How India Went From World’s Education Capital to Depths of Illiteracy – Part II
By Sahana Singh
We continue our series on the universities of ancient India, which imparted a multi-disciplinary education to students of advanced learning. In this second part, we look at India’s temple universities, graduation ceremony, funding of scholars and the saga of transmission of knowledge outside the frontiers of mainland India.
A student who completed basic education in ancient India and wished to learn more, had a plethora of institutions to choose from, depending on whether he wanted to specialise in the Vedas, logic, medicine, sciences, classical music or any other subject. Thus, a student who wanted to learn classical music could, for instance, move to Varanasi and learn from the maestros in the city’s ancient college of music. If he found a friend keen on studying in Varanasi’s college of astronomy, then perhaps the two could travel together. Travelling was a risky proposition in those days when the land was covered with forests abounding in predators, and parents would celebrate when their children returned home after four to 12 years of higher education.
In the Kathasaritsagara, there is a reference to a Brahmin, who decided not to send his son for further studies to Nalanda or Varanasi, which were closer to his place of residence in the Ganga plains and instead took the risk of choosing a far-off Valabhi university located in today’s Gujarat (Bose, 1990). Valabhi’s graduates were known to secure employment in government services. Its courses in political science (niti) and business (varta) were well known alongside religious studies of Hinayana Buddhism (Apte).
An interesting reference to co-education is found in the Sanskrit play Malatimadhava written by Bhavabhuti (in the eighth century) where a female student Kamandaki is indicated to be a classmate and close friend of male students Bhurivasu and Devarata at a famous university in Padmavati. All three characters hail from different regions. (Mirashi, 1996)
There seems to have been a remarkable mobility of students and teachers across the universities of ancient India. Thus, we find professors in Nalanda, such as Sthiramati and Gunamati who had earlier established Valabhi University in the west. Dinnaga and Dharmapala, two famous scholars of Nalanda were both natives of Kanchipuram in the south. Ratnavajra, a noted professor at Vikramshila hailed from Kasmira (Kashmir). Xuanzang himself, after finishing his studies in Nalanda went to teach in Orissa upon receiving a directive from King Harsha (Mookerjee, 1960). The famous Bhaskara II, hailed by some as the greatest mathematician ever, taught at Ujjaini, but hailed from Bijapur in the south (Puttaswamy, 2012). Clearly, many of the learned people of yore travelled to centres of excellence in their areas of interest.
Funding of higher education
An interesting aspect about the education system was that it was subsidised for pupils and teachers by the ruling kings as well as communities that lived around universities. The Nalanda University was described by Xuanzang as having been endowed with buildings and lands by ruling kings of the time. He also mentions that the revenues of 100 villages were allocated for meeting the expenses of the university. The students and teachers received clothes, food, bedding and medicine free of cost. (Mookerjee, 1960)
However, according to the Jatakas, students who wished to study at Takshshila were required to either pay their tuition fees at the beginning or if they lacked cash, to pay in the form of services to the teacher, such as bringing firewood. Most Brahmin students were too poor to pay upfront and would opt to carry out menial tasks. Some would get permission to pay at the end of their studies, and there were instances of Brahmin students soliciting financial assistance from households. We also hear of some winning state scholarships and not being required to pay any fees. Often, families living around the universities would generously host meals at their residences for the students. (Mookerjee, 1960)
There was a well-established ecosystem to support learning. Since the ethos of the times demanded that Brahmin scholars lead a simple life engaged in the pursuit of knowledge without amassing riches, it fell upon the shoulders of wealthy non-Brahmin families as well as humble farmers to support those who were devoting their entire lives to learning and teaching (Hazra, 1987).