Formal Education System in Ancient India

by Sushmita Nath | 2016 | 63,563 words

This page relates ‘Debate and Discussion Method of Teaching’ 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.

Debate and discussion method, was quite common method of teaching in early days. All the ages mentioned this method of teaching. The Vedic and the Buddhistic education systems mentioned that for the literary training of students this method of teaching was necessary. In this method the learned person assembled at some places and dramatically discussed the different metaphysical, theological and other problems among themselves. The Ṛgveda Saṃhitā mentioned this type of learned discussions, which were held in learned assemblies and in the time of grand sacrifice. The Ṛgveda Saṃhitā[1] mentioned that when the Ṛṣi attained the highest knowledge and spiritual knowledge they used to gather in these places to disclose and discuss the hymns which they had individually attained as a result of their Tapas and meditation. Generally the young energetic students individually and with their teachers usually gathered in such types of discussions to know something new from the learned scholars. But anyone could take part in such types of debate and discussion. There were no restrictions. In the Brāhmaṇas and in the Upaniṣads such types of debates and discussions are met in many places. In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad and in the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa[2] we find that when the King Janaka performed the horse sacrifice then the debate was held between Yājñavalkya and Gārgī. Both of them individually took part in the discussion wherein the Yājñavalkya assumed supremacy. Similar examples were also found in ancient period that learned discussions were held between visitors and hosts, father and son, teacher and pupil and husband and wife. These types of discussions were called the Brahmavāda or Brahmodya[3]. In the Classical Sanskrit literature it was called the Vidyā vivāda or Vidyā vicāra because in this discussion the learned men gathered together and logically discussed the various questions on religious treatise and philosophy[4].

The debate and discussions was the regular feature of ancient period. The teachers and students, who were eminent scholars, launched this debate and discussions with zeal and seriousness. The forest hermitages, Royal courts usually organished this type of discussions. Sometimes at the site of the grand sacrifice, this debate and discussion were open held. The Brāhmaṇas, Upaniṣads, Epics record such types of debate and discussions which were held in ancient period at the court of Kings. Learned scholars for the improvement of their knowledge regularly searched such types of debate and discussions. From different part of the country they used to visit such discussion. We know that Uddālaka Āruni[5] went to the north, where he challenged the northern scholars. Like that Śvetaketu, Somauśushma Sātyayajñi and Yājñavalkya[6] also went to Videha for learned discussion. Nārada, an advanced student, who mastered all the arts and science, had extended and improved his knowledge in a discussion with Sanat Kumāra[7]. In this debate and discussion prizes were also bestowed upon for those who subdued the opponent. We find in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad and in the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa[8] the King Janaka of Videha was the great patron of learning, he usually organized such types of gathering in his court. He also offered handsome prize for this gatherings. We find that at the time of horse sacrifice King Janaka invited all the scholars from Kuru and Pañcala country for learned discussion, wherein he offered the special prize of thousand cows with horns covered with gold to the most learned person. Yājñavalkya appropriated this prize because in that learned discussion he assumed supremacy. Like that Uddalāka Āruṇī went to the North, wherein he challenged Northern scholar Svaidayena Śaunaka son of Goutama. In this debate Uddalāka was defeated by Śaunaka and then the former offered gold coin to him and became his pupil to study at his feet[9].

Such types of debate and discussion were economic and effective for the progress of society because such types of debate would cultivate high knowledge. That is why; the Buddhistic education system gave equal stress upon the efficacy of this debate and discussion method. At the beginning of the academic career the Buddhist monk was trained in the art of debate and discussion. Buddha himself spent whole of his religious life in debate and discussion. These debates and discussions were regularly held in the Buddhist monasteries. Nālandā and Vikraṃśilā were the most outstanding Centres in this respect.

It is matter of fact that Buddhism was a new sect or religion and had new education system. They tried to propagate their principles and thoughts to the masses. This was needed because they tried to establish their own cult or religious belief. For this, debate and discussion were very helpful. Because through this method, they were able to impress and satisfy their followers and spread their philosophy. That is why, Buddhist teacher always encouraged their students that they had to join or attend these gatherings and improve their power of discussion. These debates and discussions were held at the meeting places of scholars, Royal Palaces, Minister’s office and in the Assembly. But without the proper knowledge of the subject the debater was not able to express his opinion. That is why Buddhist education system mentioned that the debtor should have knowledge of his subject and capacity of expressing his view point in such a tone as to attract the ear of the listeners. So the Buddhist literature, Sapadaśabhūmi-ŚāstraYogācārya of Maitreyi[10] laid down special treatise on the subject of debate. For this we find that the following evidence of eight kinds viz, Siddhānta (conclusion), Hetu (reason), Udāharaṇa (example), Sādharmya (affirmative), Vaidharmya (negative example), Partyakṣa (perception) Anumāna (inference) and Agama (scripture) were required for every monk, so that they could influence the audience and win the debate.

Sometimes this debates and discussions were arranged on every full moon (Purṇima) and the first moon (Pratipada) of the month[11]. These discussions were held in a very grand organized way. The seniors’ monks conducted these discussions. The monks of different Saṃghas assembled at this discussion and put forward their doubts freely. In these discussions honour was bestowed upon those who could vanquish the opponents. The King also patronized this learned discussion. The students, teachers and all the members of the fraternity had to attend these gatherings. If anyone was unable to join the discussion then the discussion was held at his place. And if anyone happened to be sick he had to inform the Saṃgha or he had to present himself in the same condition[12].

So we find that the ancient education systems were fond of hair splitting argument and discussion because through this method mental horizon of the student winded considerably. The student developed the clarity of vision through the discussion on different problems of life.

Footnotes and references:


Hṛdā taṣṭeṣu manaso javeṣu yad Brāhmaṇāḥ saṃyajante sakhāyaḥ | atrāha tvaṃ vi jahurvedyābhirohabrahmāṇo vi carantyu tve || Ṛgveda X.71.8.


Janako ho vaideho|bahudakṣiṇena yajñeneje…………………….. ||Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa XI.6.3;Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad III.1;III.6-8.


The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa edtd by Maitreyee Despande, Book-4, New Bharati Book Corporation,2008, P. 1526.


Basu, Jogiraj.India in the age of Brāhmaṇa, Sanskrit Pustak Bhandar,Calcutta, 2001.P.46.


Uddālaka hāruṇiḥ | udīccayatravṛto dhāvayañcakār tasya niṣkkỏopahit ỏāsaitadbha sma ……||Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa XI.4.1.2.


Janako ha vai vaideho |brāhmaṇaiddhrāvayadbhiḥ samājagāma Śvetaketunāruṇeyena somaśuṣdmeṇa sāttyayajñinā Yājñavalkyaena……………………… ||Ibid.XI.6.2.


Sa ha gavāṃ sahasramvarurodha daśa daśa pādā ekaikasyāḥ śṛngayorāvdvā babhūvuḥ ||Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad III.1;Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa XI.6.3.


Svaidāyanāsi suvarṇaṃ vāva suvarṇa vide dadatīti…………….||Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa XI.4.1.8.


Watters Yuan Chwang,I.355-356


Anujānāmi bhikkhave catuddase pannanase aṭṭamiya ca pakkhassa sannipatitun ti ||Mahāvagga.II.1.4



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