The distinctive tendencies of Hindu thought are manifested nowhere more clearly than in the realm of education and learning. It was an integral part of the Indian theory of knowledge and the corresponding scheme of life and values. It is no surprise, then, that learning has long been valued and pursued in India, not only as part of dharma and philosophy, but for its own sake—knowledge itself was a pursuit. It was held in such high regard that those who completed their studies were praised, while those who did not were chastized. One of the kurals of the Tamil poem Thirukkural says, “the learned are said to have eyes, but the unlearned have (merely) two sores in their faces.”
Learning, while emphasized more in the sense of reciting mantras and reading scriptures, expanded to how different communities contributed to the sustenance of society as a whole, with their own set of learning and knowledge. The Caraka Saṃhitā mentions that “the goat-herds, shepherds, and cowherds, and whoever else lives in the forest know the herbs by name and form.1” Suśruta, too, mentions this in the Suśruta Saṃhitā that “cowherds, ascetics, hunters, and whoever else roams in the forest, those living on roots—from these one wants the manifestation of herbs to show the popular basis of herbology.2” Contrary to the popular perception, learning in ancient India was not purely theoretical, as it can be seen from the following descriptions that acknowledge various other strands of knowledge as equally legitimate (RV – 10, 112); “We different men have different aptitudes and pursuits (dhiyo vivaratānī). The carpenter (takṣaka) seeks something that is broken, the physician (bhiṣaj) a patient (rogī), and the priest (brāhmaṇa) someone who will perform a sacrifice (suvantam).”
Based on task specialization and interdependence, ancient Indian society encouraged both intellectual and vocational training to give human nature a practical turn, and students were trained to deal with both the objects/physical environments in which they lived as well as the higher dimensions of life. In fact, as Sri Aurobindo argues, ancient education in India vitalized both these tendencies simultaneously:
A thirst for the marvelous, the seemingly unattainable, for something that fills you with a sense of divinity, while also encouraging an exact, correct, and sincere observation of the world as it is, the abolition of all imaginings, constant control; and a most practical and meticulous feeling for exactness in details in the perception of the world as it is.3
Therefore, education in ancient India was not exclusively for satisfying the brain, or the physical body, or training of the mind, but a mix to transform the entire psychic organism and overhaul the mental apparatus itself. Learning, conceptualized in this sense, was always in consonance with culture and civilization. Education and learning were tools for ensuring that an individual student did not deviate from the community’s vision, core values, and realities, which the community saw as supreme.
As education was a means to transmit culture and to remake the new generation in the image of the old, it prescribed primarily three steps to absorb learning.
These three steps were called: (i) śravaṇa, (ii) manana and (iii) nididhyāsana (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad). Śravaṇa, where one learns from the Gurus or elders of the family, was followed across communities, and learning from any other method was considered inappropriate. This is confirmed by Sāyana, who in his commentary on Ṛgveda, writes; “the text of Veda is to be learned by the method of learning it from the lips of the teacher and not from a manuscript.4” It was often a guru, or an elder, who, under the systems of guruparamparā and sampradāya paramparā, respectively, ensured “the uninterrupted ideal succession of pupils and teachers by which knowledge is conceived and transmitted.5”
The logic behind using śravaṇa as a method was that it was not mere reading that made one into a knowledgeable being, but an active realization. Because it emerged from the belief that knowledge was stored in each individual throughout the ages, and that this knowledge needed to be realized through the company (saṅgati) of an appropriate teacher, such a view of education saw immense potential even in newborns.
This perennialism that stressed teaching the eternal truths through identifying unique abilities within an individual found expression in other cultures/ civilizations, too. A similar view was propagated by Laotze, in the Tao Te Ching, arguing, “We are each unique, and therefore valuable. Although the sage wears coarse clothes, his heart is jade.6” The power that śravaṇa received as a method to impart and imbibe knowledge also stemmed from the belief that the śabda that made śravaṇa possible, itself, had its own intrinsic value and potency. Because śabda was regarded as God’s expression (śabda brahman), its characteristics, rhythms, and vibrations were prioritized when it came to teaching and learning. Receivers, who were frequently students, were expected to approach the giver’s or teacher’s words with reverence and absolute trust.
The sādhanā, or deliberate practice of śravaṇa, was followed by the next step, called manana. It was at manana level that a teacher’s words interacted with a student’s prior knowledge, and produced a more coherent and clearer picture of the topic. Ancient Indian texts stressed that the process of manana, or deliberation, reflection should not just result in an intellectual apprehension of a topic, but be followed by the six liṅgas, or signs; upakrama-upasaṃhārā, beginning-conclusion; abhyāsa, repetition; apūrvata, originality; phalam, result; arthavāda, eulogy; and upapatti, logical determination of meaning. This entire exercise culminated in a point where knowledge or learning approached the true state of knowledge, with the teacher’s words acting as a sharp knife, slicing through all unnecessary apprehensions and mental impurities. The guru’s or teacher’s knowledge was assimilated, with any inherent contradictions removed, through the process of manana.
Without the practice of nididhyāsana, or meditation, neither of the preceding steps would be complete. It was at this level that the soul was perfected. This point was dually noted in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, which stated; “the seeker after the highest knowledge should not seek knowledge of the books, for that is a mere weariness of the tongue.” The goal was to become one with the steady streams (pravāha) of higher consciousness through meditation (nididhyāsana). All of one’s inner life’s disharmonies were supposed to be removed at this stage via citta śuddhi, resulting in complete awareness of one’s individuality or self-hood. It was only after the processes of śravaṇa, manana, and nididhyāsana were achieved through complete devotion, that one received darśana, a deeper level of seeing, processed through the higher consciousness.