Wasting away of 'The Beautiful Tree'
A reflection of the indigenous Indian education system before the unfortunate Macaulisation — root and stem — of the traditional Indian education philosophy
A WhatsApp message from my 74-year-old relative-friend, and a brilliant non-practising attorney, TVS Rao, quoting Glorious India, revealed interesting and astonishing facts about India in the field of education. This triggered interest in me to further probe about the genesis of those harsh realities and connected facts. The result of this inquiry was finding out about Dharampal's book, The Beautiful Tree.
The WhatsApp message mentioned that the then Governor of Madras Presidency, Thomas Munro, in March 1826 submitted a report to the British Government in India about the existence of one primary school for every thousand people. The report also mentioned that only 24 per cent of the students in these schools comprised of Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas whereas the so-called Shudras constituted a lion's share of 65 per cent! That shattered the general impression widespread that the Brahmins dominated the education field.
Later, the British conducted a nationwide survey to confirm the report. They found out that traditionally every village temple was sponsoring a school, Gurukul or Mutt. On average, 35 per cent of the revenue-free land in a village belonged to the temple. The temple rituals, festivals and fee for the teachers were paid out of this income from the land. Apart from this, the village temples served as the nuclei of important social, economic, artistic and intellectual functions. They were libraries not only of scriptures, Vedas and Upanishads but also local literature inscribed on palm leaves.
Britishers found that sending a child on the 'fifth day of the fifth month of the fifth year' was widely believed to be an auspicious event in those days. Some temples even provided 'Anna Prasad' to the students. Every family used to send a boy for at least three years till he learnt to read, write and do the basic calculations. Subsequently, he would learn the traditional trade of his family. Girls were normally taught at homes.
Then came Thomas Macaulay who completely destroyed the age-old Indian Education System and introduced English education system in high schools. The fee was high and only a few well-to-do families could afford it. The literacy rate of India dropped beyond expectations.
Volume 3 contains a chapter on indigenous education in the 18th century in India. He took up a job in the British Library just to unearth the survey report. Upon finding the hidden report, he wrote the book. Essentially, Britishers found the education system of India to be a 'Beautiful Tree'. They found out the roots and uprooted it!
Dharampal, who lived between 1922 and 2006, was a great Gandhian thinker, historian and political philosopher. His pioneering historical research, conducted intensively over a decade, led to the publication of works that have since become classics in the field of Indian studies. His major work entitled The Beautiful Tree, was published in 1983 and provides evidence from extensive early British administrators' reports of the widespread prevalence of educational institutions in many parts of India.
The Beautiful Tree completely demolished the myth that the Brahmins gripped control over education for their own caste and that Shudras were kept in darkness and illiteracy. Yet, the myth is still repeated. It is not enough to unearth the truth, it also has
to be broadcast and nobody
should get away pretending it isn't there.
In the introduction, it is mentioned that the educational scenario in India during the 1800s was not inferior to that of England. And in many respects, Indian schooling seems to have been much more extensive. The content of the education provided was better than what was taught in England. The duration of education was more prolonged. The schooling method was superior and it is this very method which is said to have greatly helped the introduction of popular education in England which had prevailed in India for centuries.
School attendance, especially in the districts of the Madras Presidency, even in the decayed state, was proportionately far higher than the numbers across schools in England. Indian teachers were generally more dedicated and sober as compared to those in English institutions.
The only aspect where Indian institutional education had lagged was the education of girls. Accounts of education in India do state that the absence of girls in schools was explained by the fact that most of their education took place at home.
James Tooley, a British educationist was given a copy of The Beautiful Tree by a vendor in the old city of Hyderabad. While researching private schools in India for the World Bank and worried he was doing little to help the poor, Tooley wandered into the slums of Hyderabad's Old City. Shocked to find it overflowing with tiny, parent-funded schools filled with energised students, he set out to discover if schools like these could help achieve universal education. The result was his book titled, The Beautiful Tree: a personal journey into how the world's poorest people are educating themselves, being published in 2009.
Dharampal mentioned that a major part of the documents reproduced in the book pertains to the Madras Presidency Indigenous Education Survey. The Beautiful Tree is not presented to decry British rule, but, it is the continuation of an effort to comprehend the reality during the late 18th and early 19th century. An attempt had been made in the preface to situate the information on the indigenous Indian education structure.
The title of this book has been taken from Mahatma Gandhi's speech at the Chatham House, London, on October 20, 1931. The Mahatma had said: "the British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and began to look at the root, and left the root like that, and the, 'beautiful tree' perished."
The writer is the Chief Public Relations Officer to the Chief Minister of Telangana