Primary Education in Sanskrit: Methods and Goals *

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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. …