15 Sept 2023


‘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.’


‘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 VedaSama 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!

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.’

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Education in ancient India was truly remarkable and ahead of its time. It was deeply rooted in the culture and philosophy of the era. The ancient Indian education system, primarily imparted through Gurukuls (teacher's homes), emphasized holistic learning. Students not only gained knowledge in subjects like mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and philosophy but also imbibed values, ethics, and life skills. One of the most notable aspects of ancient Indian education was its inclusivity. It was open to all, regardless of caste or gender, which was progressive for its time. Great scholars like Chanakya, Charaka, and Aryabhata emerged from this period, contributing significantly to various fields. The emphasis on oral transmission of knowledge and the guru-shishya (teacher-disciple) relationship fostered a deep connection between teacher and student, ensuring a personalized and well-rounded education.
Interesting story, thanks
I can say that education is a universal right, and every country should strive to provide quality education to its citizens. While I may not be familiar with the specific details of education in India, I believe that a strong educational system is crucial for the development and progress of any nation. Good read, @bheema, and thanks for sharing! 💡💡💡
The teaching of islam is quite similar to Christianity