Guru and the ancient South Asian Gurukul system

Guru and the ancient South Asian gurukul system:

School of Yoga explains: Introduction to the gurukul system

  • Gurukul is a combination word – gu = darkness + ru = light + kul = residence and flock. So, this means a residence where a group of people are taken from darkness to light and the person is called “guru”.
  • The gurukul was an important aspect of life in ancient South Asia and finds place in the samskara (refining) process as explained in the grhyasutras (rules of family life).
  • This refining process in ancient India was designed to prepare a person to live life in accordance with his or her stage in life or ashrama. These were, brahmacharya (single), grhastha (family), vanaprasth (retirement) and sannyasa (ascetic) and the measure of success was the ability to live it according to the purusharthas (aim of human existence).
  • In fact, every aspect of the samskaras was designed to instil discipline and awareness (pragnya) of the Self in the person.
  • The samskaras assumed that all individuals were born ignorant, but became perfect through a systematic application of knowledge.

School of Yoga explains brahmacharya-samskaras

The brahmacharya-samskaras follow the childhood samskaras (until karnavedha or ear piercing). The first of these is vidyarambha (starting of knowledge or learning of the alphabet). It is called by different names by different texts, such as akshararambha in samskara-ratnamala or aksharavikarana in markandeya-purana. Importantly, these texts are dated around seventh and eight centuries AD.

Ancient India’s greatest Guru’s – Adi Shankaracharya (788 – 820 AD

The timing of introduction of education (vidyarambha-samskara) into the formal socio-cultural list of essential samskaras is significant and follows the evolution of Sanskrit from an oral to a written language.

In fact, this evolution of Sanskrit from an oral to written system occurred around 500 BCE with the seminal works on grammar by Panini (astadhyayi – eight chapter grammar), Patanjali (Mahabhashya) and Katyayana’s commentary. Indeed, ashtadhyayi became the foundation of vyakarana, an element of the vedanga.
It also seems significant that this knowledge of Sanskrit alphabet and grammar took approximately 1000 years to get formalised into formal education system (vidyarambha-samskara). This samskara is done before the initiation ritual (upanayana) and represents the start of formal learning of Sanskrit as a medium of knowledge.

School of Yoga explains brahmacharya-samskara:

  • An important samskara was the upanayana-uamskara. Here, the student became “dvija” (twice born) and graduated from a “shudra” to a “vipra” or “an initiate / student”. This ceremony is a very old Samskara as it is mentioned in the rig-veda. Initially, this samskara initiated formal learning of bhrahma-vidya (knowledge of the Self), rites and rituals, but later metamorphosed to cover all knowledge.
  • Upanayana means “taking charge of a student” and can also mean savitriya-vandanam (savitri-salutation). So, upanayana was the rite by which a teacher accepted a student and was performed every time the student went to another teacher to learn something new. Hence, it is a sacred and formal bond between the student and the teacher for imparting knowledge.
  • During the period of learning, the student lived with the teacher as a part of his family, performing such tasks as demanded by the teacher, living a vow of poverty. The intent was that in a boarding environment, the relationship becomes one of intimacy and family. Consequently, this allows the teacher to observe the pupil closely and regulate the lessons to ensure greater understanding (vijnana), while this allows the pupil to absorb the non-verbal and subconscious aspects of living from the teacher. In fact, when the devotion (upasana) of the pupil is complete, he begins to mirror the teacher.
  • Interestingly, this form of learning is not exclusive to India, but almost of all of Asia. In fact, when Deming and Juran, the great teachers of Quality Control, visited Japan for lectures, they were surprised to notice many of the Japanese students mimicking the way they walked, talked and ate. This is upasana, extreme dedication to the guru.

Modern India’s greatest Guru – Ramakrishna Paramahansa (1836 – 1886 AD)

  • However, it is possible that with increased streams of knowledge and increased population, the demand for varied forms of knowledge increased beyond supply. Consequently, all teaching was not residential but also included day scholars.

School of Yoga explains the classification of guru’s:

(Excerpts from Prof. Mahadevan’s, IIM-B Speech “On Re-engineering Higher Education in India”)

*Categories of teachers as per Sanskrit scriptures:*

  • शिक्षकः (sikshakah): A simple teacher of syllabus or a tutor. This might be a senior student under a guru.
  • अध्यापकः (adhyapakah): Somebody who can explain the lessons better. Somebody who does adhyayana (अध्ययन), little thinking before talking, knows how to reflect a little.
  • प्रॉध्यापकः (praudhyapakah): Somebody who can explain things even better. They will prepare before going to class. In fact, even though they are subject matter experts, they keep reading all the time and upgrading their knowledge.
  • उपाध्यायः (upadhyayah): Somebody who can take student closer to the issue being taught. They will develop an interest in the student on the subject regardless of the difficulty of the subject.
  • महामहोपाध्यायः (mahamahopadhyayah): Somebody who is a veteran in the above skill, and can inculcate a lifelong interest in the subject in the student.
  • देशिकोत्तम्: (deshikotamh): A teacher who is more than the subject matter. In fact, they are role models and imbibe values in their students. Students love them, not only for their expertise on the subject but also for the values they hold.
  • आचार्यः (acharyah): An acharya is one who has not only mastered all sastras (sciences), but is able to put the concepts into practice. Additionally, an acharya enables his students to practice these concepts.
  • Guru: A person who can lead people who come into their influence out of darkness into brightness.

School of Yoga explains the role of a guru:

Gu means darkness, ru means annulment that removes darkness. The ultimate role of teacher is to remove the darkness from the minds of the students, i.e. show them the light and not just train them to get marks. They are a lifetime inspiration to their students. Guru/ acharya don’t take the horse to the pond, they create so much thirst, that the horse will go and look for the pond to drink water. This type of learning is far more lasting and eternal because the the focus is on increasing awareness (pragnya).
So, the role of teachers is not to manage a syllabus, but to show the way of learning. Teaching too much and not making the student learn, is not the intent.
The difference between teaching and learning is; teaching is downloading information with no encouragement of feedback. Learning is a symbiotic process where students expand their knowledge by interactive understanding of the subject (vijnana).
There is no a word for teach or teacher in Sanskrit. All the above words (sikshakah to guru) having the suffix kah. In sanskrit putting suffix kah in the end of the word is actually means causing some body to do something.

For example, siksha is learning, sikshakah is somebody who is causing you to learn.

School of Yoga explains stages in learning:

SWAMI GURUBHAKTANANDA – Reflections on Chandogya Upanishad
All education is imparted by communication. First, let us consider what actually happens at the subtlest level prior to uttering the actual gross speech:

  • Para-vaaNi: This is when speech is still in its unmanifest or dormant form. For example, all the information of our school would be in our mind in an unmanifest form most of the time.
  • Pashyanti: As soon as someone mentions the name of our school, the picture of the school pops up in the consciousness. Here, we see the building and other aspects associated with the school.
  • Madhyama: The way we give expression to the thoughts when we wish to speak about our school.
  • Vaikhari: The actual articulation of expression.

Acquisition of knowledge has 3 stages.

  • First, concentration is practice of focusing the consciousness (chitta) on a given theme or idea, a picture or a sound.
  • Next, contemplation is a form of concentration, but done in silence, in a meditation posture (dhyaana).
  • Finally, meditation is the advanced form of contemplation on the Self. Here, the consciousness is completely stilled (samaadhi). 

Contemplation (achieving an internal peace) is explained in the Chandogya Upanishad (6.1):

Ch Up (6.1) dhyaayati-iva-prithivee-dhyaayati-iva-antariksham-dhyaayati-iva-dyauh-dhyaayanti-iva-aapah-dhyaayanti-iva-parvataa-dhyaayanti-iva-deva-manushyaah
The earth contemplates as it were. The sky contemplates as it were. Heaven contemplates as it were. Water contemplates as it were. The mountains contemplate as it were. Divine beings and men contemplate as it were.
Ch Up (7.1) explains the importance of vijnana (conceptual understanding of any subject) as the core of all knowledge acquisition.
vijnanena-vaa-rig-vedam-vijaanaati – By cognition alone can rig-veda be understood; 
yajur-vedam-saama-vedam-aatharvanam-chaturtham – yajur and sama vedas; the atharvana as the fourth;
itihaasa-puraanam-panchamam-vedaanaam-vedam-pitryam-raashim-daivamthe itihasas and puranas as the fifth veda of vedas – grammar, rules for the worship of ancestors; mathematics; the science of portents and deities;
nidhim-vaako-vaakyam-ekaayanam-devavidyaam-brahmavidyaam – the science of treasures – logic; the science of ethics; the science of gods; the ancillary knowledge of the Vedas;
bhootavidyaam-kshatravidyaam-nakshatravidyaam-sarpa-vidyaam-devajana-vidyaam – physical science; the science of war; science of stars; the science related to serpents; to the celestials, i.e. the fine arts;
divam-cha-prithiveem-cha-vaayu-cha-aakaasha-cha-aapa-cha-teja-cha – also, heaven and earth; [All Elements] air and space; water and fire;
devaan-cha-manushyaan-cha-pashoon-cha-vayaamsi-chagods and men; [All creation] animals and birds;
trina-vanaspateen-shvaapadaani-aakeeta-patanga-pipeelikam – grasses and trees; beasts down to worms; flying insects and ants;

School of Yoga explains Shankaracharya’s advice for knowledge acquisition:

  • All knowledge acquisition is based on sankalpa. In fact, sankalpa is defines by Sri Shankaracharya as “the ability to discriminate between what is done and what is not”. Thus, knowledge acquisition is a gap analysis and its closure.
  • Sri Shankara delineates 6 qualities of a student for spiritual progress in Vivekachudamani, but these qualities are equally applicable for any form of knowledge acquisition –
  • Additionally, Sri Shankara adds mumukshutvam (burning drive for knowledge) as a critical requirement. Sri Sankara says, that for knowledge transfer, an attitude of complete surrender to the Guru is required. Literally, this means that the student must unlearn everything that he knows on the subject to relearn from the guru.
  • However, this does not mean that the pupil accepts everything that the guru says. In fact, the student is expected to question the guru and learn to discriminate real from unreal (vivekam). He must not get sentimental about the truth, but step back and view knowledge dispassionately (vairagyam). Thus, there is transfer of knowledge.

This is the ancient South Asian gurukula system.

Editor at School Of Yoga
School Of Yoga is a single point resource for all aspects of Classical Yoga practise. We try to achieve this by placing Yoga's traditional methodology in front of the reader and eliciting his or her experience. We value everyone's Yoga experience and would like you to share and enrich other practitioners so that everyone benefits.
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