Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Seats of Learning in Ancient India

V. Narayanan


Seats of learning in ancient India were not confined to a particular region but were scattered all over the country. They attracted students not only from different parts of India but from other countries, particularly China, Tibet and Ceylon, Sources of information about them consist of (1) Contemporary records of Greek and Chinese travelers, (2) Lives and Writings in Tibetan of the Professors of the Indian Universities, (3) Records of Indian Archaeology and (4) Indian Literary sources, including the Vedas, the Puranas and the Hindu and Buddhist story-books.

The history of these centres of learning falls into three definite periods–the early period of Vedic schools, the middle period of non-Buddhist colleges and lastly the period of the Buddhist Universities.

Our earliest records are admittedly the Vedas. There are passages in the Vedas from which one may infer the existence of seats of learning even in those early days. There are many references to differing schools of thought. The branches or ‘sakhas’ of the Vedas probably represent the differences of such schools of thought. The founders of these schools were discoverers of what were known as ‘Vidyas’ or secret springs of knowledge, which were jealously guarded and revealed only to chosen disciples. These scholastic establishments developed in course of time into ‘Gotras’ where knowledge was fostered and preserved. There were eight primary ‘Gotras’; and the members of ‘Gotras’ formed out of each primary ‘Gotra’ belonged to a common ‘pravara’; to them was handed down the special learning of the original ‘Gotrakara.’

At the head of each Gotra was a ‘kulapati,’ who took disciples and conducted a residential school. The Vedic school year commenced generally in August on the full moon day of the lunar month of ‘Sravana.’ Apparently this day marked the commencement of the rainy season. The annual harvest was over and the cultivator had leisure to attend to his studies; the trader generally returned home from his business abroad before the rains; the soldiers were free from military service as the rains rendered marches across the country impossible. The ‘sanyasis’ who served the purpose of itinerant professors were compelled to stay for four months together in a place; and their services were available to ardent students of philosophy and religion.

The Vedic schools closed on the full moon day in January in the lunar month of ‘Paushya.’ The intervening term of five months was utilised for learning the texts of the Vedas by heart. The students repeated the text after the teacher, early in the morning, often before sunrise. They divided themselves into two groups and revised their old lessons, each group chanting alternately a bit of a Vedic passage. It took one a period of twelve years to master the particular ‘sakha’ to which one belonged. After the studies, the student offered suitable presents as ‘dakshina’ to his Guru. The passage in the Taittiriya Upanishad–‘satyam vada, dharmam chara’–and the concluding hymn of the Rig Veda Samhita read like extracts from a Convocation address.

Teaching was free. The Vedic student maintained himself and his teacher by begging for food daily in the neighbourhood. The teacher considered the student as his own son, as reborn to him and his wife; and the student in his turn rendered acts of loving service to his Guru. He fetched fuel for the sacrificial fire; he hewed wood and drew water. When the teacher was a great scholar, he had many pupils; but the, King and the nobility, as well as the residents in the neighbourhood, endowed him with the means of supporting himself and his pupils. When the State stepped in to help the teacher it set no conditions on the recipient of its bounty, considering such help as homage due to scholarship. These characteristics of Indian education continued down to recent times.

A word about the syllabus in these old schools. Some of them confined themselves to teaching the bare texts of the Vedas; they were mere ‘Veda pathasalas.’ Others included one or more of the fourteen supplementary ‘Vidyas’ or branches of studies. These included the six ‘Vedangas’–Phonetics, Grammar, Exegetics, Prosody, Astronomy and Ritual. Besides these, there was the special ‘adhyatma Vidya,’ which was vouchsafed by the Guru only to a loving disciple who approached him with reverence, service, and frequent questionings with a view to clear his doubts and solve his problems. ‘Pranipata’, ‘Pariprasna’ and ‘Seva’ were the three requisites of studentship.

The student belonged to the ‘Gotra’ of his teacher. The early Indians solved the problems arising from co-education by prohibiting marriage between members of the same ‘Gotra’ or ‘pravara.’ This helped the boys and girls to look upon one another as brothers and sisters and to preserve their ‘Brahmacharya’ or vow of chastity. Not only did the boys and girls study together but they had women teachers also. Sanskrit has two words, ‘upadhyaya’ and ‘upadhyayini,’ to denote the wife of a teacher and a woman teacher respectively.

Our ancients were aware of the advantages of school life. Manu gave equal prominence to the instruction of the teacher, the effort of the student and the help of his fellow students. The Puranas are full of instances of young princes being sent along with other children to reside with their teacher. A familiar instance is that of Prince Krishna and the poor Brahmin lad Kuchela. The Purana tells us that the teacher did not exempt the Prince from the performances of his daily duties, including the fetching of fuel from the forest.

The next period relates to the early centuries of the Christian era, when there was a literary as well as a religious renaissance, following upon the advent of the Jaina Mahavira and Gautama the Buddha. The old Vedic scheme and system of education continued; but, thanks to the munificence of the early Indian kings, famous teachers were enabled to gather together at the Universities and to teach at the residential schools. Benares became famous as a centre of pious learning; and from the Buddha down to Sankara and Ramanuja, leaders of philosophic and religious thought went there first to expound their new ideas. To this middle period belongs the University of Taxila or ‘Takshasila’. The city of Taxila is on the bank of the river Vitasta, modern Jhelum, and lies between Attock and Rawalpindi. The ‘Uttara kanda’ of the Ramayana refers to the founding of the city. Some years after Rama’s coronation, Yudajit, the maternal uncle of Bharata, sends his Guru as an envoy to Rama and suggests the subjugation of the kingdom of Gandhara, where evil and disorder were rampant. Bharata sets out with his two sons, Taksha and Pushkala, subdues the country and establishes the twin cities, Takshasila and Pushkalavati. Scholars of those days were anxious to get the hallmark of Takshasila set on their studies. Almost all branches of learning found exponents at this University centre. Philosophy, Theology, Science, Medicine, Law, Archery, Arts and Crafts and ‘Silpa’ were all of them represented.

I shall content myself with a mere mention of early centres of learning in South India and in other parts of India. Madura was a great centre of Tamil learning from time immemorial. Tradition ascribes the third ‘Sangam’ to that city. Whatever the truth of this tradition, there is no doubt that Madura was a great centre of learning whither scholars flocked both for royal patronage and literary companionship. Kanchi, the modern Conjeevaram, was another great centre of learning where the Saiva, the Vaishnava, the Jaina and the Buddha strove for cultural supremacy. And in later years there arose schools of theological learning as well as fine arts, like Music and Dance, in the holy cities of Srirangam and Chidambaram.

South Indian inscriptions refer to endowments made to several seats of learning or ‘vidyasthanas.’ There was a ‘vidyasthana’ at Bahur, near Pondicherry. All the fourteen ‘vidyas,’ namely, the four Vedas, the six Angas, Mimamsa, Nyaya, Purana and Dharmasastra were taught in that school. The revenue of three villages was set apart for its maintenance. There was another school at Ennayiram in South Arcot where provision was made for the support of 14 teachers, 70 senior students and 270 junior students. 220 of the junior students studied particular portions of the Vedas; 10 more studied ‘Grihya sutras,’ ‘Kalpa and ‘Gana’; 40 students studied Grammar. The advanced students learnt Grammar or ‘Mimamsa’ or ‘Vedanta’. The school at Tribhuvani near Pondicherry had twelve teachers and 240 students. A school for Grammar and Medicine existed at Tiruvaduthurai.

There were similar schools in the rest of India; for instance, at Kuchi in the Northwest frontier, at Srughna, at Bezwada, at Valabhi in Western India, at Tiladha near Nalanda, at Saranath near Benares, at Pataliputra, at Ujjayini and at Tamralipti. At these places one or more of the 18 ‘Vidyas’ were taught; and at some of them, Logic, and Buddhist ‘sutras’ and ‘tantras’ also.

We come now to the period of the Buddhist revival. And we shall consider the University of Nalanda in some detail. Nalanda was the birth-place of Saraputra. The place is seven miles from Rajagiri, in Bihar. Tradition ascribes its foundation to Kumara Gupta of the 5th century. Harsha is said to have fostered its growth. The place had been sanctified by association with Mahavira and the Buddha. Asoka had built a ‘vihara’ there. The name Nalanda meant ‘giver of unlimited bounty’. The logician Nagarjuna was a teacher in this school before it was raised to University status by Narasimha Gupta. Nalanda was justly famous for its high standard of learning. Its Professors were honoured by invitations from Tibetan and Ceylonese kings. There were 8 Colleges. 300 rooms and 3 big Libraries, besides an Observatory. All branches of learning, old and new, the Hindu ‘Vidyas’ the Buddhist ‘sutras’ and ‘mantras’ and ‘tantras’ were taught within its walls. Besides the regular students who began with the primer ‘siddhi-rastu’, there were Post-graduate students from other seats of learning who came to Nalanda in order to obtain recognition of their scholarship at its hands. The manner of admission of these students was peculiar. Professors of the University were assigned as ‘Dvarapalakas’ or keepers of the gates; and they examined the candidates for admission. Mahacharya Arya Deva, a disciple of Nagarjuna, was the first head of the University. Dharmapala, son of a minister of Kanchi, was one of his successors. Another professor, Santarakshita, was invited by the Tibetan King to be the chief abbot of a new ‘vihara’ in his country. He was known to Tibetans as Acharya Bodhisattva. There were several professors of Nalanda famous for their treatises on Buddhist doctrines in Sanskrit and in Tibetan. Their very names would have been lost to us had not the Tibetan Libraries preserved the translations.

Closely connected with the University of Nalanda was the sister University of Vikramasila, founded in the 8th century by King Dharmapala. He built 108 ‘viharas’ and made endowments for 108 professors. The same king added to the endowments at Nalanda and provided for a common board of professors for the management of both the Universities. The system of gate-keepers was followed in this University also. Acharya Jetari, who graduated from this University and obtained his diploma as ‘Pandita’ from king Mahapala himself, was an authority on ‘tantras’ and ‘sutras.’ The professor, Mahacharya Ratnakarasanti, was invited by the king of Ceylon to preach the right doctrine there.

There were two other Buddhist Universities, one at Odantapuri near Patna and the other at Jagaddala. They were modeled on the Universities of Nalanda and Vikramasila. All the four Universities appear to have been destroyed by the army of Bakhtiar Khilji in the beginning of the 13th century.

A word about the daily life led by the students of these Universities. They were roused from their beds long before sunrise by peals of bells, and had their bath in the pools within the University precincts. The teachers offered ablution and ‘puja’ to the images of the Buddha, which they attended. There was the ‘chaitya-vandana’ which consisted of ‘pradakshina’ round a ‘stupa.’ After the teachers had their breakfast of rice and water, the students had similar breakfast. The midday meal consisted mainly of rice, fruits and milk. The tutorial system prevailed. The syllabus was not confined to Buddhist studies and to arts and sciences but included Hindu theology also. The students in their leisure hours copied manuscripts of books for their own use; and listened to the discussions of their professors and senior students. They took their part in games in the evenings. Wrestling, boxing, archery and chariot-race were favoured by the militant classes. There were no prescribed courses of lectures; but halls were provided for occasional lectures which the students seldom failed to attend. The tutor was ‘in loco parentis’to his students; and they were bound together by mutual loving service. The senior students in many institutions did work as under-teachers, ‘pitti acharyas’–a practice till recently in use in India, which Dr. Bell called ‘the Madras system of education.’

1 By courtesy of All India Radio.

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