Narada tells Sanat Kumar that he can recite all the Vedas, Puranas, and all other texts on subjects ranging from song, dramatics and dance, the art of warfare and governance, astronomy and astrology to grammar and mathematics. Yet, he is unhappy. Why should it be so, as it is said “Saa vidyaa Yaa vimuktaye” – one who has vidyaa is free from unhappiness and suffering? Sanat Kumar then tells him that this is because he only has the knowledge of the texts, but does not possess real vidyaa or wisdom.

The purpose of vidyaa, knowledge/education in the Indian tradition is to remove avidyaa or ignorance - the ignorance about the true nature of the self. Avidyaa is the sole cause of suffering. Buddha too in the second noble truth says that the root cause of Duhkha or suffering, is avidyaa. Avidyaa leads to infatuation, depravity – aasva. From avidyaa we must rise to vidyaa, bodhi – enlightenment – for a meaningful and contented life. Vidyaa is holistic in character. It includes the knowledge of physical, vital, mental, intellectual and spiritual aspects of life. Depending on its subject matter Indian tradition classifies vidyaa into two kinds. These are paraa vidyaa and aparaa vidyaa. Aparaa vidyaa is concerned with our day-to-day life. The concept of aparaa vidyaa in Chhandogya Upanishad includes among others the knowledge of the Vedas, military science - kshaatra vidyaa, mathematics - ganita, song and dance – gaana and nritya and astronomy – Nakshatra vidyaa. Paraa Vidyaa is the knowledge of the infinite – the brahman or the atman – the self. The knowledge of the self is regarded as the supreme vidya. Krishna in Gita 10.32 says, “among all kinds of knowledge I am knowledge of the self”.

Buddhists too make a distinction between the lower and mundane knowledge, which they call samvriti satya and the higher and supramundane knowledge, which is, called parmaartha satya. The former is relative and is governed by identity and difference. It is valid in the given context of space and time. It is the product of the senses and the intellect. The second kind of knowledge viz. pramartah satya is non-conceptual, non-relational and intuitive. It is soteriological as it transforms the total being of man. It makes the man blissful and calm by making him wise and liberates him from the confinement of the world in space and time.

The relation between the paraa and aparaa vidya is one of mutual dependence. Aparaa vidyaa serves paraa vidyaa. The two supplement each other. Man realises the inadequacy of the aparaa vidya when confronted with spiritual queries. He then craves for the paraa vidyaa. Once endowed with paraa vidyaa, when he turns back to the subject matter of aparaa vidyaa, his attitude to the latter changes. He no longer sees material gains as ends in themselves. Rather, he sees them as permeated with divinity and treats them as means for achieving the Supreme.

By knowledge one gains life eternal. The prerequisites for acquiring vidyaa are: the enfranchisement of the mind, freedom from prejudice, fanaticism, and courage. Negatively, the purpose of vidyaa is to prevent our mind from scattering in many directions. Positively, as Bhagavadgita says it develops in us single mindedness, dedication to a single purpose. That is, it provides us a purpose, a meaning to our life and therefore saves our lives from becoming ‘blind, blundering and bitter’. Vidyaa gives us viveka, the power to discriminate good from the bad, the right from the wrong. Vimarsharuupini vidyaa helps us in choosing what is right and helps us in avoiding what is wrong. Vidyaa leads to harmonious development of an individual. It leads to ‘illumination of the heart and cultivation of the imagination’. It trains us to decide all issues with calmness, with composure and with judgement.

Vidyaa leads to jnaana. Jnaana connotes the liberating insight, the deep seeing within. This inward looking changes one’s entire being and brings about a radical change in his entire consciousness of himself, the others and indeed the whole world, nay the universe. It provides the jnaani a new perspective, a new vantagepoint of looking at the world and himself. This results in a radical change in his relationship with the world.

When we have attained vidyaa we have samataa and unshakeable calm. That is why Krishna says in Bhagvadgita, 5.18, “the learned ones, the ones endowed with vidyaa look with equanimity on a learned person, a cow, an elephant and even a dog as well as an eater of dog’s meat”. Again in 3.26 and 27 he emphasises that “the vidyaavan, the enlightened person, acts without attachment. He does not create disturbance in the beliefs of the ignorant.”

Rabindranath Tagore reflecting on the objective of education in general said “The highest aim of education should be to help the realization of unity, but not of uniformity. Uniformity is unnatural. And in fact, its attainment is impossible”. He, therefore, advocated that “A sound educational system should provide for the development of variety without losing the hold on the basic or spiritual unity”.  Keeping this objective in mind he pleaded for a place “if not in every province, at least in one centre in this vast country, to which the best intellects of India even the world outside, could be induced to resort, where they could meet, stay temporarily or permanently and impart their knowledge to the public”. This apparently was his idea of a real university which according to him “will help to kill racial, sectarian, caste and other prejudices and be a real foundation of universal light”.


     1  The Anguttara Nikaya, Pali Publication Board, 1960 Edition, Nalanda Devanagari, Pali Series, I,3.7.5.

     2  A History of Indian People, Methuen, 1983, p. 105.

     3  Op. cit., p. 105.

     4  Ibid. 107.

     5  Ibid.

     6  Ibid., p. 108.


*   Professor Ashok Vohra, Department of Philosophy, Delhi University, Delhi.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati