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Friday, July 31, 2015

Education - the past and the present

Hello everyone, I am here with yet another blog post and this time the topic is rather vast and difficult, if I may say.

So, let me start with this famous quote from Swami Vivekananda - "Education is the manifestation for perfection already in man."

The great philosopher from India assumes that perfection is inherent to mankind and just remains to be realized. This realization is brought about by proper education.

Now, one would think - How different this is from the education an average Indian receives today. Is it just about degrees and diplomas and placements? Where did knowledge go? Without knowledge how self-realization is even possible, let alone perfection.

No, the intent of this article is not to impart philosophical gyan to my esteemed readers. I am aware that most, if not all, of you are immensely knowledgeable, so my humble article does not intend to influence you in any manner.

However, my observation has been - the mode of education is changing thick and fast. I shall try to focus a little bit about education in pre-historic India and then gradually move to modern times.

Prehistoric education [Vedic age - 1500 BC – 500 BC]

We learn from Brittanica that in those days education mainly aimed to "guide children to becoming good members of their tribe or band."
The Brittanica article is immensely informative, so readers are advised to certainly take a look. I shall focus a bit on India here. Well, owing to caste system and division of labor in ancient India, only the brahmins were allowed to study as per Gurukul pratha. [I shall not discuss caste system in this article which has been long abolished in India.]
Gurukul System

Per Brittanica -

The boy would leave his father’s house and enter his preceptor’s ashrama, a home situated amid sylvan surroundings. The acarya would treat him as his own child, give him free education, and not charge anything for his boarding and lodging. The pupil had to tend the sacrificial fires, do the household work of his preceptor, and look after his cattle.
The study at this stage consisted of the recitation of the Vedic mantras (“hymns”) and the auxiliary sciences—phonetics, the rules for the performance of the sacrifices, grammar, astronomy, prosody, and etymology. The character of education, however, differed according to the needs of the caste. For a child of the priestly class, there was a definite syllabus of studies. The trayi-vidya, or the knowledge of the three Vedas—the most ancient of Hindu scriptures—was obligatory for him. During the whole course at school, as at college, the student had to observe brahmacharya—that is, wearing simple dress, living on plain food, using a hard bed, and leading a celibate life.
The period of studentship normally extended to 12 years. For those who wanted to continue their studies, there was no age limit. After finishing their education at an ashrama, they would join a higher centre of learning or a university presided over by a kulapati (a founder of a school of thought). Advanced students would also improve their knowledge by taking part in philosophical discussions at a parisad, or “academy.” Education was not denied to women, but normally girls were instructed at home.
The method of instruction differed according to the nature of the subject. The first duty of the student was to memorize the particular Veda of his school, with special emphasis placed on correct pronunciation. In the study of such literary subjects as law, logic, rituals, and prosody, comprehension played a very important role. A third method was the use of parables, which were employed in the personal spiritual teaching relating to the Upanishads, or conclusion of the Vedas. In higher learning, such as in the teaching of Dharma-shastra (“Righteousness Science”), the most popular and useful method was catechism—the pupil asking questions and the teacher discoursing at length on the topics referred to him. Memorization, however, played the greatest role.

Classical period [4th Century CE - 8th Century CE]

Per Brittanica -
The 500 years from the 4th century ce to the close of the 8th, under the Guptas and Harsha and their successors, is a remarkable period in Indian history. It was the age of the universities of Nalanda and Valabhi and of the rise of Indian sciences, mathematics, and astronomy. The university at Nalanda housed a population of several thousand teachers and students, who were maintained out of the revenues from more than 100 villages. Because of its fame, Nalanda attracted students from abroad, but the admission test was so strict that only two or three out of 10 attained admission. More than 1,500 teachers discussed more than 100 different dissertations every day. These covered the Vedas, logic, grammar, Buddhist and Hindu philosophy (Sankhya, Nyaya, and so on), astronomy, and medicine. Other great centres of Buddhist learning of the post-Gupta era were Vikramashila, Odantapuri, and Jagaddala. The achievements in science were no less significant. Aryabhata in the late 5th century was the greatest mathematician of his age. He introduced the concepts of zero and decimals. Varahamihira of the Gupta age was a profound scholar of all the sciences and arts, from botany to astronomy and from military science to civil engineering. There was also considerable development of the medical sciences. According to contemporaries, more than eight branches of medical science, including surgery and pediatrics, were practiced by the physicians.
These were the main developments in education prior to the Muslim invasions, beginning in the 10th century. Nearly every village had its schoolmaster, who was supported from local contributions. The Hindu schools of learning, known as pathasalas in western India and tol in Bengal, were conducted by Brahman acaryas at their residence. Each imparted instruction in an advanced branch of learning and had a student enrollment of not more than 30. Larger or smaller establishments, specially endowed by rajas and other donors for the promotion of learning, also grew in number. The usual centres of learning were either the king’s capital, such as Kanauj, Dhar, Mithila, or Ujjayini, or a holy place, such as Varanasi, Ayodhya, Kanchi, or Nasik. In addition to Buddhist viharas (monasteries), there sprang up Hindu mathas (monks’ residences) and temple colleges in different parts of the country. There were also agrahara villages, which were given in charity to the colonies of learned Brahmans in order to enable them to discharge their scriptural duties, including teaching. Girls were usually educated at home, and vocational education was imparted through a system of apprenticeship.
Ruins of Nalanda University

*** Please note that the world famous centre of learning Nalanda university was demolished by Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Turkic chieftain around 1200 CE, but thankfully has been re-opened in 2012 with help from international bodies. ***

Now, let me skip the middle portion. Assume that I ride a time machine, have a long journey, a real comfortable sleep and land directly in 2015.

Education today

As per 2012-2013 statistics,
There are 700 degree granting institutions and 35,500 affiliate colleges in India which provide full-time, part-time as well as distance education.

The new trend

Now the trend that I have been noticing is - with the advent of internet, gradually online education is becoming popular. Welcome to virtual education, they say. Now, these do not offer degrees or diplomas. They may or may not even provide certificates. But some salient points about these options are -

  • You study at your own pace, unless there is a homework to submit
  • You receive world-class education from renowned universities from the confines of your home.
  • The credibility of some of these facilitators like EDX, Coursera, Khan Academy, Udemy, Codecademy etc. etc. is gradually being recognized even by various organizations. 
  • Many of the top-notch universities are also providing these programmes directly.
  • You have to go through the drill. The focus is not on memorizing sentences but on grasping concepts and applying them to real-world situations. The knowledge quotient is high.

So, now, dear readers - Did you ever take such a course? Would like to know your experiences and how it helped you in your career.


Education has evolved a lot over the years - specially, the focus and the importance of subjects of study. One thing, that however has remained unchanged is the importance of knowledge and the way students can apply it in real world situations. The evaluation techniques are also evolving with many courses allowing open book tests. The main focus seem to be on skill building and application of skills acquired. The mode is immaterial, more informal and should I say, smart. Even grading techniques have changed a lot. It remains to be seen how this can evolve further. Hopefully, the purpose of education will continue to stay the same - "...to drive the manifestation for perfection already in man. "

PS. The views expressed in this article are my own and may not reflect the thoughts of the organization I work for. All feedback appreciated.

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