Ancient History & Civilisation


Schools—Methods—Universities—Moslem education—An emperor on education

Writing continued, even to the nineteenth century, to play a very small part in Indian education. Perhaps it was not to the interest of the priests that the sacred or scholastic texts should become an open secret to all.6 As far as we can trace Indian history we find a system of education,7always in the hands of the clergy, open at first only to the sons of Brahmans, then spreading its privileges from caste to caste until in our time it excludes only the Untouchables. Every Hindu village had its schoolmaster, supported out of the public funds; in Bengal alone, before the coming of the British, there were some eighty thousand native schools—one to every four hundred population.8 The percentage of literacy under Ashoka was apparently higher than in India today.9

Children went to the village school from September to February, entering at the age of five and leaving at the age of eight.10 Instruction was chiefly of a religious character, no matter what the subject; rote memorizing was the usual method, and the Vedas were the inevitable text. The three R’s were included, but were not the main business of education; character was rated above intellect, and discipline was the essence of schooling. We do not hear of flogging, or of other severe measures; but we find that stress was laid above all upon the formation of wholesome and proper habits of life.11 At the age of eight the pupil passed to the more formal care of a Guru, or personal teacher and guide, with whom the student was to live, preferably till he was twenty. Services, sometimes menial, were required of him, and he was pledged to continence, modesty, cleanliness, and a meatless diet.12 Instruction was now given him in the “Five Shastras” or sciences: grammar, arts and crafts, medicine, logic, and philosophy. Finally he was sent out into the world with the wise admonition that education came only one-fourth from the teacher, one-fourth from private study, one-fourth from one’s fellows, and one-fourth from life.13

From his Guru the student might pass, about the age of sixteen, to one of the great universities that were the glory of ancient and medieval India: Benares, Taxila, Vidarbha, Ajanta, Ujjain, or Nalanda. Benares was the stronghold of orthodox Brahman learning in Buddha’s days as in ours; Taxila, at the time of Alexander’s invasion, was known to all Asia as the leading seat of Hindu scholarship, renowned above all for its medical school; Ujjain was held in high repute for astronomy, Ajanta for the teaching of art. The façade of one of the ruined buildings at Ajanta suggests the magnificence of these old universities.14 Nalanda, most famous of Buddhist institutions for higher learning, had been founded shortly after the Master’s death, and the state had assigned for its support the revenues of a hundred villages. It had ten thousand students, one hundred lecture-rooms, great libraries, and six immense blocks of dormitories four stories high; its observatories, said Yuan Chwang, “were lost in the vapors of the morning, and the upper rooms towered above the clouds.”15 The old Chinese pilgrim loved the learned monks and shady groves of Nalanda so well that he stayed there for five years. “Of those from abroad who wished to enter the schools of discussion” at Nalanda, he tells us, “the majority, beaten by the difficulties of the problem, withdrew; and those who were deeply versed in old and modern learning were admitted, only two or three out of ten succeeding.”16 The candidates who were fortunate enough to gain admission were given free tuition, board and lodging, but they were subjected to an almost monastic discipline. Students were not permitted to talk to a woman, or to see one; even the desire to look upon a woman was held a great sin, in the fashion of the hardest saying in the New Testament. The student guilty of sex relations had to wear, for a whole year, the skin of an ass, with the tail turned upward, and had to go about begging alms and declaring his sin. Every morning the entire student body was required to bathe in the ten great swimming pools that belonged to the university. The course of study lasted for twelve years, but some students stayed thirty years, and some remained till death.17

The Mohammedans destroyed nearly all the monasteries, Buddhist or Brahman, in northern India. Nalanda was burned to the ground in 1197, and all its monks were slaughtered; we can never estimate the abundant life of ancient India from what these fanatics spared. Nevertheless, the destroyers were not barbarians; they had a taste for beauty, and an almost modern skill in using piety for the purposes of plunder. When the Moguls ascended the throne they brought a high but narrow standard of culture with them; they loved letters as much as the sword, and knew how to combine a successful siege with poetry. Among the Moslems education was mostly individual, through tutors engaged by prosperous fathers for their sons. It was an aristocratic conception of education as an ornament-occasionally an aid—to a man of affairs and power, but usually an irritant and a public danger in one doomed to poverty or modest place. What the methods of the tutors were we may judge from one of the great letters of history—the reply of Aurangzeb to his former teacher, who was seeking some sinecure and emolument from the King:

What is it you would have of me, Doctor? Can you reasonably desire that I should make you one of the chief Omrahs of my court? Let me tell you, if you had instructed me as you should have done, nothing would be more just; for I am of this persuasion, that a child well educated and instructed is as much, at least, obliged to his master as to his father. But where are those good documents* you have given me? In the first place, you have taught me that all Frangistan (so it seems they call Europe) was nothing but I know not what little island, of which the greatest king was he of Portugal,” and next to him he of Holland, and after him he of England: and as to the other kings, as those of France and Andalusia, you have represented them to me as our petty rajas, telling me that the kings of Indostan were far above them altogether, that they (the kings of Indostan) were . . . the great ones, the conquerors and kings of the world; and those of Persia and Usbec, Kashgar, Tartary and Cathay, Pegu, China and Matchina did tremble at the name of the kings of Indostan. Admirable geography! You should rather have taught me exactly to distinguish all those states of the world, and well to understand their strength, their way of fighting, their customs, religions, governments, and interests; and by the pursual of solid history, to observe their rise, progress, decay; and whence, how, and by what accidents and errors those great changes and revolutions of empires and kingdoms have happened. I have scarce learned of you the name of my grandsires, the famous founders of this empire; so far were you from having taught me the history of their life, and what course they took to make such great conquest. You had a mind to teach me the Arabian tongue, to read and to write. I am much obliged, forsooth, for having made me lose so much time upon a language that requires ten or twelve years to attain to its perfection; as if the son of a king should think it to be an honor to him to be a grammarian or some doctor of the law, and to learn other languages than of his neighbors when he can well be without them; he, to whom time is so precious for so many weighty things, which he ought by times to learn. As if there were any spirit that did not with some reluctancy, and even with a kind of debasement, employ itself in so sad and dry an exercise, so longsome and tedious, as is that of learning words.18

“Thus,” says the contemporary Bernier, “did Aurangzeb resent the pedantic instructions of his tutors; to which ’tis affirmed in that court that . . . he added the following reproof”;*

Know you not that childhood well governed, being a state which is ordinarily accompanied with an happy memory, is capable of thousands of good precepts and instructions, which remain deeply impressed the whole remainder of a man’s life, and keep the mind always raised for great actions? The law, prayers and sciences, may they not as well be learned in our mother-tongue as in Arabick? You told my father Shah Jehan that you would teach me philosophy. ’Tis true, I remember very well, that you have entertained me for many years with airy questions of things that afford no satisfaction at all to the mind, and are of no use in humane society, empty notions and mere fancies, that have only this in them, that they are very hard to understand and very easy to forget. . . . I still remember that after you had thus amused me, I know not how long, with your fine philosophy, all I retained of it was a multitude of barbarous and dark words, proper to bewilder, perplex and tire out the best wits, and only invented the better to cover the vanity and ignorance of men like yourself, that would make us believe that they know all, and that under those obscure and ambiguous words are hid great mysteries which they alone are capable to understand. If you had seasoned me with that philosophy which formeth the mind to ratiocination, and insensibly accustoms it to be satisfied with nothing but solid reasons, if you had given me those excellent precepts and doctrines which raise the soul above the assaults of fortune, and reduce her to an unshakable and always equal temper, and permit her not to be lifted up by prosperity nor debased by adversity; if you had taken care to give me the knowledge of what we are and what are the first principles of things, and had assisted me in forming in my mind a fit idea of the greatness of the universe, and of the admirable order and motion of the parts thereof; if, I say, you had instilled into me this kind of philosophy, I should think myself incomparably more obliged to you than Alexander was to his Aristotle, and believe it my duty to recompense you otherwise than he did him. Should you not, instead of your flattery, have taught me somewhat of that point so important to a king, which is, what the reciprocal duties are of a sovereign to his subjects and those of subjects to their sovereigns; and ought not you to have considered that one day I should be obliged with the sword to dispute my life and my crown with my brothers? . . . Have you ever taken any care to make me learn what ’tis to besiege a town, or to set an army in array? For these things I am obliged to others, not at all to you. Go, and return to the village whence you are come, and let nobody know who you are or what is become of you.19

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