Gurukula (Samskrit : गुरुकुलम्) is the place of learning for students after undergoing Upanayana, under the supervision of a learned Guru. Gurukula system was an important unique feature of ancient education system but has now lost its glory owing to the present day educational system brought in by the various rulers of India over the few centuries. Although modern education system has a few advantages, many good features of the ancient education system have been totally eliminated leaving a cultural gap.
परिचयः ॥ Introduction
The Gurukula system which necessitated the stay of the student away from his home at the house of a teacher or in a boarding house of an established institution, was one of the most important features of Bharatiya Shikshana vidhana. Sharira (शरीरम् । Body), Manas (मनः । mind), Buddhi (बुद्धिः । intellect) and Atma (आत्मा । spirit) constitute a human being; the aims and ideals of Prachina Bharatiya Vidya Vidhana or Ancient Indian Education system were to promote their simultaneous and harmonious development. In this article we discuss the Gurukula set up, the aims of such educational system, the persons involved, and the syllabus taught under their guidance.
विद्या ॥ Vidya or Education
Vidya (विद्या) regarded as general education in common parlance, is the source of that Jnana which leads its recipients to successfully overcome difficulties and problems of life and in the Vedanta terms it is that knowledge which leads one on the path of Moksha. It was therefore insisted to be thorough, efficient with the goal of training experts in different branches. Since printing and paper were unknown, libraries and books did not exist, training essentially focused on developing memory that would stand good stead throughout the student's life.
ऋणत्रयसिध्दान्तः ॥ Rna Siddhanta
Vedic age references speak about the Three Debts (ऋणत्रयम्) which served the purpose of instilling moral values in the younger generation to accept and maintain the best traditions of thought and action of the past generations. According to this siddhanta the moment an individual is born in this world, he incurs three debts, which he can discharge only by performing certain duties.
- देवऋणम् ॥ Debt to the Devatas is relieved by learning how to perform yajnas and by regularly offering them. Thus religious traditions are preserved.
- ऋषिऋणम् ॥ Debt to the Rshis of the bygone ages can be discharged by studying their works and continuing their literary and professional traditions. Thus the literary traditions are preserved.
- पितृऋणम् ॥ Debt to the Pitrs or ancestors can be repaid by getting married to raise progeny and impart education to them. Thus the family tradition is preserved.
Taittriya Samhita mentions the three debts as follows.
जायमानो वै ब्राह्मणस्तृभिर्ऋणैर्ऋणवाञ्जीयते । यज्ञेन देवेभ्यो ब्रह्मचार्येण ऋषिभ्यः प्रजया पितृभ्यः ॥ (Tait. Samh)
jāyamāno vai brāhmaṇastr̥bhirr̥ṇairr̥ṇavāñjīyate । yajñena devebhyo brahmacāryeṇa r̥ṣibhyaḥ prajayā pitr̥bhyaḥ ॥
Steps were taken to see that the rising generation became an efficient torch bearer of the culture and traditions of the past. Body, mind, intellect and Atma constitute a human being; the aims and ideals of ancient system of education were thus to promote their simultaneous and harmonious development.
गुरुकुलव्यवस्था ॥ Gurukula System
Smrtis recommend that the student should begin to live under the supervision of his teacher after his Upanayana. Etymologically Antevasin (अन्तेवासिन्) is the word for the student, denotes one who stays near his teacher. Samavartana (समावर्तनम्), the word for convocation, means the occasion of returning home from the boarding or the teacher's house. Here we describe the different aspects of a Gurukula system of education.
गुरुकुललक्ष्याणि ॥ Aims of Gurukula
Gurushishya Parampara was the heart of the dharmika system of education in ancient times. From ashramas in the forests to temples in the villages to purely educational cities such as Kashi and Kanchi, it was this Gurukula system that brought to us (in the present day) the great cultural heritage that we still have. Its aims were multidimensional and far-reaching. The colonial era rulers having plundered the nation, in an attempt to break down the Bharatiya samajika vidhana (social fabric) targeted the education system in the name of reforms and upliftment of the downtrodden. The Aims of Gurukula System were lofty and kept in view the holistic development (physical, mental and social) of the student.
Location of a Gurukula
Shri Krishna and Balarama were sent to the Gurukula of Guru Sandipani is a well known example that students were actually being sent to reside with their preceptors. Now, there are various versions about the location of a Gurukula. In earlier times majority of teachers (Seers like Valmiki, Kanva, Sandipani) preferred the sylvan solitude of the forests to teach high level philosophies. Gradually as time passed, as supplies became scarce, Gurukulas came to be located near villages and towns chiefly because villagers around would provide their few and simple wants. Care was taken to locate the Gurukula in a secluded place, in a garden and ensured the holy setting. The following are the different locations of Gurukulas each having specific advantages.
- Ashramas in a forest (Kanva and Valmiki)
- Outside but close to a village
- Ghatikas (घटिका) and other institutional centers
- Centers of learning and education (Ujjaini, Varanasi, Kanchi, Thanjavur)
- Agraharas (अग्रहारम्) and Tols (तोलः) are villages consisting only of Brahmana scholars.
गुरुः ॥ Guru or Preceptor
वित्तं बन्धुर्वयः कर्म विद्या भवति पञ्चमी । एतानि मान्यस्थानानि गरीयो यद्यदुत्तरम् । । २.१३६ । । (Manu. Smrt. 2.136)
vittaṁ bandhurvayaḥ karma vidyā bhavati pañcamī । etāni mānyasthānāni garīyo yadyaduttaram । । 2.136 । ।
Possession of Wealth, Family (blood-relations), Age, Actions and Learning being the fifth are the Manyasthanas (मान्यस्थानानि । abodes of respect) with increasing weightage respectively. (i.e., Vidya is the highest abode of respect in comparison to Actions and so on).
Thus we see Gurus held an esteemed position in the society due to their Vidya. Gurukulas were headed by learned Gurus or teachers (आचार्याः) who were also householders. The famous Samavartana or convocation address to students in the Shikshavalli of Taittriya Upanishad, Anuvaka 11 extols the greatness of the Gurus in the life of a human starting with the Mother, then Father, followed by Guru and Atithi; all of them have to be revered as Devatas themselves.
मातृदेवो भव । पितृदेवो भव । आचार्यदेवो भव । अतिथिदेवो भव । mātr̥devo bhava । pitr̥devo bhava । ācāryadevo bhava । atithidevo bhava । (Tait. Upan. Shikshavalli 11.2)
Gurus such as Vasishta were associated with the members of the lineage of Ikshvaku (for 60 generations) and advised them long before Shri Rama was born. So was the case of many such Rshis and Maharshis. A Guru (गुरुः) is a person who takes charge of immature children and makes them worthy and useful citizens for the society, was naturally held in very high reverence. The preceptor naturally possessed several qualifications. He was expected to be a pious person, with high character, patient, impartial, inspiring and well grounded in his own branch of knowledge; he was to continue his reading throughout his life.
It was the duty of the teacher to teach; all students possessed of the necessary calibre and qualifications were to be taught, without withholding knowledge irrespective of whether the student would be able to pay an honorarium or not. A Guru is the adhyatmik father of the child and was held as morally responsible for the drawbacks of his pupils. He was to provide food clothing and shelter to the student under his charge and help him get financial help from people of influence in the locality.
It is usually held that the profession of teaching was vested with the Brahmana community and they held a monopoly over the Vedic education. Dr. Altekar discusses extensively on this topic as to how we find that Kshatriya teachers of Vaidika and Vedanta subjects also existed down till the recent millenium and that Brahmanas were instrumental in furthering the knowledge in several non-vaidika subjects. Only in the later times did religious and literary studies came to be confined to the Brahmanas and professional and industrial training to non-Brahmanas. Examples of such exceptions include
- Pravahana Jaivali was the Kshatriya teacher who taught Brahmavidya to Shvetaketu a Brahmana. Asvapati and Janaka were other famous Kshatriya teachers.
- Satyakama was the son of a fallen woman but maintained Srauta fires and taught Brahmavidya to Upakosala a Brahmana.
- Maharshi Visvamitra, a Kshatriya is credited with the composition of the 3rd Mandala of Rigveda.
- Dronacharya being the best example of a Brahmana teaching the Pandavas and Kauravas about the art of warfare, Dhanurveda which was the skill of Kshatriyas.
उपनयनसंस्कारः ॥ Upanayana Samskara
One of the unique Dharmas followed from time immemorial is the performance of Upanayana samskara for children entering the educational phase of life. Brahmanas, Kshatriyas and Vaishsyas are to perform Upanayana samskara after which the child is referred to as Dvija (द्विजः । twice born). It marks the beginning of the Brahmacharyashrama. The young mind is trained to perform many social as well as personal duties with specific attention to maintaining the fires, perform sandhyavandana and adhyayana (studies). Respectful behavior towards the Guru and serving him (sushsruta) are foremost duties of a Brahmachari.
No one can recite Vedic prayers or perform yajnas without having undergone the initiation (Upanayana) samskara. It is, therefore, but natural that in the early period the Upanayana of girls should have been as common as that of boys. There is ample evidence to show that such was the case. The Atharvaveda (XI. 5. 18) expressly refers to maidens undergoing the Brahmacharya discipline
ब्रह्मचर्येण कन्या युवानां विन्दते पतिम्। Atharvaveda (XI. 5. 18)
The Sutra works of the Vedangas supply interesting details in its connection. Even Manu includes Upanayana among the sanskaras (rituals) obligatory for girls (II. 66).
Manu stated that marriage was the equivalent rite in place of Upanayana for a female. Education of women received a setback with the advent of the christian era. Marriage was given more importance as the period of vedic education was a lengthy one as the societal conditions changed. Their education was more restricted to the general and practical studies of the 64 Kalas and fine arts.
अन्तेवासी ॥ Antevasi or Student
The student enrolled in the Gurukula is called as Antevasin (अन्तेवासिन्), a Shishya (शिष्यः), was to hold his teacher in deep reverence and honour him like the King, the Devatas and his Parents. A student is generally is said to be in the Brahmacharyashrama, the stage of gaining knowledge, with many personal and social duties. After completion of his studies, the Samavartana rite is performed, which includes a ritual of snana after which the student is called Snataka. A Naishtika Brahmachari is one chooses to live his entire life as a Brahmachari without getting into the Grhasthashrama.
Vidyarthi's qualities and thus his behavior must be in conformity with the rules and decorum of the Gurukula, whether he is rich or poor. Only students with the following qualities deserve to be taught according to Yajnavalkya Smrti
कृतज्ञाद्रोहिमेधावि शुचिकल्यानसूयकाः । अध्याप्या धर्मतः साधु शक्ताप्तज्ञानवित्तदाः । । १.२८ (Yajn. Smrt. 1.28)
kr̥tajñādrohimedhāvi śucikalyānasūyakāḥ । adhyāpyā dharmataḥ sādhu śaktāptajñānavittadāḥ । । 1.28
Gratefulness (कृतज्ञः), Free from enmity (अद्रोहिः), Intelligent (मेधावि), Pure (शुचिः), free of mental and physical diseases, not in the habit of fault-finding, virtuous, strong and capable (of serving), family member, giver of knowledge (in return for knowledge), and giver of wealth (in return for knowledge).
The student was expected to do personal service to the teacher "like a son, supplaint, or slave". Mahabharata (1.25.11-12) give minute details of how service should be done to the Guru, including carrying his water for bath and cleaning his utensils, tending to cows, bringing samidhas and maintaining the sacred fires.
Gopatha Brahmana (1.2.1 to 8) explains that this Sushurta or service was very prevalent in the Vaidika age and is widely prevalent in later times also. It was a honour to do service to the Guru and it was extolled that no progress in knowledge was possible was possible without doing service in the teacher's house (Maha. Vana 36.52).
Students were always to follow the instructions of the Guru obediently, ought to salute his teacher, ought not to occupy a seat higher than the teacher, never wear a gaudier dress, refrain from reviling and backbiting.
Seeking others for daily food or Bhikshatana is one feature enjoined on the student as a religious duty. This vidhi occurs in many Grhya sutra texts and is prevalent since Vedic times. The story of Dhaumya and one of his students Upamanyu is a classic example of how begging for food and first offering it to the Guru has been duty of the student.
स्त्रीविद्या ॥ Education of Girls
History is witness to the fact that as we go into antiquity the position of women is found to be more satisfactory in many spheres of life, education being one of them. During Vedic times girls were allowed to choose the path of Vedic studies, such greatly learned women are found to have played a key role as mantra drashtas. The mention of female scholars and seers of the Vedic age like Vaak Ambhrni, Romasa, Gargi, Ghosha, Maitreyi and Lopamudra in the Vedic literature corroborates this view. Called as Brahmavadinis, these scholars were revered for they sought the knowledge of Brahman (ब्रह्मन्). Upanayana samskara was performed for them on par with boys and such women actively participated in performing yajnas, discussions and debates. Rigvedic collection of mantras contains those composed by at least 20 different female drashtas. Visvavara, Sikata Nivavarl, Ghosha, Romasa, Lopamudra, Apala and Urvasi are the names of some of them.
Brahmavadinls used to marry after their education was over ; some of them like Vedavati, a daughter of sage Kusadhvaja, would not marry at all (Ram., VII. 17).
The housewife along with the husband was allowed to undergo special initiation for conducting specific yajnas, and she was allowed to give the ahutis in yajnas unaided by her husband. Panini termed such a wife as Patni, one who conjoins the husband in performing the yajna पत्नुर्नो यज्ञसंयोगे (Panini 4.1.88)
Paraskara Grhyasutras went a further stating that the grhya yajnas could be performed by women alone "because such was the long standing custom"। स्त्रियश्चोपयजेरन्नाचरितत्वात् १८। (Para. Grhy. Sutr. 2.17.18)
In the later ages, Ramayana also gives the evidence that women participated in yajnas (Valmik Ramayana 2.20.15) Kausalya, Sita and Tara, wife of Vali were termed as mantravid. In mahabharata we see Kunti was well versed in Atharvaveda (3.305.20)
The advent of the Christian era saw the decline of Upanayana samskara for girls and thus ended the study of Vedas for women in the greater part of the society.
गुरुकुलप्रवेशः शिक्षणविधानम् च ॥ Admission, Syllabus and Examinations
In vedic times, a student was to directly enter a Gurukula after initiation by Upanayana, without having to write any entrance test nor does the Guru interview of the child. Admission of the child was a hassle free process, no boards of studies only the parents of the child chose the Guru under guidance they wanted the child. Prachina shikshana vidhana was not focused on examinations, diplomas and migration or transfer certificates. Ancients regarded knowledge as unlimited and no period that one could spend for its acquisition was regarded adequate to complete mastering a Veda, thus Vedas were अनन्ताः । Ananta or endless.
However, higher education required a testing procedure to prove that the candidate was fit for it. Tests were mostly verbal in nature and required the recitation of Vedas or subject matter from memory. The class size was not too large as the aim was to give personal attention to students. Paper and books, as well as tubelights and continuous lighting facilities were absent so homework or reading after hours was practically impossible. All the work has to be done under the guidance of the teacher or class monitor who was incharge of the younger students.
Chaturdasha Vidyastanas which included the Four Vedas and their Vedangas were the chief subjects and constituted the study syllabus during the earliest times. Specialized Para Vidya including Brahmavidya, Panchagni vidya etc of the olden days gradually got absorbed into Vedanta system, a broader heading covering all such specialized topics was a higher level course and required years of sadhana. Gradually as studying vedas required more understanding, the study of Shad Vedangas became important. It is to be noted that the subjects explaining the Vedas themselves gained more significance and subsequently were studied independent of the Vedas themselves.
The knowledge of alloys, metallurgy, geology, botany sciences, warfare, architecture, large scale constructions, all such topics developed over a period of time into professional subjects.
दिनचर्या ॥ Daily Life of a Student
Here in the present context, the general life of a student of religious and literary education is dealt with. Ashramas and Gurukulas having different specialized courses and those where higher yajnas were conducted had different schedules. Most of the time of a Vedic studies student is spent in recollecting, recapitulation and recitation of the vedas to commit them to memory. However, even students of other shastras had to memorize their lessons in earlier days. A brief outline of a student's life is as follows
- Rise early in the morning before birds begin to stir i.e., at about 4.30 am.
- Attend morning functions, bath and offering of Sandhyavandana.
- Students get involved in samidadhana, offering of samidhas in the grhya fires.
- Revising old lessions by recitation and learning new lessons.
- Around mid-day students went for collection of their meals by Bhikshaatana. In some cases the teacher's family provided the meals.
- Resting period in the afternoon post-lunch for an hour.
- Resuming studies around 2.30 pm till evening.
- Collection of samidhas for yajnas and physical exercise.
- At sunset offering of evening Sandhyavandana and samidadhana.
- Dinner and retiring for the day.
अनध्ययनम् ॥ Anadhyayana or Holidays
A systematic list of holidays from studies goes back to very early times and include generally the Anadhyayana days of the month which were 6 days in a month - the two astami (eight day) and Chaturdashi (fourteenth day) tithis of the fortnight, the amavasya (new moon day) and purnima (full moon day) days (Manu Smrt. 4.113 and 114).
पौर्णमस्य्-अष्टका-अमावास्या-अग्न्युत्पात-भूमिकम्प-श्मशान-देशपति-श्रो त्रिय-एकतीर्थ-प्रयाणेष्व् अहोरात्रम् अनध्यायः ॥ (Baud. Dhar. Sutr. 1.11)
paurṇamasy-aṣṭakā-amāvāsyā-agnyutpāta-bhūmikampa-śmaśāna-deśapati-śro triya-ekatīrtha-prayāṇeṣv ahorātram anadhyāyaḥ ॥
Apart from these at times of robbery in a village, cattle lifting, natural calamities, during thunders and rainstorms, death of the Raja or a Brahmana of the village, arrival of guests and during village celebrations, vedic study is paused. Gradually in due course of time the number of holidays reduced due to the curriculum getting heavier. While abnormal weather conditions prevented loud recitation, silent reading of non-Vedic subjects was allowed. While Vedic study had to be paused, non-Vaidika subjects could be studied on Anadhyayana days.
निर्वहणम् ॥ Maintenance of Gurukula
The next question is how did Gurukulas thrive as the most successful model of education? In the earlier times the followers of different Vedas had formed their own literary organizations like the Parishads, Shakas and Charanas and emphasis on forming a literary educational institutions was not present; largely because Brahmanas followed the injunction of learning the Vedas and devoting themselves to teaching as per their capacity. Each Brahmana was thus an educational institution by himself and was self sufficient. The requirements were simple havya and kavya for the rshis and the nearby forests provided the samidhas.
Since the early times the responsibility of providing for the Gurukulas vested with the Rajas and Maharajas. They were self sufficient and their simple essential needs were fulfilled by the villagers. Hence direct monetary requirements were more for the conduct of yajnas (which were also the responsibility of the Guru) where offering of danas required monetary support. The story of Vishvamitra seeking gold from Raja Harishchandra for conducting a yajna is one famous example.
In later years the Rajas and Maharajas made huge donations to the cause of developing educational centers. Agrahara institutions, Mathas, and temple colleges were all imparting free education to their students. When they received sufficient endowments, they would also arrange to provide free boarding, lodging, clothing and medicine to the students they admitted. Education in ancient India was free in much wider sense than in the modern times.
गुरुदक्षिणा ॥ Guru Dakshina
Gurudakshina or the teacher's honorarium became payable only at the end of education and it was not mandatory. Samavartana is the convocation, time when the student leaves the Gurukula with the permission of the Guru.
Manusmrti says "Being permitted by the guru, one should perform his Samavartana and marry a woman.."
गुरुणानुमतः स्नात्वा समावृत्तो यथाविधि । उद्वहेत द्विजो भार्यां सवर्णां लक्षणान्विताम् । । ३.४ । । (Manu. Smrt. 3.4)
guruṇānumataḥ snātvā samāvr̥tto yathāvidhi । udvaheta dvijo bhāryāṁ savarṇāṁ lakṣaṇānvitām । । 3.4 । ।
Up from Upanayana until the student completed his studies he does not pay any thing to the Acharya. Manu lays down that at the time of Samavartana the gurudakshina has to be offered by the student to the Guru.
आसमाप्तेः शरीरस्य यस्तु शुश्रूषते गुरुम् । स गच्छत्यञ्जसा विप्रो ब्रह्मणः सद्म शाश्वतम् । । २.२४४ । । (Manu. Smrt. 2.244)
āsamāpteḥ śarīrasya yastu śuśrūṣate gurum । sa gacchatyañjasā vipro brahmaṇaḥ sadma śāśvatam । । 2.244 । ।
A student who, until the end of his life, does service to his guru attains brahmaloka (moksha).
न पूर्वं गुरवे किंचिदुपकुर्वीत धर्मवित् । स्नास्यंस्तु गुरुणाज्ञप्तः शक्त्या गुर्वर्थं आहरेत् । । २.२४५ । । (Manu. Smrt. 2.245)
na pūrvaṁ gurave kiṁcidupakurvīta dharmavit । snāsyaṁstu guruṇājñaptaḥ śaktyā gurvarthaṁ āharet । । 2.245 । ।
A dharmik brahmachari, does not give anything to the guru before he completes his education. Just after Samavartana, with the permission of the Guru and according to his capacity, a student should offer Gurudakshina. Agricultural land, gold, cow, horse, umbrella, shoes, chair (asana), food grains, vegetables and clothes may be offered to the guru and win his pleasure.
क्षेत्रं हिरण्यं गां अश्वं छत्रोपानहं आसनम् । धान्यं शाकं च वासांसि गुरवे प्रीतिमावहेत् । । २.२४६ । । (Manu. Smrt. 2.246)
kṣetraṁ hiraṇyaṁ gāṁ aśvaṁ chatropānahaṁ āsanam । dhānyaṁ śākaṁ ca vāsāṁsi gurave prītimāvahet । । 2.246 । ।
The services rendered by the teacher to the student were highly respected and none could pay too much for them. Even the earth containing the seven continents was not sufficient for the gurudakshina.
Payment of fees as a condition for admission was never a stipulation in the sacred texts. No student could be refused admission even by a private teacher simply because he was too poor to pay any fees. Teaching was a sacred duty and Smrtis condemned payment of stipulated fees as a condition precedent to admission. Gurudakshina was however acceptable form of payment either in monetary and service forms; a poor student could pay for his education by doing service to the Guru which became more common in the post vedic age.
Voluntary gifts from the guardians or parents of the child was not prevented. Shri Krishna's paid gurudakshina to his teacher Sandipani in the form of bringing back his lost child. Similarly, Arjuna defeated Drupada Maharaja as gurudakshina after his education, for Dronacharya his Guru. So gurudakshina never was just monetary, it was in various forms and also depended on what the Guru may want apart from gold or land.
Ancient Vs Modern Education Systems
The Gurukula set up represented the ancient system of education developed by our seers for holistic growth of the child. However, the Modern Education System (आधुनिकविद्याविधानम्) was introduced in the recent colonial era is widely followed in our country in the present day.
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