Vedic concept of Education

  • By Swami Sunishthananda
  • October 2005
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Courtesy Prabuddha Bharata

The Vedas, like any other scripture, are eternal inspires. They inspire us to lead higher lives. Even if we were to suppose that they may not create an urge towards a greater, nobler life, just the fact that their words have come up from the depths of man’s own nature enables them to furnish a channel, a framework, in which idealism can become operative for the welfare of humanity. Hence this attempts to interpret various aspects of education based on the teachings of the Vedas.

Educational Philosophy of the Vedas
A teacher should have faith in the inherent potentialities of each and every student, for the Atman (Self) is lodged in the heart of every creature:

At the same time, he should be able to recognize the differences in their capacity of assimilation owing to diverse backgrounds, as has been aptly pointed out:
‘Though all men have the same eye and ears, yet they are unequal in their intellectual capacities.’2
Accordingly, a teacher should be able to act as a resource person for all students by catering to the students’ diverse needs. This is possible if the teacher has love for knowledge. A teacher should read new books, acquire new dimension of knowledge, become enriched with new ideas. And this capacity to acquire knowledge must be combined with the capacity to communicate knowledge to others. In the words of the Vedas:
‘Do not forsake learning and teaching.’3
An ideal teacher is supposed to be a friend, philosopher and guide. His intellectual egotism does not lead him to reject or discourage students’ opinions altogether. Rather, his loving attitude towards students motivates him to be interactive in the classroom. He questions his students and encourages them to express their opinions. Questions serve an important purpose. They stimulate the student’s to think, and thus serve as an effective way of animating their minds. In turn, the viewpoints of the students can stimulate new lines of thought in the teacher and offer him new insights. To teach is to learn. Hence, the ideal teaching-learning process is not a one-way traffic. It is intended for the welfare of both teacher and student. The following Vedic invocation is aimed at making the teaching learning process fruitful, by being an effective means to nurture the intellect of both the teacher and the student, so that they may succeed in their joint venture to explore the sublime and wider horizons of their mental and spiritual faculties:
‘Om. May [He] protect us both. May [Brahman] bestow upon us both the fruit of knowledge. May we both obtain energy to acquire knowledge. May what we both study reveal the truth. May we cherish no evil feeling towards each other. Om Peace! Peace! Peace!’4

In an ideal educational process, a teacher is supposed to be a father figure, a role model. In the Vedic times, the teacher was usually a guru, who was no ordinary person, but a rishi, a seer. Knowledge flourished in him more through his inner vision than through outer experience, though the latter process was considered in no way inferior to the former. A student was supposed to live in the company of those heroes who sublimated life and conquered death, because it is life that kindles life. There is a Vedic injunction:
‘Live with the enlightened sage who ennoble life. Live the life of an enlightened man, die not. Live with the spirit of elevated souls; come not into the clutches of death.’5 L 
Lethargy and complacency are the greatest hindrances in the process o learning. There is no end to learning. As Sri Ramakrishna used to say, ‘ As long I live, so long do I learn.’ He who seeks new knowledge exalts himself. It is the duty of man to move ahead in quest of knowledge:
‘To ascend and march ahead is the path of process’ (5.30.7)
‘Awakening is life, slumbering is death.’6

Being not contented with the existing position, a person should put forth efforts to lift himself higher and higher. Hence the Vedas inspire us:
‘ O man, rise from the present position; do not fall down.’7

Again, in the process of continuous learning, regular study is of great importance. However, one must be cautious about the choice of books. Only those books, which purify the senses and mind, enhance intellectual and spiritual power, and inspire a person to do noble deeds, can be considered good. Hence the Vedas prescribe this:
‘He who studies books of divine knowledge – books that purify all beings, books that have been preserved by the enlightened sages and seers-enjoys celestial bliss, attains purity and piety.’8

Vedic Code of Ethics
Character building is the main objective of education. Here again lies the responsibility of an ideal teacher. According to the Vedas, the best teachers are those who not only teach but also make their pupils worthy citizens possessing noble virtues.

Vedic student were taught to respect their elders, namely, father, mother, teachers and guests. But to respect elders did not mean to imitate them or follow them blindly. They were to respect their elders, but at the same time they were to discriminate the ennobling features of their elders’ character from those that were unsophisticated. The gurus or teachers of Vedic traditional used to instruct their students at the time of convocation:
‘Let your mother be a godless unto you. Let your father be a god unto you. Let your teacher be a god unto you. The works that are not blameworthy are to be resorted to, not the others. Those actions of ours that are commendable are to be followed by you, not the others.’9

All your day-to-day dealings are based upon faith in others. If individuals turn out to be untruthful, the entire social system will collapse. Hence truthfulness is the foundation of human life. In the words of the Vedas:
‘The earth is sustained through Truth.’10

Thus, one of the vital aspects of education is to train the young to be truthful. As per the Vedic dictum:
‘Tread on the path of truth.’11
‘Observe minutely the path of truth which has been trodden by enlightened sages.’12

The Vedas further assert that:
‘The noble soul who pursues the path of truth is never defeated.’13

Truthfulness, in order to be a virtue, must not hurt or injure others. The purpose of truthfulness is welfare of others. When such a purpose is not served, it is wise to remain silent. What is true must be good and what is good must be true. Hence, according to the Vedas, one should aspire for sweetness of speech, which ensures peace and prosperity:
‘May there be sweetness in front of my tongue; may the root of my tongue be replete with honey.’14

‘May I use sweet words in my speech’ (1.34.3).

A student should not engage himself in criticizing others, giving little importance to what he himself is doing. Criticizing others ultimately injures the criticizers, for it is the criticizer whose mind gets contaminated by perceiving evil in others. Hence the Vedas warn us:
‘Those who defame other are themselves defamed.’15

True education should train individuals to be honest in their dealings. Like truthfulness, honesty is also a vital factor which ensures social stability. To be precise, honesty is also a form of truthfulness. Hence the Vedas enjoin on human being to earn wealth by dint of honest labour:
‘O God, keep away from me that wealth which degrades me, which entangles me from all directions and withers me like a parasitic plant that withers away the tree. O supreme Lord of wealth, thy hands are golden. Bless me with that wealth which gives me peace and joy.’16

The Vedas instruct man to endeavor to acquire the wealth which legitimately belongs to him and not covet others’ property.
‘Do not covet the wealth of others.’17

Education should equip one with a rational and scientific attitude. The Vedic Pashu Yaga mantras, though addressed to the sacrificial animal, could well inspire us to explore new horizons in quest of knowledge.
‘Explore the ocean, explore the sky and be blessed’ (6.21).

Adversity brings the opportunity to test our strength and discover for ourselves the stuff of which we are made. The Vedas teach us that our resolutions should be firm enough to encounter all our adversities bravely. The more we try away from adversities, the more they will follow us. The only solution is to stop and face the brutes, boldly. Bravery alone can lead us to success.
‘Be firm and unshaken.’18
‘(May our speech be) strong and invincible.’19

Educational Sociology of the Vedas
Being citizens of a free nation, students should be made aware of the fact that we shall have to solve national problems and reshape the destiny of India according to our national ideas, ideals and needs. Mere freedom from the shackles of foreign rule is not enough. The process of education should stimulate students to get firmly convinced that indigenous problems can never be solved with imported ideologies, especially for a nation which has its own enriched and highly evolved cultural and spiritual heritage. The Vedas urge us to endeavor for self-rule:
‘May we endeavor for self-rule.’20

Student need to develop a sense of national loyalty and responsibility. This sense of national loyalty can be cultivated by following the Vedic attitude towards one’s motherland:
‘Earth is my mother, I am a son of the soil.’21

The Vedas remind us that our sense of national responsibility should instill in us an urge to serve our motherland and to be willing to sacrifice all for her security and welfare.
‘Serve thy motherland.’22
‘(O Motherland,) may we sacrifice all for thee.’23

Student must be educated to recognize unity in diversity, for that is a distinctive feature of our motherland which has enabled her to remain integrated in terms of the social, cultural and spiritual aspects of evolution, centuries, ultimately to get metamorphosed into a symphony of diverse traditions. Even the Vedas echo this ennobling aspect of our motherland:

‘May the Earth, which has many heights, slopes and plains, bearing on her bosom herbs that possess healing powers, bind together scattered men of diverse natures’ (12.1.2).

Recognizing unity in diversity, the Vedas advise all to live in peaceful coexistence.

‘You may live and let me also live’ (19.69.1)

Students should be made aware of the fact that the basic hindrance in the path of national progress is people’s excessive stress on individual freedom and also on the rights resulting from it, without caring to stress the importance of social responsibility and the duties ensuing there from. If the students realized their responsibility to their nation, they would work more efficiently and with greater dedication, thereby promoting the development of their own nation. Rights and duties should go hand in hand, like the shield and sword of the Vedic Maruts:
‘They [the Maruts] wielded the shield and sword in their hands.’24

True education should aim at imparting a humanistic attitude and the spirit of service. The Vedas censure the self-centred man whose accomplishments are aimed exclusively at selfish end:

‘The small-hearted man procures food in vain. I speak the truth-this verily is his death. He cherishes neither god nor friend; he who eats alone, eats sin alone’ (10.117.6).

In truth, the Vedas inspire one to be charitable. The sole purpose of earning should be to spend money on charitable acts.
‘Earn with a hundred hand and distribute with a thousand.’25
‘Blessed are the hands that support the destitute.’26

Education should enable an individual to transcend his individuality in conscious social participation.
‘May not brother despise brother.’27

Instead of being jealous of each other, clashing with each other and pulling each other down, true education should enable a person to develop the capacity to cooperate, to live and work as a team. The Vedas urge upon men to assemble on a common platform, to think together, and to work together for achieving a common goal.

‘March together; let your words be united; let your minds be united; accept your share of fortune just as the gods, concurring, accepted their portion of the sacrifice in ancient times. May your prayers be common; common be your fraternity; may your minds move with one accord; may your hearts work in harmony for one goal; may you be inspired by a common ideal; I offer for you a common oblation. May you resolve with one accord, may your hearts beat in unison; may your thoughts be harmonious, so that you may live together in happiness.’28

In a democracy, it is the responsibility of the citizens to elect their representatives, who on behalf of the people will look after security and welfare of the nation. Hence education has a vital role to play in a democracy. The general masses should be sufficiently educated to be aware of the responsibilities of their representatives in the process of running the administration of the nation. The mantras of the Purushamedha and Vajapeya Yagas mention the responsibilities of a ruler and suggest that the ruler is invested with power for the welfare of the people:
‘The ruler is for protection.’29

‘For growth of agriculture, for protection of property, for progress and prosperity, for support and sustenance (are you appointed as our ruler)’(9.22).

Freedom is our birthright. Education should make one aware of the various forms of exploitation, so that one can fight for liberty and for the right to live with dignity. It is natural that social life will have various gradations depending on the diversity of people’s cultural background, economic status, learning, profession and accomplishments. But that does not imply that a certain section of society should have the privilege to exploit other sections. Society should ensure liberty to each and every person to lead a life free from all sorts of exploitation, as has been voiced in the Vedas:

‘May we live a hundred years without being slaves to others’ (36.24).

Education alone is the panacea for all social evils. Hence the Vedas call upon the scholars to aryanize the whole world. Arya means refined, cultured and civilized, and to aryanize means to ennoble. Peace and prosperity will prevail on earth when most of the people are aryanized. The Vedas ordain:
‘Making all our acts noble.’30

‘You gods have degraded us; you must raise us up again’ (10.137.1)

The Vedas adore the enlightened persons who dedicate their lives for leading others towards progress by annihilating the darkness of superstition, ignorance, illiteracy and narrow outlook prevailing among the common masses:
‘They are worthy sons of the soil who imparts everlasting light for the goods of human life.’31

Educational Psychology of the Vedas
All deeds originate form thoughts. Pure thoughts result in constructive deeds, while impure thoughts result in destructive acts. Man is made by what he thinks. Hence true education, as per the Vedas, is to develop a pure mind, to cultivate virtues and to entertain good wishes for all beings of the world, as is evident from the following mantras:

‘This mind of mine, which travels afar, the light of lights, which wonders to far-off places whether I am asleep or awake-may it resolve to do what is good and pure’ (34.1).
‘(O Agni,) lead our minds on virtuous paths.’32

‘Let noble thoughts come to us from all sides’ (1.89.1).

The very essence of education is concentration of the mind to fluctuate at each and every moment. When one tries to acquire knowledge about an object, the mind, being constantly fluctuant, cannot focus on it fully. Thus the knowledge acquired is superficial. But if a man can be trained to concentrate his mind, thereby enabling him to focus uninterruptedly on the object of knowledge, then the knowledge acquired by him will be all comprehensive. The distractions of the mind are related either to one’s past action or future anticipation. If these two types of mental gyrations can be stopped, and the mind can be trained to remain focused on its present assignment, then alone can the knowledge acquired by the mind be all-comprehensive and fruitful. Hence the Vedas say:

‘The mind has gone far away to all that occurred in the past and will occur in the future. We call it back to thyself so that it may remain long under thy control’ (10.58.12).

However, according to the Vedas, purification and concentration of the mind are not merely intended for acquiring objective knowledge, but for cultivating subjective knowledge too, which leads man to evolve consciously beyond his psychophysical existence so that he may ultimately realize his immortal spiritual nature. Education, love for the country and truthfulness are all highlighted in the Vedas. But their central them is the removal of ignorance and suffering. Though the Vedas teach every thing else, as we saw above, they always underscore the need to realize one’s immortal spiritual nature, which alone leads to supreme peace. In the depths of such realization is true wisdom born, which has little relation to the surface activities of the enquiring intellect. True education, according to the Vedas, should motivate us to comprehend that life is a great and deep personal adventure, offering us continued and unlimited opportunities to open ourselves more and more fully to that infinite immortal Reality of which we from an integral part:
‘Knowledge leads us to immortality.’33

Closing our minds and hearts to life, truth, beauty and love cuts off the effulgence of our being. Hence the Vedas urge us to pray for illumination so that, instead of groping in darkness, we may proceed towards light:
‘Dispel horrid darkness from within; remove all vicious thoughts and enkindle the light we long for.’34
‘Lead us from untruth, from darkness to light; from death to immortality.’35

Though the educational process, as discussed in the light of the Vedas, lays stress on self-discipline, it does not deal with life pessimistically. The main objective of self-discipline is to overhaul human personality and initiate us in the art of living so that we can live the full span of our lives in quest of knowledge, peace and prosperity:

‘May we see for a hundred autumns. May we live for a hundred autumns. May we know for a hundred autumns. May we rise for a hundred autumns. May we prosper for a hundred autumns. May we live for a hundred autumns. May we grow for a hundred autumns-even more than a hundred autumns.’36

1. Katha Upanishad, 1.2.20.
2. Rig Veda, 10.71.7.
3. Taittriya Upanishad,1.11.1.
4. Taittriya Aranyaka, 8.1.1.
5. Atharva Veda, 19.27.8.
6. Yajur Veda, 30.17.
7. Atharva Veda, 8.1.4.
8. Rig Veda, 9.67.31.
9. Taittriya Upanishad, 1.11.2.
10. Atharva Veda, 14.1.1.
11. Yajur Veda, 7.45.
12. Atharva Veda, 18.4.3.
13. Rig Veda, 9.73.8.
14. Atharva Veda, 1.34.2.
15. Rig Veda, 5.2.6
16. Atharva Veda, 7.115.2.
17. Yajur Veda, 40.1.
18. Rig Veda, 10.173.1.
19. Atharva Veda, 20.47.3.
20. Rig Veda, 5.66.6.
21. Atharva Veda, 12.1.12
22. Rig Veda, 10.18.10.
23. Atharva Veda, 12.1.62
24. Rig Veda, 1.168.3.
25. Atharva Veda, 3.24.5.
26. Rig Veda, 6.18.14.
27. Atharva Veda, 3.30.3
28. Rig Veda, 10.191.2-4.
29. Yajur Veda, 30.5.
30. Rig Veda, 9.63.5.
31. Yajur Veda, 3.33.
32. Rig Veda, 10.20.1.
33. Yajur Veda, 40.14
34. Rig Veda, 1.86.10.
35. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1.3.28
36. Atharva Veda, 19.67.

Power of Understanding

He who does not realize the ultimate Truth behind the Rik and Akshara (word and letter) in which rest all gods-what will he do by merely reciting and repeating the Risk? (Rig Veda, 1.164.39)

One (student) merely sees the word but not it’s meaning; another hears it but not fully. But to another (worthy pupil) it unfolds itself like the devoted wife appearing in her best dress before her husband. (Rig Veda, 10.71.4)

He who is established and has drunk in supreme knowledge is counted as indispensable in the assemblies of the learned. Another wanders with an illusion that is but barren cow-the mere symbol of speech, bearing no fruit or flower. (Rig Veda, 10.71.5)

Learning without understanding is called cramming; like dry wood on ashes it can never blaze forth. ( Nirukta, 1.18).