Reclaiming Vedic Education

By Bharat Sigdel

I have been a teacher since 1999. I generally divide my career in two phases. The first twelve years of my career (up to 2011), I consider as the phase of my administrative growth and the second phase (2012 onwards) as the phase of my pedagogical innovation. I began as a lower secondary level teacher in a private school. I worked in about a dozen institutions before I joined the Nepal Police School, the institution I am working currently at. In this course of time, I had earned a reputation as a strict teacher with whom any pupil hardly dared to maintain their direct eye-contact. To be unforgiving to the student was considered to be main requirement of a successful tutor then. To add to my stern nature, I was arrogant. I knew everything in the prescribed textbook (since there has been same course book in grade 11 and 12 for more than two decades). The name, subject matter, and main features of all the chapters, all the difficult vocabulary, the main characters of stories and plays and even frequently asked questions were on my tip of my tongue and this had encouraged my boastfulness. However, the universe beyond my textbook had already experienced numerous new trails. I was not updated and familiar with the deviations and innovations in the field of teaching and learning across the world.

The outer world, especially Western academia, had made their remarkable transformations and were using new buzzwords and phrases such as “child-centric and child-friendly pedagogy, child psychology, the four pillars of education as referred by UNESCO, learning by doing, value education, 21st century life skills, Continuous Assessment System (CAS), teacher as a facilitator, student as an inquirer” and so on. Some droplets had started to appear in Nepal as well. Academia in Nepal also introduced concepts such as child-friendly teaching and learning, Montessori teaching, teachers’ training, action research and correction on the basis of reflection, a counseling department, and so on. Our school also undertook a ‘zero tolerance against corporal punishment’ policy and started to give emphasis on teaching and learning innovations and teachers’ training.

This stage brought me to a second phase and I started my journey of pedagogical innovation. The pond with stagnant water felt new waves after twelve years. Frankly, to let you in on a secret, I had passed a stage in which I had become fed up with the harsh attitude and rude relationships with pupils and was having second thoughts about the profession. Had these new waves of innovation not emerged at that time, I could have run away from my profession. This second stage pressured me to into becoming updated with the latest practices in the world, and made me experimental, innovative and more professional. I started to see the things around me with distinct enthusiasm. My present role as a student of education and an enthusiast of educational research too increased my interest towards need of value education, humanistic education, and a revival of the Vedic education system.

For a teacher like me who was still employing the traditional pedagogical and assessment approach, and had an old-fashioned mindset that the student should be terrified when they see a teacher. Time made me compare myself with a traditional guru. I thought about the ideal guru-shishya relationship in our traditional Gurukul system of education, and compared this with the present state of the relationships between me and my students. This realization triggered an interest in me to learn both about Vedas, the Vedic education system, Gurukula, and inspired me to make a comparative study with the recent educational trends.

Observation of any common man can perceive human society in the world today with numerous complications such as corruption, oppression, depression, and aggression. Almost all the countries throughout the world have been seriously infected with these phenomena. People are said to be rich in knowledge and property but very poor inwardly in ethics. They are educated but not learned. They know what is right and what is wrong, but they act ignorantly. As a result, the globe has been more violent, more chaotic, and less humane. Rather (2015) says, “These days it has become a big problem for modern institutions to tackle the question of how to impart moral values to students, because due to indiscipline, the educational environment has become so venomous.” Many learned people connect this present context with the inadequacy of the education system. Easy comments are heard that the existing system of education, despite many attempts through design, amendment, and implementation of curriculum, seems to have failed in inculcating a values education, education for life, and humanity. Degrees are there, but without any human skills. It has become a serious issue of discussion and research in academia today.

Educationists across the globe seem perplexed. They are found to be reflecting through study of world civilizations and the history of education. Many have done comparisons and come to the conclusion that modern education has become less humanistic, less life oriented and more abstract.

In attempts to bring improvement, they have started to talk about some of the Eastern traditional education systems, Eastern religious philosophy, and the values attached to these approaches and civilizations. When western eyes are mining gems from Eastern phenomena, it’s high time for the teachers, educationists, and all the educational practitioners in the East to think about their responsibility and possibilities. The Eastern life is our life; therefore, it will be easier for us to study as well as to apply the essences herein.

The rapid spread of Western hegemony together with technological advancements and a perceived need for educational development brought tremendous impact on Eastern cultural values, way of life, as well as education systems. Despite their down to earth, practical world view, the oriental trends, norms, values, ethics, and everything have been generally misunderstood and misinterpreted by Westerners. The Western political, linguistic, and cultural colony across the globe brought a huge big bang spread of their language, culture, norms, values, and way of life; and pushed all non-Western values into the shadows. The Vedas urge men to assemble on a common platform, to think together, and to work together to achieve a common goal. Education alone is the panacea for all social evils.

In this context, a rethinking, with an emphasis on Vedas, Vedic education and educational philosophy, and the Gurukula system of education seems timely. The intention of this article is to draw attention of teachers, guardians, educationists, and education authorities towards our ancient values and practices which are musk in our navel, which we are searching for outside, like a musk deer does.

So, the main issue is, how is reclaiming the Vedic educational philosophy desirable for modern education systems? Vedas and the Vedic education system have drawn global attention. Vedas were originally written in Sanskrit language and Sanskrit became almost a dead language as it lacks any language community. This situation automatically veiled the gems and treasures in Vedas. With a dawning realization of the hidden treasure in Vedas and Sanskrit, the Sanskrit language and Vedas have become a focus of attention, with studies and research carried out even in American and European universities. A considerable number of studies have been carried out.  The growth, development, and implications of the Vedic system of education have been observed by scholars with greater significance and care. Different aspects of the ancient education system have been examined. Though there is still a long way to go.

Gadadhar has defined the Gurukula system of education as an “old Hindu tradition of transmitting higher knowledge and enlightenment to the students by the Guru with an aim of developing the latent yogic powers of the child and build him up into a moral and spiritual stalwart.” He also talks about role of teachers as well as parents. The teacher is compared with a lighthouse showing the path of life, and parents have also taken roles as teachers themselves. ‘The parent is the natural teacher by default’. If all stakeholders contribute with a realization of their responsibility, we no longer will produce ‘walking computers’ only, but can be successful with man making or humanistic education.

I agree entirely with what Gadadhar opines. Gurukula, the ‘ancient style of imparting Education used by the Rishis in their ashrams of Vedic times’, being based on the Vedic educational foundation, bountiful with all Eastern values and philosophy, and oriented towards life skill-based education, does not have any equivalent. Instead, we are after a so-called modern education, ‘which has no relevance to the child’s life; no relevance to their times, or the needs of their country’. We are going nowhere, because we have lost our way in the dense forest of Westernized life. Modern education has made a teacher a commercial agent of the business of education and the roles of both parents and teachers have been filled with selfishness and irresponsible practices. The student today is far different than a disciple of the Gurukula. The student has become an evil seed sown by evil parents and evil teachers to harvest at an evil time in near future. Ultimately, the modern education system not only has spoiled the roles and responsibilities of everyone but is also ushering us towards a scary future. Both student-teacher relationships and child-parent relationships have been superficial, showy, and cheap.

Still, no one is ready to take responsibility for the present state of affairs. So, some obvious questions arise: Where are we heading now? Where is the right path? When and where does this chaos end? Answers are not obvious. In this state of confusion, it is the high time to review all the practices we adopted in the name of modernism and modern education. The time has come to  realize the need to reclaim Vedic education and think again about the superiority of this treasure we have at home.

Even with a high level of investment in education, we are still heading in an inverse direction. The education system today has produced ‘warriors’ because of unhealthy competitions, rather than empathetic human beings. As Upanishad says, “Lead us from untruth, from darkness to light; from death to immortality”. All the education stakeholders today should open their eyes reach the realization that we need values-based and life-oriented education as imagined by the Vedic philosophy of education. As Rather (2015) says, “The Vedic ideals of education have the tendency to change the minds of people and their character. It has a tendency to convert the bad into good. […]  The root problem in the modern era is the adoption of the materialistic mode of life.” Today’s instrumental education with a focus on ‘what we must think’ rather than teaching or practising how to think has put the entire system at risk. Let’s correct the tendency of running after materialistic modern education. It does not mean that what we have today is entirely wrong and what we have done up to today is all futile. But what we need is to correct our directions and move towards a humanistic education, linking the best achievements of modern education and mixing them with the treasures of the Vedic traditions. Before ending up in a historical failure with all materialistic, selfish and violent educational products, modern education should come to this realization and make a correction. At this moment of crisis, the answer to many problems among us could be none other than reclaiming Vedic education and making it a catalyst to empower the modern education system.