Aims of Gurukula System (गुरुकुलव्यवस्थायाः लक्ष्याणि)

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The Gurukula system was the mainstream education system till as recent as the first millenium which necessitated the stay of a student away from his home at the house or ashrama of Guru (teacher) who imparted valuable life lessons to the student. The direct aim of all education, literary or professional, was to make the student fit to deal with the problems in life, train him to develop those qualities that would make him a beneficial member of the society. The following are a few aims of this ancient system of education.

Fulfilling Rshi Rna

The whole of Shikshavalli of Taittiriyopanishad stresses the importance of duties of the student and the famous convocation address in 11th Anuvaka of Taittiriya Upanishad, sums up the importance of these duties starting with Speaking the truth and Practicing Dharma.[1]

सत्यं वद । धर्मं चर । स्वाध्यायान्मा प्रमदः । satyaṁ vada । dharmaṁ cara । svādhyāyānmā pramadaḥ । (Tait. Upan. 1.11.1)[2]

Meaning: Speak the Truth, Practice Dharma, Never neglect Svadhyaya.

Svadhyaya here, refers to the study of Vedas.

Imparting Dharmika Principles

Life in ancient Bharat was rooted in Dharma and associated activities. Activities or jivana vidhana involved being in constant communion with the Self and thus many preceptors, the rshis lived simple lives. The procedures of yajnas performed for the welfare of all beings in the world, vratas, nityakarmas (agnihotra, prayer to Surya etc) - all were to inculcate piousness and compassion in the young student, the bearer of the future generations. He is trained to control his senses and the rigorous adhyatmik background imbibed is expected to restrain the student from temptations of life. The setting was the ashram, the very atmosphere impresses upon him that through the body (a product of nature) the higher adhyatmik realms are to be achieved by his inner Self (along with buddhi and manas are to be directed towards Paramatma). To achieve this, the Guru imparts those laws which govern the conduct thereby moulding his character for life.[3]

Limitations on Spiritual Practices

Although the gurukula system provided the dharmika and paramatmika jnana, the aim was not to induce the student immediately into a path for search of Brahman and turn him into a sanyasi. It is well known that maharshis had huge following of students involved in Vedic studies yet only a miniscule number of them pursued the adhyatmik journey (remaining as brahmacharis) while vast majority of them became grhasthas and spread the yajnika practices in the society. Thus role of Gurus was two fold - create new preceptors who spread the dharmika procedures in society and guide those students on the adhyatmik quest.

Character Building

The illumination and power, which men and women received from education, was primarily intended to transform and ennoble their nature. Although Vedas and adhyatmik quest was regarded highly, maharshis, the educationalists, unhesitatingly declared that a person of good character with minimal knowledge of the Vedas is to be preferred to a scholar, who though well versed in the Vedas, led an impure life of lowly thoughts and habits. Importance of character has been stressed in many ancient texts

सावित्रीमात्रसारोऽपि वरं विप्रः सुयन्त्रितः । नायन्त्रितस्त्रिवेदोऽपि सर्वाशी सर्वविक्रयी । । २.११८ । ।

sāvitrīmātrasāro'pi varaṁ vipraḥ suyantritaḥ । nāyantritastrivedo'pi sarvāśī sarvavikrayī । । 2.118 । । (Manu. Smri. 2.118)[4]

धर्म हि यो वर्धयते स पण्डितः । dharma hi yo vardhayate sa paṇḍitaḥ । (Maha. Shan. Parv. 12.321.78)

He alone is learned (jnani) who contributes to growth of dharma. Maharshis were well aware that power without virtue and intellect without moral and adhyatmik disciplining led to disastrous consequences, hence emphasis was on learning along with building character.

The tree of education ought to flower in wisdom as well as in virtue, in knowledge as well as in manners.[3]

Gurukulas had the conducive methods to shape a student's character which included

  • right natural surroundings
  • direct instructions of vidhis (injunctions)
  • direct and personal supervision by teachers (both on moral and intellectual behaviour)
  • performing activities and nityakarmas (showed students the strict narrow path of duty)
  • powerful reinforcement through examples of great personalities

Student Discipline

There is a misplaced impression that education system in ancient India suppressed personality development by imposing a uniform course of education enforcing it with an iron discipline (Page 12 of [3]). Although theoretically practice of hereditary profession was advocated freedom to enterprising individuals was never restricted. Restrictions on the whole Brahmana community to devote twelve years to the task of memorizing the Vedic tests was also not compelled, only a section of them dedicated themselves while the rest of the community learnt those sections of veda mantras that were to be used on the daily basis and were allowed to choose subjects of their choice such as tarka, nyaya, vedanta and other shastras. Kshatriyas and Vaishyas never took seriously to the Vedic learning and trained in the requisite shastras like the Brahmanas. It is wrong to conclude from passages (such as Manu. Smrt. 2.168 and 3.1) that Manusmrti emphasizes that the vedic study was compelled for Brahmanas[3]

योऽनधीत्य द्विजो वेदं अन्यत्र कुरुते श्रमम् । स जीवन्नेव शूद्रत्वं आशु गच्छति सान्वयः । । २.१६८ (Manu. Smrt. 2.168)

yo'nadhītya dvijo vedaṁ anyatra kurute śramam । sa jīvanneva śūdratvaṁ āśu gacchati sānvayaḥ । । 2.168

A dvija who does not study the vedas and takes up efforts to study other shastras, such a person, while living, attains the state of a shudra along with his descendents.[5](Page 456 of Reference [6]). Here the context of the passages have to be considered while arriving at a conclusion.

Students were taught to be self disciplined and instilled with value systems from a very young age based on their personal capacity.

Development of Personality

The development of personality was one of the important aims of the education system. He was instilled with self-confidence, self-respect by inculcating the virtue of self-restraint and by fostering the powers of discrimination and judgement. The student was always reminded to be the custodian and torch bearer of the culture of the race and its welfare depended upon his proper conduct of his duties. Supporting a poor student was the sacred duty of the society. Students were given utmost importance in society for they were the future custodians of the society.

Influence of Self-confidence

The Upanayana ritual used to foster self-confidence by pointing out that divine powers would cooperate and support a student if he did his duty well. Poverty was not a limiting factor, for people respected and were morally obligated to support the ideal students who subsisted by begging his daily food. Gurukula system also supported the students who resided with the Guru's family and actively participated in household chores and seva (सेवा | selfless service) to Guru. Willingness to perform activities according to his capacity developed self-reliance and identify his expertise areas. Self-reliance is the mother of self-confidence and the ancient educational system sought to develop it in a variety of ways. Educational system was such that problems such as uncertainty of the future prospects, overcrowding in a particular discipline of study, cut-throat competition in professions were unknown and did not dampen the self confidence of the students.[3]

Influence of Self-restraint

The element of self-restraint, primarily inculcated by the system, arose from simplicity in life and habits. The values of essential needs of food, clothing and shelter were significantly emphasized on. A brahmachari was to have one simple full meal (either through Bhiksha or provided by the Guru's family), and appropriate sufficient clothing (floppishness, flamboyant or grandness were not allowed). All his student life a brahmachari was taught to engage in learning skills to enable him to be an efficient and healthy grhastha in his upcoming grhasthashrama. A brahmachari was allowed to have recreations that were not to be frivolous and lead a life of perfect chastity. Thus educationalists aimed at promotion of self-restraint through development of proper habits, understanding through reasoning and value of simple lifestyle dispelling self-repression. Neither was this self-restraint enforced by correction and punishment nor by force. A brahmachari would be educated that in his next ashrama (grhastha) he would have a different set of rules to enjoy the pleasures of life, experience the bounties of food, clothing, wealth etc and so he is trained to discharge his duties carefully.[3]

Development of Discrimination and Judgment

Study of shastras like Tarka, Nyaya, Mimamsa etc promoted the powers of discrimination and judgement which are necessary for the development of proper personality. Students of such subjects are exposed to controversies involved and so are trained to view perspectives of both sides of arguments, form his judgement and defend his position in literary debates. In ancient days, education system supported healthy debates of different kinds and students greatly sharpened their intellectual skills on such occasions. Vedic students had a different intellectual exercise which required mechanical training of memory and played the important role of preserving vedic literature when paper and printing were unavailable. Thus education system promoted the development of mental skills of concentration, focus, memory, judgment, discrimination, verbal expression and healthy competition.[3]

Chores and Social Duties

While a student sharpened his mental skills, ancient educationalists also emphasized on instilling responsibility in a student by the inculcation of civic and social duties. At the gurukula, no one led a self-centered life. Students participated in community activities starting from cleaning yajna untensils, maintaining the ashrama, tending to cows and animals coexisting with them and performed agricultural duties (see Dhaumya's students). Thus humility, compassion to all, team spirit, sharing with others, self-reliance, problem-solving were the naturally and unconsciously inculcated values in them.

A student is enjoined to perform his duties as a son, a husband, a father conscientiously and efficiently in the future ashramas. His wealth is not to be utilized solely for his own or family's wants, he is taught to be hospitable and charitable with duties even to the other creatures and beings.

Professions were based on highest codes of honour, which laid stress on the civic responsibilities of their members. A physician was to serve selflessly, and a warrior was not to attack his opponent indiscriminately. Moral values were so greatly enmeshed in the social fabric that Governments were there only to monitor the larger enforcement of the system.[3]

Promotion of Social Efficiency

Education was not merely for sake of imparting cultural knowledge and its preservation nor for developing intellectual prowess without any usage. The Gurukulas were not just the centers for knowledge transfer but also trained individuals for knowledge translation (putting it to use) for development of social efficiency. Varna System was interlinked to the educational system to efficiently manage the division of work for social efficiency. The theory of division of work was mainly governed in later times by the principle of heredity. Although the rising generation could train in any branch of knowledge, profession and industry, the system directed the individual's training in more or less predetermined spheres of social duties of that family.

We have many instances where exceptional talent crossed the limits of the Varna system and selected the profession it liked; Brahmanas and Vaishyas as kings and warriors, Kshatriyas (Pravahana Jaivali, a Maharaja, taught Brahmavidya to Uddalaka and Shvetaketu who were brahmanas) and Shudras (Shankaracharya gained Brahmajnana from a Chandala) were philosophers and preceptors, make their appearance throughout our ancient history.

However, it was deemed to be in the interest of the common man that he should follow his family's calling. Each trade, guild and family trained its children in its own profession. This system may have sacrificed the individual choices and educational interests of a few, but was undoubtedly in the best interest of the social fabric. An agriculturist having the practical knowledge of identifying rain bearing clouds is taught to his children and the art of warfare is best understood and experienced by the child born in a kshatriya family. Thus knowledge and profession were integrated as seen in the Varna system. Differentiation of functions and their specialization in hereditary families naturally heightened the efficiency of trades and professions thereby leading to social efficiency.[3] A holistic education pattern was seen wherein the rising generation was exposed to different branches of knowledge with specialization in family profession.

Preservation and Spread of Culture

One of the important aims of education was to preserve and spread the national heritage and culture. As seen above education was the chief means of social and cultural continuity. The vast amount of literature (including both vedic and classic subjects that are still unexplored) only mirrors this deep concern that our ancients had for the preservation and transmission of the literary, cultural and professional heritage of our race. Members of the professions were to train their children in their own lines, rendering available to the future generation at the beginning of its career, all the skill and processes that were acquired after painful efforts of the bygone generations. Svadhyaya laid down that every student (of a particular shakha of a particular Veda) was to learn at least a portion of his particular literary heritage. It was the incumbent duty of the priestly class and preceptor class to commit the whole of the Vedic literature (of a particular shakha of a particular Veda) to memory in order to ensure its transmission to unborn generations. History is witness to the fact that even this greater cause of preservation of sacred Vedic knowledge was taken by a particular section of the Brahmana community devoted to lifelong cause of learning. Manusmrti (Adhyaya 3) describes the period of learning as follows

षट्त्रिंशदाब्दिकं चर्यं गुरौ त्रैवेदिकं व्रतम् । तदर्धिकं पादिकं वा ग्रहणान्तिकं एव वा । । ३.१ । ।

ṣaṭtriṁśadābdikaṁ caryaṁ gurau traivedikaṁ vratam । tadardhikaṁ pādikaṁ vā grahaṇāntikaṁ eva vā । । 3.1 । ।

वेदानधीत्य वेदौ वा वेदं वापि यथाक्रमम् । अविप्लुतब्रह्मचर्यो गृहस्थाश्रमं आवसेत् । । ३.२ । । (Manu. Smrt. 3.1 -2)[7]

vedānadhītya vedau vā vedaṁ vāpi yathākramam । aviplutabrahmacaryo gr̥hasthāśramaṁ āvaset । । 3.2 । ।

Students were imparted moral values that remained with them for life. From the very young age emphasis was laid on obedience to parents, respect to elders and preceptors, gratitude to Rshis; all of which helped preserved the cultural heritage. Svadhyaya and Rshitarpana played an important role once the student entered grhastha ashrama. Svadhyaya enjoined a daily recapitulation of at least a portion of what was learnt during student life and Rshitarpana required a daily offering of tribute of gratitude to the rshis and mantradrashtas of the past, during the morning prayers. As this tradition gradually declined where very few agnihotris (those who perform morning and evening offering in Agnihotras) are practicing these days, the study of Puranas gained more popularity and developed as a community activity. Reaching out to masses through their native language, many Puranic lores though expounded the older procedures of yajnas, gradually got filtered down and only few best cultural practices remained in the present day preserved even by the illiterate population as tradition.


  1. Swami Gambhirananda (1989 Second Edition) Eight Upanishads with the Commentary of Sankaracharya, Volume 1 (Isa, Kena, Katha, Taittriya). Mayavati : Advaita Ashrama (Page 266)
  2. Taittriya Upanishad (Shikshavalli Anuvaka 11)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 Altekar, A. S. (1944) Education in Ancient India. Benares : Nand Kishore and Bros.,
  4. Manusmriti (Adhyaya 2)
  5. Pt. Girija Prasad Dvivedi (1917) The Manusmriti or Manavadharmashastra (Hindi Translation) Lucknow: Nawal Kishore Press (Adhyaya 2 Sloka 168)
  6. Mm. Ganganath Jha (1920 - 1939) Manusmrti with the Manubhashya of Medathithi, English Translation. Volume 3, Part 1 Discourses 1 and 2. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass
  7. Manusmrti (Adhayaya 3)