Sahana Singh takes us on a roller coaster ride in her book, The Educational Heritage of Ancient India — How an Ecosystem of Learning was Laid to Waste. The first half of the book feels like a soaring, exciting journey into India’s glorious past in which educational institutions flourished. The second half gives a sinking feeling as we learn how these temples of learning were systematically destroyed by successive reigns of Islamic rulers and colonists.
Singh has done a fabulous job in putting together this short book that one can finish reading in less than an hour. If you are thinking this is yet another attempt to bask in the past glory of India, while complaining about the present, you could not be more mistaken. On the contrary, the book puts fire in the belly of the reader to rise to an action to do his or her part of reclaiming the legacy of the educational heritage of ancient India. This reclaiming has to start with an acceptance of some bitter truths such as the brutality with which a death blow was inflicted on an entire ecosystem of learning that was carefully nurtured by devoted educators from Vedic times.
The book describes how the education ecosystem of ancient India was rooted in the principles of inclusion, excellence and holism. It was a system that had a collective commitment of all citizenry. There are details of funding procedures to run these institutions of higher learning where ruling kings and common people did their part in providing the resources needed. The accounts of Xuanzang have been used to establish that the ruling kings not only gave huge endowments in the form of buildings and lands but also devoted the revenues from 100 villages to meet the day-to-day needs of students and teachers of Nalanda University. Based on inscriptions found in southern India, the author establishes that educational institutions thrive in ancient India as people from all walks of life collectively committed themselves to the cause of learning.
Much evidence has been laid out to show how the system provided equal learning opportunities to those that were interested in abstract subjects such as philosophy at one end of the spectrum and practical subjects such as carpentry at the other end and every other subject in between. Students who were drawn to the fields of arts and crafts had a plethora of choices to choose from. The reference to Jatakas establishes that students got trained in 18 types of arts or Sippas. The ones who needed a more kinesthetic learning experience had a whole different array of disciplines to choose from — agricultural science, metallurgy, armour making, architecture, charioteering, stone working, leather working, carpentry, shipbuilding and rope-making. These ancient educational institutions provided top-notch instruction in the fields of mathematics, Ayurveda and astronomy. It is highlighted that education was as important for women as it was for men in ancient India. A whole chapter has been devoted to discussing the role of women in ancient Indian education.
The book provides overwhelming evidence that the erstwhile learning systems of India constantly strove to push the limits for both the students and teachers to achieve excellence. Students had to meet tough requirements to enter into and exit from these renowned universities such as Nalanda. The insistence on logic with clearly laid rules of dos and don’ts to hold debates and discussions mentioned in this book helps the reader get a taste of the rigorously high standards students needed to meet to achieve excellence.
The second half of the book shows the ugliness of the ignorant mind, which has always battled against the knowledge that can lead to liberation and well-being of individuals. This tendency to destroy knowledge centres of the enemy is not a new phenomenon. As the legend goes, even Lord Brahma was not spared the grief of temporarily losing the four Vedas to Hayagriva, the asura who stole the Vedas as he knew that the acquisition of knowledge would give humans an edge over demons. It is no surprise that successive reigns of Islamic and colonial usurpers targeted learning systems whose sole purpose was to impart education and knowledge. After all, the “original sin” of the first couple (Adam and Eve) according to Judeo–Islamic scripture is that the couple, which got tricked by the serpent disobeyed the Creator God and ate the “forbidden fruit” of knowledge. Therefore, this attack on the temples of learning of India by rulers of Judeo-Islamic origin has its origin in its deep-rooted prejudice against the “learned.” What Hayagriva had against the Vedas is what these Islam and Christian usurpers had against the institutions of higher learning in India and if the Asuras did not succeed, neither will the present day evil forces prevail. Those that bemoan this destruction need not despair as every dark cloud has a silver lining. While physical structures could be reduced to rubble, the light that emanated from knowledge imbibed over generations could not be completely extinguished.
The tiny fingers that were initiated into writing alphabets during the Hindu ceremony of Aksharabhyasa did not fail the eager learner. All that the curious minds needed was a pile of sand to doodle and continue their education when the invaders pillaged university buildings. Singh helps the reader to trace back the origin of the Indian society’s emphasis on education to the Vedic times. Knowing that Indians were naturally inclined to learning, the Muslim rulers set up madrasas to “educate” their subjects about Islam and soon after, colonial invaders followed their footsteps to set up convents to promote Christianity.
Today the biggest threat to Indian education system does not come from the obvious Asuras such as Hayagriva but from the wolves in sheep’s clothing. These wolves are working overtime to use this very education system to subvert the thinking of people in modern times.
There is a dedicated and relentless effort by certain sections of academia to misrepresent India at home and abroad. Even a sixth-grade social studies textbook in the United States is not spared from being used as an “educational” tool to subvert the truth. These devious forces make deliberate effort to create a false image of India as a land of myths and superstitions to scuttle the prospect of someone carrying on scientific inquiry into India’s ancient past. This happens even when there is overwhelming evidence that India’s ancient education system was not only comprehensive but also evolved. Many of the ancient buildings and temples that we find along the length and breadth of the country are a testament to that fact that people of ancient India were experts in many interdisciplinary fields such as engineering, architecture, mensuration, mathematics and astronomy.
However, due credit is not given to the educational heritage of India. For example, when it becomes unavoidable for history textbooks to make a mention of the some of the architectural wonders of India, scholars take care to mention only those monuments that are in some way or the other are attached either to the Muslim regime or to the colonial rule. Taj Mahal, which was built just 400 years ago, makes the cut to become synonymous with India and its identity without a fail in every history textbook of repute. In the eyes of these historians even, a magnificent Temples of Hampi built 1300 years ago is a less “wonder” than the Taj Mahal.
While these engineering and architectural wonders stand tall on Indian soil as a witness to the grandiosity of knowledge base of the Indian minds from ancient times, the petty minds that found a way into the “elite” circles are working tirelessly to undermine the greatness of India. The “English” educated elitists have been trained to adopt a flawed approach in understanding India’s educational heritage. When what is needed is an unbiased scientific inquiry to evaluate the engineering marvels in India, these pseudo-scholars dwell upon mythologies and epics that are associated with these engineering marvels to downplay the achievements of Indians from ancient times. The so-called scholarship is wasted, so as to say, to debunk the epics associated with these ancient monuments in India. Even if half the efforts of these pretenders is devoted to understanding the engineering and scientific methods used in the creation of these architectural marvels, our textbooks today would have done a better job than depicting India just as a land of caste divisions and cow worshippers.
Any sincere effort to look past the myths and distorted depictions of India and its people will answer the question as to why India fared well even after being ruled for 1400 years by barbaric invaders. India has not only survived these attacks but is also on a path to emerge as a force to reckon with in the international circles because of its expanding role in knowledge-based industries. Today India is the biggest exporter of manpower with superior intellectual skills and it is imperative that we do not succumb to “Stockholm syndrome” and wrongly credit our oppressors for our achievements.
India is at a threshold to change the flawed narrative that we owe all the advances we have made as a society to the British rule and the one before that. There is a small window of opportunity for the nationalist party that is in power to do its part in rewriting the history books in India. The pressing need today is to make the information that Singh has presented in her book a common knowledge so that all stakeholders who are working hard to put India back on track can do so without having to do deal with naysayers who have run amuck in spreading wrong narratives about India. This book will help in spreading awareness about our past legacy. This awareness will go a long way in helping us to reclaim our past and find our rightful place in the world as the vishwaguru.