Principles of Education (शिक्षणसिद्धान्ताः)

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The Principles of Education given by Ancient Indian Educationalists are as follows

Education is for all

Social efficiency being one of the aims of education, it was naturally insisted that all sections of the society were qualified to receive it and thus have access to it. Since it was the best agency to improve the society it was regarded necessary for all people and not a privilege to those lucky few who had money and leisure to devote to its acquisition. Upanayana samskara, which marked the beginning of religious and literary education was made mandatory to male children (and was so for female children in vedic times). The stories of Brahmavadinis such as Gargi, Maitreyi etc clearly depict that women were engaged in vedic studies since ages. The Dvija varnas (the first three varnas) thus received at least the rudimentary of literary and religious education. Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (1.5.17) further declared that a man can discharge his debts to pitrs (ancestors) not by merely procreating but by providing for their education also.

तस्मात्पुत्रमनुशिष्टं लोक्यमाहुः । तस्मादेनमनुशासति । (Brhd. Upan. 1.5.17)

Therefore they say that a son, thus instructed is conducive to the world. All good deeds done by a son who is instructed like this will be helpful to the father who has gone to the other world as if done by himself.[1]

To enforce this goal several steps and measures were built in the education system.

  • Adequate supply of teachers was ensured by having an injunction where Brahmanas were to take up teaching as a duty irrespective of the consideration whether they were monetarily supported or not.
  • Rajas and Maharajas used to support Brahmanas by providing for their food and cows for anushtana (practicing of the yajnas) apart from small pieces of agricultural land which helped them maintain their family and students.
  • Education was to be imparted without monetary gains from students. Students however, paid the Gurudakshina in different forms (Dharma, Artha or Seva) but it was not mandatory to pay it in financial form only.
  • Bhikshatana of a brahmachari was held in highest order for its moral perspectives, namely, the grhasthas were bound to support the persons in other ashramas and Annadana was held in highest importance, the social responsibility of the students was distributed in the society. The grhastas and brahmacharis from different varnas (poor or rich) learnt humility, the greatest moral value. Brahmacharis learnt time management and bhiksha instilled in the young minds that all are equal in a guru's ashrama whether the student came from a rich or a poor family background.

Education is a serious proposition

Though it was advocated that all people should receive the benefits of education, some checks were in place to avoid wastage of time on morally and intellectually unfit persons who were excluded from this benefit (Nirukta 2.4). Real scholarship was a serious path of great learning for the students. The path was designed to shape the moral, cultural and religious thinking of the student. Many early texts such as Vedas and Upanishads (Taittriyopanishad mentions student characteristics in Shikshavalli) and the later ones such as Puranas, Mahabharata and more recent Subhashitas emphasize the rigor that was required for a student to gain scholarly attributes.[2] The rich and the poor have both to submit to stern discipline in order to become learned. The testing procedures in earlier days were also quite rigorous and were mostly verbal.

Studentship and Marriage are incompatible

One of the primary dharmas of a brahmachari is to lead a celibate life in order to realise his educational ideals. Thus, the authorities who built our education system laid down that a student should observe celibacy in thought and deed during his educational life and can marry at the end of the course with the permission of his Guru. Taittriya Upanishad elaborately mentions about the Samavartana and Snataka (a graduate who finished his studies) which are the rites of passage from brahmacharya to grhasthashrama. So marriage was considered an important samskara and transition point of ashramas. It may be observed that the reasons for being celibate during education include having single-minded focus on studies, having less responsibility (of fending for family), time management and self discipline for long and laborious studies and show complete dedication to perform sushrusha to his Guru (which is very important for education).

Owing to several causes be it invasions by foreigners, gradual loss of traditional activities, changes in society structure all played a role in bringing about changes in the institution of marriage. One of the main deviations included the decrease in the marriageable age of girls which began to fall just before the advent of the Christian era and continued several centuries from then on. From 16 years of age, it came down to 14, then to 12 and even 11 or 10 in early centuries of the common era. The lowering of marriageable age of girls naturally brought down the marriageable age of the boys to about 18 and then to 16. Marriage thus was inevitably performed before the completion of education. Dr. Altekar arrives at the conclusion that from the beginning of the Christian era, more than 50% students used to marry before their education was completed.[2]

Education begins at young age

Ancient rshis were clear and convinced that no good results would follow if education was begun late in life.

नाति षोडशमुपनयीत प्रसृष्टवृषणो ह्येष वृषलीभूतो भवतीति। (Jaim. Grhy. Sutr. 1.12)[3]

A boy who begins his education at 16 years of age is not likely to bring any credit to his teachers. During childhood, as proved by modern sciences also, mind is pliable, memory is keen and intellect is receptive; the foundational habits of a child can be moulded to form good habits which will remain with him for the rest of his life. Upanayana samskara at the right age was laid down by in starting from Dharmasutra texts summarized for the present day in the Nibandhanas like Dharmasindhu etc.

सप्तमे ब्राह्मणमुपनयीत पञ्चमे ब्रह्मवर्चसकामं नवमे त्वायुष्काममेकादशे क्षत्रियं द्वादशे वैश्यं... (Jaim. Grhy. Sutr. 1.12)[3]

It was held that 5th year (for those aspiring for Brahmavarchas) and 8th year (adding the one year of garbhasthiti) would be proper time for Upanayana in Brahmanas and in 9th year for those aspiring Ayush or longevity. 11th year is when Upanayana has to be conducted in Kshatriyas and 12th year for the Vaishyas.

Education should be thorough

Education was rightly regarded as the knowledge source of illumination and was expected to enable its recipients to successfully meet and solve the difficulties and problems of life. Therefore education should be thorough and efficient, not limited to imparting general knowledge of a number of subjects, ideally it was to train experts to handle different branches of knowledge. Since printing was not known, committing the knowledge to memory was required and highly emphasized so that it stead throughout the life of the person. To ensure this, personal attention to each student and practical training was insisted to maintain a high degree of proficiency.[4]

Education is a continuous process

Once learnt in studentship education was either continued lifelong by a certain set of students of Vedas and many others progressed to learn other shastras and professional education. Thus we see that development of memory played a very important role and it was stipulated that every dvija graduate should recapitulate daily a portion of what he had learnt under the guidance of the Guru. At the time of Samavartana (end of studies or convocation) he is reminded not to neglect his duty of daily revision or Svadhyaya (स्वाध्यायः), as extolled in the famous Taittriya Upanishad Shikshavalli given below.

स्वाध्यायान्मा प्रमदः। ... स्वाध्यायप्रवचनाभ्यां न प्रमदितव्यम् । (Tait. Upan. 1.11.1)[5]

During rainy season every graduated student was expected to devote extra time to his studies for more practical reasons that he cannot go out for his work when rains are heavy.[2]

Education involves active student cooperation

Ancient seers held that the process of gaining knowledge was an active one, with the student expressing his urge in acquiring more knowledge and the Guru finding great pleasure in teaching the pupil. Voluntary cooperation in the form of willingness to learn, was a highly desired student quality which yielded great results. Students who were insincere, showing relaxed behaviour with indifference towards learning were not encouraged. Manusmrti 2.113 and 114, 191, considered it to be a meaningless action similar to sowing seeds in a barren land, in the case of education of insincere students.

धर्मार्थौ यत्र न स्यातां शुश्रूषा वापि तद्विधा । तत्र विद्या न वप्तव्या शुभं बीजं इवोषरे । । २.११२ । ।

विद्ययैव समं कामं मर्तव्यं ब्रह्मवादिना । आपद्यपि हि घोरायां न त्वेनां इरिणे वपेत् । । २.११३ । ।

विद्या ब्राह्मणं एत्याह शेवधिस्तेऽस्मि रक्ष माम् । असूयकाय मां मादास्तथा स्यां वीर्यवत्तमा । । २.११४ । । (Manu. Smrt. 2.112 - 114)[6]

Summary : Where there is no dharma, artha (monetary return) or seva (शुश्रूषा) in return for teaching a student, then such a person should not be imparted any education. It would be similar to sowing good seeds in a barren land, in such a case.

Student Punishment

The popular saying "spare the rod and spoil the child" which is about punishment to children is the common social problem relevant to the present day education system also. Associated with this topic we have the following important questions

  1. what if entrusted student meets with indifference from the Guru?
  2. what are the allowed modes of remonstration for a teacher?

Ancient Bharatiya systems unfold various versions to deal with refractory students, and there is no unanimity about this concept.

Apastamba recommends that a teacher should try to improve refractory students by banishing them from his presence or by imposing a fast (Apas.

Manu views gentle persuasion of a student is a good way but eventually mild physical punishment is permitted. (2.159-61)

Gautama supports Manu's views but adds the legal perspective that stern punishment by a teacher attracts legal prosecution.[7]

शिष्यशिष्टिरवधेन ॥ अशक्तौ रज्जुवेणुविदलाभ्यां तनुभ्याम् ॥ (Gaut. Dhar. Sutr. 1.2.48-49)

वधस्ताडनम् । अताडयता गुरुणा भर्त्सनादिभिः शिष्यः शास्यः॥ (Mita. Bhas. for Gaut. Dhar. Sutr. 1.2.48)

Summary : A guru should discipline a shisya by such verbal criticism and remonstration without physical punishment. If a shishya cannot be brought under control by remonstration then using a thin bamboo stick or string he can be punished.

अन्येन घ्नन् राज्ञा शास्यः ॥ (Gaut. Dhar. Sutr. 1.2.50)

हस्तादिना क्रोधवशेन ताडयन् राज्ञा शास्य आचार्यः । एवं शिष्यस्य गुरुकुले वास उक्तः ॥ (Mita. Bhas. for Gaut. Dhar. Sutr. 1.2.50)

By other measures such as beating (with hands in anger) to discipline the shishsya attracts persecution of the Acharya by Raja (higher authority).[7]


  1. Swami Madhavananda. (1950 Third Edition) Brhadaranyaka Upanishad with the commentry of Shankaracharya. Mayavati : Advaita Ashrama
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Altekar, A. S. (1944) Education in Ancient India. Benares : Nand Kishore and Bros.,
  3. 3.0 3.1 Jaiminiya Grhyasutras
  4. Altekar, A. S. (1944) Education in Ancient India. Benares : Nand Kishore and Bros.,
  5. Taittriya Upanishad (Shikshavalli Anuvaka 11)
  6. Manusmriti (Adhyaya 2)
  7. 7.0 7.1 Pandey, Umesh Chandra (1966 First Edition) Gautama Dharma-Sutra With the Mitakshara Sanskrit Commentary of Haradatta. Varanasi : Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, (Page 27)