Education in pre-colonial India: Dharampal’s The Beautiful Tree


Image Courtesy: K.L. Kamat (Illustration by B.K. Mitra for Kalyan Magazine shows students and animals in harmony with nature)

In the school where I teach, the teachers hold a very diverse range of views about the role of a school in a child’s life. What must school stand for and what areas of the child’ s life must the school be concerned with. Those who run the school – the management folks, stand at one end of the spectrum of beliefs about “education” and the manner in which a child’s time in the school must be structured. The rest dot the entire spectrum with some of them occupying the far opposite end of the spectrum which means that they are of the opinion that democratic means of taking decisions in school must be the overriding criteria. Above that, the school should let children be – in a sense that let them decide when they want to take up written exams if exams are a necessity. However, they’d prefer that there are no exams and that children should be assessed in some other non-structural, preset format. Exams, in short, are tyrannical. This has been an ongoing discussion for several weeks now and likely to reach no easy consensus.

Meanwhile, there is another discussion on role of a school in children’s lives. It began with this article on children’s emotional and psychological needs. It gives a roundup of the ways in which schools in Indian metros are catering to such needs:

Children in Indian metros are reaching out to school counsellors to make sense of their increasingly complicated, increasingly lonely lives. A nine-year-old is no longer too young to have a problem — or even know what a problem is.

This led to someone remarking that probably Indian schools will soon be back to the “gurukula” system of ancient India – where schools will “again” begin to cater to all the aspects of a child’s education – academic, social, emotional and spiritual. The remark led me to think of the sources from where one can draw inferences that ancient schools or “gurukulas” were indeed catering to all of those needs of a child.

As it looks, there is no historical evidence to say this conclusively. Even as a possibility, this is hard to imagine because launching off from the point of believing that India’s “ancient” system was the best arrangement which developed well-groomed, well-grounded and learnt individuals one is already given to believe that there was something extraordinary that the “gurukulas” did. They sure were a very different institutions from the modern day schools. But saying anything further – about how they approached education and helped children will require more evidence, in the absence of which, I feel compelled to tell that teacher that her argument is a mere conjecture.

Thinking of existing works on history of pre-colonial education system in India, I can think of only one very well written and comprehensive work – The Beautiful Tree, by Dharampal. The discussion in school reminded me of this book which I had read a few years back. Re-reading it this week, I find it remarkable in scope and review.

Dharampal refers to the lack of historical records in the introduction:

Very little, however has been written on the history, or state of education during this period, starting with the thirteenth century and up until the early nineteenth century.

Further, he reviews the records for nineteenth century and describes the sources:

Most of the discussion on the state of indigenous Indian  education in the early nineteenth century, and the differing viewpoints which give rise to it, use as their source material (a) the much talked about reports by William Adam, a former Christian missionary, on indigenous education in some of the districts of Bengal and Bihar 1835-38 (b) published extracts of a survey made by the British authorities regarding indigenous education
in the Bombay Presidency during the 1820s, and (c) published extracts from another wider survey of indigenous education made in the Madras Presidency (from Ganjam in the north to Tinnevelly in the south, and Malabar in the west) during 1822- 25. A much later work on the subject, but more or less of asimilar nature is that of G.W. Leitner pertaining to indigenous education in the Punjab.

Even these later works, leave alone the earlier ones, do not say anything about what was the approach of a “gurukula” in imparting education nor are any ethnographic works dealing with what went on inside them. It leads to the argument that all the glorious claims about the traditional Indian “gurukula” system lack evidence. However, we do have sufficeint account of the fact that the macro role it played in the society and pre-colonial, “indigenous” system was remarkably effective in addressing needs to the society at that time. It is this “beautiful tree” of indigenous education system that Gandhi said was destroyed by the British in India. Dharampal adds that:

It is important to emphasize that indigenous education was carried out through pathshalas, madrassahs and gurukulas. Education in these traditional institutions – which were actually kept alive by revenue contributions by the community including illiterate peasants – was called shiksha (and included the ideas of prajna, shil and samadhi). These institutions were, in fact, the watering holes of the culture of traditional communities. Therefore, the term ‘school’ is a weak translation of the roles these institutions really played in Indian society.

What he highlights in the following lines is the trap that educationists are walking into again:

The idea of a school existing in every village, dramatic and picturesque in itself, attracted great notice and eclipsed the equally important details. The more detailed and hard facts have received hardly any notice or analysis. This is both natural and unfortunate. For these latter facts provide an insight into the nature of Indian society at that time.

The proverbial ancient “gurukula” system needs to be looked into with a more critical lens and the first step would be to find records from the history of what went on within these ancient schools. Without this we will continue to have these vacuous conversations about the ancient glories and continue to push the current school system towards a vision which no one knows what it looks like.


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