Education in the Medieval Tamil Desham: The Lessons it Teaches us

In the concluding part, we get a superb picture of the profound lessons that the educational system of the medieval Tamil Desham teaches us
Education in the Medieval Tamil Desham: The Lessons it Teaches us

In this series

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Education in the Medieval Tamil Desham: The Lessons it Teaches us
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Education in the Medieval Tamil Desham: The Lessons it Teaches us

THE WORST TYPE OF PUPIL quickly forgets his lessons and resembles the jar with a big hole in its bottom which can never be filled with water. The sheep wanders from one tree or shrub to another and never manages to get its full feed anywhere. Likewise, the bad pupil goes on changing his teachers and never gets the full benefit of the instruction of any single teacher. Just as the buffalo muddies the water in the pond before it starts drinking it, the bad pupil causes a lot of mental anguish to the teacher before deriving any good from him. The filter lets through the essential parts of the liquids like ghee or honey, and retains the impurities, so also the bad pupil misses the essentials of a lesson and fastens on the useless parts of it.

Pavanandi then proceeds to analyse the types of people that should never be accepted as pupils. Next, he lays down the rules to be observed by the pupil during a lesson, the methods to be followed by him to improve and extend the range of his knowledge and the firmness of his hold on what he learns, and the manner in which a pupil should win the grace of his guru.

These clear-cut sutras of Pavanandi neatly summarize the ideals of education cherished in the Tamil country in his day. We are astonished how universally relevant and timeless they are. But the real question is this: how far these text-book maxims were observed in practice? Epigraphy and literature furnish sufficient data for us to claim that the conditions under which education was carried on in those days were quite favourable to the attainment of reasonably good results.

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Education in the Medieval Tamil Desham: The Lessons it Teaches us

Large colleges or classes were unknown, and the proportion of the number of teachers to that of pupils in organized centres of higher education like Ennayiram and Tribhuvani compares very favourably with what it is in many colleges today. Distractions were few, and learning was highly respected.

Let us also remember this. However much the textbooks may idealize the prevailing conditions, they could not have been framed without any reference to such conditions existing in real life. The language of Pavanandi’s sutras, the analogies employed in them, and the types of teacher and pupil described, betray evidence of much continuous and shrewd observation of real life in schools. The schools generally centred round temples and mathas in relatively later times. Inscriptions tell us more of Sanskrit schools and colleges, even in the Tamil country, than of the other type of school devoted to the cultivation of Tamil which existed side by side.

Education in the arts and crafts was largely a matter of caste and family tradition and training. But even to such a training, the instructive analysis of Pavanandi was not altogether inapplicable.


As with other essays published in The Dharma Dispatch on education in an India before the British destroyed it, this series on education in the medieval Tamil Desham offers yet another proof of a profound system. One of its hallmarks was unbroken continuity and the ownership and patronage of education by the entire community cutting across artificial divisions of Varna and occupation.

The philosophy that underlaid education can be captured in the words of a great scholar who famously said that the goal of Indian education was not to inform the mind but to form it. Like all other realms of ancient India, Vidya was not divorced from Darshana. This among other things is precisely what plagues education in contemporary India. It is exclusively premised on economics. In which case, the logical question arises: would anyone even pursue education if everyone was guaranteed an income?

A key takeaway from Pavanandi’s sutras on education is his extensive use of mundane analogies to expound profound concepts. This is a patently Sanatana method of fusing the intellect with emotion to arrive at lasting truths and in acquiring mastery over even “dry” subjects. It is indeed a pathetic revelation that this extraordinary tradition has all but been destroyed today. For centuries, it was in our bloodstream and came to us effortlessly. It was a natural phenomenon like air.

Even if we set aside the rabid Far-Left ideological indoctrination in our textbooks of today, what we precisely notice is the aforementioned point: a near-total absence of teaching and learning through analogies and anecdotes. This method of teaching, from a very young age shapes the child’s mind in unimaginably deep ways, establishes various invisible intellectual circuits, all of which will yield brilliant results in adulthood: the child never forgets these throughout his or her life.

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Education in the Medieval Tamil Desham: The Lessons it Teaches us

It is with some trepidation that we must regard the mindless advocacy and implementation of electronic devices as substitutes for real learning. DVG for example, learned the alphabet by writing it on sand. The imposing boulders, dilapidated buildings, tamarind trees, natural water-pools, the evening Aratis in Mulabagal and fried snacks taught him lessons that eventually transformed him into a legend. He freely acknowledges his debt to all of these and more. Likewise, R.C. Majumdar uncomplainingly bore the brunt of floods in which his whole house would be engulfed in water. Having barely any money, he often swam to attend school. At other times, he made rafts from banana stumps and travelled to school. He wrote his notes and class work on banana leaves using a sharp bamboo stick.

We can multiply this list of eminences if only to provide more evidence.

From another perspective, a founding pillar of the Santana conception and practice of education lies in this timeless proverb:

क्रियासिद्धिः सत्वे भवति महतां नोपकरणे ||

All great people depend more on their inner strength than on the tools for accomplishing them.

To conclude this series, we can once again quote Tiruvalluvar’s enduring maxim:

The penury of the learned is better than the affluence of the ignorant; a truly learned man does not lose his soul on account of poverty, whereas wealth controlled by an uncultured person may result in much social evil.

|| Om Tat Sat ||

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