Bṛhat

Ṛgvedic Education:  Creating Civilizational Foundations for the Future
Results of the tapas and intellectuality of our ṛṣis and and how, through education, they imparted essential faculties.

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By Anurag Shukla

Anurag is a doctoral student at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. He is a recipient of prestigious fellowships such as JPAL and Star Scholars’ Program. His research interests include the discourse technology in education, history of education, decolonizing education, arts and culture, and the civilizational heritage of India.

In the first article of this series on Vedic education, we examined how the processes of śravaṇa, manana, and nididhyāsana (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad) were central to the pedagogical formulations of the Vedic period, while the second article elaborated on how ṛṣis played a crucial role in preserving the knowledge and passing it on to the next generation. This third article examines some of the results of the tapas and the enormous intellectuality of our ṛṣis and gurus and how, through education, they imparted the faculties of memory, discernment, imagination, perception, reasoning, etc., to build the spiritual and moral force that we see pulsating in our ancient philosophy, in the supreme poetry, art, jurisprudence, logic, metaphysics, sculpture, and the unique social structure. As rightly noted by A. S. Altekar, the objective of Vedic education was to approach knowledge as “a third eye of man, which gave him insight into all affairs and taught him how to act. In the spiritual sphere, it led to salvation; in the mundane sphere, it led to all-round progress and prosperity.

The illumination achieved by such education “dispelled all delusions, eliminated obstacles, and enabled students to recognize life’s true values” (Sharma & Sharma, 1996, p.1). As one of the most significant periods in India’s history, this period witnessed tremendous growth in many fields, including language, thought, philosophy, medicine, agriculture, industry, and commerce. Numerous ancient texts were compiled during this time and are still regarded as the most reliable sources of information about our history.

Language and Thought Evolution During the Vedic Era

The curriculum of Vedic education included a wide range of subjects. The primary subjects taught in gurukulas were; grammar, rhetoric, astrology/astronomy, logic, and etymological interpretation of words (nirukta). Six vedāṅgas were also part of the curriculum, which emphasized the performance of rituals and sacrifices, correct pronunciation, knowledge of prosody, etymology, grammar, and astrology/astronomy. The study of logic occupied a unique position because knowledge of all other subjects was evaluated based on logic.

Its entire grammatical mechanism was perfected; every tense, mood, number, and person of the verb were fixed, and all the terminations of the cases were firmly established, indicating a more advanced inflectional stage in a language’s life history. Radha Kumud Mookerjee argues that Ṛgvedic Saṃskṛta exhibits “a greater variety of forms than classical Saṃskṛta, including more numerous case forms in both nominal and pronominal inflection, more participles and gerunds; and greater evolution of verbal forms as evidenced by the frequent use of the subjunctive and the infinitive, which alone has twelve forms, of which only one has survived in classical Saṃskṛta.

Under the Vedic education system, grammar and pronunciation were emphasized and considered necessary for comprehending the text (pada) of the Vedas. This is reflected in Yaska’s comment in Nirukta, where he argued that the teacher “must avoid teaching isolated syllables (eka-padāni) and should not also teach pupils who are ignorant of grammar (avyākaraṇdayā) nor anyone who is not a regular pupil living with his teacher (na anupasannaya). Only those students who are especially qualified by their intelligence (medhāvī) or asceticism (tapasvī) or thirst for knowledge.“

Consequently, Ṛgvedic Saṃskṛta is of great significance to Comparative Philology. Indeed, as Bunsen correctly notes, “even these earliest examples of Vedic poetry belong to the modern history of humanity.” Macdonell also states, “Given their great age, the hymns display a remarkable level of metrical skill and language command.” He also notes that the Ṛgveda contains “much genuine poetry,” “much beautiful and noble imagery,” a “remarkably high average of literary merit,” and that

Its most poetical hymns, those addressed to Uṣā, rival, if not surpass, the religious lyrics of any other literature in terms of beauty

Mathematics: Decimal and Place Value

The Ṛgveda displays numbers in the decimal system, as do all other Vedic treatises and other Indian writings that followed. The Ṛgveda contains the current Saṃskṛta single-word terms for the nine primary numbers: eka (1), dvi (2), tri (3), catur (4), pañca (5), ṣaṣṭa (6), sapta (7), aṣṭa (8) and nava (9); the first nine multiples of ten (mostly derived from above): daśa (10), vimsati (20), triṃśat (30), catvāriṃśat (40), pañcāśat (50), ṣaṣṭi (60), saptati (70), aśīti (80) and navati (90) etc. For compound numbers, above decimal are merged to give them them the nomenclature.; e.g., “seven hundred and twenty” is expressed as ‘sapta śatāni viṃśatiś’ in Ṛgveda (1.164.11). Bavare and Divakaran (2014) have demonstrated that the combination fits the Saṃskṛta grammatical principles of nominal composition, which were adopted during the Vedic period and articulated by Pānini much later.

Mathematicians have praised the two remarkable inventions embodied in decimal notation: the concept of “place-value” and “zero.” French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace, who invented Laplace’s equation, and pioneered the Laplace transform, writes (1814 CE):

It is India that gave us the ingenious method of expressing all numbers by means of ten symbols, each symbol receiving a value of position as well as an absolute value; a profound and important idea which appears so simple to us now that we ignore its true merit. But its very simplicity, the great ease which it has lent to all computations, puts our arithmetic in the first rank of useful inventions; and we shall appreciate the grandeur of this achievement the more when we remember that it escaped the genius of Archimedes and Apollonius, two of the greatest men produced by antiquity.

Another mathematician G.B. Halsted, who explored foundations of geometry and introduced non-Euclidean geometry into the United States, captures beautifully the power of the place-value of zero (quoted in Dantzig’s Number: The Language of Science);

The importance of the creation of the zero mark can never be exaggerated. This giving to airy nothing, not merely a local habitation and a name, a picture, a symbol, but helpful power, is the characteristic of the Hindu race whence it sprang. It is like coining the Nirvāṇa into dynamos. No single mathematical creation has been more potent for the general on-go of intelligence and power.

Agriculture, Industry, and Trade in Ṛgvedic Period

Considerable progress was made in every aspect of life in Ṛgvedic period, whether it be in the economic, political, or religious spheres. This development was dependent on both religious and non-religious education. Individuals relied on their family and community networks for occupational education, and advancement in these areas of life rested upon a suitable technical, industrial, and commercial education system, which found its outlet in a commensurate diversity of jobs. While there is no direct evidence in Ṛgveda for such an educa­tion, a hint of it can be found in the following verse (RV 9.112.1):

ना॒ना॒नं वा उ॑ नो॒ धियो॒ वि व्र॒तानि॒ जना॑नाम् । तक्षा॑ रि॒ष्टं रु॒तं भि॒षग्ब्र॒ह्मा सु॒न्वन्त॑मिच्छ॒तीन्द्रा॑येन्दो॒

“Various are our acts, (various) are the occupations of men; the carpenter desires timber, the physician disease, the brāhmaṇa a worshipper who effuses Soma; flow, Indu for Indra.”

There are several such references in the text of the Ṛgveda where economic occupations of the period are discussed, indicating a widespread occupational education. There was considerable advancement in pasturing, cattle-farming, and agriculture. The Ṛgveda (10.34.13) advises for agriculture as the best means of gaining wealth (kṛṣim it kṛṣasva vitte ramasva bahu manyamānaḥ). It also states that the fertile or productive area may become a wasteland or uncultivable land as a result of the blaze (uta khilyā urvarāṇāṃ bhavantī).

The domesticated animals included sheep, goats, asses, and dogs used for hunting, cattle guarding, cattle tracking, and nighttime surveillance. Many Ṛgvedic hymns have mentions of oxens, and horses, which were used for agriculture, as well as for protecting human habitations from enemy attacks. Since much of Vedic agriculture depended on rains, clouds which brought rains are personified as a deity (tak kṛṣiḥ parjanyo devatā). The Ṛgveda describes four types of water that was used for agricultural purposes; (1) rain (divyāḥ), (2) from well (khanitrima), (3) natural (svayaṃjāḥ) and (4) from those rivers which are mixed with sea (samudrārthāḥ).

Vedic people preferred to wear different clothing for different occasions. And for this purpose, they made great progress in weaving. The term for cotton in Saṃskṛta is kārpāsa. There are numerous references to textile fabrics created during this period in the available Ṛgvedic literature. A weaver in the Ṛgvedic period is being described as vāsovāya, whereas a female weaver was called vayitrī. The equipment utilized in this trade included thread-rolling wickets, shuttles, and looms. A Ṛgvedic hymn says, “I know not either warp or woof. I know not the web they weave where moving to the contest.” This indicates that the textiles as trade was at a fairly developed stage.

Similarly, other artisan groups like rathakāra (chariot-maker) and takṣa (carpenter) enjoyed high social status as they considered the local king their client. Professionals like blacksmiths and leather were fairly established and supplied various utensils made of metals, bowstrings, slings, whips, etc. Vedic metallurgy was at an advanced stage with a Ṛgvedic hymn stating, “the gods [are] smelting like copper/metal ore the human generations.“

The Ṛgvedic literature uses terms like vānij and vānija for traders and merchants. Ṛgvedic literature also mentions the samudra, speaking of Varuṇa’s knowledge of the ocean routes (samudriyaḥ) along which ships sail. One verse also mentions samudra in the context of merchants, however, it is unclear whether ancient Vedic people engaged in commerce with other maritime nations. Similarly, Ṛgvedic texts define various Vedic houses in accordance to their characteristics as gṛha (R.V., 3.53.3, 4.49.6, 6.2.8), sadma (R.V., 7.8.22) prasadma (R.V., 8.10.1) chardis (R.V, 6.15.3) sarma (R.V., 8.40.12), veśma (R.V., 10.146.3), harmya (R.V., 7.55.6, 8.5.23, 10.73.10), etc.

With the above description of various strands of non-religious life in the Ṛgvedic period, we can safely argue that Vedic education went beyond reciting mantras and was integral to all facets of an individual’s life and profession. There is great learning here for all of us, to carefully read our scriptures and śāstras, to know how our ancestors created a society based on a strong educational foundation. This learning has to be continued for the totality of our lives as Sri Aurobindo argues, in his book, The Secret of the Veda, that the “

Vedic symbolism as worked out in the hymns is too complex in its details……and we can only at present seek out the leading clues and lay as securely as may be the right foundations.”
References:
  • ALTEKAR, A. S. (2009). EDUCATION IN ANCIENT INDIA. GYAN PUBLISHING HOUSE.
    AUROBINDO, S. (1966). SRI AUROBINDO AND THE MOTHER ON EDUCATION. SRI AUROBINDO ASHRAM.
  • BAVARE, B., & DIVAKARAN, P. P. (2014). GENESIS AND EARLY EVOLUTION OF ENUMERATION: EVIDENCE FROM NUMBER NAMES IN RIGVEDA.
  • DANTZIG, T. (1931). NUMBER: THE LANGUAGE OF SCIENCE. BULL. AMER. MATH. SOC, 37(9).
  • DUTT, R. C. (1887). ART. IV.-THE SOCIAL LIFE OF THE HINDUS IN THE RIG-VEDA PERIOD. CALCUTTA REVIEW, 85(169), 49-97.
  • HALSTED, G. B. ON THE FOUNDATION AND TECHNIC OF ARITHMETIC (CONTINUED). THE OPEN COURT, 1911(3), 2.
  • MACDONELL, A. A. (1922). HYMNS FROM THE RIGVEDA.
  • MOOKERJI, R. (1989). ANCIENT INDIAN EDUCATION: BRAHMANICAL AND BUDDHIST (VOL. 11). MOTILAL BANARSIDASS PUBLICATION
  • PANDEY, S. (2005, January). TECHNIQUE OF COTTON TEXTILE IN ANCIENT INDIA (UPTO 6 TH CENTURY AD). IN THE PROCEEDINGS OF THE INDIAN HISTORY CONGRESS (VOL. 66, PP. 191-198).
  • SHARMA, R. N., & SHARMA, R. K. (1996). HISTORY OF EDUCATION IN INDIA. ATLANTIC PUBLISHERS & DIST.
  • WOJTILLA, G. (2003). WHAT CAN the ŖGVEDA TELL US ON AGRICULTURE?. ACTA ORIENTALIA, 56(1), 35-48.
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