The story of Indian Education System

‘Why do I have to learn despite the entire world falling apart?’

I barged out of my room and yelled at the top of my voice, frustrated with my overflowing homework, assignments and regular online classes.

With the living room still echoing my loud voice, my grandfather who was a bit startled with me shouting like a maniac, called me to sit near him, on the sofa.

‘What’s wrong sweetheart? Learning has an indispensable importance in all of our lives. You should never run out of the passion to gain more knowledge.’ He tried to console me.

‘Oh, you’ll never understand grandad.’ I said, still with my face put down.

Meanwhile my grandma turned the TV on and switched to a channel that was telecasting the serial based on the great Indian mythology, Mahabharata. There was a particular scene that depicted how the Pandavas and Kauravas gained their education at guru Drona’s gurukhula/home.

After seeing this scene on TV, I mumbled, ‘Wish I could have gone to a forest and learnt in the outdoors’. This fuelled my discontent.

My grandfather made a quick laugh and resumed his process to console me. ‘Look at me dear. I guess I have a solution that’ll make you a bit excited about learning new things or loving the education you currently hate. From now on, I’ll share stories and information about how, starting from the period of Pandavas till your generation, the education system in India has evolved and developed. After listening to it and after a detailed analysis, if you are still against your mode of education and about education in general, we’ll draft another plan. Alright? Are you okay with this?’

With no other option to boost my energy to get going with my daily educational routine, I had to accept.

‘So, let’s begin.’


‘India was and is currently a land of diverse cultures, learnings, teachings, traditions and lifestyles. The Indian population was exposed to a teaching method that had the parents as the ultimate teachers and the kids as their students. A father would teach the techniques of his trade or work to his son while the mothers would teach their daughters how to cook, dance, sing and the other household chores.’


Vedic Education in India - TIPS

‘Gradually, the need to have a proper and a sincere education bloomed in the minds of many scholars who developed a system called “Vedic Education”. The Vedic period lasted from 1000 B.C. to 600 B.C. The Vedas sowed the first seed of education in India because the word “Veda” itself meant “education”. They preached two types of education: the first type encompassed all the social aspects of living a great life and the second type dealt with the pursuit one has to make in attaining knowledge and wisdom, for their self-realisation and self-growth.’

Was this education open for all because India, back then, was very rigid in their caste preferences?’ I asked with sheer enthusiasm to hear more from my grandfather.

‘That’s a great question dear. Yes, you are right. Indians, back then, were very much soaked in their caste systems. However, though education seemed to be open to all caste categories, during the initial stages, it became a caste-based education system. Even in this Vedic Education system, education was supplied to the pupil based on their caste. For instance, learning about religion (Hinduism) and scriptures was a privilege given to Brahmins because they were treated as the direct representatives of god. They were also prominent figures in society because only Brahmins became teachers or gurus. Next in line were the Kshatriyas who learnt about warfare and its other techniques and aspects because they were the warriors. A country’s business, trade, commerce, art and craft, and also other vocational courses were taught to Vaishyas because they were treated as the “business class”. The men who were involved in other work were called Shudras or the “working class”. They had education to learn more about certain skills needed for their regular work or livelihood. In fact, every caste had a different age-limit to start their education. It was 8 years for Brahmins, 11 years for Kshatriyas and 12 years for Vaishyas.’

Did the women get to learn too?’ I asked out of concern.

‘Of course, they did, but not like men. Women were restricted to their homes and had their learning in a closed environment while men learnt in a free space. Women were usually trained to be good at dancing, singing and housekeeping. Education to women actually continued through their husbands, but usually many women stopped their learning after their marriage. Such women fell into the category of Sadyodwahas. There were also certain women who pursued education till the very end of their lives, who did outthrow their marriage and dedicate their lives for the purpose of education. They were called Brahmavadinis. There were also women sages who were called Rishikas. All of these are derived from the Rig Veda, a scripture of the Vedic literature that talks about women sages and the related hymns and the Divine Truth that was shared with them. ‘

‘Oh, I get it. Now explain to me in detail the objectives of the Vedic education.’ I ordered my grandad.

‘Seems someone is pretty much into this topic.’ My grandad winked at me. ‘Vedic education, which is seen as the traditional educational system of the Indians, was helping the students introspect their actions and lifestyle to craft a more religious and an upright life. Vedic education supported spiritual enlightenment, cultural awakening and self-realisation in large numbers. It also helped the gurus to spread the ancient culture to the upcoming generations, to make everyone stay rooted to the basic principles of human living. Through this education, a right and moral character was developed within the students. On the whole, the Vedic education focused on lifting the spiritual, mental, physical and moral health of the students, for a better tomorrow.’

‘Before we continue further into their curriculum, I have a small doubt regarding their admissions to the gurukulas. How did men find their masters?’ This was my next question to my grandad.

‘I’m sorry, I forgot to tell you this earlier. Back then, there were different types of gurus, who were differentiated not for their teachings but for the way they preached those teachings and how they perceived the “teaching” activity. The foremost type of teacher, who taught Vedas/the holy scriptures to his pupils without any fee, was called Acharya. There were some teachers who taught only a part of the Vedas or Vedangas in their teachings. They were called Upadhyaya. A few teachers wandered the country in search of profound knowledge. They were not treated as regular teachers but were a great source of learning and they were called Charakas. These Charakas accumulate more knowledge through their endless travels. A Guru is similar to a teacher you have now, the one who makes a livelihood by imparting his knowledge to his pupils/disciples. Sikshaka was the term given to those teachers who taught arts like singing, dancing, etc. The last type of teachers present during the early days of Indian education were the Yaujanasatikas, who had rich knowledge and wisdom, so students from far off places travelled to meet them for seeking guidance and education.’

‘Wow.’ That was all I could say after getting to know that there were 6 types of teachers back then.

‘Now, how and what did students learn from the Vedic education?’ I asked impatiently, to learn more.

‘Vedic education was mostly about promoting one’s skills and understanding one’s purpose in life. We follow a ritual called Vidyarambham, where children of 2-5 years of age are made to write the first letter of the alphabet of their native language. During this ritual, we offer our prayers to Goddess Saraswathi, who is considered to be the Hindu goddess of learning, wisdom, knowledge, art, speech and music. Vidyarambham or Akshara Abhyasam is usually called Ezhuthiniruthu in South India.’

‘What’s its significance? How is it related to the Vedic Education system?’ I asked my grandad.

‘This ritual did expose and introduce the child to the world of education. The roots of Vidyarambham trace back to the Vedic period. During those days, they also had another ceremony called Upanayana, where a kid was offered a sacred thread to indicate that he was ready to “lead” and “sacrifice” based on family, social and personal Karmas/duties and Niyamas/procedures. Once the Upanayana was over, the boys were allowed to go outside their parents’ house and learn from their gurus by staying in the guru’s house/gurukhula. Such boys were called Brahmacharin. As I said earlier, each caste had a different age-limit for the kids to start learning from their gurus. Though Brahmins dominated the field of education, the other 2 castes were also given certain privileges to attain spiritual enlightenment. However, the Shudras did not have any permission to read the holy scriptures/texts.’

‘So, what did the kids actually learn under the guidance of the gurus in their gurukhula?’ I reacted spontaneously.

‘The curriculum of the Vedic education comprised 4 main Vedas and 6 Vedangas, the 6 Darshanas, the Upanishads, Tarka shastra, Puranas and many more.’

Before my grandfather could continue any further, I personally felt the urge to know each title in detail and so I asked him, ‘Grandad, before you say anything else, explain to me in detail the 4 Vedas, 6 Vedangas and the other texts’.

He said ‘Alright, for now let’s learn about the Vedas, Vedangas, Upanishads and the Darshanas’ and continued, ‘The Vedas are nothing but the religious texts written in Vedic Sanskrit. These depict the traits of early Hinduism and carry writings from the old Sanskrit literature. The first among these Vedas is the Rig Veda (1500-1200 BCE) which consists of 10 mandalas/chapters with 1028 suktas/hymns and around 10,600 mantras/verses in total. These talk about cosmology, the origin of the universe, nature of god and other worldly philosophies. A few of its mantras are recited even now in praise of deities. Next in line come the Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda. All of these are believed to have been written during 1200-900 BCE.’

‘These Vedas, including “Rig Veda”, consist of 4 more subdivisions, namely the Samhitas, that deal with benedictions and mantras, and the Aranyakas, the compiled version of texts based on ceremonies, rituals and sacrifices. Brahmanas carry commentaries made on Vedas and Vedic sacrificial rituals. Upanishads comprise texts that speak about philosophy, spirituality and meditation. There is also another category called Upasanas that deal with “worship”. This was added by a few experts, only later. Any educational institution that addressed to these Vedas was treated as “Orthodox” while the others were treated as “heterodox”. Let us discuss about heterodox institutions later.’

‘Coming back to the Vedangas, there are totally 6 types and each type is related to the study of the 4 Vedas as these are only the auxiliary disciples of ancient Hinduism. The first type is called Shiksha which deals with sounds. In modern day terms, they cover phonology, phonetics and pronunciations. Second type is the Chandas which focuses on the forms and usage of verse metres, also called as prosody. Vyakarana, which is related to grammar and linguistic analysis, is the third type. The fourth type of Vedangas cover Nirukta which help people understand the actual meaning of different words through etymology. The fifth type comprises Kalpa that gives instructions to people for performing each ritual. This helps people follow a concrete set of procedures for each ritual. The last type is called Jyotisha as it deals with astronomy and astrology and is used for fixing an auspicious time for performing any ritual. So, in short, the 6 Vedangas focus on phonetics, prosody, grammar and linguistic analysis, etymology, knowledge about ritual practices, and astronomy and astrology.’

‘While the Vedas helped one attain practical and spiritual knowledge, the 6 Vedangas aided them in that process. The Upanishads/Vedanta also added to the practice of developing and imparting spiritual ideas in the minds of ancient Indians. This fuelled the emergence of fresh ideas and institutions that led to the evolution of education in India. Till date there are around 108 Upanishads found including the Brahma Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita.’

‘Students of the Vedic education were also exposed to the 6 Darshanas, also known as Hindu philosophies, that helped the gurus train their students to be in the best of their behaviour, character, ideals, thoughts and actions. This philosophy had 6 systems and they were Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Mimamsa, Vedanta and Vaisheshika. All of these were taught for preparing the students to learn right knowledge correctly, boost their mental, physical and spiritual strength, understand naturalism, practice dharma and sound living.’

‘Apart from these religious and spiritual learnings, Vedic education also focused on imparting the syllabus of Dharmashastras (study of law), Dhanurvidya (military science), Silpasastra (arts, ethics, architecture, etc.), Ciktsavidya (surgery and medicine), Arthashastra (administration, economics, etc.) and many more. Even physical education that enveloped hunting, archery, wrestling, etc, were all included in the curriculum of Vedic education.’

‘Apart from these, there were 64 types of art that were taught to the students as part of their vocational education. Training the elephants and horses, making chariots and boats, practicing agriculture and weaving, producing perfumes, and many such courses were also included in the Vedic curriculum. The concept of “apprenticeship” is a relatively older concept, as even in Vedic education, students worked under a master for certain years, with no fee for training, to become an expert in their field of study.’

‘These students learnt in different ways, as teachers taught in different methods.’

‘Grandad, before you get into the methods of teaching and learning, enlighten me about the infrastructure and the facilities that students had in their gurukhula.’ I instructed my grandfather.

‘Gurukhula was not just an educational space that encompassed passionate learners/students with one master/guru, but was also the guru’s abode.’

‘Were the students called as “students” back then?’ I asked, after having it linger in my mind for a while.

My grandfather gave a quick laugh and said, ‘No my dear. They were called Shishya which also meant “disciples”. The gurus were also called Acharya. As I had mentioned earlier, Acharya would teach the students Vedas for free in his gurukhula. Gurus gave equal importance to all shishyas, irrespective of their castes, which made their profession a moral and noble one. Unlike the modern-day schools, the ones you have now, the gurukhula system believed in “dignity of labour”.’

‘What does that mean?’ I asked my grandfather because I wasn’t sure where he was getting to.

‘Dignity of labour refers to the philosophy of how there’s dignity in every work you do. A scenario where you avoid doing something just because you feel that it’s below your social standards, is considered to be against the laws of this philosophy. For instance, before this lockdown, you used to go to school. You would go there, sit in your class to learn, roam around the campus during break hours and by evening, you’d come home. Meanwhile, have you ever taken a broomstick to clean the floors of your class? No, because there’s no need for it. However, that wasn’t the case with the students of the gurukhula education. They saw gurukhula as their home and got involved in doing manual labour, apart from their learning periods. They were supposed to serve their guru/Acharya till the end of their education. On the whole, the gurukhula system was also referred to as the “Guru-Shishya method”.’

‘But why did they have to serve their guru? They were just students, right?’ I argued.

‘Yes, they were students but during those days people believed in serving their mother, father, guru and guests, with utmost care and respect. They saw this as their most significant duty in life. There’s a saying in the Upanishads which supports the statement I had just said. Here, I’ll share it with you.

Matru devo bhavah!

Pitru devo bhavah!

Aacharya devo bhavah!

Atithi devo bhavah!

Indian slogam - TIPS

Did you get its meaning?’

‘It says that there are 4 gods in this world to whom we should render our service. First serve your mother, then your father, then your teacher and finally your guest.’ I responded with sheer excitement and cheer.

‘Bravo! Brilliant. You got it right my dear. Seems like this activity got you more excited, so here’s another task. There’s another mantra that we usually utter during prayers but let’s see if you know its meaning.

Guru brahma, guru Vishnu, guru devo maheshwarah

Guru sakshat prabrahma, tasme shree guruve namah.

What does this mean?’

‘I chant this mantra every day grandad. It means that guru is Brahma (the god who creates life), Vishnu (the god who protects life) and also Lord Shiva (the god who destroys life). Guru is considered the only “Parabramha” or the “highest Brahman”, who has more strength, wisdom and power. The last 4 words state that I hereby bow to such a great and powerful guru.’ I had a big smile on my face after answering on point.

‘I’m impressed! So now it’s clear why students served their gurus at the gurukhula, right?’

‘Absolutely!’ I replied.

‘Now, understand the main purpose of gurukhula. The disciples followed strict codes of conduct during their course of education as they obeyed each and every word of their master. This brought them discipline, self-control, refinement in character and upliftment of personality. As students of every caste learned from the same guru, a sense of equality bloomed and the spells of virtue resided in every student’s heart and mind. Even friendships grew. Apart from these, the teachings brought intellectual development and spiritual growth in the students. Through gurukhula, people also preserved their culture and knowledge, by passing it on to the next generations, who in turn did the same. Even today, despite all these technological advancements, we still stay rooted in our culture and traditions, the ones passed from generations to generations, because we’ve been exposed to them since our birth. On the whole, students developed their character, widened their contacts, became intellectual and reformed to be the best version of themselves through their education at the gurukhula.’


Gurukhula during Vedic Period

‘Gurukhula was the pioneer in public schooling as it accommodated groups of students for the purpose of education. During the Vedic period, people were encouraged to remain as students till the age of 25. This allowed them to seek and learn more, before they started facing the real world. In gurukhula, students were mostly divided into 3 categories based on their age-limits. Vasu was the name given to those who had education till the age of 24. Rudra referred to those who had education till the age of 36. The last type was called Aditya, which enveloped those who learnt till the age of 48.’

‘In the gurukhula, the guru was the ultimate authority, who taught each and every kid. Students learnt all the skills during their initial learning period. Meanwhile, the guru would analyse the strengths and weaknesses of each student and would make them master the skills they were more talented in. Just like how Drona gave special archery practices to Arjuna, in the mythology Mahabharata, even the students at the gurukhula enjoyed such a privilege. The guru laid special focus on each student, which is a trait that the present modern schools are trying to adopt. However, one major drawback in this system was that the students had less exposure because they learnt all the skills from the same teacher, for years. Also, by staying at the gurukhula, the students had little exposure to the outside world.’

‘So, you are saying that boys got their education by staying at the guru’s house, learning various subjects and skills and also serving their master.’ I added.

‘Yes, but not just boys, even girls, at a later period were allowed to get their education from the gurus by staying in the gurukhula. The concept of co-education had developed in the Vedic period itself.’

‘But weren’t the girls supposed to be taught within the walls of their houses?’ I wanted to clarify my doubt.

‘During the early stages, women were restricted to their homes but as time passed, people understood the significance of treating both men and women equally. Even in the Manusmriti, which is one of the legal texts from the many Dharmashastras of Hinduism, the importance of equal education to all is mentioned. The Puranas showcase that women and men studied together, during olden days. Some of the famous women scholars were Maitreyi and Gargi. Even characters like Atreyi, Rahu and Pramdwara, and Kahod and Sujatha, act as a proof of how women were educated during early periods.’

‘I promised I’ll tell you a story, so here it is. I’ve mentioned 2 main women scholars and 3 other women characters from the Puranas. Whose story would you like to hear?’

My pulse shot up because it was ‘Story time!’. Without much delay, I said, ‘Kahod and Sujatha sounds more attractive to me. Now, tell me their story.’

‘The story of Kahod and Sujatha is inscribed in the Chandogya Upanishad, which is considered to be the 9th Upanishad in the total canon of 108 Upanishads. To begin the story, there was a sage called Aruni or Uddalaka, who ran a gurukhula for teaching Vedas to the kids. Aruni was, in fact, seen as a great Hindu sage during his time, which was before the arrival of Buddha. Uddalaka’s teachings were a central part in the Chandogya Upanishad and Brihadranyaka Upanishad.’

‘Let’s have a revision, shall we? What does an Upanishad mean?’

‘Upanishads are Vedic texts written in Sanskrit during the late Vedic period. These texts carry the essence, beliefs and culture of Hinduism and are the oldest texts found so far.’ I responded without much delay.

‘Very good dear. Let us resume the story now. As Aruni was a great Vedic teacher who was running a gurukhula for the kids to teach them Vedas, he had a favourite student called Kahod. Kahod was a devoted and sincere student who stole the heart of his guru, Aruni. Meanwhile, Aruni’s daughter, Sujatha, was also studying in her father’s gurukhula.’

‘So, Kahod and Sujatha were classmates?’ I popped my question.

‘Yes. This also shows that girls, back then, were allowed to study with boys, paving the way for co-education. Aruni got his daughter married to Kahod, after they finished their education, as Kahod was his favourite student. After marriage, Kahod started to teach the other kids Vedas and made them recite those, as part of his teaching. When Sujatha was pregnant, she started to sit near Kahod, while he recited the Vedas, in the thought of making their kid learn them from the womb. The child inside the womb eventually learnt those and even corrected his father, Kahod, when he made errors in reciting the Vedas to his students. This infuriated Kahod and made him curse his own son to be born with 8 ailments in his body, which was why the child was named as Ashtavakra, meaning 8 bends.’

I listened without moving my limbs as I was pretty shocked at how a father could curse his own child. Before I could react, my grandfather continued.

‘Back then, Kahod was only assisting Aruni and was not earning much, which was when Sujatha suggested to her husband that he should go and see King Janaka who was the father of Sita, as mentioned in the mythological text Ramayana, and ask for dakshina/donations. Following her words, Kahod started his journey and reached the King’s palace where a debate competition was in session. Kahod decided to participate and win the competition to earn some money, but unfortunately, he was defeated by the court’s scholar, Bandy, who was also the son of Lord Varuna (the god of water). Just like all the other defeated participants, even Kahod was immersed in water. When this bad news reached Sujatha and Aruni, they decided to keep this secret from the unborn baby.’

‘After a few days, the baby was born with 8 crippled body parts. Though he was physically challenged, his intellect was unbeatable. For long, Ashtavakra believed Aruni to be his father and Aruni’s son Shvetaketu to be his own brother. Ashtavakra loved Aruni a lot. Days went by and it was 12 years since the birth of Ashtavakra. He was sitting on the lap of Aruni when Shvetaketu came and whisked him away saying that Aruni was not his real father. This shook Ashtavakra because he hadn’t expected his family to have hidden such a big secret from him. With hurt and pain, he ran to his mother, who told him the truth. Enraged, Ashtavakra journeyed to King Janaka’s palace with his mother, where he used his intellectual strength and won the debate competition against Pandit Bandy. Ashtavakra demanded that Bandy be immersed in water, just like the other Brahmins, including Kahod. However, Bandy, before he was pushed to death, revealed the truth about how none of the Brahmins were actually dead but were just involved in a sacred ritual that his father (the god of water) was performing. After this, all of the Brahmins, including Kahod, came alive. Kahod was now immensely proud of his son, Ashtavakra. While travelling back home, he asked his son to take a dip in the waters of the “Samanga” river and Ashtavakra obeyed. To his surprise, Ashtavakra came out as a person with no deformities in his body as his curse was lifted. Later on, he became the guru of King Janaka and was also the author of a great Vedic text called “Astavakra Gita” or “Astavakra Samhita”.’

‘This is one hell of a story. I enjoyed it!’ I exclaimed with satisfaction.

‘I’m glad you enjoyed the story session.’

‘But grandad, did each and every student in the gurukhula have such ingenuity and brain power? If yes, then how were they taught and trained to be such great masters?’ I asked because I wanted to be like Ashtavakra.

‘That’s an interesting question and to answer it, you should know about the methods of teaching and learning that prevailed in the gurukhula during the Vedic period. The Gurukul system, as I had stated before, had one superior guru who would teach his students all the skills they needed to learn, with all due respect and equality. These gurukhulas were usually located in forests to expose students to the functions and characteristics of each element of nature. Apart from the different Vedas and other studies I quoted earlier, students were also taught fishing and hunting. By staying in the forests, students learnt the need and importance of preserving nature for a better life. Apart from these, there were 5 main methods that were practiced in the Gurukul system, which need to be revived again, for betterment in the present-day educational system.’

‘What are those methods, grandad?’ I asked immediately.

‘The first method is how gurus taught their students in open spaces and not within the walls of a classroom. By exposing students to the natural and outdoor surroundings, they started to observe even the minute details of nature, which helped them in concentrating and getting to understand life and its ways better. It also encouraged them to think outside the box. This is called the “observe and learn” method. An open environment will always be a great space for studying. The second method laid focus on having face-to-face interactions for better understanding and more practical learning. Unlike the subject books you have now, those days, students had to memorise everything or learn from oral teachings. This was why students were encouraged to have interactions with those they met throughout their life. They also had personal conversations with the guru along with mediation, which was more like the counselling sessions you have now. The third method focused more light on the concept of “survival of the fittest.” Students were trained to be independent in their lives.’

‘Which means, they never got married?’ I asked in a low voice because I thought my question was a bit absurd.

My grandfather laughed and said, ‘No my dear, they were trained to tackle any life situation on their own is what I meant. Is that clear enough?’

‘Yes. You may now continue, grandad.’ I said instantly.

‘By getting prepared to face any situation, be it escaping from a forest or protecting themselves during any natural outbreak/war, the students mastered the act of practical living. They were also trained to make huts with just leaves and other items available in the forest. Collecting firewood for cooking and picking fruits, leaves and other nutritional food items were all part of their learning, even though it wasn’t prescribed in their curriculum. This was the third method of learning. The fourth method supported active debates and discussions among the students and scholars. This improved their public speaking skills and also tested the students’ ability to put their wisdom into the right words. The last and fifth method highlighted the idea of discipline and mutual respect. When shishyas were acquainted with this theory on a regular basis, they developed a sense of compassion and respect for others. This imparted good values and thoughts in the students’ minds, which makes us conclude that without a good teacher, the students will be lost in a world of evil.’

‘Now I understand why teachers, more than parents, matter in crafting the lives of students. I guess Brad Henry has perfectly put that into words by saying, “A good teacher can inspire hope, ignite the imagination and instil a love of learning”.’ I shared my thoughts.

‘Super. I should say that you are a terrific student. You grasp things quickly. I like it. Similar to how you are learning things now, students of the gurukhula system learnt through 7 different methods. As there were no prescribed Vedic textbooks, the gurus would verbally impart the knowledge to their shishyas, who in turn would memorise the sacred texts/Vedas through regular repetition and rehearsals. It is similar to how you learn a song, by singing it repeatedly. Another method that was adapted by the students to learn Vedanta/Brahma Vidya was to lay more focus on Sravana (listening), Manana (contemplation/inspection) and Nididhyasana (concentrated contemplation). Through this and with the process of introspection, the students learnt the Vedas and its ultimate truth.’

‘Were there any methods similar to the ones I follow now?’ I enquired of my grandad, just to see if there were any similarities with the ‘shishyas’ and ‘students’.

‘Of course, yes dear. Shishyas, back then, had the liberty to ask questions to which the guru would answer in detail. The freedom, you modern students have to clarify doubts with your teachers, was prevalent even during the Vedic period. Experts call this method the “Question and Answer method”. Apart from this, shishyas also had debates and discussions which increased awareness among them as each shared their learning, in their own way, which is similar to the seminars you have these days. They followed another technique similar to the modern “Hands-on method” which dealt with learning derived from observation. Just like how you go to a Physics lab and understand the workings of a pendulum through experiments, even shishyas, back then, had a similar experience while learning. Gurus, during those times, were open-minded, especially to the views and suggestions of their disciples, which is also similar to our present-day methods.’

‘Now, the last method that we are going to discuss about is similar to what I’m doing now.’

I gave it a thought for a while and asked, ‘Did the gurus use stories to explain theories and concepts to their shishyas? Just the way you are teaching me through short stories?’

‘Excellent guess. You are right. This method was, in fact, used by Buddha for all his teachings, which brings us to the next topic, the “Buddhist system of education.”’

‘Oh grandad, hold on. Before ending the topic, tell me about how shishyas graduated from their Vedic schools.’ I demanded.

‘Oops! How did I forget that? Here’s your answer. Shishyas were expected to be learning for at least 12 years, because that was the minimum period required to master one Veda. However, the shishyas had the liberty to choose the number of years they wanted to study, which we have discussed earlier. By the end, when a shishya became a graduate, or when they finished their schooling under a guru, they were called Snataka, while their graduation ceremony was called Samavartana. There’s an interesting fact to this.’

‘What’s that?’ I responded.

‘Only when shishyas became Snataka, were they allowed to enter grihastashrama, the life of a householder or a married person.’

‘Oh, but there were also child marriages during those days. How?’ I asked because I was really confused.

‘To best answer your question, I’m going to take a reference from Jaya Sagade’s book, “Child Marriage in India”, which was published on 22 March, 2012. She has stated that child marriage was not prevalent during the Vedic period as weddings happened only for those who reached a mature age. Even during the course of deciding the groom, girls had the freedom to choose the one they liked and were not actually forced into marrying someone they disliked. In short, women and men enjoyed the freedom and liberty to select their life partners.’

‘The Vedic lifestyle sounds more modern to me.’ I said with a smile.


‘Now, before I dive into the Buddhist system of education, are you familiar with who Buddha was? Do you have any idea about what his ideals, teachings and beliefs were about?’

‘How can one not know about Buddha?’ I thought to myself as I had a few answers pop into my mind.

‘Buddha was actually named Siddhartha Gautama by his father, Suddhodana, the ruler of the Shakya clan. Once, a holy man prophesied for the young Gautama that, “He would be either a great king/military leader or a great spiritual leader.” This brought a sense of fear in the mind of Suddhodana, which made him build a palace just for Gautama, where he raised him in total luxury. He also shared his apprehensions of the outside world, religion and human life. Gautama got married to princess Yashodara, at the age of 16 and had a son, quite later, but he still lived a secluded life as he was accustomed to it since birth.’

After taking a sip of water, I continued.

‘Gautama, with less knowledge about the outside world and the real hardships that men and women faced, grew up to be an adult. One fine day, he decided to go out of his palace to roam the streets of his kingdom and this was when he witnessed the poor living conditions of his people, and he understood the obvious realities. He had 3 encounters that changed his purpose, course and future.

He saw a very old man and was quite taken aback, which was when his charioteer explained to him about how people grow old as years pass by. He then came across a diseased man, followed by a decaying corpse, from which he learnt about death and suffering. Finally, he encountered an ascetic (one who follows a strict and disciplined life, without enjoying much of worldly pleasures) and the charioteer explained about how the ascetic had shun the world in order to find a route to escape from the human fears of suffering and death. This incident changed the entire course of Gautama’s life as he left his family and his luxurious lifestyle, at the age of 29, and decided to walk a more spiritual path. He took that decision as he was deeply determined to relieve people from common universal suffering, which became his ultimate mission.’


‘This mission led to his ascetic life, to which he instantaneously adapted. Six years passed by and Gautama was still searching for the ultimate truth. However, he was not alone in this as he had a group of five ascetics who meditated and learnt the teachings of various religious gurus. Gautama was still deprived of the knowledge he was seeking, which made him starve even more, without food, water and sleep, but this went in vain too. One day, a young girl offered Gautama a bowl of rice which was when he understood that punishing oneself with extremist thoughts and actions was not the path to be followed for reaching an enlightened state. This made him release himself from the harsh physical constraints he got himself confined to. However, this act convinced the other 5 ascetics that Gautama was not an ascetic anymore and so they left him. By evening, Gautama sat under a Bodhi tree and started to meditate until he got the answers he was searching for a long time. All of a sudden, he started to get visions of all the past, present and future happenings in his mind which made him understand the ultimate truth about life. This was when Gautama, a 5thcentury prince, transformed into an “Enlightened Being” called “The Buddha”.’ I gave a pause.

‘Wonderful dear.’

‘Wait before you appreciate me, grandad because only now I’m getting to the main part. So, Gautama found all the answers he was searching for, but was reluctant to teach them to others because he found it impossible to put to words, the learning he had gained. However, people believe that Lord Brahma convinced Buddha to become a spiritual teacher. Buddha started his journey to meet the five ascetics with whom he had travelled for a while in his spiritual journey and convinced them to share their learning to a thousand others. This was when Buddha became a spiritual leader because he found many disciples following his worldly philosophy.’ I finished the story and took a deep breath.

‘Marvellous. You know quite a lot. Great! So, what did Buddha teach the others? What was his worldly philosophy? Are you aware about that?’

‘I’m not pretty sure about that.’ I answered with slight disappointment.

‘Don’t worry. I’ve got you. Let me continue the story. Buddha taught the importance of having a balance in life, of how one must avoid indulging themselves in either aesthetic or sensuous extremisms. Such balanced living was called “the Middle Way” by Buddha. Slowly a crowd gathered around Buddha along with the other 5 ascetics and so Buddha gave his first sermon, also known as Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dharma. From that sermon, he elucidated the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path of life, which later became the pillars of Buddhism.’

‘Only after this incident, the other 5 ascetics became Buddha’s disciples and set out to form a community of monks called “the Sangha.” Everyone, irrespective of their class, gender, race and religion were admitted for the mere purpose of achieving enlightenment. However, Buddha continued his teachings as he kept travelling to familiar and unfamiliar places. Buddha believed in the phrase “be your own light” and this was what he shared to his disciples, until his last breath. He told them that they should not follow a leader but should be their own leader. Finally, at the age of 80, Buddha died, but his philosophy shook many religions and is still prevalent in many parts of the world.’

‘However, Buddhism was a result of the religious movements that Buddha’s disciples started after his death, which was around 483 B.C. By the 3rd century, Buddhist monasteries and missionaries were promoted by the great Mauryan emperor, Ashoka the Great. He even declared Buddhism the state religion of India. By these means, the philosophies shared by Buddha spread widely and were taught to people for centuries. Some followers made their own interpretations to those philosophies, which brought diversified thoughts. Even those were encouraged.’

How did this new religion affect the already existing Vedic practices in India?’ I questioned in a serious tone.

‘Buddhism broke the social stigma that prevailed during the time of Buddha. Racial and caste discrimination in society, especially in the field of education was destroyed by the new Buddhist principles as it supported people of all castes to study and learn. With the emergence of Buddhism, a religious revolution broke out during 600 B.C. in India. The 62 heretical doctrines were considered outdated by some sections of society as a new doctrine emerged. The new doctrine was called “Buddhist doctrine.” With the new-age Buddhist education, civilisation progressed in all aspects, all over India and this paved the way for many learning centres in India.’

‘On an overall basis, the Buddhist system of education in India focused on bringing a spiritual and mental development to all its students, just to free themselves from the earthly pleasures and bondages. This was because Buddha preached that by removing avidya or ignorance from one’s life, one can live in an ethical and moral way, thereby leading to Nirvana/Mukti (a state of eternal bliss). He also believed that chanting the Vedic hymns repeatedly was unsuccessful in helping people clear wrong desires from their minds. Instead, he advised people to follow the Arya Asthang marga, also known as the Noble Eightfold path. Therefore, the ultimate aim of Buddhist education was to make the Noble Eightfold path familiar to people.’

What is the Noble Eightfold path?’ I asked instantly.

‘It involves the practices of right view, right resolve, right speech, right livelihood, right effort, right conduct, right concentration and right mindfulness. Buddha stated that this Noble Eightfold path will guide one to lead an enlightened and moral life. Apart from this, Buddhist education also focused on teaching the “law of Varna” to its students/monks. Even the importance of Ahimsa was imparted to the students. All of these were taught along with religious education to make the students morally and spiritually upright. Students were also given training to earn their livelihood.’

‘Did everyone enjoy this rich and intellectual education?’ My question was spontaneous.

‘Not right from the start, because only the members of the monastery were exposed to the early Buddhist education. However, it did not last long as the gates of Buddhist education were open to all, including laymen and women. In fact, the Buddhists were the first to bring an open education to all sects of society and this was a revolution that changed the social lifestyle and norms. The modern Buddhist schools we have now, are open to the entire world.’

‘Interesting. What was their curriculum?’ I asked because I was curious about how the Buddhist schools worked.

‘Buddhist schools followed a common curriculum through which teachers trained their students to be mentally, physically and spiritually strong. They also taught students the ways to attain enlightenment or the state which makes one free from the earthly pleasures like desire, lust, etc. However, Buddhism, after a certain period of time, became a single institution with different branches.’

‘I’m not sure I follow you.’ I said as I was a little confused with what my grandad had just said.

‘Buddhism got diversified soon after Buddha’s death as a few disciples had their own interpretation of the religious Vinaya and scriptures. Buddha did not appoint a direct successor, instead asked all his disciples to continue living in the way that he had preached till the very end. When Buddha died, the members of the Sangha conducted various Buddhist council meetings to interpret each Buddhist doctrine and practice, and to modify them according to the changes in time. The first Buddhist council was presided over by Mahakasyapa, one of the first disciples of Buddha, in a cave near Rajagriha (the place where Buddha attained his enlightenment). King Ajathasatru ruled Rajagriha at that time and helped the monks organise their first Buddhist council for preserving Suttas (Buddha’s sayings) and Vinaya (the rules that refer to monastic discipline). Though there’s no prominent evidence as to when this council took place, there are a few proofs as to what happened during that council meeting. It is believed that Ananda recited the Suttas while Upali recited the Vinaya.’

Who were Ananda and Upali? I’ve never heard about them before. Why did they have to recite everything?’ I asked.

‘Ananda was believed to be Buddha’s first cousin, but there is no adequate proof for that. However, it is proved in the early texts that Ananda became a monk and learnt from Punna Mantaniputta for 20 years. Ananda, in fact, was one among the ten principal disciples that Buddha had and was known for his strong memory. Buddha made him his assistant and asked him to act as an intermediary between him and the common people. Ananda was also the mouthpiece that Buddha used for sharing his knowledge to the members of the Sangha. Till the end of Buddha’s life, Ananda served as a sincere secretary, mouthpiece and assistant. During the first Buddhist council, Ananda, well-known for his powerful memory, recited all the teachings of Buddha. These recollected thoughts of Ananda were inscribed into texts that were called the Sutta-Pitaka. These are considered to be the early Buddhist texts. Therefore, if not for Ananda, many of Buddha’s teachings would have gone into the dark and wouldn’t have survived for long, which is why he’s called the Treasurer of the Dhamma.’

Upali, who was also one among the ten principal disciples of Buddha, was responsible for the reciting, and reviewing the monastic disciplines of Buddhism or the Sangha’s code of conduct. Upali, being a barber by profession, belonged to the low caste. However, he joined the Sangha as a child and was ordinated even before the Sakya princes. This proves that Buddhism was not biased towards any caste, instead was open to all. He was also consulted in case of any doubts or issues regarding Vinaya, as he was an expert and the person in charge. This is the reason why Upali was made to recite the Vinaya/the rules that have to be followed by the monks of the Sangha, during the first Buddhist council meeting.’

‘The teachings and Vinaya were recited during the council meeting, because during those days only oral teaching was in practice. There were no inscriptions to read, so all that one could do was to listen, remember and learn. To have a record of all the teachings of Buddha as texts, his disciples conducted the first Buddhist council meeting. This was also required as the Sangha population increased and the ways of educating them called for improvements and updates. Till date, there are around 6 Vinaya traditions that are recorded as texts and this happened during the first and second Buddhist council meetings.’

‘Apart from this, there were around three other Buddhist council meetings which were conducted to improvise the norms of the Buddhist schools and the Vinaya of the Sangha. As the disciples grew in number, so did the branches of Buddhism. Many disciples settled in different parts of the world, leading to different methods of teaching and preaching Buddhism. On the whole, Buddhism fragmented into different sects or groups due to different languages and landscapes, influence of other religious schools, disagreements on certain doctrines and the absence of a central or single authority/organisational structure.’

‘So, does this mean that there were many types of Buddhist schools which functioned with different curricula?’ I placed my question immediately.

‘Buddhist schools preached almost the same syllabus but varied in their course of action, location and names. The first division occurred in Buddhism, during the 5th century B.C., which was a few centuries after Buddha’s demise. This division was basically because of the differences people had in Vinaya, then in the doctrines and finally in their geographical locations. It was between the minority Sthaviravada and the majority Mahasamghika that this division took place at first. One of the common features of these early Buddhist schools was the division of the modes of Buddhist practices into different “vehicles/vana.”’

‘What were the names of the early Buddhist schools, grandad?’ I asked.

‘When the original Sangha split into 2, after Buddha’s demise, even the Buddhist schools were divided into Sthaviranikaya and Mahasamghika. After a certain period, the Buddhist schools were further divided into the Saryastiyadins, the Dharmaguptakas, the Vibhaiyavada and another 15-17 types of schools.’

‘Now that you are quite familiar with the Buddhist schools, it is time for you to know what was taught in those schools. As I had mentioned earlier, all the Buddhist schools taught their monks three main aspects of life which constituted meditation, discipline and wisdom. Wisdom was taught to be the ultimate goal of one’s life and that it could be achieved through deep meditation. All of the teachings in these Buddhist schools stuck to these 3 basic points. Another main objective of the Buddhist schools was to expose the students to the rules of the Sangha and guide them through.’

‘One of the main teachings included the teaching of Tripitaka (the sacred canon of Theravada Buddhism), which carried all the teachings, philosophies and messages of Buddha, along with the rules framed for the Bhikkhunis and Bhikkhus, in the Pali language.’

‘Who are Bhikkhunis and Bhikkhus?’ I raised my query to my grandad.

Bhikkhu was the term given to an ordained male monk/the one who had become an adherent member of Buddhism. Ordained female members of Buddhism were called bhikkhuni/nuns. However, anyone below the age of 20 was not allowed to be ordained, instead were considered sramanera (a male novice monk) and sramaneri (a female novice nun).’

‘Both bhikkhu and bhikkhuni were obliged to follow a certain set of rules as their code of conduct called pratimoksa, which consisted of 227 rules for bhikkhus and 311 rules for bhikkhunis.’

Why did nuns have more rules than monks?’ I asked in a curious tone.

‘Women had to fight for their rights and equality in those days. In fact, Gautama Buddha was reluctant at first to accept women as disciples or nuns. However, it was Mahapaiapati Gotami, Gautama’s aunt and foster-mother, who convinced Buddha to accept women as followers. She was also the first ordained bhikkhuni who encouraged and inspired many other women. When it comes to the rules, Buddha formulated them and made them more severe for women because he believed that bhikkhunis should have a stricter code of conduct. Even in the case of sramaneri, they were taught to assist sramanera and were not considered equal. All of these were followed in early Buddhist schools, however are not considered currently.’

‘What do you mean by “ordained monks,” grandad?’ I raised a question.

‘Ordained monks refer to those men who left their homes to be part of the Sangha or the Buddhist monastic order after their ordination ceremony. Similar to the Upanayana ceremony, which was followed in the Vedic system of education, Buddhists performed the ordination ceremony with many rules. The ceremony had two parts: pabbajja (going-forth) and upasampada (acceptance). Going-forth referred to the act of how a person leaves their home and decides to spend the rest of their life as a homeless disciple of Buddha in monasteries. This was when men and women shaved their heads, started to wear ochre robes and began to live a life disciplined with the ten precepts of Buddhism. However, the minimum age requirement for officially deciding to become a monk/nun was 15 years.’

‘Acceptance was the phase where one became an official member of the Sangha or a full-fledged monk/nun through the democratic Upasampada ceremony. In this ceremony, the novice (the one who has completed 12 years of education) has to present themselves in front of the other monks, who in turn would vote in favour or against them. A novice was said to be accepted as a permanent member in the Sangha only when they received majority of votes in their favour. This was usually performed for those who were at least 20 years old because the basic education that monks received in the schools was for a minimum of 12 years. However, this ceremony was simplified for the sramaneras and sramaneris. For bhikkhunis, it is proved that they were deprived of full ordination.’

‘Ordination evolved during the years because at each phase, its rules, ceremonies and many factors were interpreted in different ways leading to many flaws and contradictions. Other factors that led to changes in ordination were the political, social and economic factors along with doctrinal debates and dynamics.’

‘Students learnt Tripitaka in their Buddhist schools. Apart from those, what other things did they learn?’ I asked to get a better understanding of the curriculum of Buddhist education.

Tripitaka consisted of Sutta Pitaka (verses of truth), Vinaya Pitaka (monastic rules of conduct) and Abhidhamma Pitaka (Summary of Dharma). This brought together, both Buddha’s worldly philosophies and the code of conduct to the monks and nuns. However, only the monks were allowed and encouraged to have an education which was spiritual and laid more focus on attaining liberation in life. This was provided to them through the religious books and scriptures. Apart from these, students were also taught to be experts in weaving, spinning, tailoring, surgery, accountancy, cloth printing, sketching and coinage. These additional subjects, other than the religious texts, came into practice with the spread of Buddhism among all sectors of people. Arts, science, architecture, sculpture and many other professional courses/subjects improved the scope of learning for the general public. On the whole, Buddhist schools transformed into institutions that served for the welfare of mankind rather than serving only for religious purposes.’

‘What was the language in which these teachings were conducted?’ I asked.

‘During the initial stages, the Buddhist schools taught kids in their mother tongue but later, Pali and Sanskrit were made the mediums of instruction. Days passed and so did the educational practices. Education in both the languages varied in accordance with their teaching methods. Even a special Sanskrit Buddhist literature emerged because there were many teachers like Asanga, Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Vasubandhu, Candrakirti and Shantideva, who carried the Sanskrit Buddhist education practices to many.’

What methods were followed by teachers in the Buddhist schools?’ I asked.

‘The full-fledged monks became teachers after 10 years of living a strict and spiritual life including 8 years of Bhikshu education. They were supposed to lead a life with purity of character and thoughts, and generosity. Lifelong celibacy was to be adopted by the teachers without any exceptions. Teachers and students lived together in the monasteries/vihara which paved the way for a more personal and spiritual relation between both. They were also responsible for those monasteries, which was why every action inside it followed the same code of conduct. The students were expected to serve their masters/teachers while the teachers imparted education to the students. Teachers took good care of all of their pupils by providing them with clothes, food, shelter and also their undivided attention. Teachers worked to ensure development of their students’ moral, physical, emotional, spiritual and mental states.’

‘Teachers had their basic duties, which were to educate their students through discussions, lectures, debates, propagation, question and answer method, and oral transformation of information regarding the Buddhist religion, Sangha’s code of conduct and the other social subjects needed for mankind. Meditation was an unavoidable part in their teaching methods. The basic aim for the teachers was to make their students all-rounders, which was why every student learnt every subject. Apart from teachers teaching the Tripitaka, they also taught the philosophical principles of Buddhism through Pratitya samutpada, arthkrivakaritva, anatmavada and ksanikavada. The five Tatvas/Skandas under 5 categories and Karmavad were also included in the curriculum that the Buddhist schools followed.’

‘Similar to the Vedic gurukhulas, each Buddhist vihara, with different Bhikshus as teachers, had their own ways of teaching students and apprentices. Imitation was followed by all because students learnt each and every word of the sacred texts and took their teachers as their role-model. The latter provided a strong reason for the teachers to stick to a strict code of conduct. However, despite such differences, the teacher and student had a mutual self-esteem which stipulated trust, respect and affection towards each other. Students stayed with their teachers for a minimum period of 12 years and regarded them to be their intellectual or spiritual father.’

‘Sounds interesting. Were the students expected to follow a strict routine similar to the one present in the gurukhula system?’ I asked as I was curious to know about the students’ life in the Buddhist vihara/monasteries.

‘As I had mentioned earlier, teachers and students lived together in the monasteries which accelerated a better understanding and a cordial relationship between both. The teacher acted as the overall guardian to their students, while students served their masters. A general routine of a sramanera/novice student began with them waking up early in the morning and starting to serve their master by attending to menial jobs. This extended to cooking food, washing his clothes and cleaning the used utensils. Students placed everything they owned or received with their master because the teacher was the ultimate authority and the students were just his disciples, who had no connection with the materialistic world. All of these were mandatory for the students to prepare themselves to learn from their master/teacher. This was also part of their education as it made the students more disciplined and inclined to serve others, which was the basic principle of Buddhism.’

‘Students were also not that privileged to interrupt their teacher in speaking, and were not allowed to correct their mistakes. Teachers expelled certain students who had no inclination, devotion and affection towards him and the Buddhist practices. A student who seemed to be with no shame or any great reverence was also expelled. However, expulsion of a student had certain rules and was not based on an individual’s decision.’

‘I find these monasteries similar to the gurukhulas. However, what was the actual name given to the Buddhist teachers?’ I questioned to know the exact details.

‘Good question. The Buddhist teachers were divided into two categories: Acharya and Upadhayas. Acharya was a senior teacher in Buddhism while Upadhaya was a teacher who taught the novices and ranked below the Archaryas. Similar to the Acharyas of the Vedic period, even the Buddhist Acharyas taught many students simultaneously, for free. However, these Acharyas focused on the high-level subjects while Upadhayas focused on imparting the basic monastic vows and precepts to the novices. Upadhayas were also called “master of novices.” Here’s another interesting fact about the Buddhist schools. They, unlike the Vedic schools, encouraged the students to learn other religious philosophies, culture and practices. Talking of other religions, it is time for us to move to Jainism and the educational system that prevailed during its time period.’

‘I’m all ears!’ I said with glowing eyes.


‘Jainism is quite relevant to Hinduism and similar to Buddhism. However, people fragmented into different religious groups due to clashes in their opinions about life and living. While one sect believed in the atman or soul, another group of people preached against it and declared themselves “heterodox”. During the 6th century B.C, a few people decided to sacrifice all worldly pleasures and live a rigid, strict and spiritual life. This led to a movement called Shramnic movement that separated people into two distinct philosophical groups in India. One was related to the Vedas/Hinduism, which followed the astika (believer in God) philosophy as their ultimate objective while the other pointed to different religions that followed nastika (an atheist) as their primary philosophy. Jainism along with Buddhism was one among the nastika group of religions.’

‘So, how and when did Jainism prosper in India? Who started it?’ It seemed like I never ran out of questions because I understood I was looking for more answers.

‘The exact time, date and year of Jainism’s birth is still unclear in the pages of history. However, on a collective level, historians have proved that there were twenty-four spiritual teachers who preached the objectives of Jainism to others. These teachers were called tirthankara. Mahavira/Varshamana, the 24th tirthankara, was believed to be a contemporary of Gautama Buddha. This proves that Jainism existed in India even before Buddhism. Even Chandragupta Maurya, who was the grandfather of Ashoka the Great (the one who spread Buddhism), was a Jain. However, the lives of Gautama and Mahavira are similar because both renounced their comfortable lives and began an ascetic lifestyle, which later led to their spiritual enlightenment. Similar to Buddha, Mahavira taught many philosophical lessons and left many life lessons for thousands of his disciples to share and follow.’

‘After Mahavira’s death in 527 B.C, his disciples who had memorised his teachings, began teaching others the same. However, as years passed, people started to forget a few lessons of Mahavira, which was why Jain council meetings were conducted.’

‘Were these council meetings similar to the Buddhist council meetings? Did Jains convert the oral teachings of their guru into written texts for better teaching and long survival?’ I asked.

‘You are right, my dear. Jain council meetings were convened to document Mahavira’s oral teachings. Though there were early scriptures of Jainism, which were called Purva, it was hard for the Jains to preserve them without any actual inscriptions. There were fourteen Purvas, but as days passed, they went missing, which was why the council meetings were conducted to find an immediate solution. There were more than 3 meetings and each meeting focused on those aspects that would improve Jainism as a religion of practice. The practice of Jainism spread from Bihar to Karnataka and other Indian states. With the spread of these religious practices came the conflict of thoughts.’

‘Jainism split into Digambara and Svetambara, based on their schools of thought. While the former refers to those monks who are considered to be the strictest ascetics, who even refuse to wear clothes, the latter refers to those monks who wear a white robe. However, both follow the same principles of Jainism. So, you need to understand that though Jainism spilt into two groups, Jains followed the same basic objectives and teachings, but through different practices.’

What exactly did Mahavira teach his disciples?’ I voiced my question.

‘Mahavira preached mahavratas, which was nothing but a compilation of vows of satya (truth), ahimsa (non-violence), brahmacharya (chastity), asteya (non-stealing) and aparigraha (non-attachment). The principles of reality or Anekantavada were also preached by Mahavira. Apart from these were his 55 recitations/pravachana and the Uttaraadhyayana-sutra, a collection of his lectures. Indrabhuti Gautama, who was the leader of the first 11 disciples of Mahavira, complied Mahavira’s teachings into “Jain Agamas”. Nevertheless, these Jain Agamas were widely taught in the Svetambara tradition as its authenticity was questioned in the Digambara tradition.’

‘Mahavira’s disciples became teachers who taught a wider sect of Jains and this slowly became the foundation of the Jainism system of education. The main objective of this system was to liberate humans from the worldly pleasures through a strict code of conduct. This was also termed as Moksha in Jainism. Another area that these schools focused on was “self-help”, which helped in the teaching of the philosophy of nastika/atheism. Along with these, the Five Vows of Mahavira were also taught to the students. There were also three core principles that guided Jainism: right belief, right conduct and right knowledge. These core principles were taught to guide students to reach the enlightened state. In short, the Jainism system of education focused on guiding people on the path of liberation through knowledge and efforts, which finally led a person to their Jivan Moksha and also to Dravya Moksha (higher level).’

‘So, how was the Jainism system of education practised? What was their prescribed curriculum, methods of teaching and learning, types of teachers and students, etc?’ I asked.

‘Before you understand the curriculum of Jainism system of education, you need to know the infrastructure that supported it. As an initial attempt, Jains built caves/lenas/layanas for the monks and nuns near their temples/jinalayas. Slowly, the jinalayas, which were used for meditation and worship, transformed into a centre for learning. As caves were considered to be only a temporary means of residence for the Jain monks, permanent residential quarters were built. These quarters were called Basadi and were considered to be a place for wandering monks and group worship, and a residence for teachers, students and scholars. Basadis were built with huge investments over a large area in Karnataka.’

‘Similar to that of Buddhist schools, even Jainism system of education had two main types of teachers: acharyas and upadhyayas. Acharyas were the learned and nomadic gurus who headed the basadis. These acharyas were always accompanied by a group of monks/sadhus called gachchas, while they toured several places. Upadhyayas were the subject teachers who stood below acharyas in the educational hierarchy order. Even nuns/women monks were part of the sadhus who accompanied acharyas in their travel. Such Jain nuns were called kanti/ganti/sadhvi. They have also contributed to the spread of Jainism and its teachings, in large numbers.’

Acharyas, upadhyayas, sadhus and sadhvis were ascetics who renounced their family, marriage and other worldly pleasures. It was in fact mandatory for the teachers to lead an ascetic life because the philosophies of Jainism focused on liberating humans from the bondage they had with the world and its pleasures. This is also another important factor as to why these four types of teachers, who lived together as a community, kept travelling instead of getting attached to one place or group of people. These teachers were welcomed with much hospitality and were accommodated in the basadis by the locals. The local people organised festivals and other ceremonies in the basadis they maintained and administered. Whenever an archarya visited a matha, the entire village celebrated and allowed the acharya to clarify various religious doubts and help many resolve their life problems.’

‘These basadis were a great place of worship and learning, where the nomadic archaryas and other gurus guided the students in their social, economic, spiritual and physical growth. Apart from these jinalayas, other Jain monasteries/mathas were also established to cater to larger groups of people. Even members of other religious groups were accepted, accommodated and educated in the jinalayas/basadis and Jain mathas. In the mathas and basadis, the student ascetics were accommodated along with sadhus and sadhvis, while acharyas and upadhayas roamed different places for preaching their knowledge. However, the place where the teaching and learning happened was called Pathasala.’

How were people admitted in the Jain matha, grandad?’ I enquired with speculation.

‘The Jain matha supported both primary and secondary education. The minimum age requirement for a boy to become a student was 5 years. Every boy had to be initiated by the archarya or upadhaya to begin his education at the matha. The initiation was all about making the boys draw letters of siddhamatraka/table on fine sand spread over a board. Once this was mastered by the boys, they were made to write on kadata/folded blackboards with balapa/chalk. As the final step, they were expected to write on palm leaves.’

‘Now, let us understand the curriculum of Jainism system of education. Many Jain texts were written in Sanskrit and Prakrit but were later translated to Kannada (in Karnataka) and Ardhamagadhi (in North India) to promote various groups of locals to read these Jain texts. The basic subject learnt by many (both boys and girls) was the Ratnakaranda sravakacara/code of conduct, which was a handbook of 150 verses intended for householders. This book was written in Sanskrit by sage Samantabhadra but was later translated to many regional languages in India. Apart from this, other Vedas, Upanishads, shastras, darshanas and puranas were also taught to the students in Pathasalas. Jains also added the subjects of chemistry, vijnana (science), manufacturing of small machines and five other subjects to the already existing 64 arts streams in their curriculum. This was because Jainism was dominated by the merchant class which paved the way for more vocational and trading courses.’

‘In general, the curriculum of the Jain system was centred around the belief that one had to understand and accept their Jiva/life as it was gifted to them, not by the grace of god but by their own deeds. Their curriculum also helped one gain control over their mind, speech and body, which in turn led to moral conduct and non-violence. With the help of various co-curricular and extra-curricular activities, the Jain system helped one attain salvation by the end of their education. Vocational education was also imparted to the students with the aim of improving the economic condition of the country and its manpower.’

‘So, in short, the Jainism system of education imparted to its students, natural and social sciences in addition to vocational and moral education with the help of various co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. What methods were used by the teachers to teach these and how did the students learn them?’ I asked.

‘The prominent method of teaching adopted by the Jainism system of education was the practical/experimental method. The experimental method proved to be effective in liberating the monks from their worldly pleasures and thus transforming them into Jains (ones who have overcome their sensual vices). Therefore, practical activities were given more importance in the process of imparting education. In fact, this system of education might sound modern to you because they formulated a method which gave importance and respect to each student’s point of view. A subject was taught along many angles and no particular interpretation was imposed on the students. This supported and encouraged teachers to have coordination with the students, thus easing the process of imparting education. Teachers and students got a thorough knowledge of each subject through this method.’

‘Students were encouraged to learn theories and lessons through experiments and practical application. This can also be called “learning by doing method”. Similar to teachers, students at Jain schools understood that each subject had multiple interpretations and that one should be open to all those rather than being rigid in their point of view. Therefore, a student learnt how to listen to others’ opinions. All of these allowed a student to maintain equipoise throughout their life.’

‘On the whole, the Jainism system of education stimulated teachers and students to be involved in healthy discussions (vada) and debates. This improved student participation and acted as a platform for teachers to understand their students. Group activities were also highlighted to bring self-control and responsibility in the minds of the students. This system of education also wrapped up the essence of students’ responsibility towards their nation in its educational methods. Apart from these, the practice-based education which led to vocational training is another feature of Jainism system of education.’

‘Let me summarise what you just said. The Jainism system of education stressed upon practical methods like experimental learning, learning by doing, coordination in teaching and vocational training to impart knowledge to its students.’ I said with much confidence.

‘You are 100% right. However, though the methods of teaching were quite different from those of the Vedic period, the learning process remained the same. Students learnt their subjects by memorising, repeating and reproducing. This was due to the presence of oral teaching and training. All of these prove that Jains were great orators who uplifted Jainism over the other religions through their speeches, discussions and logical arguments. Self-study was encouraged in the Jain schools which motivated the students to learn out of interest rather than through compulsion. Therefore, the Jainism system of education paved the way for a better livelihood and practical living.’

‘What do you mean by “practical living”? Weren’t the monks supposed to lead an ascetic life?’ I asked.

‘You are right. According to Jains, an ascetic life was more practical than the normal way of living. This was why students were trained to be deprived of the urge to find joy in all the worldly possessions, right from a young age. In fact, they were trained to restrain their basic instincts like sorrow, anger, joy, and treat all living beings equal, irrespective of size, age, species, etc.’

How were the students trained through this method?’ I asked.

‘Once the students were admitted in the jinalayas, shelter, books, food and even medical facilities were provided to them for free. However, there was a supervisor/niryapaka who made sure that every student obeyed the strict code of conduct. The violators and wrongdoers were punished and admonished. Students were also exposed to rigorous training and activities.’

‘What do you mean by that, grandad?’ I questioned.

‘Students were expected to wake up early, make arrangements for their everyday needs and beg for food. They were also expected to serve their masters/gurus/teachers. Apart from this, they also had a strict of code of conduct and you know what it was.’

How did the Jain schools run? Were there any challenges in running the schools?’ I asked.

‘Though the students never paid any fees, there were donations that came from the kings and locals for running the schools. Adding to this, were the donations from the affluent trading class.’

‘What was the role of women in the Jainism system of education? Were they even allowed to attain enlightenment?’ I asked because my mind longed for more information.

‘Jainism encouraged women to become nuns, even before the period of Mahavira. The main objective and work of those nuns was to spread and impart religious knowledge/education to all, which was also called dharmadana. This made the nuns wander different places, thereby creating a cultural awareness among others. However, the digambaras never believed that women could attain the highest state of enlightenment because of their strict code of conduct, while the svetambaras assisted women in attaining their moksha (spiritual liberation). The first ever female leader of the monastic order, under Mahavira, was Chandana. All of these prove that women were encouraged to be part of Jainism and its system of education.’

‘I’m still not clear about how women were part of the Jainism education system.’ I stated.

‘The Jain schools had ajjis/kantis who were mostly learned nuns/arye/aryake and these people motivated their disciples to renounce their normal life. There are a few inscriptions in literature about how ajji had a team of male disciples to assist them. This shows that Jainism gave equal rights and place to both men and women. These ajjis were also expected to remember in detail various rites, injunctions and practices.’

‘Nuns kept travelling in and around India and by their dress, one could identify if they were from the northern or western part of India. These learned nuns also spoke in assemblies/shravaka-goshtis to cover large groups of disciples, mostly youngsters. Even Jinagamas were learnt and recited by women. Community singing was also part of their worklist. While housewives attended storytelling sessions to listen to stories of great men in Jainism, ajjis conducted story-sessions and recitals. Nuns and other commoners were involved in making copies of sacred texts and donated them to the basadis and other individuals. The thousand copies of Shantipurana (a sacred text of Jainism) stand testimony to this.’

‘Now, Jainism and Buddhism sound very similar. Are there any differences? If yes, then just tell me the most important and evident one.’ I asked with determination.


‘Both Jainism and Buddhism have similar religious and spiritual practices but the main difference between both is present in the teachings of their religious gurus. The teachings of Mahavira and Buddha differed, leading to the formation of two different religions. There was an Indologist named Moriz Winternitz who lived during the colonial period. He stated that Mahavira taught a very elaborate belief in the soul, which was denied by Buddha. Mahavira’s teachings on ahimsa were greater than those in Buddhism or Hinduism.’

‘Therefore, Jainism flourished all over India shadowing Buddhism because of minimal flaws in its beliefs and practices, and maximum acceptance among the Indian population. Now, as we have reached the end of the ancient period, it is time for us to dive into the medieval period and understand how education evolved in India.’

‘Amazing. I feel like I’m already enlightened!’ I exclaimed.

‘Hold on! There’s still a long way to go. Before that, let us have a short break to feed our tummies.’

After this, my grandfather left for lunch and I accompanied him. By half-past one, we were back to our places and this time I was even more eager because my love for education saw its first branch, just like my grandfather had predicted.



‘So, shall we continue?’

‘Yes!’ I exclaimed.

‘The first foundation of the Muslim era was laid in India during the eighth century A.D. when Mahmud of Ghazni attacked the Indian states and temples for looting all its wealth. Well, he not only gained wealth but also earned an entire nation to rule. He established his authority and began his Muslim rule on the land of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. Mahmud was determined to develop education in Ghazni (his native country) with the wealth looted from India but was negligent in promoting such educational upliftment here. Indian education lost its edge during his reign. However, the winds of change in Indian education began to blow with Muhammad Ghori (1174 A.D. – 1206 A.D.) who actively participated in establishing a strong hold of Islam and Muslim schools in India.’

‘During his reign, many age-old temples at Ajmer and many Indian universities spread all across the nation were destroyed and replaced by mosques and Muslim colleges.’

Were there universities in ancient India? You didn’t tell me about it.’ I pointed out.

‘As you grow old your memory goes weak!’

‘During the Buddhist era, there were many universities which were opened for those who sought higher education. Taxila (6th century B.C.) was believed to be the first Indian university and the chief centre of learning. There were exclusive schools and professors for teaching painting, handicraft, sculpture and 13 other subjects, which aided the students in receiving in-depth knowledge about the subject they chose. It is said that Buddha was a student of Taxila and this proves how efficient the university was. It’s also well-known for its medical science course. However, lecture halls or residential quarters were nowhere to be seen in Taxila but were prominent in Nalanda University. This university, established in east India with multiple classrooms, lecture halls, extensive libraries and boarding facilities, for both teachers and students, is similar to the modern universities we have now. While Taxila endorsed a flexible curriculum and teaching methodologies, Nalanda had a fixed syllabus (focused on Mahayana Buddhism) supported by a well-developed infrastructure to provide quality education equally for all. Students at Taxila had no exams or any degree at the end of their academic period, unlike in Nalanda where students earned a degree at the end.’

‘Meanwhile, there was another university called Vallabhi that emerged in the western part of India. This centre attracted students who were passionate to learn in advance about Hinayana Buddhism. Its syllabus included subjects like Nitj Shastra (law), Arthashastra (economics) and Chikitsa Sastra (medicine) and the graduates of Vallabhi were given employment in the royal courts. Even students from Nalanda studied at Vallabhi. These were the three main universities that added zing to Indian education before the Muslim invasions.’

‘Apart from these, there was The University of Vikramasila which served those who were interested in Tantric Buddhism. Ujjain University encouraged secular learning of practical subjects like astronomy, mathematics and many more, and gained a household name. Students went to Benaras University for learning theology in an efficient way. There were also a few universities in South India, namely Salotgi (Karnataka) which served as a centre of learning for students from all over India. Ennayiram (Tamil Nadu) was another famous university which accommodated and taught over 340 students. Even Kanchi and Sringeri were some of the topmost universities in South India.’

‘We had so many universities providing education to multiple sects of people, even before we started to print paper! This is amazing. So, did the Muslim rulers destroy all of these universities?’ I asked.

‘It was a dog-eat-dog era, where the Muslim rulers decided to uproot the Indian religions for the sake of imposing Islam. This was why hundreds of temples and several universities were burnt down and mosques were built on those ashes. This extinguished the Buddhist system of education. The Vedic system, however, found assistance in South India and continued to function even when the Islamic traditions spread throughout the Indian subcontinent. The ancient Indian education was effective and coherent, and supported many breathtaking discoveries and inventions. Indians had proficiency in structural engineering, architecture, etc. Even the discovery of “zero” in mathematics traces back to Aryabhata, a great astronomer of the Indian classical age.’

‘Were the Muslim rulers so cruel? Did education not thrive in India during their period?’ I questioned.

‘Muslim rulers conducted themselves in a way similar to that of their counterparts in nations across the world. They captured a land that was rich in culture and skilled manpower, and decided to own it. This was why Muslim rulers tried to impose Islam in India but not every ruler aimed at degrading the Indians; there were exceptions. Some rulers formulated their own system of education focused on various infrastructural facilities and aided Indian students to learn for both monetary and spiritual growth. Education was no longer seen as a social duty but was regarded as a family affair. Even the mode of instruction shifted from Sanskrit/Pali to Arabic and Persian. Persian was in fact made the court/official language. During the initial years, Muslim education was open only to the members of Islam but as Persian became their official language and Islam their official religion, their educational needs varied.’

‘So, what was the main objective of this imposed Islamic/Muslim education?’ I asked out of curiosity.

‘Though Islamic/Muslim education had many objectives, the more prominent ones referred to education as a religious duty. With educational institutions attached to mosques, students were exposed to the fundamental principles and practices of Islam. They were also acquainted with the study of Quran and were exposed to the tenets of Islam through literature, philosophy and history. This was how Islam spread throughout India in a short period of time. However, each Muslim ruler had their own objectives and contributed differently to the development of Islamic/Muslim education.’

What were the other objectives, grandad?’ I asked.

‘During the Muslim era in India, there were many famous prophets who devised “acquisition of knowledge/training one’s mind to act right” as another main objective to their intellectual education. Next in line was how Muslims saw education as a means to acquire materialistic properties like medals, high posts/ranks, etc. The educated men and women were highly respected by kings and rulers, which motivated many (even Hindus) to join schools and other educational institutions to receive Islamic education.’

‘As the Muslim educational system had many political interferences in its administration and management, the system functioned with political motives and aimed at developing a strong political system. This was required for developing a new social community when the Muslim rulers entered India. Similar to the other systems of education in India, Muslim education focused on promoting and preserving their Islamic culture and traditions. This was habituated by the Indians who were accustomed to the study of different authentic religious works, and strict rules and regulations concerning their culture.’

‘So, on the whole, the Muslim system of education focused on promoting their religion and culture, and aimed at earning money and other materialistic properties. Adding to this, they also focused on developing one’s self through right thinking, humility and intellectual eminence. In short, students of the Muslim schools grew spiritually, culturally and mentally.’ I stated with confidence.

‘Yes, you are right. In addition to what you’ve said, the knowledge imparted at the Muslim educational institutions was categorised into three types: the Islamic sciences (study of Quran and Hadith), the literary arts, and the philosophical and natural sciences. Even practical subjects carried weight in early Muslim education because subjects related to application of technologies, irrigation systems, textiles, earthenware, leather products, architectural innovations, production of gunpowder and paper, growth of commerce and trade, and the maintenance of a merchant marine were all emphasised.’

How did education in India evolve under each ruler in the Muslim era?’ I asked.

‘During the reign of Mahmud Ghazni, the Muslim system of education flourished on Indian soil. Even Delhi evolved as a great learning centre with the establishment of many educational institutions. However, when Ala-ud-Din Khilji later withdrew all the government funding to the educational institutions and confiscated the endowments of his predecessors, the Indian Muslim educational system had a significant fall. Nevertheless, Delhi still functioned as a prominent centre for Muslim/Islamic education.’

‘Though education saw a decline during Khilji’s period, it saw a reasonable progress during the reign of Tughluq monarchs. Many scholars were encouraged, and shelter for poets, physicians, philosophers and logicians were provided in the courts. When Firoz Shah Tughluq ruled India, Delhi became a famous educational centre with many institutions that provided quality education. In fact, it was Firoz who introduced a pension scheme to the scholars and provided scholarships to students, for the first time. He also ensured that his young slaves were educated. Altogether, Firoz built around thirty colleges along with mosques and accommodated both teachers and students together in those college buildings. He also translated many books into Persian and made sure there was development in the field of politics, religion and literature, and Muslim education. However, after the death of Firoz, many independent rulers emerged and decided to develop Muslim/Islamic education in their small states. This was how Muslim education reached every nook and corner of the Indian subcontinent.’

‘When Babur (1526 A.D – 1530 A.D), the first Mughal emperor in India came to power, India was already filled with renowned Muslim colleges and schools. Though Babur couldn’t contribute much to the educational developments, his son Humayun founded a big and famous Madrasa (educational institution) at Delhi. After Humayun, came Akbar (1556 A.D – 1605 A.D), the most brilliant Mughal ruler, who encouraged both Muslim and Hindu learning and accepted matters of both religions. He was in fact the first emperor to allow Hindu and Muslim youths to study together at the Madrasas. It was during his period when literature, fine arts, history, philosophy and many other subjects grew in demand. Cultural harmony among all sects of people and a reformation of the traditional system of education were the two main objectives followed by Akbar.’

‘Another notable Mughal ruler was Shah Jahan (1627 A.D – 1658 A.D) who promoted courses in sculpturing, music and painting. It is also noted that his son Dara Shikoh was an expert in Hindu philosophy and made an attempt to translate the Upanishads from Sanskrit into Persian. Shah Jahan’s other son was Aurangzeb (1658 A.D – 1707 A.D), the one who favoured only Muslims, unlike his father. He destroyed many Hindu temples and educational institutions and also stood against Hindus and their system of education. By the end of his reign, it was noted that Aurangzeb had boosted both quantity and quality of Indian Muslim education.’

‘How did he do that?’ I questioned.

Aurangzeb devised a curriculum that was more practical and which supported life in many aspects. Many state Madrasas and state Maktabs were established. The state libraries were filled with numerous Islamic books, doctrines and texts. However, after the death of Aurangzeb, the Mughal rule started to decline in India, but the Muslim/Islamic educational system maintained its prosperity and glory.’

‘What do you mean by Madrasas and Maktabs?’ I asked.

‘A Maktab/Kuttab was the educational institution that focused on providing primary education while a Madrasa provided elementary/higher education. The Maktabs were attached to the mosques and its method of admission was quite special and different. Bismillah was the ceremony which was conducted before admitting a kid to the Maktabs. This ceremony was carried out when a kid reached the age of four years, four months and four days. Once admitted, the kids were taught scripts through oral means. The thirteenth chapter of Quran, which dealt with Fatiha/daily prayers was taught to them. Persian grammar, Urdu, elementary arithmetic, poetic works and some writing practices were also spotlighted. All of these were taught in four different types of Maktabs namely Quran schools, Persian schools, Persian Quran schools and Arabic schools (only for adults).’

‘Once a student finished their primary education in the Maktabs, they were allowed to enter the Madrasa, an institution manned by scholars, teachers and noblemen, for higher education. Though a few Madrasas were attached to the mosques, a few were built like independent universities. Teaching was done through lectures in these Madrasas. A student was expected to have both religious and secular education at these Madrasas for around ten to twelve years. In case of Muslim students, they were asked to read Arabic on a compulsory basis. All in all, Madrasas may sound similar to our modern-day universities.’


Were their teaching and learning methods similar to that of the modern universities?’ I asked in speculation.

‘I wouldn’t admit to it entirely, because their educational techniques were as old as the Vedic methods and as new as the modern ones. As students were expected to learn the Quran and other Islamic texts, they were expected to memorise each verse by rote. The concept of a “Monitorial system”, where a monitor would take charge of a class in the absence of a teacher, was first introduced during this period.’

‘Students at Madrasas learnt through lectures and discussions. The aspect of “self-study” was given prior importance and this made the students refer to various books from the library for making notes. Students were also engaged in various practical and experimental works, especially in the field of science. The analytical and inductive methods were also used by the teachers in the Madrasas. However, the entire Islamic/Muslim education laid importance on understanding each student’s psychological working.’

‘What were the cons of this system of education?’ I asked.

‘This system compelled students to waste more time studying various books and verses, with no real benefits, as a student took at least a year to master the basic alphabet. To change all of this, Akbar brought a scientific method of teaching, which unfortunately did not last for long. Even Aurangzeb complained about the time wasted by a kid in learning the alphabet of Persian and Arabic. Another major drawback was the severe corporal punishment given to those students who were found guilty. This was because of the freedom that the teachers enjoyed back then.’

What made the students guilty enough to suffer severe punishment?’ I questioned.

‘Students who were prone to misconduct and weren’t performing well in their studies, along with those who breached the disciplinary code were all found guilty by the teachers.’

‘But why were they so strict, grandad?’ I asked out of concern.

‘The three main qualities and principles that students were expected to follow were discipline, humility and moral conduct. These were even highlighted in their curriculum. This system of education also encouraged students who were never found guilty, by rewarding them with rewards. Even certificates and medals were presented to them at the end of their academic career.’

‘How exactly would you describe the teacher-student relationship that existed in those Muslim schools?’ I asked.

‘It was the same as the one that existed in the Vedic schools. The teachers, mostly men, were the masters and their students were their slaves, who treated them with the utmost respect. A student serving their teacher was considered to be a sacred duty of the student. This was why students were obedient, submissive and respectful to their teachers and served them. People also believed that only through the blessings of a teacher could one attain true knowledge.’

‘Clearly, nothing much had changed in the teacher-student relationship since the Vedic times. Now, I want to know the state of women students in the Islamic/Muslim educational system.’ I said.

‘Back then, people in India lived a very conservative life and educating women was a challenge. However, just like in the Vedic times, even during the Muslim era there were many notable women scholars. Education was exposed to women of the low and middle classes in fewer numbers. Girls of the upper class, however, were allowed to read the Quran in Arabic and learnt Persian and Urdu. Women of the royal courts were also learned and many were even great scholars.’

Where did the women receive their education?’ I asked.

‘A larger number of women began receiving education in the Muslim schools under the Mughal rule. During this period, girls were taught either at their homes or at their teacher’s homes. Special arrangements were made for imparting education to those ladies who worked at the royal courts. Women also learnt vocational subjects through the apprenticeship system. This was conducted either in the manufacturing centres/karkhanahs or teachers’ abode/ustads. The royal ladies received their education in the courts and harems.’

‘Who were the great women scholars back then?’ I placed my question.

‘Some of the prominent ones were Jahanara, Raziya, Jana Begum, Maham Anaga (chief nurse of Akbar), Nur Jahan and Jeheb Unnisya. Nur Jahan was an aesthetic lady and was passionate about poetry, painting and music. She even wrote several verses in Persian. A library filled with many meritorious works was established by her. Apart from Nur Jahan, you should also know about Jana Begum as she was the first woman who wrote a commentary on the Quran. She was also regarded as a Mughal Indian noblewoman and scholar, and was the general under Akbar.’

‘Though Akbar and many other Muslim rulers supported women’s education, there were also opposers like Aurangzeb, Firoz Shah Tughlaq and many more. Therefore, the state of women’s education during the Muslim rule in India was quite inconsistent but was for sure never equal to that of the education received by men.’

‘There were regular inconsistencies and fluctuations in the Muslim system of education due to the despotic rule of the Muslim rulers. No ruler continued the works and ideas of their predecessors. In short, this system of education saw its decline after the fall of Aurangzeb but its popularity and reputation saved it from complete destruction. Adding fuel to the fire was the poverty that Indians suffered at that point, the inability of the Maktabs and Madrasas to impart education to large groups, undivided attention that was laid on warfare by the Muslim rulers and the greed of the officials. Then came the conquests of the Marathas and Britishers, which altogether changed the demand for education in India.’

‘So, all in all, the Muslim/Islamic educational system provided education for free and in great learning centres. This system was the first to introduce a Monitorial system and pension scheme, and also gave scholarships to students. Theology and conduct of life were given much importance. Even the Hindu schools were forced to adopt new techniques for continuing to impart their form of education. The Muslim system of education gave birth to textbooks which brought a revolution in the course of teaching and learning. Various new subjects were added to the syllabus under a humanistic influence to make the students aware about religious, practical and materialistic knowledge. As the Muslim rulers came from the East, a cross-cultural influence began to spread in the Indian subcontinent and its educational systems. Persian was imposed on people, while Sanskrit and Hindi were cultivated. Urdu was another language which came into practice during the Muslim rule. Many translated works came into existence and use. Even the vocational education provided to the students led to increased trade and this brought the attention of the British to India. This in turn ushered the Britishers to visit India, who later conquered it for its wealth and manpower.’ I said with a big smile and sighed.

‘Brilliant! Let’s keep going.’


‘Under the British rule, the Indian educational system saw its first dramatic setback through the emergence of a modern system of education. Traditional Indian education dealt with spirituality, literature, science, law, etc., but avoided world knowledge and happenings. The students of the Vedic, Jain, Buddhist or Muslim schools were ignorant about what was happening outside India and this paved the way for a new system of education in India.’

‘During the initial years of their rule in India, they focused only on improving their trade and administrative activities. However, the East India Company (EIC), after a certain period, decided to influence the Indians with the imposition of English and Christianity. During the early years, only the European and Anglo-Indian kids were allowed to have an English education in India but this phase changed over time.’

‘Tell me this. Who was the father of modern education in India?

I thought for a while and answered, ‘Charles Grant’.

‘Bingo! Any idea why he was called that? I’m pretty sure you would have learnt that in your history class.’

I was confident because I had the answers ready. ‘Charles Grant was the first British official who recommended that English education be brought to India from Europe in 1771. He also wanted to make English the official language to carry out the EIC’s businesses and other local affairs in India. However, none of his suggestions were accepted by the British parliament, fearing that he would trigger Indians in the name of religion and in turn impose a serious threat to their rule in India. Warren Hastings, then Governor-General of Bengal, also stood against Charles’s claims because he believed in Oriental learning.’

‘As time passed, the Colonial government began intruding into the Indian system of education by first founding many Madrasas/universities. The first one was set up in Calcutta (1781) by Warren Hastings and was called Calcutta Madrasa. This Madrasa promoted the study of Muslim law and other related subjects. The second madrasa was the Asiatic Society for Oriental learning, which was founded by James Mill in 1784. By 1791, Jonathan Duncan established a Bengal Sanskrit College for teaching Hindu law and philosophy.’ I said.

‘Very good. You rightly pointed out the first three learning centres established by the Britishers in India. However, The Fort William College (1800) was the first educational institution that was established by the EIC for imparting western education, initially to civil servants and later to the general public in India. As the days passed, the Britishers sought a plan to rule Indians through their system of education and so came the Charter Act of 1813, which brought funding of 1 lakh rupees every year to the Indian English schools and colleges. This plan worked because the Indian scholars and missionaries extended their support in wanting an extensive, modern, secular and western system of education in India.’

‘But why did the Indians support their enemies?’ I asked.

‘The Indian scholars worked for the EIC and acted as communicators between the British officials and the locals. All of these afforded them a wealthy life unlike those Indians who stood against the new English rule. It was evident that the traditional Indian system of education was failing to promote its students at that point. Therefore, all these reasons stimulated Indian scholars to opt for western education as they wanted to cure the social, political and economic ills of India.’

Why were the Indian Christian missionaries supporting the implementation of western education?’ I asked.

‘The missionaries in India, especially Serampore missionaries, wanted to promote Christianity to destroy the already existing faith among Indians and make them accept the new culture and tradition.’

‘So, what happened after the passing of the Charter Act of 1813? What did the officials do with the sanctioned money?’ I questioned.

‘The sanctioned money was supposed to be used for encouraging learned Indians and modern science in India, but it was not made available till 1823. This was due to the presence of certain controversies on the directions and applications regarding the sanctioned money. While this plan was ineffective, Raja Ram Mohan Roy (an enlightened Indian) earned a sanction for the Calcutta College to impart English education in western sciences and humanities with the help of a few teachers from Bengal. Following this, the government later went on to establish three other Sanskrit colleges at Delhi, Agra and Calcutta.’

‘The two major schools of thought that existed regarding the system of rule over India was another significant point of controversy during the British Raj. While the Orientalists supported the motion of having Persian and Sanskrit as the mediums of instruction, the Anglicists favoured only the English culture and language. The former also stood for expanding the traditional Indian learning system while the latter argued in favour of providing exclusive modern education through a new protocol. On the whole, there was a lot of confusion in deciding the medium of instruction, i.e., either the English language or the vernaculars. Lord Macaulay’s Minute in 1835 also favoured the Anglicists as he believed that “Indian learning was inferior to European learning” and this solved the confusion.’

‘The British government decided to favour the Anglicists and opened only a few English schools and colleges to avoid mass education in the initial stages. They also created a new class “Indian in blood and colour but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect” by educating only the upper and middle classes in the English schools. This brought indifferences in the minds of many Indians as the learned men and women now worked for the Britishers and started to enrich the other vernaculars through their knowledge of literature and western sciences. This method led to the education of masses and was called “downward filtration theory”. Though this was quite a failure, it was still a great trigger for the Indian freedom struggle.’

‘Lord Macaulay’s Minute was also called Lord Macaulay’s Educational Policy. This was the first foundation of modern education in India. Even today we follow what Lord Macaulay established during his period. So, any idea what it was all about?’

‘Yes, grandad. I’m quite aware of it. His educational policy substituted English as the court language for Persian. More funds were allocated for English education than oriental learning. With such funds, the English schools were able to provide low-cost English books to their students. Macaulay’s Educational Policy also worked as a base for the emergence of many new universities in India.’ I answered.

‘Apart from Macaulay, another major contributor to the development of modern education in India was James Thomson, lieutenant-governor of NW Provinces (1843-53). He contributed to the establishment of vernacular education in the village schools. Those schools trained students to serve for the Revenue and Public Works Department in British India. Classes on agricultural sciences and mensuration were also held.’

‘The first comprehensive plan for spreading modern education in India was laid down by Charles Wood in 1854. His plan was called Wood’s Despatch/Magna Carta of English Education in India. The despatch stood against the “downward filtration theory” and wanted the Indian government to renounce it. A hierarchical system of administration was formulated for each school and college in India and this helped in understanding the significance of each. Private enterprises for imparting education were also encouraged with a system of grants-in-aid. Colleges and universities that worked for offering higher education had English as their medium of instruction while the schools had vernaculars. Women and vocational education were encouraged in large numbers along with teachers’ training programs. On the whole, Wood’s Despatch supported the idea of imparting a secular education, especially in the government institutions.’

The Bethune School was established by J.E.D. Bethune at Calcutta in 1849 and this encouraged education for women. Bethune was also the president of the Council of Education and the reason behind the appearance of many girls’ schools. She also attached the government’s grants-in-aid and inspection system to those schools. This promoted many girls to have education in prescribed classrooms rather than their homes.’

‘In short, the western system of education, with new educational institutions headed by European headmasters and principals, rapidly spread in India. Even the missionary enterprises saw the same reach and growth. This success rate continued for around five decades with the help of Wood’s Dispatch.’ I said.

‘To assess the success of western education in India since Wood’s Dispatch, a commission was headed by W.W. Hunter in 1882 and was called Hunter Commission. This commission underlined that the expansion of primary and secondary education in India be carried out by the State. It also emphasized on transferring the control of the educational system to the municipal and district boards for effective administration. In case of the learning syllabus, this Hunter Commission divided secondary education into two, i.e., Literary up to university and Vocational for commercial career. Required attention to inadequate facilities for female education was also paid. All in all, this commission focused on the development of primary and secondary education in India.’

‘Slowly, Indians began contributing to the growth of this modern system of secondary and collegiate education. New universities like the Punjab University (1882) and the Allahabad University (1887) were all established, along with many teaching-cum-examining universities.’

‘Everything went smooth until the 20th century when political unrest began erupting, and this affected both primary and secondary educational systems. Raleigh Commission was brought to action in 1902, to coordinate with the universities and aid them in improving their administration. In light of this commission, the Indian Universities Act was passed in 1904 under which universities were treated as institutions of study and research. The power to administer and manage the universities was given to the Government. All of this was seen as a retrograde measure and was used for sabotaging nationalistic feelings.’

‘By 1913, the Government decided to push the provincial governments to provide free elementary education for the downtrodden and backward section of people, as part of the 1913 Resolution on Educational Policy. Adding to this, the policy also stated that each province was supposed to have a university and the quality of all the secondary schools was to be improved. On the whole, literacy rate improved throughout India.’

Sadler Commission (1917-19) was another initiative that brought solutions to many of the problems faced by the Indian universities, especially Calcutta University. Some of the suggestions summoned by this commission were:

i) The entire duration of school education was supposed to be 12 years.

ii) Students were admitted to the universities only after 12 years of basic education.

iii) The course duration at the universities was for 3 years and a degree was given to the students at the end.

iv) University regulations were to be relaxed.

v) Centralized functioning of universities was encouraged.

vi) Universities were expected to be performing like a unitary residential-teaching autonomous body.

vii) Extended facilities were to be provided for teachers’ training, female education, applied science and technological education in the universities.

Apart from this, even the Congress party contributed to the development of Indian modern education through its Wardha Scheme of Basic Education (1937).’

‘Oh! I know about this. This scheme was formulated in a National Conference on Education held at Wardha in 1937. This was where Zakir Hussain Committee devised a detailed scheme of “learning through activity” for basic education along with a few other recommendations like:

i) At least one handicraft was supposed to be included in the syllabus.

ii) The first seven years of school education was to be free and compulsory.

iii) Hindi/vernacular was supposed to be the medium of instruction for classes II to VII, while it was English from class VIII.

iv) Skill-based education was promoted.

All of these prepared a student to be independent and non-violent, unlike the old monotonous educational system where students learnt without much understanding. This paved the way for a new society in India. However, this idea was dropped due to the Second World War and the Congress’s resignation in 1939.’ I said.

‘Superb. In 1944, The Sergeant Plan of Education was implemented by the Central Advisory Board of Education in India. Due to this,

i) Kids belonging to the 3-6 age group received pre-primary education.

ii) Kids who were 6-11 years old received free, compulsory and universal education.

iii) Selected kids from the 11-17 age group had their high school education.

iv) Once kids finished their schooling, they were accepted at the universities for a 3-year course. Universities were divided into Academic, and Technical and Vocational and the student had the liberty to make a choice.

v) Students were exposed to adequate commercial, technical and arts learning.

vi) Intermediate courses were no longer allowed.

vii) Education for the physically and mentally handicapped was also promoted. Physical education and teachers’ training were focused too.

In short, this plan aimed at improving the standards of the Indian educational system to that of England’s in just 40 years. But the main drawback about this plan was on its methodologies and implementation, as the methods weren’t explained in detail.’

‘How did vernacular education grow in India during the 19th century?’ I asked.

‘As I told you earlier, the implementation of vernacular education kept changing over time. But all the while, the donations received from the Zamindars were considered to be significant for the upliftment of this new system of education. Many trials and experiments were carried out for testing the implementation and reception of this system. William Adam’s reports (1835, 1836, 1838) pointed out the demerits in the vernacular system of education. James Jonathan, in the North-Western Provinces of India, conducted experiments that led to the emergence of a normal school for teachers’ training and vernacular education, and a government/model school in each tehsildar. In 1854, Wood’s Despatch came into existence and assisted the government in improving the standards of vernacular education by training teachers in normal schools. The entire system of vernacular education was expected to be supervised by a government agency and this led to a five-fold increase in the number of vernacular schools in India. The notion “Vernacular education for the masses” was supported by the Hunter Commission in 1882. The Education Policy (1904) brought in more grants and financial aid for running the vernacular schools. By 1937, the Congress ministries extended their support for these vernacular schools.’

‘This was how vernacular education spread in British India. Similar to this was technical education, which saw tremendous growth during the British Raj. Many engineering colleges were set up at Roorkee, Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, etc. Apart from this, several medical colleges came to light and the first one was founded in Calcutta (1835). Then came Lord Curzon, who established the first agriculture college at Pusa. This act further led to the development of many such institutions in other Indian provinces.’

‘On the whole, Britishers imposed English/western education on Indians and forced them to glorify the English rule, adhere to Christianity and expand the Indian market for British products. Indians were also pushed into a new system of education that prepared them to be skilled personnel for all British businesses and administrative concerns. All of these were carried out for strengthening the political authority of Britishers in India.’

What were the side effects of all of this, grandad?’ I asked in speculation.

‘As the western educational system took root in India, the traditional system of education stood uprooted. In 1844, having English knowledge was made mandatory for all the government employees and this led to a further increase in the need for western education. However, the western schools in India neglected mass education, which escalated the rate of illiteracy from 84% (1911) to 92% (1921). This brought home a cultural and linguistic gap between the literates and the illiterates.’

‘Under the British Raj, education became a paid affair which deprived poor people from attending schools, unlike city dwellers and other rich classes. Women’s education was entirely neglected by the British government because they never wished to disturb the orthodox sections’ beliefs nor did they see any immediate benefits from educating women. There were only a few colleges that promoted technical and scientific education in India, thereby showcasing how the British administration turned a blind eye to these subjects.’

‘Only with Macaulay’s efforts, English was made a necessity and the following efforts supported this notion. Even the educational policy of 1904 proved to be producing only cheap clerks. However, despite such discredits the educational policy uplifted the modern principles of equality, democracy and the rule of law. This awakened Indians to the hypocrisy of the Britishers and their rule, thus leading to a freedom struggle. Many organisations were established for fighting against the British rule in India and one such was the Indian National Congress.’

‘Now, tell me what happened to the educational system after the first war of independence in India.’

With much confidence, I answered, ‘As per the proclamation of Queen Victoria in 1858, The Government of India substituted The East India Company in terms of political power and supported the emergence of many government institutions. Several colleges were founded and were affiliated to one of the three main universities in India. In terms of the educational pattern, students were expected to finish their 12 years of basic education with a matriculation examination and then move on to do an intermediate course for 2 years. Only after these 2 years, were the students allowed to pursue their Bachelor of Arts Degree in the colleges.’

I continued after a pause. ‘After the establishment of Punjab University in 1869, many private colleges and schools emerged. This was because of the introduction of a grant-in-aid system. Several high schools were also converted into colleges in Madras, Calcutta and other provinces. All in all, secondary education was given more focus in India during 1869. The middle schools were divided into Anglo-vernacular and vernacular while the primary schools were dived into lower primary and upper primary. All of these institutions, however, were manned by unprofessional and untrained teachers. Inadequate teacher training institutions in India led to this poor state of teaching.’

‘Vocational education had no proper provision to flourish in India, while secondary education was all about gaining theoretical/bookish knowledge only. In terms of indigenous schools, they were either merged into the state schools or abandoned completely. These educational institutions, which were growing at a slower pace, found it hard to accommodate and educate the growing Indian population. Such problems were addressed by the Indian Education Commission (1882) and paved the way for the western educational system to grow. However, a major challenge faced by educational institutions in those days was inadequate funding from the government. In short, Britishers kept their hands on the wheel in promoting their beliefs, culture, tradition and power over Indians through a systemised educational system that sought Britishers as the only powerful beings in the world. This kind of thought continued to exist even after India received its independence in 1947.’ I concluded.

‘Perfect! Let us now understand how the educational system performed in post-independent India.’


‘Any idea on what happened to the Indian educational system after 1947?’

‘Indians fought for 90 years, which was a lifetime, to gain independence from the Britishers and this eventually reformed them culturally and intellectually. Western education also contributed to the upliftment and growth of the Indian population. English became the new normal and western education evolved as the new syllabus of teaching in Indian schools and colleges. Many universities like the IITs and IIMs were founded by the government for providing quality higher education to Indians inside India. Government schools were established in both rural and urban areas and this contributed immensely to the development of Indian education. Once the government educational institutions took root in India, private institutions came on the scene to offer quality education with outstanding facilities. All of these transformed the course of Indian education (post-independence) in a good way.’ I answered.

‘Good. Let me put some flesh on what you’ve just said. In 1948, the Radhakrishnan Commission was created for monitoring university education in India. This commission also gave suggestions that were immensely helpful in formulating a new educational system, and they were:

  1. Basic education/pre-university educational course was supposed to be for 12 years.
  2. Central, liberal and occupational education should be the three main objectives for higher education.
  3. A university degree need not be mandatory for one to be employed in the administrative services.
  4. Each college could accommodate 1,000 students but not more than that.
  5. The standards of exams should be improved and the “Concurrent List” should contain university education.
  6. To monitor and manage university education in India, a University Grants Commission (UGC) should be established.
  7. English should be continued as the medium of instruction and not be removed in haste/hatred.
  8. Federal language should be the medium of instruction when a student’s mother tongue is not the same as the federal language. But if both are same, the student has to take up a modern/classical Indian language.

These suggestions were taken seriously while establishing a new system of education. As the first step, UGC was constituted in 1953 along with an autonomous statutory status through an Act of Parliament in 1956.’

‘What were UGC’s main functions, grandad?’ I asked.

UGC was responsible for the overall performance and functioning of each and every university in India. A university’s facilities, educational standards and many more aspects were observed. The central government placed annual funds at UGC’s disposal for developing and implementing various schemes that would benefit all universities in India. This scenario continues to prevail even now, as UGC is still the institution that overlooks the functioning of all Indian universities and colleges.

‘But why was monitoring all educational institutions important?’ I asked.

‘As education was open to all sects of people, the need for coordinating and establishing a uniform curriculum throughout India was indispensable. In fact, the Central Advisory Board of India launched two committees, one for higher education and the other for secondary education, to address the numerous educational problems, formulate various comprehensive educational policies as solutions, and uplift the entire Indian landscape through an effective system of teaching and learning.’

‘The Indian government took another major initiative by appointing the Planning Commission to prepare a generic plan on ways to improve the lives of thousands of Indians including education. New plans were decided and implemented every five years and these were called the “Five-Year Plans”.

‘So, what exactly did the first five-year plan focus on?’ I raised my question.

‘Eradication of illiteracy, achieving universal elementary education, establishment of more vocational and skill training programs, upgradation of standards and modernization of all stages of education (special focus on science, technical and environmental education, morality, and on the relationship between school and work), and supply of adequate facilities for high-quality education in every district.’

‘Apart from these, three main commissions were established by the Indian government for deriving various educational reforms. In 1949, The University Education Commission was set up and significant suggestions regarding evaluation techniques, mediums of instruction, reorganization of courses, recruitment of teachers and student services were all derived. The Secondary Education Commission (1952-53) focused on secondary and teacher education, while The Education Commission (1964-66) reviewed the entire educational system of India. These commissions ensured that the same teaching and learning pattern mushroomed all over the Indian subcontinent.’

Kothari Commission (1964-66) drafted an educational pattern that included 10+2+3 years of education for all. This led to the formation of a new national educational policy, which was issued by the Indian government in 1968. This policy, however, was revised in 1986 and brought more emphasis on ethics, educational technology and national integration. A core curriculum for all was also drafted and introduced.’

‘Education all over India was managed by the National Department of Education (headed by a Cabinet minister), which was a part of the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Several autonomous institutions like UGC, All-India Council of Technical Education (1945) and National Council of Educational Research and Training (1961) were attached to the Department of Education. As each of these organisations targeted different aspects of the Indian educational system, its flaws were identified and solutions were provided. On the whole, the quality of education in India developed manifold.’

‘The central government established around 1000 central schools for their employees’ children. There were also quality schools established for qualified high achievers, irrespective of one’s socioeconomic background. So, according to the seventh Five-Year Plan (1985-90), many such vidyalayas/schools were expected to be founded in each district. The state governments were given the power and authority to manage all the other elementary and secondary educational institutions, within their boundaries.’

With such stiff and efficient planning, did the educational system in India evolve?’ I asked.

‘Of course. In fact, the number of educational institutions in India (from 1950-80) tripled, which led to more primary and secondary schools that taught kids (up to the age of 14) for free. However, though the demand/number of students for education increased, the supply/number of teachers was inadequate. When the national educational policy was revised in 1986, a few of these problems were resolved, paving the way for improvements in non-formal and adult systems of education.’

‘However, the disagreements between political parties, businessmen, teacher and student politicians, and industrialists hindered the progress of the Indian educational system every now and then.’

‘What was the state of women in free India? Were they educated?’ I asked.

‘The Mahila Samakhya Programme (1989) was launched as an initiative to provide quality and equal education to women in India. This encouraged women to step out from their homes and contribute immensely to society. By 2000, The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) was launched to ensure mandatory elementary education for children (6 to 14 years old). The Mid-Day Meal Scheme was also introduced during this period, which made many students attend schools in rural areas.’

‘So, in short, the educational system in Free India expanded general education and increased the literacy rate. Primary education was made free and mandatory. The facilities in the educational institutions were upgraded. Universities also grew in numbers, thereby increasing the scope for higher learning within India. Many polytechnic, management and industrial training institutes were set up. Numerous medical, dental, agricultural and engineering colleges were established. All of these paved the way for an efficient and well-established vocational education system in India. For those kids who were unable to attend school due to poverty, the non-formal education system provided them with elementary learning.

In terms of women’s education, there was a 52% increase in the number of literate women by 2001. Women enjoyed free education till the university level and this encouraged many women to read and learn. In fact, separate educational institutions were established for women, which led to a further increase in the women’s literacy rate. Since the establishment of the National Policy of Education in 1968, regional languages have substituted English as the medium of instruction. Syllabuses, question papers, and the like were all translated into vernaculars. The new curriculum included Indian culture and history, thereby making people aware about Indian notions too.’

In terms of adult education, a separate entity called the National Board of Adult Education was set up under the first Five-Year Plan. This defined the course of education for those people who belonged to the age group of 15-35 years. All of these were headed and monitored by the village level workers. As this method failed, The National Adult Education Programme was initiated in 1978 and this increased the literacy rates of adults in India. The central government began a scheme for developing science education in schools (1988). Laboratories, science kits, teacher training, etc., were all funded by the central government.’

‘What was the main curriculum followed in these educational institutions, grandad?’ I enquired.

‘On a general basis, western education was confined to modern subjects like mathematics, science, etc. However, other subjects like philosophy, metaphysics and the like were treated as unnecessary subjects. English became the medium of instruction, which forced Indians to learn the new language without any delay.’

‘The Indian school system had lower primary (age 6-10), upper primary (age 11 & 12), high (age 13-15) and higher secondary (age 17 & 18) as its four different levels. Lower primary was further divided into five “standards”. Meanwhile, upper primary was split into two, high school as three and higher secondary into two. Children all over India learnt the same curriculum till the end of their schooling, except the vernacular school students. Though students in higher secondary had some liberty in choosing a specialisation in the curriculum, the rest had only one common syllabus. Even in terms of language, students were expected to learn three languages (English, Hindi and their mother tongue) mandatorily. However, schools in the Hindi speaking region did not force children to learn three languages.’

‘Where did the teachers teach the students?’ I asked.

‘Unlike the traditional Indian teaching methods, the western education adopted classrooms for imparting education. This broke the link between nature and humans. Adding to this, the relationship between the teachers and students was also affected.’

‘The 21st century has CBSE, ICSE, IGCSE and many such boards of education but did the 20th century have any of it?’ I raised my query.

My grandad let out a laugh and said, ‘Most of these were formulated in the 20th century. In 1921, The Uttar Pradesh Board of High School and Intermediate Education was set up within Rajputana, Gwalior and Central India. This was the first board of education to be established in India. Followed by this came the Board of High School and Intermediate Education, Rajputana, in 1929. Gradually, a few states in India began establishing their board of education. However, in 1952 the constitution of the common board was renamed (after amendment) as Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). Many Indian schools were affiliated to it, especially Delhi schools. CBSE had the power to fix the examination system, curriculum and textbooks for all its affiliated schools.’

‘Even the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) for developing programs, policies and preparing a National Curriculum Framework was established during the late 20th century. It also had a counterpart called the State Council for Educational Research and Training (SCERT). Both worked together to deliver various educational strategies and schemes, curricula, and methods of evaluation. SCERT explained in detail the responsibilities of each state department of education.’

‘Another major central scheme in terms of education was the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE), which was formulated in a conference held in 1952. ICSE, which supported All India Examination, acted as a substitute for the overseas Cambridge School Certificate. An Indian Council for monitoring and administrating the Local Examinations Syndicate examinations in India and the University of Cambridge were inaugurated in 1958. This council also had the responsibility to advise the Syndicate in terms of fixing the examination patterns as per the needs of the country. In 1967, the Indian Council became a Society, as per the Societies Registration Act (1860) and later was listed in the Delhi School Education Act (1973) as a body that would conduct, monitor and formulate the public examinations in India. Due to all of these, many private schools from all over India got affiliated to this Council.’

‘CBSE was initially developed for the Central government employees’ children who were prone to frequent transfers. Many central schools (Kendriya Vidyalayas) for such kids were established in all the urban parts of India. All of these schools followed the same curriculum so as to make it easier for the kids who change schools almost every year. Though English was the medium of instruction in these schools, one subject was still taught in Hindi, while the others in English. However, apart from the employees’ kids, even other kids were admitted (in case of vacancy) in these central schools. The syllabus and textbooks followed in these central schools were that of NCERT.’

‘Apart from these state-run schools, numerous other private schools were established in India. These private schools followed the common CBSE syllabus but with different teaching methods and textbooks, especially for lower grades. During the late 20th century, there were several schools affiliated to the CBSE and ICSE council. In these affiliated schools, the council would conduct two main All-India exams: one at the end of 10 years of schooling and another at the end of 12 years.’

‘There were also exclusive schools which followed foreign curricula/Senior Cambridge and provided boarding facilities for both teachers and students. Though the foreign curricula were substituted by ICSE in India, a few of these exclusive schools were accepted by the ICSE council and this allowed its students to appear for the ICSE examinations. These schools were too expensive and were usually afforded by those Indians who worked aboard. With a small number of students and teachers (who came from aboard too), and with an amazing infrastructure these exclusive schools were a dream to be part of. Similar to these schools were the Doon School in Dehradun, Rishi Valley school in Andhra Pradesh and many more, which supported innovative educational measures rather than rote learning.’

‘In terms of state-run schools, each state had its own school curriculum and other methodologies, which was largely administered by SCERT as per NCERT’s guidelines. There were three types of schools in each state. These three types of schools followed the same curriculum (as prescribed by their state) but were owned by different people. The first type was the government school, which was owned and run by the government. The fee in those schools was very minimal.

After a long period of time came the private schools, which were owned and run by private individuals/trusts/partnerships, mostly for the urban middles class families as the fee was comparatively high. The last type of school was the one that was established by a private agency but was run by the government. As these schools were run by the government, the fee was low and this encouraged even poor families to educate their kids in those schools. Kerala is known for such kind of schools.’

‘This sounds very similar to the current state of schools, grandad. Right now, in India, we have government and private schools, and also schools aided by the government. But I assume there are lots of differences between the schools that were set up in the 20th and 21st centuries.’ I said.

‘In that case, tell me about the current state of education, its aspects and curriculum, something you are currently part of as this will help us in noting the differences between the education I had and the one you have now.’


‘Out of experience, I can strongly admit that I have more facilities than you did. For example, I have labs for science, maths, English and computer science. I’d say that the invention of computers and the internet has added another main subject to our curriculum. In terms of extracurricular activities, I’m exposed to dancing, singing, drawing, speaking, acting and many more.

Unlike your times, people now make a career out of every talent they have. Nobody is focused on becoming mere engineers or doctors now, but they are adamant in choosing the road less travelled. Expansion in the field of science and technology has further encouraged students to unravel the unknown. Schools are focusing on building a student’s character and skills rather than pressurising them to score marks. Though separate schools for boys and girls continue to prevail, co-ed schools are more popular now.

In terms of teacher-student relationship, I consider my teachers to be my friends and they treat me as their favourite. But I know for sure that you did not see your teacher as your friend, and I assume it’s because of the strict code of conduct that prevailed during your period.’ I gave a pause and resumed.

Present schools also promote various cultural and sports competitions. Student participation in these competitions is also increasing day by day. However, the plight of government schools is a hard sight.’ I answered.

‘Very well. You are right, my dear. When I used to be in school, I never had the opportunity to act beyond what I was told to. Teachers were only our masters and not our friends. Our subjects were minimal, exams were quite easy and schools weren’t that populated. However, to find a career back then was difficult as there were only limited fields of work. Parents were not that understating/supportive and this forced many to choose a career against their will.’

‘I went to a government school and an aided college because there were no private schools back then. Only by the end of the 20th century did private educational institutions become part of the Indian educational system. Now, as you can see, there are more private schools than government institutions.’

‘During my time, college education was a dream for many as most families did not have the money to afford the college fees. I had my college degree because I earned a scholarship and I’m glad I did because education during my period was excellent too.’

‘However, as you have stated, the internet changed the world. The 21st century is in fact called the digital era because of the invention of the internet. I used to write in papers but now you type all your assignments. I used to submit my notebooks in person but you just mail it to your teachers. The 2020 pandemic has made online classes a great substitute for the traditional classes. There are also other online courses offered by private organisations like Udemy, BYJUS, etc., which was not even a distant dream in my period.’

‘It is clear that technological advancements when mixed with the educational system will lead to innovative teaching-learning process. Educomp smartclass is an innovation that I admire because it helps one understand theories and concepts without much strain. Educational institutions also encourage students to be a part of various clubs, which promotes their extracurricular skills. Students are also trained to be socially responsible through various awareness programs, activities and campaigns. Students are also supported by various career guidance programs, internships, seminars, presentations, etc.’

Transport facilities are another big advancement in the field of education because during my days, I used to walk long distances to reach my school but now you have an AC van that picks and drops you to your right destination. On the whole, the syllabus, teachers, student mindset, career choices, college life and everything regarding education has changed for the better, as learning is now a fun activity.’

‘When looked from the third-person point of view, the educational system in India has developed tremendously in the past decade. As of 2019, there are around 1.5 million schools, 751 universities, thousands of colleges with over 100,000+ students. With unique teaching techniques like experiential and peer learning, along with the rise of Ed-Tech (experiential and interactive courses) or online education, the Indian educational system has come a long way in educating its people. Adding to this is the innovation of smartphones that has led to a well-informed student group, which makes it mandatory for the teachers to stay up-to-date too. All in all, the rise in science, commerce, technology and other fields of life will substantially lead to an upgradation in the educational system.’


‘I get your point, grandad. You are right and I guess that’s why we have a new educational policy coming up. Could you please explain to me about National Educational Policy 2020?’ I asked.

The National Education Policy 2020, approved by the Union Cabinet of India on 29 July 2020, substitutes the old National Policy on Education (1986) and aims at improving the Indian education system by 2040. This new educational policy spotlights all types of education from elementary to higher. Vocational training in both urban and rural areas is also included in this. The language policy of NEP 2020 clearly states that English will continue to be the official medium of instruction in the Indian educational institutions. However, the implementation of this language policy is up to the particular states, institutions and schools, and not the central government.’

‘What is the vision of this policy, grandad?’ I asked.

‘This policy was formulated for developing an India-centric education system, which provides high-quality education for all and through which our nation would be directly transformed into an equitable and vibrant knowledge society. In simple words, the ultimate aim of this new educational policy is to educate everyone effectively, thereby leading to a better future for both Indians and India.’

‘Explain to me in detail, grandad.’ I stated.

NEP 2020 has four parts, namely school education, higher education, “Other Key Areas of Focus” (like online and adult education, and promoting Indian languages) and “Make it Happen” (includes methods to implement the policy’s plans).’

‘Let me state NEP 2020’s important points:

  1. By 2025, the Indian government aims at achieving “universal foundational literacy and numeracy” in all primary schools by letting the Ministry of Human Resource Development set up a National Mission on Foundational Literacy and Numeracy.
  2. All public and private schools, apart from those managed/funded by the central government, will be assessed and accredited on the same criteria, standards and procedures.
  3. With the aim of transforming school education to meet the needs of the students at different developmental stages, school curricula and pedagogy will be changed from the “10+2” model to “5+3+3+4” design. The new design constitutes four stages, namely “Foundational Stage (five years)”, “Preparatory Stage (three years)”, “Middle Stage (three years)” and “High Stage (four years, starting from the 9th grade to the 12th)”.
  4. Regarding the medium of expression, a student’s mother tongue or their local/regional language shall be taken into account at least till the 5th grade (preferably till the 8th or beyond). Even the “three-language formula”, which prevails since the 1986 NEP, shall be executed in the schools with at least two native Indian languages.
  5. The policy aims at achieving a 100% Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) from preschool to secondary education by 2030. It also tracks students and their learning levels to ensure universal participation in schools. In case students drop out of school or fall behind in their studies, suitable opportunities for rejoining school shall be provided to them.
  6. This policy supports all girl and transgender students in attaining equal and quality education, and provides funds for provisions like toilets and sanitation, bicycles and conditional cash transfers. All of these are constituted under the “Gender-Inclusion Fund”, which is offered by the Indian government to each state. This measure shall also help the states in curbing any “community-based” interventions in educating girl/transgender children.
  7. This policy encourages the idea of adding the Indian Sign Language to the overall school curriculum.
  8. According to this policy, all educational institutions in India shall undergo the same audit and disclosure (as a non-profit entity). This is to make the institutions reinvest their profits in the educational sector only, thereby increasing the investments made on Indian education.
  9. The concept of “school complexes”, which consists of a secondary school and other schools for lower grades, along with anganwadi centres (within a radius of 5-10 km), is introduced under this policy for having effective coordination, functioning, leadership, management and governance of schools in a cluster.
  10. This policy encourages the foundation of many multidisciplinary “higher education institutions (HEIs)” all over India by 2040 and at least one such HEI in or near every district, by 2030. On the whole, this policy ensures that the GER of higher education shall be increased from 26.3% (2018) to 50% (2035).
  11. Phil. programs are cancelled.
  12. As per this policy, students who have completed a three-year UG program shall take up a two-year PG/Master’s program and those who have completed a four-year UG program shall take up a one-year PG program. If not both, one can take up the five-year integrated Bachelor’s and Master’s programs, all of which are offered by the HEIs. Students will receive a certificate at the end of every academic year to validate their knowledge and learning.
  13. To facilitate “merit-based but equitable” peer-reviewed research funding, a National Research Foundation shall be founded.
  14. This policy also facilitates the establishment of selected foreign universities (from among the top 100 universities) in India and also the foundation of high-performing Indian universities in other countries.
  15. The centre and the states shall put their hands together in raising public investments for education from 4.43% (GDP) to 6% (GDP) in India.
  16. This policy supports the National Council for Teacher Education to develop a new and common National Professionals Standards for Teachers (NSPT) after consulting NCERT, SCERTs, teachers and other related organisations by 2022.
  17. “Bal Bhavans”, as a special daytime boarding school, shall be established in every state/district for involving the students in arts, sports and other career-related activities. The infrastructure of other free schools shall be utilised as “Sudhira Samajik Chetna Ewam Prashikchhan Kendras”.
  18. Under this policy, each state/UT shall establish an independent State School Standards Authority (SSSA) and the SCERT will formulate a School Quality Assessment and Accreditation Framework (SQAAF).
  19. This policy also encourages the establishment of at least one Indian Institute of Translation and Interpretation (IITI), and national institutes for Pali, Persian and Prakrit.
  20. National Educational Technology Forum (NETF) shall also be launched for monitoring and enhancing the use of technology in learning, assessment, planning and administrating.

On the whole, these major changes in the Indian educational system will lead to a tremendous rise in the literacy rates and the number of skilled professionals and scholars in India. It will also enhance the culture, traditions and languages of India.’

‘But how, grandad?’ I questioned.

‘This policy will provide solutions to various drawbacks of the existing educational system. It will also promote diversity and equality along with a comprehensive educational structure. Adequate funds will be allocated to the right institutions and for the right purposes. Research funds to promote R&D is also proposed under this policy. All in all, NEP 2020, if implemented right will enhance the quality and quantity of the Indian system of education.’

‘Now tell me dear, what changes and developments do you see and expect to see in the overall Indian education system?

After running a detailed analysis in my head, I said, ‘The Indian education system has evolved and developed tremendously with the help of new technologies like Smart Boards, Educomp, etc. Even the old and monotonous curriculum is now replaced with a creative, practical and engaging curriculum. The emergence of online schooling with the help of smartphones and the internet has overcome the restrictions of time and place for teaching and learning.’

I continued to say, ‘All of these current changes in the educational system will lead to personalised learning, which will encourage students to choose their subjects and the style of learning. This will further help the students to cope with their career expectations. Practical applications and hands-on experiences through internships and assignments will also boost a student’s understanding of various concepts. Apprenticeship and mentorship will also gain more attention and significance. Considering all these points, we can conclude that the future educational system shall help students be independent in making their choices and also emphasise the need for personal responsibility among the students.

‘One of my ex-classmates is not attending school nowadays, instead is staying at home, learning from her mother. When I asked her about it, she told me she is homeschooling. What does that mean?’ I asked.

Homeschooling refers to the act of parents teaching their kids at home, rather than sending them to any educational institution. Though this concept is spreading rapidly in modern India, its roots trace back to those olden days when parents used to teach their kids all the household chores or their trade for earning. However, homeschooling is legally accepted only in certain countries and India is one among them.’

‘Oh! What and how will they teach their kids?’ I enquired.

‘Homeschooling helps parents understand their kids’ individual learning needs and aids them in drafting unique and separate teaching methods for the same. Most of the time, the teaching materials and methods for homeschooling are at par with the international syllabus. Educational methods of NIOS or IGCSE suit homeschoolers the best. Even CBSE’s methods are also sometimes considered by them. In terms of general methods, homeschoolers in India follow unschooling, Waldorf education, Montessori, traditional school-at-home and radical unschooling. Though some of these methods are followed in a few educational institutions, some parents wish to educate their kids at home (under their guidance).’

‘But why? Wouldn’t the kids be bored to stay at home all day long? How will the kids make new friends? How will the kids learn without any distraction from their parents? Wouldn’t the parents be biased towards their children in terms of strict rules and orders? What will happen when parents get busy sometimes? What if they are very tired after a long day of work? How can a parent be thorough in all the subjects? How much money do they need to spend on buying the learning and teaching materials? Do colleges consider homeschoolers for higher education?’ I questioned.

‘All your questions are valid, but you need to understand that homeschooling is adopted by those parents who are ready to teach their kids. Only after detailed planning, the parents would take such a big decision. In fact, when parents teach their children in a way suitable to kids, it would only strengthen, not weaken, the relationship between them. Another main advantage enjoyed by homeschoolers is the flexible teaching and learning techniques. Innovative methods that support practical learning are mostly used in homeschooling. Parents get the opportunity to lay more focus on the educational needs and wants of their children. Parents tend to teach their kids through their life experiences, which will help the kids learn and understand concepts better. On the whole, through homeschooling the kids will realise that learning is fun and parents will discover their kids’ hidden talents.’

‘Therefore, though homeschooling has its disadvantages, it is still considered to be an effective method for imparting education. However, it is in the hands of the parents to decide what’s best for their kids.’

‘Right. I have another doubt. Are there any modern religious schools, grandad?’ I asked.

‘Yes. There are several Hindu, Islamic and Christian schools, which are functioning very well currently. Various Veda Pathshalas (modern gurukhulas) and other religious educational institutions are also evident in India. Through this, it is quite obvious that the religious and cultural beliefs of Indians are still undisturbed by the technological developments in India.’


Indian education system

‘So, let me summarise the overall growth and evolution of the Indian education system. The first educational system in India arose during the Vedic Period, when gurukhulas grew in numbers to impart religious, spiritual and skill-based education to students (based on their castes). Women were educated too, but not as equal to men. Buddhism and Jainism stemmed from the various caste conflicts that arose in Hinduism. Each of these latter religions established their own educational institutions to impart their beliefs and code of living. While the Indian education system had strong roots and effective curriculum, the Islamic rule began, which further altered the educational system in India.

Islamic/Muslim schools (Maktabs and madrasas) were established to spread Islam and to strengthen the Muslim rule in India. Women were educated quite effectively during this period. Once all the four religions took root in India, came the Britishers who altered the course of Indian education entirely upside down. They introduced English as the official language and systematic classroom learning as the new educational method. However, it was during their period that the three main universities, namely the University of Calcutta, the University of Bombay and the University of Madras, all based on the British universities’ models, were founded in India.

The educational system in India (post-independence) reflected most of what the Britishers had introduced. However, with the development of Congress and a dedicated administrating body, many new educational institutions were established in India. Institutions for teacher training and other new scientific and technological courses were also established. On the whole, the literacy rate in India (post-independence) began to rise rapidly and so did the need for crafting a well-formulated educational system. Thereby came the Five-Year Plans, which brought many educational developments in India.

Many administrating authorities like the UGC, CBSE, ICSE, NCERT, SCERT and Department of Education were all established to monitor and develop the Indian education system. Women’s education, since the British period, developed due to many schemes, scholarships, facilities and funds that were provided by the government to promote girl education in India. Currently, we have online education supported by technological advancements, which will keep expanding and evolving. Educomp smartclasses, practical learning, homeschooling, private tuitions, etc., are all the new educational practices currently used in India. Women have begun to be treated equal to men and so do their chances of being educated. NEP 2020, when implemented effectively, would develop the Indian education system manyfold.’ I gave a pause.

‘Meanwhile, the curriculum of the Indian education system changed drastically over the period. While students learned about uplifting oneself spiritually during the ancient period (Vedic, Buddhist and Jainism), they learned ways to earn their livelihood and other materialistic pleasures during the medieval period (Islamic and British period). However, when Britishers introduced the English curricula, Indians were forced to learn subjects that would transform them into skilled employees for the British companies. Presently, the curriculum has evolved to be more practical and skill-based. In the future, there’ll be a flexible curriculum that would meet the independent needs of each student, leading to efficient and effective educational practices.

The methods of teaching and learning drastically changed since the ancient times. During the ancient period, students regarded their gurus as the ultimate authority and also served them. During the medieval period, students regarded their teachers only as instructors, which further affected the teacher-student relationship. In current times, students consider their teachers to be their informal instructors or friends and I’m sure that both the teachers and students, in the future course of action, will teach and learn from each other in an equal space.’ I said.

‘In short, the Indian education system has come a long way, benefitting both society and its stakeholders. It is also evident that the evolution of the Indian education system, with many challenges like poverty, religious conflicts, change of lifestyle and growing population, will leave no stone unturned.’

‘Now, what does that mind of yours say? Would you be interested in attending your online classes tomorrow or would you still want to be educated in a gurukhula, like the Pandavas?’

With a smile and a wink, I said, ‘The latter sounds great but the former is brilliant! Thank you, grandad.’

‘I’m glad I won, but even happier that I’ve made you win too. Congratulations to both of us. Now, let’s go to sleep. Good night.’

‘Good night. Bye.’ I said and left the place.

Note from the author: Images in this article are all extracted from other relevant online sources.


Reference links: – Transformation of Indian Education system – Ancient Indian Education system – Vedic Education in India – Gurukul system – Ancient Indian Education – Concept of teachers in Vedic Period – Gurus in Vedic period. – Upanayana – Vedic, Buddhist, Jainism and Islamic Education  – Acharya – History of Buddhism in India – Buddhist Education system – Schools of Buddhism – Biography of Buddha and –  Buddhism beliefs – Features of Buddhist schools – Growth of education during Buddhist period. – Guru-shishya tradition – Hindu gurus – Jainism in India – Jainism schools in India – Jainism and its system of education in India – Jainism system of Education notes – Taxila and Nalanda and – Islamic education in India – Islamic education in Medieval India – Madrasa

Education in British India: – Secondary Education in India during Five-Year Plans – Evolution of Education in post-independent India. – Education in India (post-independence) – Development of education in post-independent – Modern Education in Free India – Indian Education System – Education in India – Current educational system in India – Education in Future India – Religious schools in India – National Educational Policy 2020 – NEP 2020 – NEP 2020 merits and demerits. – Homeschooling



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May 2024