The Indian Concept of Education

Dr. V.K. Maheshwari, Former Principal

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


“India was the motherland of our race, and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages: she was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics; mother, through the Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity; mother, through the village community, of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all”.

– Will Durant, American historian

The ideal of education has been very grand, noble and high in ancient India. Its aim, according to Herbert Spencer is the ‘training for completeness of life’ and the molding of character of men and women for the battle of life. The history of the educational institutions in ancient India shows how old is her cultural history. It points to a long history. In the early stage it is rural, not unban. British Sanskrit scholar Arthur Anthony MacDonnell (1854-1930) author of A History of Sanskrit Literature says, “Some hundreds of years must have been needed for all that is found” in her culture. The aim of education was at the manifestation of the divinity in men, it touches the highest point of knowledge. In order to attain the goal the whole educational method is based on plain living and high thinking pursued thought eternity.

As the individual is the chief concern and centre of this Education, education also is necessarily individual. It is an intimate relationship between the teacher and the pupil. The relationship is inaugurated by a religious ceremony called Upanayana. It is not like the admission of a pupil to the register of a school on his payment of the prescribed. fee. The spiritual meaning of Upanayanan, and its details inspired by that meaning, are elaborated, in many texts and explained below in the proper place. By Upanayana, the teacher,  “holding the pupil within his as in a womb, impregnated him with his spirit, and delivers him in a new birth.” The pupil is then known as Dvija, “born afresh” in a new existence, “twice born” (Satapatha Brahmana). The education that is thus begun is called by; the significant term Brahmacharya, indication that it is a mode of life, a system of practices.

This conception of education moulds its external form. The pupil must find the teacher. He must live with him as in member of his family and is treated by him in every way as his son. The school is a natural formation, not artificial constituted. It is the home of their teacher. It is a hermitage, amid surrounding, beyond the distractions of urban life, functioning in solitude and silence. The constant and intimate association between teacher and taught is vital to education as conceived in this system. The pupil is imbibing the inward method of the teacher, the secrets of his efficiency, the spit of his life and work, and these things are too subtle to be taught.

It seems in the early Vedic or Upanishad times education was esoteric. The word Upanishad itself suggests that it is learning got by sitting at the feet of the master. The knowledge was to be got, as the Bhagvad Gita says, by obeisance, by questioning and serving the teacher.

India has believed in the domestic system in both Industry and Education, and not in the mechanical methods of lager production in institutions and factories truing out standardized articles.

“A most wonderful things was notice in India is that here the forest, not the town, is the fountain head of all its civilization. Wherever in India its earliest and most wonderful manifestations are noticed we find that mean have not come into such close contact as to be rolled or fused into a compact mass. There, trees and plants, rivers and lakes, had ample opportunity to live in close relationship with men. In these forests, though there was human society, there was enough of open space, of aloofness; there was no jostling. Still it rendered it all the brighter. It is the forest that nurtured the two great ancient ages of India, the Vedic and the Buddhist. As did the Vedic Rishis, Buddha also showered his teaching in the many woods of India.

“The very word ‘Aranyaka’ affixed to some of the ancient treatises, indicates that they either originated in, or were intended to be studies in, forests.”

” He who is possessed of supreme knowledge by concentration or mind, must have his senses under control, like spirited steeds controlled by a charioteer. “says the Kaath 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 all affairs and teaches him how to act.

It may be said that India was the only country where knowledge was systematized and where provision was made for its imparting at the highest level in ancient times. Whatever the discipline for its imparting at the highest level in ancient times. Whatever the discipline for learning, whether it was astronomy chemistry, medicine, surgery, the art of painting or sculpture, or dramatics or principles of literary criticism or mechanics or even dancing everything was reduced to a systematic whole for passing it on to the future generations in a brief and yet detailed manner. University education run almost in modern  lines existed in India as early as 800 B.C. or even earlier.

A single feature of ancient Indian or Hindu civilization is that it has been moulded and shaped in the course of its history more by religious than by political, or economic, influence. The fundamental principles of social, political, and economic life were welded into a comprehensive theory which is called Religion in Hindu Thought. The total configuration of ideals, practices, and conduct is called Dharma (Religion, Virtue or Duty ) in this ancient tradition. From the very start, they came, under the influence of their religious idea, to conceive of their country as less a geographical and material than a cultural or a spiritual possession, and to identify, broadly speaking the country with their culture. The Country was their Culture and the Culture their Country the true Country of the Spirit, the ‘ invisible church of culture’ not confirmed within physical bounds. India thus was the first country to rise to the conception of an extra-territorial nationality and naturally became the happy home of different races, each with its own ethno-psychic endowment, and each carrying its social reality for Hindus is not geographical, not ethnic, but a culture-pattern. Country and patriotism expand, as  ideals and ways of lie receive acquiescence. Thus, from the very dawn of its history has this Country of this Spirit ever expanded in extending circles, Brahmarshidesa, Brahmavarta, Aryavarta , Bharatvarsha, or Jambudvipa, Suvarnabhumi and even a Greater India beyond its geographical boundaries.

Learning in India through the ages had been prized and pursued not for its own sake, if we may so put it, but for the sake, and as a part, of religion. It was sought as the means of self-realization, as the means to the highest ends of life viz. Mukti or Emancipation. Ancient Indian education is also to be understood as being ultimately the outcome of the Indian theory of knowledge as part of the corresponding scheme of life and values. The scheme takes full account of the fact that Life includes Death and the two form the whole truth. This gives a particular Angele of vision, a sense of perspective and proportion in which the material and the moral, the physical and spiritual, the perishable and permanent interests and values of life are clearly defined and strictly differentiated. Of all the people of the worked the Indians is the most impressed and affected by the fact of death as the central fact of life. The individual’s supreme duty is thus to achieve his expansion into the Absolute, his self-fulfilment, for he is a potential God, a spark of the Divine. Education must aid in this self-fulfilment, and not in the acquisition of mere objective knowledge.

Etymologically , the Hindi word ‘Shiksha’ has been derived from the Sanskrit verb ‘Shiksh’ which mean ‘to learn’.Thus’. Thus, education mean both learing and teaching. In the Raghuvansh, the term ‘education’ has been used in these two senses. In India languages, the terms ‘Vidya’ and Jnana’ have been used as synonyms to the term ‘Shiksha’. The term ‘Vidya’ has been derived from the verb ‘Vid’ which means ‘to’ know, to find out, to learn’, but later, this was fixed for ‘curriculum’. In the beginning, four subjects were included under Vidya, but later, Manu added the fifth, called Atma Vidya, and gradually, this number rose to fourteen, which included Vedas, Vedangas, Dharma, Nyaya, Mimansa etc. Thus, ‘Vidya’ means both curriculum and learning.

The term ‘Jnana’( gyaan ) meand the same as education in its wide sense in Indian philosophy. In Indian philosophies, the term ‘Jnana’ is not used for only information or facts, though in the west, this sense is The term ‘Janja’ mean the same as education in its wider sense in Indian philosophy. In Indian philosophies, the term ‘Jnana’ is not used for only information or facts, though in the west, this sense is quite prevalent. In the Amarkosha, the terms ‘Jnana’ and ‘Vijnana’ (Vigyaan) have been distinguished saying that is reated with emancipation while ‘Vijnana’ is reated with crafts. In other words,Jjnana or knowledge is that which develops man and illuminates his path to emancipation, while whatever is leant and known in practical life is called Vijnana or science.

The Indian concept of education can be understood from the prescribed list of subject on the concept of reality.

Vidya and Avidya

The word Avidyā is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *weid-, meaning “to see” or “to know”. It is a cognate of Latin vidēre (which would turn to “video”) and English “wit”.

The terms Vidya and Avidya represent opposites.Vidya refers to knowledge,learning, and to the different sciences – ancient and modern. So Avidya would mean the opposite – ignorance, absence of learning, and illiteracy

The Mundakopanised says :

Tasmai sa uvacha ha –dve vidye veditavye eti hasma yad brahmavido vadanti, para chaivapara cha

“…..There are two kinds of knowledge worthy to be known, namely, the higher(para) and the lower (Apara).”

The lines which follow the above quotation explains that the lower knowledge consists of the Vedas, phonetics, grammar, astronomy etc. and the higher knowledge is that by which the imperishable is known

The Sanskrit words Vidya is a shortened of forms of Para Vidya. The root Vid means to know. Para Vidya is knowledge of the Absoute or spiritual knowledge.


Apara Vidya or it shortened from Avidya is knowledge of any sector or worldly knowledge in the wider sense.

Etymologically avidya is the antithesis of knowledge, ie., the absence of knowledge. But the word is not used in the negative concept. All knowledge or Apara Vidya which envelopes the phenomenal world is turned Avidya.

Isa – Upanishad explains the idea in the following verse:

Vidyam Cha avidyam cha

Bah tad veda upayam saha

Avidyaya mrutyum tirtva


It is through Avidya that one crosses the great stream of death whicle through Vidya one attains immortality.

Thus the Upanishands make it clear that the worldly knowledge (Avidya) which though ephemeral is also of importance to the seeker, absolute knowledge (Vidya ) is of the higher self which helps him attain his goal.

The work of Avidya is to suppress the real nature of things and present something else in its place. In essence it is not different from Maya . Avidya relates to the finite Self (Sanskrit: atman) while Maya is an adjunct of the cosmic Self. In both cases it connotes the principle of differentiation which is implicit in human thinking. It stands for that delusion which breaks up the original unity  of what is real and presents it as subject and object and as doer and result of the deed. What keeps humanity captive in Samsara is this Avidya. This ignorance is not lack of erudition; it is ignorance about the nature of ‘Being’ (Sanskrit: Sat). It is a limitation that is natural to human sensory or intellectual apparatus. This is responsible for all the misery of humanity. Advaita Vedanta holds that the eradication of it should be humanity’s only goal and that will automatically mean Realisation of the Self (Sanskrit: Atman).

Adi Shankara on avidya says in his Introduction to his commentary on the Brahma Sutras, “Owing to an absence of discrimination, there continues a natural human behaviour in the form of ‘I am this’ or ‘This is mine’; this is avidya. It is a superimposition of the attributes of one thing on another. The ascertainment of the nature of the real entity by separating the superimposed thing from it is Vidya (knowledge, illumination)”. In Shankara’s philosophy Avidya cannot be categorized either as ‘absolutely existent’ or as ‘absolutely non-existent’.

As already said, there are two kinds of reality-one, of the phenomenal world and the other, usually said as a higher one of the Atman or Brahman. The former reality in comparison with the latter one is said to be of a lower order in the sense that the world attainments are only ephemeral in nature. Therefore to understand both these realities two kinds of knowledge are necessary.

In the Mundaka Upanishad, a student reverentially questions a Rishi about Truth: ‘Revered Sir, what is that by knowing which everything (in this universe) becomes known?’ (2) The Rishi begins his reply by classifying knowledge or Vidya into two categories: Para(higher) and Apara (lower). Apara Vidya refers to the four Vedas and the six accessories of Vedic knowledge (the vedaigas): phonetics, the ritual code, grammar, etymology, prosody, and astrology. The compass is clearly very wide: the process of creation, the nature of gods and goddesses and their relation to creation, the nature of the soul and of God, the rituals that procure worldly and heavenly enjoyments, and the way of release from the series of birth and death; in short, religious or scriptural knowledge and the ways of living prescribed by different religions are all subsumed under Apara Vidya. Para vidya, the Rishi informs his student, is that ‘by which the immutable Brahman (akshara) is attained’. This Brahman is imperceptible, eternal, omnipresent, imperishable, and the source of all beings. Scriptural study is Apara Vidya, secondary knowledge. To know Brahman (or God) directly and in a non-mediate fashion is the primary aim of life, and is therefore termed Para Vidya.  If the scriptures tell us about life, then what about the other sciences – physical science and technology, and the social and political sciences? They do play a very valuable role in our lives, and are classed as Apara Vidya. But they are secular sciences. What do we get through secular knowledge? Wealth, power, luxury, and pleasure, but not the bliss that results from spiritual knowledge. The Apara Vidya that comprises scriptural knowledge helps us know that this world is not the only world, that there are other divine worlds accessible to human beings. The keeping of religious injunctions and performance of scriptural activities are prescribed as means for attaining enjoyment in these higher divine worlds. But these gains are transient and ephemeral. However, if the obligatory duties prescribed by one’s faith are performed with the aim of cultivating love of God and love of people of all faiths, the performer gets his or her mind and heart purified, and can attain the realization of that immutable Brahman which secures eternal bliss.

The Upanishads remind people with dogmatic and fanatic tendencies that scriptural injunctions also lie in the domain of ‘lower knowledge’. The Mundaka Upanishadsays that people devoted to mere scriptural ritualism are ‘deluded fools’: ‘dwelling in darkness, but wise in their own conceit and puffed up with vain scholarship, [they] wander about, being afflicted by many ills, like blind men led by the blind’. They think of their way as the best and delude themselves into believing that they have attained fulfilment, and so continue to suffer the ills of life .

How does one overcome Avidya Through Vidya, for ‘through the help of Vidya one cultivates such virtues as the taste for holy company, knowledge, devotion, love, and renunciation.’ Sri Ramakrishna  explicates the nature of Avidya: ‘Avidya consists of the five elements and the objects of the five senses – form, flavour, smell, touch, and sound. These make one forget God’ .

Both Vidya and Vvidya are aspects of Maya, the cosmic power of Brahman. This power does not however affect Brahman (or Ishvara) itself. For Maya is under the control of Ishvara. But it is by Maya that human spiritual knowledge is covered. Again, it is the Vidya component of Maya that is responsible for the generation of spiritual knowledge, while Avidya, even as it covers spiritual knowledge, is the source of all secular knowledge and human discoveries.

So Avidya is nothing but human ignorance about God’s nature, by which one is perpetually deluded into doing the rounds of Samsara, the cycle of transmigration. This Avidya again is nothing but misidentification of real knowledge, which is one’s real nature. Therefore, religious scriptures ask humans to purify their heart, mind, intellect, and ego. Real human nature is pure and divine; each soul is potentially divine. Maya personifies our illusory perception. This phenomenal world is the longest dream come out of cosmic mind, of which the individual is a part.

‘According to the Advaita philosophy,’ says Swami Vivekananda, ‘there is only one thing real in the universe, which it calls Brahman; everything else is unreal, manifested and manufactured out of Brahman by the power of Maya. To reach back to that Brahman is our goal. We are, each one of us, that Brahman, that Reality, plus this Maya. If we can get rid of this Maya or ignorance, then we become what we really are.’  While lecturing on ‘The Real Nature of Man’ Swamiji dwelt upon the nature of ignorance, Avidya:

Ignorance is the great mother of all misery, and the fundamental ignorance is to think that the Infinite weeps and cries, that He is finite. This is the basis of all ignorance that we, the immortal, the ever pure, the perfect Spirit, think that we are little minds, that we are little bodies; it is the mother of all selfishness. As soon as I think that I am a little body, I want to preserve it, to protect it, to keep it nice, at the expense of other bodies; then you and I become separate. As soon as this idea of separation comes, it opens the door to all mischief and leads to all misery . Swamiji also makes a distinction between objective knowledge that is in the domain of avidya, and para vidya, which is our very Self: ‘Knowledge is a limitation, knowledge is objectifying. He [the Atman, the Self] is the eternal subject of everything, the eternal witness in this universe, your own Self. Knowledge is, as it were, a lower step, a degeneration. We are that eternal subject already; how can we know it? It is the real nature of every man’ .

Vidya one end is attained; by Avidya, another. Thus we have heard from the wise men who taught this. He who knows at the same time both Vidya and Avidya, crosses over death by Avidya and attains immortality through Vidya. Those who follow or “worship” the path of selfishness and pleasure (Avidya), without knowing anything higher, necessarily fall into darkness; but those who worship or cherish Vidya (knowledge) for mere intellectual pride and satisfaction, fall into greater darkness, because the opportunity which they misuse is greater. In the subsequent verses Vidya and Avidya are used in something the same sense as “faith” and “works” in the Christian Bible; neither alone can lead to the ultimate goal, but when taken together they carry one to the Highest. Work done with unselfish motive purifies the mind and enables man to perceive his undying nature. From this he gains inevitably a knowledge of God, because the Soul and God are one and inseparable; and when he knows himself to be one with the Supreme and Indestructible Whole, he realizes his immortality of human life.


“There are some parts of the world that, once visited, get into your heart and won’t go. For me, India is such a place. When I first visited, I was stunned by the richness of the land, by its lush beauty and exotic architecture, by its ability to overload the senses with the pure, concentrated intensity of its colours, smells, tastes, and sounds… I had been seeing the world in black & white and, when brought face-to-face with India, experienced everything re-rendered in brilliant Technicolor.”

Keith Bellows, National Geographic Society



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2 Responses to The Indian Concept of Education

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