Concept of Teacher in Vedic Educational System


Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A(Socio, Phil) B.Sc. M. Ed, Ph.D

Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V. (P.G) College, Roorkee, India

“He who is possessed of supreme knowledge by concentration of mind, must have his senses under control, like spirited steeds controlled by a charioteer” says the Katha Upanishad.

From the Vedic age downwards the central conception of education of the Indians has been that it is a source of illumination giving us a correct lead in the various spheres of life. Knowledge says one thinker, is the third eye of man, which gives him insight into all affairs and teaches him how to act.

The education system which was evolved first in ancient India is known as the Vedic system of education. In other words, the ancient system of education was based on the Vedas and therefore it was given the name of Vedic Educational System.

The education system of Vedic period has unique characteristics and .To achieve their aim not only did Brahmans develop a system of education which, survived even in the events of the crumbling of empires and the changes of society, but they, also through all those thousands of years, kept a glow of torch of higher learning.

Education in ancient India was free from any external control like that of the state and government or any party politics. It was the kings duties to see that learned Pundits, pursued their studies and performed their duty of imparting knowledge without interference from any source what so ever

The importance which in modern times is attached to the Institution or the Alma Mater was in ancient days attached to the teacher in India. This was but natural, for organised educational institutions came rather late into existence in this country, as was also the case in the West. The person who takes charge of immature children and makes them worthy and useful citizens in society was naturally held in high reverence. It was the function of the teacher to lead the student from the darkness of ignorance to the light of knowledge. The lamp of learning is concealed under a cover, says one thinker ; the teacher removes it and lets out the light. The Guru in the ancient times realized that the development of personality is the sole aim of education. Human personality was regarded as the supreme work of God. The qualities of self-esteem, self confidence, self restraint and self respect were the personality traits that the educator tried to incukate in his pupils through example.  The student therefore must be very grateful to him and show him the highest possible reverence. He is to be revered even more than parents; to the latter, we owe our physical birth, to the former our intellectual regeneration. From the Vedic age downwards the teacher has been all along designated as the spiritual and intellectual father of the student.  Without his help and guidance, no education is possible. He is in fact indispensable. This is graphically illustrated by the story of Ekalavya, who when refused admission to his school by Drona, prepared an image of the teacher under whom he longed to learn, and successfully finished his studies in archery, under the inspiration that he received from the inanimate representation of his animate preceptor. Buddhists and  Jains also attached equally great importance to the teacher. This importance attached to the teacher need not surprise us, for it is now admitted on all hands that neither buildings nor equipment exercise such influence on students as is exercised by cultured and competent teachers, who instruct as well as inspire.

The great importance that was attached to the teacher in the ancient system of education and the high reverence that was shown to him in society are not difficult to understand. Since the earliest times the Vedic learning is being transmitted orally in India from one generation to another.

This continued to be the castigating when the art of writing came into general vogue. The Mahabharata condemns to hell a person who commits the Vedas to writing. Great importance was attached to the proper accent and pronunciation in the Vedic recitation, and these could be properly learnt only from the lips of a properly qualified teacher. The continuous transmission of the store of the Vedic knowledge, which society regarded as priceless, was possible only through the instrumentality of the teacher and his importance therefore could not be exaggerated. With the rise of the mystical systems of philosophy in the age of the upanishads, the reverence for the Guru became still more intensified ; for spiritual salvation depended almost entirely upon his proper guidance.  ’This deification of the philosophical Guru was not without its reaction in favor of the ordinary teacher who taught disinterestedly without stipulating for any fees. We should further remember that books being dear and rare, the student had generally to rely upon his teacher alone to a much greater degree than is the case now-” in the case of professions, even when books exist in plenty, a good deal more has to be learnt from the teacher. So a competent and sympathetic teacher, who would unreservedly place at the disposal of his pupil the essence of all his experience, could hardly be over- venerated by the artisan apprentice working under him. The glorification of the teacher must have produced great psychological influence on students, for childhood is the heyday of personal influence.

Since the teacher was held in high veneration, he was naturally expected to possess several qualifications. The student was to look upon the  teacher as the ideal person and regulate his own conduct by the example of his teacher. The latter there- fore was expected to be a pious person of very high character. He was to be patient and treat his students impartially. Above all he was to be well grounded in his own branch of knowledge; he was to continue his reading throughout his life.  Profound scholarship however was not sufficient for the teacher. He must have a fluent delivery, readiness of wit, presence of mind, a great stock of interesting anecdotes and must be able to expound the most difficult texts without any difficulty or delay.  In a word, he should be not only a scholar but also an adept in teaching ; then only he would be a great teacher, as pointed out by Kalidasa. The teacher must further be able to inspire as well as to instruct ; his piety, character, scholarship and cultured life should be able to- exercise a subtle and permanent influence over the young students sitting at his feet for their lessons.

Though the teacher was held in high reverence, it does not appear that any institutions like Teachers’ Training Colleges of the modern times existed in the past. One of the hopes expressed at the convocation (Samavartana) was that the graduate may have the good luck of attracting students from all quarters.  It is therefore clear that no further training was deemed necessary for the graduate in order to qualify him for the teaching profession. The reasons for this are not far to seek. Students received individual attention and lessons from their teachers. During their educational course Vedic students could note how precisely teachers used to pronounce and intonate the Vedic Mantras when teaching them to their students. As far as the study of other branches like grammar, logic, rhetoric, philosophy etc. was concerned, no special training was necessary for fostering and developing the powers of exposition and elucidation of students specialising in them. In the modern system of education students can get their degrees by listening to their teachers in the class-rooms and answering the question papers in the examination halls. Such was not the case in ancient India. Several times during his course the student was called upon to pass through the fiery ordeal of learned debates (sastrartha) when he was called upon to defend his own position and attack that of the opponent in heated discussions. Powers of debate and discussion were thus remarkably developed by the time the student finished his education. Advanced students were also given opportunities of teaching the beginners in most of the educational institutions.  The graduate therefore had a fairly good teaching experience to his credit by the time he left his alma mater. The absence of training collegestherefore did not materially tell upon the efficiency of the teachers at least as far as higher education was concerned. The teaching profession had a very high code in antient India.

There was often competition for getting more students ; but if one teacher was found to be less well grounded than his rival in his subject, he was expected to close down his school and become a disciple of his rival in order to get full knowledge.  The teacher was to begin the education of the student as soon as he was satisfied that the latter was sincere and possessed the necessary caliber ; he was not to postpone instructions unnecessarily.  For example on being defeated in debate with Maudgalya, Maitreya at once closed his school and became the pupil of his vanquisher in order to become better grounded in his subject. The debate between Sankara and Mandana Misra was also held on the usual condition that the vanquished should become the disciple of the vanquisher.

Usually teachers were allowed to watch the conduct and calibre of the new entrants for about six months or a year; but after that period they were bound to start instructions. If they did not do so, they were saddled with all the sins of the students they were keeping in suspense.

The duty to teach was imperative; all students possessed of the necessary calibre and qualifications were to be taught, irrespective of the consideration as to whether they would be able to pay any honorarium or not. We have seen already that no regular fees were charged by ancient Indian teachers and institutions. The poorest of the poor could demand and get education from the teacher by merely agreeing to do household work in the teacher’s house. Further, the teacher was required to teach everything he knew to his disciple ; he could withhold nothing under the apprehension that his pupil may one day outshine him in the profession.- how generous and large hearted teachers usually were in this connection can be judged from the conduct and exclamation of Alara Kalama, when the future Buddha had finished his education under him :

“Happy friend are we in that we look upon such a venerable one, such a fellow ascetic as you. The doctrine which  know, you too know, and the doctrine which you know, I too know. As I am, so you are, as you are so am ‘I. Pray, sir, let us be joint wardens of this company”.

The relationship between the teacher and the pupil  was regarded as filial in character both by Hindu and Buddhist thinkers; the teacher therefore had to discharge several duties in addition to imparting intellectual education and helping spiritual progress. He was the spiritual father of the pupil and was held as morally responsible for the drawbacks of his pupils.  His extra-academic duties’ were varied and numerous. He was always to keep a guard over the conduct of his pupil. He must let him know what to cultivate and what to avoid ; about what he should be earnest and what he may neglect, he must instruct him as to sleep and as to keeping himself in health, and as to what food he may take and what he may reject. He should advise him as to the people whose company he should keep and as to the villages (and localities) he may frequent.” If he was poor, he was to help him in getting’ some financial help from people of influence and substance in the locality.  He was to arrange for his food and clothing: the teachers of Sanskrit Pathashals in eastern India used to do this till quite recently. If the student was ill, the teacher was to nurse and serve him as a father would do to his son.

We have no data to enable us to get a precise idea of the normal income of the teacher in the early period. In ancient days in India as in the West, there was no Education Department prescribing a scale of salaries, which was more or less followed in private institutions also. Educational institutions them- selves came into existence only at about the 5th century A. D. We have already seen how the educational theory and practice prohibited the teacher from charging any fixed scale of fees from his students. The teacher in ancient India therefore had, as a general rule, no fixed income. We have seen already that usually he was also a priest. His income therefore consisted partly of offerings obtained by him ‘on the occasions of rituals and sacrifices and partly of voluntary gifts given by his students either during or after their course. There was to be no stipulation for these presents ; so they varied with the financial capacity of the guardians. At Taxila we learn that the ‘world-renowned’ teachers- used to have 500 students reading under them, and that the rich ones among the latter used to offer a fee of a thousand coins.  This however does not enable us to get any accurate idea of the teacher’s income. The number of students, 500, is conventional  and not real and we do not know whether the fee of 1000 coins offered was for one year or for the whole course, and whether it included the expenses of boarding and lodging also, which were normally offered by the Taxila teacher. We therefore can form no definite idea of the income of the teacher during the early period.

We however get more definite data about the teacher’s income from the time educational institutions were evolved. Teachers at Buddhist Universities of Nalanda and Vikramasila were monks and so required no salaries ; the administration had to spend for each monk-teacher just the amount necessary for the maintenance of only four students.

In south Indian colleges the annual salary of teachers varied according to their qualifications and subjects from 160 to 200 maunds of rice. This income was about two and half times the income of the village accountant or the carpenter, and was equal to about four times the amount necessary for meeting the normal food expenses of a family of five persons. We would not be wrong in supposing that as a general rule m ancient India the Sanskrit teacher imparting higher education received a similar income. He was thus neither suffering from abject poverty not rolling in superfluous wealth. Society enabled him to lead a life of moderate comforts according to the ideal of plain living and high thinking. We can now understand why learned teachers were exempted from taxation. The income of the primary teacher was naturally less than that of the Sanskrit teacher. In Bengal at the advent of the British rule, the income of the primary teacher was just equal to that of the . The total cost of one good meal for’ one year was about 8 maunds of rice. The salaries above mentioned were given in the college at Eunayirnrn; in other institutions they were sometimes different. Sometimes inscriptions disclose that the Veda teachers used to get only 30 maunds of rice per annum ; in such cases they were probably part-time teachers and were expected to supplement their income from the proceeds of the priestly profession.

Public educational institutions, where teachers used to teach students admitted by the managing body, were not many in ancient India. The relations between the teacher and the student were therefore direct and not through any institution. The student usually went to such a teacher as attracted his attention by his reputation for character and scholarship ; the teacher selected such students as appeared to him sincere, zealous and well-behaved. The student usually lived either under the roof of the teacher or under his direct supervision. The teacher not only did not demand any fee but also helped the poor students in getting food or clothing. He nursed him if he was ill. The student naturally lived as a member of the household of the teacher and helped him in doing the household work if necessary. The teacher on the other hand would not expect this work if the student was a paying boarder and would limit it to the minimum in the case of poor students.  Under such circumstances the relations between the teacher and the student were naturally very cordial and intimate; they were united, to quote the words of the Buddha, ‘by mutual reverence, confidence arid -communion of life’.- Students usually did not desert one teacher for another merely out of freakishness.

Teachers would often entertain genuine affection for their students and would sometimes select some of them as their sons-in-law. Later authorities have laid it down that a student cannot marry his teacher’s daughter, because she stood in the relation of a sister to him; Kacha refused to marry Devayani on that account. This rule seems to have been framed to prevent complications likely to arise in practice when young students used to live and board with their teachers. But earlier practice seems to have been different, in Jatakas we come across several cases of teachers marrying their daughters to their most promising students ; the custom was so deep rooted in certain teachers’ families that students had often no option in the matter, even if they were not in favor of the match.

The cordial relations that existed between the teacher and the student continued also in their after-life. Even when the student had returned home after his education, he was to call on his teacher frequently, bringing him some present, it may be even a tooth-stick.’  Teachers also used to return these visits. The teacher’s visit was not without its benefit to the student ; he used to utilise the occasion to ascertain how far the ex-student was keeping up his reading and studies.

Never in the history of education you will find such a close contact between the teacher and the taught. The teacher was the spiritual father, he was is to nurse, when the pupil fell sick, he was to feed, clothe and teach his student as he fed, clothed and taught his son. The student also regarded the teachers as he regarded his parents, king & god. Both were united by communion of life. In fact they communed together

The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence. Rabindranath Tagore


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