What is Vedic Education?

The Vedas, meaning knowledge in Sanskrit, are the oldest known Sanskrit scriptures. They are a body of texts attributed to ancient sages or rishis. In the epic Mahabharata, their creation is said to be the work of Brahma (the god of creation).

The Vedas were usually taught at gurukuls. Gurukul was a residential schooling system popular in ancient India. At the gurukul, all were considered equal. The guru (teacher) and shishya (students) lived in the same house or near each other. This relationship was considered sacred and no fee was taken from the students. Students typically attended the gurukul from age of 8 into their early twenties. At the end of their education, each student offered a gurudakshina, a token or mark of respect to the teacher. It was usually money or a special task that the teacher required. The gurukul was otherwise supported by public donations.

Before the British rule, gurukuls were the preferred form of education in India. During colonial times, the British imported their centralized system of industrial-era education while systematically de-emphasising Vedic education. However, lately this ancient form of education is seeing renewed interest.

Relevance of Vedic Education in 21st Century

Dayananda Saraswati, the founder of Arya Samaj and Swami Shraddhanand, were the pioneers of the modern gurukul system, who in 1886 founded now-widespread Dayanand Anglo-Vedic Public Schools and Universities.

In 1948, Shastriji Maharaj Dharamjivan Das Swami followed suit and initiated first Swaminarayan Gurukul in Rajkot in Gujarat. Recently, several gurukuls have opened up to retrace the roots of Indian culture. This urge is being driven by the government, academics and parents.

Simplicity of living, a strict schedule and respect for the teacher are principles emphasized at a gurukul. Equality and independence is impressed upon the students by having all of them clean and pick up after themselves. Spirituality is impressed upon the students through prayer, yoga and meditation. In today’s competitive world, this can help children reduce stress and anxiety. Vedic education is more than just an education system, it is a way of living. This focus on all-round personality development is an attractive aspect of Vedic education.

Aims of Vedic Education

Vedic Education is not the same as religious education. Before the British arrival and decline of Vedic Education, India was ruled by the Mughals (Muslims by religion). The system existed and flourished even under their rule over 3 centuries. It points to the religious neutrality of the system. The aspect of peer learning was even praised by the British Governor of Bengal (comprised of modern day Bangladesh, West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, and North East India). According to historian and author, Mr. A.S. Altekar, the aims of Vedic education are as under:

Personality Development

In Vedic education, one’s personality was developed through self realization and self respect. The end goal was to build self awareness ie. knowing oneself intimately. Good judgement had to be developed through practice. Daily tasks focused on physical, mental, and emotional development. Students built their personalities in a multi dimensional manner.

Character Formation

Ancient Indians did not believe that intellect alone was important. Morality was equally necessary. Learning divided from morality was considered useless. Vedic education helped form character by encouraging a simple life. Students were Brahmachari (celibate) as long as they were learning. Their lives ran according to a strict schedule. Pleasures, comforts and luxuries were seen as unnecessary. Plain food, good behaviour and high ideals were encouraged. The gurus did not only teach the students but watched over their moral behaviour as well.

Performance of Civic and Social Duties

The students’ responsibility to society was made clear. In the gurukul, they all lived as equals, and participated in all jobs. Their daily tasks involved cleaning and keeping their residence in liveable conditions. Their duty to the world outside their walls was also of great importance. They were made aware of the importance of being good spouses and parents. Their wealth was not to be used for their own wants, but for the good of society. They were also taught to honor the codes of whatever professions they may choose.

Practical Education

Vedic education was not based solely on learning out of books. Hands on training in professions that interested the students was encouraged. They were taught the dignity of manual labour and the value of having a vocational training. Vocations included weaving, pottery and a number of other arts and professions.

Preservation and Spread of Culture

A large part of the vedas is dedicated to traditions, cultures and rituals. Preservation of the literary and cultural traditions was necessary. Education was seen as the means to pass traditions to the next generation. Hence, the students were taught that they owed three debts — to the gods, to the past gurus, and to their ancestors. The students learned to serve the gods, which paid the first debt. The second was paid by learning the teachings of past intellectuals. The third debt to the ancestors was paid by raising children and educating them. Thus, all the traditions were preserved and passed on.

Achieving Enlightenment

While education was used to make students productive members of society, it had a spiritual element to it. Prayers and rituals were performed both daily and at important milestones such as birth, marriage, and death. This was done to teach each student the importance of the non-physical world. The aim was to lay an equal emphasis on body and soul.

Learning Process

Eligibility and Admission

Eligibility was not based on gender in Vedic times. Men and women alike studied the Vedas. There are records of several scholarly women and even women sages (rishikas). There is some evidence that the Shudra caste (untouchables) was not allowed to study. While teachers were usually of the Brahmin caste, students could be Brahmin, Kshatriya or Vaishya.

Students were eligible once they underwent the upanayana or sacred thread ceremony. The child underwent this ceremony between the ages of 8 to 12. Studies usually went on for 12 years.

Curriculum

  1. The Vedas — There are four Vedas — The Rigveda, the Yajurveda, the Samaveda and the Atharvaveda. These are classified as Samhitas, or mantras and benedictions.
  2. The Aranyakas and Brahmanas — the Aranyakas are the text on rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices. The Brahmanas comment on those rituals.
  3. Upanishads — These texts discuss meditation, philosophy and the spiritual world.
  4. Vedangas — These consist of six areas of study: Phonetics, ritualistic knowledge, grammar, exegetics (the science of interpretation), metrics and astronomy.

Methods of Teaching

  1. Memorization — Learning the sacred texts by heart is an essential step in studying the Vedas. Repetition and recitation by the teacher and students was important.
  2. Introspection — This has three steps. The first is Sravana, which means listening to texts recited by the teacher. This is how the student absorbs the teacher’s knowledge. The second is Manana, which involves deliberation and reflection. The student what has been taught and what they can learn from it. The third step is Nididhyasana, or meditation. This is the step through which truth is realized and attained.
  3. Critical Analysis — The students are taught to think critically and come to their own conclusions. Students may even disagree with their teachers and bring them around to their way of thinking.
  4. Hands-on Learning — Learning by doing was encouraged, especially as many students went into trades later. In areas such as medicine, observation and practice was necessary.
  5. Seminars — Debates and discussions were held often. Students could discuss topics of interest and put their views forward.

Higher Studies

While some students went to their trades or professions, many continued to learn. Institutions known as Parishads were places of higher learning. Advanced students gathered there to learn through discussion and discourse. Three Brahmins conducted these sessions. Eventually that increased to 21 Brahmins learned in theology and philosophy. In today’s world, they would be considered equal to colleges.

Scholars would continue learning through their life by attending Sammelans (gatherings). These were discussions and competitions in which some of the most learned people in the country participated. They were often presided over by kings, who invited the scholars.

Modern Efforts for Vedic Education

Private Efforts

People around India have taken on the effort to bring back the philosophies of Vedic education. Privately funded gurukuls have sprung up around the country. They are often run by religious trusts. They take in students on a residential basis. Spirituality and traditional values are of importance in these institutes. The accommodation and food are usually simple and basic, as they would be in Vedic times. Parents often pick these for children stressed by the burden of the modern educational system.

Om Shantidhama’s Vedic Gurukul Hemachandra Sanskrit Pathshala, in Bangalore’s Kanakpura district, is one of these. Started in 1997, it is run on donations and by charging fees for professionals classes. Students pay no fee for boarding, food and books. This gurukul combines Vedic education with modern day CBSE subjects to ensure the children get the best of both worlds. The Vedas are recited as given in the ancient texts. The students are encouraged to engage in yoga, meditation and physical activity.

Hemachandra Sanskrit Pathshala, another gurukul in Ahmedabad, was started by philanthropist Uttambai Shah. It is run by a Jain trust. The campus has many features from ancient times — cow dung plastered floors, organic food, and fresh milk from the cows that are bred nearby. The only concession made for electricity. This gurukul stresses more on the Vedic texts. Arts and sciences are taught according to methods outlined in the ancient texts. The gurukul offers no certification, though some students may get one from the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS). A similar setup has been started nearby for girls, by another Jain trust.

Maharashtra’s Kaneri district and Jodhpur in Rajasthan also have gurukuls run by religious trusts.

Government Efforts

As seen in the example above, gurukuls often do not offer certificates. This may result in problems for students who want to enter the formal employment system. To this end, the government has begun to make efforts for formal certification for such institutes.

As outlined here, Maharshi Sandipani Rashtriya Ved Vidya Pratishthan (MSRVVP), an independent organization in Ujjain, was set up to promote Vedic education. Around 450 organizations of traditional learning are currently affiliated with it. Despite holding exams, it does not have any formal authority. The Human Resources Development (HRD) Ministry hopes to change that. Recognizing traditional education starts with setting up a school board. The Ministry plans to do this by elevating the MSRVVP to a formal body. This body would not only certify and support gurukuls, but also come up with new kinds of schools. These schools may have Vedas and Sanskrit as majors and modern subjects as minors.

It is important to note that these plans are in the proposal stage as of 2017. Until these are formalized, Vedic education does not have any government recognized form of certification.

Concluding Thoughts

The Vedic system of education may be ancient, but it can still be relevant in today’s world. Unlike modern day education, it focuses on all-round development — physical, mental, and emotional. You may decide that a gurukul isn’t an option for your child, but can still instil these principles in them by supplementing their education with Vedic traditions.

While India might not return to Vedic education as the only form of education, it does represent a desirable option for some Indians. Introducing these philosophies as part of broader curriculum, or at home, or in extra-curriculars are viable alternatives. Enough has been discussed about the problems ailing the Indian Education system. Maybe a healthy balance of traditional Vedic system and modern education is a panacea that the Indian education system needs?