Ancient Indian Education System

  • By Deepak Yadav

The Indian Education System has had it’s own share of historical changes and transformations. In many ways the history of our Education System reflects – depending on how you look at it – the turbulation and jubilation of our own history.

One thing is certain without any doubt, that the progress of a nation is directly tied to the state of its education system. It is education that lays the foundation for progress, and it is this progress that further fuels the thirst for knowledge and learning. Our great Nation has had some glorious periods and some miserable ones. It is therefore interesting to understand how our education system was during these periods, how it influenced our nation’s destiny, and hopefully learn from this understanding.

Not much is written about Ancient Indian Education as it should have been, therefore it is difficult to accurately give the status and development of education during this period. Accounts of few foreign travelers (Megasthenese : 302 BCE, Fa-hien : 399-413 CE, Hiuen Tsang: 629-645 CE, I-tsing: 671-695 CE) give us some sense of the advancement in our education system and the importance that learning had in our society. Besides that, the plethora of work starting from Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, etc. does demonstrate that there was a successful system for creating knowledge and passing them over generations. There was emphasis on widening the horizon of learning by development of new ideas and not just preserving the wisdom of the past. For instance, it is believed by experts, that Rig Veda as we know it today has been long in making, it is estimated that centuries must have elapsed since the earliest hymn to the entire compilation. This highlights the progressive nature – of the then society –  towards developing knowledge and encouraging intellectual freedom, where rigid preservation must not have been an acceptable system.

Ancient Indian education system was fueled by the love of learning. It was driven by the desire to understand the physical and spiritual world. During this process of gaining this understanding important discoveries for that time, in science, mathematics, medicine and philosophy were made. Many devoted their entire lives to learning and teaching simply for the love of knowledge. It was believed that the natural abilities and potentials of a learner cannot be fully realized without proper nurturing. Anything can be accomplished with proper training and education. Such was the importance to nurturing that in one of the hymns of the Atharvaveda we are told that given proper education, everything can be accomplished – even Indra owes his supremacy among gods not because of any penance or previous merit but to his proper training when a student1 (Indra is said to have lived with Prajapati as a student for more that one hundred and five years).

There is scanty information on how early year education was imparted. Yes, of-course family played an important role. It may have been that the father use to teach their children in the initial years, and he may have been their first teacher. There are examples of father teaching their own sons in Vedas and Upanishads1. Whether there were learning centers for early year students in villages is not well known.

For formal education, at about age 12, the child had to go to a gurukul. The ceremony for formal education was known as “Upanyana”, where the child had to leave home and move into a gurukul till the end of his studies, which usually was for a period of 12 years. Gurukul was sort of a residential school, mostly in the house of the teacher. Here the student not only learns under the supervision of the teacher, but also help the guru in his day-to-day life. Selection into a gurukul required the student to be keen, capable and possess the required intelligence to learn2. If the teacher finds that the student is in-capable or is lazy he would hold his instructions, as education was sacred and only those who deserved it should get it. On the other hand if the teacher found that he is not fit to teach a particular subject to his student, then he would refer his student to a fitter teacher. It was the duty of teacher to teach his students knowledge exactly as he knows it, such that his knowledge will continue through his students to subsequent generations.

The relationship between the student and the teacher was of reverence and respect. The importance of a guru was central to the student’s life, as from then on they would be identified with their gurus, just like in today’s time we are identified with which institute, school or college we studied. However, this connection was far deeper than we can possibly imagine, in Shvetashvatara Upanishad the devotion to guru is the same as for god (Acharya Devobhava). Characteristic of a guru included being well versed with scriptures, being straight forward, have no desires, besides being knowledgeable must have realization, have love, have compassion, have spirit of sacrifice, has a truthful conduct and should have wealth of qualities which enabled him to lead his students to realization of the self.

The Vedic education was open to both brahamans and non-brahamans. In general, brahamans devoted much of their students life in learning most of the Vedas, whereas non-brahamans learned maybe one Veda (or selected vedic hymns) and focused more on practical sciences and other subjects. Besides the Vedas, courses like philosophy, logic, reasoning, grammar, phonetics, Dharmasastra, law, art, painting, medicines, astronomy, warfare, architecture etc. were also taught.  Usually, the duration of studies was 12 years till the student attains 24 years of age which was regarded as an ideal age for marriage. However, some students who wanted higher mastery studied for as many as 25 to 35 years (till 48 years of age). 

No fees was charged by the guru for it was his duty to the society to assess and guide students.  However, students would help the guru in his day-to-day life in maintain the gurukul and collecting alms. Begging for alms was part of a student’s life, irrespective of whether he was poor or from a prosperous family, it was his religious duty to beg. It helped induce humility among students. The society was also morally bound to support students in their efforts, every household had to offer food to the begging student. Gurukuls were also supported by chieftains, prosperous families and kings. This created an environment where the teacher and student need not worry about their food, clothing, shelter and medicines, and could entirely focus their efforts on education, this also made education accessible even to the poorest.

Daily life of a student included getting up early, performing morning rituals, learning new lessons or revising old ones, physical exercise, yogasadhana (training the mind and the body), beg for alms, and prayers. Students also helped gather wood, assisted in managing gurukul’s gaushala, prepare for rituals and helped in teacher’s household work. Physical labour was an integral part of education, it helped develop humility in students, and prepare them to be independent in life after their studies. There was no distinction between poor students and those coming from prosperous families, all were treated equally by the teacher. 

Learning was mostly through oral instruction, the process of memorizing by listening was called the “sruthi”, and techniques were developed to memorise each mantra / hymn precisely to preserve the purity of the Vedas. Memorising did not mean cramming, as highest emphasis was given to comprehension. Infact, it was the duty of the teacher to ensure that the knowledge is properly grasped by the student. Teachers used different techniques to help the students understand, like – post dialogue driven questions that enabled the student to discover and understand the answers, furnish arguments, evaluate pros-cons, etc. Adi Shankracharya describes the role of a teacher as follows.

“When the teacher finds from signs that knowledge has not been grasped or has been wrongly grasped by the student, he should remove the causes of non-comprehension in the student. This includes the student’s past and present knowledge, want of previous knowledge of what constitutes subjects of discrimination and rules of reasoning, behaviour such as unrestrained conduct and speech, courting popularity, vanity of his parentage, ethical flaws that are means contrary to those causes. The teacher must enjoin means in the student that are enjoined by the Śruti and Smrti, such as avoidance of anger, Yamas consisting of Ahimsa and others, also the rules of conduct that are not inconsistent with knowledge. He[teacher] should also thoroughly impress upon the student qualities like humility, which are the means to knowledge.”

— Adi Shankara, Upadesha Sahasri 1.4-1.5

It was the duty of the teacher to give proper attention to each student. In order to make supervision effective, a monitorial system was used where help of advanced students were taken, they helped guide the studies of the junior students under the general supervision of the teacher. This way a single teacher could manage hundreds of students under him and still be able to give individual attention to each student.

There were no formal annual examination. The students had to finish all his lessons to complete his education. However, no new lessons were given till the student mastered the old one. If the student was intelligent and a fast learner he could finish his education much earlier than other students of his age. Teacher used personal observation, discussions and debates to assess the performance and understanding of the student. At the end of his education the student was presented in-front of a local learned assembly, after the Samavartana (Graduation) ceremony, where some questions were asked to the student.

For a large part of our ancient history, teaching and learning operated in a favorable and a nurturing environment – where education could develop, prosper and flourish; where old ideas were infused with new thinking; where reforms laid the foundation for change; and where despite turbulent political situations there was stability and continuity in the area of education. In ancient India, education by and large was never regulated and was free from political or administrative interference. This might be because of the established code in the ancient Indian society where brahmanas where reverenced and respected by all, including the ruling class (Kshatriyas). Even during the Buddhist era, long period of stability and patronage fueled the development and spread of learning.

There were periods where the ancient Indian education system came under attack, like during the Huna’s invasion of India in the middle of the fifth century, where they ravaged the excellent center of learning in Taxila. But, the first major threat came from Muslim invasions which disrupted and almost crippled, though not entirely, the ancient Indian education system. One such example was the destruction of the world renowned Nalanda University by army led by Turkish leader Bhaktiya Khilji in 1193. With the advent of Muslim rulers, Islamic system of education was introduced to India.

During Muslim rule the ancient Indian education did manage to survive since it centered around Brahamans and not temples. These Brahamans migrated to smaller towns and villages where the Islamic invaders had lesser influence or to places still ruled by Hindu kings, here they re-established the learning centers. However, this was not the case for Buddhist learning, as it was centered around Buddhist Viharas, and with the demolition of Buddhist Viharas and large scale killing of monks the Buddihst learning almost disappeared, though few lucky Buddhist monks managed to escape to Tibet and Nepal.

With the spread of Muslim rule in India, Islamic centers of learning started mushrooming. The chief aim of education was to propagate Islam, the spread of Islam was considered a religious duty. Islamic education was divided in two stages – Maktab (primary education) and  Madrasa (higher education). Muslim rulers were involved in management and administration of education, as through education they wanted to strengthen and develop their political system. The medium of education was Persian which was also the court language, because of which many Hindus studied Persian. This helped growth and development of Urdu, which became the co-official language of India (British India) in 1837.

During the entire period of Islamic rule, rulers were mostly involved in war and could not devote necessary attention to the development and improvement of education. But still, of all the Muslim rulers, it was Akbar who contributed the most towards development of education. Later on, after the death of Aurangzeb, began the decline of Mughal empire and during this period very little was done to develop education.

Though East India Company’s rule in India effectively began in 1757, it was only in 1813 that a state system of education was officially introduced in India through a Charter Act of 1813. However, the Charter Act did not clarify on the objective of education or on the medium of instruction. There were couple of opinions on the medium of instruction, the first opinion was that the Western education should be promoted through indigenous languages, and the second school of thought held that education should be given through the medium of English. It was in 1835 that Lord Macaulay wrote a minute, where he made a decision to make English as the medium of instruction. The intent was to help missionaries preach Christianity; to create a class of English educated Indians to assist British administer India;  increase market by helping English educated Indians develop a taste for British product; and that the western education would reconcile Indians to British rule. This and similar policies, over a period of time, completely destroyed the indigenous education system. It created a huge void which was not possible for the new system to fill, thus creating a larger base of illiterate population.  In the round-table conference in 1931, Mahatma Gandhi in one of his speeches said “The beautiful tree of education was cut down by you British. Therefore today India is far more illiterate than it was 100 years ago.”

It is clear that education is the back-bone of a Nation. It brings development, growth, prosperity, realisation and many more things. India’s history is testimonial to the fact that societies and civilisations can reach marvellous heights on the foundation of a strong education system, or can stay doomed and in darkness for ages when this system is crippled.

Our ancient education system has shown us many things that can rival best of today’s modern methods. It has shown us that, learning is endless, there is no final goal to reach as there will always be a next goal or something new to pursue. Education will flourish if it is not controlled or regimented. Schools, teachers and parents need an environment that offers them flexibility and freedom to nurture young learners. It tells us that teachers are the soul of a good education system, without learned, compassionate, dedicated and trained teachers the system will never progress. And, most importantly, a society that can instil love for learning in the young minds will always be prosperous. 

Author –  Deepak Yadav
Director and Founder of Kraftplus Edutech System.


Education in Ancient India – Dr. A. S. Altekar
History of Education in India – Suresh C. Gosh
History of Education in India during the British Period – J P  Naik and Syed Nurullah
The Single Teacher School – J.P Naik ND