There tends to be a celebration of the guru-shishya relationship in India, so it is not surprising that we had a designated teacher’s day much before the consumerist celebrations that supposedly mark our love for fathers, mothers and siblings caught on in the west and now across the globe. Invariably, we have the Upanishadic examples that are used to extol how integral this guru- shishya relationship was to education and to society. In fact, it is believed that the relationship acted as a social bond, bringing together those engaged in seeking the highest form of knowledge together in those incredibly fascinating texts called the Upanishads, literally ‘sitting near’, which has been understood as the student sitting at the feet of the teacher. Patrick Olivelle, whose wonderful translation of the early Upanishads has now become a standard reference, talks of these Vedic texts as the ‘scriptures par excellence of Hinduism’. Orientalists in the colonial period celebrated this corpus; Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, on whose birth anniversary we celebrate teacher’s day, was of the opinion that we needed to go back to the Upanishads to preserve our national character. In the Taittiriya Brahmana, the union of the acharya/ teacher and the antevasin/ student is vidya/ knowledge, and they are connected by pravachana/ instruction. So, knowledge, its instruction and its seeking, was seen as binding together the teacher and student. Narada, in the Chandogya Upanishad, tells his guru-to-be Sanatkumara that though he had knowledge of various kinds-Vedas, itihasa-purana, etc.-he sought to learn about atman, the self. The guru here was initiating the student into jnanakanda, the pursuit of philosophical knowledge, over and above karmakanda-the knowledge of rituals. What is very interesting about this body of texts is the emphasis it places on dialogue – this sometimes takes the form of simple instruction upon being questioned, and in other cases is rendered as a debate. There is clearly much that seems attractive about such a system from today’s vantage point, particularly with the stress on new pedagogical practices that emphasize debate and discussion in the classroom. Also, the stress on higher knowledge, going beyond ritualism, understanding the essence of things seem almost to resonate with modern and contemporary views on education in its many aspects and levels.
The gurukul, well-known in ancient India, and given a lot of importance as a communitarian space where young boys mingled, studied, performed even menial tasks that their gurus asked them to, was the epitome of that social bond. Again, the proximity of the student to the teacher is emphasized – in this case, a vast body of literature mentions that the student is an antevasin, indicating that he lived under the roof of his teacher. While they were prepared for manhood, the students were on the one hand plucked from their homes and sent to their teachers’ homes, where in turn familial ties were forged amongst them. Jataka stories recount how princes were sent to far off Taxila, renowned for its educational institutions. They had to rise before their teachers, perform various chores, gather alms, perform any seva that was asked of them, and be the last to sleep. The famous story of Krishna and Sudama at their guru Sandipani’s hermitage relates the strong bonds that could be forged by students from disparate backgrounds. Among the many virtues that modern day educationists and Sanskritists have identified is the idea of all being equal during their studentship, and the depiction of an idyllic studentship within the gurukul sets a standard. The samavartana or return of the student has been compared to a modern convocation by A.S. Altekar. A related ritual, which underscored the obligation of the student to the teacher, was the idea of guru dakshina.
A couple of things stand out in the ancient Indian education system as understood through the Vedic and smriti texts. These were meant for a small class of people who belonged to the brahmana and kshatriya castes. The ritualistic knowledge was meant for the performers and patrons of the brahmanical rituals in their adult life. While there were several instances of those outside this select group who also attained knowledge, in reality it was prohibited to them. The story of Shambuka, a shudra in the epic Ramayana, is a glaring example of this proscription of seeking knowledge by those at the bottom of the brahmanical social hierarchy. He is killed by none other than the maryada purush Rama on the orders of his guru, for Shambuka had transgressed social norms. So, while on the one hand, the guru-shishya tradition was meant to forge bonds, on the other, those outside the accepted fold were not allowed entry and certainly no bonds could be forged with them. Modern institutions too under the pretence of the private and the public foster and reinvent social exclusions, and while caste may not be the only factor, it certainly is most relevant and prevalent. The epics themselves provide numerous instances where the social bonding and camaraderie even within the small elite groups was a chimera, what we may call an ideological construct. Bhima and Duryodhana’s legendary rivalry, where things went so far as to one trying to eliminate the other completely, reveals the underbelly of these institutions. Again, this may be something we can relate to. It is in relation to the guru dakshina that we find some of the most interesting descriptions in various texts – the giving of wealth is the most common form of repayment of the obligation of the student to the teacher, not just this once but throughout his life. We also commonly have the slaying of demons, perhaps representing a category of people outside the brahmanical pale, as one of the demands as repayment. Most striking is the case of Ekalavya, the tribal boy who takes tutelage by making an image of the man he idolizes as his guru, Dronacharya, and perfects his art. When confronted by the flesh and blood guru, he naively agrees to pay the guru dakshina. What is demanded is his thumb, without which an archer is helpless; he readily gives it up, because that is the guru- shishya parampara/ tradition. This episode is related to the power structure that the teacher is trying to uphold: Drona’s favourite pupil is the kshatriya prince Arjuna, and any contenders for his position as the foremost archer needed to be eliminated. Many other instances reiterate this point – that knowledge is a reflection of status and power, and both the giver and seeker are aware of their mutually beneficial relationship. It is an irony, or perhaps a deliberate obliteration of this aspect, that the highest award for coaches in sport in modern India is the Dronacharya award.
Coming back to the Upanishads, a lot of early scholarship on ancient Indian education celebrated the presence of women like Gargi, Maitreyi, Jabala, which they argued indicated that women had access to education. Yajnavalkya, the great teacher and debater in the Brihadaranyaka
Upanishad, knowing that his end was near, wished to transmit his knowledge to his wife Maitreyi, and the dialogue that ensues between the two indicates her own knowledge and understanding. In another instance, the famous Gargi Vachaknavi, called Brahmavadini – expounder of the highest knowledge, is fearless in continuing her debate with the same great teacher, even though he warned that her head would shatter if she continued to question him. While recognizing their presence, it is quite apparent that women such as these were possibly few and far between, even from among the upper castes. Also, what was the process through which they gained their education is not very clear, as the entire system seemed to be geared towards preparing boys for adulthood, and taking on their caste duties. Even among the brahmanas and kshatriyas, not everyone had access to the Upanishadic knowledge, for as has been mentioned already, it was a higher, esoteric knowledge.
Clearly while we laud the ancients for their interesting system of tutorship, we find that this was an exclusive one, and that women and shudras were not meant to receive this kind of an education in general. Secondly, the idea of the student being in the position of the supplicant, and the teacher that of the master, is brought out in many narratives, and clearly enunciated in the brahmanical rules. Historian K.M. Shrimali in a wonderful article on knowledge transmission in ancient India contrasts this with the shramanic traditions (referring to the heterodox traditions of Buddhists and Jainas, as opposed to the orthodox brahmanas), where social inclusion through dissemination of knowledge was given primacy. Thus, the Buddha’s understanding of nibbana/ nirvana was intrinsically tied to removing the veil of ignorance – avijja/ avidya. Hence, knowledge had to be disseminated, and while there were strict rules to be followed in the imparting of this, there was no obvious gender or caste barrier, although there are several instances that reveal the social biases of the time. Something else that was starkly different was that knowledge of arts and crafts was also given a place of importance in education and the knowledge system. It is interesting that when we talk of education in ancient India, we tend to forget this inclusive tradition, and privilege one that was inherently exclusive, socially and in terms of the knowledge that it conveyed.
Much of this has to do with the colonial understanding of India and its traditions and culture. Certainly, the apparent disappearance of Buddhism from the sub-continent could be one factor as well. But for those of us who are critically engaging with the idea of India with all its diversity and rich range of knowledge systems, which in some cases were cognizant of other knowledge systems and even engaged with these, while in other cases they were completely oblivious to one another, we need to interrogate how the guru-shishya paradigm of the brahmanical type seems to overpower our understanding of education in the past. What is even more important is for us to be self-reflexive, and see whether we have in some insidious ways brought in this understanding into our modern education system.
T.M. Krishna raises the issue of a specialized form of knowledge, that of music and performance, which celebrates the guru-shishya relationship, and how it has been recast in modern times. Despite this recasting, he points out, it has retained so many of its regressive, exclusionary and discriminatory elements. Even more disturbing is the excesses that are permitted to the teacher vis-à-vis the student in such a system. In the context of sexual harassment and rape allegations in one such gurukul, the internalization of these elements is pointed out by him, where there is a resounding silence on the part of many eminent performers and teachers, while students fearing reprisals tend to hold their peace.
While terms like gurukul or guru-shishya may not be used for education that is imparted in our modern institutions, with a curriculum that is broad based, although we do have such names for some exorbitantly charging ‘public’ schools that have mushroomed recently, we need to think of whether we have actually moved away from the paradigm, with the teacher occupying a position of unquestioned power, within the classroom and outside it. There may not be anything here that is typical of India; systems of transmission of knowledge in different parts of the world may well have exhibited similar trends in earlier times, as also carried the vestiges of these in the modern period. What is significant in the Indian case is the invocation to such anachronisms, without adequate reflection on how to weave the modern ideals of rationality, equality, dignity and dissent into it.
Most students would recall that one teacher who made all the difference in their lives, who helped them overcome their inhibitions, who taught them with patience, who gave them hope when they were lost and alone, who encouraged them to question and debate, and most importantly, who treated them with dignity. Almost all would remember those who intimidated, rebuked, humiliated them and broke their confidence, in fact, those who almost made them quit. There are the quintessential teachers, it would seem, and there are those who come into teaching as professionals. There are those humble teachers who opened up the world of life possibilities for you and those of great fame who may not have touched you even in an insignificant way. The sharp words or even the ignoring by the celebrated teachers may have often led you to question how realistic your pursuits were. That we overcome the abuse (euphemistically referred to as disciplining), and the marginalizing, and the ignoring, is because of a multiplicity of factors, including the presence of the first type of teachers in our lives. That we submit to this pattern of abuse, neglect and marginalization, and embed ourselves in structures that demand our obedience, subjection and complicity is rooted in our perception of the gains – knowledge, training, skills that prepare us for adulthood and a prospective job and career. It is also partly due to our socialization that the teacher in a paradigmatic form is infallible and unquestionable. Modern societies celebrate the pursuit of knowledge, and claim to provide equal opportunities for all to gain this knowledge. They also institutionalize certain practices and attitudes through what Gramsci has called the ideological apparatuses, our educational institutions being among them, what for Nehru were the new temples of learning. And as Foucault has argued, discipline and punishment are at the core of these institutions, for it is only then that the ideal citizen is born and nurtured, who will go on to strengthen the nation-state. So, while boys and girls, men and women have apparently equal access to these educational institutions, ultimately, these are in a way preparing them for their future roles within society and the nation at large. But in democracies, is this role one of a supplicant, or is it one where plural views, debate and dissent have a central place? Where is the teacher in all of this, and what is her role in ensuring that such spaces not only exist but are also cherished?
I conclude with a few anecdotes. One relates to students who study in reputed private schools of Delhi, disagreeing with teachers on issues. Many recounted how teachers used every opportunity to ‘prove’ that they were in the wrong, either in their performance in discussions and exams, or in terms of disparaging their accomplishments, leaving the parents extremely worried for their emotional and physical wellbeing. Schools invariably took it out on the students if they brought it up with the management, and in some cases, there was no option but for them to transfer to another school. I was equally struck by the story of teachers, the concerned, committed and engaged ones, who have been supportive, going out of their way to counsel students, helping them overcome bullying and academic difficulties. But these are largely individual efforts, rather than institutionally addressed.
Another interesting episode that I can’t help reflecting on is how former teachers react to your accomplishments as an academic and as a colleague. At a webinar held last month, a former teacher whom I had not had any significant contact with over the past twenty years responded to my talk with appreciation and some suggestions that had serious implications for my research. He later sent me this wonderful note about how he would love to return to the classroom, this time sitting on the other end of the lectern so that he could listen to his students, the likes of me, who had taken on the mantle of teaching. This is a lesson in humility, one that I and others in the teaching profession would do well to remember. While criticism and disagreement is very important in any academic debate, the Yajnavalkya-like ‘head-shattering’ admonitions and patronizing dismissal of counter-views do not take us anywhere, except to reiterate structural hierarchy and presumption of power. The teacher in school classrooms, in colleges and universities, and in conferences, who judge their students/ former students to be over-stepping themselves and presenting an alternate or contesting view, perhaps feel not just their own knowledge being questioned, but also their authority in the hierarchy of teacher and student. There have been numerous instances in my teaching career where I have seen myself or colleagues become that Yajnavalkya figure, unwilling to accept a different view-point and using one’s position to assert the correctness of our own judgment. Lack of grace in accepting dissent, disagreement and even at times rejection of the alternate views only diminishes us. And somewhere it reeks of our complacency as gurus – teachers clasping the cloaks of authority tightly around ourselves. The engaged teacher, a reconfigured teacher-student relationship, is something that does take us beyond the guru-shishya paradigm. The legendary historian of modern India Bipan Chandra personified this for generations of students. Introducing a scholar on one occasion, he said, “this is one of the most brilliant intellectuals I have known, who I had the good fortune to teach”. I must say I have been fortunate to have many students who have contradicted, disagreed with me and provided alternate views on issues, and while I may not have always responded positively, they certainly have impelled me to reflect on my own purpose as a teacher. I am particularly happy to see that a number of my students have taken on their roles as teachers much more graciously and self-reflexively than I possibly had when I first came to the teaching profession.
In these times, when a certain degree of institutional responsibility has been acknowledged at least in the normative educational system (even today, training in professional music or dance is seen as at the most an extra-curricular activity), the importance of sensitivity to caste, class, gender and religious identities and the social discriminations faced because of these become imperative. It is no longer acceptable for us to declare who we think is suited for education, at any level, and believe me there are those amongst us who do this. It is, even more importantly, incumbent upon us to provide socially inclusive environments in the true spirit, to allow the differently-abled, those who exert their choice beyond the sexual binaries of male and female, those who denounce and critique our politics, those whose past social environments have not provided them with certain capacities we take for granted, into our classrooms and help them to not just cope but to flourish in them. Issues of merit, capabilities and achievement become talking points to shy away from this reality and our responsibility towards redressing these, and our own political and social locations of course come in the way as well, although the latter are not often verbalized. It is these nefarious, ostensibly absent but ever present angularities that bring in the importance of the individual teacher, as much as of the institution. In the institution I teach in, as I’m sure elsewhere, students from certain institutions are presumed to be better by a certain section of teachers, whose own trajectories are similar: invariably the next step envisaged would be for them to go to Oxford or any of the other western institutions of repute, and the teachers take such pride in these movements. Because we see this also as a mark of our, the guru’s, achievement; our letters of recommendation, the quiet word to the experts who sit in on scholarship committees may have been part of the process. That student whose mother washed utensils in peoples’ home, who got state scholarships and worked her way up out of her village and neighbouring mofussil town into the national capital somehow is not something we own up in the same way. We do not get recognition in international circuits of academia after all, with such success stories. And some of these are incredible success stories. Alongside, we have those who could not take the disparagement, the questioning of capabilities, the constant taunts of not being good enough – and that is where as teachers we need to accept our roles in allowing the systems of discrimination and exclusion to be replicated. The story of exclusion in education doesn’t end here. The circuitousness of the exclusion practices carry over generation after generation even among students, mainly because of the hegemony of the privileged. Can this teacher get you admission into a foreign university, or a job in the teaching line? Is this person from x, y or z institution? Does this teacher belong to a specific social category, and therefore she may not be good enough? And the power of the privileged is such that they do hegemonise the very sections against whom their privilege is articulated. Teachers are also placed within hierarchies that match dominant social attitudes.
However, social processes and movements are very difficult to put a brake on. Indeed, in the course of the freedom struggle, individuals and groups in the 19th and early 20th century came forward to propose alternate educational institutions, as the colonial ones were clearly imbricated in the colonization process. Despite these efforts, there are obvious gaps in our education system. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s heart-rending experience of not being allowed to touch the water tap in his school and quench his thirst is unfortunately still the experience of many across the country. Dalits, women, students of the minority communities recount their woes, the obstacles they faced, and the hurdles they have crossed to attain a good education. In recent decades, some of the invisible social exclusions and in-built discriminatory mechanisms have been challenged loud and clear. Lack of access to scholarships, higher educational institutions, projects, and most crucially, jobs, were ostensibly because of other reasons (read, merit), but the underlying caste, gender, religious and other prejudices have been under scrutiny more recently. The political is as important today in knowledge production and transmission as in premodern times, but its articulation is varied, and allows for multiplicity of opinions and alternate articulation of structures. Within existing structures, there is a calling out of authoritarian, casteist, patriarchal and sectarian opinions and policies. The guru on the pedestal is no longer acceptable, neither is the passive student sitting at her feet.
Professor R. Mahalakshmi teaches ancient Indian history at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU.