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Dharampal’s ‘The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century’

This series of articles aims at introducing and reviewing Dharampal’s seminal collected works. The first article discussed Volume I: Indian Science and Technology in Eighteenth Century. The second article discussed Volume II- Civil Disobedience in Indian Tradition. The present article discusses the most celebrated book of the series, Volume III: The Beautiful Tree- Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century.


Prior to 1770, the British, on whose writings and reports this book is primarily based, were interested in mercantile, technological fields, or were concerned with comprehending, and evaluating Indian statecraft; and, thereby, extending their influence and dominion in India. Indian religions, philosophies, scholarship and the extent of education had scarcely interested them until then. Such a lack of interest was due partly to their different expectations from India, on the basis of their own background.

Earlier in England, education was not meant for all; only the gentlemen’s children were meant to have the knowledge of Government and rule in the Commonwealth. By the end of 17th Century, some Charity Schools were set up for the commoners, to provide ‘some leverage in the way of general education to raise the labouring class to the level of religious instruction’. These were succeeded by the Sunday schools, and eventually day schools. Nevertheless, even as late as 1834, ‘the curriculum in the better class of national schools was limited in the main to religious instruction, reading, writing and arithmetic: in some country schools writing was excluded for fear of evil consequences.’

In these schools, too, attendance and retention were grave challenges. Another problem was that of quantity and quality of teachers. It was on this background that the scholars of 16th and 17th Century started understanding various aspects of the Eastern civilizations. The British also started getting acquainted with Sanskrit and Persian themselves, so as to able to discover better, or to discard, choose, or select what suited their purpose the most.

British Approaches to Indian Knowledge Systems:

Three approaches (seemingly different but in reality complementary to one another) began to operate in the British held areas of India regarding Indian knowledge, scholarship and centres of learning from about the 1770s.

  1. Political and Social legitimacy: This resulted from growing British power and administrative requirements which also needed to provide a garb of legitimacy and a background of previous indigenous precedents (however far-fetched) to the new concepts, laws and procedures which were being created by the British state. It is primarily this requirement which gave birth to British Indology. This is why only a few things were highlighted, and most were left unattended to decay.
  2. Preservation of Knowledge Bank: This group had a fear, born out of historical experience, philosophical observation and reflection (the uprooting of entire civilizations in the Americas), that the conquest and defeat of a civilization generally led not only to its disintegration, but the disappearance of precious knowledge associated with it. They advocated, therefore, the preparation of a written record of what existed, and what could be got from the learned in places like Varanasi.
  3. Spread of Christianity: The third approach to bring people to an institutionalized, formal, law-abiding Christianity and, for that some literacy and teaching became essential. To achieve such a purpose in India, and to assist evangelical exhortation and propaganda for extending Christian ‘light’ and ‘knowledge’ to the people, preparation of the grammars of various Indian languages became urgent. The task according to William Wilberforce, called for ‘the circulation of the holy scriptures in the native languages’ with a view to the general diffusion of Christianity, so that the Indians ‘would, in short become Christians, if I may so express myself, without knowing it.’

All these efforts, joined together, also led to the founding of a few British sponsored Sanskrit and Persian colleges as well as to the publication of some Indian texts or selections from them which suited the purpose of governance. From then on, Christian missionaries also began to open schools.

British interest was not centred on the people, their knowledge, or education, or the lack of it. Rather, their interest in ancient Indian texts served their purpose: that of making the people conform to what was chosen for them from such texts and their new interpretations.

The idea of conversion was used also to establish a certain affinity of outlook and belief between the rulers and the ruled.  But, the primary consideration in all British decisions from the very beginning, continued to be the aim of maximizing the revenue receipts of Government and of discovering any possible new source which had remained exempted from paying any revenue to Government.

Traditional Indian Education Systems:

It is important to emphasize that indigenous education was carried out through pathshalas, madrassahs and gurukulas. Education in these traditional institutions, which were actually kept alive by revenue contributions by the community including illiterate peasants, was called shiksha (and included the ideas of prajna (your own intellectual capacity), shil (character building) and samadhi (reaching a higher plane)). Therefore, the term ‘school’ is a weak translation of the roles these institutions really played in Indian society.

Dharampal explains the situations in Bengal, Bihar, Madras, Bombay, and Punjab Presidencies using various kinds of Reports by William Adam, a former Christian missionary, published extracts of a surveys made by the British authorities regarding indigenous education, etc.

Adam in 1830, reports that there are about 1, 00, 000 schools in Bengal and Bihar, which is almost a school per village and more if the village is bigger. Situation was almost the same for Bombay, Madras and Punjab Presidencies. These surveys, based not on mere impressions but on hard data, reveal a great deal: the nature of Indian education; its content; the duration for which it ordinarily lasted; the numbers actually receiving institutional education in particular areas; and, most importantly, detailed information on the background of those benefiting from these institutions. The idea of a school existing in every village, dramatic and picturesque in itself, attracted great notice and eclipsed the equally important details. The more detailed and hard facts have received hardly any notice or analysis.

Specialties of Indian Education System:

In terms of the content, and proportion of those attending institutional school education, the situation in India was better than that in England; and in many respects Indian schooling seems to have been much more extensive (and, it should be remembered, that it is a greatly damaged and disorganised India that one is referring to).

The content of studies was better than what was then studied in England. The duration of study was more prolonged. The method of school teaching was superior. School attendance was proportionately far higher than the numbers in all variety of schools in England in 1800. The conditions under which teaching took place in the Indian schools were less dingy and more natural; and, it was observed, the teachers in the Indian schools were generally more dedicated and sober than in the English versions.

The only aspect, and certainly a very important one, where Indian institutional education seems to have lagged behind was with regard to the education of girls. Accounts of education in India do often state (though it is difficult to judge their substantive accuracy from the data which is so far known), that the absence of girls in schools was explained, however, by the fact that most of their education took place in the home.

The data reveals the background of the teachers and the taught. It presents a picture which is in sharp contrast to the various scholarly pronouncements of the past 100 years or more, in which it had been assumed that education of any sort in India, till very recent decades, was mostly limited to the twice-born amongst the Hindus, and amongst the Muslims to those from the ruling elite.

The actual situation which is revealed was different, if not quite contrary, for at least amongst the Hindus. It was the groups termed Shudras, and the castes considered below them who predominated in the thousands of the then still-existing schools in practically each of these areas.

Details of Indian Educational System:

Dharampal notes the details of the number of schools and colleges in the districts, and the number of male and female scholars in them. The number of scholars, male as well as female were further divided under the following categories: Brahmin scholars, Vaishya scholars, Shudra scholars, Scholars of all other castes and Muslim scholars. He also notes the age of admission for various caste groups, different mediums, school schedules and books studied.

It seems that the school functioned for fairly long hours: usually starting about 6 A.M., followed by one or two short intervals for meals, etc., and finishing at about sunset, or even later. The main subjects reported to be taught in these Indian schools were reading, writing and arithmetic. The following list of books used in the schools of Bellary may be worth noting as an example, and may to some degree indicate the content of learning in these schools. The list is obviously not comprehensive.

Most commonly used were books like Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavata, etc. Books like Nagalingayna-Kutha, Vishvakurma-Poorana, Kumalesherra Kalikamahata, etc. were used by children from Manufacturing Classes, Lingayat children studied additional books like Buwapoorana, Raghavan-Kunkauya, Geeruja Kullana, Unbhavamoorta, Chenna-Busavaswara-Poorana, Gurilagooloo, etc. Light Literature included Panchatantra, Bhatalapunchavunsatee, Punklee-soopooktahuller, Mahantarungenee, etc. The students used Dictionaries and Grammars like Nighantoo, Umara, Subdamumburee, Shubdeemunee-Durpana, Vyakarana, Andradeepeca, etc.

In most areas, the Brahmin scholars formed a very small proportion of those studying in schools. Higher learning, however, being more in the nature of professional specialisation, seems in the main to have been limited to the Brahmins. This was especially true regarding the disciplines of Theology, Metaphysics, Ethics, and to a large extent of the study of Law. But the disciplines of Astronomy and Medical Science seem to have been studied by scholars from a variety of backgrounds and castes. Amongst them, the barbers, according to British medical men, were the best in Surgery.

It may not be too erroneous to assume that the number of those ‘privately’ studying Theology, Law, Astronomy, Metaphysics, Ethics, Poetry and Literature, Medical Science, Music, and Dance (all of which existed in this period) was perhaps several times the number of those who were receiving such education institutionally.

A striking point from his broader survey is the wide social strata to which both the taught and the teachers in the elementary schools belonged. It is true that the greater proportion of the teachers came from the Kayasthas, Brahmins, Sadgop and Aguri castes. Yet, quite a number came from 30 other caste groups also, and even the Chandals had 6 teachers. The elementary school students present an even greater variety, and it seems as if every caste group is represented in the student population, the Brahmins and the Kayasthas nowhere forming more than 40% of the total. In the two Bihar districts, together they formed no more than 15 to 16%.

Another was the sheer variety of subjects, ranging from Grammar, Logic, Law, and Astrology, to Literature, Mythology, Lexicology, Medicine, Rhetoric, Vedanta, Mimamsa, Tantra, Samkhya, etc. Duration of study and the age of starting varied greatly according to the subjects. The study of Grammar started at the earliest age (9 to 12 years) and of Law, Mythology, Tantras, etc. after the age of 20. The period of study ordinarily lasted from about 7 to 15 years. Finally, as far as age of the teachers was concerned, they were mostly in their thirties.

Technologies, Arts, and Crafts:

Dharampal notes that while there is much on the question of higher learning, especially of Theology, Law, Medicine, Astronomy, and Astrology, there is scarcely any reference to the teaching and training in the scores of technologies, and crafts which had then existed in India. There is also little mention of training in Music, and Dance. These latter two, it may be presumed, were largely taken care of by the complex temple organisations.

The major cause of the lack of reference about the former, however, is obviously because those who wrote on education were themselves uninterested in how such crafts were taught, or passed from one generation to another. Yet another cause for the lack of information on the teaching of techniques and crafts may possibly lie in the fact that ordinarily in India most crafts were basically learnt in the home. What was termed apprenticeship in Britain, was more informal in India, the parents usually being the teachers and the children the learners.

Another reason might have been that particular technologies or crafts, even like the profession of the digging of tanks, or the transportation of commodities were the function of particular specialist groups, some of them operating in most parts of India, while others in particular regions, and therefore any formal teaching and training in them must have been a function of such groups themselves. We’ve always had super-specializations.

Some of such super-specialized technical crafts as noted by the author are Stone-cutters, Wood cutters, Marble mine workers, Bamboo cutters, Chuna makers, Tank diggers, Sawyers, Brick-layers, Iron ore collectors, Copper-smiths, Iron manufacturers, Lead washers, Iron forge operators, Gold dust collectors, Iron furnaces operators, Iron-smiths, Workers of smelted metal, Gold-smiths, Horse-shoe makers, Brass-smiths, Cotton cleaners, Fine cloth weavers, Cotton beaters, Coarse cloth weavers, Cotton carders, Chintz weavers, Silk makers, Carpet weavers, Spinners, carpet weavers, Cot tape weavers, Cotton spinners, Cumblee weavers, Chay thread makers, Thread purdah weavers, Chay root diggers (a dye), Gunny weavers, Rungruaze or dyers, Pariah weavers, Indigo maker, Mussalman weavers, Barber, general Weavers, Dyers in indigo, Boyah weavers, Loom makers, Smooth and glaze cloth men, Silk weavers, preparers of earth for bangles, Salt makers, Bangle makers, Earth salt manufacturers, Paper makers, Salt-petre makers, Fire-works makers, Arrack distillers, Oilmen, Collectors of drugs and roots, Soap makers, Utar makers, Druggists, Boat-men, Sandal makers, Fishermen, Umbrella makers, Rice-beaters, Shoe makers, Toddy makers, Pen painters, Preparers of earth, Mat makers, Washermen, Carpenters, Dubbee makers, Barbers, Winding instrument makers, Tailors, Seal makers, Basket makers, Chucklers, Mat makers, etc. to name a few.

Fall of Traditional Indian Education System:

The conditions and arrangements which alone could have made such a vast system of education feasible is obviously the very sophisticated operative de-centralized fiscal arrangements of the pre-British Indian polity. Through these fiscal measures, substantial proportions of revenue had long been assigned for the performance of a multiplicity of public purposes. These seem to have stayed more or less intact through all the previous political turmoil and made such education possible.

The collapse of this arrangement through a total centralization of revenue, as well as politics led to decay in the economy, social life, education, etc. Such a decay might have been inevitable; perhaps, even necessary, and to be deliberately induced. For instance, Karl Marx, as such no friend of imperialism or capitalism, writing in 1853 was of the view, that, ‘England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating—the annihilation of the old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundation of Western society in Asia.’

While the limitless British hunger for revenue starved the Indian system of the very resources which it required to survive; its cultural and religious content and structure provoked deliberate attempts aimed at its total extermination. It was imperative to somehow uproot the Indian indigenous system for the relatively undisturbed maintenance and continuance of British rule.

The remaining work of denunciation of anything and everything related to Indian civilization was completed by James Mill in his three-volume History of British India, published in 1817. He was certain that Indians were barbarous in terms of customs, manners, and civilization and they could be made civilized by discarding their Indian-ness and by adopting Christianity. They needed to feel ‘indebted to our beneficence and wisdom for advantages they are to receive’; and, in like manner, ‘feel solely indebted to our protection for the countenance and enjoyment of them’ before they could even qualify for being considered as civilized.

Given such complete agreement on the nature of Indian culture and institutions, it was inevitable that because of its crucial social and cultural role, Indian education fared as it did. To speed up its demise, it not only had to be ridiculed and despised, but steps also had to be taken so that it was starved out of its resource base. True, as far as the known record can tell, no direct dismantling or shutting up of each and every institution was resorted to, or any other more drastic physical measures taken to achieve this demise. Such steps were unnecessary; the reason being that the fiscal steps together with ridicule, performed the task far more effectively.

Impacts of the Fall of Traditional Indian Education System:

The neglect and deliberate uprooting of Indian education, had several consequences for India. To begin with, it led to an obliteration of literacy and knowledge of such dimensions amongst the Indian people that recent attempts at universal literacy and education have so far been unable to make an appreciable dent in it.

Next, it destroyed the Indian social balance in which, traditionally, persons from all sections of society appear to have been able to receive fairly competent schooling. It is this destruction along with similar damage in the economic sphere which led to great deterioration in the status and socio-economic conditions and personal dignity of those who are now known as the scheduled castes; and to only a slightly lesser extent to that of the vast peasant majority encompassed by the term ‘backward castes’. The recent movements embracing these sections, to a great extent, seem to be aimed at restoring this basic Indian social balance.

And most importantly, till today it has kept most educated Indians ignorant of the society they live in, the culture which sustains this society, and their fellow beings; and more tragically, yet, for over a century it has induced a lack of confidence, and loss of bearing amongst the people of India in general.

To conclude in the words of Dharampal, “what India possessed in the sphere of education two centuries ago and the factors which led to its decay and replacement are indeed a part of history. Even if the former could be brought back to life, in the context of today, or of the immediate future, many aspects of it would no longer be apposite. Yet what exists today has little relevance either. An understanding of what existed and of the processes which created the irrelevance India is burdened with today, in time, could help generate what best suits India’s requirements and the ethos of her people.”


Continued in the next part.


The complete collection can be accessed at-

To purchase the series:

Some of his Hindi works are available at- 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Indic Today is neither responsible nor liable for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in the article.

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