Vidyarthi's Qualities (विद्यातुराणां लक्षणानि)

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A shishya or vidyarthi (Samskrit: विद्यार्थी), a student, in ancient India was known for exceptional qualities. As soon as he is initiated in Vedic study he underwent rigorous training to develop specific qualities which prepared him eventually for the life ahead. He also had specific duties towards his Guru or Acharya.[1] The very atmosphere in which students lived, was calculated to give a proper turn to their character. They were under the direct and personal supervision of their teacher, who was to watch not only over their intellectual progress but also over their moral behaviour. Ancient Indians held that good character cannot be divorced from good manners; the teacher was to see that in their every day life, students followed the rules of etiquette and good manners towards their seniors, equals and inferiors. These rules afforded an imperceptible but effective help in the formation of character of a student.[2]

शिष्यलक्षणानि ॥ Shishya Lakshanas

We find many good qualities that a student should have given in texts like Smritis, Mahabharata, Chanakyaneeti and later day sources like Subhashitas.

Sushrusha (शुश्रूषा)

One of the duties of a student was to do personal service to the teacher along with all sundry work in his gurukula or his teacher's house, like cleansing the rooms etc., bringing fuel or guarding cattle. This custom existed in the Vedic age and was widely prevalent in later times also. Tradition asserts that even great personages like Sri-Krishna had deemed it an honour to do all kind of sundry work in their preceptor's house during their student days. It was held that no progress in knowledge was possible without service in the teacher's house. A student was to listen to all instructions from the teacher obediently at all times and perform the instructed activities without hesitation. This kind of service, called Sushrusha, had its limitations and the teacher was prohibited from assigning any work that interfered with the studies of the student. It was one of the important ways of attaining Vidya as exemplified in this Subhashita.

गुरुशुश्रूषया विद्या पुष्कलेन धनेन वा । विद्यया लभ्यते विद्या चतुर्थी नोपलभ्यते ॥ (Subh. Pust. Samanya Neeti, Shloka 257[3])

Vidya is obtained by three ways - by service to the Guru (गुरुशुश्रूष), by (giving) abundant wealth (पुष्कलेन धनेन) and by Vidya (teaching, reading etc) itself; there is no fourth way by which Vidya is obtained.

Sushrusha to the Guru, as we see above, is the foremost quality a shishya should possess. The term Sushrusha (शुश्रूषा) is derived from श्रु - श्रवणे (1.1092) used in the meaning कथनम् । श्रोतुमिच्छा ।[4] telling and interested to listen. It is used in the sense of "telling, desirous of hearing, desire to hear and serve, reverence, obedience, attention to, at the service of"; thus Sushrusha to the Guru may be considered as one desirous to hear (the Guru's words with attention) and perform what has been advised by him (with full faith and obedience). We must note that in the Gurukula system of education, a Shishya lived with the Guru over a long period of time and so sushrusha was a continuous process. He is in constant company with the Acharya with a goal to hear what (siddhanta, tattva) he tells in any particular circumstance that comes across in daily life.

The importance of sushrusha is mentioned by understanding the definition for the term Shishya (शिष्य) in Shabdakalpadruma as follows[5]

वाङ्मनः कायवसुभिर्गुरुशुश्रूषणे रतः । एतादृशगुणोपेतः शिष्यो भवति नारद ॥
देवताचार्य्यशुश्रूषां मनोवाक्कायकर्म्मभिः। शुद्धभावो महोत्साहो बोद्धा शिष्य इति स्मृतः॥

A shishya is one who is interested in "sushrusha (शुश्रूषा)" (meaning "keenly listening" and performing according to what has been told) to his Guru by mind, speech, deed and offering his entire possessions. He should possess the following characteristics - serve/revere both Devatas and Acharyas by thought, deed and body, who has a pure heart (unbiased), has a unending zeal to learn and has exceptional grasping capability; such a person is to be known as a shishya.

Sushrusha (शुश्रूषा) is yet another unique concept, on par with Dharma and as a principle followed even till recent times by acharyas of Sanatana Dharma. A Guru is highly revered and service to him is considered as highest of service. There are many examples of people who performed Susrusha to the Guru and attained greatness not only in wisdom and intelligence but also fame. It is said,

यथा खनन्खनित्रेण नरो वार्यधिगच्छति । तथा गुरुगतां विद्यां शुश्रूषुरधिगच्छति । । २.२१८ । । (Manu. Smrt. 2.218)

Meaning: Just as a person attains water by digging with a spade, so also one attains Vidya (knowledge) from a Guru by serving him.[6]

It has been falsely portrayed in many instances that sushrusha to Guru meant performing household chores, tending to the cows, performing agricultural activities, and personal service to the Guru and his family without any learning activity. However, that is not the case. As mentioned above, the shishya spends his complete time with the Acharya participating in all activities of daily life. While selecting the twigs for yajnas he learns botanical aspects practically. While observing how his Acharyas and seniors perform the yajnas he learns the practical aspects about it. Thus on a continuous basis he learns the principles and reasoning involved in the activities when he observes them closely and performs them. This method of teaching instills confidence to handle the problems that may arise during the various activities involved in the life of a Grhastha. Acharya teaches the knowledge involved for say how to observe the soil for tilling or predict the rains based on movement of the celestial bodies. The tattva or reasoning behind the actions may not be immediately understood by the disciple and it is here that sushrusha has to be remembered. There were many times when the secrets unraveled by the Acharyas are specifically given only to his students and thus the knowledge is transmitted to the future student generations of that rshi. In this way the theory and practical aspects of subjects such as Botany, Geology, Astronomy, Agricultural activities, Mathematics, Political Sciences etc were grasped by students under constant guidance as well as surveillance.

This is most exemplified by the story of Uddalaka, the faithful shishya of Dhaumya. We learn that as a part of faithfully listening to his Acharya, Uddalaka lays himself down in the field to block the flow of water and wins the heart of his Acharya who blesses him with all the Vidyas and fame.

The story of Nachiketa is exemplary of a student of higher learning. When Yama asked him to seek three boons, for his third boon, Nachiketa wanted to learn about death and what happens after it. After hearing Nachiketa's argument about the boon, Yama was immensely pleased with his disciple's qualities and gave him the knowledge of Self (Brahmavidya or Atmavidya).[7]

Other Qualities of a Vidyarthi

Shabdakalpadhruma[5] mentions further that

शान्तो विनीतः शुद्धात्मा श्रद्धावान् धारणक्षमः ।समर्थश्च कुलीनश्च प्राज्ञः मच्चरितो व्रती । एवमादिगुणैर्युक्तः शिष्यो भवति नान्यथा ॥

He is called a shishya, a disciple who is/possesses the following qualities

  • शान्तः - tranquil
  • विनीतः - humble by nature
  • शुद्धात्मा - unpretentious inner self
  • श्रद्धावान् - sincere and faithful
  • धारणक्षमः - ability to retain and reproduce what he learnt
  • समर्थः - good capability to learn
  • कुलीनः - born in a good lineage
  • प्राज्ञः - wise
  • सच्चरितो - good mannered
  • व्रती - takes up learning as an austerity/vow

Only a person who possesses all of the above qualities is called a disciple.[7]

Apastamba Grhyasutra mentions that the duties of a student consist in acts pleasing to the spiritual teacher, the observance of rules conducive to his own welfare and industry in studying.

Chanakya Niti summarily states - "what is education to one who seeks comforts? a student will not have any comforts. One who aims for comforts in life has to forego education, and one who wants education has to give up his material comforts.

सुखार्थी वा त्यजेद्विद्यां विद्यार्थीवा त्यजेत्सुखम् । सुखार्थिनः कुतो विद्या नास्ति विद्यार्थिनः सुखं ।।

One Subhashita source delightfully puts the student's qualities as follows

काकदृष्टिर्बकध्यानं श्वाननिद्रा तथैव च । अल्पाहारो जीर्णवस्त्रं च एतद्विद्यार्थिलक्षणम् ॥

These are the characteristics of a student:

  • the vision of a crow
  • the attention of a stork
  • the sleep of a dog
  • little portions of food
  • wear worn out clothes

A crow is said to have keen observation. That kind of cognizance is an essential characteristic in a student interested in increasing his wisdom. A stork is popular for its undivided focus and concentration, a quality greatly required for a student for deeper understanding of many things in a short time. A dog is a light-sleeper; easily aroused at a slightest stir. This characteristic of high state of alertness in a student, towards learning, increase the sources of knowledge. It is well known that intake of too much food makes a person drowsy and dull. Hence a student is advised to consume food in small portions without indulging in pleasing his palate. Wearing worn out clothes or being very sober about his looks is prescribed for a student to avoid and control unwanted distractions and diversions commonly present in his/her age.

आचारे शासयेद्यस्तु स आचार्य्य उदाहृत । यस्त्वाचार्य्यपराधीनस्तद्वाक्यं शास्यते हृदि । शामने स्थिरवृत्तिश्च शिष्यः सद्भिरुदाहृतः ॥ एवं लक्षणसंयुक्तं शिष्यं सर्व्वगुणान्वितम् ।

An Acharya, as given in Shabdakalpadhruma[5], is one who follows sadachara and disciplines the vidyarthis to follow the same. One who closely follows the sadachara that the Acharya instructs and bears the Acharya's words in heart; one who is steadfast and calm with unwavering focus is called as Shishya by our elders. Such a shishya having the above lakshanas is said to have all the gunas (Sarvagunanvita).[5] Additionally, sushrusha to the Guru is one of the paths mentioned for the attainment of Nihshreyasa Moksha in Manusmriti.

वेदाभ्यासस्तपो ज्ञानं इन्द्रियाणां च संयमः । अहिंसा गुरुसेवा च निःश्रेयसकरं परम् । । १२.८३ । ।(Manu. Smrti. 12.83)[8]

Abhyasa of the Vedas (practice), tapas (penance), Jnana (knowledge of the Self), controlling the indriyas, ahimsa (non-violence) and guruseva (service to the Guru) are the highest paths of Nihshreyasa.

निषिद्धशिष्यलक्षणानि ॥ Prohibited Shishya Lakshanas

Just like good qualities are desired in anything, bad qualities (अवगुणाः) are undesired and have to be given up. Vidura mentions seven important avagunas which a student should not have.[7]

आलस्यं मदमोहौ चापलं गोष्टिरेव च। स्तब्धता चाभिमानित्वं तथा त्यागित्वमेव च। एते वै सप्त दोषाः स्युः सदा विद्यार्थिनां मताः ॥

A vidyarthi should stay away from seven undesired qualities namely,[7]

  • आलसत्वम् - laziness
  • मदमोहौ - intoxication of pride and delusion
  • चापलम् - wavering or fickleness
  • गोष्टिः - conversation (chitchat)
  • स्तब्धता - stubbornness
  • अभिमानित्वं - state of self-conceitedness
  • त्यागित्वम् - abandoning nature

The above mentioned qualities pertain to the mental nature. Reviling and backbiting are severely condemned. It is also prescribed that the Guru's misdeeds if at all, are not to be blindly followed. Further the prohibited kinds of persons who are not to be granted studentship is mentioned in Shabdakalpadruma[5]

पापिने क्रूरचेष्टाय शठाय कृपणाय च । दीनायाचारशून्याय मन्त्रद्वेषपराय च ॥
निन्दकाय च मूर्खाय तीर्थद्वेषपराय च । भक्तिहीनाय देवेशि न देया मलिनाय च ॥
मुरुता शिष्यता वापि तयोर्वत्सरवासतः ॥

A paapi (sinner), one who is pitiless or remorseless, one who is bad by nature and cunning, miserly person, a poor, one who is not performing sadachara, one who does not like to utter mantras, who accuses others, is a stubborn person, who hates visiting teerthas, who is without any bhakti towards deities, and is dirty should not be given studentship or allowed to stay for a year (at the Gurukula).

Chanakya further adds eight more qualities that should be avoided by students at all costs.[9]

कामं क्रोधं तथा लोभं स्वादं शृङ्गारकौतुके । अतिनिद्राऽतिसेवा च विद्यार्थी ह्यष्टवर्जयेत् ॥ (Chan. Niti. 11.10)

A student should shun eight things - desire; anger; avarice; taste; eroticism; vehemence; too much sleep; and overly tending.[9]

  1. Desire: deviates the goal and takes all the energy in the fulfilment of that desire.
  2. Anger: clouds judgement.
  3. Avarice (greed): delineates from the ethics being learnt.
  4. Taste: weaknesses of the palate draw away from learning in many ways - health, alertness, and aptitude.
  5. Eroticism: this has no place in a student's life. Indulgence and learning do not go hand in hand as they take the individual in completely opposite directions. No saying beyond that!
  6. Vehemence: learning takes a lot of patience and thinking. Getting emotional and impatient is nowhere coherent with learning.
  7. Oversleep: rest is required but in proper proportions. Sleeping too much mars alertness and paves way for laziness. Losing precious time that could be utilized in learning is a whole other issue.
  8. Overly tending: tending to elders and teachers is very much professed. But being overly subservient dispels one's ability to think on his own. One of the requirements for learning is inquisitiveness. A totally subservient learner takes every word for granted and does not promote independent thinking.[9]

Rules applicable while studying

Rules of behaviour towards teacher

There are rules regulating the behaviour of the student towards his teacher. He must always obey his teacher except when ordered to commit crimes which cause loss of caste. He must not contradict him. He must occupy a couch or seat lower than that of his teacher. When he meets his teacher after sunrise (coming for his lessons), he shall embrace his feet, and shall study, after having been called by the teacher, and not request the teacher to begin the lesson. He must not stretch out his feet towards him but, according to some, he may, if the teacher be lying on a bed. He shall not address the teacher whilst he himself is in a reclining position, but he may answer the teacher sitting, if the teacher himself is sitting or lying down. And if the teacher stands, he shall answer him after having risen also. He shall walk after him if he walks, and run after him if he runs. He shall not approach his teacher with shoes on his feet, or his head covered, or holding implements in his hand, except when on a journey, or occupied in work. He shall approach his teacher with the same reverence as a deity, without telling idle stories, attentive, and listening eagerly to his words. He shall not sit either too near to, or too far from, his teacher, nor with his legs crossed. In the presence of his Guru, he is to avoid covering his throat, leaning against a wall, stretching out his feet, spitting, laughing, yawning, and cracking the joints of his fingers. He must not sit with his teacher to the leeward or to the windward of him, but may sit with his teacher in a carriage drawn by oxen, horses, or camels, on a terrace, on a bed of grass or leaves, or a mat, on a rock, on a wooden bench or in a boat.[1]

Rules during study time

The student must commence his study in the morning, touching the feet of his teacher both at the beginning and end of his lesson. After having received permission, he will sit down to the right of his teacher, turning his face towards the east or towards the north. Then the Savitri is to be recited, together with the syllable "Om" before the instruction in the Veda is begun. The student must be very attentive the whole day long, never allowing his mind to wander from the lesson during the time devoted to studying. During the time for rest (which he has, after attending to his studies and the business of his teacher, as has been indicated above), the pupil is to give his mind to doubtful passages of the lesson learnt.[1]

Rules of Reading

Many Shiksha granthas, like Panini Shiksha, lay down the rules of how to and how not to read a lesson. Six are the qualities of good and bad readership.

माधुर्यमक्षरव्यक्तिः पदच्छेदस्तु सुस्वरः । धैर्यं लयसमर्थं च षडेते पाठकाः गुणाः ।। ३३ ।। (Pani. Shik. 7.33)[10]

These are the six qualities of a good reader - Sweetness in tone (माधुर्यम्), clarity of syllables (अक्षरव्यक्तिः), isolation of words (पदच्छेदः), proper intonation (सुस्वरः), confidence (धैर्यं), accompanied with rhythm (लयसमर्थं) - these are the 6 attributes of a (good) reader.[11]

  1. Tenderness in tone has to be present; one must avoid harsh hoarse voice.
  2. Accuracy in pronouncing each individual syllable is required; avoid leaving syllables and hurried pace of reading.
  3. The breakup of words in the right places adds both sweetness and meaning. There should not be too much of breakup of words nor complete fusion of syllables and words. Just enough pause between words should be present.
  4. An appropriate tone of voice depending on the bhava (feeling) being expressed is required.
  5. Poise and certainty in reading makes the material delightful.
  6. Proper rhythm in reading, neither too fast nor too slow is required to make a good speaker.

The above 6 are the traits that define a good reader. These traits make one's reading clear; conveys the message accurately; makes the material he is reading appealing. Additionally an upright posture and previous preparation about the subject matter, and precise pronunciation endears everyone to listen to the one who is reading.[11]

गीती शीघ्री शिरःकम्पी यथालिखितपाठकः । अनर्थज्ञोऽल्पकण्ठश्च षडेते पाठकाधमाः ॥ (Pani. Shik. 7.32)[10]

These are the six qualities of a bad reader - (reading) like a song (गीती); reading in a hurry (शीघ्री); shaking his head (शिरःकम्पी); just as is written (यथालिखितः); without knowing the meaning (अनर्थज्ञो);  and in a low tone (अल्पकण्ठः).[12] The following attributes are to be avoided at all costs.

  1. Reading with a tune, as if the text were a song is to be avoided.
  2. Reading in a hurry and swallowing up the syllables make the content unclear and not understandable.
  3. Nodding the head or moving some part of the body while reading distracts the listener.
  4. Reading just as is written, even if there were errors has to be avoided at all costs.
  5. Reading without understanding the meaning of the text makes it rote reading and listless.
  6. Reading with a tone so low that even the person sitting in front has to perk up his ears causes disinterest in the listener.[12]

Factors involved in development of Character

Importance of Habits

Rules of discipline, prescribed during formative years, are often laid down for forming good and valuable habits (preventive action) more than for the purpose of prohibiting him from doing undesirable acts (corrective actions). Preparing for the hard life and long struggles before him, rules are laid down, calculated to develop them into strong men with determination and great enduring power.[2] Good Habits of a Shishya include

  • Raising early at dawn, in Brahmamuhurta.
  • Plain living and high thinking (Costly food and gorgeous dress was prohibited)
  • Obedience to seniors and teachers
  • Prayers and meditation
  • Physical activity both in the form of household chores as well as exercises

Importance of Routine

Routine also played an important role in the pliable age which aided in the formation of good habits and master their subjects by the end of their course. It was made interesting and engaging for children so that compliance is easily achieved. Recitation of the slokas and group recitation by several children was for motivating the children and secure their cooperation. Different ways of routine for example was

  • Students of primary and secondary education (the first few years of education) went through the routine of daily recitation and memorization practice. This would enable them to master their subject matter.
  • Students of poetics and literature were engaged in practicing composition and building slokas.
  • Students of subjects like Vyakarana engaged in memorizing the sutras daily.
  • Students of astronomy were engaged in daily observations and mathematical calculations.
  • Students of Vedas were engaged in daily practice of yajnas.
  • Students of sculpture and painting engaged in regular long hours of practice.

Association and Imitation

Association and imitation played a great part in moulding the character and improving the calibre of a student. Even a dull student will improve his intellect if he is close association with a brilliant boy and imitates his methods of study.[2] He we remember the following advise from Mahabharata about association with people of bad character.

बुद्धिश्च हीयते पुंसां नीचैः सह समागमात् । मध्यमैर्मध्यतां याति श्रेष्ठतां याति चोत्तमैः॥ (Maha. Vana. 1.30)

Summary : The intellect of a person when associated with bad company becomes bad, while when associated with middle kind of people brings in the middle state but when associated with intellectually higher standard of people, brings in greater growth.

Imitation and copying a good student was promoted and it helped in bringing up a student of lesser intellect. Many subhashitas declare that association with good people elevates a person while bad association only brings his downfall. One should be very careful in choosing one's company.[2]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Mookerji. Radha Kumud, (1947) Ancient Indian Education (Brahminical and Buddhist) London: MacMillan And Co., Ltd. (Page 185-190)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Altekar, A. S. (1944) Education in Ancient India. Benares : Nand Kishore and Bros.,
  3. Pt. Kashinath Sharma. Subhashita Pustakabhandagara, Samanya Neeti (Page 159)
  4. Shabdakalpadhruma (See under Sushrusha )
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Shabdakalpadruma (See Shishya (शिष्यः))
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Dr. Rani Sadasiva Murty in Smriti, Spheres of Knowledge - Part 4
  8. Manusmrti (Adhyaya 12)
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2
  10. 10.0 10.1 Panini Shiksha (Khanda 7)
  11. 11.0 11.1
  12. 12.0 12.1 Good Qualities of a Reader