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Education: India

Education: India

The ideas produced, preserved, and transmitted through education in India have been as multifaceted as the many social groups who have lived in the South Asian subcontinent. Gender has been an important determinant for educational opportunities over time and across regions. When and where education was closely associated with making a living, parents assumed that women needed only domestic skills, and they were unlikely to educate their daughters. Still, there were always exceptions. For example, Pandita Ramabai (18581922) was given a Sanskrit education by her father, received a higher education in English as an adult, and was a strong voice for social reform to serve women's needs during the colonial period.

The territories of contemporary India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are the geographical scope of this survey before 1947; the later focus is on contemporary India.

Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern India

In the early Vedic period (beginning c. 1200 b.c.e.), an elite controlled the teaching of the four Vedas, the hymns and ritual practices of Aryan people who had migrated into north India in the previous century. Daughters as well as sons of higher-status families probably memorized these hymns and learned their meanings and associated ritual practices. Rishis, sages or seers who mostly belonged to the Brahman varna or caste, produced, transmitted, and controlled access to this knowledge. The Sanskrit of the Vedas was the language of classical learning, and proto-Hinduism was religious orthodoxy in the Vedic period. Respected teachers (gurus) taught apprentices pronunciation of the Vedas and all that it implied, as well as phonology, metrics, elementary grammar, and etymology, in return for the students' mundane services. This education was extra-institutional and closed to people of low status before the end of the Vedic period. In the modern era, nineteenth-and twentieth-century Hindu teachers of indigenous curricula frequently looked back to an idealized Vedic model for pedagogical inspiration.

In the sixth and fifth century b.c.e., historical founders Nigantha Nataputta (or Mahavira, the "Great Hero" of Jainism), and Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha, the "Enlightened One") created heterodox belief systems that monks elaborated, preserved, and taught to initiates. Buddhist monks congregated in monasteries (viharas ), and provided itinerant teaching for laypeople. Elder monks taught the disciplines of the Sangha (the monastic order) as well as discourses on doctrine, spiritual exercises, and advanced philosophical ideas. Female converts created nunneries with similar practices. The Nalanda Mahavihara in Bihar and other great monasteries were centers of learning that included secular arts and sciences as well as theology. Mahaviharas flourished in northeastern India with royal support until they were destroyed at the beginning of the thirteenth century. In southern India, education was likewise linked to the ideas of Buddhist, Jaina, and Hindu teachings. Itinerant teachers carried ideas and the Sanskrit language to the south, where a Tamil prose and poetry tradition flourished from around 100 c.e. onwards.

Arab and Central Asian peoples brought Muslim educational models to the subcontinent in both the medieval and early modern periods. Within decades of the Prophet Muhammad's death in 632 c.e., Arab mariners began to trade, reside, and intermarry with local women in south India. Turkic peoples and other Central Asians raided northern India around 1000 c.e. and thereafter established several foreign-conquest empires. Muslim rulers promoted urban education by endowing libraries and literary societies. They also founded primary schools (maktabs ) in which students learned reading, writing, and basic Islamic prayers, and secondary schools (madrasas ) to teach advanced language skills, Koranic exegesis, prophetic traditions, Islamic law (shari a ), and related subjects. Often attached to mosques, Islamic schools were open to the poor but were gender segregated, often only for boys. Muslim girls of affluent families studied at home, if they received any education beyond learning to recite the Koran. From the beginning of the Mughal empire in India in 1526 until the end of Mughal political presence in 1848, Persian was the court language, and elite boys could attend Persian schools to learn literature, history, ethics, law, administration, and court protocol. Subjects such as medicine, mathematics, and logic also formed an important part of the curriculum in centers for Islamic learning. More intimate settings for the spread of ideas were the retreats (khanqah ) of famous Sufis (Muslims who professed mystic doctrines). These new educational models did not necessarily displace older ones, although state patronage patterns shifted. Sanskrit academies continued to teach young male Brahmans literature and law; apprenticeship and commercial schools taught boys the skills needed for business. Education for girls was the exception rather than the rule.

Colonial India

The ideas and pedagogical methods of education during the colonial period, from 1757 to 1947, were contested terrain. The commercial British East India Company ruled parts of India from 1764 to 1858. A few eighteenth-century company officials became scholars of Sanskrit, Persian, and Tamil and promoted "Oriental" learning, which was classical, demotic learning in indigenous languages. However, they were outnumbered by "Anglicists," those who denigrated "Oriental" learning and advocated the introduction of institutions for Western learning based upon the British curriculum with English as the medium of instruction. By the early nineteenth century, when English was made the official language of government business, British policy promoted a cheap, trickle-down model for colonial education. When the British crown abolished company rule in 1858, government universities existed at Bombay (contemporary Mumbai), Calcutta (Kolkutta), and Madras (Chennai); about two thousand students studied at thirteen government colleges in all of British India, and another 30,000 students were in government secondary schools. Direct rule did not change the decision to deemphasize primary education to provide occupational training for young Indian men who took jobs both in the lower tiers of the government and in urban, Western-style legal and medical services.

Nongovernment schools established by Western Christian missions and Indian social and religious reform organizations provided the only opportunities for elementary education in the nineteenth century. American and English missionaries founded men's colleges, and by the twentieth century, Lucknow, Lahore, and Madras all had Christian women's colleges as well. Foreign teachers staffed these institutions, offering a Western curriculum in English with financial support for the children of Christian converts. Reformist societies also started schools, partly to provide Western education without the threat of Christian conversion. The curricula in private girls' schools ranged from the Urdu, Persian, writing, arithmetic, needlework, and Islamic studies of the Punjabi Anjuman-i-Himayat-i-Islam primary schools in northwestern India to the Western-style liberal arts curriculum of Bethune College, founded by liberal Brahmo Samajists (Hindu reformers) in Calcutta. Even voluntary societies' members who wanted to provide educational alternatives for their children disagreed about the advantages and disadvantages of the colonial educational model for both content and the language of instruction.

When British officials who represented direct rule by the crown introduced modest self-government in the 1860s, they shifted financial responsibility for education to a growing Indian middle class. Educating urban sons for professions dominated local educational spending, to the detriment of rural and women's education. Families of respectable middling status usually chose to send their daughters to gender-segregated educational institutions once there were schools taught in vernacular languages with general curricula. While older historians narrated the "insidious, total and transparent" domination of the educational system by the colonial state, more recent scholarship delineates the "'creative' resistance" to state agency and suggests that there was a "combat" between "consciously opposed sides" (Kumar). As the nationalist movement gained supporters in the twentieth century, Indian leaders developed several nationalist educational paradigms to challenge the colonial model. Mahatma Gandhi wanted the state to teach basic literacy in vernacular languages to the majority of the population. Rabindranath Tagore, India's first recipient of the Nobel prize for literature, believed that the English language provided Indians access to the sharing of knowledge across international borders and that education should include the teaching of India's cultural traditions. The fight for freedom from colonialism preempted decisions about educational ideologies until after 1947.

Independent India

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (18891964) and other politicians made education a fundamental right in the 1950 Constitution. The central government supported affirmative action for formerly disadvantaged social groups by reserving seats in educational institutions for candidates from the scheduled castes and tribes. However, state governments chose different educational emphases from the 1950s onward, which led to differing results. In the southern state of Kerala, for example, the Communist government emphasized public education, and by the 1990s, the overall literacy figure for both women and men was an impressive 90 percent. In general, however, the states' efforts resulted in modest improvements, with the 1990s estimates of national female literacy at 27 percent, still only half of the overall male literacy rate.

One of the most contentious colonial educational issues, the teaching of Western science and technology, continues to be problematic. Before 1947, Indian students were denied participation in the production of scientific knowledge, particularly because there was no "organic relationship between science-technology education and indigenous society" parallel to the European context allowed to develop within the colonial milieu. Teachers who promoted learning science through vernacular languages, working against the colonial tilt toward literary education in English, made little headway. In the late twentieth century, colonial shadows still colored educational ideology, and the long-term pattern of underfunding elementary education had not changed. The constitutional pledge to provide free and compulsory education for all of India's children remains a distant goal for the twenty-first century, even as Indians who are technically educated and speak English have become one of India's prime attractions for global capital. The challenge of joining indigenism and universalism in India's education system remains.

See also Education: Asia, Traditional and Modern ; Education: China ; Education: Islamic Education .


Bhattacharya, Sabyasachi, ed. The Contested Terrain: Perspectives on Education in India. New Delhi: Orient Longmans, 1998.

Ghosh, Suresh Chandra. The History of Education in Ancient India, c. 3000 b.c. to a.d. 1192. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 2001.

Hasan, Mushirul, ed. Knowledge, Power and Politics: Educational Institutions in India. New Delhi: Lotus, 1998.

Kumar, Nita. Lessons from Schools: The History of Education in Banaras. New Delhi and Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1999.

Vaidyanathan, A., and P. R. Gopinathan Nair, eds. Elementary Education in Rural India: A Grassroots View. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2001.

Michelle Maskiell

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