Vyasa Purnima: The Unsurpassed Educational Heritage of India

निधये सर्वविद्यानां भिषजे भवरोगिणाम् ।
गुरवे सर्वलोकानां दक्षिणामूर्तये नमः ॥

Salutations to Dakshinamurthy the Guru,
Who is the teacher of all the world |
Who is the doctor for all diseases
And who is the storehouse of all knowledge ||

One could begin anywhere but this is as good as any a place. This verse is how Adi Sankara showed his reverence towards the Adi Guru, Shiva, Mahadeva, or Ishwara who incarnated in the form of the Guru Dakshinamurthy. The Dakshinamurthy Stotram from which the aforementioned verse is drawn, is itself profoundly philosophical in the sense that Shiva in the form of Dakshinamurthy taught through silence. And this Dakshinamurthy didn’t teach ordinary people, he taught the Rishis. Adi Sankara goes into raptures extolling the glory of Dakshinamurthy, as the Inner Guru who awakens us to the shining resplendence of the highest spiritual knowledge situated within through his profound silence.

So enduring was this concept of teaching through silence that Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi adopted it as his preferred method of teaching in the twentieth century.

Perhaps of all the surviving cultures in the world, it is only Bharata that still cherishes and has maintained its sacred tradition of Guru-Shishya unbroken to this day. Indeed, the Guru-Shishya tradition is an outstanding, original gift that our Sanatana civilisation and culture has given to the world. No other culture or civilisation has any concept or tradition remotely close to this. While the ancient Greeks had a similar tradition of pursuing knowledge as a noble calling, the notion and scope isn’t quite all-encompassing or isn’t endowed with the same sanctity as that of the Guru-Shishya tradition.

In fact, the Mahabharata wouldn’t be transmitted intact for at least five millennia without Maharshi Veda Vyasa’s disciples who went around the country narrating and disseminating it. And then the Shishyas of Veda Vyasa’s Shishyas and their Shishyas and their Shishyas….The same applies to the Vedas, and the Puranas and every other branch of knowledge known to our ancients.

Indeed, to this day both in the traditional circles and in common parlance, the centrality of the Guru has remained intact. At the commencement of any Puja, Homam, etc salutations are offered to the Guru second only to Ganesha. Similarly, the Guru is extolled after Ganesha in textual compositions dealing with Sastra, literature, commentary etc.

Guru Brahma

INLINE AD

And then we have the other celebrated verse on the importance of a Guru.

गुरु ब्रह्मा गुरुर् विष्णुः
गुरु देवो महेश्वरः ।
गुरु साक्षात् परब्रह्मा
तस्मै श्री गुरवे नमः॥

Guru is Brahma Guru is Vishnu
Guru is Maheshwara |
Guru is verily the Brahman
To such Guru do I offer my salutations ||

There is a backstory on how this world-renowned sloka originated.

In the ancient times, there was a widely-revered Guru who ran a Gurukula and trained hundreds of disciples from their boyhood till they became Snatakas (in our parlance, graduates). After finishing one such Snataka ceremony, the Guru had to travel out of town on urgent work. While the rest of the graduates departed for their respective homes, only one disciple named Kutsa remained behind, volunteering to take care of the Gurukula.

In the Guru’s absence, Kutsa carried out his duties with utmost devotion and commitment. Having learnt Jyotisha (Astronomy), Kutsa on occasion, studied his Guru’s horoscope and to his horror, found that leprosy would strike his Guru. He informed his Guru upon his return to which the Guru said, “every person has to undergo his share of Karma, and this suffering is part of mine. Do not worry. Please go home, you have a flourishing life ahead.” But Kutsa wouldn’t listen. He insisted on remaining there and nursing the Guru back to health. While his Guru was moved by this boy’s devotion, he nevertheless began to test his resolve. At every step, he inflicted great hardship and humiliated Kutsa. But Kutsa’s resolve to remain filial was unshaken.

The Trimurtis — Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva — watched this boy with great interest and admiration. It was now their turn to test him. And so they donned various disguises and posed various challenges and flung temptations before Kutsa. The boy continued to be stolid. Finally, the Trimurtis revealed their true forms and dangled the ultimate temptation: if Kutsa abandoned his Guru, they would grant him Brahma-Jnana (knowledge of the Self). It was in response to this that Kutsa composed the verse, Guru Brahma…

The Conception and Notion of Vidya

That brings us to a basic question: why is the Guru held in such high regard in Bharata? To answer that question, one needs to ask another basic question: how did our Rishis and Gurus regard education or Vidya? The answer:

Sa vidya ya vimuktaye||
That alone is knowledge which liberates us from worldly bondage.

And the only way to attain this goal of liberation is to learn from a person who has liberated himself from these bonds. In our tradition, this liberation has to necessarily come from deep contemplation, penance, and experience. This is why almost every traditional text like the Upanishads, Brahmasutra, etc emphasises on anubhvanishta vidya (Knowledge through experience) or anubhavaikavedya (That knowledge which will be clear only through experience). In other words, in our tradition, knowledge is something that has to be realised and not merely learned.

Therefore, throughout our tradition, this is the sense in which the word Guru is used: as someone who has realised this knowledge through experience and direct perception. Which is also why one of the meanings of the word Guru is “someone who dispels darkness (gu).” It is notable that the sense of “light,” — knowledge — is implied in this meaning.

But there’s yet another word for Guru, which has a deeper and more profound meaning: Acharya. The Apasthamba Dharmasutra defines the word Acharya as follows:

आचिनोति च शास्त्रार्थान् आचारे स्थापयत्यपि ।
स्वयमाचरते यस्मादाचार्यस्तेन च उच्यते ॥

That means, an “Acharya” is one who not only consolidates the knowledge and essence of a Shastra and assimilates it within himself, but he also establishes its structure and substance in the tradition. Not just that, he also harmonizes its eternal values in his own life.

In other words, an acharya is a person who has obtained the deepest insights into the highest philosophical truth through sustained practice, akin to performing Tapas or penance. By performing such a Tapas, the Acharya will live these truths. This is the reason that Tapas is elevated to Himalayan heights in hundreds of verses spread across our entire traditional lore. The Mahanarayana Upanishad dedicates a brief section which beautifully paints the glory of Tapas.

And this approach is entirely consistent with the true spirit of Sanatana Dharma: patience, compassion, sustained effort, and a sense of debt to nature and to the future generations. In other words, the notions of Rta and Rna absent in any other culture.

Vedic Gurukulam. Image source: Google Image Search

Method of Instruction

It is obvious that a Guru or Acharya of this stature had to essentially and consciously cultivate certain qualities in his own personality and character. Some of these qualities are quite familiar already: Satya (Truth), Ahimsa (non-violence), Shauca (hygiene), Asteya (non-covetousness), Brahmacharya (mastery over the senses), Aparigraha (non-seeking), etc. In fact, Aparigraha is regarded as one of the highest values in our tradition. For a panoramic illustration of how Aparigraha was practiced by our Rishis and Acharyas, Devudu Narasimha Sastri’s novel-trio “Mahabrahmana, Mahakshatriya and Mahadarshana” offers exquisite insights.

And so, the only way a student could “learn” these qualities was through the example of a real, living person. One cultivates character and qualities. One does not “read” them. Thus, the student had to live with the Guru, the Acharya. This conception is behind the institution of Gurukula, which still continues to exist. The Gurukula is perhaps the oldest educational institution in the world that’s running unbroken till today. Across Bharata. What does that tell you about the genius of our Rishis and Gurus?

The fine scholar, Radhakumud Mookerji puts this beautifully:

…the teacher holds the pupil within him as in a womb, impregnates him with his spirit, and delivers in him a new birth. [this is the birth of knowledge]. This conception of education moulds its external forms. The pupil must find the teacher. He must live with him as a member of his family and is treated…as his son. The school is a natural formation, not artificially constituted…It is a hermitage, aid sylvan surroundings, beyond the distractions of urban life, functioning in solitude and silence. The constant and intimate association between teacher and student is vital to this education…the pupil is to imbibe the inward method of the teacher, the secrets of his efficiency, the spirit of his life and these things are too subtle to be taught. [Ancient Indian Education]

What this means is this: in our conception, true education is a living relationship between the Guru, the Shishya, and the subject. The Guru teaches the Shishya not only the subject on hand but how it integrates with nature. In this notion of education, the Shishya belongs to the Guru, he doesn’t belong to a faceless institution. Think about the word “accountability” in this context. Ever since English education was introduced, our schools began to teach children by “classes,” and not as unique individuals who had their own specialties of character, temperament, and personality.

The Bhriguvalli of the Taittiriya Upanishad offers us an extraordinary insight into the method of teaching adopted by our Rishis. The entire Bhriguvalli is in the form of a Q & A between the Shishya and the Guru. Bhrigu, the son of Varuna asks the father about the nature of Brahman. Varuna asks him to meditate upon it and then return to him with an answer. Each time Bhrigu returns with an answer, the Guru indirectly says that that’s only the partial answer and encourages him to meditate further. And thus, over the course of five steps, Bhrigu finally arrives at the answer: Ananda (a state of Bliss) is Brahman. This is the celebrated Panca Kosa Vidya.

And thus, with each stage of his meditation, after every new discovery of inner insight, Bhrigu realises the all-encompassing nature of creation and develops respect and reverence for the various forces operating behind it. It is how he comes up with Annam na nindyaat (do not imprecate food) and in turn gave Bharata an eternal value. This realisation of Bhrigu among others is behind the innate reverence for food in the Indian DNA.

Guru-Shishya Tradition

Episodes like this in our culture also illustrate another important point: who were regarded as teachers? The answer: it could be literally anybody as long as they met the criteria of having realised knowledge and keeping it in constant practice.

Thus we have innumerable Guru-Shishya stories in our tradition right from the Vedic times. We have the story of the crippled Rishi Ashtavakra who becomes the Guru of Maharaja Janaka, the father Uddalaka who also becomes the Guru of his son Shvetaketu, the Rishi Yagnavalkya who becomes the Guru of Maharaja Janaka, the same Yagnavalkya as the husband also becomes the Guru of his wife Maitreyi, Yama himself who becomes the Guru of the lad Nachiketa, the butcher Dharmavyadha who becomes the Guru of Rishi Kashyapa, and of course, there is the greatest Guru of them all, Bhagavan Maharshi Veda Vyasa. Needless, most are familiar with several legendary Guru-Shishyas like Krishna-Arjuna, Dronacharaya-Arjuna, Chanakya-Chandragupta Maurya, Gaudapada-Adi Sankara, Adi Sankara and his four Shishyas, Maharshi Vidyaranya — Hakka and Bukka…the list is nearly endless.

What is also incredible is the Vidya Parampara of individual lineages of scholars lasting over eight, nine, ten, even twelve generations. Throughout the world, this is a phenomenon unique only to India. There was only one Galileo, one Newton, one Marie Curie, one Einstein, and so on. However, as history shows us, extraordinary centres of learning like ancient Takshashila, Kashi, Mithila, Ayodhya, Kanchi, and Ujjaini boasted of such a trailblazing tradition of unbroken scholarship lasting over several generations within the same bloodline. Today, perhaps only Kashi contains a few such scholarly families. With due respect, I would be really happy to learn about other cities and towns that have such families even today.

In recent history — at least up to the late 1970s, this tradition of lived learning was visible in scholars and Gurus such as Ananda K Coomaraswamy, S. Srikanta Sastri, M. Govinda Pai, Karlamangalam Srikantayya, Ambale Venkatasubbayya, Hazariprasad Dwivedi, Vasudevasharan Agarwal, Pandurang Vaman Kane, Gopinath Kaviraj, Baladeva Upadhyaya, Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, M. Hiriyanna, Kuppuswami Sastri, V.Raghavan, Sediyapu Krishna Bhatta, K. Krishnamurthy, and U.V. Swaminatha Iyer. The last few surviving scholars of this quality and depth include Prof. T.V. Venkatachala Sastry, Dr. Kapila Vatsyayana, Dr. R. Satyanarayana, and Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh. Others who recently passed away include Mahamahopadhyaya N. Ranganatha Sharma, Vidwan Sheshachala Sharma, and Sri Sri Rangapriya Mahadesika.

Purpose and Goal of Education

Unlike in other cultures, learning and education in India was not pursued for its own sake: “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” was not favoured by our Rishis. Our tradition did no hold in high regard scholars who locked themselves up in a university and simply delivered lectures. Our Shastras prescribe punishment to an Acharya and a Guru who does not pass on his knowledge to the next generation. This approach is entirely consistent with our tradition where every activity had to have a noble purpose, and a final spiritual goal to be achieved. As we have seen earlier, that goal in the case of education was self-realisation. To turn to Radhakumud Mookerji once again,

…[Our] system of transmitting knowledge had the natural effect of producing a keen sense of responsibility in those who came to be the custodians and guardians of…knowledge. Every teacher felt that his primary and paramount duty was to discharge himself of the sacred obligation he owed to the Rishis, to the cause of culture and learning, by finding proper pupils to whom he might communicate knowledge…That knowledge he could not permit…to die with him. Thus a serious and solemn responsibility attached to the position of a teacher as the trustee of the nation’s culture, and the violation or non-fulfilment of that sacred trust was one of the gravest sins. [Ancient Indian Education. Emphases added.]

Equally, our tradition holds that a person who has scaled the pinnacles and touched the depths of any field of knowledge will reach the same philosophical truth. Kautilya lays down that the final goal of Arthashastra is the upholding of Dharma by a king who has mastered his sense organs. This is also why Kautilya is regarded both as an Acharya and a self-realised Rishi who voluntarily gives up his position as Prime Minister and retires to the forest to study. We also find a mirror to this in the life of Maharshi Vidyaranya who becomes a Sanyasin after inspiring, establishing and securing the Vijayanagara Empire.

This is the view and model of the Sanatana education system.

Glory and Downfall

The entire community funded, supported, and nurtured education. For example, the extraordinary Nalanda University was run by the contributions made by some 200 villages in its vicinity. The painstaking and solitary work on traditional Indian education done by Shri Dharampal in his book, The Beautiful Tree is also relevant in this connection.

Also, when we recall the fact that for hundreds of years, temples were great centres of learning and patrons of education, a sense of desolation creeps into our soul when we look at the contemporary scenario. Like in so many other areas, the current state of our temples makes for a great case study in the art of perfecting cultural suicide.

Ruins of Nalanda University. Image Source: Google Image Search

As we observed earlier, there is absolutely no parallel to the kind of educational system that the Indian genius had developed. From individual teachers to Gurukulas to Pathashalas to Parishads to breathtaking universities like Takshashila, Magadha, Odantapuri and Vikramashila, Bharata remained the preeminent treasury and the knowledge-magnet of the world for centuries. It must not be forgotten that from the very ancient times, foreigners were attracted to India for its excellence in learning — the Hiuen Tsangs and Fa Hiens of the world sought Bharata precisely for this reason. And every traveler including Muslims like Alberuni, Ibn Batuta, and Suleiman wrote glowing and detailed accounts of the greatness of our educational system while they were not otherwise busy abusing the “Kaffir” culture that gave birth to it.

Needless, the countless Gurus and the Acharyas have played the most significant role in preserving this educational heritage intact even to this day — although, today the condition is truly lamentable. At least five generations of such teachers and fine minds have been lost to engineering, medicine, and MBA, of late. In fact, in the words of Mookerjee,

Indian culture has been immortally preserved through an unbroken succession of teachers. Every literary man of ancient India was himself a living library.

So, a physical library could be destroyed by natural disasters, alien invasions, etc, and the entire knowledge of India could be “destroyed at their very sources.” However, these teachers, these Gurus, these Acharyas, these living libraries could escape, move from place to place and keep their knowledge intact and impart it to succeeding generations. This is a recorded fact of Indian history. The fact that the Vedic tradition and a vast array of traditional knowledge has been preserved and still remains intact didn’t happen by accident. Thousands of gallons of blood have ensured their preservation. And like in the case of temples, this is a story that has never been told. Contrast this to the volumes narrating the horrors of the Holocaust — enough to fill several libraries. Or even the thousands of books about an incident as recent as September 11, 2001.

Closing Notes

On this auspicious occasion of Vyasa Purnima or Guru Purnima, it is only fitting that we recall some of the aforementioned feats accomplished by this unsurpassed and unbroken Guru-Shishya Parampara that has no parallel anywhere in the world. This is the tradition that recalls the smallest good deed with gratitude ensconced for example, in just three words: aksharam kalisidatam guru [He is also a Guru who has taught just a single letter].

Perhaps the best way to honour and worship Veda Vyasa and the Guru Parampara him is to emulate him: by living a life dedicated to a truly noble goal. Or in the legendary DV Gundappa’s words, “ghanatattva ondakke dinaratri manasotu” [Surrender yourself every day and night to an elevated goal and thinking of nothing else, work towards it. This is the teaching of Hanumanta].

When we think about it, nobody asked Maharshi Veda Vyasa to do what he did. He classified, reorganised and edited the entire corpus of the Vedas from a pure feeling of Lokasangraha [literally, “for the welfare of the world’]. It is because of his untiring efforts that we can even identify them as Rg, Yajus, Sama and Atharva. It is because of him that the Mahabharata remains one of the strongest bonds that continues to fuse and hold Indian culture and the Bharata Bhumi together.

Actually, there is really no way that all of us combined can ever repay his debt. But in our own way, we can take inspiration from his life and work and implement it every single day in our own lives. How we do it is a choice we have to make individually.

Om Tat Sat

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Sandeep Balakrishna
Writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. Author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore," "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History," and "Seventy Years of Secularism." He has translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.
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