Education in Karnataka through the ages
by Jyotsna Kamat
Buddhist System of Education
flourished in Karnataka in ancient times, along with Vedic religion and Jainism.
Ashoka Maurya (274-236 B.C.), the great Indian emperor, may be considered to be the
first emperor of Karnataka as well. For a long time, it was believed that the
region presently called Karnataka was outside the pale of Mauryan rule and
instead formed part of the dharma-vijaya
or lands conquered through religious conquests attained by Ashoka, where he
subsequently erected edifices with inscriptions expounding the teaching of
Buddha, codes of conduct, and welfare-measures. However the chance discovery in 1986
of inscribed edicts and several Mauryan relics at Sannati
in the Gulburga district has revealed that the Krishna river
basin in northern Karnataka once came under the direct supervision and rule of
Ashoka. The Sannati region enjoyed the special status of raja-vishaya (king's division). Mahāmātras
or supervisors were given the responsibility of creating cultural awareness, and
providing education for the masses. In all the important divisions of his
empire, the emperor directly appointed these mahāmātras.
Sannati boasted of a
mahāmātra1. Ashokan edicts were
installed at prominent places that were frequented by people and caravans, and
on or near ancient highways, in order to attract the most attention. Sannati in
the Mauryan age occupied a crucial position and had cultural links with Vanavasi
(Banavasi in North Kanara district), with Sriparvata (presently called
Nagarjunakonda, in Andhra Pradesh) and with Sri Lanka. "Sannati," according to some scholars, is the modern
name of Suvarnagiri, which is mentioned in Ashokan inscriptions.
© K. L. Kamat
Picture 4: Buddhist student practicing writing
Just like Sannati, Banavasi (also
called Vanavasi) was another important Buddhist cultural center. According to Mahavamsha, an
ancient Ceylonese chronicle, Ashoka sent a monk called Mahadeva to
Mahishamandala (modern day Mysore) and the monk Rakshita to Banavasi, in order
to propagate Buddha's teachings. Several Buddhist āchāryas
under the leadership of Chandragupta proceeded from Banavasi
to Sri Lanka to attend the consecration of the great stupa (Buddhist monument)
built by king Duttagamini in the 1st century B.C.E. Indications are
that by this time Banavasi flourished as an important center of Buddhism. It is frequently referred to in Sinhalese tradition as a seat of learning.
Banavasi was closely linked with Nagarjunakonda, which was a resort for Buddhist āchāryas
, who helped convert residents of Kashmira, Gandhara, Banavasi and Tamralipti
regions to Buddhism. Banavasi, although merely a small town today, represented a
very vast region in ancient times, which was collectively called Banavasi-nādu.
It was called thus for centuries, under different dynasties that ruled Karnataka. Buddhist relics as late as from the thirteenth century C.E. are found in the
region that formed administrative division of Banavasi-nadu.
Buddhist monasteries or vihāras were and still are centers of
education; the first mention of a vihāra in Karnataka
happens to be in Banavasi. An inscription in the Brahmi script
dating back to the third century C.E. indicates that a Chutu princess called
Shivaskanda Nagashree donated a vihāra
in this location. Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim who traveled in south India
in about 640 C.E., wrote that Buddhism
flourished in Karnataka and that there were many monasteries
of both Mahayana and Hinayana sects2.
Buddhist relics are found
scattered throughout the state of Karnataka. Besides the six minor rock inscriptions, three each in Raichur and
districts, there are idols of Yaksha in Haigund, and fragmentary relics and
inscriptions in Babruwada, Divgi, Hiregutti (all in Uttara Kannada district),
Koliwada, Dambal (Gadag district), Kundapur, Mulur, Pampalli, Kadri (South
Kanara district) and Ballegavi (Shimoga district.) These indicate that there
were Buddhist habitations in all these places at one time or another. Perhaps a
lack of direct royal patronage made the Buddhist community, by then reduced to a
minority, leave capital cities, and take shelter in smaller towns. From existing
historical evidence it may be surmised that Buddhism
did remain an important sect for nearly fifteen centuries in
Karnataka, and that it has left a permanent mark on the native system of
education and deserves special study for this reason also. In the initial years
of the spread of Buddhist doctrine, itinerant monks carried the message far and
wide. They literally lived the instruction, “move on, ye monks, for the
welfare of the masses, their happiness and for the sake of kindness towards
humanity, keep on moving!” ("chārata
bhikkave, chāritām, bahujanahitāya, bahujana sukhāya, lokānu
kampaya..."). Those who took the message seriously were determined to
provide religious education to the masses, toured every nook and corner of the
land, and at some point arrived in Kuntala desha or Karnataka (Konkanapura of Hiuen Tsang), a
land of rivers, mountains and the sea.
During the rainy season, the monks
had to take shelter in secluded and protected places. They also needed space for
meditation, study and discussion. Cave-resorts or layanas thus came into existence, which eventually grew into vihāras
or places of rest, where education was also imparted. These layanas
(also called lenis) were built by the
royalty and the laity alike, in gratitude for the spiritual and moral guidance
they received from the monks. The entire region of the Deccan plateau, from the
Konkan coast to the Krishna river in the east, and down to the river Tungabhadra
in the South, came under the Satavahana rule, after the decline of the Mauryas.
This period of more than three hundred years saw the building of rock-cut chetiyas
(also called chaityas) or places of
worship and smaller layanas for bhikkus
(renunciate-monks). These vihāras,
chetiyas and layanas
provide valuable insight into the educational activities of those times.
All famous guhālayas
or cave-resorts such as those of Kanheri, (near Mumbai), Karla and Bhaja near
Pune, Ajanta and Ellora and also those of Nasik, were hewn out of rock in order
to accommodate numerous monks, student-bhikkus,
and also the laity on special occasions. The earlier caves, though spacious,
lacked sculptural decoration. But the later ones at Karla, Ajanta and Ellora
represent feats of art and engineering as well. At times, they are double storyed
and contain prayer halls, meditation centers and hostels – consisting
of cubicles for bhikkus – all in the
The chaitya had the main gate or porch, which led to the stupa or
alternatively to an image of Buddha. Usually this area was spacious enough to hold the large teacher-student
congregation. A hall was attached to every chaitya,
at some places with stone benches and a niche in the wall (for a notice
board or a writing board). This hall appeared to have been a classroom. Small
cubicles or cells were often seen around the hall, which contained one or two
stone bunks, space to store a pair of sandals or clothes, and an alcove for an
oil lamp. These might have served as dormitory cells for student bhikkus (as shown in the picture no. 2). The cave-temple schools
flourished for centuries as educational centers.
© K. L. Kamat
Three Storied Buddhist University
Ruins of Ellora in Maharashtra
One of the beautifully carved
cave-dwellings in Karla was constructed by Bhuta Pala Shetti of Vaijayanti or
Banavasi, as declared by an inscription in the Prakrit
language on a stone pillar. He may have been one of the many
rich merchants who traded with Greece and Rome in the early centuries of the
Christian era. The nearby towns of Kalyan and Sopara (now in Maharashtra) known
to ancient Greek historians, were international ports, and continued to function
as such under Chalukyan and Rashtrakuta times.
The caves at Kanheri, Karla, and
Nasik received several grants from the royal and lay patrons in support of
education. Irrespective of their personal religious inclinations, the kings of
Karnataka patronized Buddhism
for centuries, not only at home, but also in distant lands.
Hiuen Tsang writes of having stayed in the vihāra at Kapisa (in far-away Afghanistan3),
which was built by the Chalukya dynasty of Badami, in the 7th century
C.E.! Liberal grants from the Rashtrakuta rulers, Dantidurga and Dhruva II, to
the mahāvihāra at Kampilya
in Saurashtra (modern-day Gujarat) are mentioned in inscriptions. These rulers
had earlier defeated the Maitraka dynasty that ruled the region, but donations
continued in the 7th and 8th centuries. Kampilya at the
time accommodated 500 bhikkus in its mahāvihāra.
Akkadevi, the governor of Banavasi-nadu, is described as practicing religious
observances prescribed by the rituals of four deities: Jina, Buddha, Ananta (Vishnu) and Rudra, according to an inscription from1022 C.E.
We see that commoners also were
acknowledged as donors and builders of vihāras.
For instance, the people of Balligamé built a matha (monastery) in honor of Buddha, along with one each for Hari Hara, Brahma and Jina. Bappur Nagiyakka built a
temple for Tara Bhagavati, and Rupabhattayya constructed a vihāra called Jayanti-prabha in memory of
his birthplace, Banavasi4.
Since vihāras were centers of
learning where bhikkus and commoners
received instruction, we may safely state that the Buddhist system of education
prevailed in Karnataka
until the 11th century
Unlike the age-old oral tradition
of learning, wherein attentive listening, memorizing and reproduction were
everything, the Buddhist system laid stress on writing and literary education.
In the vihāras children were
taught the alphabet. Regardless of caste, students were allowed to attend
temple-schools at the age of seven. Students in this age group were considered
to be ideally suited and receptive enough to learn and obey the guru's instructions.
The academic day in a typical
elementary school began with the paying of obeisance to Siddha (Buddha) or the enlightened one. “Siddham namah”
(literally, “I bow to the Siddha”) became the universal invocation, and
survives to this day5.
Members of the older generation in India inscribe these words at the top of a
letter or other important document. After the ritual obeisance at the start of
the day, the alphabet was taught to the students. The letters were printed in a
calendar, or alternatively in an arrangement of fifty-two letters a series of
twelve blocks, and called bārākhadi
twelve, khadi = block). This
method of reading and writing the alphabet can be found today in Marathi,
Kannada and other Indian languages. Hiuen Tsang and the renowned Arab scholar,
Alberuni, who referred to it as the siddhamātrikā , (it is
prevalent even today) mention this method of learning the alphabet6.
The use of vernacular languages
for higher learning also began during Buddhist times. Buddha
preached in Magadhi, the spoken language, rather than in
, the language of the elite. With the spread of Buddhism
, all regional languages gained importance as mediums of instruction. Ashokan
inscriptions bear witness that the Prakrit
language and the Brahmi script (with local variations) were
used throughout the Indian subcontinent, and beyond. The growth of the written
word occurred mainly for spreading Buddha's teachings, and also to teach
monastic rules to monks. The written language also helped establish rules of
good conduct for lay people, through inscriptions on stone – a method
ingeniously devised by emperor Ashoka.
After mastering the alphabet, the
student was taught grammar, arithmetic, and elements of a skilled profession
such as shilpa or sculpture.
Principles of mechanical arts, medicine, reasoning (logic), the degrees of
religious attainment and the subtle doctrine of karma were taught gradually7.
Although the curriculum was originally designed to train Buddhist monks, these
principles of education became applicable to lay students as well. The emphasis
placed on vocational skills such as sculpting, painting, carpentry, weaving and
medicine helped the populace immensely.
With the expansion of religion
came the spread of literacy and education. Bigger monasteries appeared near
towns and cities, with huge grants from royalty, noblemen and traders. Education
became broad-based with the inclusion of comparative religions in the
curriculum. Monks arrived from distant lands such as China, Japan and Korea,
had already taken root. This is partly why we are able to
obtain a vivid description of the life in Indian monasteries such as Nalanda
, through the writings of Hiuen Tsang (600-664 C.E.) and Itsing (8th
century C.E.). Hiuen Tsang thought that the reason for the high scholarship of
Indian Buddhists was due to their relative freedom from worldly needs, and the
consequent ability to focus one-pointedly on study. He was very appreciative of
liberal grants made by patrons towards the promotion of education and learning.
did not have a big university like Nalanda
(of northeastern India), but there were more than a thousand vihāras
in the land of Pulikeshi, with ten thousand bhikkus,
as noted by Hiuen Tsang. All the three important schools of Buddhism
, namely Hinayana, Mahayana, and later Vajrayana flourished in Karnataka over
the centuries. Although Buddhism slowly declined after the 12th
century, the strong educational foundation it left behind continued to thrive.
In Jaina and Vedic centers, the same curriculum prevailed at the elementary
level, where the medium of instruction remained Kannada.
It is possible that the
combination of literary education and vocational training imparted in veerashaiva mathas was
similar to the system prevailing in Buddhist vihāras. Emphasis was laid on kāyaka
or vocation, as a means of realizing God. 'Kayakave
(or “work is worship”) was the motto of Basava's teaching. Arts and crafts
played a prominent role, as most veerashaiva saints undertook them. Among
these saints were weavers, spinners, washermen, and shoemakers. The
temple-schools included Sali-mathas, odisuva-mathas and virakta-mathas , which taught spinning, weaving, smithy, agriculture and
medicine, in addition to spiritual doctrine. This vocational training provided
in the mathas might have helped lessen
social and economic differences in the society of those times. This again
reminds us of the legacy of the Buddhist system, which preached a casteless
Buddhist monks used several
artistic forms to propagate religious teaching. Jataka stories – the rebirth
stories of Buddha
– were represented in sculpture and paintings. Monks
excelled in these arts, as evidenced by the cave paintings and sculptures of Ajanta and
Ellora, which formed part of greater Karnataka
in bygone days.
The original Buddhist educational
system was resurfaced in this land in an unexpected way, after several
centuries: Tibetans fleeing communist Chinese aggression arrived in India in
1959, in the footsteps of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, their spiritual leader.
Some batches of these refugees were comfortably accommodated in Baylakuppe near
Mysore and Mundgod
in North Kanara district. Nine
batches of refugees were granted four thousand acres of agricultural land in
Tattihalli near Mundgod. Although the climate in these southern regions of India
was very different from that of the Himalayan region from which they arrived,
the hard-working Tibetan community adapted very quickly to its new surroundings.
there are two monasteries dedicated to Buddha
Avalokiteshvara, the patron deity of Tibet. In these
monasteries, the places of worship, meditation and learning, namely Gomang,
Sakya and Sarse, are reminiscent of the ancient vihāra
chaitya prayer halls. They brim with activity, day and night. No fear of
bandits or theft pesters them. The atmosphere is serene and quiet. Their chortens
resemble pagodas and ancient stupas
and are painted in pink and yellow colors, which are considered auspicious.
These Tibetan stupas are sometimes dedicated to the memory of departed Lamas.
Building these chortens is a
continuous process, which is believed to be essential for the welfare of the
community. All the residents of the monastery undertake meditation and japa
(ritual chanting accompanied by the rosary or the prayer-wheel). Every member of the monastic community is engaged in one constructive activity
or the other, including carpentry, gardening, weaving, and scores of other
crafts. Youngsters are engaged in bringing water, fetching wood, etc. (see
picture no.3 below)
© K. L. Kamat
Picture 3: Buddhist students on way to fetch water
Each family in the community
aspires to have at least one child follow the monastic path, by becoming a bhikku or a lāmā (revered one). From a very young age, the chosen ones
start living in the monastery
, engaging themselves in studying scriptures, reading, writing and meditation,
besides mastering different crafts. Prayer halls are beautifully decorated with
multi-colored flags and inlay-work in gold and other metals, and also contain
elaborately carved wooden pedestals to support statues of Buddha
and other deities. The blowing of conches and the beating of
drums alert students to times for prayer and study. Reading, writing and
arithmetic (the three Rs) predominate in their course of study for young
acolytes. Traditionally, students write the Tibetan alphabet on a slate placed
on wooden blocks, using black ink and a bamboo pen (see picture no.
writing is copied on birch leaves (bhûrjapatra)
as was the practice in ancient vihāras.
Monks also recite various scriptures that are appropriate for the specific
training they undergo. They learn drawing, painting and sculpting as well. In
some ways, the scene in Gomang takes one back two thousand years, when life in
the Buddhist vihāras of Karnataka
might have been similar!
V. Vishweswara. “Inscriptions at Sannati.” Samshodhana, Dr.
Chidananda Murthy Felicitation Volume, Bangalore 1991, pp. 723-743.
Watters. On Yuan Chwang's Travels in India. Vol.
II, London 1904, p. 239.
Dutt. Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India, London 1962, p. 230,
Carnatica, Vol. VII, Shikarpur 170.
Seshagiri Rao. Andhra Karnata Jainism, Madras 1922, p. 64.
T. Embree. Alberuni's India, New York 1971, p. 173
Watters. On Yuan Chwang's Travels in India.
Vol. I, London 1904, pp. 154-155.
in Karnataka through the ages
Preface | Buddhist Education | Jaina Education |
Palm-leaf Texts |
Ghatikasthana | Education of Royalty |
Community Education | Vocational Training |
Education of Women | Physical Education | Among Muslims |