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Gurukulas - Where Students Aren't Merely Schooled

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

On a recent visit to India I visited two gurukulas-- schools that infuse the traditional values of Indian learning within a curriculum that combines the old and the new, the modern/scientific with age-old Indic wisdom and which promote a lifestyle that is at once simple, profound and environmentally friendly. I was almost an 'accidental tourist', taken to these two gurukulas by a well-wisher whose insistence that I go with him I could not ignore. My experience visiting these places was such that I wished I had the opportunity, when young, to have had such schooling and to have lived and learnt in the manner youngsters that I met at the gurukula were doing.

The first gurukulaI visited was the Veda Vijnana Gurukula, about ten miles away from Bangalore and the second was the Maitreyi Gurukula, about 200 miles from Bangalore, near the town of Vittala in the Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka. A third school run on similar lines, which I could not visit, is the Prabodhini Gurukula, near Sringeri in the Shimoga district of Karnataka. The Prabodhini Gurukula has attracted some media attention, given its locale and it being the first of the three schools started by the Hindu Seva Prathisthan. I don't have photographs from my visit to the Veda Vijnana Gurukula near Bangalore so you will have to rely on my rather poor powers of description to picture the simple and quiet place of learning outside the crowded, polluted and noisy metropolis.

Mixing the Old with the New

The Hindu concept of tutelage has its roots in the very mythical/mystic past and those who have read the Mahabharata and the Ramayana or who have heard tales of classical musicians, Hindustani or Carnatic, living in their guru's house and learning music all day long, all year long, for a number of years, understand the old gurukula system.

In the past and traditionally, the brahmachari(student) was expected to pass his days in humble and obedient attendance upon his spiritual preceptor in the study of the Vedas. This education, as the system evolved, began to be thought of as fit only for 'Brahmins'1. If you were a Kshatriya and especially a prince, education included the learning of a variety of martial skills too. There has been much controversy recently about the old Indian/Hindu/Brahmin gurukula systems and this essay will not deal with those issues. But, also recently, there has been a new interest in creating educational systems that allow for the healthy and holistic development of the child. A number of gurukula shave sprung up and in the present day gurukula system, the spiritual and intellectual preceptors seek to pave the way for such holistic and integral development of the child/youth. They seek to recover the guru-shishya relationship which is based on trust, devotion and a mutuality of affection between the teacher and the students. And in the gurukulas that I visited, no child or his/her parents are asked their caste affiliation or background.

With the western system of schooling having made deep inroads into every society in the world and with the British having trained and left Macaulayites in our midst, modern education and schooling in India has become a crass, cruel, unmanageable behemoth that has reduced our children to mindless memorizers, note-takers and exam writers. Cram schools, special tuitions, the hunt for exam questions and leaked papers2, have taken an enormous toll on Indian children. These 'memory-banks' are slaves to a system that saps them of almost all creative energy. Worse yet, children are socialized into a system of production and consumption that turn them into tired cogs in vast, faceless production mills.

Education has now been reduced to an exercise in obtaining ranks, laurels, certificates and diplomas, which are then used to seduce employers to dole out jobs. Many have railed against such a system, but few have taken the time to alter or change it. In the US, we continue to invest billions of dollars in schools which are glass and chrome structures for pampering children and turning them into bulimic, anorexic, violent, anxious and self-centered individuals. In the rest of the world, one wonders if schooling is any different, though one notes little tendency among students elsewhere to take guns into the classroom and shoot at a few classmates and teachers!

Modern gurukulas

In India, the renewed interest in the ancient gurukula system has led to creative attempts of marrying the old with the new in education. The Hindu Seva Prathistan has established three gurukulas in Karnataka, Prabodhini Gurukula for boys aged between 10-16 at Hariharapura (Sringeri, Shimoga district), Maitreyi Gurukula for girls aged between 10-16 at Moorkhaje (Vittala, Dakshina Kannada district) and the Veda Vijnana Gurukula, for boys aged between 16-18 at Channenahalli in Bangalore district.

In these gurukulas the children and youth are not burdened by textbooks, their parents don't have to worry about donations and fees and education is not confined within the four walls of a classroom. Children don't have the worry and anxiety of examinations, nor are they reduced to hungry and greedy automatons seeking ranks, grades, certificates and diplomas. They live on, work and study in beautiful, serene campuses where they are offered free boarding, free lodging and value-based free education.

The students speak fluent Sanskrit. When we drove into the Maitreyi Gurukula campus we heard the teachers addressing the students in simple Sanskrit, asking one of the girls to go fetch something cool to drink, another to bring the day's newspapers and yet another if she could check up on a younger girl. Even the two-year-old daughter of one of the workers (see below) on campus understood Sanskrit and spoke her baby sentences in the language of therishis!

The new Sanskritists

We were greeted in the morning with a melodious 'suprabhaatam' rather than the common 'good morning' and we were seen off to our guest house at night with an equally pleasant '>shubha ratri'.

The gurukulas seek to provide an all-round education that promotes physical well-being through the practice of yoga and the playing of a variety of Indian games (up to 200 of them), language learning through the study of Sanskrit, Kannada and English, intellectual rigor through the learning of math and science, self-esteem and self-reliance through the washing of their own clothes (see below) and braiding of each other's hair.

Little girls work hard too!

There are designated hours for self-learning and the love of nature is inculcated through walks in the forest, watering the garden every morning and evening and labeling and recognizing trees, flowers, birds, herbs and insects. Students acquire a deep and healthy sense of patriotism and strong leadership qualities from evening discussions, talks by visiting teachers and leaders and the evening ritual of 'samiti praarthane' (see below).

Salutations to Bharat Maata

The day begins at 5 in the morning. The children have a full and happy day:

4:45 -- 5:00 – Wake up
5:00 -- 6:00 – Bath, yoga
6:00 -- 6:15 –Praathah smarana(individual morning prayers)
6:20 -- 7:00 – Cleaning, watering plants, etc. (swatchha)
7:00 -- 8:00 –Swaadhyaaya samaya(practice of hymns, class preps, etc)
8:10 -- 8:30 –Pooja/group prayer session

All the poojas are performed by the girls; they use the conch, gongs and bells to create a serene and spiritual atmosphere; they sing hymns, do some Vedic chanting. On the morning we were there, we also heard a beautifully rendered Purandara Daasasong, “Govinda ninna naama chanda” by one of the teachers who is also an All India Radio artiste. I also had the privilege that morning, with my wife seated next to me, of offering 'teertha' (holy water) to all the students and teachers. What a wonderful and uplifting experience that was! I realized in the most powerful manner, for the first time, how the performance of certain rituals reminds one of their responsibilities towards oneself and others and of the need to uphold moral and spiritual values.

8:30 -- 9:00 –Upahaara(breakfast). Food is prepared by cooks and it was the tastiest, most wholesome vegetarian food that I have eaten.
9:00 -- 9:30 –Vayyakthika swatcche(personal grooming). It was one of the most pleasant sights to see these sweet young girls combing and braiding each other's hair.
9:30 -- 10:00 –Veda paatha(the recitation and memorizing of Vedic chants and hymns)
10:00 -- 12:30 – Class sessions (Each class period of 40 minutes)
12:30 -- 1:30 –Bhojanaa(lunch). We were served delicious, healthy, vegetarian food.
2:15 -- 4:30 – Class sessions
4:30 -- 5:00 –Laghu upahaara(light evening snacks). We were served spiced puffed rice and chick-peas 'usli'. Adults can have tea or coffee and the children are offered 'kashaaya', aDakshinaKannada beverage made with milk and spices like pepper, nutmeg, cumin, etc.
5:00 -- 6:15 -Kreedaa samaya(play time). Girls get to play more than 200 kinds of indigenous games.
6:15 -- 6:45 –Samiti praarthane(group prayer, saluting of the flag). See photo above.
6:45 -- 7:00 –Saayam smarane(evening prayer, singing ofbhajans)
7:00 -- 8:15 –Swaadhyaaya avadhi(self study)
8:30 -- 9:00 –Bhojanaa(dinner)
9:30 -- Younger children go to sleep
10:00 -- Older children go to sleep

The daily activities lead the students to gain a firm grounding and thorough training in their culture and enable them to acquire strong and healthy personalities. I have not seen the kind of happy glow on children's faces that I saw on the girls' faces at Maitreyi Gurukula. My wife and I felt that we were in a beautiful cultural and spiritual oasis at the gurukula. On our return to Bangalore, our families commented on how we seemed transformed by a single day's experience.

The source of inspiration is and the guidance to the students comes from dedicated teachers. The administrator of the gurukula lives on campus with his wife. At the time of our visit to the gurukula there was a visiting teacher, formerly a professor at the Birla Institute of Technology and a museum curator/administrator in Delhi. He taught the children English. This 73-year-old man was affectionately called 'thaatha' by the children ('Thaatha' is 'grandfather' in Kannada).

At the Veda Vijnana Gurukula I spoke to the students for about twenty minutes and I was bombarded by thoughtful, penetrating questions for about an hour! One very articulate student, who asked me numerous questions, happened to be the one in charge of the computer lab in the school. Later on I found out that this young man had told his parents that he was tired of the school that he was attending and that he wanted to be a student in the gurukula. His parents, both doctors, had acquiesced and this 17 or 18-year-old, chanting Sanskrit shlokas in full-throated vigor, was teaching his fellow students how to use computers and keenly questioning this visiting professor from the US!

As an article in the Kannada magazine, Tarangapoints out, the students are happy, healthy and inquisitive because the “learning process is based on learning through curiosity, ” and on “observation with a basic spirit of enquiry”3. The teachers, as the author of that article noted, are not concerned about seniority, superiority or administrative titles. We noticed the love and affection that the teachers had for their wards and noticed that it was not the kind of anxious pampering that 'modern' parents shower on their children. The teachers displayed an attentive and natural concern for the child without either controlling them or letting them have the license to do whatever they pleased. The week before we visited the Maitreyi Gurukula, the school had invited students and teachers from nearby schools to visit the gurukula. It seems that some 2, 000 children visited the gurukula over a period of two days and the one question that the other children asked their teachers was, “Why can't we attend such a school?” It is no doubt therefore that the number of students seeking admission in these gurukulas is increasing every year. The Hindu Seva Prathistan, which manages these gurukulas, has vowed to make this experiment in holistic learning, a model and a success.

The Maitreyi Gurukula is housed in the midst of lush green forests at Moorkhaje, in Bantwal Taluk, Mangalore District. The gurukula was gifted 120 acres of land by a well-wisher and the school and the lands are administered by the Ajeya Trust.

No fancy glass and chrome buildings here!

Work and Study

The girls are given certain special tasks if there are occasions when such tasks need to be performed. For example, two girls: Amrita and Shakuntala, were in charge of guests on the day that we were present at the gurukula. They, with their gentle faces and sweet smiles, asked us if we wanted coffee or tea, if we wanted the hot water for our baths prepared, if we wanted to rest for a while in the afternoon, or if we were ready to go attend the prayer session or if we were ready to go have lunch. When Amrita and Shakuntala greeted my wife and me in the morning with a 'suprabhaatam' we were for a second nonplussed (being used to the usual 'good mornings') but then were thrilled at this beautiful greeting. Back home, I began to greet my family with 'suprabhatam' and wish them 'shubha ratri' but I know the power and insidiousness of our westernized lifestyles is such that my little nieces and nephews may soon go back to their 'good mornings' and 'good nights'.

At present there are 67 girls drawn from all over Karnataka and two from neighboring states at the Maitreyi Gurukula. The school hopes to accommodate 120 girls. I was told by Mr. Hegde, the administrator that it costs about Rs 75, 000/- a month 4 to run the gurukula. That is less than $2000 to house, feed and educate 69 girls, 12-15 teachers/administrators and a small number of the workers who do the cooking and taking care of the 120-acre areca and coconut plantation!

Just as in the Prabodhini Gurukula, the Maitreyi Gurukula too has adopted the Panchamukhi system of education. The children attend the gurukula for six years and are trained in the learning of the Vedas, science, mathematics (see photo below where Prof. K. V. Acharya from Bangalore is teaching the senior girls some math problems and training them how to use graphic calculators that an Indian-American group has donated to both the Prabodhini and the Maitreyi Gurukulas), Ayurveda, agriculture, Bharatanatyam, etc. While the medium of instruction is Kannada, Sanskrit is the language of communication. The students also learn English and Hindi.

Electronics on cowdung swept floors!

Again, as the author of the Taranga article points out, Vedic learning and the study of Sanskrit complement each other and by the time students complete their six years of study they gain fluency in Sanskrit. While Vedic learning is emphasized, it is not forced upon the young children. The right atmosphere is created to evoke interest in the young minds and the students begin to grasp the beauty and worth of Vedic learning as they begin to converse in Sanskrit, learn chanting and sing hymns (see photo below). The students at Prabodhini Gurukula, who show keen interest in pursuing Sanskrit studies can attend the Veda Vignana Gurukula in Bangalore.

Practicing Vedic Chanting

Students are free from the hassles of examinations and tests. However, the students are evaluated in a unique way: they themselves prepare questions and tests on material they have learnt and write the answers and circulate it amongst themselves for evaluation. The teachers clear any doubts they may have. The process of self-evaluation is done periodically and after their six-year stay at the gurukula they are free to continue their higher education through university level correspondence courses, etc.

In the Prabodhini Gurukula the children wear the traditional dress (the dhoti and uttari -- the piece of cloth worn across the shoulders) during the study of the Vedas and during the Vedic recital. The rest of the time they are free to wear the clothes of their choice. If a student so wishes, he can wear the traditional tuft on the head. At the Maitreyi Gurukula, the girls wear the salwar-kameez or long skirts and blouse. At the Veda Vijnana Gurukula, the young men wear a dhoti with a shirt and the dhoti with the uttari while studying and chanting the Vedas.

Classes and Standards

The students are put in classes labeled according to the behaviors they are expected to exhibit and the character they are expected to develop, appropriate to their age. The standards are called Ganas. The six standards or Ganas are:

Shraddha Gana: The first year. Children aged between 9-10 enter the gurukula and are initiated into studies. They are also entrusted with the work of cleaning floors, milking the cows, doing the laundry, assisting in the kitchen and serving the food. They are helped and guided by their seniors. During this year they are expected to show complete devotion (shraddha) in their work.

Medha Gana: During the second year the child comes out of the cocoon, as it were and embarks on a journey of enquiry. Medha(intellect) gets sharpened as the teachers, unlike in 'modern' schools, challenge and encourage the students to ask questions, to be curious and inquisitive.

Prajnya Gana: In the third year the students are led into an 'atmosphere of awareness'. The focus is on achieving and displaying right conduct and good character. They are made aware of the need for discipline, without which humans lurch from one mistake and lie to another.

Prathibha Gana: Teachers begin to see and measure the talent of the students in their fourth year in the gurukula. Teachers carefully make note of the students' talents and a concerted attempt is made to offer the subjects of interest to the student. The students' talents in music, dance, agriculture, Ayurveda, art, etc., are noticed and encouraged. Volunteer teachers, some well-known in their fields, travel all the way from big towns and cities to train the students.

Dhruti Gana: Steady progress towards maturity is the prime concern in the fifth year at the gurukula. The molding and shaping of the student's personality receives importance, as well as the strengthening of character and the fine-tuning of talent.

Dhi Gana: In the sixth and final year of study the students are trained to take up the challenges of life and become self-reliant.

Care of the child

Teachers, administrators, visiting resource people, meet to discuss each child's strengths, weaknesses and need for support and direction. Parents are involved in these exercises too. Meetings to discuss the welfare of the child are held periodically. For every 7-8 students there is a caretaker aachaarya(male teacher) at the Prabodhini Gurukula or matrushree(female teacher) at the Maitreyi Gurukula, who devotedly help the development of the child. If the need arises, they discuss educational and other related matters in a summit meeting with senior resource persons and educationists.

Stepping Outside

Children are made aware of the world outside through visits to banks, hospitals, markets, government offices, police stations, etc. They also interact with people from nearby villages. It is claimed that students learn one-fourth from the school, another one-fourth from activities and the rest from the outside world. By the time the students are ready to leave the gurukula they are very well aware of their duties and responsibilities. The gurukulas also have a kind of 'career placement' to enable students to find the right kind of employment, to earn their livelihood and contribute to society.

Days of Rest

Free time is unheard of during the academic year. As described above students are busy from five in the morning till about ten at night. Sundays are study days too. Since they are not burdened with the mess that we burden our children with in the name of modern education, these children have the energy, the enthusiasm and the curiosity to work and play all year long. Almost. There are no classes on the fourteenth day and fifteenth day (new moon or full moon day) and the first day of the lunar month. On those days, the students are taken out on excursions. Each fortnight, on the thirteenth day of the lunar calendar, Saraswati Vandana is celebrated. It is an opportunity for children to display their talents and to take part in dramas, singing, dancing and debate and speech. There is also a program known as 'suddi avalokana' (In Kannada it means 'critical appreciation of news'), which is done under a teacher's guidance.

When I spoke to students at the Maitreyi and the Veda Vijnana Gurukula I was impressed with their knowledge of current events, as well as with their keen insight and intelligence. I was bombarded with numerous questions on life in the US, Americans' perception of India, Indian-Americans' perception of India, about education and children's lives in the US, about the difference between US and Indian democratic systems, on the nature of capitalism and so on. For me, what was really surprising was how the younger children listened and paid attention to the talk and discussions. There was no chattering and giggling, nor did they seem restive or bored.

In the article in 'Taranga' it is mentioned that the adjoining forests at Prabodhini and Maitreyi Gurukulas offer students and teachers opportunities to watch and observe nature -- to see snakes and scorpions, bison and deer. I asked the teachers if there had been any instances of children being bitten by a snake or scorpion or having had an 'uncomfortable' encounter with nature. They told me that they had encountered none. In fact, the children and the adults all walk bare foot on the campus! The belief is that the human being has to be in 'touch' with the earth to relate to it and protect it.

There are gurukulas run by various Shankaracharyas and religious institutions in India and there are the expensive boarding schools for the rich and the famous. I taught in one for two years, having been a teacher in the Krishnamurti Foundation run Valley School just outside Bangalore. Two of my nephews attend the Rishi Valley School and my sister pays through her nose for the care and training of her children there. But the three gurukulas in Karnataka run by the Hindu Seva Prathistan both go beyond the religious/traditional training imparted in the traditional gurukulas and to do so without making it expensive and elitist endeavors that the fancy, westernized and Anglicized schools are. These gurukulas incorporate lifestyle and cultural agendas, including the nurturing of a strong sense of patriotism, that are aimed at molding a strong, happy, intelligent and disciplined citizen who believes and leads a simple lifestyle.

Footnotes:

1) As per the description of 'varnaashrama', those who pursued education and, upon graduation, dedicated their lives to teaching were termed 'Brahmins'. Those who pursued martial skills were termed 'Kshatriyas'. But with the passage of time and abuse of the 'varnaashrama' system, today it is described as traditional education for Brahmins.

2) 'Mr. Minister, it's time you went back to school' Allen J. Mendonca and Anupama G. S., Times of India, March 30, 2001

3)Taranga, September 7, 2000, 'Gurukula: Pracheena shikshana samskrutiya punarutthana'.

4) You can contribute to the running and maintenance of these gurukulas. If you are in India you can send your contribution to the running of the Veda Vijnana Gurukula to: Janaseva Vidyakendra, 20thKM, Bangalore-Magadi Road, Channenahalli -- 562130, Bangalore District. Your donations are covered by the 80-G Income Tax concession. If you want your contributions to go to the Maitreyi Gurukula, send your checks to: Ajeya Vishwastha Mandali/Ajeya Trust, Moorkaje, Vittal Padnoor Village -- 574243, Karnataka and if you want your contributions to go to the Prabodhini Gurukula, send your checks to: Prabhodhini Trust, Chitrakoota, Hariharapura -- 577120, Koppa Taluk, Chikkamagalur District, Karnataka State, India. In the US, you can make your checks out to the Maharashtra Foundation and send it to: Mr. Shashi Bhargava, 300 Wintergreen Way, Rochester, NY – 14618 and write in the memo column the name of the gurukula you want the contribution to go to. These contributions to the Maharashtra Foundation are tax deductible in the US under section 501 (3) (c).

Originally published on Friday, April 13, 2001.

 
     
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