There is a general misconception among people that the so-called non-brahmins long ago were denied education and literacy by brahmins. Moreover, people think, albeit wrongly, that since brahmins acquired the knowledge in the Vedas and other subjects, only brahmins could have appreciated the real need for it.
The above is not true at all as illustrated by the following example of a farmer named Pala Ram. Note that the main reason for some people to not send their children for education in schools (including in gurukuls long ago) was to keep them at home so that they would follow their own family vocation (in farming and carpentry etc.) from their parents directly and without interruption. This was basically to ensure an easy and quick transfer of tradition, vocation and business from parents to their children, instead of having the children spend a long and difficult time getting into a new brahmin-like education and profession which did not promise higher monetary gains anyway, not more than those arising from their own family vocations. Thus it seems the choice in not educating kids was basically with the parents (whatever their vocations) and not others (brahmins etc.).
There were several instances and examples involving parents and children — belonging to the category or caste of non-brahmins who were also quite poor and uneducated (e.g. Satyakama et al.) — who realized the need for education and pursued it successfully without facing much opposition from others. Strictly speaking, the searchers of knowledge were inspired more by the need and appreciation for learning and education in their personal and immediate life (involving perhaps their family, friends and surroundings etc.) and probably less because of their caste label (as brahmin etc.).
Coming back to Pala Ram, he was an illiterate and poor farmer (belonging to a non-brahmin caste), living in my village Ansoli during 1950s when I was still a student in Middle School (grade 5 to grade 8). Pala and his wife had several (perhaps three or four) young daughters and no son. They owned a small piece of land in the village which was not enough to support a family. To make ends meet, Pala ran a small tea-stall by the roadside.
In spite of being uneducated and not rich at all, Pala had a desire to get his daughters educated and have them land good jobs afterwards. Unfortunately, it was not an easy task since there was no school in the village and it was hard for any parent to send his young kids (especially girls) to a school in another village, several kilometers away. Thus Pala must have felt that his dream of getting his daughters educated would probably remain unfulfilled because of lack of educational facilities in the village. Education-wise, the situation in my village was quite hopeless anyway during 1950s — majority of people there were totally illiterate, and I, even though still in grade 6th or 7th then, was already reading and writing letters for others (including some housewives whose husbands were away in the army etc.).
It seems even during these unfavorable circumstances Pala had been waiting for a right opportunity to come along so that he could get his kids educated. Thus, when my father Jagannath decided to approach the government during 1950s to open a primary school for kids in our village, Pala immediately came forward to support him in this venture. He did this in spite of an enormous opposition to the school idea from most of the villagers who thought that a school in our village was a bad idea and a serious threat to the village life and culture. They reasoned that sending their sons and daughters to school for education would spoil them and render them ‘useless’ because they would not be able to do any hard and tough physical work in the fields and at home afterwards. Moreover, they thought that their ’educated’ daughters would not be able to find guys and in-laws willing and ready to marry them.
Needless to say, because of the confusion and opposition to the school idea at home from fellow villagers and the slow action and decision making by the government officials, there was a considerable delay and struggle in getting the school sanctioned. Thus, after several years of trying by my father and others, a primary school for boys and girls in our village was finally approved by the government in 1950s.
To make sure that government did not reverse its decision regarding the school because of pressure and complaints from opponents of school in our village etc., my father insisted on starting the classes immediately even before there was a school building. To make this possible, he emptied a part of our house and gave it rent free to school authorities so that they could hold classes there for children until the school building would be ready elsewhere in a few years. The government officials agreed to his offer and started the school classes in our house by sending a teacher from their education department.
Soon after that, the planning etc. for the construction of a new building for school was commenced. Unfortunately, completion of school building took close to four or five years due to land and other issues, which included some villagers (mostly farmers etc.) opposed to a school in the village and not in favor of education for their children flooding the construction site with water and bringing down the almost completed building. The whole thing had to be rebuilt all over again starting from the foundation.
Incidentally, people who originally were against the school idea and education for their children had their kids and grandkids later qualify as the OBCs etc. for caste based quotas and reservations in education and jobs, which continue to this day. Moreover, some of these people (opposed to education originally) and their descendents, as well as some politicians, might proclaim now, albeit wrongly, that quotas and reservations in education and jobs on the basis of caste (for OBCs etc. only) were a good idea and must continue in future because others in the past (non-OBCs — brahmins etc.) had deprived and discouraged them (OBCs etc.) in getting education. How ironical considering that the reluctance and opposition to education for such children (boys and girls belonging to families engaged in farming, wood working and other manual vocations) in the past would not generally come from outsiders (brahmins etc.) but it came mostly from their own parents and families who wanted their kids to stay engaged in their own family vocation / business, even take over it quickly, without losing time and resources in getting ‘educated’ unnecessarily.
In any case, in spite of the controversies, troubles, struggles and delays in getting the school authorized and constructed, Pala Ram supported the idea of a school for our village and assisted my father throughout in getting it. Incidentally, when the classes started in our house immediately after the school was authorized by government, Pala was among the first to enroll his daughter in grade 1. Soon afterwards there were other parents (including from scheduled castes or ‘dalit’ families), from Ansoli and nearby villages, who enrolled their kids in the new school which had just started classes in our house.
Happily, Pala Ram’s faith in education for kids proved right. Several of his daughters, who got their primary education in school in their own village, went on to become school teachers etc. after pursuing higher (post-primary) education elsewhere.
~ Dr. Subhash C. Sharma