Ancient Wisdom on Education

  • A Personal Prayer for the Teacher and the Student

सह नाववतु । सह नौ भुनक्तु । सह वीर्यं करवावहै । तेजस्वि नावधीतमस्तु । मा विद्विषावहै ॥ ओं शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥

O Lord! We – the teacher and the student – together pray to You. Please protect both of us together, and fulfil our daily needs, i.e., may our education not be hampered by illness, calamity, lack of funds, etc. Please give us the capacity to teach and to learn. Please illuminate all that we study, i.e., may we advance that knowledge! May we never harbor ill-feelings towards each other!

What a wholesome prayer for the teacher and the student that encompasses all that they plan to achieve together, and the kind of regard they must have for each other in order for the transmission of knowledge to occur without any hinderance!

  • The Sacred Relationship Between Teacher and Student

आचार्य उपनयमानो ब्रह्मचारिणं कृणुते गर्भमन्तः  ।

तं रात्रीस्तिस्र उदरे बिभर्ति तं जातं द्रष्टुमभिसंयन्ति देवाः ॥  अथर्व० ११।५।३ ॥

The teacher takes in the incoming student, as if into his womb. The womb is a potent metaphor as it denotes that, just like the mother digests all the food and passes only the essence to the developing foetus, similarly the teacher gives all the knowledge he has gained to the student in a form easily digestible by him/her. The metaphor also denotes the student living with the guru, rather than with his parents. It was considered essential for the guru to teach all aspects of life to the student. For this reason, the teacher was supposed to be of high moral values in personal life as well.

He then keeps the student in the womb for three nights. The metaphor of ‘night’ denotes the darkness of ignorance. Thus, the teacher works on the ignorance of the child during the period of instruction.

The wise people come to applaud the newly born student. The student has a second birth, so to speak, when s/he completes his/her education. While the mother only gives birth to his/her body, the guru gives birth to knowledge within him/her. At the time of convocation, the learned should come to accept this new person among their midst and praise him/her for his/her efforts.

Thus, the verse places the relationship between a Guru and a Shishya on a very high pedestal – even higher than that of parents. The relationship between the two is sacred, and built upon truth and wisdom.

  • The Phases of Life

प्रथमे नार्जिता विद्या द्वितीये नार्जितं धनम् ।

तृतीये नार्जितं पुण्यं चतुर्थे किं करिष्यति ॥ सुभाषितम् ॥

If a person does not acquire education in the first quarter (25 years) of his/her life, nor earn wealth during the second quarter, nor donate his wealth and knowledge in the third quarter, then what will s/he do in the last quarter of his/her life?! That is, these should be the main activities in the different phases of our life.

  • The Sources of Education

आचार्यात् पादमादत्ते पादं शिष्यः स्वमेधया ।

पादं सब्रह्मचारिभ्यः पादं कालक्रमेण च ॥ सुभाषितम् ॥

A student acquires knowledge through four sources – one quarter from his teacher, another quarter by his/her own intelligence, another quarter from fellow students, and the last quarter in time – from experience.

  • High Standards of Discipline

The student was expected to maintain tremendous self-control. 

वशे कृत्वेन्द्रियग्रामं संयम्य च मनस्तथा ।

सर्वान्संसाधयेदर्थानक्षिण्वन् योगतस्तनुम् ॥ मनुस्मृतिः २।१०० ॥

The student should bring all his/her five senses, as also the action-organs of the hands, feet, speech, reproductive and excretory organs, along with the mind under his/her control. By performing Yoga and meditation, as well as proper diet and activities, s/he should not allow his/her body or mind to diminish in their capability. In this way, s/he can achieve all that s/he sets out to accomplish.

Some of the activities not allowed to him/her are listed below. These continue to be passed down by Indian parents today, though their teaching is being diluted due to Western influences.

द्यूतं च जनवादं च परिवादं तथानृतम् ।

स्त्रीणां प्रैक्षणालम्भमुपघातं परस्य च ॥ मनुस्मृतिः २।१७९ ॥

The student should avoid gambling, gossiping, criticizing (particularly the teachers), telling lies, ogling at the other sex or being intimate with them, and hurting others.

  • Serving the Teacher

The teacher has always been held in high regard in Indian tradition. The student is expected to not only benefit from his wisdom and enjoy his hospitality, but perform sevaa in whatever the guru may need. This helps strengthen the bond between the teacher and the student, increasing the affection the teacher has for the student, so that he feels like giving even more to the student. This, of course, is a practice of a bygone era!

यथा खनन् खनित्रेण नरो वार्यधिगच्छति ।

तथा गुरुगतां विद्यां शुश्रुषुरधिगच्छति ॥ मनुस्मृतिः २।२१८ ॥

Just as a man finds water after digging continuously with a pick-axe, similarly a student finds the knowledge which the guru has acquired by performing service for him.

  • The Status of Knowledge

न हायनैर्न पलितैर्न वित्तेन न बन्धुभिः ।

ऋषयश्चक्रिरे धर्मं योऽनूचानः स नौ महान् ॥ मनुस्मृतिः २।१५४ ॥

A man is great not because of his age, nor his white hair, nor his wealth, nor the greatness of his relatives. The wise have laid down that the one who is learned is the one who is great.