Conflict And Change

Pre-Colonial Education in India

Himanshu Roy

Indic education has been changing over the centuries in corporating and internalising diverse new ideas; it also continued with the old ideas, recycling and reinterpreting them in new forms. The changes have been adaptive and incremental both at the popular and elite levels. The social rupture at pan-Indic level has been rare; the rupture, if at all, has been more local and cultural.  The organisational, structural changes evolved over the centuries were more due to internal economic reasons or given a push by the invaders. These changes were multi-dimensional and multi-layered. The memoirs of different foreign travellers to India or the treatises written by different Indians at different times in history reflect this.

Pre-Colonial Education
There were four types of educational institutions in the country. Firstly, there were innumerable household teachers who taught students at their homes. Secondly, there were tols or vidyapeeths (seats of learning) located in the major cities, which imparted higher education in Sanskrit literature. Thirdly, there were maktabs and madarsas, which imparted education in Urdu and Persian to both Muslims and Hindu students. Fourthly, every village had at least a school for the education of children. The traditional panchayats, which the British destroyed as they consolidated their hold over India, maintained schools as one of their prime functions. Ludlow wrote in History of British India that in every Hindu village, which had retained their old form, the children generally were able to read, write, and cipher but where the British swept away the village system, as in Bengal, there the school system also disappeared. The Report of the Select Committee on Affairs of the East India Company made in 1832 stated that '…the peasantry of few other countries would bear a comparison as to their state of education with those of many parts of British India.'

As per, Keir Hardie, a British Parliamentarian, there were 80000 schools in Bengal alone, one school for every 400 students before the Company had sieged the power in Bengal in 1757. Even in 1830s there were 100000 schools in Bengal and Bihar. In Madras and Bombay presidencies, Munro and Prendergast, respectively recorded that there existed at least one school in every village. This was in 1820s. In 1850s, Leitner mentioned about similar state of education in Punjab. More importantly, this education was inclusive. In the Madras presidency, in the Tamil and Malayali speaking territories, there were 70% and 54% shudra students respectively as reported by the British during 1822-25 when the Indic village education was on the decline under the impact of colonial rule. Campbell, the district collector of Bellary in Karnataka accepts the role of colonial administration in this decline in 1823. Equally inclusive was the composition of the teachers who were from different castes including shudras. Many of them taught students at their homes who also used to come from distant localities, and they were from all castes. The subjects were grammar, arithmetic, language and scripts. It was akshar gyan, bhasha gyan and elementary mathematics. But there were few variations across different regions.

Beside schools, there were institutions of higher education; but these were not necessarily existing in every district as schools were in every village. In Madras presidency, there were 1094 Agraharams with 5439 students from different castes. Teachers and students from economically weaker sections were taken care of by the society through charitable funding. The students were taught poetry, metaphysics, theology, Vedas, law, logic, astronomy, mathematics, ethics, medicine, etc. Then, there were Arabic, Persian institutions which also focused on Islamic theology, grammar, logic, astronomy, medicine, etc. The different tiers of institutions, Maktabs, Madrasas, libraries and Khanqahs imparted different standard of education. Maktab was the school, madrasa was the college and Khanqahs was the Sufi centre. The teachers were usually paid in cash and kind of which there exists a record of Malabar region.

Another remarkable feature of the pre-colonial education was that it was highly inclusive. Hard data from the areas where these were collected unmistakably state that both teachers and the taught belonged to various castes and notably even from the scheduled castes, as they came to be categorised later on. Contrary to even the widely held perception that only the upper caste Hindus and the ruling elite of Muslims received education during pre-British times, the actual scenario is quite different, at least among the Hindus in the districts of the Madras Presidency and that more significantly in the Tamil speaking areas and also from the two districts of Bihar. It was the groups termed 'Soodras', which is mostly spelt as Shudras, and the castes considered below the Shudras predominated in the thousands of traditional schools surviving by that time. The reports of the collectors of the Madras Presidency (from Ganjam in the north to Tinnevelly in the south, and Malabar in the west) on the indigenous education based on the surveys carried out during 1822-25 clearly refutes the widely held assumption of the traditional education being a preserve of the high castes. The Presidency of Madras being predominantly Hindu, i.e. the Hindus constituting 95 percent of its total population, the breakup of the students receiving education is quite revealing. In the Tamil-speaking areas students from the twice-born castes ranged from 13% in South Arcot to some 23% in Madras. Muslims constituted less than 3% in South Arcot and Chingleput and on the higher side 10% in Salem. The Shudras and other castes below these castes together constituted about 70% in Salem and Tinnevelly at the lower end and their numbers went up to over 84% in South Arcot. In Malayalam-speaking Malabar, the proportion of the twice-born was below 20% of the total. As Malabar had a larger Muslim population, the Muslim school students made up nearly 27% of the total. And in this area too; the Shudras and the other castes were in far greater numbers as they accounted for some 54% of the total school going students. It was only in the Telugu-speaking districts that among the school goers the twice born students had greater numbers. The Brahmans students were in the range of 24% in Cuddapah to 46% in Vizagapatam. The Vysees, or Vaishyas constituted 10.5% of the students in Vizagapatam and the percentage went up to 29% in Cuddapah. Muslims students made for the 1% of the students in Vizagapatam for the highest to 8% in Nellore. The Shurdras and other castes still had the substantial numbers in the range of 35% in Guntoor to over 41% in Cuddapah and Vizagapatam. However the number of girls in the schools was negligible. Except the district of Malabar and the Jeypoor division of Vizagapatam district, where girls joined the school in good numbers, the girls from the Brahman, Kshatriya, and Vaishaya castes were practically non-existent in schools. The Hindu girls who went to schools were from the Shudra and other castes. Some Muslim girls also attended the school. The above records reflect about the indigenous education and clearly demonstrate that the Indian people valued education. Every village had a school, secondly, there were no exclusionary practices. Thirdly, quality and cost-effective education was provided which was imparted to all the sections of society cutting across castes, gender and creeds. The pre-colonial education was as good as or even better than the education in European countries including England. Specially, the Indian pedagogy, described as the Monitorial System, was adopted in England and elsewhere that brought great improvement in education there. Fourthly, girls attended the schools in India or got their education at homes. Fifthly, the education and the other social works were largely financed by the revenues generated through dedicated sources and the rulers too made generous endowments to the institutions and men of learning.

After the arrival of Islam, the universities like Nalanda, Vikram-shila, etc., were no longer existent. The destruction of Nalanda by Bakhtiyar Khalji was the last nail in this Pre- Islamic Indic university which had survived three major destructions. Even after Khalji's villainous act, Nalanda survived for another 200 years with much lesser number of students and teachers. It withered away by 15th century.  Islam, to an extent had impacted the education of Indic traditions by introducing Arabic script, and Persian as state language. Also, it's sword had forced the Hindus to retreat with their knowledge from the regions where Islam had acquired power. Al-Biruni records that 'Hindu sciences have retired far away from those parts of the country conquered by us, and have fled to places which our hands cannot yet reach'.

Colonial Administration
The Colonial administration in India, from 1774, gradually became anti-Indian, racist and hierarchical. There developed, as the administration consolidated its rule over the years, a highly detailed tables of precedent which indicated where everyone stood in the pecking order. The British, the administrators, the business men, the planters, were on the top rank of the ladder. It was highly stratified and snobbish, very opposite of egalitarianism, plural and liberal. It was at the public schools, and to a lesser degree at the universities, that the elite swagger and sense of superiority was cultivated which was further away from the idea of democracy. At best, it was 'benign authoritarianism' for the Colonial subjects.

In the hundred years of its rule, the company not only subjugated India through 'the natural charter of the sword' and actuated the extreme economic exploitation of India but also created host of civic culture and plethora of institutions for controlling an Indians. It was the creation of a new ideological state apparatus for the act of production of knowledge to enable cultural colonization of the subjects. One of the methods was to interpret Indian texts with their own historical back drop of western experiences and posit it to the world as the cardinal truth of India which subsequently became Oriental knowledge. The Asiatic Society of Bengal was the earliest pioneer which was subsequently followed by Archeological Survey, Census, Anthropological Survey, Zoological Survey, etc. William Jones, founder of Asiatic Society, had listed 15 theme in his agenda for translation, illustration, publications.  This Society had no Indian members till 1829 which was opened for them only when the knowledgeable Europeans were not inclined to work for it.  The texts to be translated, and to be published were selected by the British, which were subsequently posited as pan Indian, universal laws of land. The multiple local praxis and the textual diversities of India, which were in abundance in different regions and sub-regions were ignored. The 'knowledge' thus derived from few selected texts, their translations adapted as per British experiences were standardized and was presented as Oriental history in European academia. It was also subsequently taught in official academia in India. The limited texts which were available then to Asiatic Society, of which their manipulated translations were done were further contemptuously declared as the wisdom of the Orient which could fit into a book self. Thus, the 30 Europeans of the Asiatic Society, 3 of them judges, and others from military, who were present in its first meeting in 1784 laid the foundation of the colonization of knowledge, and subsequently of the education, mind and jurisprudence. It was construction and transplantation of knowledge by the Colonial institutions that was deliberately designed. The organic, Indic knowledge traditions which had survived till initial decades in the three presidencies of the Colonial rule is best reflected in the Camp Bell's Report of 1823 where he wrote about the district of Bellary, of which he was the collector:…

Search is the state in this District of the various schools in which reading, writing, and arithmetic are taught in the vernacular dialects of the country, as has been always usual in India. After the beginning of the Colonial rule, 'the greater part of middling and lower classes of the people (were) unable to defray the expanses incident upon the education of their off spring… In many villages where formerly there were large schools, there are now none, and in many others where there were large schools, now only a few children of most opulent are taught, other being unable from poverty to attained…. In the former times, especially under the Hindu Governments, very large grants both in money and in land, were issued for the support of learning'.

This pre-Colonial education in India was obliterated due to the economic policies of the Colonial rule which had in impoverished the villagers, and partly under the new requirements of the Colonial state apparatus which was the different kind from its predecessor in its nature. The education that emerged since the 2nd decade of the 19th century is known to history. It was neither science not technical which Raja Rammohan Roy was requesting for, nor organic, emerging as per the requirements of the masses. Even the elementary education was neither free nor compulsory which was being demanded by Phule and Ambedkar. What was, however, important was the removal of the Persian-Arabic as the official language of the state to be substituted by English and local languages of India. The English medium educational institutions were funded, aided by the government; the institutions in the local languages were only recongnized by it. Macaulay adopted and executed the policy which was already under deliberation for more than 30 years. Since the establishment of the Asiatic Society and the formulation of the training manuals for the training academy of the Civil Servants, the discussion on the medium of the public instruction among the British was already under way. One section, the Orientalist was in favour of making the local languages as the medium of public instruction; the other, the Anglicists was in favour of English. In the initial decades, it was the Orientalist school which had dominated; but the opposition from the missionaries and Anglicists, finally put the nail in the coffin of the local education. The local support to it by the Indian social reformers, who felt that new Colonial education policy will bring in new science and technology, capital investment and enlightenment, clinched the issue in favour of the Anglicists. The objectives of the Anglicists, however, were contrary to the ideas of the Indian reformers. The Anglicists had developed a fear, after the French revolution, that the continuation and promotion of the pre-Colonial Indian education, and of its methods of instructions may became problematic in the continuation of the Colonial rule which had become widely popular in the Europeans Countries including in Britain. In fact, in Britain, Indian system was applied which had befitted the county.  Voltaire and Marx, both had went to the extent of claiming that it is to the East that the West owes everything.  Charles Grant had believed that the deepening crisis of the French revolution was due to the irreligious propaganda of Voltaire who was deeply influenced by the Oriental education. If the Oriental education is left to its normal course, it was felt, it might become hostile to the colonial rule which was, therefore done away with, officially in 1835. This was also the beginning of a pan Indian uniform education of public instructions, funding, certification, degree, recognition and curriculum. It is also interesting to note here that at this time even the Criminal Procedure Code and Civil Procedure Code were ready for adoption which were uniform in contents and in mode of application. But it was sent to London for approval which came back only in 1860.

In the making of these policies, in the initial years, the support of the Indian civic leaders was pivotal. It was thought that the new regime had opened up new job opportunities, new kind of knowledge, new kind of administration, governance, jurisprudence, and the new libertarian world which was different from the preceding Mughal rule. The British, on the contrary, were intending to create a new mercantile society for which the old Indian society was being forced to change. The personal experiences and knowledge of the civic leaders were aiding this policy formulation. Both, the regime and leadership were aided by visual impact of the new technology that was gradually streaming in from England and other parts of the Europe in everyday life: medicine, knowledge, transportation, infrastructure, and factory manufactured products. It expedited the social reforms which facilitated the expansion of the libertarian ethos. The upper castes, upper class were the larger beneficiaries of it. This change gradually began to be felt in whole of India which had, by 1850, come under the Company's rule.

Vol. 53, No. 22-25, Nov 29 - Dec 26, 2020