‘The Beautiful Tree-Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century’ by Dharampal – Chapter II and III

In this series of articles, we are introducing the book ‘The Beautiful Tree’ by Shri Dharampal, to readers old and new. Shri Dharampal was one of the leading intellectuals & writers of Independent Bharat, whose work was subsequently marginalised & suppressed by the left-leaning academic establishment. We are grateful to VoiceOfDharma.org for making this treasure trove of books/articles available for the common public.

Chapter II

This great accumulation of material, from about the mid-18th century, led to serious scholarly attention and debate on Bharat, and areas of South East Asia, particularly with regard to their politics, laws, philosophies, and sciences, especially Bharatiya astronomy.

This contemporary European interest, (especially amongst men like Voltaire, Abbe Raynal, and Jean Sylvain Bailly) aroused a similar interest in Britain. This was more so amongst those connected with the University of Edinburgh, like Adam Ferguson, William Robertson, John Playfair[26], and A. Maconochie. In 1775, Adam Ferguson recommended to his former student, John Macpherson (temporarily to be Governor-General of Bengal during 1784-85) to collect the fullest details you can of every circumstance relating to the state and operation of policy in Bharat…

That you may the better apprehend what I mean by the detail…select some town and its district. Procure if possible an account of its extent and number of people. The different classes of that people, the occupations, the resources, the way of life of each. How they are related and their mutual dependencies. What contributions Government or subordinate masters draw from the laborer of any denomination, and how it is drawn.

But I beg pardon for saying so much of an object which you must know so much better than I do. The man who can bring the light from Bharat(i.e. of its material resources, etc.) into this country and who has addressed to make his light be followed may in a few years hence make himself of great consequence and here I shall conclude my letter…[27]

A. Maconochie advocated, on the other hand (first in 1783[28] and then again in 1788), the taking of such measures by our monarch, the sovereign of the banks of the Ganges…as may be necessary for discovering, collecting and translating whatever is the extent of the ancient works of the Hindoos.

He thought that if the British procured these works to Europe, astronomy and antiquities, and the sciences connected with them would be advanced in a still great proportion. He observed further that the antiquities of the religion and Government of the Hindoos are not less interesting than those of their sciences; and felt that the history, the poems, the traditions, the very fables of the Hindoos might therefore throw light upon the history of the ancient world and in particular upon the institutions of that celebrated people from whom Moses received his learning and Greece her religion and her arts. Prof. Maconochie also stated that the center of most of this learning was Benares, where all the sciences are still taught and where very ancient works in astronomy are still extant.[29]

Around the same time, a similar vein of thought and some corresponding action had started amongst those who had been entrusted with the exercise of political power and the carrying out of the policies and instructions from London, within Bharat.

The more practical and immediate purposes of governance (following Adam Ferguson) led to the writing of works on Hindu and Muslim law, investigations into the rights of property and the revenues of various areas, and to assist all this, to the cultivation of Sanskrit and Persian amongst some of the British themselves.

Acquaintance with these languages was felt necessary so as to enable the British to discover better or to discard, choose, or select what suited their purpose most. In the process, some of them also developed a personal interest in Sanskrit and other Bharatiya literature for its own sake, or for the sort of reasons which Prof. Maconochie had in view. Charles Wilkins, William Jones, F.W. Ellis in Madras, and Lt Wilford (the latter got engaged in some very exotic research at Varanasi) were amongst the more well-known men of this category.

Three approaches (seemingly different but in reality complementary to one another) began to operate in the British-held areas of Bharat regarding Bharatiya knowledge, scholarship, and centers of learning from about the 1770s. The first resulted from growing British power and administrative requirements which (in addition to such undertakings that men like Adam Ferguson had recommended) also needed to provide a garb of legitimacy and background of previous indigenous precedents (however farfetched) to the new concepts, laws, and procedures which were being created by the British state.

It is primarily this requirement that gave birth to British Indology. The second approach was a product of the mind of the Edinburgh enlightenment (dating back to around 1750) which men like Maconochie represented. They had a fear, born out of the historical experience, philosophical observation, and reflection (the uprooting of entire civilizations in the Americas), that the conquest and defeat of civilization generally led not only to its disintegration but the disappearance of precious knowledge associated with it.

They advocated, therefore, the preparation of a written record of what existed, and what could be got from the learned in places like Varanasi. The third approach was a projection of what was then being attempted in Great Britain itself: to bring people to an institutionalized, formal, law-abiding Christianity and, for that some literacy and teaching became essential.

To achieve such a purpose in Bharat, and to assist evangelical exhortation and propaganda for extending Christian light and knowledge to the people, preparation of the grammars of various Bharatiya languages became urgent. The task according to William Wilberforce, called for the circulation of the holy scriptures in the native languages with a view to the general diffusion of Christianity, so that the Bharat would, in short, become Christians, if I may so express myself, without knowing it.[30]

All these efforts joined together, also led to the founding of a few British sponsored Sanskrit and Persian colleges as well as to the publication of some Bharatiya texts or selections from them which suited the purpose of governance. From now on, Christian missionaries also began to open schools.

Occasionally, they wrote about the state and extent of indigenous education in the parts of Bharat in which they functioned. However, British interest was not centered on the people, their knowledge, or education, or the lack of it. Rather, their interest in ancient texts served their purpose: that of making the people conform to what was chosen for them from such texts and their new interpretations.

Their other interest (till 1813, this was only amongst a section of the British) was in the Christianisation of those who were considered ready for such conversions (or, in the British phraseology of the period, for receiving the blessings of Christian light and moral improvements).

These conversions were also expected to serve a more political purpose, in as much as it was felt that it could establish some affinity of outlook and belief between the rulers and the ruled. A primary consideration in all British decisions from the very beginning continued to be the aim of maximizing the revenue receipts of the Government and of discovering any possible new source which had remained exempt from paying any revenue to the Government.

Chapter III

Instructions regarding the collection of information about the extent and nature of indigenous Bharatiya education (including its contemporary state) were largely the consequence of the long debate in the House of Commons in 1813. This debate focussed on the clause relating to the promotion of religious and moral improvement in Bharat.[31] Before any new policy could be devised, the existing position needed to be better known.

But the quality and coverage of these surveys varied from Presidency to Presidency, and even from district to district. (This generally happens in the gathering of any such information, and more so when such collection of data was a fairly new thing.)

The information which is thus available today, whether published or still in manuscript form in the government records as is true of the details of the Madras Presidency indigenous education survey largely belongs to the 1820’s and 1830’s period. An unofficial survey made by G.W. Leitner in 1882 for Punjab compared the situation there for the years before 1850, with that in 1882.

Before highlighting the main points of information given by the surveys and then proceeding with its analysis, some preliminary observations about the data as a whole are in order.

The first observation concerns the largely quantitative nature of the data presented and the fact that it concentrates largely on the institution of the school as we know it today. This, however, may help propagate wrong impressions.

It is important to emphasize that indigenous education was carried out through pathshalas, madrassahs, and gurukuls. Education in these traditional institutions which were actually kept alive by revenue contributions by the community including illiterate peasants was called Shiksha (and included the ideas of prajna, shil and samadhi).

These institutions were, in fact, the watering holes of the culture of traditional communities. Therefore, the term school is a weak translation of the roles these institutions really played in Bharatiya society.

For this reason, the quantitative nature of the data presented should be read with great caution. The increase in the numbers of schools in England may not necessarily have been a good thing, as it merely signified the arrival of factory schooling. On the other hand, the decline in the numbers of traditional educational institutions is to be intensely deplored, since this meant quality education was being replaced by a substandard substitute.

These aspects must always be kept at the back of our minds when we commence analyzing the data for significance. Before we do that, the highlights first.

The most well-known and controversial point which emerged from the educational surveys lies in an observation made by William Adam. In his first report, he observed that there exist about 1,00,000 village schools in Bengal and Bihar around the 1830s.[32]

This statement appears to have been founded on the impressions of various high British officials and others who had known the different areas rather intimately and over long periods; it had no known backing of official records. Similar statements had been made, much before W. Adam, for areas of the Madras Presidency. Men like Thomas Munro had observed that every village had a school.[33]

For areas of the newly extended Presidency of Bombay around 1820, senior officials like G.L. Prendergast noted that there is hardly a village, great or small, throughout our territories, in which there is not at least one school, and in larger villages more.[34] Observations made by Dr. G.W. Leitner in 1882 show that the spread of education in Punjab around 1850 was of a similar extent.

Since these observations were made, they have been treated very differently: by some, with the sanctity reserved for divine utterances; and by others, as blasphemous. Naturally, the first view was linked with the growth of a vocal Bharatiya nationalism. Its exponents, besides prominent Bharatiya of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, have also included many illustrious Englishmen, like Keir Hardie, and academics like Max Mueller.

The second, the blasphemous view of them, was obviously held by those who were in the later period, in one capacity or another, concerned with the administration of Bharat; or those who felt impelled, sometimes because of their commitment to certain theoretical formulations on the development of societies, to treat all such impressions as unreal.

Especially after 1860, it had become necessary to ensure that men who had had a long period of service in the British Bharatiya administration or its ancillary branches and who also had the ability to write, should engage in the defense of British rule, especially its beginnings, and consequently attempt to refute any statements which implied that the British had damaged Bharat in any significant manner.

While much ink has been spilt on such a controversy, little attempt is known to have been made for placing these statements or observations in their contextual perspective. Leaving Leitner’s work, most of these statements belong to the early decades of the nineteenth century.

For the later British administrator, the difficulty of appreciating the substance of the controversy is quite understandable. England had few schools for the children of ordinary people till about 1800. Even many of the older Grammar Schools were in poor shape at the time. Moreover, the men who wrote about Bharat (whether concerning its education, or its industry and crafts, or the somewhat higher real wages of Bhartiaya agricultural laborers compared to such wages in England)[35] belonged to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Society of Great Britain.

Naturally, when they wrote about a school in every village in Bharat whether that may or may not have been literally true in contrast to the British situation, it must have appeared to them so. And though they did not much mention this contrast in so many words, it may reasonably be assumed that, as perceptive observers, it was the very contrast that led them to make such judgments.

These surveys, based not on mere impressions but on hard data, reveal a great deal: the nature of Bharatiya education; its content; the duration for which it ordinarily lasted; the numbers actually receiving institutional education in particular areas; and, most importantly, detailed information on the background of those benefiting from these institutions.

The idea of a school existing in every village, dramatic and picturesque in itself, attracted great notice and eclipsed the equally important details. The more detailed and hard facts have received hardly any notice or analysis. This is both natural and unfortunate. For these latter facts provide an insight into the nature of Bharatiya society at that time. A deeper analysis of this data and adequate reflection on the results followed by required further research may help solve even the riddle of what has been termed the legend of the 1,00,000 schools.[36]

According to this hard data, in terms of the content, the and proportion of those attending institutional school education, the situation in Bharat in 1800 is certainly not inferior to what obtained in England then; and in many respects, Bharatiya schooling seems to have been much more extensive (and, it should be remembered, that it is a greatly damaged and disorganized Bharat that one is referring to).

The content of studies was better than what was then studied in England. The duration of the study was more prolonged. The method of school teaching was superior and it is this very method that is said to have greatly helped the introduction of popular education in England but which had prevailed in Bharat for centuries.

School attendance, especially in the districts of the Madras Presidency, even in the decayed state of the period 1822-25, was proportionately far higher than the numbers in all variety of schools in England in 1800. The conditions under which teaching took place in the Bharatiya schools were less dingy and more natural;[37] and, it was observed, the teachers in the Bharatiya schools were generally more dedicated and sober than in the English versions.

The only aspect and certainly a very important one, where Bharatiya institutional education seems to have lagged behind was with regard to the education of girls. Quite possibly, girl schooling may have been proportionately more extensive in England in 1800, and was definitely the case, a few decades later.

Accounts of education in Bharat do often state (though it is difficult to judge their substantive accuracy from the data which is so far known), that the absence of girls in schools was explained, however, by the fact that most of their education took place in the home.

It is, however, the Madras Presidency and Bengal-Bihar data which presents a kind of revelation. The data reveals the background of the teachers and the taught. It presents a picture which is in sharp contrast to the various scholarly pronouncements of the past 100 years or more, in which it had been assumed that education of any sort in Bharat , till very recent decades, was mostly limited to the twice-born[38] amongst the Hindoos, and amongst the Muslims to those from the ruling elite.

The actual situation which is revealed was different, if not quite contrary, for at least amongst the Hindoos, in the districts of the Madras Presidency (and dramatically so in the Tamil-speaking areas) as well as the two districts of Bihar. It was the groups termed Soodras, and the castes considered below them[39] who predominated in the thousands of the then still-existing schools in practically each of these areas.

The last issue concerns the conditions and arrangements which alone could have made such a vast system of education feasible: the sophisticated operative fiscal arrangements of the pre-British Bharatiya polity. Through these fiscal measures, substantial proportions of revenue had long been assigned for the performance of a multiplicity of public purposes.

These seem to have stayed more or less intact through all the previous political turmoils and made such education possible. The collapse of this arrangement through a total centralization of revenue, as well as politics, led to decay in the economy, social life, education, etc. This inference, if at all valid, warrants a re-examination of the various currently held intellectual and political assumptions with regard to the nature of pre-British Bharatiya society, and its political and state structure.

Before discussing this last issue any further, however, it is necessary first to understand the various aspects of the educational data, and the controversy it gave rise to in the 1930s. Since the detailed data of the Madras Presidency is the least known and the most comprehensive, we shall examine it first.

(Note: Minor edits have been made to the content to conform with HinduPost style-guide)

(Click here to read the previous article in the series)


Book: The Beautiful Tree

Author: Dharamapal

Originally published: 1983

Published by: Voice of India

Available on: Amazon, PDF

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