AS LATE AS 1891, DR. FRANCIS, a surgeon commissioned by the colonial British Government landed in Calcutta and jotted down detailed notes of his observations of our society and people. The Indian National Congress had been founded six years prior and the third generation of the Hindu mind was being colonised by the thriving laboratory of cultural vandalism that Macaulay had established five decades ago. But it would take several more decades for his poison to seep, infect and permanently impair the Hindu cultural and social fabric. The Hindu society that Dr. Francis discovered was deeply, inextricably moored in its ancient roots. A mode of living outside this framework was not only unthinkable to this society but was violative of its most cherished ideals and beliefs. And a defining feature of this society was sanctity and devotion in every domain: from waking up to sleeping, from birth till death, best exemplified by this immortal verse:
ātmā tvaṃ girijā matiḥ sahacarāḥ prāṇāḥ śarīraṃ gṛhaṃ
pūjā te viṣayopabhogaracanā nidrā samādhisthitiḥ ।
sañcāraḥ padayoḥ pradakṣiṇavidhiḥ stotrāṇi sarvā giro
yadyatkarma karomi tattadakhilaṃ śambho tavārādhanam ॥
You are my Atma (Soul), Girija (the Divine Mother) is my Buddhi (Refined Intellect), the Shiva Ganas (the Companions or Attendants) are my life-breath and my Body is Your Temple, My interactions with the world are Your Worship and my Sleep is the State of Samadhi (complete absorption in You). My walking is Your Pradakshina (Circumambulation); my Speech are Hymns in Your praise, Every work I do is Your Aradhana (Worship), O Shambhu.
Dr. Francis noticed precisely this trait in the daily life of Hindus around him. He describes the sanctity attached to the Snana as “praiseworthy and purifying.” He marvelled at the intrinsic ethics of the Hindus who swore upon the Sastras, Gangajala, Salagramam, Tulasi leaves, Rudrakshi and Agni in disputes. Contrary to the prejudiced and vitriolic narratives about the “depressed and ill-treated Hindoo women” spewed in British journals and newspapers, Dr. Francis found that “Indian girls are remarkable for their zeal in learning whatever they are taught.” And then he indirectly discovered the secret of how such a society—ruthlessly plundered and impoverished by his own country—could still be so functional, how its people could still be so cheerful and forbearing. The secret was its educational system. However, it is clear that Dr. Francis witnessed only a sliver of this vast universe when he writes: “The natives of India are very fond of proverbs, and stories. The Kuhani-wala (story-teller) is always a welcome visitor in inns for travellers and wherever people congregate…they are highly popular.”
This educational universe is as timeless as Bharatavarsha itself.
FROM THE EARLIEST TIMES, this sacred civilisation recognised two types of knowledge, broadly speaking: (1) The Essential (2) The Professional. Its genius lay in the sublime and invisible manner in which it fused the two and achieved an unbeatable harmony both in theory and practice. Unlike the West which considers essential knowledge and professional knowledge as opposing poles or as distinct from each other, the Santana mantra was synthesis.
In the Santana conception, philosophical, spiritual, or Dharmic knowledge is essential knowledge. Professional knowledge is rather self-explanatory. The former encompasses the Manōmaya and Vijñānamaya Kōśas leading ultimately to the ānandamaya Kōśa. The latter covers the Annamaya and prāṇamaya Kōśas or the bare and base existential planes.
From another perspective, professional knowledge can be loosely understood as civilisational (as elements that constitute the building and maintenance of the physical aspects of a civilisation) whereas essential knowledge is cultural leading to the spiritual and the philosophical. The former is Prakr̥ti and the latter is Samskr̥ti.
The aforementioned understanding was quite commonplace even six or seven decades ago. The Hindu society in general had this understanding on the subconscious plane because their overall cultural inheritance had infused it in their DNA, so to speak. However, the sort of divisive ideologies that eventually became mainstream and acquired political heft have pretty much erased this inheritance. Its vilest manifestation is the ongoing toxic narrative about something called a “pure Dravidian stock,” whatever that means. And education is the foundational edifice on which this vile narrative rests. In turn, the edifice of this edifice is the half-verified historical claim that the lower strata of Hindu society was denied education.
However, a truthful study of history clearly shows that the education that such toxic ideologies refer to is literacy, and not professional education. In fact, since the dawn of the Sanatana civilisation, professions in India had steadily and systematically evolved and eventually touched the summits of expertise in grammar, skill, application, production, and in many cases, artistry and beauty. The now-obsolete word “workmanship” was a prized and unpoachable treasure in the hands of the professional. There’s a deep-seated reason why Shah Jahan chopped off the fingers of the 22,000 artisans who had sculpted the Taj Mahal. This honed professional perfection was made possible by the much-reviled “caste system.” It is the same “caste system” which enabled professional education spread across both space and time: across the vast geography of undivided Bharatavarsha and over hundreds of generations. Indeed, the town planning systems in pre-British India provide a lived proof of what can be called the Professional History of India.
However, the equation of education with mere literacy was the direct outcome of the British policy of destroying all professions and reducing experts to clerks and peons slaving away their entire lives in the service of a foreign empire of pirates.
Likewise, on the other side, the related claim that the Brahmanas monopolised all sacred—i.e., essential knowledge also deserves reexamination. But at this distance in time, this monopolisation is largely a thing of the past in the sense that Vedic and Sastric education is now freely available to the whole Hindu society, which is certainly a welcome development.
However, there are deep and wide historical currents even in this area which reveal vital clues over an important question: how essential knowledge was disseminated throughout Bharatavarsha for several millennia. The question is hugely significant given the fact that this dissemination occurred in a multi-pronged fashion; it was highly creative, diverse and flexible in both method and expression.
This essay series narrates the brief story of the aeonian journey of how essential or sacred education was transmitted throughout (undivided) Bharatavarsha—a country so vast with such difficult terrains—reaching the corners and crevices of lakhs of villages, over countless centuries, during a period when communication and travel was not only tough but hazardous even.
To be continued
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