Conserving the Texts, Transmitting the Knowledge: The Place of Gurus in Ancient Indian Education
The uninterrupted transmission of knowledge would not have been possible without the intervention of excellent teachers, called gurus in Indian traditions.

The Vedas contain the seeds and sources from which the entire course of Hindu thought has been derived and has flowed in many streams throughout the ages. Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and educationist, and a lifetime student of science and spirituality, found in Vedas ‘the archives of Hindu wisdom’ which according to him, even if not in its original form, gives:

A faint idea of the sublime doctrines of the ancient teachers….and only the gaze of a clairvoyant, directed upon the mysteries of the past, may reveal the unuttered wisdom which lies hidden behind these writings.

Similar to, “the last precipitate, with a long and tangled past behind it of a literary activity of great and indefinite length,” as Bloomfield described them, they provided the Vedic society with a repository of culture, values, customs, and general know-how. While the last piece discussed how the processes of śravaṇa, manana, and nidhidhyāsana were central to the continuity of the civilizational/cultural ethos of the Vedic period, this part would attempt to discuss our ancient gurus and their methods, which made the attainment of these the highest ideals of learning, teaching, and methods possible.

Gurus as the Primary Source of Knowledge Transmission

The uninterrupted transmission of knowledge would not have been possible without the intervention of excellent teachers, called gurus in Indian traditions. The gurus, as bearers of the cultural and literary heritage, stressed the processes of śravaṇa, manana, and nidhidhyāsana to ensure their exact transferability to the next generation. It was mainly in the form of śruti (hearing) that knowledge flowed uninterrupted in the Vedic age. Because of its ‘revealed’ nature, where the original revelation of śruti was said to be by “seeing”; they were considered more authoritative knowledge, consisting of Vedic hymns, and mantras, called the saṃhitās, as well as the theological and philosophical speculations of the brāhmanas, araṇyakas, and upaniṣads. All this knowledge was distilled by gurus,

who were revered in traditional India as the custodians of cultural values and identity, as spiritual guides and mentors, far beyond their role as the purveyors of useful skills.

But how did teachers develop this higher level of consciousness, which Sri Aurobindo calls the ‘super mind’, and what was the source of their gigantic intellectuality, spirituality, and superhuman moral force that made the realization of the higher self and knowledge perfection possible?

Our scriptures provide the answer to this query, stating that it was the persistence in the practice of “tapas” that enabled Gurus to recognize the “revealed eternal timeless truths.” Based on the root tap (तप्) meaning “to heat, to give out warmth, to shine, to burn1“, the continued observation of this method led to the spiritual birth of ṛṣis – sages with spiritual insights. Thus, tapas was a method that transformed ordinary individuals into knowledgeable beings, providing them with the ability to have darśana (to see). Similarly, the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad states that the realization of self requires a search for truth and tapas. Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad, too, emphasizes the importance of tapas, contending that only through its persistence in practice can the right knowledge be grasped. Alternatively, the concepts of sādhanā or yoga have been used in place of tapas to make the claim that knowledge needs to be put through a moral and spiritual filter in order to be perfected. As a vehicle to pursue the highest truth and its direct realization, tapas could not be done unless one followed certain ascetic austerities as well as concentrated contemplation. In the Ṛgveda, there is a mention of seven ṛṣis absorbed in tapas (tapas ye abhiniviśate) and of the power of tapas in raising the lowest to the highest. Sāyaṇa, in his commentary on the Vedas, talks about penances of higher order, upāsanā, and yoga as some of the prerequisites for practicing tapas. Because of the rigour of their tapas, and samarpaṇa (devotion), ṛṣis are described as the gurus of the highest order.

After the ṛṣis came the munis, who have been defined by Śayana as “the seers of truths beyond the senses” and lived in the forests “clad in barks of trees, shining with the glow of tapas, attaining godly forms, and the free movement of the wind.2” Besides ṛṣi and muni, other terms indicative of the greatest spiritual advancements are vipra, vadhasa, and kavi. In the Ṛgveda (1.164.45), there is a reference to seers called manīṣī who comprehend vāk, or speech, in all its four forms3; parā-vāk, paśyanti, madhyamā, and vaikharī. Among these four, three forms are hidden in the depths of the soul, while the fourth is manifested as the speech of man, laukika bhāṣā. The highest kind of sound or speech is called parā-vāk. It emerges from the Supernal Ether (paramam vyomam), where all the sound vibrations that form the various worlds already exist in an undivided state. Then comes the paśyanti, the sound vibration heard in the causal worlds. At this level, one is capable of “glimpsing” truth in a vision or revelation. The madhyamā (middle) speech or sound, is where thoughts are perceived in the subtle or prāṇika world, comes next. Only the fourth, vaikharī, which arises from our throat, finds expression in the outside world. This is meant to support the claim that only those with tapas capacity can grasp the full truth. Another term for guru that finds mention in the Ṛgveda is “ācārya”—meaning literally, the person “who teaches right conduct” or, more likely, “he who must be approached.”

Conservation of the Text

For ṛṣis, the conservation of Vedic hymns or texts was supreme and they had to ensure that there was not a single alteration to their original accents, letters, syllables, or words. This was to ensure that the transmission of knowledge was not corrupted. And for this purpose, they created linguistic tools to preserve the sacred texts that have been passed down from the beginning of time in their pristine purity and original forms. They developed a high standard for verbal authenticity, which had been observed in the long interval between the rise of the hymns and their constitution by grammatical editors, of the extant phonetic text called the saṃhitā. These editors thus inherited an established tradition and literary practice, which they further improved and confirmed. But why did they feel a need to conserve these hymns/mantras in their exact form?

Jaiminī in his pūrva mīmāṃsā-sūtra, points out that there is more than one meaning of the hymns/mantras. These convey a mystical sense and convey unseen results, for which their mere recitation according to the prescribed order of the words and proper enunciation intonation is sufficient. But they also convey that the meaning of a sentence (vākyārtha) can always be deduced from the relations of its constituent parts, like verbs and cases. (Jaiminī, i, 2, 40)5. He goes on to argue that the mantras have threefold meanings: (i) spiritual (adhyātma), concerning knowledge and liberation (jñāna and mukti), (ii) etymological (nairukta), concerning objective truths, (iii) ritualistic (yājñika), concerning sacrifices6.

The principle by which the saṃhitā text was thus constructed suggests additional methods for preserving it against alterations or degradation over time. The text of the saṃhitā was originally presented in a form called the nirbhuja-saṃhitā (nirbhujaṃ saṃhitādhyayanamucyate). It was followed by the formation of a new text of the saṃhitā called the pratṛṇṇa saṃhitā in which every single word is shown in its independent and phonetically un­modified form, and compounds are separated into their elements (śauddhākṣaroccāraṇaṃ ca pratṛṇṇam). It is technically called pada-pāṭha, or “word-text”. To ensure accuracy, a second device was resorted to, in what is called the krama-pāṭha, or “step-text,” where every word of the pada-pāṭha appears twice to be pronounced both after the preceding and after. Thus, a b c d representing the first four words, would be read as ab, bc, cd. The full scheme of vedic recitation ultimately developed into various forms as a means of preserving the purity of the original vedic text.

The relationship between teacher and students

In the texts of Taittirīya Upaniṣad, there is a mention of a dyadic relationship between the teacher and students: “Next concerning the Knowledge. The master or teacher is the first form; the disciple is the latter form; Knowledge is the linking.7” The highest knowledge was thus built up by ṛṣis or seers, conserved and transmitted to posterity. The relationship between teacher and students was well established and the methods of teaching varied with the capacity of students. As the Ṛgveda itself points out, classmates (sakhās), those of the same knowledge or who have studied the same śāstra may have equality in the possession of their senses, like the eye and the ear, but may show inequality in respect of their power of mind or speed. Sāyaṇa, in his commentary on Ṛgveda argues that there are three grades of students; the mahāprajanana, the madhyama prajñāna, and the alpaprajñāna; students of high, medium, and low ability. Teachers generally encouraged students to be persistent and ask the right questions, in order to draw the correct answers8, but the teacher may also be helpful, as a frequent phrase in Patañjali’s Mahābhāṣya suggests, and treat students as sahṛda bhutvā, “as a friend.”

The ideals of life and education embodied in them became the accepted ideals of India as a civilization and found expression in all its art forms. Though some questions might still linger on; like what were some of the finest achievements of these ṛṣis? What were their achievements in language, thought, and in the growth of the inquisitive spirit of ancient Indians? Additionally, there must have been a considerable amount of non-religious education that had built up economic life in the Vedic period? So, what were some of those achievements in the various arts, crafts, agriculture, industry, and trade, etc. The next article will have answers to some of these questions.


1. Apte, Vaman Shivaram.The practical Sanskrit-English dictionary.Poona : Shiralkar, 1890
2. Sāyaṇa’s commentary on the Ṛgveda
3. catvāri vāk parimitā padāni tāni vidur brāhmaṇā ye manīṣiṇaḥ | guhā trīṇi nihitā neṅgayanti turīyaṃ vāco manuṣyā vadanti || (Ṛgveda 1.164.45)
4. upanīya tu yaḥ śiṣyaṃ vedamadhyāpayed dvijaḥ | sakalpaṃ sarahasyaṃ ca tamācāryaṃ pracakṣate || 140 || “They call that brahmin who initiates a pupil and teaches him the Veda together with the ritual and esoteric texts an ācārya.”
5. Smith, F. M. (1993). Thinking Ritually: Rediscovering the Pūrva Mīmāṃsā of Jaiminī.
6. Thadani, N. V. (2007). Mimamsa Sutra of Jaimini. Delhi, India: Bharatiya Kala Prakashan.
7. athādhividyam| ācāryaḥ pūrvarūpam| antevāsyuttararūpam‌| vidyā sandhiḥ| pravacanaṃ sandhānam‌|ityadhividyam‌|
8. Olivelle, JAOS 119 (1999), pp.61, 66
– Altekar, A. S. (2009). Education in ancient India. Gyan Publishing House.
– Aurobindo, S. (1966). Sri Aurobindo and the mother on education. Sri Aurobindo Ashram.
– Bloomfield, M. (1908). The Religion of the Veda: The ancient religion of India (from Rig-Veda to Upanishads) (Vol. 7). GP Putnam’s sons.
– Kaelber, W. O. (1976). “Tapas”, Birth, and Spiritual Rebirth in the Veda. History of Religions, 15(4), 343-386.
– Mazumdar, N. N. (1932). A History of Education in Ancient India, 2nd ed.
– Majumdar, R. C. (2016). Ancient India. Motilal Banarsidass.
– Mark Hanna Watkins (1963), in George D. Spindler (ed.), Education and Culture, New York.
– Mookerji, R. (1989). Ancient Indian Education: Brahmanical and Buddhist (Vol. 11). Motilal Banarsidass Publication
– Olivelle, P. (1996). trans. Upanishadas.
– Scharfe, H. (2018). Education in ancient India. Brill.
– Steiner, R. (2007). Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and its Attainment. Book Tree.
By Anurag Shukla
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