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.

Modernists – Then & Now

Early Indian modernists

Early Indian modernists

This morning a discussion on life, work and legacy of Raja Rammohun Roy and Syed Ahmed Khan led to a question on why did they call for ‘modern’ education in India of the mid 19th century (around 1840-1890 period)? How different was the Indian education system before the onset of colonial period and post? What did Indian education lack that the ‘modern’ British system have?

One perspective stems from Dharampal’s The Beautiful Tree, an important work on the history of Indian education system. He argues that much of the British education system of the British India (and consequently today’s education system) is based on the ancient Indian structure. By this he probably means that the instruction method, spread of schools (as in a school in every village) and curriculum all appear to have been adopted and modified to the needs of the British administration and presented as their own. I do not doubt the claims of the book nor the scholar’s study. In fact, I find the process only too natural.

I have two observations on the current discourse on origins of modern education system in India and its effects:

1. Allegation that British education system is essentially Indian, with a sense that it is noting new but our own system shown to us as new is not true.

2. ‘Modernists’ of 19th century are not much different in their approach to the new crop of Indian academicians and professors who have returned to India (or visit periodically) after being trained abroad or worked abroad. The ideas they propagate back in India are pretty much the same like what the modernists of 19th century did!

Saying that the British system of education is only a derivative of traditional Indian system is one thing. But implying that the British system has in some way borrowed and been deceitful in doing that would be flawed. Here is my reason for believing so. If the invaders in any geography are powerful enough and have long term ambitions to rule the place and not just plunder it then it is quite a natural progression that the dominating power would manipulate the processes of this new land and its people. Like if they want Indians to work in the new order of production (and industry) in British India then they would also have to be oriented and trained likewise. If the British empire brought in railways, elaborate administrative processes and newer technologies (post industrial revolution) to India then they also wanted to condition Indians to be able to work in that new environment. This is easier when one takes in an existing mode of learning of the natives themselves and modify it by incorporating all that you would also want to ensure that the natives learn in order to serve you better (remember this is a colonial power-colony relationship) The ‘modernists’ like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Raja Rammohun Roy saw how out of tune a native Indian is, in this new order of things in British India. They probably felt that it would hinder the growth of the native Indian as he wouldn’t be able to better his lot if he doesn’t ‘learn’ the ways of the new India. Also, we know that Syed Ahmed Khan held British empire to be way too powerful and that Indians didn’t stand a chance if they were to revolt against it, as they did in the uprising of 1857. Now this was one group of people who thought that Indians should modernize – learn English language and train in newer fields of science and industry. Those who pushed for such ideas are termed ‘modernists’ of the late 19th century.

There is another set of modernists that I see – Indian academicians and professors who are trained abroad. I find that they do not see themselves as agents propagating certain ideas which do not necessarily hold the same importance as they think it should or are simply irrelevant. To my understanding they aren’t any different from what our 19th century modernists were doing. These I call modernists of now. Except the subaltern studies initiative, I do not recall anything as original as this in its concern and rigour. We have some of the major works on Indian society, culture and politics from western thinkers. Also in many instances divergent from what the native sociologists would see it like.

These are some first thoughts on a discussion on some of the early modernists in India and which was in some way imagined as something that happened in the past. In spirit, I think it still happens and will keep happening. Being conscious of it can be a better position to be in than always looking at it in retrospect.