Posted on: 16 December 2016

How India went from World’s Education Capital to Depths of Illiteracy - Part I
By Sahana Singh
IndiaFacts - 6 December 2016

Just a thousand years ago, India was dotted with universities across its length and breadth where international students flocked to gain credentials in advanced education. But in the last 200 years, the connection with age-old knowledge streams has been severely disrupted. In the first part of this new series, Sahana Singh will examine the pedagogy of ancient Indian universities, and in subsequent parts will trace their demise.

When Tagore started an open-air school at Shantiniketan in 1901, which later went on to become a famous university, he was one in a long line of educators from India, who believed that holistic learning could only be obtained in the midst of nature under the close supervision of a parent-like guru.

India’s earliest teachers were the gurus, who taught in gurukulams and ashrams located far away from the hustle and bustle of towns in what could be called forest universities. It is no surprise that the Vedas, which are the earliest known oral books containing the thoughts of a highly civilised society are replete with exquisite references to nature and the concept of inter-dependence of living organisms. To these gurus, it was important for humans to realise their humble status in the infinite universe before embarking on the long journey of learning.

Over time, the systems of transmission of learning to newer generations got institutionalised and gave birth to famous universities such as Takshshila, Nalanda and many famous temple universities of which the remains are still found in southern India. A sizeable number of foreign students came to study in India from China, Korea, Japan, Indonesia and West Asia. While the most famous names are Fa-Hien and Xuanzang, who left behind detailed accounts, there are scores of others, who made difficult journeys by foot and on board the ships just to imbibe knowledge from Indian professors. Many of the foreign students copied texts and commentaries to carry back to their countries. The rush for gaining an education from the Brahmins and Buddhist scholars of India was similar to today’s rush to study in or be certified by American and European universities.

There is a curious hesitation among modern historians to refer to India’s multi-disciplinary centres of traditional learning as universities. This comes from the excessive importance given to the written word, to solid buildings with established pedagogy and rigid systems of certification. Thus, the talented, but bare-chested and dhoti-clad engineers and architects of ancient India, who built incredible irrigation canals, rainwater harvesting structures, palaces, forts, roads, dams and aqueducts are barely acknowledged as professionals, who learned from professors in universities. Similarly, the medical practitioners of yore, who knew which combination of herbs could help in healing diseases, where to procure them in forests, how to conduct complex surgeries and who additionally possessed spiritual insights are often regarded as quacks or witch doctors.

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Education was always restricted in India with women (50% of the population ) and lower castes rarely having access. The great Buddhist universities may have been more egalitarian, but were things better for women in general? Even in surgery, caste taboos and fear of ritual pollution due to contact with body fluids made vital fields like obstetrics and actual surgery to be relegated to midwives and barbers.When a doctor is so blinded by superstition that he refuses to touch another human with compassion, he is justly served to be remembered as a witch doctor.

@ aparajita - when the bare details of what was great in the distant past are coming out, statements like education was restricted to women in India is as incorrect as those who see only good in the past. Even if what you say is correct, India is no different from any society or culture in the world. However, if U talk of India that is today, we have a lot to catch up

Varanasi used to be a city for learners and scholars. The term guru is adopted from India, which means teacher. This has been declining. But still to learn yoga, I'll choose to learn it India :)

Everything is cyclic.

Good article. Looking forward to Pt 2.

Education in the distant past in Bharat that is India is made a mystery for us. Because our kings in the past failed to preserve scripts if there were any. Knowledge was transmitted verbally. There was no institutional education as of these days. Every Maharsi or Acharya, professors of eminence fomed their own schools of thought. Specialisations in different fields of knowledge was there as Charak, Suruta for medicine Durbasa, Janak, Biwamitra, Sandipani for state craft. Guru Dronacharya is the best available example. Knowledge was restricted for the meritorious few. Even these days we have hundreds of medical colleges. Students get admitted on different categories of reservation. The out come MUNNABHAIS out number genuine doctors. So the democratic concpt of free education for all is not compatible with the methods of the past. Universities were there few in number restricted to the hermitage of saints far away from state capitals. Maharsis did not encourage interference of kings in mattets of their hermitage. Not like these days in India dump anything and every thing in state capitals keeping the rest starving. So educatin today is far from what we had in the past. No comparision needed.

Sharda University was considered the seat of highest learning as it was the residence of Goddess Sharada - Mother Goddess of Higher learning. The seat of this world famous university was in Kashmir and was referred as Shardapeeth University

World knows that Indus Civilisation was the highest civilised society of Bharat Varsha. Foreign Aryans destroyed it.

I dont think the place Nalanda Univ. situated is in southern part of India. Pls. look into.

Sanjeev Sanyal Gaurav Jha Harbir Singh Prasanna Viswanathan

Sorry I withdraw my comments which was inadvertently made.


Naeem Khan Dawar

Even CSIR health department confirmed only Pulse diagnosis of Vedic ancient method tells the root cause of all illness . no need to go for radiology and scanning . but it was ignored .

Our biggest weakness was failure to defend our methods of flourishing educational centres due to our timid nature and our vast resources and wealth made us targets which all foreigners were attracted to and looted us.In my research into the Ancient and Medieval period I found some foreign students turned historians went back to their countries and spoke highly about our advanced institutions and wealth thereby making us the apple of the entire World to grab/loot our wealth and break the backbone of our Nation which was highly specialised educational institutions I hope I don't need to elaborate with examples from Alexander(326 BC) to Lord Macaulay?

Part of the reason behind the downfall of ancient Indian education system are the invasions that took place during the last 1000 years. We never know how many volumes of texts we have lost in that period. the British, though seem to be interested in Indology, were actually doing so to promote their own school of philosophy.. which is euro-centric. Hence, the ancient texts were mostly misinterpreted which resulted into people(Indians) believing that their texts are inferior.

Sir. I feel pity that why this culture was not carried forward. Who is responsible for the destruction of this "parampara". Is it our ancestors or rulers. I was always taught by my new education that culture of my religion is supersitious and therefore devoid myself of feeling proud of the innovation brought up by my religion.

Other countries are adapting culture but our own country men are not ready to accept it and take it further..Other countries sees value in our culture but our own country men fail to see...what lies within us..chanakya had worked hard to make akhand bharatha..but looks like all his efforts have gone down the drain..

The problem with today's world is our society is following the masses where "m" is silent..they just want to do what others are doing not understanding the simple facts that this ain't gonna take us anywhere..

Time and time waits for no one..we can't go back in time and fix anything..all we can do is accept the fact and try to bring the change the system provided the corrupted system allows us to do it..they just want us to go to a big education system but remain uneducated..

The concept of gurukul is all taken away..our education system is messed up big time..we have become directionless..we still r not able to understand our purpose.

The purpose of gurukul was to add value to ur be a better individual.where an individual can contribute to the country..but looks like everyone is looking for what the country can offer to them rather than having an attitude of what they can offer to the country..there is no proper understanding...we have been removed out from the roots..nalanda.a well know university has become history..there is a difference between education and an educated mind...which only great gurus of our country could deliver..

It is a matter of concern that Pune which is called abode of education & Oxford of India is lagging behind in pursuit of excellence in Science and Engineering. Students are moving out to other cities where education facilities and People are better , tolerant and understanding about cosmopolitan issues . It is high time that Education dept at Pune wakes up and pulls itself out of slumber . Same goes for rich education barons who have started education institutes which are money centric alone . Smart pune without smart students is of no use to society . It was noticed yesterday that a top university paper of E & T C exam 2016 was exact repeat of 2015 paper .result 100%. 40 teachers were sent to Singapore to study their education system but after reaching Singapore ,they found that schools had holidays . Thus education trip and Rs 40 lac wasted .

वर्ण व्यवस्था को आज के caste system समझने वालों से मैं एक ही बात पूछता हूं, वर्ण तो चार ही थे,फिर जातियां हजारों कैसे हो गई। ये system पहले मुगलों व फिर अंग्रेजो ने आगे बढाया ताकि लोग संगठित हो ना सकें।

Indian are modernizing but by forgetting their own culture. Celebrating teacher's, mother's, father's, valentine etc, etc. Universities are political hubs. Kids are speaking fluent english ..... hahaha

The scene changed drastically when people started cheating n betraying for some money. Society is also responsible. Now a days the ministers r responsible. The experiments with education should stop immediately

Prof Dharmpal ji had done an excellent work in this issue. His work is being taught in foreign universities, but unfortunately ignored in Indian education.

How do inculcate a traditional thinking in a modern setup. For example, it is now widely spoken in the west that excessive use of technology have bought various diseases n a life full of stress.But we can't stop it as we have established it as the way of making money.

If tagore can start shantiniketan why not now.what is stopping us from starting it now..

Given the fierce opposition Government faces even when it wants to introduce Sanskrit as compulsory subject in schools, I wonder if India will ever be able to go back to the glory of ancient times, where values was the foundation of education and not just a subject in curriculum.

the Bhakt logic! Irony is that such political statements are being promoted as logic

This education was a threat to Zionist. So they change the concept of education.

Post is really informative. Is there any possibility to have a hard copy of the entire literature

Shivang Joshi We just spoke about this didn't we????

I will welcome u in Santiniketan whenever u effort ur time to fulfill wish to come here.