The Ideal Guru and the Ideal Shishya in the Medieval Tamil Desham

Using a series of superb analogies, the medieval Tamil educationist Pavanandi exposits the qualifications of a good teacher and a good pupil and vice versa. These prescriptions are not only timeless but have universal value and applicability.
The Ideal Guru and the Ideal Shishya in the Medieval Tamil Desham
Sandeep Balakrishna

In this Series:

The Ideal Guru and the Ideal Shishya in the Medieval Tamil Desham
The Profound Philosophy of Education in the Medieval Tamil Desham

Having thus defined who the good teacher is, Pavanandi proceeds to complete his account by pointing out who is not a good teacher and can never hope to be one. Our author begins with some general points and then illustrates the fundamental disqualifications using brilliant analogies.

He says:

Those who are not conspicuous for some noble quality, those who are by nature mean-minded and disposed to be jealous, greedy, deceitful, and cowardly cannot be good teachers.

One has only to think for a moment, and try and analyse the reasons for the pronounced failures in the teaching line, to realize the profound truth, underlying each of these statements. A correct understanding of Pavanandi’s meaning would find wider application for his statements.

Even the good teacher has to guard himself constantly against the ever present danger of a subtle lowering of standards. There is no such rule that says, “once a good teacher always a good teacher.” Excellence in any walk of life is not the permanent consequence of a spurt of effort. It is maintained and improved only by constant practice.

But the peculiar demerits of the bad teacher are brought out by Pavanandi by a series of analogies.

First of all, the bad teacher is like a jar of Molucca-beans. The idea is this: when a jar of Molucca-beans is emptied, the beans spill out in any order. Likewise, a bad teacher expounds his points in a chaotic and disorderly manner with no reference to their proper logical order, and is too fast and confused for his pupils to make anything out of his lessons.

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There is another type who learns with difficulty himself, and has still greater difficulty in imparting his learning to others, the teacher whose intellectual powers are not adequate to his task. For an analogy to this type of teacher, Pavanandi turns to the practice of preserving carded cotton in cocoanut and other shells, the shells being slowly stuffed with cotton through a small hole, the only opening in the shell. The cotton is taken out with even greater difficulty than it was put in.

The defects pointed to by these two analogies are intellectual. Pavanandi uses other analogies to stress the moral defects of the bad teacher. One variety of the palm tree has its stem covered all over with pinnate leaves carried on branches with sharp edges. Its fruit can be gathered only when the tree sheds it, and not otherwise, as no one can climb the tree to get the fruit. In the same way, one type of bad teacher refuses to do anything for the pupil who wants his aid systematically: the pupil has to wait on his whims. Another type of teacher resembles a cocoanut tree which though watered by one man yields its fruits to another, because its stem is bent over across the fence.

Conditions for a Successful Lesson

Pavanandi then turns to consider the conditions of a successful lesson. The teacher and pupil should meet in a suitable place and at a proper time of day. The teacher should occupy a seat higher than the pupil’s and begin with a prayer to his particular Devata. He should then concentrate his attention on the subject of the lesson, and begin to expound it, not too fast, nor impatiently, but with a loving heart, a pleasant face, and a graceful mind. He should study the pupil’s capacity for assimilation and regulate the weight of the lesson accordingly.


Who may be accepted as pupils? One’s own son, the son of one’s teacher, the king’s son, one who pays well, one who does service to the teacher, and lastly, one who has the capacity to profit by the teaching—all these may become pupils.

The order in this list is noteworthy. A man’s duty is first of all to his own children and those of his acharya; even a prince of the royal family and one who comes with a good fee stands last. We should also note that ability is itself a passport to the realm of knowledge. If the teacher knows that a young man is likely to profit by a course, then it is his duty to admit him to the course: even if he is a poor stranger who cannot afford to pay for his education.

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Judged by the standard of ability, pupils are said to fall into three classes:

  • The best resemble the hamsa and the cow

  • The second-rate resemble the earth and the parrot

  • The last grade evince the qualities of a leaky jar, sheep, buffalo, and filter

Here, Pavanandi leaves us guessing as to the meaning he seeks to convey by these analogies. The hamsa in Indian literary convention can separate milk from water and leave the water behind after drinking off the milk. Likewise, the best student fastens on the essential points of the lesson and gains permanent hold on them, not wasting his attention on inconsequential details. When it comes across a rich pasture, the cow grazes with avidity and then ruminates at leisure. This typifies what a good student seeks to do when he is thrown in the company of some great scholar. He gathers up in his mind all the knowledge that he can, and takes his own time to assimilate it and turn it to account.

The earth yields produce commensurate to the efforts to the cultivator, and the parrot just repeats what it is taught. Likewise the pupil of medium grade evinces a grasp of the subject strictly limited by the nature and intensity of the lesson to which he is treated, and repeats parrot-like whatever he has been told. That is, he has very little capacity for assimilating knowledge, much less for reflection and initiative in its acquisition.

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It is interesting to note that Pavanandi uses the analogy of the earth twice, once to illustrate the merit of a good teacher and again, to exemplify a defect of the lower grade of pupil. Clearly, he means to emphasise that the same quality may be good in a teacher, but not so in the pupil. He is a good teacher who measures his contribution in accordance with the pupil’s capacity. But he is not a good pupil who makes no contribution of his own, but simply remains a passive receptacle of just what is told him.

To be concluded

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