Formal Education System in Ancient India

by Sushmita Nath | 2016 | 63,563 words

This page relates ‘Nalanda Vihara university’ of the study on the (formal) education system in Ancient India with reference to Vedic and Buddhist period, investiging educational institutions and universities which existed during this time. Professional educational methods were found in ancient Sanskrit literature (Brahamanas, Dharma-Shastras, Puranas, Jatakas, etc.), including rules, ceremonies and duties of pupils in ancient India.

Nālandā Vihāra was the largest Buddhist Monastic University in ancient India. The fame and glory of Nālandā go beyond in ancient India.

Nālandā was a typical Buddhist University. Some scholars mention it was a Brahmanical educational Centre and not as Buddhist educational Centre[1]. But whatever the case, as a University, it became famous in Buddhist period. It was situated in forty miles away of Patna and seven miles north of Rājagṛha in Bihar[2].

In the beginning Nālandā was a small village. People called this place as Nāla and had no identity. But by and by the place was famous and Aśoka was the founder of Nālandā Vihāra[3]. Nālandā was not a royal capital of any state and it also was not connected with the Buddhas life. But it suddenly rising and became famous sit of learning in fifth century A.D. is still a mystery. There were various explanations to this point. According to one theory that Bodhistava was living at this place. The second explanation is that, Nālandā was the birth place of Śāriputta, a favourite disciple of Lord Buddha[4]. The second explanation is more acceptable than the first one. Because when Asoka the great visited the place in connection with seeing the Caitya of Śāriputta, he got a Vihāra to be constructed there. But as an educational Centre, the place did not become important. By the beginning of fourth century A.D, it became educationally important. The two important Buddhist person named Nāgārjuna and his disciple Ārya Deva, lived at Nālandā which indicates the importance of the place for growing up[5]. But at first Nālandā had not achieved paramount educational importance in India. Its real importance began with 450 A.D. For the next three centuries, it remained at the highest point.[6].

In the description of Hiuen Tsang, we find that Nālandā was a very big Monastic University. The University covered large area. According to the report of archaeological excavations, the university actually covered an area of one mile long by half mile broad[7]. The entire Monastic buildings were constructed according to pre-conceived plan. The entire university area was marked off by a big and strong enclosing wall having only one gateway. The central college was provided seven large halls and three hundred rooms. Other monastery buildings were arranged in row according to plan. The Yaśovarman inscription tells us, toward to such great heights that they appeared to reach the clouds[8].

The admission in Nālandā was very strict.The quality of education in Nālandā was a very high level. The students from all parts of India and also from foreign countries were anxious to study in Nālandā. According to Hiuen Tsang the entrance examination of Nālandā was so hard that only twenty percent student could succeed and remaining had to go back in disappointment. The probable age of admission in Nālandā was twenty because Nālandā generally provided higher education or post graduates studies. The highest academic degree of Nālandā was ‘Fellowship of Nālandā’. The Nālandā also provided primary education where young pupils were freely admitted. These pupils had to attend preparatory courses for several years[9].

After the admission in Nālandā, the students were provided with food, clothes, education and medicine free of charge. No tuition fee or any other fee was collected for the student. All these were managed both by the state and the people[10].

I Tsing, a Chinese traveler who had stayed at Nālandā for a period of ten years, described that Nālandā was a very big University. The number of scholars studying at any time at Nālandā was the order of several thousand. The fame of Nālandā was mainly due of its teachers[11]. Hiuen Tsang mentions some famous teachers’ name like Dharmapāla and Candrapāla, achieved unparalleled perfection in their respective field. Nālandā had a very huge library called Dharmagañja (Mart of Religion). This library had three departments known as Ratna-Sāgara (Ocean of Jewels), Ratnaodadhi (Sea of Jewels) and Ratnarañjaka (Jewel adorned)[12]. The library had large collections of manuscripts on various subjects in various languages. Hiuen Tsang mentioned that the work belonging to the eighteen sects and other books such as, the Vedas, the Hetuvidyā, Sabdavidya, the Cikitsāvidyā, the works on Magic, the Sāṃkhya and the Nāyāya and ‘miscellaneous’ works were also available in the library. This referred to the fact that library possessed a very rich collection of books–both Buddhist and non Buddhist works[13]. According to I Tsing when a Buddhist monk expires at Nālandā, his collection of books was added to the library. This information showed that how gradually Nālandās Monastic library became a grand store house. After I Tsing, the two Korean monks and another Chinese Bhikṣu named Ke-Ye came to Nalanda Monastery to study by utilizing its libraries which were rich of the Buddhist as well as non Buddhist works.

Nālandā had a huge library. That is why the curriculum of Nālandā was so interesting. The Nālandā was basically the specialized in the study of Mahayana Buddhism[14]. But all the non Buddhist works were also included in the curriculum. Almost every branch of knowledge included in the curriculum of Nālandā. A wide range of subjects like the Vedas, the Hetuvidyā, Sabdavidyā, the Cikitsāvidyā, the works on Magic, the Sāṃkhya, the Philology, Law, Astronomy, Philosophy, the Sanskrit Grammar of Pāṇini were included in the curriculum. Hiuen Tsang mentioned that he himself studied Yoga-Śāstra under the Ācārya Śilābhadra. He also studied Nyāya, Hetuvidyā, Sabdavidyā, and the like. But it is also interesting to mention here that Nālandā not only provided these above mention subjects but the Monastery also provided education in Hinayāna Buddhism. This was the work of the rival school of Buddhism[15].

So, Nālandā was a principal Centre of learning and illuminated our country for centuries. In the thirteen century, when Muslim invaders came to India, they destroyed the whole University. They did not understand the value of this famous University and destroyed the whole University[16].

Footnotes and references:


Mookerji, R.K. Ancient Indian Education (Brahmanical and Buddhist), Motilal Banarasi Dass Publishers, Delhi 2011, P. 558.


Choudhary, R.K, History of Bihar, Motilal Banarasidass Publisher, Delhi, 1958, P.78, 79.


Mookerji, R.K. Ancient Indian Education (Brahmanical and Buddhist), Motilal Banarasi Dass Publishers, Delhi 2011, P XXIV, 558.


Barua, Dipak Kumar. Viharas in Ancient India, Indian Publications, Calcutta, 1969, P.139.


F.E, Keay Indian Education in Ancient India and later times, Baptist Mission press, Calcutta, 1942, P.147.


Chaudhuri, Racita. Buddhist Education in Ancient India, Punthi Pustak, Kolkata, 2008, P.178.


Altekar, A.S. Education in Ancient India, Vishal Kaushik Printer, Delhi, 2009, P.117.


Yasyāmambudharavalehiśikharaśreṇī vihārāvalī| mālevordhvavirājinī viracitā dhātrā manojñā ||Epigraphia Indica.,XX,P.43.


Mookerji, R.K. Ancient Indian Education (Brahmanical and Buddhist), Motilal Banarasi Dass Publishers, Delhi 2011,P 564.


Altekar, A.S. Education in Ancient India, Vishal Kaushik Printer, Delhi, 2009, P.119.


Das.S.K, The Educational System of the Ancient Hindus,Gyan Publishing House, New Delhi.1996P.354.


Bokil, V.P. The History of Education in India, Bombay, 1925, P.199-200; Mazumdar,N.N.A History of Education in Ancient India,Cotton Press, Calcutta, 1916,P.93.


Apte, D. G. Universities in Ancient India, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Barod,P.30.


Barua, Dipak Kumar. Viharas in Ancient India,Indian Publications, Calcutta,1969, P.143-144.


Mookerji, R.K. Ancient Indian Education (Brahmanical and Buddhist), Motilal Banarasi Dass Publishers, Delhi 2011,P.566.


Altekar, A.S. Education in Ancient India, Vishal Kaushik Printer, Delhi, 2009, P.125.

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