How India went from World’s Education Capital to Depths of Illiteracy - Part I
By Sahana Singh
IndiaFacts - 6 December 2016
Just a thousand years ago, India was dotted with universities across its length and breadth where international students flocked to gain credentials in advanced education. But in the last 200 years, the connection with age-old knowledge streams has been severely disrupted. In the first part of this new series, Sahana Singh will examine the pedagogy of ancient Indian universities, and in subsequent parts will trace their demise.
When Tagore started an open-air school at Shantiniketan in 1901, which later went on to become a famous university, he was one in a long line of educators from India, who believed that holistic learning could only be obtained in the midst of nature under the close supervision of a parent-like guru.
India’s earliest teachers were the gurus, who taught in gurukulams and ashrams located far away from the hustle and bustle of towns in what could be called forest universities. It is no surprise that the Vedas, which are the earliest known oral books containing the thoughts of a highly civilised society are replete with exquisite references to nature and the concept of inter-dependence of living organisms. To these gurus, it was important for humans to realise their humble status in the infinite universe before embarking on the long journey of learning.
Over time, the systems of transmission of learning to newer generations got institutionalised and gave birth to famous universities such as Takshshila, Nalanda and many famous temple universities of which the remains are still found in southern India. A sizeable number of foreign students came to study in India from China, Korea, Japan, Indonesia and West Asia. While the most famous names are Fa-Hien and Xuanzang, who left behind detailed accounts, there are scores of others, who made difficult journeys by foot and on board the ships just to imbibe knowledge from Indian professors. Many of the foreign students copied texts and commentaries to carry back to their countries. The rush for gaining an education from the Brahmins and Buddhist scholars of India was similar to today’s rush to study in or be certified by American and European universities.
There is a curious hesitation among modern historians to refer to India’s multi-disciplinary centres of traditional learning as universities. This comes from the excessive importance given to the written word, to solid buildings with established pedagogy and rigid systems of certification. Thus, the talented, but bare-chested and dhoti-clad engineers and architects of ancient India, who built incredible irrigation canals, rainwater harvesting structures, palaces, forts, roads, dams and aqueducts are barely acknowledged as professionals, who learned from professors in universities. Similarly, the medical practitioners of yore, who knew which combination of herbs could help in healing diseases, where to procure them in forests, how to conduct complex surgeries and who additionally possessed spiritual insights are often regarded as quacks or witch doctors.