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Education in Karnataka through the ages
by Jyotsna Kamat

The Ups and Downs of the Indian Education System

The glimpses into the educational system in Karnataka provided in the foregoing chapters show how the system offered ways of imparting literacy and practical knowledge to the masses (so that they may earn a living) as also specialized training for various strata of the society. This educational system was formulated over centuries through empirical methods, and attempted to fulfill society's day-to-day needs. It was not borrowed from an alien land, but grew from native soil. The organization of the educational system remained the same among all sects -- Buddhist, Jaina and Vedic. All sects agreed that self-realization, and not mere wage-earning, should be the true aim of higher education. A common curriculum was established, and the study of the vedas,upanishads, darshans (different schools of philosophy), shastras, logic, and rhetoric was compulsory. Proficiency in grammar, oration, and debating were given importance. All sects encouraged debating talents because the superiority of each sect was established through argumentation and debating skills in large public gatherings of learned people.

The system laid stress on education through the regional language at the elementary level. Education was free. Hence even the poorest students could always get admission into a temple school, matha or gurukula. Similarly, the worth of a scholar was determined by his ability to disseminate knowledge to the greatest extent possible. The scholars undertook this task, through preaching, teaching, discoursing and lecturing. In mathas , village temples, and king's assemblies alike, the learned were shown a great deal of respect.

Higher education was not the monopoly of the rich as it is today in India. The king did not intervene in the administration, though he, along with the nobles and wealthy merchants, contributed liberally for the cause of education. The local temple committee that managed the affairs of the temple, matha or agraharawas also responsible for education and its supervision (melaļke) as well. Donors did not pester the administration and scrutinize accounts, and the management did not put a lot of energy into hankering for more funds or prestige. Learning always came the hard way and everybody including the students was aware of the importance of personal effort.

Average citizens also contributed their mite to the local schools and mathas in the form of cash, land, grains, cloth, oil for lamps, etc. They invited the staff and students for meals on special occasions and festivals. A schoolteacher's salary was based mainly on public donations.

Discipline was the keyword in all educational institutions. In comparison to modern standards a student's life was austere and joyless. Students were up early in the morning, completed morning ablutions and bathed before dawn. Personal hygiene was of utmost importance. Students had to maintain the cleanliness of not only their rooms but also of rivers, places of study and the areas through which they commuted to school.

After prayer and yogic exercises, studies began. Umbrellas, shoes, perfumes, meat and paan were not permitted. Siestas and the company of the opposite gender was to be eschewed at all costs. Obedience to the guru was considered paramount. With the celibate life being compulsory, those who broke the rules were thrown out of the school without mercy. Since society looked down upon wayward behavior, the student community had to remain alert and law-abiding all the time. Society arranged for their food, clothes, medicines and books.

The preceptors and gurus also led an austere and selfless life. They kept away from material comforts and publicity. They belonged to the most respected class. Rulers and administrators came to them to pay their respects and consult on social and religious matters. An ideal āchārya   or preceptor spent his entire life in study, teaching and dispensing knowledge. There was not much remuneration for scholastic pursuits and emoluments at institutions were meager. At times, a teacher of vedas received as much compensation as a teacher at an elementary school! Many of the celebrated teachers were celibate monks who lived on alms. Such self-abnegation made them fearless, and as a result they had no reason to bow to anybody except the goddess of vidyā or learning (goddess Saraswati)!

Naturally, rulers vied with each other to welcome to their lands the renowned scholars of those times, and bestowed grants to establish an āshrama, a school or a matha, so that itinerant sage-scholars could stay at length and provide spiritual guidance and supervise education. Even rival kingdoms (Rashtrakutas and Gangas; Chalukyas and Hoysalas) are known to have honored common gurus and sought their valued advice on mundane and spiritual matters.

Since education was part of the social system of the times, each able-bodied individual had a niche, and was allowed to master skills in one vocation or the other, specified by his birth caste. It was not -- by today's standards, democratic, choice-oriented, or an egalitarian arrangement, but it was a self-supporting method and helped the local population to be self-reliant. Unemployment was negligible in India before European rule. It is worthwhile to notice the comments of Fra. P. D. Bartolomeo (who was in India from 1776-1789):

"The boys in the ninth year of their age are initiated with great ceremony into the calling or occupation of the caste to which their father belongs, and which they can never abandon. This law, mention of which occurs in the works of Diodorous, Siculus, Strabo, Arrian, and other Greek writers, is indeed exceedingly hard, but at the same time, it is of great benefit to civil order, the arts, and sciences, and even to religion… Hence it happens that the Indians do not follow that general and superficial method of education by which children are treated as if they were all intended for the same condition and for discharging the same duties. …"

"By this establishment the knowledge of a great many things necessary for the public good is not only widely diffused, but transmitted to posterity, who are thereby enabled still further to improve them, and bring them nearer to perfection. In the time of Alexander, the Great, the Indians had acquired such skill in the mechanical arts, that Nearchus, the commander of his fleet was much amazed at the dexterity with which they imitated the accoutrements of the Grecian soldiers."

Bartolomeo further narrates his own experience. He entrusted an exceedingly pretty lamp made in Portugal to an Indian craftsman. Some days later the craftsman brought to him another lamp similar to the one given to him. Bartolomeo could hardly distinguish the two. He rightly observed that arts and sciences in India had greatly declined since foreign conquerors expelled native kings; several provinces were laid waste and the castes “confounded to each other.” Earlier (to foreign occupation), different kingdoms encouraged arts. Laws were respected and justice and civil order prevailed, which unfortunately made way for absolute authority and despotic ways in later times.

Political conditions in the 17th and 18th centuries supported the lawlessness that was making its ugly appearance. Looting followed battles between kingdoms and principalities and burning of institutions by the victorious party were frequent. The Muhammadans, Portuguese and Marathas have their own records in the destruction of religious temples and mathas . Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan's destruction of towns and harbors provides for sad accounts. The kings of Keladi destroyed the kingdom of Gerasoppa, which was a renowned Jaina center of learning. The rulers of Gerasoppa, though of Jaina faith, patronized all religions and religious institutions alike. Similar was the case of the Swadi (Sonda) kingdoms of Sringeri matha, which had to face a marauder's wrath. Centers of higher learning, where education was imparted through Sanskrit, suffered a deathblow. But at the village level, elementary schooling somehow continued to operate.

In these village schools, instruction continued in Kannada, the regional language. The courtyards of mathas and temples were sufficient for the village school with their single teachers. Sand and fingers replaced paper and pen in the learning of letters, numerals, arithmetic and simple forms of the language. Instruction was oral and memorization was important. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of numbers were represented in table form, and these tables were recited by students in mnemonic songs and thereby easily remembered. Special emphasis was laid on mental arithmetic. Portions of Kannada classics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were recited with correct pronunciation, memorized and quoted whenever required. In Aigala matha, local music compositions, and at least twenty Yakshagana dance dramas were taught and enacted.

Students belonging to the artisan or craftsman castes left school early in life, in order to pursue their family vocations, and students of the Brahmin caste later went to mathasor vedic pāthashālās (schools) in order to study higher courses.

Such a system continued for centuries and at the beginning of the 19th century, primary schooling was widely prevalent in most parts of India. In the Madras Presidency, of which undivided Canara district formed a part, Sir Thomas Munro, the governor, found a primary school in every village, the remnants of a system that was in existence for nearly a millennium.

Elementary school teachers were drawn from the ordinary rung of instructed men and it was possible for members of communities other than Brahmins to take up the profession of teaching. Remuneration was very meager, contributed by each family of the village in the form of grains, cloth or some cash at the harvesting time. The surveys conducted in British India in 1820-23 C.E., mention certain specific features of these native schools. 

These were:

  1. The absence of textbooks.
  2. Learning mostly by rote, including that of mathematical tables.
  3. No examinations or marks awarded; no hurdles to cross.
  4. Each student absorbing teaching according to his ability.
  5. No unpleasant experience, barring the fear of the "teacher's cane" or the “father's palm” for not attending lessons. The father invariably sided with the teacher.

The surveys also mention that some schools were held in sheds belonging to barbers, oilmen, potters and weavers. There is evidence of the word shāle (sāli in spoken Kannada) being used as synonymous to a weaving shed. It is possible that craftsmen of the Veerashaiva and other communities had their schooling   along with vocational training. Veerashaiva mathasimparted education to members of all communities, as mentioned earlier (see Community Education), and classes were held in temple corridors, under a tree or in the courtyard of a landlord. The surveyors of the British government tried to assess the qualifications of teachers and their certificates. They also searched for a school library, teaching aids, a playground, etc., as per western norms, but did not find any. Most of the surveyors were unaware of the inexpensive method of indigenous education, which was self-supporting. Nonetheless, G. L. Prendergast, councilor to the Governor of Mumbai, was one of the few persons who assessed the situation correctly. He reported in 1817:

"I hardly mention, … that there is hardly a village great or small, throughout our territories in which there is not at least one school and in larger cities in every division, where young natives are taught, reading, writing and arithmetic upon a system so economical, from a handful or two of grain to perhaps a Rupee per month to the schoolmaster, according to the ability of the parents, and at the same time, so simple and effectual that there is hardly a cultivator, or a petty dealer, who is not competent to keep his accounts with a degree of accuracy, in my opinion beyond what we meet with amongst the lower orders in our own country. Whilst the more splendid dealers and bankers keep their books with a degree of ease, conciseness and clearness I rather think fully equal to those of any British merchant."

Another report, by the collector of Bellary, deserves special mention because it provides a glimpse into the real situation that prevailed in the region in 1822 C.E. (see Appendix C) The Bellary region was quite prosperous as a cotton-growing and cloth-manufacturing area just before its conquest by the British, and suddenly became impoverished due to the policy of importing cloth manufactured in Britain. Farmers and weavers became destitute, and those who could, migrated to other regions. The removal of many troops from the Madras region (to which Bellary was attached) to other capitals further contributed to the decline in the demand for local produce, and the continuous draining of revenue rendered the people utterly poor. The middle and lower classes, which formed the majority of the population now impoverished, could not secure an education for their children. "In many villages where formerly there were schools, there are none," he wrote. Despite this, in a report the district collector (see Appendix D) of Kanara district recommended the government not to provide any grants for schools.

Since most of the reports received by the Governor General were vague and incomplete, no grant was made for native institutions. Honest and genuine surveys submitted by administrators such as A.D. Campbell, were few and were usually overlooked by the new rulers. Just as in resources, the natives of India grew poorer in literacy as well, under foreign rule.

In order to help the British run Indian administrative affairs, a big force of trained hands was required. Serious thought was given to provide education in the British way. The progressive approach of William Bentinck, the Governor General, and Macaulay reformist and educationist, and leaders such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy helped introduce the western system of education in India. English schools started cropping up, run by missionaries and private bodies. But their education was expensive: schools were fewer and affordable only by well-to-do families. Some brilliant students made it to England as well, for higher studies. But the population in general grew more illiterate than ever. This situation made Mahatma Gandhi utter his famous lines at the Round Table Conference at Chatham House in 1931:

"I say without fear of my figures being challenged successfully, that today India is more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago, and so is Burma, because the British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and began to look at the root, and left the root like that, and the beautiful tree perished. The village schools were not good enough for the British administrator, so he came out with his program. Every school must have so much paraphernalia, building, and so forth. Well, there were no such schools at all. There are statistics left by a British administrator which show that, in places where they have carried out a survey, ancient schools have gone by the board, because there was no recognition for these schools, and the schools established after the European pattern were too expensive for the people, and therefore they could not possibly overtake the thing. I defy anybody to fulfill a program of compulsory primary education of these masses inside of a century. This very poor country of mine is ill-able to sustain such an expensive method of education. Our state would revive the old village schoolmaster and dot every village with a school both for boys and girls."

(Mahatma Gandhi at Chatham House, London, October 20, 1931)

Gandhiji himself was educated in the British style of education, which had taken root by then, and he was very well aware of its shortcomings. As a social reformer, he had given deep thought into reforming education. He propounded craft-oriented, cheap, self-sufficient education without caste and gender discrimination, This was ideally suited to his homeland, and provided employment to one and all by the time students finished basic schooling. His concept of Buniyadi Talim or basic education, if implemented properly, would not have permitted the destruction of countless arts and crafts. These vocations, although caste-based at the time, would have provided employment to youngsters to earn a living. The concept of a universal mass-education, when introduced in India created millions of literates, all in the same mould, who could neither neither take up their hereditary vocations nor could be absorbed in the limited prototype jobs in government agencies.

After fifty years of independence, India is unable to formulate the educational policy most suited to the country. She has totally ignored the good points of the earlier system, which lasted for thousands of years. Neither is the country able to train youngsters towards the development of personality, which involves an understanding of the dignity of labor (which was close to Gandhi's heart) and self-reliance, which are western concepts as well. Year after year, millions of young Indians who come out of schools and colleges after graduation have obtained only a literary, formal and certificate-oriented instruction. This archetype of schooling has lead to endless unemployment.

These days, only children of the well-to-do classes receive education in English-medium schools, which system enables the fortunate few to hop over to western countries for better employment and opportunities. The medical and technical courses have become the monopoly of the rich. Those who are qualified naturally seek better opportunities outside India. Earlier, due to lack of resources, education could not reach the average Indian. Now, due to a lack of opportunity, the benefits of higher literary education are not reaching the masses. India remains poorer than ever in the field of education by "exporting" skilled labor abroad that is trained at home at great cost. In spite of her gaining political independence, India is still dependent in the field of education. She continues as an underdeveloped country in spite of the claim of being world's biggest democracy and the biggest source of skilled manpower in the free world.


Full Text of Education in Karnataka through the AgesEducation 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 | Conclusions


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