Learning in Ancient India and today's Engaged Learning

  • Know about the methods of learning in ancient India and its unique features. Next modern theories of learning, Swami Vivekananda’s views on education and what is Engaged Learning.

Sri Ramakrishna used to say: ‘As long as I live, so long do I learn.’ The educational system of a society revolves around providing a conducive ambience for students to pursue their primary duty of learning. However, there are several opinions about what really makes learning and how a student learns.

The real challenges posed to an educational system are (1) Proper understanding of the process of learning, and (2) Training a student on how to learn. It is more than just instigating a student to learn facts and information provided in the curriculum. We take the learning ability of a student for granted, failing to determine how a student learns. A vast amount of information is presented to  students, but they find it difficult to process and learn it effectively and fruitfully.

This failure to learn how to learn eliminates a chunk of the students from schools and colleges. They become a burden to society without any skill or knowledge to pursue a meaningful life. Hence, it is useful to all stakeholders-especially those working in the educational field-to have a clear understanding of how one learns. It will enable them to improve the learning capacities of their students.

Learning-The Ancient Way

In ancient India, learning was always affected by an intimate personal relationship between the teacher and the student. This relationship was spiritual and devoid of selfish interest, suspicion, and ego. The bond of pure unalloyed love and mutual respect between the teacher and the student would pave way for an effectual and joyful learning experience. The purpose of learning, being noble and spiritual, would transform it into a kind of worship and meditation.

The ingredient of sraddha (faith) was essential in the ancient Indian educational system. Sraddha constitutes self-confidence, and reverence towards the teacher and the subject, the student learns. It is also a positive state of receptivity. Such a state of mind would empower the student to imbibe the knowledge conveyed by the teacher. Sraddha is likened to a fertile field, where the sowing of the seeds would result in a plentiful harvest. It is also described as that state of mind in which students are filled with enthusiasm, zeal, ever-increasing attention, and curiosity towards the subjects they study.

It is sraddha, which would give rise to the accumulated mental energy to concentrate on the abstract principles taught by the teacher. Concentration results from the preservation of psychic and physical energy through brahmacarya or continence. The intuitive capacity of learning inherent in a student is termed medha in ancient Indian tradition. It is medha which accounts for the ability of a student to receive, imbibe, and assimilate knowledge at any given level.

Medha is gained through the prolonged and unhindered practice of control and refinement of psychic and physical energy (brahmacarya).

Sraddha and brahmacarya are the two qualifications that formed the bedrock of education in ancient India. Hence the students were formally called brahmacharins in the Indian context. Also, the learning was affected in two realms: para and apara.

The education that helps one to acquire the necessary skills, empirical knowledge, and talents to make a good living was called apara vidya. This lower knowledge becomes a stepping stone to a higher type of knowledge called para vidya through which one realises the spiritual goal (mokṣa, liberation).

Method of Learning in Ancient India

The study of Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita gives us a glimpse of how the psychological process of learning took place in ancient India. In Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, we find three types of learning methodologies: upadesa, direct teaching; upapatti, deliberation through rational thinking; and upasana, contemplation and absorption. The emphasis is on directing the students to the proper method of arriving at Truth. The first section of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad teaches about Brahman, the ultimate spiritual Reality, through direct teaching that stimulates the student to expand one’s horizon of understanding. 

The second section is devoted to the deliberation and rational explanation of Brahman. Also, various illustrations are given here to elucidate the teachings. Through this, the student is encouraged to reach the Truth through a proper thinking process, which is taught by the Upanishad itself. This thinking process that facilitates one to reach the objective of one’s education is the essence of the learning process. The Upanishad in the second section, endeavours to train the student in this intellectual adventure.

The third section deals with contemplation on the Truth through various imageries and concepts. It will help students to develop advanced levels of absorption and raise to higher levels of consciousness. This process ultimately takes them to the supreme transcendental state, in which Reality is realised through a purely subjective experience.

Unique Features of Ancient Learning

Some of the unique features of the learning process in ancient India can be listed as follows:

1. Intimate Interaction between the teacher and the student: The Gurukula system provided a pleasant and undisturbed environment for the student. It was considered essential for learning in ancient India. The relaxed atmosphere of the teacher’s dwelling and the love and affection shown by the teacher and his family members would emotionally comfort the student to focus on his studies and related duties. The teacher would give personal attention and develop a close relationship with each of the students. The students would get a unique opportunity to ‘learn by example’ by observing the noble life of the teacher day in and day out. Also, the student would never be deprived of parental affection as the teacher’s family would compensate it to a maximum extent. 

2. Service to Guru as part of the learning: The students would engage in various household works along with their studies. The teacher encouraged them to perform them with reverence, faith, and devotion. This selfless work prepared their mind for learning. In fact, service to Guru was considered a part of integrated education in ancient India.

3. From known to unknown: The scientific method of learning is ‘from known to unknown’. The teacher-through illustrations of known tangible ideas-takes the student to abstract unknown ideas. We find the best example of this in Taittiriya Upanishad. The Atman, the Reality, is of the nature of ananda, pure bliss. However, the Upanishad takes the student step by step towards it. It introduces the concepts of annamaya atma, praṇamaya atma, manomaya atma, vijnanamaya atma, and anandamaya atma-the known ideas of self as body, vital energy, mind, intellect, and the causal body respectively.1 Analysing them to be of illusory nature and transcending them, a student realises the real Atman to be ananda, pure bliss. This method is the hallmark of most of the teachings of Upanishads.

In some instances, upasanas or meditations are prescribed to those who are unable to grasp the all-comprehensive nature of the Reality. They are encouraged to meditate on the partial manifestations of the Reality like praṇa, vital energy; akasa, space; vayu, air, and the like. It will help them attain purity of mind and total absorption so as to realise the ultimate Reality in its true nature.

4. Self-Effort and learning how to learn: Learning was never a ‘spoon feeding’ mechanism in ancient India. The students were required to put in personal effort and hard work during learning. Another illustration from Taittiriya Upanishad illustrates this point: Bhrigu, a student, approached his father Varuna for instruction: ‘O revered sir, teach me Brahman.’ Varuna explained Brahman to be that from which all the beings take birth, that by which they live after being born, and that towards which they move and into which they merge.’ 2

Then he ordered his son to practice tapas, austerity, a life endowed with continence, faith, and concentration, for one full year and get an insight into his teaching. Bhrigu returned after a year of strenuous striving. He submitted to his guru that Brahman was food. The teacher asked him to further proceed with tapas. Then Bhrigu came up with the ideas of Brahman to be vital force, mind, and knowledge. In the end, after repeated attempts, Bhrigu finally realised the true nature of Brahman as pure absolute Bliss.

This illustration shows that learning was effectuated through the self-effort of the student in ancient India. The teacher would give the student hints on what should one aim to learn and how to proceed towards learning it. The rest hinged upon the willpower and the self-effort of the student. The persistent self-effort involved self-control, simple dedicated life, reverence, concentration, and intellectual pursuit. It was designated as tapas in ancient India and was of dominant significance in learning.

5. Learning through Dialogue: Learning was predominantly done through question-answer sessions, mutual exchange of ideas and conversations in ancient India. It is evident in the Upanishads and Bhagavadgita.

Some of the well-known dialogues are the ones between (1) Yajnavalkya and Janaka in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, (2) Sanatkumara and Narada in Chandogya Upanishad, (3) Yama and Nachiketa in Katha Upanishad, and (4) Sri Krishna and Arjuna in Bhagavadgita. These remind us of the dialogues of Socrates recorded by Plato in ancient Greek. Unfortunately, the present education system, especially in India, does not facilitate such fruitful and rewarding interaction.

6. Learning through Memorisation: During young age, the mind in its formative stage is highly receptive as well as retentive. The educators of ancient India had understood this psychological fact. They adopted the method of ‘rote learning’, a memorisation technique based on repetition. The young kids would learn the entire texts of the Vedas, Upanishads, Gita, and other important works through this method. Later, teachers would explain in detail the meaning of the texts. This is how the rich spiritual literature of ancient India was preserved throughout the vicissitudes of history. 

Modern Theories of Learning 3

Modern theories of learning are based on Western educational ideas. They emphasise acquiring or enriching one’s knowledge, skills, values, attitudes, behaviour, and world views through a process of learning. There are several theories of learning. Four of them are elucidated in brief here: 

(i) Behaviourism: A person responds to stimuli from the environment. These responses transform the behaviour pattern of a student. Learning is but a step-by-step evaluation of intended behaviours through reward and punishment.

(ii) Cognitive psychology: This theory considers the human mind as an information processing devise. Learning is but acquisition and absorption of knowledge in the form of information through preferred sources like lectures, textbooks, videos, and the like.

(iii) Constructivism: This theory says that the learners actively construct their knowledge through interaction with the environment. The role of the teacher here is of the guide and not a transmitter of knowledge.

(iv) Social Learning Theory: This theory suggests that people learn in a social context. Learning is facilitated through concepts of modelling (showing), observational learning, and imitation.

The above theories are representative of several other modern theories of learning. They all describe learning as a process of acquiring knowledge from outside sources through interaction with the external environment. It is achieved through various means like absorption, construction, modelling, and the like in social and behavioural contexts. The entire population of Western nations adopted techniques of effective learning through an efficient educational system. This resulted in amazing and productive achievements in those nations. The startling scientific knowledge and its application through technology brought about wealth creation and the overall welfare of society. This was the direct result of the qualitative learning and efficacious educational practices prevalent in Western countries for decades. It led to the emergence of mighty and affluent nations in the Western hemisphere.

However, ancient Indian education caters to the spiritual aspiration of a human even while fulfilling the need for basic education for a prosperous life in society. Its approach is to investigate and discover the inner inherent divine potential hidden in every being and facilitate the student in every way to manifest it. Western education focuses on the acquisition and acquirement of knowledge and skills from external sources. The Indian learning methods focus on modes and means to manifest the already existing divine perfection in a human being.

Swami Vivekananda’s Ideas on Learning

Swami Vivekananda gave a pragmatic and integrated view of learning appropriate for modern society. This, he did, by integrating educational ideas of the East and the West. It is one of his great contributions to modern education.

Swamiji echoes Upanishads when he says: ‘All knowledge, therefore, secular or spiritual, is in the human mind. In many cases, it is not discovered, but remains covered, and when the covering is being slowly taken off, we say, “We are learning”, and the advance of knowledge is made by the advance of this process of uncovering.’4 Swamiji says that even secular knowledge is inherent in a human being. This is an interesting statement to be observed.

Swamiji also gives a new orientation to the learning process. He says: ‘Now this knowledge, again, is inherent in man. No knowledge comes from outside; it is all inside. What we say a man “knows”, should, in strict psychological language, be what he “discovers” or “unveils”; what a man “learns” is really what he “discovers”, by taking the cover off his own soul, which is a mine of infinite knowledge.’5

His notion that learning is the discovery of knowledge inherent in a person is an innovative idea.

Kids at Ramakrishna Mission School Along, Arunachal practicing concentration.

Swamiji emphasises the role of concentration in learning. He says: ‘There is only one method by which to attain this knowledge, that which is called concentration. … The more I can concentrate my thoughts on the matter on which I am talking to you, the more light I can throw upon you. You are listening to me, and the more you concentrate your thoughts, the more clearly you will grasp what I have to say.’6 He also says that concentration is the essence of education.

Swamiji’s creative ideas on learning to synchronise the best educational thoughts of ancient India and the Western world. He affirms the importance of secular education as taught in the West. However, at the same time, he vehemently upholds the greatness of spiritual education propounded in ancient India.

Engaged Learning

Educators are trying to develop an effective way of learning over the years. However, evolving global scenario poses overwhelming challenges in this regard.

The pragmatic way is to devise a dynamic concept of learning that can be adopted in diverse conditions of space and time. The basic idea is to provide children with a peaceful, undisturbed, and joyful environment with little distraction. The children learn by themselves and hence, our duty is just to facilitate them to learn how to learn. A formal rigid educational ambience with emphasis on tests and exams does not permit it.

However, the teacher has to find out creative ways of teaching and allow the students to learn in their own way and at pace. For example, students may be asked to read a page or two from the textbook and form their own questions on the subject. Then, they may be encouraged to find answers to those questions in the text. It will not only engage the students to the maximum but also enhance their attention. This method is called engaged learning in modern education.

A definition says that ‘engaged learning is the process in which students actively participate in their learning. Students are involved, beginning on the first day, in the decision making of the course of their study. … Students are active participants in the learning process. The teacher serves as a “coach or facilitator”, guiding students to the desired goal.’7

A true type of learning is a spontaneous activity born out of curiosity, spirit of discovering new, and spirit of joyful adventure. It is the result of the creative impulse intrinsically present in every child. All we have to do is to arouse that impulse through proper ambience, love and affection, guidance and encouragement. Then, the child learns on its own with minimum support from the teacher. The educators and teachers will find a guiding light for accomplishing this in Swamiji’s exhortation: 

You cannot teach a child any more than you can grow a plant. … It is a manifestation from within; it [the plant] develops its own nature—you can only take away obstructions.8 … A child teaches itself. But you can help it to go forward in its own way. What you can do is not of the positive nature, but of the negative. You can take away the obstacles, but knowledge comes out of its own nature.9

This article was first published in the August 2022 issue of Prabuddha Bharata, monthly journal of The Ramakrishna Order started by Swami Vivekananda in 1896. This article is courtesy and copyright Prabuddha Bharata. I have been reading the Prabuddha Bharata for years and found it enlightening. Cost is Rs 200/ for one year and Rs 570/ for three years. To subscribe  https://shop.advaitaashrama.org/subscribe/


1. See Prabuddha Bharata, June 2022, p. 409.

2. Taittiriya Upanishad, 3.1.1.

3. See <http://www.ibe.unesco.org/en/geqaf/annexes/technical-notes/most-influential-theories-learning>.

4. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.28.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., 1.130.

7. See <https://ozpk.tripod.com/000engaged>.

8. Complete Works, 5.410.

9. Ibid., 4.55.

Also read

1. Education in the vision of Swami Vivekananda

2. Education – words of Sri Aurobindo and Mother

3. Vedic concept of education

4. How did ancient Indian Masters classify domains of higher learning

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