Lessons from Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s Profound Essay on Ancient Indian Education

Lessons from Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s Profound Essay on Ancient Indian Education

As India stood on the threshold of attaining political independence, Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee authored a brilliant paper encapsulating the history of Indian education and the lessons it holds for us today. The first part of a highly informative series.


Arguably, in most popular narratives and biographies written about Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, he is rightly heralded both as the worthy successor of Veer Savarkar and the ideological fount of the Bharatiya Janata Party. However, the attention and eminence due to him as a profound educationist and shaper of generations and ideas has been rather meagre. In fact, in the educational realm, Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee inherited the tradition of his more illustrious father, Dr. Ashutosh Mukherjee, one of the premier educationists of the twentieth century. The historian and scholar D.R. Bhandarkar once called Ashutosh Mukherjee as the Vikramaditya of the world of scholarship. Small wonder that Syama Prasad Mookerjee had inspiration right at home.

One of the little-known essays of Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee was published by the iconic Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute just as India stood on the anvil of political independence. It is essentially a brilliant record of Dr. Mookerjee’s well-rounded thoughts on the system and tradition of education originally envisioned by our Rishis. It is also a capsuled history of this educational system, which ends with long-term warnings, all of which have come true today because we ignored them. Its chief value is the historical and cultural insights that it brings to the table.

Beginning with this episode, The Dharma Dispatch will publish relevant excerpts from the essay. We believe and sincerely hope that it will add value to the much-delayed discussion on educational reform and corrections to Indian history that has been rekindled in the present time.

Note: Minor editorial changes have been made to facilitate easy reading.

Roots of Indian Education

India, like all ancient and civilized countries, has had a long history of education. A series of systems spontaneously took their rise in Indian life and were maintained in a flourishing condition by the people themselves, to be occasionally supported and organized by the State. India developed some noteworthy systems of education in different ages and different areas. The importance of education in civilized life was fully realized but there was hardly any theory of education. This theorizing is essentially a modern business; like grammarians and commentators, theory comes only after certain systems have already been in vogue.

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Lessons from Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s Profound Essay on Ancient Indian Education

In ancient times, however, there was no scope for theorizing but the instinct of the ancient Indian educationist was sound enough and through the interaction of the time-spirit and the economic milieu, India built up her individual system of education, of which we have some definite knowledge from at least 1000 B.C. onwards.

We get plenty of glimpses of this ancient system in the Brahmanas, Upanishads and Gruhya Sutra texts. This was the age of the hermitage schools (Gurukulas or Asramas) which were fully developed some centuries before the Buddha, and the spirit of which has even now persisted, although under quite different cultural and economic conditions, in the old-fashioned Brahmanical Sanskrit schools. Even in the present age we note a good deal of revivalist attempts at getting back the old inspiration of these schools and something of their atmosphere or spirit in modern institutions like the Aryasamaj Gurukul, the Sanatan Dharma Rishikula and the Santiniketan School.

Disciplining the Memory

This Brahmanical system of education had a feature to which modem theorists and experimenters are giving their enthusiastic support—it was an education entirely in the open. There was not much book-learning but there was the living transmission of sacred lore by ‘word of mouth’ – it was all Gurumukhi vidya in both ancient texts and in legends as also in thought and observation. The memory was disciplined as entire series of texts had to be learnt by heart; reasoning and powers of observation were also to be cultivated. All this went on with a thorough participation in the labour and relaxation of daily life; the boys were active members of a teacherly community, living on the outskirts of the forest. They were, in a way, pioneers of civilization in ancient India. The boys had to go into the forest to fetch fire-wood for Yajna and for cooking. They had to tend the cows of the community and look after agriculture along with their teachers and their servants. Above all, through their close contact with nature, they were expected to develop their powers and build their character.

Daily Routine of the Student

Their daily routine was heavy—a round of early rising, cold bath and tending the fire and endless repetition and assimilation of the sacred texts. Hard life indeed, but the boys emerged from this discipline which extended from their eighth year to their twenty-fourth as in the case of the Brahmanas as leaders in both thought and action of a great community, a community that was shaping the destinies of humanity not only in India but also over a great part of Asia. In the realm of the ideas, it was a community which was of deep significance to the whole world.

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Lessons from Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s Profound Essay on Ancient Indian Education

These schools in the open are once again in vogue in the west. Whether in Germany or France or in America or in Russia, such experiments always command respectfully sympathetic interest. In any national system of education which we may build up in the future, we cannot afford to neglect this ancient heritage of ours, the Ashrama schools of the Rishis. We should only remember that it was within the atmosphere of this system that the deathless Upanishads came into being in ancient India.

Home Schooling in Ancient and Medieval India

As cities grew into importance these ‘forest schools’ became a thing of the past, but the spirit was kept up by the Brahmanas in what may be called ‘home schools.’ They continued to teach their ancient Vedic lore to select groups of boys, the master housing the boys and feeding them with his own family and funding most of their expense. In this work, the entire people—from the ruler onwards-supported the teachers by giving them dakshinas or honoraria for their religious ministrations, for their opinions on matters of conduct and conscience, and by presents of other sorts, including landed property to maintain their schools. Later on, when the vogue for temples came in, these endowments of lands to Brahmanas for maintaining temples and connected schools became a noteworthy feature in Indian life. As a result of this, we have from post-Christian times, the system of temple-schools, a fixed percentage of the income arising out of attached temple lands or from gifts made to the temple being set apart to maintain one or more teacher and a number of pupils. These private Brahmanical schools and temple-schools are living traditions even at the present day although these are no longer able to keep pace with our ‘progressive’ ideas.

Mammooth Universities

Another kind of educational institution developed, also out of the ancient forest schools, when during the middle of the first millennium BCE, big institutions were set up in the more important cities where eminent teachers were congregating and were attracting hundreds of pupils in various arts and sciences. Conspicuous among such institutions were those at Takshashila and at Benares and also in other important towns. We do not know about their detailed organisation and the nature of their work, but presumably there must have been some amount of State support.

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Lessons from Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s Profound Essay on Ancient Indian Education

The later Buddhistic universities were just an extension of these large educational institutions, and in the development of the Vedic idea, the cosmopolitan court and capital of Kanishka in North-Western India had evidently a great deal to do. When Buddhism and Brahmanism spread in Central Asia and China and in the lands of greater India (South-Eastern Asia and Indonesia) it was inevitable that Central Asians, Chinese and Tibetans and people from Burma and Indo-China and the islands would like to study Indian religion and culture at the fountainhead in the mother country itself.

Consequently, from early centuries of the Christian era right down to the Islamic conquest of Northern India, pilgrim scholars from Central Asia, China and elsewhere used to come to India and they found these centers of learning, which were veritable large-scale universities, ready for them. The description of Nalanda left by Hiuen Tsang and others will make any Indian proud of the organization of learning that had come into being in India at least fifteen hundred years ago.

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Lessons from Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s Profound Essay on Ancient Indian Education

In the south, as we know from inscriptions of the Chola and other dynasties, education was equally well-organized, centering round the temples, which were the most natural seats of culture in a community with an essentially religio-philosophical outlook.

To be continued

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