Ramesh N. Rao
On a recent visit to
India I visited two gurukulas—schools
that infuse the traditional values of Indian learning within a
curriculum that combines the old and the new, the modern/scientific
with age-old Indic wisdom and which promote a lifestyle that is at
once simple, profound, and environmentally friendly.
I was almost an ‘accidental tourist’, taken to these two gurukulas
by a well-wisher whose insistence that I go with him I could not
ignore. My experience
visiting these places was such that I wished I had the opportunity,
when young, to have had such schooling and to have lived and learnt
in the manner youngsters that I met at the gurukula
The first gurukula
I visited was the Veda Vijnana Gurukula, about ten miles away from
Bangalore and the second was the Maitreyi Gurukula, about 200 miles
from Bangalore, near the town of Vittala in the Dakshina
Kannada district of Karnataka. A third school run on similar lines,
which I could not visit, is the Prabodhini Gurukula, near Sringeri
in the Shimoga district of Karnataka. The Prabodhini Gurukula has
attracted some media attention, given its locale and it being the
first of the three schools started by the Hindu Seva Prathisthan.
I don’t have photographs from my visit to the Veda Vijnana
Gurukula near Bangalore so you will have to rely on my rather poor
powers of description to picture the simple and quiet place of
learning outside the crowded, polluted, and noisy metropolis.
A. Mixing the Old with the New
The Hindu concept of
tutelage has its roots in the very mythical/mystic past and those
who have read the Mahabharata
and the Ramayana or who
have heard tales of classical musicians, Hindustani or Carnatic,
living in their guru’s
house and learning music all day long, all year long, for a number
of years, understand the old gurukula
In the past, and
traditionally, the brahmachari
(student) was expected to pass his days in humble and obedient
attendance upon his spiritual preceptor in the study of the Vedas.
This education, as the system evolved, began to be thought of
as fit only for ‘Brahmins’.
If you were a Kshatriya,
and especially a prince, education included the learning of a
variety of martial skills too.
There has been much controversy recently about the old
systems, and this essay will not deal with those issues.
But, also recently, there has been a new interest in creating
educational systems that allow for the healthy and holistic
development of the child. A
number of gurukulas have
sprung up, and in the present day gurukula
system, the spiritual and intellectual preceptors seek to pave the
way for such holistic and integral development of the child/youth.
They seek to recover the guru-shishya
relationship which is based on trust, devotion, and a mutuality of
affection between the teacher and the students.
And in the gurukulas
that I visited, no child or his/her parents are asked their caste
affiliation or background.
With the western
system of schooling having made deep inroads into every society in
the world, and with the British having trained and left Macaulayites
in our midst, modern education and schooling in India has become a
crass, cruel, unmanageable behemoth that has reduced our children to
mindless memorizers, note-takers, and exam writers.
Cram schools, special tuitions, the hunt for exam questions
and leaked papers,
have taken an enormous toll on Indian children.
These ‘memory-banks’ are slaves to a system that saps
them of almost all creative energy.
Worse yet, children are socialized into a system of
production and consumption that turn them into tired cogs in vast,
faceless production mills.
Education has now
been reduced to an exercise in obtaining ranks, laurels,
certificates and diplomas, which are then used to seduce employers
to dole out jobs. Many
have railed against such a system, but few have taken the time to
alter or change it. In
the U.S., we continue to invest billions of dollars in schools which
are glass and chrome structures for pampering children and turning
them into bulimic, anorexic, violent, anxious, and self-centered
individuals. In the
rest of the world, one wonders if schooling is any different, though
one notes little tendency among students elsewhere to take guns into
the classroom and shoot at a few classmates and teachers!
B. Modern Gurukulas
In India, the renewed
interest in the ancient gurukula
system has led to creative attempts of marrying the old with the new
in education. The Hindu
Seva Prathistan has established three gurukulas
in Karnataka, Prabodhini Gurukula for boys aged between 10-16 at
Hariharapura (Sringeri, Shimoga district), Maitreyi Gurukula for
girls aged between 10-16 at Moorkhaje (Vittala, Dakshina Kannada
district), and the Veda Vijnana Gurukula, for boys aged between
16-18 at Channenahalli in Bangalore district.
In these gurukulas
the children and youth are not burdened by textbooks, their parents
don’t have to worry about donations and fees, and education is not
confined within the four walls of a classroom.
Children don’t have the worry and anxiety of examinations,
nor are they reduced to hungry and greedy automatons seeking ranks,
grades, certificates, and diplomas.
They live on, work and study in beautiful, serene campuses
where they are offered free boarding, free lodging and value-based
The students speak
fluent Sanskrit. When
we drove into the Maitreyi Gurukula campus we heard the teachers
addressing the students in simple Sanskrit, asking one of the girls
to go fetch something cool to drink, another to bring the day’s
newspapers, and yet another if she could check up on a younger girl.
Even the two-year-old daughter of one of the workers (see
below) on campus understood Sanskrit and spoke her baby sentences in
the language of the rishis!
We were greeted in
the morning with a melodious ‘suprabhaatam’
rather than the common ‘good morning’, and we were seen off to
our guest house at night with an equally pleasant ‘shubha
seek to provide an all-round education that promotes physical
well-being through the practice of yoga and the playing of a variety
of Indian games (up to 200 of them), language learning through the
study of Sanskrit, Kannada, and English, intellectual rigor through
the learning of math and science, self-esteem and self-reliance
through the washing of their own clothes (see below), and braiding
of each other’s hair.
There are designated
hours for self-learning, and the love of nature is inculcated
through walks in the forest, watering the garden every morning and
evening, and labeling and recognizing trees, flowers, birds, herbs,
and insects. Students
acquire a deep and healthy sense of patriotism and strong leadership
qualities from evening discussions, talks by visiting teachers and
leaders, and the evening ritual of ‘samiti
praarthane’ (see below).
The day begins at 5
in the morning. The
children have a full and happy day:
4:45 -- 5:00 – Wake up
5:00 -- 6:00 – Bath, yoga
6:00 -- 6:15 – Praathah
smarana (individual morning prayers)
6:20 -- 7:00 – Cleaning, watering plants,
7:00 -- 8:00 – Swaadhyaaya
samaya (practice of hymns, class preps, etc)
8:10 -- 8:30 – Pooja/group
All the poojas
are performed by the girls; they use the conch, gongs and bells to
create a serene and spiritual atmosphere; they sing hymns, do some
Vedic chanting. On the
morning we were there, we also heard a beautifully rendered Purandara
Daasa song, “Govinda
ninna naama chanda” by one of the teachers who is also an All
India Radio artiste. I
also had the privilege that morning, with my wife seated next to me,
of offering ‘teertha’
(holy water) to all the students and teachers.
What a wonderful and uplifting experience that was!
I realized in the most powerful manner, for the first time,
how the performance of certain rituals reminds one of their
responsibilities towards oneself and others, and of the need to
uphold moral and spiritual values.
8:30 -- 9:00 – Upahaara
(breakfast). Food is
prepared by cooks and it was the tastiest, most wholesome vegetarian
food that I have eaten.
9:00 -- 9:30 – Vayyakthika
swatcche (personal grooming).
It was one of the most pleasant sights to see these sweet
young girls combing and braiding each other’s hair.
9:30 -- 10:00 – Veda
paatha (the recitation and memorizing of Vedic chants and hymns)
10:00 -- 12:30 – Class sessions (Each class
period of 40 minutes)
12:30 -- 1:30 – Bhojanaa
(lunch). We were served
delicious, healthy, vegetarian food.
2:15 -- 4:30 – Class sessions
4:30 -- 5:00 – Laghu
upahaara (light evening snacks).
We were served spiced puffed rice and chick-peas ‘usli’.
Adults can have tea or coffee and the children are offered
‘kashaaya’, a Dakshina
Kannada beverage made with milk and spices like pepper, nutmeg,
5:00 -- 6:15 - Kreedaa
samaya (play time).
Girls get to play more than 200 kinds of
6:15 -- 6:45 – Samiti
praarthane (group prayer, saluting of the flag).
See photo above.
6:45 -- 7:00 – Saayam
smarane (evening prayer, singing of bhajans)
7:00 -- 8:15 – Swaadhyaaya
avadhi (self study)
8:30 -- 9:00 – Bhojanaa
9:30 -- Younger children go to sleep
10:00 -- Older children go to sleep
The daily activities
lead the students to gain a firm grounding and thorough training in
their culture and enable them to acquire strong and healthy
personalities. I have
not seen the kind of happy glow on children’s faces that I saw on
the girls’ faces at Maitreyi Gurukula.
My wife and I felt that we were in a beautiful cultural and
spiritual oasis at the gurukula.
On our return to Bangalore, our families commented on how
we seemed transformed by a single day’s experience.
The source of
inspiration is and the guidance to the students comes from dedicated
administrator of the gurukula
lives on campus with his wife.
At the time of our visit to the gurukula
there was a visiting teacher, formerly a professor at the Birla
Institute of Technology and a museum curator/administrator in Delhi.
He taught the children English.
This 73-year-old man was affectionately called ‘thaatha’
by the children (‘Thaatha’
is ‘grandfather’ in Kannada).
At the Veda Vijnana
Gurukula I spoke to the students for about twenty minutes and I was
bombarded by thoughtful, penetrating questions for about an hour!
One very articulate student, who asked me numerous questions,
happened to be the one in charge of the computer lab in the school.
Later on I found out that this young man had told his parents
that he was tired of the school that he was attending and that he
wanted to be a student in the gurukula.
His parents, both doctors, had acquiesced, and this 17 or
18-year-old, chanting Sanskrit shlokas
in full-throated vigor, was teaching his fellow students how to use
computers and keenly questioning this visiting professor from the
As an article in the
Kannada magazine, Taranga
points out, the students are happy, healthy and inquisitive because
the “learning process is based on learning through curiosity”,
and on “observation with a basic spirit of enquiry.”
The teachers, as the author of that article noted, are not
concerned about seniority, superiority or administrative titles.
We noticed the love and affection that the teachers had for
their wards and noticed that it was not the kind of anxious
pampering that ‘modern’ parents shower on their children.
The teachers displayed an attentive and natural concern for
the child without either controlling them or letting them have the
license to do whatever they pleased.
The week before we visited the Maitreyi Gurukula, the school
had invited students and teachers from nearby schools to visit the gurukula.
It seems that some 2,000 children visited the gurukula
over a period of two days and the one question that the other
children asked their teachers was, “Why can’t we attend such a
school?” It is no doubt therefore that the number of students
seeking admission in these gurukulas
is increasing every year. The
Hindu Seva Prathistan, which manages these gurukulas,
has vowed to make this experiment in holistic learning, a model and
The Maitreyi Gurukula
is housed in the midst of lush green forests at Moorkhaje, in
Bantwal Taluk, Mangalore District.
The gurukula was
gifted 120 acres of land by a well-wisher and the school and the
lands are administered by the Ajeya Trust.
C. Work and Study
The girls are given
certain special tasks if there are occasions when such tasks need to
be performed. For
example, two girls: Amrita and Shakuntala, were in charge of guests
on the day that we were present at the gurukula.
They, with their gentle faces and sweet smiles, asked us
if we wanted coffee or tea, if we wanted the hot water for our baths
prepared, if we wanted to rest for a while in the afternoon, or if
we were ready to go attend the prayer session or if we were ready to
go have lunch. When
Amrita and Shakuntala greeted my wife and me in the morning with a
were for a second nonplussed (being used to the usual ‘good
mornings’) but then were thrilled at this beautiful greeting.
Back home, I began to greet my family with ‘suprabhatam’
and wish them ‘shubha ratri’
but I know the power and insidiousness of our westernized lifestyles
is such that my little nieces and nephews may soon go back to their
‘good mornings’ and ‘good nights.’
At present there are
67 girls drawn from all over Karnataka, and two from neighboring
states at the Maitreyi Gurukula.
The school hopes to accommodate 120 girls.
I was told by Mr. Hegde, the administrator that it costs
about Rs. 75,000 a month to run the gurukula.
That is less than $2000 to house, feed, and educate 69
girls, 12-15 teachers/administrators, and a small number of the
workers who do the cooking, and taking care of the 120-acre areca
and coconut plantation!
Just as in the
Prabodhini Gurukula, the Maitreyi Gurukula too has adopted the Panchamukhi
system of education. The
children attend the gurukula
for six years and are trained in the learning of the Vedas,
science, mathematics (see photo below where Prof. K.
V. Acharya from Bangalore is teaching the senior girls some
math problems and training them how to use graphic calculators that
an Indian-American group has donated to both the Prabodhini and the
Maitreyi Gurukulas), Ayurveda,
etc. While the medium
of instruction is Kannada, Sanskrit is the language of
students also learn English and Hindi.
Again, as the author
of the Taranga article
points out, Vedic learning and the study of Sanskrit complement each
other and by the time students complete their six years of study
they gain fluency in Sanskrit.
While Vedic learning is emphasized, it is not forced upon the
young children. The
right atmosphere is created to evoke interest in the young minds and
the students begin to grasp the beauty and worth of Vedic learning
as they begin to converse in Sanskrit, learn chanting, and sing
hymns (see photo below). The
students at Prabodhini Gurukula, who show keen interest in pursuing
Sanskrit studies can attend the Veda Vignana Gurukula in Bangalore.
Students are free
from the hassles of examinations and tests.
However, the students are evaluated in a unique way: they
themselves prepare questions and tests on material they have learnt
and write the answers and circulate it amongst themselves for
teachers clear any doubts they may have.
The process of self-evaluation is done periodically and after
their six-year stay at the gurukula
they are free to continue their higher education through university
level correspondence courses, etc.
In the Prabodhini
Gurukula the children wear the traditional dress (the dhoti
and uttari—the piece of
cloth worn across the shoulders) during the study of the Vedas
and during the Vedic recital. The
rest of the time they are free to wear the clothes of their choice.
If a student so wishes, he can wear the traditional tuft on
the head. At the
Maitreyi Gurukula, the girls wear the salwar-kameez
or long skirts and blouse. At
the Veda Vijnana Gurukula, the young men wear a dhoti
with a shirt, and the dhoti
with the uttari while
studying and chanting the Vedas.
D. Classes and Standards
The students are put
in classes labeled according to the behaviors they are expected to
exhibit and the character they are expected to develop, appropriate
to their age. The
standards are called Ganas.
The six standards or Ganas
Gana: The first year. Children
aged between 9-10 enter the gurukula
and are initiated into studies.
They are also entrusted with the work of cleaning floors,
milking the cows, doing the laundry, assisting in the kitchen, and
serving the food. They
are helped and guided by their seniors.
During this year they are expected to show complete devotion
(shraddha) in their work.
Gana: During the second year the child comes out of the cocoon,
as it were and embarks on a journey of enquiry.
gets sharpened as the teachers, unlike in ‘modern’ schools,
challenge and encourage the students to ask questions, to be curious
Gana: In the third year the students are led into an
‘atmosphere of awareness’.
The focus is on achieving and displaying right conduct and
good character. They
are made aware of the need for discipline, without which humans
lurch from one mistake and lie to another.
Gana: Teachers begin to see and measure the talent of the
students in their fourth year in the gurukula.
Teachers carefully make note of the students’ talents
and a concerted attempt is made to offer the subjects of interest to
the student. The
students’ talents in music, dance, agriculture, Ayurveda,
art, etc. , are noticed and encouraged.
Volunteer teachers, some well-known in their fields, travel
all the way from big towns and cities to train the students.
Gana: Steady progress towards maturity is the prime concern in
the fifth year at the gurukula.
The molding and shaping of the student’s personality
receives importance, as well as the strengthening of character and
the fine-tuning of talent.
Gana: In the sixth and final year of study the students are
trained to take up the challenges of life and become self-reliant.
E. Care of the child
administrators, visiting resource people, meet to discuss each
child’s strengths, weaknesses, and need for support and direction.
Parents are involved in these exercises too.
Meetings to discuss the welfare of the child are held
periodically. For every
7-8 students there is a caretaker aachaarya
(male teacher) at the Prabodhini Gurukula or matrushree
(female teacher) at the Maitreyi Gurukula, who devotedly help the
development of the child. If
the need arises, they discuss educational and other related matters
in a summit meeting with senior resource persons and educationists.
F. Stepping Outside
Children are made
aware of the world outside through visits to banks, hospitals,
markets, government offices, police stations, etc. They also
interact with people from nearby villages.
It is claimed that students learn one-fourth from the school,
another one-fourth from activities, and the rest from the outside
world. By the time the
students are ready to leave the gurukula
they are very well aware of their duties and responsibilities.
The gurukulas also
have a kind of ‘career placement’ to enable students to find the
right kind of employment, to earn their livelihood and contribute to
G. Days of Rest
Free time is unheard
of during the academic year. As
described above students are busy from five in the morning till
about ten at night. Sundays
are study days too. Since
they are not burdened with the mess that we burden our children with
in the name of modern education, these children have the energy, the
enthusiasm and the curiosity to work and play all year long.
are no classes on the fourteenth day and fifteenth day (new moon or
full moon day) and the first day of the lunar month.
On those days, the students are taken out on excursions.
Each fortnight, on the thirteenth day of the lunar calendar, Saraswati
Vandana is celebrated. It
is an opportunity for children to display their talents and to take
part in dramas, singing, dancing, and debate and speech.
There is also a program known as ‘suddi
avalokana’ (In Kannada it means ‘critical appreciation of
news’), which is done under a teacher’s guidance.
When I spoke to
students at the Maitreyi and the Veda Vijnana Gurukula I was
impressed with their knowledge of current events, as well as with
their keen insight and intelligence.
I was bombarded with numerous questions on life in the U. S.,
Americans’ perception of India, Indian-Americans’ perception of
India, about education and children’s lives in the U.S., about the
difference between U.S. and Indian democratic systems, on the nature
of capitalism, and so on. For
me, what was really surprising was how the younger children listened
and paid attention to the talk and discussions.
There was no chattering and giggling, nor did they seem
restive or bored.
In the article in ‘Taranga’
it is mentioned that the adjoining forests at Prabodhini and
Maitreyi Gurukulas offer students and teachers opportunities to
watch and observe nature—to see snakes and scorpions, bison and
deer. I asked the
teachers if there had been any instances of children being bitten by
a snake or scorpion or having had an ‘uncomfortable’ encounter
with nature. They told
me that they had encountered none.
In fact, the children and the adults all walk bare foot on
the campus! The belief
is that the human being has to be in ‘touch’ with the earth to
relate to it and protect it.
There are gurukulas
run by various Shankaracharyas
and religious institutions in India and there are the expensive
boarding schools for the rich and the famous.
I taught in one for two years, having been a teacher in the
Krishnamurti Foundation run Valley School just outside Bangalore.
Two of my nephews attend the Rishi Valley School and my
sister pays through her nose for the care and training of her
children there. But the
three gurukulas in
Karnataka run by the Hindu Seva Prathistan both go beyond the
religious/traditional training imparted in the traditional gurukulas
and to do so without making it expensive and elitist endeavors that
the fancy, westernized and Anglicized schools are.
incorporate lifestyle and cultural agendas, including the nurturing
of a strong sense of patriotism, that are aimed at molding a strong,
happy, intelligent, and disciplined citizen who believes and leads a