Education system in ancient India before the British Raj

Education system in ancient India before the British Raj

Ancient India was celebrated for its learning all over civilized Asia and Europe. Megasthenese (ca. 302 BC) was struck by the depth of this learning during his mission to the court of Chandragupta. Fa-hien, the famous Chinese traveller (399-413 AD) spent some years at the Pataliputra and Tamralipti monasteries. He also spent two years in Ceylon which too had its monasteries after the India fashion. These monasteries were a big affair, housing and teaching several hundred monks each. Two centuries after came Hiuen Tsang undertaking a hazardous journey across Central Asia and northern parts of India. During the seventeen years he spent in India (629-645 AD) he visited many monasteries belonging to the Mahayana and the Hinayana schools. He visited Hiranyaparvata, the Golden Hill (Munghir), a city on the bank of the Ganges, which had 10 Sangharamas with 4,000 priests, and 12 Deva temples. At Tamralipti (at the mouth of Hoogly), there were 10 monasteries with a thousand monks. The same story is told of many other towns he visited.

I-tsing (671-695 AD) came to India by sea-route. He spent ten years studying at the Nalanda University, the most dominant at his time. It was supported by a revenue of 200 villages and housed more than 3,000 monks. The building contained eight halls and three hundred apartments. On the way back, he spent seven years in Sribhoja (Sumatra), which was a cultural extension of India.

In the face of continued Muslim onslaught from across the north-west frontier, Hindu Buddhist sciences began to retire into the ineterior. Alberuni tells us how “Mahmud ruined the prosperity of the country (India)”, how they (Hindus) were turned into “atoms of dust scattered in all directions”, how “this is the reason, too, why Hindu sciences have retired far away from those parts of the country conquered by us, and have fled to places which our hand cannot yet reach, to Kashmir, Benares, and other places.” As time passed and the Muslim inroads became deeper, Hindu centres of learning were destroyed in the interior too. Eventually, from there they retired into neighbouring countries like Tibet.

Tibet preserved as best as it could, what India was no longer in a position to do. For example, 4000 books belonging to the Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit literature were translated into Tibetan language. Today, about 3800 of them are no longer even known in India. They were so completely destroyed. The work of destruction was so complete. Today much of old India is found in neighbouring countries like Tibet and Siam and Cambodia; and India’s old past history cannot be reconstructed except with their aid.

The Nalanda University continued its glorious existence for a thousand years till it was destroyed by the Muslims. Bakhtiyar Khilji invaded Bihar in 1197 AD and found that at Odantapuri (present-day Bihar-Sharif in Patna District) “most of inhabitants were Brahmins with shaven heads. They were put to death. Large number of books were found there, and, when the Muhammadans saw them, they called for some persons to explain their contents, but all the men had been killed. It was discovered that the whole fort and city was a place of study. In the Hindi language the word Behar (vihâr) means a college” (Elliot and Dowson, The History of India, Vol.11, p.306).

After this, India entered an era lasting over several centuries which may be called its dark period. Hindus came under the repeated attacks of the Muslims who destroyed their places of worship and learning. But their hands could not reach everywhere; and even in places where they were more securely established, their rule did not remain undisputed for long. As a result, Hindu India and its institutions, though badly mauled, still survived.

European Era

As we enter the period of European conquest, we find that the European travellers and administrators bear testimony to the great veneration in which the Hindus hold learning and instruction. One of the earliest observations made on the subject of indigenous education was by Fra Paolino Da Bartolomeo. Born in Austria, he spent fourteen years in India (1776-1789). Recalling what Megasthenese wrote, he says that the method of teaching and writing was introduced into India two hundred years before Christ, and that he still found it in practice. “No people, perhaps, on earth have adhered as much to their ancient usage and customs as the Indians,” he says. He tells us that the Greek historians represent the Indians as people of greater size, and much more robust than those of other nations. He himself “seldom saw in India a person either lame, crooked, or otherwise deformed”. Among many factors, climatic and cultural (like wholesome nourishment, cold bath, oil message etc.), which he recounts, he says that “temperance and education contribute, in an uncommon degree, to the bodily conformation, and to the increase of these people”. Then he describes the method and practice of teaching and instruction as he found them in Malabar schools.

We may here also quote the testimony of Brigadier-General Alexander Walker who served In India between 1780 and 1810. He says that “no people probably appreciate more justly the importance of instruction than the Hindus”. According to him, “they sacrifice all the feelings of wealth, family pride and caste that their children may have the advantage of good education”. He also found that this love of learning was no exclusive characteristic of the Brahmins but “this desire is strongly impressed on the minds of all the Hindus. It is inculcated by their own system, which provided schools in every village.” He adds that the “spirit of enquiry and of liberty has most probably been effected by the soodors [Shudras] who compose the great body of population, and who were in possession of the principal authority and property of the country”.

Even during the early days of the British, when they had not entrenched themselves so well, indigenous education was thriving. Discussing the famous “Nuddeah School” of Bengal, an article (Calcutta Monthly Register, January 1791) has the following to say: “In the college of Nuddeah alone, there are at present 1,100 students and 150 masters. Their numbers, it is true fall very short of those in former days. In Rajah Roodre’s time (Circa 1680) there were at Nuddeah, no less than 4,000 students and masters in proportion.” All, the teachers as well as the pupils, were supported by the revenue of free land, the Rajah’s treasury supplying any deficiency.

The fact of wide-spread education – a school in every village – was uniformly noticed by most early observers. Even writing as late as 1820, Abbe J.A. Dubois says that “there are very few villages in which one or many public schools are not to be found … that the students learn in them all that is necessary to their ranks and wants … namely, reading, writing, and accounts”.

The Government Survey

For a hundred years, the hands of the British Government were full with the problems of military conquest and revenue system. But for the consolidation of their power, they had to turn to other more intangible aspects of the country’s life. Education, so important an Institution, could not be left out of their vigilant attention. The Raj made a thorough study of the prevailing indigenous educational system before introducing its own. Surveys were made in the Bombay Presidency (1820-1830), and the Madras Presidency (1823-1826). A limited, semi-official survey was also made in the Presidency of Bengal ten years later by W. Adam, an excommunicated Baptist missionary, and the findings were published in 1835 in A Report on the State of Education in Bengal. [His first Report was followed by two more, published in 1836 and 1838.] When Punjab was annexed in 1849, the British Government had already developed its Educational policy which it put into operation immediately in this region. G.W. Leitner, Principal of Government College, Lahore, and for some time also the Director of Public Instruction, Punjab, made his own investigations and published his Report in 1883.

Adam’s Reports on Bengal became celebrated and saw several reprints, the last in 1983 with a scholarly introduction by Joseph Dibona, the Associate Professor of Education at the Duke University, Durham.1 Leitner’s Report on Punjab, which has been unavailable for decades, has also been reprinted in 1971 by the Languages Department, Punjab.2 Madras data was the most comprehensive but it never came out in print though its conclusions were known and were referred to by several authorities in several occasions. Dharampal has collected this data on its fullness and published it for the first time. With a long, illuminating introduction, and with many appendices including long portion from Adam’s Reports and Leitner’s History, his The Beautiful Tree may be considered as the single, most comprehensive document in the subject.3

It turned out that what the Government undertook was not a sample survey but a veritable census. The Madras study and Adam’s study of the Thana of the Nattore in the Rajashahy District of Bengal counted every school, scholar and teacher. These reports described the mode of instruction. They touched many points: curriculum, text-books, the hours of coaching, the tuition fees, the financial support of the system. They also contained information regarding the state of the female education; they collected the caste-composition of the scholars and the teachers and also their religious and linguistic affiliations. In this way, these reports, besides throwing light on the educational state of the period, became a mine of information on many sociological facts.

The Mode of Instruction

There were certain characteristic features of the Hindu mode of instruction. Reading and writing were combined. As a pupil spoke aloud a letter, he also wrote it with his finger on the ground in sand. When he had acquired a little proficiency, he could use an iron style or reed or some other instrument to write on a palm-leaf or plantain-leaf. Wooden-boards and brazen-plates were also used. The writing could be effaced with a wet cloth, and boards and slates used again for writing upon. The method was economical.

The very first lessons which taught a knowledge of letters also provided moral and religious instruction. A letter was learnt by referring to a word beginning with that letter, then by a verse which was also a moral maxim, in order to impress it better in the memory. For example the letter ‘k’ stood for kubrâ (hump-backed), and it was accompanied by the verse: kakkâ kar kartâ kî pûjâ, wahî nirañjan aur na dûjâ (worship the Creator; He is pure and He has no second). Again, the alphabet ‘d’ was accompanied by this verse; dosh na dîje kâhû; dosh karam apne kâ (do not attribute your failure to others; attribute it to your own destiny). G.W. Leitner gives a whole list of these verses for all the letters. Thus the very first lessons which taught knowledge of the alphabets also provided moral and religious instruction.

There was also another feature of this mode of learning: the pupils learnt in groups of four or five, generally led by a more advanced student. Describing the method, A.D. Campbell, Collector of Bellary, says: “The economy with which children are taught to write in the native schools, and the system by which the more advanced scholars are caused to teach the less advanced, and at the same time to confirm their own knowledge is certainly admirable, and well deserves the imitation it has received in England.” This refers to the well known fact that some of the features of the Indian indigenous education were borrowed by Europe.4

Grass-roots Schools-system

Even though already much decayed when the British undertook the survey, the remains indicated an immense edifice which had its foundations deep in the culture of the country and had penetrated every village. W. Adam’s Report of 1835 showed that in the then states of Bengal and Bihar, there were 100,000 indigenous elementary schools, or one school for every 31 or 32 boys of school-going age, as the author calculated. The Madras Report which was the most comprehensive showed that there were 12,498 schools containing 188,650 scholars. During the same period, schools of a similar nature were found scattered throughout the Bombay Presidency too. Leitner found that 8000 pupils still received their education in the indigenous schools of Punjab in spite or “the 26 years of repressive education of the Educational Department”,

The data shows that the female education was very much neglected though it was not altogether absent. Certain regions like Malabar and Joypoor in Vizagapatam made a better showing then other areas. In these regions, we also find that the Shudras did better in the matter of female education than the upper class Hindus including the Brahmins. In the Punjab, according to Leitner, “female education is to be met in all parts”. According to him, the Punjabi woman has not only been “always more or less educated herself, but she has been an educator of others”. He tells us that even before the annexation of the Punjab, six public schools for girls in Delhi were kept by Punjabi women.

The Reports also show that besides the system of public education, there was also widespread private coaching. The Collector of Canara wrote, that whatever education was there in his district was “entirely private”. In Madras, the number of pupils taught privately at home was considered to be “above five times greater than that taught in the schools”, according to Sir Thomas Munro, Governor of Madras Presidency. In Malabar District, 1,094 Hindu students of advanced learning, were being coached privately, while only 75 attended the only one public institution financed by the impoverished Raja. The Collector narrates the pathetic story of this ancient institution, first destroyed by the Muslims in 966, and later on ruined by being denied its revenues by the British. According to Adam, in the Nattore Thana, while only 659 pupils were taught in any kind of public schools, 2,382 were taught at home.

Private coaching including self-education remained an important part of the Indian scene. Edward Thompson writing in the 1930’s says: “There are in India poor folk who never went to any sort of school who have learnt to read. . . There must be more literacy in the sense of reading the vernaculars, than the numbers in schools indicate, or else how every Bengal bazaar swarms with these frightfully printed (but cheap) texts of Ramprasad, Chandidas, Krittibas’s Ramayana (before the War, according to Dinesh Sen, two hundred thousand sold every year). . . Sarat Chatterjee told me that in 1921 the twelve annas edition of his fiction had brought him in twelve thousand rupees in royalties, which I estimate to be on a sale of two hundred thousand.”

Higher Education

There was also a well-developed system of specialized education and higher learning.

According to the Survey of Indigenous Education in the Province of Bombay (1820-30), there were 16 schools of higher learning in Ahmednagar; and in Poona there was as many 164 such schools out of a total of 222 educational institutions of all description.

Madras Presidency reported 1,101 schools (with 5431 students) of higher learning, Rajahmundry heading the list with 279 such schools. Trichnopoly had 173, Nellore 137 and Tanjore 109. These taught 5,431 scholars who learnt here, according to their specialization, the Vedas, or Law, or Astronomy, or Poetics, or Music, etc.

Hamilton said in 1801 that within the limits of the 24Parganas, beyond the limits of Calcutta, there were 190 seminaries, all indigenously maintained where Hindu Law, Grammar and Metaphysics were taught. Ward, who wrote in 1818, enumerated 28 institutions of higher learning in the city of Calcutta alone where Nyâya and Smriti Shâstras were taught. There was well organized instruction in the Indian system of medicine and inoculation against small-pox was also taught.

Adam gives much data on the subject. According to his Report, in the Thana of Nattore in the District of Rajashahy alone, there were 38 higher schools of learning with 379 scholars, of whom 261 came from distant places. We have the same story from another corner in India, namely the Punjab. Leitner’s Report says: “The Vedas were, comparatively speaking, little taught in the Punjab in Ranjit Singh’s time, the teachers chiefly coming from the Dekkan”; but, he adds that in Sanskrit and in Grammar, “Punjab Learning was proverbial throughout India, whilst Punjabi Pandits also excelled in Niaya (Logic), Mimansa, the Dharmshastras, Vedant and Sankhya (six Shastras), Patidhant and Siddhant (Astronomy)”.


The subjects taught in these schools of higher learning were the Vedas, SâMkhya (Philosophy), the Six DarSanas, Law, Logic, Poetics, Grammar, Astrology and Astronomy, and Medicine. Fra Paolino Da Bartolomeo, describing education in Malabar also mentions the following subjects: Chess (ciudarangam), fencing (payatta), Navigation (naushantra) and the use of the spear on foot (hastiludiun). Another interesting subject taught was silence or mauna. Yes, mauna too has to be taught and it is as important a subject as any other. We learn from Leitner’s Report that Ranjit Singh also gave grants to architects and gun-makers. It is not clear whether the grants were personal or meant for teaching their arts to other deserving students.

The Pandits

Adam praises the teachers for their learning which was equalled only by their modesty. He found them “not only unpretending but also plain and simple”. Though “adepts in the subtleties of the profoundest grammar” of a language “probably the most philosophical”, and masters of logic, ethical philosophy and of their national laws, they were “discriminating and mild”. He found in them “no abjectness to a supposed or official superior”. They praised other Pandits for their learning, generally in their absence, rather than themselves. Let us salute their memory. What was said about the country’s cotton-weavers could as justly be said about its teachers and Acharyas – their bones are bleaching the plains of the country.


The Collector of Bellary District reports that “the three books which are most common in all the schools, and which are used indiscriminately by all the several castes, are the Ramayana Mahabharata, and Bhagvata”. Thus contrary to the current notion, the highest ethical and spiritual literature of the Hindus was open to all irrespective of their caste. Very much unlike the West, where the Bible remained unread and even a prohibited reading for many, many centuries; and, in fact, many times its translators into vernacular were burned at the stake – till the triumph of Protestantism, which gave birth to an opposite movement called bibliolatry.

F.W. Robertson, Collector of Rajahmundry District, names 66 text books including the Ramayana, various Shutcums (Krishn Shutcum, Suryanarayan Shutcum, Jankeya Shutcum, Narayan Shutcum), and various Charitums (like Vamana Charitum, Mala Charitum, etc.). Some text-books, like the Visvakaram-Purana, were special to the manufacturing classes. Adam names 29 text-books taught in elementary schools in Bengal, and 120 books taught in higher Institutes. These related to such subjects as Grammar (20), General Literature (11), Law (17), Vedanta (4), Logic (31), Astronomy and Astrology (19), Medicine (4), etc.

In his Report on the Punjab, Leitner names hundreds of textbooks – Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic and Gurmukhi – taught in Hindu and Muhammadan schools of different grades in the Punjab. For example, text-books taught to Sikh students of Gurmukhi schools are divided into two sections: those taught to the beginners and those taught to advanced students. To the first section belonged Balopdesha, Panj Granthi, Janam Sakhi, the tenth Guru’s Panj Ekadash, Bhagvat, Tulsi Ramayana, Vishnu Purana, Pingal (10 parts), Ashwa Medha, Adhyatma Ramayana, Vichara Sagar, Moksha Pantha, Surya Prakash, the sixth Guru’s Guru Vilas, Vashishtha Purana, and Daswan Askandha.

Education Open to All

There is a popular notion that education in India was monopolized by the Brahmins; but the data destroys this myth completely. This interested lie was first spread by the missionaries and the British rulers and the colonized mind of many Indian intellectuals still continue to sing their tune. But the data reveals a different story. It tells us that out of the total number of 175,089 students, both male and female, elementary and advanced, only 42,502 were Brahmins (24.25%); 19,669 were Vaishya students (about 11%); but 85,400 were Shudras (about 48.8%); and still 27.516 more were “all other castes”, meaning castes even lower than the Shudras including the pariahs (15.7%). Thus the higher castes were only about 35% and the Shudras and other castes were about 65% of the total Hindu students. If we also include the Muslims who were about 7% of the total Hindu and Muslim students, then the share of the Brahmins was even less.

We have a table showing the caste-wise division of all male school students, both in absolute numbers and in percentage, of all the 20 districts of Madras Presidency. The data shows that the share of the Brahmins in certain areas was indeed very low. For example, in Seringapatam, it was only 7.83% in Madura 8.67%; in North Arcot, Brahmin boys were 9.57%, while the Shudras and “other castes” were 84.46%.

Even in higher learning, non-Brahmins were not unrepresented. In Malabar, out of 1,588 scholars of Theology, Law, Astronomy, Metaphysics, Ethics and Medical Science, only 639 were Brahmins, 23 Vaishyas, 254 Shudras and 672 “other castes”. Only in the Vedas and Theology did the Brahmins have a near-monopoly, as the Shudras and the “other castes” had in other branches of advanced learning like Astro-nomy and Medical Science. In Astronomy, out of a total of 806 scholars, Brahmins were only 78, Vaishyas 23, Shudras 195, and other lower castes 510. In Medical Science, the share of the Brahmin scholars was only 31 out of a total of 190. The rest belonged to the Shudras and “other castes”.

According to the Survey of Indigenous Education in the Province of Bombay (1820-1830), Brahmins constituted only 30% of the total scholars in that province.

Adam tells the same story about Bengal and Bihar. In the five districts he investigated, the total number of Hindu students was 22,957. Out of these 5,744 were Brahmins, or about 25%. Kayasthas were about 12%. Students belonging to 95 castes find representation in his Report. It includes 66 ChanDals, 20 Muchis, 84 Doms, 102 Kahars, and 615 Kurmis.

In spite of the claims of the missionaries, they did no better for the Hindu low-castes. According to Adam’s findings, Burdwan had 13 missionary schools, yet they had only 1 ChanDal student while the native schools had 60. The former had only 3 Doms and no Muchis while the latter had 58 and 16 respectively. Of the 760 pupils belonging to the lowest 16 castes, “only 86 were found in the missionary schools, and the remaining number in native schools”.

As teachers, the Brahmins were even less represented. Out of a total of 2,261 teachers in these districts, Brahmins were only 208, or about 11%. In this region Kayasthas were the teachers par excellence. They were 1,019 in number, or a little less than half the total. Other teachers belonged to other 32 castes. ChanDals had six, Goalas had five, Telis had eleven; while Rajputs had only two, and Chhatri and Kshetriya taken together had only three.


It will not be out of place here to compare the state of instruction in India at this period with the one prevalent in the West, and particularly in England, the country with which we have better acquaintance. The West was at this time acquiring monasteries and new-style universities which were gaining fame for teaching theology, but it still had no national system of elementary education for instructing its younger ones.

In England, the attempt to introduce any semblance of wider instruction was first made in mid-fifties in the nineteenth century under factory laws. But the legislation “provided nothing more than that the children shall on certain days of the week, and for a certain number of hours (three) in each day, be inclosed within the four walls of a place called a school, and that the employer of the child shall receive weekly a certificate to that effect signed by a person designated by the subscriber as a schoolmaster or schoolmistress” (Report of the Inspector of Factories, Parliamentary Papers, June 30, 1857).

The level of literacy of these teachers was such that many of them signed the certificate of attendance at school with a cross. As a result, an Act had to be passed in 1844 which required that the “figures in the school certificate must be filled up in the handwriting of the schoolmaster, who must also sign his Christian and surname in full”. But that did not improve matters very much. Sir John Kincaid, Factory Inspector for Scotland, tells us how a school teacher, one Mrs. Ann Killin, spelled her name sometimes with letter C, sometimes with K and in various other ways. He also tells us of a “schoolroom 15 feet long, and 10 feet wide, and counted in this space 75 children, who were gabbling something unintelligible” (Parliamentary Papers, 31st October 1858) About the “cultural” acquirements of these scholars, one may read Karl Marx (Das Capital, Part III, Chapter 10, Section 4), who quotes extensively from the Children’s Employment Commission Report.

Punishment in India under the indigenous system of education was mild. Even in the Punjab region where it was more common, it consisted in making a student stand in a corner, or making him pull his own ears by passing his hands through his knees; or making him sit down and stand up for a number of times; or disallowing him to leave the class-room during the meal time. There were no fines. On the other hand, teachers in England were sadists – at least, this is what the English accounts of the period tell us. For example, Charles Dickens in his Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39) describes these schools and their teachers, particularly in Yorkshire. He says that these “schoolmasters, as a race, were the blockheads and impostures”; that, they “were the lowest and most rotten in the whole ladder”; that they were “ignorant, sordid, brutal men, to whom few considerate men would have entrusted the board and lodging of a horse or dog”. He said that these schools were opened by “any man who had proved his unfitness for any other occupation in life”.

Sanction in Hinduism

The Indian national education system was no freak. It was grounded in Hindu culture and its system of local self-government. Ludlow’s British India says that “in every Hindu village which has retained anything of its form … the rudiments of knowledge are sought to be imparted; there is not a child… who is not able to read, to write, to cipher; in the last branch of learning they are confessedly most proficient”. The same source says at another place that “where the village system has been swept away by us, as in Bengal, there the school system has equally disappeared”. Leitner quotes a report of a British Inspector of Schools in the Punjab which too brings out the intimate link between indigenous educational system and it underlying system of ideas and polity. It says: “The indigenous education of India was founded on the sanction of the Shastras, which elevated into religious duties and conferred dignity on the commonest transactions of every-day life. The existence of village communities, which left not only their municipal, but also in part their revenue and judicial administrations, in the hands of the people themselves, greatly helped to spread education among all the different members of the community.”

British Hostility

The new rulers were understandably hostile to the indigenous system. As soon as the British took over the Punjab, the Education Report of 1858 says: “A village school left to itself is not an institution which we have any great interest in maintaining.”

This hostility arose partly from a lack of imagination. To the new rulers, brought up so differently, a school was no school if it did not teach English. To such preponderant elements among them, the answer of a rare and imaginative administrator like Leitner was this: “If a collegium held, according to Hindu tradition, in the teacher’s own house, is not a school; if to read and write Gurmukhi and thenaharas is not to know the three or any r’s, then, of course, all discussion is at an end… When, however, by school is meant an indigenous school; by a knowledge of reading and writing that of the indigenous characters; by learning or science, oriental learning and science, then indeed was education far extended when we took the Punjab than it is at present.” To these who despised an indigenous school because it taught a small number of students, he answered: “If the Lahore Government College could be called a college when it had only four students, there is no reason why an indigenous school should not be called a school when it has less than ten students.”

Financial Support

The teacher of an indigenous school was an idealist, but the system itself was founded on realistic public financial support. Schools were supported by the grant of rent-free lands and monetary assignments. During the British rule, this support was withheld or drastically curtailed. The data for rent-free lands to support local needs like the police, the temples, the education has not been fully worked out but that this portion was very large is beyond doubt. Dharampal shows that it was sometimes as large as 35% of the total land, and sometimes even 50%. Leitner gives the names of many hundreds of scholars who were endowed with such lands but whose grants were terminated and as a result of which the institutions they ran so well died down within a generation. The Collector of Bellary District wrote: “There is no doubt that in former times especially under the Hindu Government very large grants both in money and in land were issued for the sake of learning.”

When the British started studying indigenous education, they had already been in control of the territory for over fifty years; and during these years much harm had already been done. The land grants were already stopped or curtailed. There was a general breakdown in the economy at large. The old classes which supported local institutions were impoverished. These and other causes combined to bring about a fast deterioration is the educational condition. Adam mentions many specific villages in Nattore Thana which at the time of investigation had only two schools where there had been once ten or eleven schools in living memory. The decay was fast.

Increasing Illiteracy

No doubt, indigenous education decayed and illiteracy increased during the British period. According to Sir Henry Lawrence, there was one school for every 1783 inhabitants of the most backward division of the Punjab at the time of annexation. But thirty years later in 1881, “there is one school of whatever sort, to every 9,028 inhabitants”, according the President of the Educational Commission.

Adam estimated that there was 11% literacy in the Thana of Nattore during 1830s. “A century later the British considered this an accomplishment in many parts of India,” says Joseph DiBona, the author of One Teacher, One School. This is the charge which Mahatma Gandhi also brought against the British when he said in 1931 that “today India is more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago”. He charged that the British destroyed “the Beautiful Tree”, an epithet he used to describe old Indian indigenous education and which Dharampal has also borrowed from him to provide the title to his book on the subject.

Indigenous education served local needs, both economic and cultural and religious. Under the British, it was divorced from both. For example, one Government report says: “If a boy learns arithmetic in our schools, he is of little use for the shop, because he finds there a different system of accounts, and the meanest Banya can cast up the intricacies of the grain-trade accounts by a mental process far more rapidly than if he had taken honours in Mathematics at the Calcuttta University.”

Under the indigenous system, primary education was imparted in the local language. But the British Government introduced Urdu as the medium of instruction over a large territory of North India. This “practically excluded from primary instruction” the whole Hindu priestly class, the artisans and the agricultural classes, according to the testimony of the Brahmo Samaj. The common men and women wanted to learn to read in order to be able to study the Ramayana and other religious books which were available in their own language. But Urdu which was foreign to them did not help them in that direction. It was meant to make students munshis which was not their aim.

Cultural Self-alienation

While teaching a boy three r’s, indigenous education also familiarized him with the nation’s epics, religion and literature. This did not suit the white rulers and missionaries. So they put forward the principles of “secularism” and ‘religious neutrality’ – principles which continue to be pleaded even today by our brown sahibs with equal duplicity and equal harm to the deeper life of the nation. Pleading these convenient principles, the then Inspector of a provincial schools reported: “I directed the disuse of all books of a religious character in the schools.” The Ramayana and the other great indigenous literature still continue to be on the Index of the so-called indigenous Government thirty-six years after independence.

Thus the nation’s accumulated riches were denied to the new generations and they grew in self-forgetfulness of their rich heritage. The nation’s sciences, philosophies, religion and literature were taken out of the life of the growing generations and these merely became the topics or subjects of Indology.’

Under the indigenous system, the Hindu schools were closed on Poornima of every month and on other Hindu festivals. Under the new dispensation, Sunday became the new holiday. Thus we were cut off from our calendar too with which so much else in our history and religious discipline and observances is also connected. In due course, came into being a class of Macaulay’s dream, a class oblivious of its roots, a class of cultural barbarians, a class Indian in blood and colour but European and missionary in its contempt of everything Indian in general and Hindu in particular.

Deep down, the issue was not English language, or higher learning of the West or modern sciences. Hindu culture had a rich tradition of secular learning and it could easily imbibe whatever the West had to offer. In fact, it could even make its own contribution to the pool and perhaps help in taming the aggressive urges of modern sciences. The problem was deeper. It had to do with a pattern of self-forgetfulness and self-alienation that was imposed on the country. And we were so thoroughly brainwashed that we now delight in it. The imperialist-missionary policies of the British have now become the political religion of our own neo-intellectuals and administrators. The attack still continues under the guise of “Tradition versus Modernity”.

~ Ram Swarup, Author


1 One Teacher, One School: The Adam Reports on Indigenous Education in 19th Century India, by Joseph DiBona, Biblia Impex Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi.

2 History of Indigenous Education in the Punjab since Annexation and in 1882, by G.W. Leitner, 1883, Reprinted by Languages Department, Punjab, Patiala, 1971.

3 The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century, by Dharampal (Biblia Impex Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi).

4 The Indian system of education was so economical, so effective that some of its features were exported to England and Europe. The “monitor”, the “slate”, the “group-study” were directly borrowed from the old Indian practice. A short account of this practice is available from an eye-witness report of a European named Pietro Della Valle published in 1623. But 200 years later, around 1800, two Britons, Dr. Bell and Mr. Lancaster, who were servants of the East India Company, introduced in England a “New System of Schooling”, embodying Indian practices of teaching. Both claimed originality for themselves. In the controversy that ensued, it was found that both had borrowed from India without acknowledgment, of course. In this connection we have the testimony of Brigadier-General Alexander Walker who served in the East India Company from 1780 to 1810. While reporting on teaching methods in Malabar, he says that the new British “system was borrowed from the Brahmans and brought from India to Europe. It has been made the foundation of the National Schools in every enlightened country. Some gratitude is due to a people from who we have learnt to diffuse among the lower ranks of society instructions by one of the most unerring and economical methods which has ever been invented”. According to him, by this method, “the children are instructed without violence, and by a process peculiarly simple”.



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8 Responses to "Education system in ancient India before the British Raj"

  1. suryanarayana. k  March 11, 2015 at 11:47 am

    Very informative. Such historical data from the texts should be passed on to the children as a part of their curriculum.

  2. deo garib  November 26, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    Our past destroyed by Islamic invaders, ”You live by the Sword, you die by the sword. Look around now and you will see it., Yes they say religion of PEACE, There is peace after death.

  3. Ud Charan  December 16, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    There Are More And Morr People Out There,Who Don’t Understand English…..If You Write In Hindi…They Will Be Thankful To You.

  4. Golconda Chayadevi  December 17, 2015 at 9:02 am

    Ram Swarup ji, namaskar, you made me look at myself through a lens which I never viewed. as a teacher and a Research Scholar, I intend to learn and teach in the way I am taught in my convent, I teach based on the bibliography I depend on but today it’s time for a compleat shift, my perception of learning and teaching has changed at a core. Empirical study with my practical knowledge seems insufficient to update my teaching skills, this is what I felt after reading the article. Information is abundance in a nutshell and thanks for all you have given;.Indian culture, tradition, knowledge is not confined to a religion but in totality, it’s wholesome in ‘knowing the life’ and as well ‘doing the life’.

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  8. N A Nayar  June 28, 2016 at 1:08 am

    First times we get these kind of information,very very important,informative,should be known all Indians. Please pass then formation to Mrs Smruti Irani, and Govt.,Many many thanks.


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