Sudakshina Kundu Mookerjee
The classical literary works started with the Vedic literature which was composed in Sanskrit, an Indo-Aryan language. The earliest ‘shlokas’ of the Rig Veda were written in the most primitive form of this language, which gradually evolved with time to take the refined form of Sanskrit. Although India has a long tradition of philosophical discourse, yet the Epic Sanskrit literature and Classical Sanskrit literature remained confined to the priestly classes and the elitist society. Sanskrit was not the language of the masses who spoke mainly in the local variants of any of the two language families – the Proto Dravidian and the Proto Indo-European. The local languages, called Prakrit for the Indo-European branch of languages, had their share of literature and the Dravidian group had the Tamil Sangam literature. With the spread of Buddhism, Pali became the language for Buddhist discourses and literature. However, formal education was never widespread in India from ancient times as only a chosen few had the opportunity to enroll in the ‘ashrams’, which were schools run by the different philosophers and their followers. However, formal education was confined to the privileged few – the upper castes and the Brahmins.
The first University in the Indian subcontinent was founded in the 10th century BC in Taxila. There is a mention of Taxila in Valmiki Ramayana. This was perhaps the first universities of the world. It was not a University in the modern sense as this university did not award degrees, nor had classrooms or libraries. However, it was a renowned centre of both Brahmanical and Buddhist studies. It encouraged secular education too and many scientific subjects, like medicine, were taught. Astrology and archery were part of its curriculum. It promoted nationalistic values in the subcontinent of India in order to check the regular threats of foreign attacks. Sadly enough, Taxila University was destroyed by Toramana in the 5th century CE.
As Buddhism spread and monasteries or Viharas were started, learning did not remain restricted to the upper castes and classes. The Buddhist monks and nuns came from all strata of society and the Viharas became centres of education. Under Kumargupta I of the Gupta dynasty the Nalanda University was founded in the 5th century CE. This was a University in its true sense as it had a structured form of education with suitable infrastructure. Nalanda University promoted secular studies along with religious discourses. Students came from all parts of Asia to study at Nalanda. There were several other Universities like the Vikramshila University, which were reputed for their excellent academic standards.
Other than these centres of formal education there were centres of training in skills. The workmen trained as apprentices under expert craftsmen. Apart from the ‘Gurukuls’ and craftsmen’s guilds there were little scope for formal education for the masses. Whatever lessons were imparted in local schools or ‘path-shala’s remained mostly informal.
The idea of a nation was yet to take shape as in the modern times. The people of this subcontinent identified themselves with different regional rulers, tribal communities and rarely with a vast unified identity, except perhaps under the rule of Emperor Ashoka in the fourth century BC. Therefore, there was not a clearly defined Policy for formal education. But Emperor Ashoka had a strategy for improving the moral and ethical values of his subjects. He used his edicts to spread the message of love, harmony and tolerance.
In fact, if we look at the history of evolution of a system of education across the world, we will find that the concept of a planned, structural form of education was absent. As the Christian Church took control over the Western world, the church sponsored educational centres which were mostly devoted to religious studies. Perhaps the Arab world in the early Islamic period practiced some form of secular learning which were soon lost during the Crusades. It was after the Renaissance in Europe and the consequent Reformation movement the modern education system emerged as the mainstay of secular studies in sciences, arts and other professional subjects, following a structured pattern. By this time the rich tradition of Universities and formal education in the Indian subcontinent had lost its way.
A modern, structured form of University education started in India under the influence of the European settlers in India. This form of education influenced by the West started in India only from the third decade of the nineteenth century. Although the main proponents of Western education, who were the Indian reformers, intended to empower the younger generations of this country with the knowledge of modern science and technologies, yet ultimately the British policy put greater emphasis on nurturing generations of natives into well oiled parts of their overall machinery to run their empire in colonised India. However, late eighteenth century and early twentieth century saw the rise of bright minds, inspired by modern Western thoughts and yet imbued by a commitment to serve their country and move towards an independent India.
(To be continued)