Hindu educational ethos and practices as a possible source for local pedagogy

Bal Krishna Sharma*

The term ‘local’ is problematic for several reasons since there is no clear boundary between local and non-local (or global) knowledge and pedagogies. We need to be careful when making a distinction between local and global knowledge and practices because what we say is local is not untouched by another form of culture or knowledge. Nor is it waiting to be discovered. In addition, what we say is global is often another, albeit more dominant, form of some local culture. Keep in mind that the so called global knowledge is somebody’s local knowledge. In the context of Nepal, we have several local traditions although they have undergone changes according to time and space. We have religious traditions as well as oral literacy traditions in Nepal. Taking the case of Hindiuism as a philosophy and practice of education, I want to make two points in this essay with regard to local pedagogies (1) Hinduism urges us to understand the meaning of education and pedagogy in a different way compared to many educational practices, (2) Review of Hindu educational ethos shows that some of what have been regarded as the standard practices and innovations in language pedagogy in the Western world today, especially in Anglo-American educational contexts, were in existence in the traditional Hindu educational ethos found in the Vedic and Upanishadic periods in the South Asian sub-continent.

When we make a historical overview of Hindu educational ideals and practices in the Indian subcontinent, we take account of educational thoughts manifested in different scriptures and variety of ways in learning and teaching them. Ancient Hindu literature is divided into two elements: shruti and smriti. Shruti, meaning ‘listening’ or ‘hearing’, consists of sacred texts and scripts like the Vedas and the Upanishads that are traditionally understood as divine revelation. They are principally oral texts and can best be transmitted as such. Smritis, which means ‘that are remembered’, are sacred writings that originated from human authors and comprise codes of conduct for human life. Examples include the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Manusmriti, etc.

Hinduism conceives the entire course of human life as consisting of four Ashramas or successive stages of life though only a small number of males would pass through all the phases. The stage of studentship is called Brahmacharya Ashrama and it was spent in the Vedic schools. The second stage as Grihasthas or householders began when people entered family life. The third state of Vanaprasthan started when they left homes for the forest to become hermits. And in the final stage of Sanyasashram, they become homeless wanderers with all earthly ties broken. The chief aim of education was to achieve emancipation or liberation by detaching oneself from worldly matters and activities. Emancipation was achieved through sravana, manana and nididhyasana. Sarvana means listening to the words or texts from the teacher or Guru; manana means deliberation or reflection on the topic and nididhyasana means meditation through which truth is to be realized. The ultimate goal of education in Hindu philosophy is to achieve revelation or Brahman.

Learning in Hinduism

Hinduism argues that true empowerment emerges through an understanding of the sources of knowledge, not just its components, which in turn leads to unity with the universe. Thus, Hindu view of learning does not limit itself in learning of facts and figures, but emphasizes in developing wisdom by forming a connection between mind, body and spirit. This is different from dominant Western view of learning which seeks cause-and-effect relationships with the worldly phenomena and believes in learning components as part of a whole.

When we survey learning from more formal and pedagogical perspective, it requires us to uncover methods of learning about the outer world by studying scriptures under the supervision of gurus.  Memorization constituted one of the major techniques of learning. This has recently received scholarly attention. This form of learning by memorization seemingly has parallels with behaviorist principles of repetition, practice, memorization and habit formation. However, I argue that we need to go beyond such accounts at least for two reasons. First, this practice has to be interpreted within the socio-historical context of the region. Given the oral tradition of literacy and knowledge-making, memorization and rote learning could enhance the archiving of knowledge in the form of songs, chants or poems which would be available for the future generations. No wonder these elements were partly reflected in the educational practices of that time. Second, it is to be noted that learning by heart without understanding the meaning of Vedic hymns, and without reflection was condemned. This kind of learning is not based on rote learning, but much deeper comprehension involving reflection, questioning and exercising judgments. Under the modern system, the three processes of teaching, learning and evaluation seem to be treated as working almost independently in the context of South Asia, and hardly any integration or synchronization exists among them. In ancient times, all three processes were integrated well.

Methods of Teaching

The Gurukul system of education in ancient Indian sub-continent provides us insights on methods of teaching during that time and helps us make comparisons with popular pedagogical models today. The Upanayana ceremony, meaning taking charge of a student, was considered as the foundational state in starting the Gurukul or the Vedic education. Students would live with their guru as members of a single family. The system of teaching was communal though there were ample occasions when the teacher explained something to the individual pupils. In addition to teacher-fronted, product-oriented guru-shisya system, teaching was substantially based on practice-based apprenticeship system. Students engaged in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor. As the pupils interacted regularly, more experienced members helped the new members acquire the community norms and the Vedic educational ethos through their mutual engagement in learning activities. The learning system was notably non-formal, blurring the differences between philosophical and technical knowledge, facts and skills, and knowledge and life. This process was more inductive and process-oriented, and teaching methods were diverse depending on learner, context and subject matter.

Teachers exercised total autonomy in curriculum and organization in Gurukuls. Pupils also enjoyed some degree of autonomy in choosing institutions or teachers; they, for example, could move from one Gurukul to another for better knowledge. Sometimes even the teacher could advise the students to go to another teacher to satisfy their queries. Also the Gurukul system did not rule out the possibility of self-study and learning.

Methods of debate, discussion, speculation and argument were salient features of education in the Gurukul system of education.  Discussions and debates would take the form of intellectual challenges between the guru and the students or among the students themselves. Typical of present day symposiums, many learned persons from far off places used to assemble and participate in the debates and discussions that regularly took place at the Vedic education centers. Such use of discussion as a method of teaching later led to the development of logic called Vakovakyam or Tarkashastra or the science of disputation. Such a tradition of arguments can be substantially exemplified from dialogues between Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavat Gita – a small section of the epic the Mahabharata. This method of argument shares some similarities to the art of Socratic dialogs in ancient Greek tradition. Based on the idea of promoting democratic values and fostering student-centered learning, such a discussion-based teaching is a major pedagogic technique today, supposedly originated from the Western philosophical traditions.

 Student-teacher Relationships

In ancient Hindu system of education, education was highly individualized. There would be only few selected students enrolled, and teachers knew individual students very closely. Teachers and students were vegetarian and lived a simple life close to nature. Teachers loved students as if they were their own children, and were fully aware what had been learned by each student including areas of weakness. In fact, the Vedic students are regarded as twice-born: first birth from their mother and second from their guru at the start of the Vedic education. A teacher was to possess the highest moral and spiritual qualifications and to be well versed in the sacred lore and dwelling in the Brahman or the Brahmanishtha. Similar was true in higher educational institutions.

This may seem to suggest a stereotypical ‘traditional’ ‘hierarchical’ teacher-student relationship and a supposedly ‘authoritarian’ role of the teacher in Vedic education practices. Of course, at any period, educational practitioners in South Asia as in any other location may misuse a teacher’s power for non-pedagogical purposes. However, the topic of student-teacher relationships has to be understood and interpreted with reference to the socio-historical context of pedagogical practices of that time, in contrast to their use in pedagogies of modern times. Traditional Hindu education system has given more responsibility to teachers beyond classroom teaching. Reverence has been given to the teachers for their position in social and moral hierarchy. Teachers while clearly occupying such a higher social status were expected to mutually participate with students in the classroom, on the playgrounds, and in activities related to the management of the school. Of course, it cannot be said that the teacher and the students enjoyed an equal relationship. However, it should be noted that the teaching and relationship was not solely controlled by the teacher and the students could initiate questions and topics for discussion and debate.

Good teachers were considered to be role models in their virtues and morality, live exemplary lives and change human society toward wellbeing. The literal translation of the Sanskrit word ‘guru’ as ‘teacher’ carries with it deep reverence for the teacher. Reverence is different from respect: ‘Reverence calls for respect only when respect is really the right attitude’.  In contexts where problems of classroom management and student discipline frequently cause ‘professional vulnerability’ of the teachers, requiring sometimes to protect themselves from personal dangers in professional lives, reverence can be a strong tool for creating conducive teaching environment. If students lack certain level of obedience to the authority in classroom, there is a risk that teaching and learning become counterproductive.

Ancient Hindu educational practices did not ignore agency and voice of the students. As mentioned in the Dharmasutra, teacher should not restrain the students for his own advantage in such a way that hinders their studies. Teachers were not given power to refuse instruction to students unless they found a defect in them. In addition, teachers did not appear to have encouraged blind obedience from the pupils. Dharmasutra clearly mentions that students can confidentially draw the attention of the teacher to any transgression of religious injunctions that he may commit deliberately or inadvertently. Students can forcibly restrain the teacher from wrong-doing either by themselves or with the help of their parents. The teacher not imparting knowledge did not indeed deserve the designation of teacher. Although teachers enjoyed certain degree of authority and reverence, they did not compromise learning potential and agency of the students.

Final Words

Presenting the survey in three themes – teaching, learning, and student-teacher relationships – I have presented arguments and historical evidence to show that some supposedly Western educational standards and practices occupied important space in ancient Hindu educational traditions. This observation resembles made by some researchers who argue that that Western knowledge and educational practices are relatively recent phenomena first spread to other parts of the world through colonization and through globalization of culture, education, and economy. Within the seemingly dominant practices of teacher-frontedness, learning by heart, transmission model of education in Hindu ethos of learning and teaching, there indeed were agendas and practices of more student-centered, practice-based, approaches and methods that fostered learning, teaching and autonomy. Revisiting our own educational histories and ancient ethos, we can compare and recontextualize dominant pedagogies in local contexts.

Suggested Readings

Canagarajah, A. 2005. Reconstructing local knowledge, reconfiguring language studies. Reclaiming the local in language policy and practice, ed. by A. S. Canagarajah, 3-24. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Crookes, G. 2009. Values, philosophies, and beliefs in TESOL: Making a statement. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Dharampal, 1983. The beautiful tree: Indigenous Indian education in the eighteenth century. New Delhi: Biblia Impex Private Limited.

Jonston, B. and Varghese, M. 2007. Evangelical Christians and English language teaching. TESOL Quarterly 41. 5-31.

Kumaravadivelu, B. 2003. Problematizing cultural stereotypes in TESOL. TESOL Quarterly 37. 709-719.

Merriam, S. B. and Kim, Y. S. 2008. Non-Western perspectives on learning and knowing. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 119. 71-81.

Mishra, S. K. 1998. Educational ideas and institutions in ancient idea (From the earliest times to 1206 AD with special reference to Mithila). New Delhi, India: Ramanand Vidya Bhawan.

Narain, S. 1993. Examinations in ancient India. New Delhi, India: Arya Book Depot.

Purple, D. 2002. Social justice, curriculum, and spirituality. Educational yearning: the journey of the spirit and democratic education, ed. by T. Oldenski  and D. Carlson, 86-102. New York: Peter Lang.

Sheshagiri, K. M. 2011. A cultural view of education in Hindu civilization. Handbook of Asian education: A cultural perspective, ed. by Y. Zhao et al., 529-547. New York: Routledge.

Thaker, S. N. 2007. Hinduism and learning. Non-Western perspectives on learning and knowing, ed. by S. B. Marriam and Associates, 57-53. Florida: Krieger Publishing Company.

Upadhyaya, P. 2010. Hinduism and peace education. Spirituality, religion, and peace educationed. by E.J. Brantmeier, J. Lin and J. P. Miller, 99-113. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Pub Inc.

Whelpton, J. 2005. A history of Nepal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wong, M. S., and Canagarajah, A. S. 2009. Christian and critical English language educators in dialogue: Pedagogical and ethical dilemmas. New York: Routledge


Note: This blog entry is an abridged and simplified version paraphrased from my article published in Language and Linguistics Compass (2013).


*Bal Krishna Sharma is a doctoral candidate in Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. His interests include sociolinguistics, discourse analysis and critical pedagogy.

5 thoughts on “Hindu educational ethos and practices as a possible source for local pedagogy

  1. A holy and a good reading and well researched topic on religion and education. Dr.MK Adhikari and I had written a simple article, ‘Education Past and Present: Source of Human Peace and Progress’ in a Magazine, Sammati Daily in 2061 BS.

  2. Interesting post.
    I am assuming that females didn’t have much say during these ancient educational practices. For instance, if boys would go to guru’s house for knowledge, where would girls go? And because of the damning influence of these ancient traditions, many girls, I again assume, are still kept out of schools. I would like to know your views on how (and why) girls/women were practically barred from getting educated during those times.

  3. Thank you Samjhanaji and Umesji for your notes. Umes-ji, I am absolutely with you. My argument is that some of what may be regarded as ‘western’ pedagogical practices were there in our continent. Gender-wise, it seems that there was a provision of Vedic education for women: http://hinduism.about.com/od/history/a/ghosha_lopamudra_maitreyi_gargi.htm. Also note that we can trace a few Hindu women scholars/philosophers in the past. See this site: http://hinduism.about.com/od/history/a/vedic_women.htm. But later Hindu education became very gendered. Hindu education was largely non-inclusive and less democratic, including only ‘Brahamin and Chhetri’ and largely ‘males’.

    What do you think?

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