Settlement in Early Historic Ganga Plain

by Chirantani Das | 143,447 words

This page relates “Pre-Buddhist education and corporate character” as it appears in the case study regarding the settlements in the Early Historic Ganga Plain made by Chirantani Das. The study examines this process in relation to Rajagriha and Varanasi (important nodal centres of the respective Mahajanapadas named Magadha and Kashi).

Part 5 - Pre-Buddhist education and corporate character

These early monasteries mainly served as temporary residence of the samgha because the samgha had no permanent residence, for the wandering asceticism was the essence of their culture. They did not want to remain confined to a particular region. To spread the message of Buddhism travelling to places was important. So they were venues of spiritual and religious discussions but had no such educational dimension because it required a degree of sedentarysettlement. Eventually these viharas were transformed into residential schools for pure academic purpose.

The first signs of organised public education on a large scale came from the Buddhist and Jaina sources. Though much acquainted and indebted to the later vedic education or even taking their birth from the later vedic protestant culture, they were never fully dissolved into it. Their base was the newly emergent Magadhan kingdom out of the pale of hardcore vedic Brahmanical culture.[1] Nevertheless, the Brahmanical education system had a strong influence on it. Monachism as a way of life was neither conceived nor introduced by the Buddhists. Different forms of religious, ascetic monarchism prevailed from long before. In the Vedic culture at a matured state of life people left their household and earthly bondage to start a life of a hermit known as Vanaprastha. Brahmanas often spent their whole life as bachelors and for the pursuit of knowledge. This was not even exclusive to the Brahmanas. Other twice-born people were also entitled to this privilege. These ascetics also organized themselves into some kind of corporations, though few in number. They were concerned with the accumulation and preservation of specialized knowledge. But such education was meant for the interested and qualified and not for the masses.[2] Education was virtually a monopoly of religious groups.

In fact in India education was never independent of religion. In the early vedic times family was the only unit to impart education. But with more knowledge gathered a professional class of teachers emerged who were mostly priests and tried to inculcate piety and religious ideals among the students.[3] The students needed to stay away from their houses and generally stayed either in the teacher’s house or some kind of hostel or hospice after their upanayana.[4] This formed the base of residential schools. The teacher had to have mastery over the subject, a fluency of delivery, a presence of mind, great stock of interesting anecdotes, readiness of wit and the ability to present even difficult topics in an easy way. Besides study he had to teach the students extra academic things. He had to teach them moral and spiritual duties and a code of conduct. The student also had to remain obedient to the teacher and performed a number of personal duties to the guru.[5] This way a very close and academic relation developed between the teacher and the taught. But basically the later vedic education was very private in character except some literary organisations like parishad, Sakha and Charana. Purposes of these institutions were preservation and propagation of knowledge. The word Sakha meant branches of Vedic Samhitas. Despite meticulous oral preservation of the Vedas some alterations cropped in because of total absence of writing. These Sakhas were different editions of one and the same collection, but not independent collections. Groups of people came to be known as Sakha differing from other Sakhas.[6] Charanas were schools concerned with the cultivation and propagation of particular texts and branches of the Vedas. The Vedas, though composed in metres had some alterations and the Brahmanas, in a prosaic form were open to a greater degree of alterations. Subsequent additions and alterations by teachers gave them a new form. A large number of Charanas came into being to deal with that. They played a key role in diffusion of vedic knowledge in the continent. A third type of corporate body was the Parishad, broader in scope than the last two. The term implied an assemblage. It was a settlement of brahmanas, a community or college to which members of any charana could belong. A Charana was a succession of teachers and students but parishad had no such particular affiliation to any branch, rather worked as a meeting point of members of different Charanas. Members of the same Charana could be members of different Parishads at the same time. Such parishads existed in different provinces.[7]

Despite such advancements the Brahmanical education had serious limitations. Firstly it was very elite in character, being a monopoly of a handful of people. It was neither concerned nor provided any scope for mass education. Basically the Brahmanical religion aimed at individual nirvana (salvation) and the mode of education being highly influenced by the religion behaved in the same way. The cause of public education was never raised by this system. Secondly, though corporate bodies were not unknown and were engaged in serious research and studies remained isolated and scattered. However, such endeavours were not followed up by any concerted move to grow into a larger unit. Therefore public education remained largely neglected and unfulfilled.

From this background of Brahmanical education emerged the Buddhist education and tried to rectify major limitations of this system.This transformed the individual hermits of the Brahmanical system into an organised ‘dropping out’where people renouncing the society could come together to form a community, based on egalitarian principles and mainly interested in teaching learning. These monastic societies were primarily interested in adult education for the need to recruit people constantly to keep their movement alive. For a proper understanding of the Buddhist principles and achievement of nirvana a prolonged exposure to learning was essential. Most importantly, the Buddhist system was concerned with universal nirvana and hence opened the universities with an appeal for public education and played a pioneering role.[8]

Beginning of organised education may be attributed to the Buddhist period. The Buddha felt it necessary to for the novices to be educated both in spiritual practices and sacred literature for at least ten years. That required a vigorous training in different subjects. Originally based on the Hindu Gurukula system, but in a much larger scale the Buddhist education was strictly monastic. Any education sacred and secular was not available outside monastery. Initially opened to train the monks and nuns later the doors were opened to the laity particularly younger generation also. With their entrance it became necessary to frame a set of rules. Their minimum and maximum age for entry, their parents’ consent, rules regarding beginning of education, ordination to monkhood were framed. Eventually they grew into regular colleges and universities.

The earliest of these institutions which can be called a university in the true sense was Takshashila containing several monasteries. Instructions were given in an individual manner, not exactly like the acharya kula but in the form of asrama or hostel. Individual monks taught single or a small group of students even if they were part of larger monastic institution. From the Jatakas and other Buddhist texts we come to know how students from far places like Benaras, Rajagriha, Mithila, Ujjaini, Koshala, Sivi and Kuru kingdom went there for studies. King Pasenadi of Koshala, Licchavi prince Mahali, Malla prince Bandhula all studied at Takshashila (Dhammapadattha katha). Jivaka received his medical education from here. He stayed there for as long as seven years. However information on Takshashila was sketchy and little. We really have a flow of information on Indian and especially Buddhist education since the visit of the Chinese pilgrims when they left us with their invaluable travelogues. From that period we have plentiful information about a number of Buddhist monasteries including Nalanda.[9]

The history of ancient Indian education spans over a long period of many centuries with considerable variations. It underwent a long evolution and at a quite matured phase the cluster of Buddhist monasteries sprang up. Nalanda was the foremost among them. Before its rise as a formal university from 6th century, there was already a very rich educational heritage, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist. So, Nalanda’s rise to the limelight was neither sudden nor isolated. Its rise may be analysed from two points. Firstly, it was one of the many religious spots near the old Magadhan capital showing an overt Buddhist link. Secondly, Buddhist universities were not rare and supplied a logic for the growth of a university site in eastern India, in the old cultural sphere of Rājagṛha. The impressive structural remain brought out by the archaeological excavations speaks of this rich cultural legacy. Grants and donations often came from the desire for piety by the ordinary folk through their individual or consorted effort. Besides, its closeness to later Magdhan capital Pāṭaliputra never allowed it to lose imperial favours. Hence, strategic location surely contributed in shaping the history of the spot.

Footnotes and references:


Harmut Scharfe, Education in Ancient India, Handbook of Oriental Studies, vol- 16, BRILL, Boston, 2002, pp.131-65.


R. K. Mookerji, 1989, op.cit. pp. 378- 79.


A. S. Altekar, Education in Ancient India, Benaras, Nand Kishore & Bros., 1944, p.9.


Ibid, p.30.


Ibid, pp.52,59


R. K. Mookerji 1989, op.cit. pp.77-79


Ibid, pp.82-83


Harmut Scharfe, op. cit. pp. 131-32


Ibid, pp-141-42

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