Formal Education System in Ancient India

by Sushmita Nath | 2016 | 63,563 words

This page relates ‘Subjects studied in the Buddhist Period’ 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.

Subjects studied in the Buddhist Period

The Buddhist education system also introduced very rich curriculum of studies. They also started with scriptures. Their principal and prominent subjects of study were the Sutta Pitaka, Vinaya Pitaka and Abhidhamm Pitaka[1]. These three were the core subjects of study. All the students had to learn by heart these subjects. Besides these, many other subjects were also included in the Buddhist curriculum.

During the age education system was divided into Primary course and Secondary course. Hiuen Tsang and I-tsing the two Chinese travellers very clearly mentioned that during the age the students had to learn the primary courses; after that they received the secondary courses of knowledge. I-tsing mentioned that the education of the child began at six years of his age. From the very beginning of his education, the students first studied the Siddhirastu[2]. This Siddhirastu contained the Sanskrit alphabet and syllables arranged in ślokas. Next at the age of eight, the child learnt the Sūtras of Pāṇini. This took the eight months to finish. After gaining the knowledge of alphabet and Sūtras of Pāṇini, from ten to fifteen years the student learnt the Dhātu, Khilas and Kāśikāvṛtti[3]. These were the ślokas and commentaries which were composed by learned Jayāditya, a man of very striking literary power.

Next the student began to learn the composition in prose and verse, logic, metaphysics and the introductory work composed by Nagārjuna called Nyāya-dvara-taraka-śāstra. And at the end of the elementary course, the students studied the five vidyās viz. Śabdavidyā, Śilpasthānavidyā, ciktsāvidyā, Hetuvidyā, and Adhyātmavidyā[4].

Having finished the elementary courses, the students studied the secondary courses. In the secondary courses included with Grammar, Mahābhāṣya, Bhartṛhari-Śāstra, Bhaṛtrihari’s Vākyapādiya, and Bhartṛhari Beḍa(probably Sanskrit Beḍa). These Bhartṛhari works probably are the slokas and commentaries which were composed by great scholar Bhartṛhari[5].

Besides these, from the Jātaka stories and from the evidence of Milinda Pañha give idea about the subjects of studies in Buddhist education system. The Jātaka stories and the Milinda Pañha mentioned that Vedas and Sippas or liberal arts were the principal subjects of study in Buddhist period. In Takṣaśilā the students always studied the Vedas and eighteen Sippas[6]. The Jātaka stories mentioned that Sippas were eighteen in number. They did not enumerate the Vedas in the Sippas. Whereas Milinda Pañha referred to nineteen Sippas, they enumerated Vedas in the Sippas. Milinda Pañha also gives the individual names of the nineteen Sippas viz., Satthas (Śāstras) which includes the four Vedas and described as Suti (Śruti), Samuti (Smṛti), Sānkhya (Sāṃkhya), Yoga, Nīti (Nyāya), Viśeṣika (Vaiśeṣika), Gaṇikā (arithmetic) Gāndharba (music) Tikkicchā (Medicine), Catubbeda (fourVedas), Purāṇa, Itihāsa, Jyotiṣa, Māyā (Magic) Hetu (casuistry), Mantanā (Polity), Yuddha (militaryscience), Candasa (prosody) and Muddā (conveyancing). Though Vedas and Sippas were the main subjects of study in Buddhist education system but some subjects were separately mentioned in the Jātakas and Milinda Pañha. These subjects were Elephant lore, Magic Charms, Spell for bringing back the dead life, Hunting, Spell for understanding all animal’s cries, Archery, The art of prognostication, Charm for commanding all things of sense, divining from signs of the body and Medicine. These subjects were actually come under the Sippas, but Takṣaśilā gave special attention of these subjects. Students always tried to specialize these subjects. We find in the Jātaka stories that a Brāhmaṇa boy was specialized in Archery, another specialized in Magic charms[7]. Like that Jīvaka was also specialized in Medicine[8].

During the age theoretical and practical aspects of education also receive importance. Basically the students who became mastered in Medicine, Law and Military sciences, they had to know the practical usage of their subjects. But in the Jātaka stories we also find that all the students after receiving the theoretical knowledge, they used to go to the far off places to realize the practical experience of their subjects. Jīvaka after seven years of his education in Takṣaśilā, his teacher suggested him to go far off places to receive the practical knowledge of his subjects[9]. We also find many other examples where the students first received the theoretical knowledge after that they wandered various towns, cities and villages for the practical knowledge. In the Jātaka[10] stories mentioned that Prince of Magadha who was mastered in all the arts of Takṣaśilā, wandered through the various countries to acquire the practical use of his subjects. There was mentioned of Prince of Kośala who after receiving education at Takṣaśilā, travelled about the idea of mastering the practical uses of the sciences[11].

But when we look at the educational institution of Buddhist period, we find that the subjects of study during the age were not only rich but were very vast in number. They offered both the Brahmanic and Buddhists subjects of study. The renowned teachers were the master of both Brahmanical and Buddhist subjects. We are told a teacher at Takṣaśilā from whose lips five hundred Brāhṃana pupils learnt the Vedas[12]. Even from the Jātaka stories we find that instead of Sippas the student can able to choose the Vedas as their core subject of learning. There were no restrictions. As a matter of fact during the age caste distinction did not come in the way of choosing the subjects. There we find many references that many Brāhmin students in Takṣaśilā learnt divation, magic charms, archery, science under their teachers in exclusion their own subjects[13]. The Bhimsena Jātaka, Koseya Jātaka, Asadisa Jātaka and many other Jātakas mentioned that Bodhisattva himself was mastered in three Vedas and eighteen Sippas. At the age of sixteen he went to Takṣaśilā and learnt the Vedas and Sippas[14].

The Milinda Pañha also indicates that the Brahmanical education too was existence in Buddhist curriculum. The Brahmanical subjects like the Vedas, Vedāṅgas, Itihāsa, Purāṇa, Sāṃkhya, Yoga, Nyāya, and Vaiśiṣika were the main subjects of study during the age. Besides these, many other subjects like special knowledge of Kṣatriya was also included in the curriculum[15].

During the age Mahāyāna and Hīnāyāna the two schools of Buddhist thought were very popular. Many universities provided one branch of learning. Nālandā University provided Mahāyāna school of thought where as Valabhī was specialised in Hīnāyāna Buddhism. But both the universities did not neglect each other thought. That is why, the Nālandā University also provided education in Hīnāyāna Buddhism.

Here the curriculum of some famous Buddhist Universities is given:


Takṣasilā was a centre of higher education and students went there at the age of sixteen. They provided higher education curriculum. The many Jātakas mentioned the conventional list of the subjects of study at Takṣasilā. These subjects were the Vedas, Grammar, Philosophy and eighteen Sippas. These were the principal subjects of study. Among these subjects many other subjects like Medicine, Surgery, Archery, Military Science, Astronomy, Astrology, Conveyancing, Magic, Sanke Charming, the Art of finding treasures, Law,

Music, Dancing and Painting were also included in the curriculum.


Nālandā was also centre of higher education. The subject of study in Nālandā was very exhaustive. They basically provided education in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Hiuen Tsang studied the Mahāyāna Buddhism in Nālandā University where as I-tsing studied Hīnāyāna Buddhism in Nālandā University. Nālandā also provided Brahmanical subjects of study because Hiuen Tsang mentioned that the students at Nālandā study both the old and new books. The old and new books mentioned by Hiuen Tsang includes works such as Vedas, Vedāṅgas, Sāṃkhya, Nyāya, Yoga śāstra, Vaiśesika and works on Buddhist śāstras with all its subdivisions. Besides this, from reference of Tibetan works of Nālandā, it is evident that Tantra was very popular among the students as well as the teachers of Nalanda. The Tantra was also included in the curricula of Nālandā University. Nālandā also provided the ordinary subjects of study like Hetuvidyā, Śabdavidyā, Cikitsāvidyā and the works on Magic. But they thoroughly investigated the miscellaneous works.

Valabhī and Vikraṃśilā:

Valabhī and Vikraṃśilā Universities were famous for their educational activities. Both the Universities provided very rich educational facilities to their students. But we have very little information about the subjects of study in Valabhī and Vikraṃśilā Universities. As a matter of fact both the Universities faced many political vicissitudes, so their curricula were thoroughly destroyed for these political ups and downs. We do not find any material evidence about the curricula of Valabhī and Vikraṃśilā University. But it is gathered that both the Universities follow the curricula of Nālandā Universities. We also find that Valabhī was school of Hīnāyāna Buddhism. They provided education in Hīnāyāna Buddhism. They also imparted education in secular subjects like Economics, Accountancy, Politics, Medicine, and literature. Where as in Vikraṃśilā University, Grammar, Logic, Mataphysics, Tantra and Ritualism were the main subjects of study. The Vikraṃśilā University had special arrangement for the study of non religious or secular subjects.

The Vedic and Buddhist education systems started with their scriptures and both aimed at over the subjects studied. It was not only religious but non religious and secular subjects were also part of the study.

Although the education systems started with their scriptures, the Buddhist education system incorporated the Brahmanical subjects too. It is a matter of fact that Buddhist education systems always tried to establish their own faith and cult. As Buddhism was a new thought and new religion. They always faced the Brahmanic challenges. For this reason they required to know more about the Brahmanical subjects and Buddhist teachers also encouraged their students to study the Brahmanical subjects. But Buddhist and Brahmanic systems did not remain antagonistic to each other. Both the systems were complimentary to each other. The Brahmanic scholars respected the Buddhist society. They also imparted education to Buddhist scholars. Brahmanic scholar also went to Buddhist University to gain the knowledge on Buddhistic subjects. We have already mentioned in the third chapter that in Kathāsaritsāgar, we find the reference of a Brahmin boy completed his education in Valabhī University[16].

Footnotes and references:












Takkasilaṃ gantva tayo veda aṭṭhārasañ ca sippāni uggaṇhitva| Brahāchatta Jataka 336; Brāhmaṇakumārā ca yebhuyyena tass eva santike Sippaṃ uggaṇhanti.Atheko janapadavāsi brāhmaṇo bodhisattassa santike tayo Vede aṭṭaharasaca vijjaṭṭhānāni |Kosiya Jātaka 130; so vayappato Takkasilāya sabbsipāni uggṇhitva Bārāṇasiṃ paccāgantvā rājānaṃ passi|Sattubhasta Jātaka 402.


Tadā eko bārānasībrāhmaṇo mānavo takkśilāyā dhanukamme nipphattiṃ…………………paṇḍito nāma ahosi |Jātaka 219; bodhisattvo hatthācariyakule nibbattitvā vayappatto hattacariyasippe nipphattim……………..upaṭṭhasi|Ibid.94.


Takkasilā yena so vejo ten———————-icchām ahaṃ ācariyo Sippaṃ sikkhitum ti. Ten he bhane Jivaka sikkhassū ti|Mahāvagga.VIII.I.6


Ahaṃ kho ācariya bahuṃ……………satta ca me vassani…………….|teno hi bhaṇe Jivaka khanttiṃ ādāya Takkasilāya samantā yojaneṃ āhiṇḍanto yaṃ kiñci abhisajjaṃ paseyyāsi taṃ āharāti| Ibid. VIII.I.7.


Darīmukha……………sabbasippāni uggnhitvā sabha samayasippāni ca sikkhissāma descārittañ ca jānissāma ti gāmanigamādisu caranta……..|Darīmukha Jātaka 378.


Takkasilato nikhami, sabbasamayasippani sikkhanto ekam paccantagāmakam pāpuṇi | Brahācatta Jātaka 336.


Atit Takkasilāyaṃ Bodhisatto disāpamokkho ācāriyo hutvā pañca māṇavakasatāni mante vācesi |Nāmasiddhi Jātaka 97.


Tadā eko bārānasibrāhmaṇo mānavo takkaśilāyā dhanukamme nipphattiṃ…………… paṇḍito nāma ahosi |Culladhanuggaha Jātaka 374.


Tesu Bodhisatatto soḷasavassakāle Takkasilaṃ gantvā disāpāmokkhasa ācariyassa santike tayo vede aṭṭhārasa sippāni ca uggaṇhitvā issāsasippe asadiso hutvā Bārāṇassiṃ paccāgami| Asadisa Jātaka 181;
Bodhisttassa santike tayo vede aṭṭhārasa|Kosiya Jātaka 130;
Takksilāya disāpamokkhassa ācariyassa santike tayo Vede aṭṭharasa vijjaṭṭhānāni ugghetvā sabbasippe hippattimpatva |Bhimsen Jātaka 80.


Milinda pañha.IV.3.26;I.9.


Antaravedayāmabhūtpūrvaṃ vasudatt iti dvijaḥ | Viṣṇudattavhidhānśca putrastasyopapadyata || Sa viṣṇudatto vayasā pūrṇaṣoḍaśavatsaraḥ| Gaṃtuṃ pravavṛte vidyāprāptaye valbhīpuraṃ || Kathāsaritsāgar,XXXII,42-43.

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