Indian Education system in 18th Century through the lens of a Gandhian-Part 1

Indian Education System
Representational Image. Source : sarvajnapeetha.org
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At the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London on 20 October 1931 at Chatham House London Gandhiji said:

…That does not finish the picture. We have the education of this future state. I say without fear of my figures being challenged successfully, that today India is more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago, and so is Burma, because the British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and began to look at the root, and left the root like that, and the beautiful tree perished. The village schools were not good enough for the British administrator, so he came out with his programme. Every school must have so much paraphernalia, building, and so forth. Well, there were no such schools at all. There are statistics left by a British administrator which show that, in places where they have carried out a survey, ancient schools have gone by the board, because there was no recognition for these schools, and the schools established after the European pattern were too expensive for the people, and therefore they could not possibly overtake the thing. I defy anybody to fulfill a programme of compulsory primary education of these masses inside of a century. This very poor country of mine is ill able to sustain such an expensive method of education. Our state would revive the old village schoolmaster and dot every village with a school both for boys and girls.

This statements by Gandhiji although were challenged by Sir Philip Hartlog, (a educationalist) remained unanswered due to certain circumstances. Shri. Dharampalji, a Gandhian thinker in his book, ‘The Beautiful Tree‘ gives a rebuttal of the claims made by Sir Philip Hartlog by giving a substantial data obtained from the Educational survey done under different presidencies by the independent orientalists and their respective Governors.

Dharampal,an Indian Gandhian thinker known for his views on the cultural, scientific and technological achievements of Indian society at the eve of the British conquest


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Ancient civilized India was known for its education across all over Asia and Europe. There are well-known writings on the Nalanda and Taxila University. Travellers like ancient Greek historian Megasthenes (302 BC), Fa-hien, the Chinese traveller who spent some time in Patliputra monastery, I-tsing (671-695 AD) who came to India by sea-route & spent ten years in Nalanda University were awestruck with the depth and the traditional education in India. But due to the onslaught of the Islamic invasions the education,learning and sciences were scattered in to dust. Among those is the well-known episode of Bakhtiyar Khilji invading Bihar in 1197 AD and killing of the Brahmin inhabitants to death. Even after the long onslaught of the invasions on the worship places and learnings the invaders could not reach everywhere and hence education system even though mauled continued to survive.

After around 1500 AD lots of European travellers and adventurers who had different , societies manners, religions and philosophies altogether started wandering in India. Even their european educational methods were quite different from whatever they observed in India. A tradition of writing, narration, description, and printing had already spread in Europe by that time. Fra Paolino Da Bartolomeo (A.D. 1796) and of Alexander Walker (ca 1820) were such European travellers who have written in their accounts with deep reverence about the functioning of the schools, the methods of teachings and the subjects taught in India.

Until 1770, the British primarily in different parts had interests in mercantile, technological, crafts areas, so as to influence their dominion in India. The britishers were perhaps introverted in nature to the Indian philosophies, scholarships, teachings and learnings even after given a fact that the travellers like Petra della Valle whose accounts on ‘Methods of teaching in Indian Schools’ were eye-catching. Not to the surprise that these travellers were none other than elites of the European society. The reason for the apathy could be attributed to the fact that the higher education in Europe was limited to the elites of the society and the elementary education was seldom active especially after the protestant revolution.

According to A.E Dobbs, after the protestant movement in mid-16th century, the right to private reading of the Bible was granted only to nobles, merchants and was denied to the labourers, artificers prentices so as to avoid certain symptoms of disorder with the free use of scriptures. The movement caused, ‘ploughman’s son to go to the plough and the artificers son to apply for his parent vocation’. But in around late 17th century a trend of slow reversal was observed where some efforts were made to bring in labour class to religious teachings with object of preparing the poor by studying the bible for Sunday worship but this too became dormant. In 1780s a educational approach was initiated but with the maxim of missionary enterprise so that each and every child should learn to read the Bible. The Peel’s Act of 1802 gave a force to school movement but as per Dobbs, “ the practical effect was not great”. A monitorial method was said to be borrowed from India by A. Bell which greatly helped education to advance. The number of schools were 3,363 in 1801 which reached to 46,114 in 1851. But due to incompetent and ignorant teachers the average schooling year increased from 1 year to 2 years in 1851. Hence, the elementary education was quite fragile and an uncommon commodity in Britain.

Like Taxila and Nalanda, Britain had Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh universities from where travellers, scholars or judges came to India. Adam Ferguson(1775) asked his student ‘ to select a district and procure all possible information like different classes, occupations, resources, way of life etc’. A. Maconochie(1783) advocated, discovering, collecting Hindoo works and thought that if British procured this works to Europe, astronomy and sciences connected with them would be advanced in great proportion. Also, around same time for governance, people entrusted to make policies started cultivating Sanskrit and Persian among themselves so as to select, discard whatever suited them. Such actions also resulted in a group of scholars in learning Sanskrit and other Indian literature for the sake of personal interests. In total, three approaches from around 1770 were operational where, men like Adam ferguson promoted a pinch of indigenous concepts in laws and procedures to ensure a sense of legitimacy among Indians. The second approach, was in-line with what A. Maconochie advocated to procure the knowledge without destruction of the civilization due to the past historical experiences(especially of America) which with defeat led to putrefaction of knowledge and the third one being that of likes of William Wilberforce, a evangelical Christian who circulated the holy scriptures in native languages to bring people to assist evangelism and create institutionalized,formal law-abiding narrative of light and knowledge in Christianity. This would have created a affinity between the rulers and the ruled. The three approaches seemingly different but complementary to one another would maximize the revenue receipts of the Government. Hence, before devising any policy the existing beliefs, customs and traditions of the Indian society needed to be known.

In order to understand the Indian Education System, Britishers conudcted number of surveys. The commonly known three surveys, 1) Madras Presidency’s indigenous education survey during 1820s under Thomas Munro( Governor of Madras Presidency at that time) , 2) William Adam’s(a former Christian evangelist) survey of state of Education in Bengal and Bihar, 3) unofficial survey of G.W Leitner(British Orientalist) in 1882 gives staggering and astonishing figures in contrast to that of general notion. Observations of ‘1,00,000 village schools in Bengal and Bihar’ by W. Adam and ‘every village had a school’ by Thomas Munro were treated as divine utterances by nationalist exponents and the ones with biased reservations for their commitments with certain theoretical formulations felt such figures to be contrastingly unreal. The figures in the next Series of the articles has to be looked in the context of the then education system in Europe, the intent of different British officials, travellers and adventurers and the tyrannical onslaught of the Islamic Invaders. The staggering statements by W. Adam and Thomas Munro would be a bit different if not quite contrary and the exact figure can be debated but the survey by this officials would have made them look so contrast compared to the ongoing schools in Britain at that period. The emphasis has also to be laid on the difference between the shiksha and the factory schooling. The translation of shiksa in to school is ‘weakest’ and loosely translated. The latter was more institutionalized, government funded, economically expensive for lower strata of the society and with incompetent and seldom ignorant teachers while former was more decentralized(private schools and learnings), community funded and economically viable considering background of student and with zealous and focused Gurus.

To be Continued……..

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