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Ancient Institutions and Education in India: India was the top destination for the travellers from various regions having different climates and cultures. To them, India was a land of wonder. The fame of Indian culture, wealth, religions, philosophies, art, architecture, as well as its educational practices had spread far and wide. The education system of ancient times was regarded as a source for the knowledge, traditions and practices that guided and encouraged humanity.
Institutions and Education in Ancient India
The ancient system of education was the education of the Vedas, Brahmanas, Upanishads and Dharmasutras. You all are aware of the names of Aryabhata, Panini, Katyayana and Patanjali. Their writings and the medical treatises of Charaka and Sushruta were also some of the sources of learning. The distinction was also drawn between Shastras (learned disciplines) and Kavyas (imaginative and creative literature).
Sources of learning were drawn from various disciplines such as Itihas (history), Anviksiki (logic), Mimamsa (interpretation) Shilpashastra (architecture), Arthashastra (polity), Varta (agriculture, trade, commerce, animal husbandry) and Dhanurvidya (archery).
Physical education too was an important curricular area and pupils participated in krida (games, recreational activities), vyayamaprakara (exercises), dhanurvidya (archery) for acquiring martial skills, and yogasadhana (training the mind and body) among others. The Gurus and their pupils worked conscientiously together to become proficient in all aspects of learning.
In order to assess pupils’ learning, shastrartha (learned debates) were organised. Pupils at an advanced stage of learning guided younger pupils. There also existed the system of peer learning, like you have group/peer work.
Ancient Education System in India — A Way of Life
In ancient India, both formal and informal ways of education system existed. Indigenous education was imparted at home, in temples, pathshalas, tols, chatuspadis and gurukuls. There were people in homes, villages and temples who guided young children in imbibing pious ways of life.
Temples were also the centres of learning and took interest in the promotion of knowledge of our ancient system. Students went to viharas and universities for higher knowledge. Teaching was largely oral, and students remembered and meditated upon what was taught in the class.
Many monasteries/viharas were set up for monks and nuns to meditate, debate and discuss with the learned for their quest for knowledge during this period. Around these viharas, other educational centres of higher learning developed, which attracted students from China, Korea, Tibet, Burma, Ceylon, Java, Nepal and other distant countries.
Viharas and Universities
The Jataka tales, accounts given by Xuan Zang and I-Qing (Chinese scholars), as well as other sources tell us that kings and society took active interest in promoting education. As a result, many famous educational centres came into existence.
Among the most notable universities that evolved during this period were situated at Takshashila, Nalanda, Valabhi, Vikramshila, Odantapuri and Jagaddala. These universities developed in connection with the viharas. Those at Benaras, Navadeep and Kanchi developed in connection with temples and became centres of community life in the places where they were situated.
These institutions catered to the needs of advanced level students. Such students joined the centres of higher learning and developed their knowledge by mutual discussions and debates with renowned scholars. Not only this, but there was also occasional summoning by a king to a gathering in which the scholars of the country of various viharas and universities would meet, debate and exchange their views.
In this section, we will give you glimpses of two universities of the ancient period. These universities were considered among the best centres of learning in the world. These have been recently declared heritage sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Ancient Institutions of Higher Learning in India
There are a number of famous ancient institutions of higher learningin India, they are:
1. Takshashila (Taxila)
It was located in modern-day Pakistan. It is estimated to exist around the 5th century BC. It is believed that Chanakya composed the Arthashastra at this place. Both Buddhist and Hindu theologies were taught here. Subjects like Political Science, Hunting, medicine, law, military tactics were taught here. Noted teachers and students from Takshashila include Chanakya, Charaka, Panini, Jivaka, Prasenajit, etc
The most renowned university in South Asia. It is not clear as to who established it; it was in existence during Gupta period. It gained prominence under Harshavardhana’s reign and Pala kings. All three Buddhist doctrines were taught here, however, it was a major site for Mahayana Buddhist teachings. Subjects like Vedas, fine arts, grammar, philosophy, logic, medicine, etc were also taught here.
It had eight separate compounds and even had dormitories for students. It attracted scholars from Central Asia, South-East Asia and other parts of the world. The teachings of the university deeply influenced Tibetan Buddhism. Famous scholars of Nalanda are Nagarjuna (Madhyamika Shunyavad) and Aryabhatta the astronomer. Hsuan Tsang spent two years at the university. Another Chinese scholar I-Tsing spent ten years at Nalanda in the late 7th century.
It was situated in Saurashtra, Gujarat. It was an important centre of learning for the Hinayana Buddhism. Various disciplines like administration and statecraft, laws, philosophy etc were taught here. It was visited by the Chinese scholar, Hseun Tsang. It was supported by the grants of rulers of Maitraka Dynasty of Gujarat.
It is located in present-day Bhagalpur district of Bihar. It was established by King Dharampala of Pala dynasty, primarily as a Buddhist learning centre. The scholars were invited by kings outside India to spread Buddhist teachings. The Vajrayana sect flourished here and Tantric teachings were taught. Other subjects like logic, Vedas, astronomy, urban development, law, grammar, philosophy, etc were also taught.
This University had been established long before the Kings of Pala dynasty came into power in Magadha. Odantpuri could not attain that level of fame and repute which either Nalanda or Vikramshila had accomplished. Still, nearly 1000 monks and students resided and received an education there. Odantapuri contributed its share in spreading the tenets of Buddhism. It attracted students from Tibet too.
Jagaddala Pal King, Raja Ram Pal of Bengal had set a city on the banks of Ganga. It was the beginning of the 11th century and it was named as Ranavati. He also constructed a monastery and named it as Jagaddala. Soon after this University became the centre of learning it remained the centre of Buddhist culture for about 100 years. It was destroyed by Muslims in 1203 A.D. In Jagaddala there were many scholars notable for their knowledge. Their reputation reached Tibet and their books were translated into the Tibetan language.
In the Upanishadic age, Mithila became a prominent seat of Brahmanical system of education. It was named as Videha. Raja Janak used to hold religious conferences, wherein learned Rishis and pandits took part in religious discussions. Even in the Buddhist period, it continued its glorious task and remained an important centre of learning and culture. Later on, this pace produced devotees of Lord Krishna. Famous poet Vidyapati, who had written in Hindi and Jaideo who was a prominent poet of Sanskrit literature was born here.
Nadia was formerly called Navadweep. It is situated at the confluence of Ganga and Jalangi rivers in Bengal. It was the centre of trade and commerce as well as learning and culture. It had produced innumerable scholars from time to time. The lyrics of Gita Govind by Jaideva still reverberate in the ears of the people. Even during the Mohammedan rules, Nadia enjoyed popularity and fame as an important centre of education, especially for such branches of learning as Logic, Vyakaran, Politics and Law.
It was a centre of learning for Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism from 1st century AD and achieved great name under the rule of Pallavas.
It is now called Malkhed (Karnataka). It rose to prominence under the Rashtrakuta rule. Scholars of Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism studied here. It has a ‘matha’ of Dvaita school of thought.
11. Pushpagiri Vihara and Lalitagiri (Odisha)
It was established by Kalinga kings around 3rd century AD near the Udayagiri hills. It was mainly a Buddhist learning centre.
12. Sharada Peeth
It is located in present-day Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir. It was an important place for the Sanskrit scholars and many important texts were written here. It also has a Sharda Devi temple.
It is situated 160 km from Amaravathi in Andhra Pradesh, and it was a major Buddhist centre with scholars from Sri Lanka, China, etc coming for higher-education. It had many Viharas, Stupas, etc. It was named after Nagarjuna, a south Indian scholar of Mahayana Buddhism.
Apart from above-mentioned institutions, there was a system of Gurukuls, Matth, and Ashrams for education and learning which were not worked as institutions of higher learning in ancient India.
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