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Friday, December 8, 2023

‘The Beautiful Tree-Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century’ by Dharampal- Introduction

In this series of articles, we are introducing the book ‘The Beautiful Tree’ by Dharampal, to readers old and new. Shri Dharampal was one of the leading intellectuals & writers of Independent Bharat, whose work was subsequently marginalised & suppressed by the left-leaning academic establishment. We are grateful to for making this treasure trove of books/articles available for the common public.


Bharat’s historical knowledge, by and large, has been derived, at least until recent decades, from the writings and accounts left by foreigners. This applies equally to our knowledge about the status of Bharatiya education over the past five centuries.

The universities of Taxila and Nalanda, and a few others until recently have been better known and written about primarily because they had been described centuries ago by some Greek or Chinese traveller, who happened to keep a journal which had survived, or had communicated such information to his compatriots who passed it down to our times.

Travellers and adventurers of a new kind began to wander around parts of Bharat from about 1500 A.D., and more so from about the close of the 16th century. Since for centuries the areas they came from had had no direct links with Bharat, and as they had come from wholly different climates and societies, to them most aspects of Bharat its manners, religions, philosophies, ancient and contemporary architecture, wealth, learning, and even its educational methods were something quite different from their own backgrounds, assumptions and experience.

Prior to 1770, (by which time they had become actual rulers of large areas), the British, on whose writings and reports this book is primarily based,[1] had rather a different set of interests. These interests, as in the subsequent period too, were largely mercantile, technological, or were concerned with comprehending, and evaluating Bharat’s statecraft; and, thereby, extending their influence and dominion in Bharat.

Bharatiya religions, philosophies, scholarship and the extent of education notwithstanding what a few of them may have written on the Parsis, or the Banias of Surat had scarcely interested them until then.

Such a lack of interest was due partly to their different expectations from Bharat. The main reason for this, however, lay in the fact that the British society of this period from the mid-sixteenth to about the later part of the eighteenth century had few such interests.

In matters like religion, philosophy, learning and education, the British were introverted by nature. It is not that Britain had no tradition of education, or scholarship, or philosophy during the 16th, 17th, or early 18th centuries. This period produced figures like Francis Bacon, Shakespeare, Milton, Newton, etc.

It had the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Edinburgh which had their beginnings in the 13th and 14th centuries A.D. By the later part of the 18th century, Britain also had around 500 Grammar Schools. However, this considerable learning and scholarship were limited to a very select elite.

This became especially marked after the mid-sixteenth century, when the Protestant revolution led to the closing of most of the monasteries; while the state sequestered their incomes and properties.

Before the Protestant revolution, according to A.E. Dobbs, the University of Oxford might be described as the chief Charity School of the poor and the chief Grammar School in England, as well as the great place of education for students of theology, of law and medicine[2]; and where instruction was not gratuitous throughout the school, some arrangement was made, by means of a graduated scale of admission fees and quarterages and a system of maintenance to bring the benefits of the institution within the reach of the poorest.[3]

Further, while a very early statute of England specified: No one shall put their child apprentice within any city or borough, unless they have land or rent of 20 shillings per annum: but they shall be put to such labour as their fathers or mothers use, or as their estates require; it nonetheless also stated that many person may send their children to school to learn literature.[4]

From about the mid-16th century, however, a contrary trend set in. It even led to the enactment of a law that the English Bible should not be read in churches. The right of private reading was granted to nobles, gentry and merchants that were householders. It was expressly denied to artificers prentices, to journeymen and serving men of the degree of yeomen or under, to husbandmen and labourers so as to allay certain symptoms of disorder occasioned by a free use of the Scriptures.[5]

According to this new trend, it was meet for the ploughman’s son to go to the plough, and the artificer’s son to apply the trade of his parents vocation: and the gentlemen’s children are meet to have the knowledge of Government and rule in the commonwealth. For we have as much need of ploughmen as any other State: and all sorts of men may not go to school.[6]

A century and a half later (that is, from about the end of the 17th century), there is a slow reversal of the above trend, leading to the setting up of some Charity Schools for the common people. These schools are mainly conceived to provide some leverage in the way of general education to raise the labouring class to the level of religious instruction; and, more so in Wales, with the object of preparing the poor by reading and Bible study for the Sunday worship and catechetical instruction.[7]

After a short start, however, the Charity School movement became rather dormant. Around 1780, it was succeeded by the Sunday school movement.[8] Popular education, even at this period, was still approached as a missionary enterprise. The maxim was that every child should learn to read the Bible.[9] The hope of securing a decent observance of Sunday [10] led to a concentrated effort on the promotion of Sunday schools.

After some years, this attention focussed on the necessity of day schools. From then on, school education grew apace. 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.[11]

The major impetus to the Day school movement came from what was termed the Peel ls Act of 1802. This Act required the employer of young children to provide, during the first four years of the seven years of apprenticeship, competent instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic, and to secure the presence of his apprentice at religious teaching for one hour every Sunday and attendance at a place of worship on that day.[12]

But the Act was unpopular, and its practical effect…was not great.[13] At about the same time, however, the monitorial method of teaching used by Joseph Lancaster (and also by Andrew Bell, supposedly borrowed from Bharat)[14] came into practice and greatly helped advance the cause of popular education. The number of those attending school was estimated at around 40,000 in 1792, at 6,74,883 in 1818, and 21,44,377 in 1851. The total number of schools, public as well as private in 1801 was stated to be 3,363. By stages, it reached a total of 46,114 in 1851.[15]

In the beginning, the teachers were seldom competent, and Lancaster insinuates that the men were not only ignorant but drunken.[16] As regards the number of years of schooling, Dobbs writes that allowing for irregularity of attendance, the average length of school life rises on a favourable estimate from about one year in 1835 to about two years in 1851.[17]

The fortunes of English Public schools are said to have fallen strikingly during the eighteenth century. In January 1797, the famous school at Shrewsbury, for instance, did not have above three or four boys. After some major reorganisation, it had about 20 pupils a year later.[18]

In public schools like Eton, teaching consisted of writing and arithmetic (a number of English and Latin books were studied); while those in the fifth form also learnt ancient Geography, or Algebra. Those who stayed at Eton long enough also went through part of Euclid.[19]

However it was not till 1851 that Mathematics became a part of the regular school work and even at that date those who taught the subject were not regarded as persons of full standing on the staff of masters.[20]

School education, especially elementary education at the people’s level, remained an uncommon commodity till around 1800. Nonetheless, the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Edinburgh were perhaps as important for Britain as Taxila and Nalanda were in ancient Bharat; or places like Navadweep were as late as the later part of the 18th century.[21]

Since many of those who began to come to Bharat from Britain especially after 1773 as travellers, scholars, or judges had had their education in one of these three universities,[22] it may be relevant to provide here a brief account of the courses studied together with the number of students, in one of these universities around 1800. The university chosen here is that of Oxford, and it is assumed that this information is also fairly representative of studies at Cambridge and Edinburgh at this period.

The growth of the University of Oxford (following England’s rupture with Rome) may be indicated with the following chronological list of professorships created there from 1546 onwards:[23]

1546 5 Professorships founded by Henry VIII:

  1. Divinity, 2. Civil Law, 3. Medicine, 4. Hebrew, 5. Greek

1619 Geometry, and Astronomy

1621 Natural Philosophy

1621 Moral Philosophy (but break between 1707-1829)

1622 Ancient History (i.e. Hebrew, and Europe)

1624 Grammar, Rhetoric, Metaphysics (fell into disuse, replaced by Logic in 1839)

1624 Anatomy

1626 Music

1636 Arabic

1669 Botany

1708 Poetry

1724 Modern History and Modern Languages

1749 Experimental Philosophy

1758 Common Law

1780 Clinical Instruction

1795 Anglo-Saxon (i.e. language, literature, etc.)

1803 Chemistry

In the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were nineteen colleges and five halls in Oxford. There were about 500 fellows in the colleges, a few of whom were engaged in teaching in each college. In addition, there were nineteen professors in 1800. This total had increased to 25 by 1854.

Theology and classics were the main subjects which were studied at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Examinations were set in classics known as Literae Humaniores. These included Greek and Latin language and literature, moral philosophy, rhetoric and logic, and the elements of the mathematical sciences and physics.

Lectures were also available on other topics, e.g. law, medicine and geology.

After 1805, there was an increase in the number of students entering the University. The number of students on the rolls rose from about 760 in the early nineteenth century to about 1300 in 1820-24.

The main sources of financial support of the colleges in Oxford were their endowments, mainly in land, and income from students. The proportion of income from each source varied from college to college.

Taking a wider view of all the expenses of a university course (including clothing and travelling), a parent who clothed his son and supported him at university as well as during the vacation could expect to pay from 600-800 for his four year course around 1850.[24]

While the British, as well as the Dutch, the Portuguese, and the French, directly or in the name of the various East India Companies they had set up in the late 16th and early 17th centuries were busy extending their bases, factories, fortifications and the like, and wherever possible occupying whole territories in the Indian Ocean area, European scholars on their part were trying to understand various aspects of the civilizations existing in this area.

Prominent amongst these were members of several Christian monastic orders, the most well known being the Jesuits, who were specialising in the fields of the sciences, customs, manners, philosophies and religions. There were some others with interests of a more political, historical or economic nature. Many of them took to narrating their own adventures, and occasionally, misfortunes in the fabulous and exotic East.

Due to the widespread interest of the European elite, much of this writing was published in one or more European languages soon after. Accounts and discussions which happened to be of a limited, but great scholarly or religious interest, were copied by hand many times over.[25]

(Note: Minor edits have been made to the content to conform with HinduPost style-guide)

(Click here to read the previous article in the series)


Book: The Beautiful Tree

Author: Dharampal

Originally published: 1983

Published by: Voice of India

Available on: Amazon

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