India has a long history of organized education. The Gurukul system of education is one of the oldest on earth but before that the guru shishya system was extant, in which students were taught orally and the data would be passed from one generation to the next. Gurukuls were traditional Hindu residential school of learning; typically, the teacher’s house or a monastery. Education under the system was free and often limited to the higher castes, but students from well-to-do families paid Gurudakshina, a voluntary contribution after the completion of their studies. At the Gurukuls, the teacher imparted knowledge of Religion, Scriptures, Philosophy, Literature, Warfare, Statecraft, Mathematics, Medicine, Astrology and History. Only students belonging to Brahmin and Kshatriya communities were taught in these Gurukuls. However, the advent of Buddhism and Jainism brought fundamental changes in access to education with their democratic character. The first millennium and the few centuries preceding it saw the flourishing of higher education at Nalanda, Takshashila University, Ujjain, & Vikramshila Universities.
British records show that education was widespread in the 18th century, with a school for every temple, mosque or village in most regions of the country. The subjects taught included Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, Theology, Law, Astronomy, Metaphysics, Ethics, Medical Science and Religion. The ancient system of learning didn’t follow any prescribed curriculum, thus allowed the students with freedom to pursue subjects of their interest and aptitude. Rigorous training under supervision of an expert Guru led to nurturing of skilled craftsman. The limitations imposed on social mobility due to rigid caste system, however draconian it may sound, but allowed for or even nurtured experimentation & research in the avocation, while at the same time helped in formulation of an approach where the community imparted training is incentive system in the society. One probable outcome of the system was that the Ancient India was one of the foremost civilizations with its Craft in demand far & wide. Its Architecture, Legal, Political & Socio-cultural system was revered in other civilizations like Mesopotamia, Chinese & Egyptian Civilization.
But scholars have questioned & challenged the proponent of the above theory on following grounds. The village “pathshalas” were often housed in shabby dwellings and taught by ill-qualified teachers. Instruction was limited mainly to the three R’s (Rote, Religion, Rituals) and the native mahajani /zamindari accounts. Printed books were not used, and most writing was done on palm leaf, plantain leaf, or on sand. There was no fixed class routine, timetable, or school calendar. There was no annual examination, pupils being promoted whenever the guru was satisfied of the scholar’s attainments. There were no desks, benches, blackboards, or fixed seating arrangements. The Ancient education system has further been criticized as elitist system tailored to the needs of Brahmin boys who were taught to read & write by a Brahmin teacher. The entire social &educational system was designed to catapult Brahmins to the pinnacle of the system and ensure their dominance. Thus, the system failed to deliver upon one of the main delivery requirements of an education system i.e. identifying natural aptitude of the student & honing them into marketable skills & matured intellect. An effective system should result in social mobility since students are free to pursue their interests, which the ancient system failed to provide.
During the period of invasion, the systems were disrupted. Advent of new religions, such as Buddhism, Jainism etc. led to further alienation of the lower strata from the ancient social & educational system. The Brahmins lost their status & position at the pinnacle of the society as well as the incentives that accrued to them. The development of Mathematics, Science, Literature etc. which were pursued by Brahmins suffered as a result and India ceded its status of the foremost nation in the comity of nations. By the time, Mughals invaded & took over India, the Education system had declined fairly from its past glorious phase. Indian had no knowledge of the latest techniques in warfare like usage of gun-powder & usage of guns (Topkhana). Over a long period, there was no university system existing in the country or organized education system, for that matter. The university system regenerated only when the British restarted the system of Education which is prevalent today as modern Education system.
Even though India’s ancient education system “Guru-Shishya Parampara” has declined but it can still be seen in action in certain sectors. It dominates segments like Spiritual Education, yoga/physical & mental training & relaxation, traditional song (Sangeet), music (instruments training) & dance (Nritya)education, In the traditional song, music & dance space, though India’s formal education sector has tried to make deep in-roads, we have university awarding degrees & even doctorate research, however people have continued to prefer “Guru-Shishya model” where one teacher continues to work diligently over the student throughout his/her education period & imparts him with skills, with information on how to approach the art to develop further & identify opportunities in the life. We also have the system of “Ustad” in various trades like auto mechanic, barber, tailoring, metal work etc. who recruit young pupils to train them for these ‘Life” skills.
The poor in rural as well as urban areas prefer their children to be trained by these “Ustad” over the formal education system primarily because of ‘costs’ but also because they see little value in the formal system to be able to impart life or earning skills. The elite in India scoff at the system as they see it as ‘exploitation” of the child who is made to work on the ‘shop floor’ during the process. The system though struggling with the ‘jeers’ that the teachers and elite throw at it (although formal education has no solution for the students of this segment), however ‘Ustad’ system has now also got to deal with ‘free mid-day meal’ scheme of the government of India for the primary education sector which is able to wean away the student due to the ‘incentive’ of meal. However, it has survived and continues to “skill” India with its offering (ills of the system notwithstanding). Careful thought must go to about this segment before deciding about reforms. We may want to develop a strategy to reform this piece of reform the informal education system to rid it of its ills, rather than reform the education system to rid it from the “Guru-shishyaor Ustad” system.