The Profound Philosophy of Education in the Medieval Tamil Desham

A glimpse into the profound philosophical underpinnings of the educational system that existed in early medieval and medieval Tamil Desham.
The Profound Philosophy of Education in the Medieval Tamil Desham


SRI K.A. NILAKANTA SASTRI is justly known for his most famous work, A History of South India. Sri Sastri wrote prolifically, churning out some twenty-five full-fledged works on various aspects of south Indian history in a distinguished career spanning about half a century. His primary focus was the culture and history of the Tamil country and people for which he had an abiding passion.

What is lesser known are his contributions to various journals and magazines. It is here that we find some rare gems all but forgotten now. One such gem is his longform essay he wrote in an academic journal on the education system in the Tamil Desam from the pre-medieval and medieval times. The essay is notable for a wealth of cultural insights and the underlying philosophical impulses that informed this education system.

The following are some eye-opening excerpts from this brilliant study. After reading it, the contrast between that profound system and the generation-destroying cauldron that today’s “education” in Tamil Nadu signifies will become self-evident.

Minor editorial changes have been made. Happy reading!

Pitfalls of Universal Popular Education

The ideal of universal popular education and that of all types of education being thrown open to everybody are the results of the application of the Democratic idea in the field of education. Democracy as we now understand it is a new force in world history; it began to count as a powerful factor only after the French Revolution, though its feeble beginnings may be traced in a popular tag like:

When Adam delved and Eve spanWho was then the gentleman ?

“To each according to his station, the station itself depending on the stage reached by him in the long evolution towards mukti lasting through several births.” This was the accredited scheme of things in India in ancient times; and Tamil education was planned on this basis.

Literacy in itself is not education. In the seventh and eighth centuries, we have Pandya and Pallava inscriptions on stone and copper in two languages, Sanskrit and Tamil, and three scripts—Grantha, Tamil and Vatteluttu. It seems a fair presumption to make that literacy in Tamil must have been more widespread by the time the Pandya and Pallava inscriptions came to be engraved. The excellence of workmanship evidenced by many of these epigraphs implies that the artisans who actually carried out the work of engraving were by no means ignorant copyists of models set before them, but educated men who enjoyed their work did not lack originality. The Chola Tamil inscriptions of Tanjore go far to strengthen this belief.

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The Profound Philosophy of Education in the Medieval Tamil Desham

The Vatteluttu, in particular, was decidedly a popular script in active use in the daily transactions of life. It has rightly been compared to the Modi and Takari scripts. The script continued in use on the West Coast of South India at least to the end of the seventeenth century if not later. At one time it must have been common over the whole Tamil country, with the possible exception of its northernmost parts.


Tiruvalluvar in his Kural, the storehouse of early Tamil wisdom, counts writing and arithmetic as the two eyes of the soul, the means of perfecting man’s insight into the nature of things. This ancient author was by no means oblivious of the role of the ear in education. With characteristic terseness he states that of all the forms of wealth open to man, that gained by the ear is the best. This is a statement calculated to emphasise both the part of the teacher in scholastic education and the possibility of another type of education for the illiterate.

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The Profound Philosophy of Education in the Medieval Tamil Desham

Tiruvalluvar lays stress on the true aim of a good education and its influence on practical life:

One should learn accurately whatever one learns from books, and should then regulate his conduct accordingly.

The object of education back then was not to pass examinations or win degrees, not even to qualify for professions or earn recognition, but to lead the good and virtuous life.

We may now take leave of Tiruvalluvar with one final citation from his sayings on the value of a true education:

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.

A Commentary on the Iraiyanar Ahapporul

The commentary on the Iraiyanar Ahapporul under the name of Nakkirar, a Sangam poet, has a short paragraph in the opening section. It shows that there had come into existence much discussion on what we now call the theory of education. The author tells us en passant that for fear of prolixity he is not entering into a detailed discussion of subjects like the qualifications of the teacher, the methods of teaching, the nature of the pupil and the manner of his study, and that such discussions may be found in other works specially devoted to them.

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The Profound Philosophy of Education in the Medieval Tamil Desham

What Pavanandi Said

One such work is the Nannul (The Good Book), a treatise on Tamil grammar, composed by a Jain author Pavanandi (Bhava-nandi), who flourished at the court of the Ganga prince Amarabharanan Siya-Gangan, a feudatory of the Cola Emperor Kulottunga III (A.D. 1178-1216). His statements on educational subjects often surprise us alike by their shrewd good sense and by the possible range of their application to times and conditions other than his own.

Who is fit for the position of a teacher ? The teacher, answers Pavanandi, must be a man of good birth, gentle and godly by nature and of a generous outlook. He must be deeply learned in book-lore and capable of expounding his knowledge with directness and simplicity. He must also combine common sense (ulagiyal arivu) with these high qualities.

But the functional differentia of the teacher as such are stated by Pavanandi in a manner that tickles us by its quaintness, but was quite natural to mediaeval scholastic thought all over India. He says: “ the teacher must unite in himself the characteristic features of the earth, mountain, weighing-rod (nirrai kol) and flower. The earth signifies four qualities:

  • First, extent or vastness of size, so great that you could not take it all in at a glance from any one point;

  • Secondly, strength not to yield under the stress of great weight ;

  • Thirdly, patience even towards those who dig into it and otherwise cause hurt and damage;

  • Lastly, capacity to yield fruits commensurate to the timeliness and intensity of effort on the part of the cultivator.

The teacher should thus be a man of vast learning, not living from hand to mouth, being only a little in advance of his pupils with the subject matter of his lectures. His learning should be thoroughly well-organised and capable of sustaining positions taken up by him through the stress of the most strenuous debate. This requirement clearly shows the place held by public disputations in the educational system of ancient India. There are countless occasions when pupils fall below the proper standard of diligence, rectitude or loyalty, or to take to flighty or evil paths. On such occasions the teacher should have the strength and patience to keep his temper in check.

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The Profound Philosophy of Education in the Medieval Tamil Desham

Thus, to discover talent and encourage its growth, and to grade individual teaching according to the capacity of each pupil, in order to arrange the work so that the indifferent pupils do not hamper the better class of them was an essential feature of a sound system of education.

These are but some of the implications of the apparently puerile statement that the teacher should be like the earth.

Next, Pavanandi himself guides us on the meaning when he says that the teacher should also be like the mountain, the weighing-rod and the flower.

The mountain impresses us by its great size and the variety of its products. It is visible from a great distance, and sustains life even during a drought. Thus, the good teacher is marked by the wide range of his studies, his fame spreads far and wide, and he gives freely of the abundance of his knowledge even if there is no money in his profession.

As the weighing-rod weighs accurately and impartially, so too does the good teacher the merits and defects of his pupils. No one can teach for long in a school or college without observing how readily the pupils detect the slightest departure from strict impartiality on the part of the teacher and how promptly they let the teacher know what has been happening. A teacher runs a grave risk to his reputation when he promotes an incompetent pupil, or puts down a capable one.

The good teacher, like the flower, is sought after on all happy occasions. He carries about him a fine bloom that endears him to all and presents a joyful countenance.

To be continued

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