Gurukulavāsa – Making a Śiṣya Out of a Vidyārthī
The thrust of all gurukula education of yore was towards self knowledge. Only by knowing our true selves can we claim to be wholesome.

मायां तु प्रकृतिं विद्यान्मायिनं च महेश्वरम् ।
तस्यावयवभूतैस्तु व्याप्तं सर्वमिदं जगत् ॥

māyāṃ tu prakṛtiṃ vidyānmāyinaṃ ca maheśvaram
tasyāvayavabhūtaistu vyāptaṃ sarvamidaṃ jagat

Know, then, that prakṛti is māyā and that Great God is the Lord of māyā. The whole universe is filled with objects which are parts of its being. (māyā is the Energy (prakṛti), while God is the Energetic)

ŚvetĀŚvatara upaniṢad 4.10

Indigenous Knowledge Traditions, or for us Indic Knowledge Systems (IKS) is a cultural memeplex composed of the Vaidika, Jaina, Bauddha, Vanavāsi and Folk knowledge systems who share the foundation of Dharma metaphysics. This evolved as a result of complex interactions and lived experiences between these cultures. It is a symphony between bottom up feedback loop and a highly sophisticated systematization.

As many of us are aware, the ancient knowledge in India was preserved and transmitted ‘orally’ until a few centuries back. There was an uninterrupted lineage of ‘Guru–Śiṣya’ that took responsibility for the preservation and transmission of knowledge down the generations. Quite often, the teacher student was a father-son combination and a group of related family members. These people formed a clan, who preserved the knowledge, practiced it by making a living, and transmitted it to their offspring. The use of print media in recent history and the palm leaf scripts earlier have served to formally capture this oral knowledge and store it. Unfortunately, due to major changes in the educational system introduced in India about 200 years back, there was an abrupt end to this process of knowledge transmission and the continuity is mostly lost.

The newly introduced educational system demanded the society acquire only such knowledge as made available through the educational system. Those who aligned themselves to the new educational system were assured of jobs and salaries by the ruling class. Arguably, it would have taken about 50 years for most of the population to abandon old ways of doing things and come ‘on board’ the new system that promises economic prosperity. Once this transition happened, the oral transmission dwindled dramatically, creating a sudden void and loss of continuity, thereby confining the knowledge to whatever was available in palm leaf manuscripts and other archives and personal collections.

We have continued with the British system of education in independent India, by keeping the ancient knowledge repository out of consideration. Therefore, today’s formal educational system in India has, for historical reasons partly attributable to the British policymakers on education, has kept the ancient Indian knowledge heritage out of the reach of the education system, arguably citing reasons of lack of rigour and scientific value.

At Bṛhat we center ourselves in this purpose to bring dormant civilizational vision to light, through stories and ideas that ignite imagination and rekindle cultural belonging.

We have seen the ideals of learning and methods of learning in ancient India and how ancient texts are conserved to transmit knowledge, where Anurag Shukla (Director Policy Research, Education, at Brhat) takes a deep dive into our traditional educational system. But when we say that our Indic Knowledge Systems (IKS) are wholesome and experiential what do we actually mean by that?

The thrust of all vaidika education is towards self knowledge. Only by knowing our true selves can we claim to be wholesome. And this was the thrust of the gurukulams of yore. This paramparā which continues to be extant is the core of sanātana dharma and of the IKS. And the place where central transmission of such a knowledge of self takes place is called a gurukulam. It is a place which requires us to suspend our cynicism and to make a cognitive shift in our way of seeing and knowing something. It is a physical space yet rooted in the imagination and the minds of the gurus who steer it with dexterity. A gurukulam asks of us to relax and join in on the ride to self actualization and self discovery.

The development of the individual here is not merely intellectual or physical, but also psychological – there is a holistic overall expansiveness that is envisaged by the educators of yore that it is mind boggling to even imagine the same level of scale and depth in today’s education system. IKS includes the pedagogy of guru śiṣya paramparā, the passing down of knowledge from one to another in a systematic manner, as also by family members or via vṛddha vyavahāra. Of this the transmission of classical Hindu dance and music is well known to us, and that is how haṭha yoga is taught too. But, is this all there is to it? How many of us have seen the insides of a traditional gurukulam, do we genuinely know what happens in there? Is it just another boarding school, simply more rustic and basic? Or is it one of those haute couture āśramas that foreigners flock to which are best avoided by ‘normal’ Indian people?

To answer the last question first: A gurukulam is an āśrama, yes, but an āśrama need not be a gurukulam.

āśrama, āsamantāt śramaha – total complete perfect spiritual exertion, so much so that this exertion is effortless, leading to a restful and peaceful state. An āśrama is thus for contemplation, for resting, for acquiring peace of mind, it is for retiring one’s overused senses, a space apt for a getaway from the worldly struggles. One may attend spiritual talks, do haṭha yoga or dhyāna, yet it is all done with a spirit of relaxation. Whereas a gurukulam is meant for making a man out of a boy, a woman out of a girl. An adult out of a child. A place where one learns a skill, a craft, ample discipline, where one learns ācāra, sādhanā, tapasyā, directly from one’s guru in a class setting and indirectly by living under the same roof and serving. It is an abode where one is taught on how to deal with this world and the next, as also on how to exit this worldly cycle.

A vaidika gurukulam gives its inhabitant a way out of this rigged game called life, and even better, tools to face it with good cheer. Armed with such knowledge the antevāsi, becomes more than a vidyārthi, someone who merely seeks to know or has knowledge as his purpose, s/he becomes a śiṣya – worthy of being taught and worthy of the learning given. Such a student is qualified to be taught the grand truths of life by the guru, s/he comes prepared either before joining the gurukulam or acquires the eligibility while staying in one. What is taught is timeless and priceless. Be it the karma kāṇḍa which enables one to acquire fame, longevity, wealth or jñāna kāṇḍa that assures mokṣa. Any traditional gurukulam thus concerns itself by teaching the Vedas; how to attain dharma, artha and kāma in this world, plus heaven in the next via karma kāṇḍa and/or how to ‘acquire’ mokṣa or absolute oneness via jñāna kāṇḍa.

The know-how taught in such a gurukulam via śruti pramāṇa and gurumukhāt – from the Vedas through the medium of one’s revered teacher – is not something that can be understood or assimilated simply by reading these texts. It is a complete system to make a well adjusted person who is not a threat to oneself or to society when s/he comes out of it post the graduation, which usually lasted twelve years in the past. A gurukulam makes a contributor out of a consumer.

When a system is developed over ages it is designed to produce certain certified results, and this is possible only if we follow the parameters inherent in it without fail. ‘For most people’ is the disclaimer! We say that the greats like Aurobindo or Ramana Maharishi, had no known guru perhaps in this janma but they probably had them in previous births and are born in this age fully formed, but the śāstras are clear on the śrotriya and brahmaniṣṭha part, all the Upaniṣads concur on this. Most of us need proper teaching and proper discipline, only one in a million can be born an Aurobindo but via proper teaching ANYONE can become an Aurobindo, this is the promise of the mahāvākyas.

When we read the Vedas or the Upaniṣads we are going against this very well designed system which asks of us to hear the teaching from a śrotriya and brahmaniṣṭha – an ācāryā who walks his talk literally, someone whose behaviour one ought to emulate – such a person who is part of a traditional sampradāya, a lineage, and has been taught the whole pedagogy by others who have come before him and is also someone who revels in the study and contemplation of brahman. The system asks of us to find such a teacher, one who can be called a guru, someone who can remove the darkness of our ignorance regarding: who we really are, of what our real essence is, of what our relationship to the universe is, and where we are headed after death. And why does it say go to a guru and LISTEN to the guru not READ with the guru?

If the mind does not know answers to any of the above questions, how can that very same mind produce any meaningful answers! Seeking solutions and clarifications to the questions and doubts of the mind from the mind will therefore yield no result, and it will in fact make us more frustrated with the whole spiritual pursuit. Secondly the mind plays tricks by resurrecting the ego the ahaṃkāra when one reads anything, it talks incessantly – that cannot be true, I read that somewhere …, but he said, she said, in my view this is bunkum….For IKS to work, when it comes to learning the secrets of the Vedas especially, we must lay this chatter to rest. A place where we allow it to do so and learn from a guru on how to live in this world with our full potential and also exit gracefully from this worldly stage is called a gurukulam.

The unique pedagogy is not just about preaching moral science on being a ‘good’ person and teaching impressionable minds that they are born sinners or that those who pray to idols are kafirs. There is no room for brainwashing or blind belief or hate for the other in a traditional gurukulam. If more Indians students went to gurukulams instead of regular schools there would be no one on the streets protesting over remarks by anyone for speaking the truth. For truth seeking is the primary subject of these gurukulams.

What is the truth? How do we define it? How can we know it? Sat is that which exists, asti iti, and it exists in all three periods of time, trikālepi tiṣṭhati, it is in the here and now, in you and me and everyone, in everything. And it is of the nature of existence, consciousness, and joy- abādhitam sat. Truth is also that which can never be negated, ever. And that absolute truth is you and me. That is what we wish to re-discover in a gurukulam. A lifetime is spent trying to reflect on this grand truth and assimilating it in daily life without vagueness, doubt and habitual error. That is what takes place in a gurukulam; a two pronged learning where one listens to a guru who is well versed in the subject and where one also emulates the guru since s/he is also the ācāryā who leads by example. There is academic learning, physical work, psychological healing along with religious and spiritual development.

A gurukulam encourages truth seeking and truth speaking above all, all prayers and all religious activities ask for universal health and universal happiness. These prayers exist for animals and plants too, not just humans, and for gurus, pitṛs, bhūtas, pretas also, no one is outside the fold of a sanātani, a Hindu. Hate for others or incitement of violence or telling false stories and creating a vicious atmosphere of us versus them is not to be seen at all in such sacred spaces. There is no scheming to increase one’s numbers by any means possible, nor is it a practice to run down others to prove oneself superior. Whatever criticism is done, is done academically as a critique, as pūrva pakśa, taking an opponent’s point of view, discussing it threadbare and addressing those points systematically from one’s own standpoint. In the manner of all scientists. A gurukulam is a vaidika laboratory of truth seekers.

How does one get to be a part of such an ideal accommodation? What are the qualifications required to survive and thrive in such lodgings?

तद्विद्धि प्रणिपातेन परिप्रश्नेन सेवया |
उपदेक्ष्यन्ति ते ज्ञानं ज्ञानिनस्तत्त्वदर्शिन: ||

tad viddhi praṇipātena paripraśnena sevayā
upadekṣyanti te jñānaṃ jñāninas tattva-darśinaḥ


The above verse talks of how to approach a guru. praṇipātena, with humility, which is a hallmark of a true scholar. One is a brāhmaṇa when one is full of vidyā and vinaya, possessing a vision of oneness along with humility. In a gurukulam there is ample opportunity to bend, to bow, to fall at one’s guru’s feet. Others may say they bow only before god. But we say everyone is god, everyone is divine, there is nothing but god (Pujya Swami Dayananda Saraswati ji, Arsha Vidya Gurukulam), so we bow to that divinity in all. And we bow to that scholarship and goodness represented by such knowledge.

There is also the added aspect of living in close proximity with the same community 24/7 in a gurukulam. A lot of adjustment and compassion is needed to spend time with people, to be in good humour all the time – both on good and bad days. All this needs a lot of humility on the part of the student who intends to know the self. paripraśnena, by asking the right questions regarding the self appropriately and having a samvāda is the best way to learn, where there is an agreeable dialogue between the teacher and student. Whether it is Kaṭhopaniṣad or Kena, whether it is Muṇḍaka or even Hitopadeśa or Pañcatantra, the Q/A form of learning and teaching is highly regarded in our revealed scriptures and is the modus operandi in any gurukulam.

Satsaṅga is the time for clarifying one’s doubts and developing a better understanding of the subject matter as also on worldly issues, no question is deemed silly nor is any question deemed blasphemous. Of course there is no such concept of blasphemy, of heresy, of killing others because they hurt or upset our position, there is no precedent of using history to claim a truth and then using that to finish off the opponents. Taking offense at facts and not allowing any questioning or pūrva pakśa reveals the immaturity of a thought system, an unfortunate deep rooted malice which has engulfed our society today. Yes, gurukulam training prevents such a short fuse and thin skin.

Lastly, sevayā, by service. Doing sevā to the teacher and the gurukulam is a time honored tradition that prepares a novice to perform karma yoga in his/her post-gurukulam life. Karma yoga is not doing a lot of action or doing charitable action but doing every act with an attitude of gratitude, with a sense of offering to the divine and complete acceptance of whatever the results might bring. So any and every act becomes karma yoga when performed with īśvarārpaṇa and prasāda buddhi. The puruṣārthas i.e. the goals of our life are thus obtained via karma yoga even while indulging in the pañca mahā yajñas, where offerings are made to one’s guests, teachers, ancestors, deities, surroundings, and neighbours, to express one’s acknowledgement and to pay back our debt to them. Dharma, artha, kāma, pursuit of all these is legitimized and sanctified by having vidhi niṣedhas: the do’s and don’ts of each pursuit, by setting maryādās: limitations, boundaries of these pursuits. Marriage is also a form of karma yoga and a gurukula study would help its students to better appreciate where marriage fits in one’s life in the grand scheme of things. Where it is not an end in itself for the mere pleasure and fulfillment of the individuals involved but in fact a means to sublimate our egos in service of oneness.

These three: praṇipātena, paripraśnena, sevayā, are external factors of how one can become a model student in a gurukulam. What about the internal values that s/he must possess for the much touted total transformation? (Swami Sadatmananda Saraswati, Arsha Vidya Gurukulam)

श्रद्धावान् लभते ज्ञानं तत्पर: संयतेन्द्रिय: |
ज्ञानं लब्ध्वा परां शान्तिमचिरेणाधिगच्छति ||

śraddhāvānlabhate jñānaṃ tat-paraḥ saṃyatendriyaḥ
jñānaṃ labdhvā parāṃ śāntim acireṇādhigacchati


Śraddhā, tatparatā, and saṃyatendriya are three qualities mentioned in the same Chapter Four (4.39). These are internal factors that completely transform a person. Having faith in the texts and in the guru (who of course is śrotriya and brahmaniṣṭha) and doing all that the śāstra expects of us as students is śraddhā, which is not blind faith but faith pending understanding (Swamini Svatmavidyananada Saraswati, Arsha Vijnana Gurukulam). Tatparatā is having the commitment to the goal of mokṣa. Most of our society’s problems today stem from the lack of that tatparatā, not having that commitment towards mokṣa instead falling for the lure of short term finite material benefits. Appreciating what mokṣa really means makes everything else fall into place, mokṣa is freedom from want. Any want. It is freedom from insecurity and fear. It is freedom while living our day-to-day lives. It is freedom from validation of others, from acceptance by others, it is freedom to be one’s own person. It is freedom to be joyful all the time in every place, in any situation. Why should we deny ourselves and our future generations such a learning? All our actions and our relationships, everything then is a means and a deliberate design towards mokṣa, so we indulge in karma yoga and not give into fulfilling our personal likes and dislikes, our rāga dveśas, which only enhance our ego. Which when indulged literally separates us from the whole, from the oneness, from who we are in reality. So we learn to let go of our binding desires, and fulfill desires which are rooted in dharma. And finally saṃyatendriya, having indriya and mano nigraha, i.e. having our mind and senses organs under our self management where they do not run away with our indulgences and prejudices. Where I tell my senses what to see, hear, eat, talk, touch and not the other way around where the senses control me and my behaviour.

Such a level of sādhanā and tapasyā is essential at an early age for letting the human potential flourish and flower in an organic way. This is how a human was shaped with both external and internal chiseling of character and behaviour, whose total development was done without allowing it to fall prey to negative tendencies. A vaidika gurukulam is a spiritual boot camp with a philosophical flavour turning out an army of people who are well disciplined and well adjusted in society, contributing every which way to their fullest. Does such a place exist only in dreams, as a utopian agenda, a shangri la of yore? No, I have lived and studied in one such gurukulam and it has indeed transformed the way I look at the world and myself.

Arsha Vidya Gurukulam (AVG) founded by Pujya Swami Dayananda Saraswati ji is an embodiment of what we talk of as experiential learning, of an IKS in practice. Of living and learning the gurukulam way. In the upcoming series we can take a peek inside to see what gurukulam life looks like.

By Kavita Krishna Meegama
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