A TRUISM INDOLOGISTS OFTEN RESORT TO is that the are of traditional India is in many respects situated vis-a-vis our own as its opposite pole. On the one hand, we find a system of seemingly fixed castes that determines ones social persona as a tact or nature; on the other, a notion that the individual by right is autonomous and delegates his authority to the greater society by compact. On the one hand, a behavioral ideal that privileges the absence of self in all its forms and abolishes its significance in an infinitude of rebirths; on the other, a view that "self-interest" is the motor of every success and that this life is the sole theater of enjoyments. On the one hand, an anhistorical civilization that is preoccupied with transcendental, and definitely non-dateable, matters; on the other, a record-keeping culture that has made "information" the be-all and end-all of existence. The list can be quite long. Traditional Indian culture, aspects of which survive even today, is still largely inherited from one's parents and may be said to be, in that sense, "innate," "essential." It is very unmodern, as no one needs to be reminded, in these days of "finding yourself" and shopping for "culture" like you shop for a better Aromatherapy or domestic "conjoint." Now, in my view--unlike much that passes under this rubric nowadays, these are matters of real "diversity." I have chosen here to deal with one of the aspects of that "diversity" that is most telling, most diagnostic of the whole, something akin to a litmus test: education--the education of the young. Another truism is that every culture replicates itself in its system of education--already a sad enough commentary on our own. That of traditional India is no exception--and mirabile dictu, the institutions of education that have over centuries served to articulate it are still, at least vestigially, observable in practice today. It would be difficult to discover anywhere greater contrasts, of style, of method, of content, of goal. A study of their techniques of transmission is a study of how a cultural alternative is still possible, even in our day.
I may consider myself at least minimally qualified to address such a subject, having spent a year of my youth as a student in the Mysore Sanskrit College, one of the better endowed traditional schools of India, reorganized in its present form in 1876 under the patronage of then Raja Chamarajendra Wodeyar (r. 1868-95). (1) I would like to focus here on some of the special features of this traditional system of education, as I observed it then and later, and to the extent that it survives in such places. One further personal remark may be in order: this penchant I have for representing myself, even now, as a student is not at all an affectation. My year in the College accustomed me to yet another polarity: I, who now, at the close of my career, have acceded somehow to the presidency of this venerable society (one of the more prestigious offices of Western Orientalism), am, in fact, the merest of debutants when measured against the attainments of a true pundit, pandita--the symbol and perfection of the traditional Indian education.
The pundit of whom I speak is a phenomenon familiar enough, especially in his most refined form, the master of traditional sastra that many of us have encountered during our academic sojourns, and who may often have assisted us as we accustomed ourselves to the mysteries of Indic wisdom--and, if I may say so, without whose aid we might not have become so confident about what we think we know. The pundit, in this sense, has been subjected to not a few studies, historical and otherwise (including a symposium volume just published (2)), but much less effort has been devoted to examining the system itself that aims at the formation of such a savant--its methods and principles, so to speak; and those few studies that I do know of, from Adam's Reports (1835-38) to the Report of the Sanskrit Commission (1958), have dealt with the matter largely as a statistical, rather than an ethical, exercise. (3) Even more neglected have been the elementary stages of study--despite the obvious truth that it is they that lay the groundwork for the later successes that are more familiar. It is these elementary stages that I wish chiefly to discuss here. Apart from the novelty of the subject, such an inquiry engages many issues of a comparative sort, and allows us to pose in sharply defined terms the question of the survival of the institution as such. For, deprived of its foundation, the institution is weakened and far less able to cope with the multiple menaces of "modernity." My remarks, though, should not be taken as a study of decline--though they doubtless could have been so framed--rather they are more akin to a study of an ideal, against which might be measured a decline, but which deserves to be appreciated in and of itself, as it is (or was) supposed to function (and perhaps did until very recently).
The Mysore Sanskrit College is a complete institution of traditional education, accepting as students, at one extreme, eight-year-old beginners, and at the other, graduates pursuing an advanced degree in one of the areas of traditional study, such as Vyakarana (grammar) or Advaita Vedanta. (4) Instruction at the MSC is graded into five levels, which fall into two large groupings; the three lower levels, termed Prathama, Kavya, and Sahitya, (5) of which I will chiefly speak here, correspond approximately to the elementary, middle, and high schools of our American system. They are common to all students and constitute, as it were, the element of "general education" in the traditional system. By contrast, the two upper levels, under the name Sastravibhaga (sastra, or "science" section), offer specialized programs of study leading to the degrees of Vidvan and Siromani, in principle equivalent to the B.A. and M.A. of the Western college. Here, the student is concerned only with the "established" (siddha) form of his subject, excluding, at least nominally, every other subject. (6) One might suspect here a slight English (or even German) perfume, but the traditional ideal of the educated man is in no wise hostile to such specialization, and has adapted to this format without apparent shock. (7)
Before indicating briefly how the curriculum of the college is distributed over the five levels of instruction, I should mention the division of faculties, which reflect much more evidently the traditional roots of the institution. In effect, that division is seen chiefly at the superior levels--and, in fact, reflects the traditional version of vocational or professional education. For the three faculties are each intended to form the student, typically a brahmin, in a particular metier or function--first, that of sastri (which we have taken as typical of the institution itself), then, that of officiating priest in a Hindu temple (that faculty is called Agamavibhaga), and, finally, and from the angle of the tradition, still the most prestigious, that wherein the Veda and its accessories are rescued from collective oblivion and are consigned to the memory of the next generation (Vedavibhaga). The division into three reflects also a division of subject matter--the two latter corresponding to the domains of the two styles of religiosity still publicly cultivated in Hindu India, that of the temple, locus of the great gods, and that of the an-iconic sacrifice. The third faculty is that of the pandita, properly speaking, the savant trained in traditional Indian science, who thus has the allure, caeteris paribus, of a lay expert--keeping in mind, of course, that no traditional "science" is truly alien to "religion."
The sastras that one may study in the college in Mysore are numerous: all the Vedantas, including that of the Lingayatas; grammar; logic, in its Navya Nyaya form; ritual exegesis; and, of course, astrology and poetics--but neither Samkhya nor its associated Yoga, another index of how traditional this college is. I will say no more of the advanced stages of instruction: the methods utilized at this level are better known in any case, the subject goes well beyond the limits I have imposed on myself here. As should be obvious, the corps of teachers in each section is recruited chiefly among that section's graduates, or those of similar schools elsewhere.
The three initial levels of instruction, common to all students, devolve in effect on the Sastravibhaga, in the sense that the teachers are attached to that section and there received their formation. They constitute an integrated course of study that prepares the student to take up a further specialty, but which, in and of themselves, are deemed to form the basis of any cultivated life, and which are intended, as is often observed, specifically for the man who is well anchored in this world: the householder, or grhastha. The grhastha, need I add, is also the domestic priest of the Hindu tradition. The students belonging to the two other faculties, I should also add, participate only marginally in the courses of this generalizing faculty: Vedic students understandably have little time remaining after mastering their rather onerous tasks of memorization, while those intending to become temple priests are still in part selected hereditarily and devote only a minimum of time to studies that do not directly relate to familial duties. (8)
It is therefore to the non-specialized priest that the instruction of the Sastravibhaga is essentially destined, whether he be the young brahmin of traditional worldly vocation or, in rare cases, one especially gifted, wishing to qualify himself for graduate study in one of the sastras. To that it must be added that since Independence and the adoption of reforms aimed at improving the lot of the less fortunate castes, non-brahmins also are admitted as students in Mysore (which was reserved, by royal decree, for brahmins alone until that time)--and not without result: several cases were pointed out to me of such students who has distinguished themselves in one or another traditional subject. (9) To my knowledge, none such has yet sought admission to the Vedic faculty, however.
And this is perhaps also the place to add that the student nowadays may well be une etudiante: for here too the reforms spoken of have borne their fruits. More and more in evidence, especially in the primary grades, are young girls, and a few women even have presented themselves at the sastri examination (one must now say sastrini!)--but, as far as I am aware, only in the single sastra of Alamkara, poetics. Their purposes in so doing are evidently other than those of their confreres--but that is another story, which goes well beyond the confines of my subject. Among other innovations that we might take a moment to congratulate ourselves upon is the fact that Mysore Sanskrit College is now provided with an Internet site, and a home page which you may all consult--where, among other distinctions, are mentioned the names of several illustrious graduates, among them Dr. S. Radhakrishnan and Maharaja Jayachamaraja Wodeyar. (10) Let us take up then the question of the methods of instruction utilized to instill the bases of the linguistic culture that is even today the pride of the traditional brahmin.
All studies of ancient Indian education have emphasized the importance and peculiar character of the teacher-student (or guru-sisya) relationship. Indeed this bond permeates the idealism of many present-day Indian social relationships and it has been blamed, in some measure, for the excessive deference paid to the elderly and the important (guru) in almost every context, political, religious, collegial, familial. In its educational dress, the relationship, as reconstructed at least, would not have appeared to have survived intact in the modern state-supported Sanskrit college (though the case is much less clear for private religious colleges). As an ideal, at least, it reaches its full flowering at advanced stages of instruction, where it is reflected in both a moral and an educational bond between teacher and student--the latter often adopted into the teacher's family and performing filial service for him The methods of instruction, even where the domestic format of the guru-sisya relationship has been abandoned (as in the modern college), nevertheless reflect the needs and requirements of that kind of model--even on the elementary level, where alone remains relevant the question of whether the student is suitable for further study. It will surely be obvious that the adoption of a modern institutional format will constitute a major test of the viability of the educational method itself--quite apart from its moral foundations. I will be obliged to limit my observations here to this rather austere aspect of the problem--and leave the modern college to fend for itself ... although I suspect that, in India, the modern college is itself a blend of styles, not all modern, and that it has not necessarily profited from the wholesale imitation of Western models. One point, however, that may be of interest in this context is that the Mysore college still, even today (as per the Interact), offers free room (though not board) to any qualified student--this being a continuation of the former royal policy.
At each of the three lower levels of instruction in the Mysore curriculum is enshrined a distinctive methodology of instruction, which has come to be associated with a subject matter pertinent to it. In rigorous sequence, the methods build upon one another, not only in achieving mastery of content, but in cultivating various preliminary skills and attitudes, both intellectual and ethical, of importance to the ultimate product: the pandita. To a large but diminishing extent, these methods appear to be retained intact from pre-college modes of instruction, and constitute one of the most viable links with the "tradition" we have left. The task I have set myself today is to describe for you, not so much those methods, which in their general shape are well enough known, as their coherence in a system.
(1) Elementary (Prathama, or "first") level. The keyword here is "memorization." The eight-year-old beginner faces a curriculum which poses as its first and unique problem a language that is alien to him. He neither knows what he is to learn, nor has he the means to learn it. Two approaches alone to this Platonic problem are possible (apart from recollection, at least): either the student's native language is utilized in order to rationalize the target language, or reliance is had on mechanical and repetitive drills intended to inculcate an ability, before it is put to any use at all. It is this latter approach, akin perhaps to anamnesis, that so distinguishes the Sanskrit methodology of elementary learning. (11) The Sanskritic emphasis on memory and recall differs from Plato's, however, in one essential aspect--it presumes a child who has yet to reach the age of discretion, and therefore it has eliminated nearly every appeal to understanding in the memorizational process--it is the sole method employed at this early stage of study.
Since the mastery of Sanskrit alone authorizes entry into advanced levels of traditional study, it is hardly surprising that Sanskrit alone constitutes the sole concern of the elementary curriculum--and it is taught in a way as to anchor it firmly and to get the job done as quickly as possible. Anyone who has taught Sanskrit through Western methodologies will recognize how unsuccessful they are--how much effort goes into how little result--but of course other variables are at play here, as well. The traditional student proceeds with remarkable rapidity and with solid acquisitions. Thus it will be seen that much contemporary criticism of the methods of Sanskrit study is in fact misplaced: the method works remarkably well, given its goals. Criticism, if any, should be leveled at the goals--perhaps the exclusivity of concern with Sanskrit--but that is another matter, and really comes down to the culturally myopic question of whether we really need pundits at all.
Rote memorization is exercised at the Prathama level in three contexts fundamental to language study, and which bear directly on the skills that will be inculcated (with more insight) at the next level: lexicon, metrics, and grammar. These three contexts exhaust the areas where automatic selection may be thought to operate in this or any language system; memorization discovers, then reinforces that automaticity. Dictionary learning is considered basic to everything else and, indeed, constitutes the core of the "literary" curriculum. Instruction takes the form of memorizing lists of near synonyms, each word serving to anchor its neighbors in recall. Memorization of verse--accompanied only by an occasional gloss in the student's native language--cultivates both pronunciation and respect for the phrasal integrity of the language. Finally, grammatical memorization takes the form of pattern drills (quite like those that were once standard for Latin students) that inculcate respect for the limitations placed on syntax in any utterance. Let us take up each, briefly, in sequence.
(A) Lexicon. The dictionary most commonly memorized (in Mysore and elsewhere) is that of Amara, very likely the oldest of the comparable Sanskrit lexica, (12) and the model for those that follow. The author is variously dated from the fourth to the sixth centuries and is often said to be a Buddhist, but, if so, it is certainly surprising that he devotes the quasi-totality of the svargavarga ("section on heaven," I.11-142) to Hindu divinities! It seems a reasonable assumption that the work was composed for purposes very like those to which it is put nowadays, which permits us to presume at least a millennium and a half of amarapatha. The term "dictionary" is, of course, misleading here; for no definitions are provided and the arrangement resembles that of a thesaurus. The entire work (in the NSP edition) consists of 2,989 half verses of sixteen syllables each, including numerous interpolated verses. Circa 13,000 terms are referenced. (13)
Amara's dictionary is itself composed in metrical form, an evident aid to memorization--the ubiquitous sloka, whose monotonous eight-syllable cadence permits almost mindless recitative. Here are, for example, the nineteen "names" of Visnu:
visnur narayanah krsno / vaikuntho vistarasravah damodaro hrsikesah / kesavo madhavah svabhuh daityarih, pundarikakso / govindo garudadhvajah. pitambaro 'cyutah sarngi / visvakseno janardanah
Gender and number are often also specified--and with alliteration that would make any poet envious:
rocih socir ubhe klibe / prakaso dyota atapah kosnam kavosnam mandosnam / kadusnam trisu tadvati (I.213-14)
Ubhe klibe 'both neuter', trisu 'in all three (genders)'. (What we seem to be delineating here are the degrees of the sun's warmth.)
Let us now consider the classroom methods used to master Amara. The principle involved, abhyasa, "repetition," is a technique clearly borrowed from Vedic study. Also derivative of Vedic study is the division of the text into blocks, which are learnt seriatim. Circa twenty verses (forty half-slokas) are committed to memory during each fortnight (paksa, by which divisions of the lunar month the rhythm of study in the pathasala is still regulated), following exactly the NSP text of Amara. Only the section on plants (vanausadhi) is not learnt in order, but deferred until the fourth year. At this rate, approximately four years are required for learning the entire text (assuming sixteen to eighteen fortnights per academic year) and committing it to memory--no mean feat a ten- or eleve-year-old. Students meet (in Mysore) one hour each day for recitation. Normally, the class begins with as much as fifteen minutes of recitation in unison of text-portions already memorized, selected at random by the teacher. The text under study is next taken up. At the beginning of the fortnight, when that text-unit is still unfamiliar, the teacher will normally read aloud each quarter-verse (pada), the students repeating it twice after him (padapatha). Sometimes, individual difficult words are extracted from the verse and subjected to the same double repetition (pratipadapatha). All new material is introduced in this way. When after a few days the verses are familiar and their rhythm ingrained, the teacher will resort to several resume methods to fix them in the students' minds. The favorite is the antiphonal response: the teacher recites the first half of the sloka, the students recite in unison the completing half-sloka, then the teacher, then the students, and so on. (14) The text portion under study is repeated over and over by this method until not only the verses but their sequence are memorized. At this level, no written text is presumed, for the teacher, at least, will know it by heart. Some students (especially the many part-timers who nowadays follow courses) do use a printed text; often the teacher will ask the students to read unfamiliar portions of the text in unison.
The teacher will often break the unison repetition by calling on individual students, and this may happen at any stage of the learning process. Normally, however, the student is asked to supply the next word or half-verse in whatever sequence is being read. He is corrected by the others, if wrong. On rare occasions--one may presume this to have been more frequent in the past--an especially bright student is asked to recite the text under study in its entirety, and even to "interpret" the meaning of individual words in the text (in Cannarese, of course). This may seem to violate the "unanalytical" spirit characteristic of the Prathama level, but as conducted it does little more than check whether the student is aware of what word-group he is reading, and its relation to neighboring word-groups. In one of the classes I attended, for example, a student was asked, in reference to Kamadeva's epithet pancasara 'five-arrowed': "whose name is this?" (answer: Kama's), "what weapon is mentioned?" (answer: arrows), "how many are mentioned?" (answer: five). "Interpretation" of this sort is not carried on in any systematic fashion, but relies primarily on the student's picking up signals based on Cannarese loanwords.
Another variety of individual response is also resorted to: each student in sequence is expected to recite from memory (or by reading, if all else fails) the half-sloka that falls to his lot, proceeding thus around the class in order, until the text is finished. The teacher does not participate, except to correct--and other students often preempt him. This style of recitation will be seen to anticipate the recreational contest of antyaksari, wherein the entirety of Sanskrit versified kavya is reduced to a "text" thus to be recited from memory.
In one class I attended, the teacher employed all these styles of recitation, neatly mixing new and old material. First, the section new to the students was carefully repeated twice after the teacher; second, the previously learned text was recited straight through in unison; third, Amara was taken up from the very beginning and recited antiphonally; finally, each member of the class, in turn, recited from memory a half-sloka that fell to him in sequence, the teacher correcting pronunciation ("cha, tha: mahapranasabdah!").
The net effect of these various drills is to create the basis for a wide reading vocabulary by evoking words in automatic …