How India slipped from being the world’s educational hub into the pit of illiteracy?

‘Get in and study’ you would have heard this phrase many times. Have you ever wondered why no one asks you to ‘get out and study.’ Dating back to the earliest universities, Indian students were the first ones to experience an open system of education ‘Open’ here means nothing above ones head. Nature is a great source of learning. The gurukul culture which had later been transformed into institutionalized universities was soon becoming extinct. It was Rabindranath Tagore who reintroduced an open air school in 1901. Shantiniketan, which is now famous as a university was founded by Tagore with the objective of bringing back the ancient guru-shishya culture, where the teacher would guide the student with the warmth of a parent, in the open.

Forest universities were first originated in India.  They were places which were far away from the commotion of the towns and had India’s earliest teachers, the gurus. They taught in Ashrams and Gurukulams which were located far from the towns. The Vedas, which are the first known oral books contain thoughts of a highly civilised society that was replete with exquisite references to nature and the concept of inter-dependence of living organisms. The gurus wanted the people to realise their humble status in the infinite universe before embarking on the long journey of learning.

The institutionalised universities led to the inception of famous universities such as Nalanda and Takshshila.  Students from China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia and West Asia came down to these universities to gain perspective. Some students even made long & tedious journeys by foot just to get to India and learn from the Brahmin & Buddhist scholars. The rush for learning in India was similar to today’s rush of studying in European countries. Historians were always hesitant to refer to the Indian schools as universities. The talented professionals who could build the best toads, dams, palaces, irrigation systems were dhoti-clad.

This was one factor which probably increased the ‘scepticism’ of the historian’s world wide. There were medical practitioners of yore, who were the masters of healing. From conducting complex surgeries to procuring herbs, they could do everything. They even possessed an additional spiritual insight. Ironically some of them were regarded as witch doctors.

Indians were obsessed with acquiring knowledge.  They wanted to learn and grow in every field. Indians made discoveries in science, mathematics and medicine.  Sanskrit was considered to be the mother of all languages and teachers were highly respected in the shlokas.  Initiation of the alphabet was done in most parts of India through a ceremonial process. The sacred thread ceremony or the Upanayanam marked the beginning of education for children aged between 8-12. The guru accepted a token gift which was known as Guru Dakshina after imparting years of knowledge.

Epics such as the Mahabharata give examples of famous Ashrams such as Naimisha, which was a forest university headed by Saunaka.  Other Hermitages mentioned in the epic are those of Vyasa, Vasishtha and Viswamitra.  Subjects ranging from geometry to biology were covered.  The forest universities believed in the concept of holistic learning.  The Mahabharata was first recited at Takshashila by Vaishampayana, a student of Vyasa.

Takshashila is described as a great centre of learning for Buddhist Jatakatales, written around the 5thcentury CE.  The Chinese travellerFaHien mentioned it in his account of his visit to Takshashila in 405 CE.  Takshashila made great contributions to Sanskritlanguage. It is also associated with the great Chanakya.  His book Arthashastra is said to have been composed in Takshashila itself. Jataka, another famous physician and surgeon studied here.

People who went to Takashshila for higher education were trained in the Vedas.  Apart from this there were 18 Sippas or Arts that were taught. The Sippas included technical and scientific education. Takashshila also had special schools training in Military Sciences, Law and Medicine.  There was also a demand for archery courses. 104 princes were believed to be enrolled at the same time. Not all the students came from affluent families.

Practical training was extremely essential for learning.  For example, in medicine, the practical course included a comprehensive knowledge on medicinal plants. Students were asked to give demonstrations of what they had learned. Students from rich families had to move out of the country after the theoretical education course in order to experience the hardships.

Nalanda University, another famous university also had students coming to study from far off countries.  The university conducted an entrance exam which was very tough to clear.  Only 20% of the students who appeared for the entrance exam were able to clear it. There were also a bunch of schools which helped students in getting into Nalanda.  The university had around 8500 students and 1500 teachers.  The students of Nalanda were respected and looked up to. This made some of them make fake claims that they were also from Nalanda. By the 7th century there were four other universities in Bihar.

All these universities were largely inspired by Nalanda and worked in collaboration.  However, one among these, Vikramshila emerged as a strong competitor to Nalanda by the 10th century.  A wide range of subjects were taught in Naland; spiritual, philosophical, practical, sciences and arts. Nalanda mainly flourished under the Gupta Empire.

Debating also constituted a vital part of the democratic culture. Logic and debate were significant for India’s philosophical tradition. References to Tarka-Vidya,  the science and art of logic and debate and Vada-Vidya,  the art of discussion can be found in numerical texts such as Ramayana,  Mahabharata,  SkandaPurana,  Yajnavalkya,  Samhita and Chandogya Upanishad.  Nalanda had 3 huge buildings for preserving and acquiring books. The well equipped libraries had 3 buildings namely Ratnasagara, Ratnadadhi and Ratnaranjaka.  Ratnasagara was a nine – storeyed building which stored rare sacred books such as PrajnaParamita Sutra. We were much ahead of the world in terms of education.

Valabhi University was another competitor of the Nalanda University. Valabhi University was situated in Gujarat. Students from all over the country wanted to study in Valabhi.  Some of these students got high government positions after graduating. Vikramshila University was founded in the 8th century by King Dharampala.  The university was a rival to Nalanda, but later collaborated with it.

Ujjaini University was another famous university.  It was very vellum known for its contribution to astronomy and mathematics. The university was equipped with an elaborate observatory and stood on the zero meridian of longitude of those times. If the imperialistic Europe had not assumed control of the scientific discourse of the world, perhaps Ujjain not Greenwich would have been today’s prime meridian.  Brahmagupta was among the most celebrated astronomers of Ujjaini University. He worked on trigonometrical formulae, quadratic equation, arithmetic progression and improved Aryabhata’s sine tables.

In his treatise Brahmasphuta siddhanta, he was the first to treat zero as a number in its own right. He established basic mathematical rules for dealing with zero such as 1+0=1; 1-0=1; and 1×0=0.

Brahmagupta’s works reached the cost of Khalifa – l – Man sur in Bath dad and plated a very important role in making the Arabs conversant with Indian astronomy and Mathematics.  Later this knowledge was transmitted to various parts of Europe.  The tradition of Brahmagupta was continued by Bhaskaracharya, who became the head of astronomical observatory at Ujjaini. He wrote the famous book Lilavati.

Bhaskaracharya had reached an understanding of the number systems and solving equations which could not be achieved in Europe for several centuries. He was the first mathematician to write a work with full and systematic use of the decimal number system. Bhaskaracharya is also considered as the founder of differential calculus and is said to have applied it centuries before Newton and Leibniz.  He too had a profound impact on Islamic mathematicians just like his guru.

Education should impart practical knowledge and it is more to do with observation and learning.  Take pride in the fact that we dominated the education system around the world when there was no internet.  It was all about empirical science and the long list of scholars with unmatched wisdom.

Alok Shetty