The Concept of Student in the Ancient Education System

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

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

Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.

Plato (BC 427-BC 347) Greek philosopher.

The primary aim of any system of education should be development of a whole some personality. The Vedic system of education stood on former grounds of lofty ideals because its primary aim was development of personality and character. Moral strength and moral excellence were developed to the fullest extent. Every student was required to observe celibacy in his specific path of life. Purity of conduct was regarded as of supreme importance. Only the unmarried could become students in a Gurukul. On entering student life, the student was made to wear a special girdle called a makhla‘. Its quality depended on the caste of the student. Brahmins wore a girdule of moonj grass, the kshatriyas of string gut-taanta and the vaishyas a girdle made of wool. The clothes worn by them were also accordingly of silk, wool etc. The students were not allowed to make use of fragrant, cosmetic or intoxicating things.

In most cases the boy went to a teacher for studentship. The maximum age of entrance into school was different for different castes. The period of schooling was long, at least 12 years for one Veda. The academic sessions started with a special ceremony ―upkarman‘ on the Guru Purnima (Full month of Shravana) and as solemnly closed on Rohini (Fullmoon month of pausha) with utsarjan‘. The whole session was punctuated with holidays especially on new moon full moon days of the month.

A ceremony called the upnayana ceremony was performed before the child was taken to his teacher. The word upnayana means to take close to, or to being in touch with.  This ceremony was performed at the ages of 8, 11 and 12 for the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, respectively. The ceremony signalled the child’s transition from infancy to childhood and his initiation into educational life. In this context, the term upanayana‘ means putting the students in touch with his teacher. With the passage of time, the ceremony came to be conferred to the brahmins class only.

Education was free and universal.. It was free because no student was required to pay any fees. It was free also because no outside agency could interfere in the matters of education. There was perfect autonomy. No external authority no external beneficiary, no politics was permitted to enter the school or college system. A student had to pay nothing in return for education he received in a Gurukul or Ashram. The fee, if any, was to be paid, after attaining education from the earnings of the young man who got education, in the form of Guru Dakshina‘. During education the boarding and lodging was free for almost all these students. Access to good education depended not on wealth but on talent. The student was expected, if desired but never compelled to offer a field, cow, horse or even vegetables to his teacher according to his financial position in the society. Education could not be bought one could go up the Ladder as his abilities permitted.

In vedic age students used to lead a simple life and sober life. Nowadays the life style of our young generation has altogether changed they like to lead luxurious and majestic life, full of fashion and show. They have given up the principle of Simple Living and High Thinking‘and adopted its reverse principle i.e. High Living and Simple Thinking. The whole balance of the life is disturbed

The student was to hold his teacher in deep reverence and honour him like the king, parents and god. His outward behaviour must be in conformity with the rules of decorum and good manners, he ought to get up and salute his teacher in the proper way, he ought not to occupy a higher seat or wear a gaudier dress. Reviling and backbiting are severely condemned. It however did not follow that the student was to connive blindly at his teacher’s misconduct. Both the Buddha  and Apastamba,  who enjoin high reverence for the teacher, lay down that the student should draw his teacher’s attention in private to his failings, and dissuade him from wrong views if he happened to be inclined towards them ; the duty of obedience comes to an end if the teacher transgresses the limits of Dharma. 5 His commands were to be regarded as ultra virus, if they were likely to jeopardise the student’s life or were against the law of the land.

In Gurukulas, the student was expected to do personal service to the teacher ‘like a son, suppliant or slave.  He was to give him water and tooth stick, carry his seat and supply him bath water. If necessary, he was to cleanse his utensils and wash his clothes.” He was further to do all sundry work in his monastery or his teacher’s house, like cleansing the rooms etc., bringing fuel or guarding cattle. This custom existed in the Vedic age; and was widely prevalent in later times also. Tradition asserts that even great personages like $ri-Krishna had deemed it an honour to do all kind of menial work in their preceptor’s house during their student days. It was held that no progress in knowledge was possible without service in the teacher’s house.

There were, however, limitations to this duty to work. The teacher was prohibited from assigning any work that was likely to interfere with the studies of the student. The duty was further more nominal’ than real in the case of paying scholars. We have seen already that the duty to teach was imperative and a teacher could not refuse a student merely because he was poor. Poor students were admitted if they were willing to help the teacher in his house- hold or farm work ; this duty to work was effectively operative only in their case. Teachers used to hold special classes for them at night with a view to see that their education did not suffer on account of their day’s work on the farm or in the household..

The school in the Ancient Education System, lasted for 7 to 8 hours a day. In fair weather classes were held in the open under shady groves. In the rainy season schools ran in a set of apartment. Temple colleges of the past had been of great renown for having spacious buildings for classroom, hostels and residential quarters for teachers. Gurukuls  were generally situated on the river banks or on the lake. The whole atmosphere was quiet, calm and peaceful. It must be noted that schools and colleges were not kept for away from human habitation. Naturally it differed in different courses and we have detailed information only about the religious and literary education. The students taking these courses used to get up early in the morning before birds had begun to stir, i. e. at about 4-30 A. M. Then they used to attend to morning functions, take their bath and offer their prayers. Vedic students used to spend a good deal of the morning time in performing various morning rituals connected with fire sacrifices; this afforded them practical training in the rituals they were expected to perform in their after-life.

Other students contented themselves with their prayers (sandhya.) and spent the rest of the morning either in learning new lessons or in revising old ones. At about 11. A. M. this work would come to an end and students used to break off for their meals. Those staying with their teachers or in boarding houses used to get ready meals served out for them ; those who were poor used to go out to collect cooked food for their meals. After the noon meal there followed a period of rest of about an hour or so ; and teaching started at about 2 P. M. and went on till the evening. We sometimes get references to students spending their evening in collecting sacred fuel for sacrifices; but this must have been true of Vedic students of the early period only. Evening was probably spent in physical exercises. At sunset they offered usual prayers, attended to fire sacrifices, and then took their supper. Poor students, who had to work by day in the teacher’s house or elsewhere, used to spend a considerable part of the night in studies. We, should not forget that paper and printing were unknown and books were rare and costly ; so there was little of homework possible, except the revision and recapitulation of the lessons learnt in the teacher’s presence. Students of sculpture, architecture, painting, smithy and carpentry etc. spent most of the day in the teacher’s workshop, learning the details and the technique of the art and trade, and often accompanying and helping the teacher as apprentices in the professional work that he may have undertaken in the town or city.

The begging of the daily food has been enjoined on the student as a religious duty. This injunction occurs in sacred texts from the Vedic age downwards;  some texts lay it down that the student must beg his food both morning and evening.- it has been declared that no food is so holy for the student as the food he obtains by begging at midday. The student had to bear the responsibility of feeding both himself and his teacher, this was done through begging for alms, which was not considered bad. Since every domestic knew that his own son must be begging for alms in the same way at some other place. The reason behind the introduction of such a practice was that accepting alms induces humility. The student realized that both education and subsequent earning of livelihood were made possible for him only through society‘s service and its sympathy. For the poor students, Begging for alms was compulsory and unavoidable, but even among the prosperous, it was generally accepted practice.

The rule of begging was laid down for the student in order to teach him humility and make him realize that it was due to the sympathy and help of society that he was learning the heritage of the race, and being enabled to follow a profession that would secure him a living. This rule further removed the distinction between the rich and the poor and brought education within the reach of the poorest. It was also useful in reminding society of its duty and responsibility about the education of the rising generation. Civilisation will not progress if each gene- ration does not take proper steps to transmit its heritage to the next. Hindu thinkers therefore made it an incumbent duty for all householders to offer cooked food to the begging student; a householder refusing his request was threatened with serious spiritual sanctions.  In medieval universities of Europe, a very large number of students used to maintain themselves” by begging out of sheer necessity; in ancient India begging was elevated into a duty of the student life. It may however be pointed out that our educationalists have pointed out that a student can beg food just sufficient for his needs; if he collected more, he would be guilty of theft.  Similarly he could not have recourse to begging when his education was over.  Society was morally bound to support every poor student who was honestly struggling to educate himself; when however he was educated, he was expected to stand on his own legs.

There is clear evidence to show that Smritis themselves did not expect the rule of begging to be literally followed by all students, both rich and poor. They have laid down a penance, only if the student did not beg at least once in the week.  This shows that the rule of begging was a mere formality in the case of rich students and a reality only in the case of the poor ones. There are also other indications in Smritis to show that begging was not a reality in the case of all. It has been laid down by Sumantu  that students under 12 should take their food early in the morning ; begging should be resorted only after 12.

The view of Krishnajini is also the same. The Chinese pilgrim Yuan Chwang attributes the fame of Indian scholars for deep scholarship to the circumstance that students in India have not to worry about their food, clothing and medicines.” It will be thus seen that begging was elevated into a duty for the student, primarily for the purpose of bringing education within the reach of the poorest, and secondarily for removing the superiority complex from the mind of rich students ; he was the ideal student who lived by begging and not he who lived on his family’s support. The rule was not intended to be literally followed by all students every day.

The student had to observe strict regulations. Instruction was important, but was even more significant than teaching was discipline – discipline inculcated through strict obedience to laws and regulations of student life, discipline that was rooted in morality and religion A student was required to give up lust, anger, greed, vanity, conceit and over joy. It was ordered to him not to gamble, gossip, lie, backbite, hurt feelings of others, dance, sing, look or talk or touch the other sex and kill animals. It was demanded of every student whether rich of poor that he should lead a simple life in the Gurukul or in the Ashram.  It was felt that student’s life should be characterised by dignity, decorum and self-discipline and should be devoted to acquire grounding not only in learning but also in the culture and religion of the race. In order to infuse piety, it was therefore laid down that they should regularly offer the prescribed prayers and sacrifices both morning and evening. In order to inculcate good etiquette and manners, it was insisted that they should show proper courtesy and respect to their elders and teachers. The duties towards the latter have been described already. In order to develop character, emphasis was given on moral earnestness; lying, slandering and backbiting were never to be indulged in. They were to observe strict celibacy even in thought and speech.

Strength of mind and character is developed if we learn to deny to ourselves our natural desires and inclinations. Rules of discipline therefore lay down that articles like meat, sweetmeats, spices, ornaments and garlands, which have a natural attraction for the youth and tend to accentuate the sex impulse, should be tabooed to students. Even royal students, staying in a Gurukula were not allowed to have any private purse, lest they should secretly purchase prohibited articles.” Plain living and high thinking was to be the student’s ideal: they were to shave their heads clean or keep matted hair: no time was to be wasted in oiling, combing and dressing the hair. Students must take the bath once in the day, but pleasure baths were forbidden. Shoes, umbrellas and cots were not to be used as a general rule. Food and dress were to be simple but sufficient. The aim in prescribing these rules was to enable students to form a number of useful habits during the formative period of his life.

Punishment had practically no place in the school system. Pupils received very sympathetic, treatment from their teachers. Their personality was respected Teachers were required to use sweet and gentle speech in dealing with pupil.

Of the above rules, those relating to religious duties and moral behaviour, were particularly emphasised and strictly enforced; modifications however were permitted in the case of the rest, if demanded by special circumstances.

Thus the prohibition against the use of shoes and umbrellas was not rigorously enforced in ancient India as in ancient Sparta; the idea was that students should not be so soft as to require these articles when moving about on good roads in villages and towns  under normal circumstances. Students going to thorny forests in search of the sacred fuel (samidhas) or undertaking a long journey to distant places, were permitted the use of both the shoes and umbrellas. Similarly occasional exceptions were permitted in the case of the use of sweetmeats, when students were invited to some religious function or feast . The use of oils was permitted in some localities once a week probably after the shave . Cots also were probably permitted in swampy or snake-infested areas.

The rules of discipline were on the whole reasonable for the age. They were intended to infuse piety, teach manners, promote self-control, discipline the will and facilitate the formation of good habits. The complaint that they were too ascetic is not true; students were required only to control their passions and desires and not to kill them, as was recommended in the case of ascetics. Strict celibacy was insisted upon, but that was for the purpose of promoting concentration in studies and the development of the body. At the end of the course, students were enjoined to marry. At Sparta students’ food was both plain and scanty. In India it was only plain; the educationalists had realised that the body is developed and built up during the childhood and adolescence and have therefore permitted students to take as much food as was demanded by the needs of their developing constitution. In the light of these facts the observation of a recent writer that the student life in ancient India was very severe because it required a stay at a stranger’s place, demanded a beggar’s or a menial’s life and denied all pleasures of life  will appear to be considerably wide of the mark.

Ancient education a student centered education. No single method of instruction was adopted, though recitation by the pupil followed by explanation by the teacher, was generally followed. There was no classroom teaching. However monitorial system was prevalent and senior pupils were appointed to teach Juniors. Travel was regarded as necessary to give finishing touch to education.  The methods of teaching generally practiced during vedic period were mainly Maukhik (oral and other method was based on Chintan (thinking or reflection) In the oral method the students were to memorize the mantras (Vedic Hymns) and Richayas (Verses of Rigveda) in order that there might not be changed wrongly and they might remain preserved in their original forms. Under the oral methods these prosodies were thoroughly taught on which Richayas happened to be based. Special emphasis was laid on the various lines of a particular verse, their pronunciation and meanings. In this oral method correct pronunciations was specially emphasized. For this instruction in grammar and pronunciation was compulsory for all.

Thinking method was another part of the teaching method. Through this an attempt was made to preserve the veda mantras (vedic hymns) and Richayas (vedic verses) Manan was higher method of teaching than a thinking. Thorugh Manan the meanings of vedic mantras the meanings of vedic mantras were developed and preserved in ones own mind. This method was used to encourage the highly intelligent students by guiding them to make research, similarly in ancient days, Manan (Reflection) was a method specially adopted for highly intelligent students. Besides question – Answer, Debate and Discussion, Story telling was also adopted according to need.  As all the books written in Sanskrit, therefore the medium of instruction was Sanskrit.

Society did not regard the student life as a proper period for enjoying the pleasures of life. Its standards of plain living also were naturally much different from those of the modern age, dominated by the novel, the drama and the cinema.






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