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Saturday, January 30, 2021

Fundamentals of teaching in the Vedic period

 When I think about education in general and teaching methods in particular,  I am most impressed with how the rishis and gurus of the Vedic age transmitted knowledge at a time when there was no written language. They used different methods to make sure that the reproduction of the sound was accurate and the transmission of the meaning effective and efficient.

They used different methods. First and foremost was the language itself. The alphabets made sure that when they are combined to form a word, there is only way to pronounce them. When written alphabets came into being, this phonetic structure got grounded.

When several words were combined to make a sentence, the rishis went for sutras or aphorisms which, by definition, had to be made of very few words, unambiguous in meaning and faultless. It is easier to remember such terse short sentences than long essays.

When short sentences were combined into stanzas or slokas,  a rhythmic structure was introduced with chandas or meter so that it is easy to memorize. All of us know how much easier it is to remember a song than a paragraph. In addition, the recitation included inflections, prolongation and shortening at specific points, as part of chanting.

Going one step further, the gurus used a method of memorization called ghanapata in which consecutive words were used in combinations of 2 and 3 words and memorized forwards and backwards. Long before written words came (and even now), Vedic students memorize entire texts using this method. It may take several years to fully memorize all 10 mandalas of Rg Veda. But once memorized, it is easy to recite the entire Veda without any mistake in sequence or in pronunciation. Once mastered, these scholars can recite Vedas at whatever point you want them to!

The teachers also defined all the wrong methods of reciting Vedic chants. Speedy chanting, mumbling, shaking the body while chanting and chanting without knowing the meaning were prohibited.

One other remarkable feature about the Vedas, particularly the Upanishads, is the idea of explaining concepts in the form of questions and answers. In fact, the name of one of the Upanishads is Prasna Upanishad, which means Upanishad of Questions. Another Upanishad is called Kena Upanishad, because the first word in that Upanishad is “kena?” which means “how come?”

In another Upanishad (Chandogya), Narada asks Sanat Kumara to teach him. Sanat Kumara says: “Please tell me what you know; I will start from there”.

In addition to explaining several philosophical concepts with examples and logic, at a level the students can understand, the teachers always said: “Think about what I said. Then, do what is right”. They never ordered students to follow blindly. The following two best examples are from Bhagavat Gita and Yoga Vasishta.

In Bhagavat Gita (18:63), at the end of all his teachings, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna: “ Thus I have declared to you secrets if the secrets. Reflect on it fully and act as you like”.  In Yoga Vasishta, at the end of the story on Bhusunda ( 21: 64), Vasishta says: “I have thus narrated the story of Bhusunda. Having heard and examined it within yourself, do what is proper”.

 In addition, when I read rishis such as Dirghatamas, who ask profound questions about the nature of this universe with humility, I feel great respect for them and to the tradition of teaching in Vedic India.





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