Friday 21 February 2014

Takshasila ( 1ooo B.C, to 500 A.D).

Takshasila is the oldest among the universities in ancient India. It was well known as a centre of learning as early as during 700 B.C. The educational activities at this place must have started at least a few centuries earlier. The place derived its name from Taksha, a son of Bharata. The Ramayana narrates how Bharata, after defeating the Gandharvas, founded the two famous cities—Takshasila in the Gandharva Desa for Taksha and Pushkalavata for the other son Pushkala in the Gandhara. This is also the place where king Janamejaya performed his famous serpent-sacrifice to avenge the death of his father Parikshita. Until very lately it was not possible to locate the place exactly. Pliny has pointed out that the place was situated at a distance of about fifty-five miles to the east of the river Sindhu. With the help of the numerous Stupas, Viharas and temples as found out by Cunningham, the situation of the city has now been exactly located. Archaeological findings show that the city covered an area of six square miles. A copper-plate inscription bearing the name of Takshalila has also been unearthed from the site. The place is situated twenty miles to the west of Rawalpindi, somewhere near Shahdheri at a distance of one mile to the south-east of Kalaksarai.


Takshasila came to be known as a famous centre of higher education because several learned teachers who were recognised as authorities on various subjects resided at the place. It was because of their excellence that they could attract hundreds of students from distant parts of the sub-continent, in spite of the long and dangerous journey which they had to undergo. There was nothing by way of co-ordination of the work done by teachers nor was there any external authority like the king or the local leaders to direct their activities. Each teacher was an institution in himself and enjoyed complete autonomy in his work. His authority was final in fixing up the duration of the course, in directing the courses of studies, in selecting or rejecting students and in laying down rules for guiding the day-to-day work. As each teacher was an authority on the subject of his specialisation, there was little scope for any conflict of interests or competition among them. The knowledge of all these teachers put together represented everything that was worth knowing in those days. The studies terminated when the teacher was satisfied with the achievement of his student and there was no rigid regulation of any sort to regiment the duration of the course. Normally specialisation in various subjects of study took eight years, but the period could be reduced or lengthened in accordance with the intellectual capacity of the students and the amount of energy and application shown by them. There were also some cases where teachers advised students to leave their studies, because they could not fit themselves in the social, intellectual or moral atmosphere of their schools, which were invariably located in the teachers' private houses. The completion of studies was not marred by any formal examination nor was there any convocation for conferring degrees. Examinations were treated as superfluous, because the procedure of teaching subjects was critical and thorough and unless one unit was very thoroughly mastered by the student, he was not allowed to proceed to the succeeding portions. The students who completed their studies did not receive any written certificates or diplomas because it was believed that knowledge was its own reward and using it for earning bread or for achieving any selfish end was a sacrilege.

Only higher education was imparted

As has already been pointed out before, only higher courses were taught in these institutions. These institutions therefore took students to the end of the knowledge of some particular subjects taking it up from the secondary stage which the student had already finished elsewhere before joining these institutions. The process of education which began at home with primary education and widened in extent in the education in the Asramas which imparted what corresponded to secondary education reached its culmination in these places which imparted education at the university level. According to the system prevalent in ancient India, primary education was imparted to children upto the age of eight and secondary education covered from eight to twelve years more. So the students who came to learn in ancient Indian universities were approximately sixteen to twenty years of age. Takshasila was so well known for its teachers that hundreds of students went to this place in search of knowledge, leaving aside the comforts and safety of their home. Their parents' sacrifice in sending them to this place was indeed great, particularly when one takes into consideration the risk involved in long journeys in those days when travel was slow, dangerous and uncertain. Numerous references show that students in hundreds used to flock to this city from distant places like Banaras, Rajagrha, Mithila, Ujjain, Koiala, Madhya Desa and from the Kuru Kingdoms in the north. Takshasila was thus the intellectual capital of India, a central university that exercised suzerainty over the world of letters in India. All the other centres of learning in different parts of the country were affiliated to it.

Courses taught

There was a wide variety of courses offered at Taksliasila, both in literary and scientific or technical subjects. The terms used to denote these two types of courses were the Vedas and the Silpas. The number of Vedas studied in this university is mentioned as three, but it is difficult to explain why the fourth Veda and most probably the Atharvaveda should have been dropped from the list. It was so perhaps because the content of the Atharvaveda was more or less secular in nature and the topics treated therein were also included in the various other branches of study. In fact it is impossible to drop the Atharvaveda, because the minister for religious affairs—the Purohita—according to Manu Smrti had to be an expert in Atharvaveda. The study of the Vedas probably meant learning them by heart for that was the most important service the Brahmanas rendered to the preservation and propagation of the Hindu culture. It is very likely that the study of the Vedas also included the interpretation and exposition of the content of these sacred books. A number of books had already been written by this time to facilitate the comprehension of the content of the Veda and as the author of Nirukta, a treatise on Vedic etymology says a man who knew merely the chanting of the Veda but did not know its meaning was like a pillar merely carrying the burden and that all prosperity attended upon those who knew the meaning. Probably the term Veda also included the study of its six auxiliary sciences, the Science of correct pronunciation, Aphoristic literature guiding the performance of various rites and sacrifices, Grammar, Astronomy, Prosody and Etymology. The study of these auxiliary sciences had necessarily to precede the comprehension of the meaning of the Vedas. 

There is no precise mention of what the eighteen Silpas were, indicating a craft or vocation based on practical skill as contrasted with religious and literary subjects. According to one source, the Silpas or crafts were as follows : Holy tradition and secular law, Sankhya, Nyaya ( Logic ), Vaiseshika ( Atomic theory of creation ), Arithmetic, Music, Medicine, four Vedas, Puranas ( Antiquities ), Itihasas ( History), Military Art, Poetry and Conveyancing. But this list includes the Vedas and many other subjects which cannot be termed as crafts and seems to be very loosely given. A study of various references shows that the following crafts were taught in this university : Conveyancing or Law, Mathematics, Accountancy, Agriculture, Commerce, Cattle breeding, Smithy, Carpentry, Medicine and Surgery, Archery and allied Military arts, Astronomy, Astrology, Divination, Magic, Snake charming, Art of finding hidden treasures, Music, Dancing and Painting. It is obvious that the number eighteen need not be taken too literally. 

These courses must have remained unchanged throughout the period of existence of the university. There were certainly some additions made to the list of subjects taught whenever a need was felt for the same as a result of religious, political and social changes which came during its existence of about fifteen hundred years. The place was conquered by the Persians in the sixth century B. C. as a result of which the Brahmi script that was in vogue was replaced by the Kharoshtri script. In the second century B. C. it was conquered by the Indo-Bactrians, who were the inheritors of the Greek culture. This must have brought about some additions to the courses taught at the university. It is difficult to decide what these subjects were, but it has definitely been ascertained that the Greek language began to be taught and that even among neighbouring places, the Greek language could be understood by a number of people. The teachers at the place had no objection to collecting knowledge from whatsoever source it was available and they were sufficiently broad-minded to honour even foreign savants like Rshis. The place was overrun by the Sythians in the first century B. C. and by the Kusans in the first century A. D. Both these had no culture and civilization worth the name and the curriculum in the university was little affected as a result of their invasions. In the fifth century A. D., the Huns also overran the part of the country where the University was situated. It is not possible to ascertain the extent to which the curriculum was affected by their invasion, because the university met with its ruin in the same century.

One other influence which was mainly religious in nature must also have affected the curriculum at Takshasila. It was the influence of Buddhism which was born in about the middle of the sixth century B.C. The place of the birth and development of Buddhism was, however, far removed from Takshasila, which continued to be the stronghold of Vedic learning. But as the number of students coming from the Eastern parts of the country was very considerable, the principal tenets of Buddhism must have found place in the curriculum. It is also probable that the study Of Buddhist tenets must have received more critical attention, particularly after the birth of the assertive Mahayana Buddhism in about the second century A. D. The object in including Buddhism as a subject must obviously have been not to support the spread of Buddhism or to justify its tenets, but Chiefly to enable the scholars studying at the place to disprove effectively Buddhist teaching.

In sciences, arts and crafts, both the theory and practice of the different subjects had to be studied. Usually every theoretical discussion followed a practical performance leading to a more skilful attempt on the part of the student. But actual practice of every art reveals certain important principles and as such these had to be postponed and the student had to be left to his own capacities and resourcefulness to find out these. In special sciences like medicine where incompleteness of knowledge could result in a disaster, special care was taken to see to it that the student had become a thorough master of the science.


All the necessary financial assistance was supplied by the society to teachers who as a general rule provided free boarding and lodging to all the students. No student was required to pay any fees on a compulsory basis. The non-payment of fees never resulted in expulsion from the institution nor in any differential treatment. In fact, stipulation that fees should be paid was vehemently condemned. Knowledge was considered too sacred to be bartered for money and Hindu scriptures contain specific injunctions against those who charge money to students. A salaried teacher, i. e., a teacher who charges fees on a compulsory basis is to be treated, according to the scripture of Manu, as unfit for company at the table. There were, however, no financial difficulties that affected the smooth working of institutions for higher learning, because everything that was necessary became easily available. The spiritual standing, renunciation and deep knowledge of the teachers inspired many rich persons to give voluntary help in various ways to these institutions. Some well-to-do parents also gave generous monetary help. This was given either at the beginning or at the end of the studies of their children. Those who had no convenience could without any restraint, conduct their studies as long as they liked and enjoyed the same rights, privileges and duties as those who were monetarily better placed. A completely democratic spirit thus reigned in these sacred places. The number of students studying with every guru was large enough to be counted in hundreds, yet all monetary conveniences were supplied in various ways by people who appreciated the selfless work of the teachers, for balanced development in morals and attainment of knowledge of the capable youths of the country. Kings also helped the cause by direct and indirect monetary help without exercising any control over
these institutions. The teacher's authority was complete and absolute. It is true that every student at the termination of his studies paid something to his teacher by way of Dakshina, but the sum thus paid was never sufficient to cover the expenses of his education. Many times it was only a turban, a pair of sandals, an umbrella or an upper garment. The dominating idea was that every qualified student had a right to free education and that it was unholy to associate knowledge with any monetary gift as the price of knowledge and conveniences received. The Dakshina offered was simply an indication of the recognition of the deep debt of gratitude that the student owed to the guru. 

The community also was conscious of its duty to the cause of education. Moneyed people very often used to make arrangements for the food of the students all throughout their courses of education. Sometimes kings of various places sent students to the university for education and made all the necessary arrangements for boarding and lodging for them at State expense. As the teacher was not a money-monger, even poor families considered it their duty to maintain students studying under him by regularly offering him some part of their cooked food. There were certain occasions when money was offered to the Brahmanas who were custodians of learning and knowledge for enabling them to continue their charitable work. Poor students after finishing their education approached kings for getting money for the Dakshina to be offered to the guru and their requests were always granted by kings. One well-known example in this respect is that of King Raghu of Ayodhya who, in spite of his having renounced everything, supplied fourteen crores of golden coins to Varatantu's disciple Kautsa, who had approached him for money. Failure to help a student in need of money for paying the teacher's honorarium was regarded as the greatest slur on a king's reputation. On the occasion of the performance of various sacrifices, the teachers were offered ample money. They were also given exemption from payment of taxes. All these means facilitated the work of giving free education, lodging and boarding to every student who came to learn in this university.


Admission was free to all castes except the Chandalas ( the fifth caste ). There was no restriction about the choice of subjects which was entirely left to students. What the pupil learnt at the university was based on the dictum " Knowledge for knowledge's sake". The accomplishment had not to be used as an instrument for earning one's livelihood which never was a problem in ancient India. This is how we find a complete democracy reigning in this university. The different classes and castes merged in the democracy of learning. The democracy was strengthened by the existence of a common code of rules and observances prescribed for students irrespective of their social or economic status. The students could be admitted freely to any course provided they had the necessary background.Although we have no record of instances where incompetent students were asked to return without admission, the very fame of the teachers of Takshasila must have forced the aspirants for admission to make ar very serious scrutiny of their own capacity to comprehend the high level of knowledge imparted at the place. Admission never became a problem for those who had the requisite qualifications, namely, freedom from jealousy, straightforwardness and self-control. In fact, teachers were thirsting for pupils and offering prayers for receiving such pupils. One such prayer when translated stands thus, " O Creator, just as water flows to the lower level, just as months pass incessantly, so may Brahmacharins (young pupils) come to me."

Some famous students

It is unfortunate that we are completely in the dark about the names of the renowned teachers who adorned the hallowed precincts of Takshasila. Even the Jatakas which have supplied to us most of the information regarding this university are completely silent on this point. Traditions mention that Panini, the greatest grammarian of the Sanskrit language, was a student of this university ; so also was Chanakya, ( known also as Kautilya) the minister of Chandra Gupta Mourya, who reduced the Nanda dynasty of Magadha to ashes. Jivaka, the famous physician, is also described as a student of this university. He was an expert in medicine and had studied under a ' world renowned physician ' for a period of seven years. It is said that Jivaka cured Emperor Bimbisara of his fistula and, as a result, was appointed a physician to the King and to the Buddhist samgha. He is also said to have cured King Pradyota of Ujjayini of jaundice. He was very well known for his surgical operations. In the case of one rich merchant who was suffering from a head disease, it has been pointed out that he tied him fast to his bed, cut through the skin of the head, drew apart the flesh on each side of the incision, pulled two worms out of the wound, then closed up the sides of the wound, stitched up the skin on the head and anointed it with salve. He is also said to have successfully cured cases of twisted intestines.

The end

It has already been pointed out before that the Kusans conquered that part of the country in the first century A. D. and ruled over it upto about 250 A. D. As these people were little cultured, those times must have been most unfavourable for the propagation of education. The rule of Kusans was followed by that of the little yuch-chis. They also were foreign to any kind of culture and learning. The final blow was struck by the Hunas in the middle of the 5th century. A.D. when the dying embers of this proud seat of learning got completely extinguished.

1 comment:

  1. In one of the CPD sessions, some questions were asked by the students about Ancient Education System and Ancient Indian Universities. This post is for them. Hope that it gives some more insights.