Re-establishing Shastras in Indian Education

Re-establishing Shastras in Indian Education

The Conflict between European and Indic Vidyaas

There is an un-subsiding conflict between traditional and modern genres of knowledge. The latter came to India from Europe a century and half ago but have now become the domineering system for all vidyaas, sciences and arts alike. The very division of knowledge (episteme) into sciences and arts is Euro-centric, not ancient, and was not followed by Greeks or Indians or any other ancient culture.

[pullquote]Why have the Indians in their sixty-seven years of self-rule, not been able to develop what may be called ‘Westology’, to negotiate and interact with the West independently?[/pullquote]

In India, every area of knowledge has a traditional version and a modern one and both are unconnected. For instance, there is so much divergence between a modern (printed and occasionally performed realism-based) urban Hindi play like Andhâ Yuga and a traditional rural Svânga. A big difference prevails between a modern naturalistic novel like Godâna or a folk epic like Alah-Udal; between a modern Malayalam film (in spite of its song and dance numbers) and a Kudiyattam performance. The hiatus allows very few meeting points between contemporary urban and traditional/rural genres. The same is true of ancient methods of alloy making (for murtis of gods) and modern forging of metals; between Ayurveda and Allopathic medicine, and so on.


A lone exception among Indian art forms that resisted westernization so far was music, but that too has come under a severe neo-colonial influence in the last decade and is succumbing to westernization at an unprecedented scale.

This conflict is not sufficiently discussed among writers and critics, as the practitioners of the two streams have neither a forum for a regular interchange nor a common audience to compete for. Each section is living in its own world. One thrives on the urban ground with secular state patronage, the other in rural areas with the help of religion and tradition-based organizations. In essence, the conflict is the same as for social power between the westernized Anglophonic elite and the rural and mofussil town-based populations.

Symbolically speaking it may be called a tug of war between ‘India’ and ‘Bhârat’; that is between the name, definitions and descriptions of our land and culture as given by outsiders such as the Greeks, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, and Europeans and the ideals, concepts and purushârthas (aims of life) as given by indigenous thinkers from very ancient times. A fresh Indian discourse must overcome this schizophrenia.

No Indian control over the study and interpretation Indian canonical texts

India has been projected as a primarily spiritual culture from the 18th century onwards by the western Orientalists and westernized Indians themselves. We see this trend from Vivekananda to Gandhi via Sri Aurobindo and many great names of modern times. Though valuable, this portraiture of India as a spiritual nation has downplayed her contributions in science, statecraft, arts, aesthetics and a host of other worldly skills. The cultural and material achievement (‘karmasu kaushalam’) has been deciphered less and glorified more.

The agenda set by Oriental scholarship with a focus on the spiritual (pârmârthika) nature of Hindu civilization was blindly reiterated by our own scholars, without paying sufficient attention to vastly important mundane pursuits (conceived as balanced cultured goals) that Indian civilization was made of. The excessive emphasis on India as a spiritual culture could not be corrected by Indian universities after Independence. The main reason was that the study of religion (and hence the intertwined culture) has been, and still is, regarded as anathema by the secular Indian state. The University Grants Commission (UGC) does not pay to set up departments of religious studies or even of the Western discipline called ‘Indology’ in India.

As a result, there has been no rigorous and sustained institutional study of the classical Indian texts by Indians themselves. For instance, most relevant for the purpose of humanities, the three worldly aspiration texts, (artha and kâma shâstras), namely the Nâtyashâstra, Kamâshâstra and Arthashâstra, have been kept out of any serious primary or interpretative study. What is worse, a planned and well executed anti-intellectualism disguised as ‘anti-Brahmanism’ has been practiced for a very long time in India, beginning from the medieval court/administration patronized intellectuals like Ziauddin Barani of the 14th century to the British administrator T. B. Macaulay, and in recent times from the Nehruvian ‘secularists’ to the present Euro-American academics like Wendy Doniger and Marxist groups disguised as votaries of Subaltern Studies who concentrate on a caste, curry and sexuality-ridden stereotype of Hinduism.


This has engendered a pathetic ignorance of our own texts, and their original languages. This is a childish ignorance that oscillates from guilt to bravado in our Anglophonic educated elite. Another major fallout of this neglect has been the inability to interpret the European texts from an independent point of view. And thus, Indians have not succeeded in creating a critique of the so-called Western culture. If the erstwhile colonizing European countries developed areas they called ‘Indology’ to understand and govern India, why have the Indians in their sixty-seven years of self-rule, not been able to develop what may be called ‘Westology’, to negotiate and interact with the West independently?

This should not be taken as a retaliatory move but as an enterprise that helps the Indians to look upon the West with Indian eyes. It can have its benefits. For example, when in the field of theatre studies, I studied Greek drama setting aside the usual European notions, I found it cannot be categorized as ‘Western theatre’. I discovered that it was actually an ‘Indo-European theatre’ because the whole construction of Greece as ancient West was flawed1. Ten years after the publication of my work, a Western publication, McEvilley’s, made the similar observations in the field of philosophy, questioning the mutual exclusiveness of Greek and Indian philosophical thought2.

Fresh Indian aesthetic theory cannot emerge unless a study of the indigenous texts and intellectual traditions is not restored in the system of higher education. The European Renaissance happened when Greek and Latin texts were studied and revisited. It is an enigma that Indian Anglophones, never tired of singing eulogies of Euro-renaissance, have never thought about. They cannot conceive of a real intellectual revival in India through a deep study of its own texts (vangmaya) because they have been brought up to look down upon them.

Indian Tradition of Textual Analysis

The Indian methodology of textual analysis was called vyâkhyâ. A detailed study of the vyâkhyâ system and the ancient educational system as a whole is urgently needed. As present we are too caught up in ethnographic or caste concentrated analysis of the ancient pedagogy and we are hardly aware of its economics, its social contributions, its sources of sustenance and effectiveness.

[pullquote]This portraiture of India as a spiritual nation has downplayed her contributions in science, statecraft, arts, aesthetics and a host of other worldly skills. [/pullquote]

In its initial stages the vyâkhyâ system did not mean merely writing commentaries on older texts but it was a large enterprise devoted to rewriting and enlarging the earlier texts themselves. Vi (in a unique way) âkhya (told, retold) was the way of transmitting and retelling the earlier story or concepts (siddhânta). For instance, the Vâlmiki Râmâyana was composed to meter and music, (‘tantrilaya-saman-vitam’) and taught to be sung to the disciples who certainly enlarged the story over a period of time3.

Though writing was adopted for preserving the text of Mahâbhârata, as is recorded in the story of Ganesha writing it while spoken by Krishna Dvâipayana, it was circulated by telling, that is as the Kathaa sessions held by vyâsas of all categories told to celestial, semi divine and human audiences4.

“Dvâipayana first taught the core edition called ‘Bharata’ of 24 thousand verses to his son Shuka and some deserving disciples, then he enlarged the text to a collection of 60 lacs verses. Out of these, 30 lacs are honored in the deva/celestial world, 15 lacs in the pitri/ancestral world, 14 lacs in musical/ gândharva world, and the remaining one lac in the mânava/mortal world. Narada narrated it to the gods, Asita to the ancestors, Shuka to the yakshas, râkshasas and the gândharvas, and Vaishampâyan to the mortals who was learned in the Vedas, and disciple of Vyâsa. That collection of one lac you may now hear from me (says Lomharshana)”. (MBh. Anukramika Parva. Âdi Parva, 104-9).

Constant expansion of all kinds of texts including the shâstras was also an earlier phase of vyâkhyâ or retelling, compiling, recompiling, rewriting and re-quoting. Editing old stories into new forms, like Kalidâsa’s changing the tale of Shakuntalâ, was also part of the vyakhyâ process in which retelling was done for giving a new meaning. In the field of nâtya, it was known as the lokadharmi to nâtyadharmi transformation5.

In its later phase the vyâkhyâ system got restricted to mean commentary upon the canonical texts dealing with a given branch of knowledge called the Shâstra, which was defined as an instrument of dispensation and preservation (shâsanopâyam).

A vyâkhyâ was supposed to bring out the growth and diversity of meaning in the text. But it did not enforce any regimentation, as is the common belief in modern circles. The Indian shâstras were not utopian, but descriptive. They were not commandments but expositions of the standard practices and conventions in a given field. They were also called ‘lakshana-granthas’ (descriptive of characteristics) of a given lakshya, i.e., a vidyâ, an art or science. They also shared the general approach to life in ancient times, that there is no universal injunction for all actions but a course of action, a dharma which is decided upon in a given situation and according to one’s well-being (shreyas). This is not to be mistaken for any principle-less expediency or worldly niti. It was a determination of the right choice for the moment. The Shâstra was the place where the guiding principles were enshrined.

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The Shâstras, as they obtain now, are the apex of a long process of development from the earlier shâstras that had been written down after composition and verbal transmission. For a single subject there were many shâstras of different viewpoints, each maintained by a line of teachers. Books were preserved and re-copied every thirty years or so by trained calligraphers (lipikaras). But there was no copyright as a student could study the texts under many achâryas of a given subject and compose his own magnum opus incorporating various view-points in his work with due credits given to different lines (matas) of teachers.

Writing and copying had a conservatory role as the text was learnt by rote (kanth-astha) by the adolescent student. On maturing, the student later discussed a given Shâstra with the teacher referring to all the major commentaries on each verse (kârikâ-baddha upadesha) of the Shâstra. The memorized text was thus available for teaching (adhyâpana), discussions (uhâpoha) and debates (shâstrârtha).

Abhinavagupta best states the aims of vyâkhyâ of a text at the outset of his Abhinavabhaarâratii:

Upâdeyasya sampâ tad anyasya pratiikanam
Sphut.avyâkhyâ virodhânâm parihârah supuurn.atâ
Lakshyâ klisht.a-vaktavyâmsha-vivechanam
Sangatih Paunaruktyânâm samâdhâna-samâkulam
Sanghrahashchetyayam vyâkhyâprakâro-atra samâshritah.

Upâdeyasyasampâth.ah (Deciding upon the correct reading or textual content of the shâstra (work under consideration), tadanyasya pratiikanam (marking out the non-correct), Sphut.avyâkhyâ (lucid comments), virodhânâm parihârah (explaining the seeming contradictions), supuurn.atâ (explaining the conceptual unity of the shâstra), Lakshyânusaranam (demonstrating how the shâstra describes the past and present practice of the art or science dealt with by the shâstra), klisht.a-vaktavyâmsha-vivechanam (making comprehensible the terse and obscure portions in the text), Sangatih Paunaruktyânâm (explaining the logic of behind repeated statements in the text), samâdhâna-samâkulam (laying to rest various doubts and queries). Sanghrahashchetyayam vyâkhyâ-prakâro atra samâshritah. (These are the ways of vyâkhyâ that have been relied upon in this collection of my comments, called Abhinavabhâratii)”6.


As is evident, any modern commentator would do well to emulate this methodology of analyzing a text. Its investigative nature, rather than the dogmatic approach is crystal clear. The tradition of vyâkhyâ is actually of plurality and openness and not of conservative regression.

The Indian tradition, which is portrayed incessantly as rigid, had an inbuilt methodology for fresh creation of ideas and artistic genres. The number of surviving art forms, from the most sophisticated ones to the simplest, still alive in India, is staggeringly large. This is a proof of the flexibility of Indian canons of performance and the analytical openness of the tradition, which has decidedly contributed to this diversity.

The Malady of Presentism

In spite of the much-mouthed idea of plurality, the contemporary presumptions in the cultural field have an unmistakable bias in favor of present day notions of individuality and liberty, social freedom, universal franchise, anti-hierarchism and similar values.

The present day concerns, valuable and necessary in themselves, are foisted upon the ancient or medieval texts, which are then evaluated according to the present day notions. The result is that a Kabir is seen as a social reformer and a promoter of Hindu-Muslim amity while his central emphasis on the pursuit of nirguna-brahma is sidelined. Mira is seen as a feminist rebel against patriarchal repression and ignored as the supreme ideal of devotion that sees nothing worthwhile in this world except the Lord called the ananya gopikâ bhakti of the Bhaagvad-purâna tradition. Tulsidas has been maligned as a promoter of ‘evil braahmana-vaada’.

Similarly, the text of the Nâtyashâstra is sometimes seen as a social document of the second century A.D. exemplifying Sanskrit hegemony over Prakrits, or an Aryan text that shows the domination over Dravidian cultures, or a Gupta period Brahminic text hegemonizing over other non-Vedic sects, or even as an example of North Indian supremacist over South India or South East Asia.

[pullquote]The Indian tradition, which is portrayed incessantly as rigid, had an inbuilt methodology for fresh creation of ideas and artistic genres.[/pullquote]

Unlike Europeans who were able to revive the classical theories like that of the Poetics and Aristotelian tragedy in Renaissance Europe, in India, we think of our classical theories, such as of the Nâtyashâstra, as outdated and fit for understanding only ancient plays like the Shâkuntalam and other such dasharupakas. It is at best conceded as a manual for learning hasta mudrâs of bharatanâtyam. According to this view, modern Indian art forms cannot be related to the Nâtyashâstra as these require a different aesthetics and terminology.

They find little worth in the traditional approach in that this is a text for theatrical production and the regulation of the life of actors (natas) and other theatre people, that it is of great moral value and called the fifth Veda (panchama veda) that it aims to make available the tasting of rasa, that all the arts are commented upon in it as they are all encompassed in theatre. They find it hard to accept that this Shâstra is meant primarily for performance and is play-centric and not ideology-centric.

The Road Ahead

For the past many years, one has seen that the proponents of Indian knowledge systems have been trying to push merely a memory of our ancient texts or Shastras. They just refer to them as ‘values’ or ‘samskaaras’.

A few years ago, there was a mild fever of talking about ‘value education’, which was suspected and ridiculed by the Marxist-Secularist establishment as ‘Hindutva agenda.  Any plea for paying attention to the 4000 year old textual paramparaa is still going to face the same rejection because the ruling classes or Indian legislators are by and large not attentive to erudition and study in any language including the languages of States from where they claim their turf. Administrators, judges, lawyers and academics, are mostly from the ‘English medium’ Varna. They are rather distant, if not contemptuous, of the bulk of Indian people or the ‘vernacular varnas’, whom a legislator once called ‘cattle classes.’

The poet Bhartrihari once said of the Indian scene:

Boddhaaro matsaragrastaah Prabhavah smayaduushitaah

Abodhopahatashcaanye Jiirnamange subhaashitam.

(The learned are quarrelsome the rulers tainted with arrogance

The ruled are uneducated, Knowledge is thus famished).

With the quarrel between tradition and modernity in the intellectual classes and utter self-centeredness in the legislators, and the working people struggling to acquire worthwhile skills, who is going to establish the Shastras in modern education?

Here are some suggestions or a road map:

  1. A countrywide awareness needs to be generated that India cannot allow the mischief of Macaulay to continue. The Bhaartiya Vangamaya or Indian Textual Tradition should become the focus of attention under the principle that modernity is not a rejection of tradition but its continuation. It should be realized that these texts are neither a religious entity (a Hindu past as Marxists and Socialists would have us believe), nor are they against Human Rights and cultural pluralism, they are neither sectarian nor hegemonic.
  1. From school to college, these texts, the Shastras in particular, have to be enumerated, their areas of thought and application described and a positive approach towards their study cultivated. The bulk of non-Anglophonic classes of India still hold these texts in veneration and shall be willing to apply their minds to them afresh. They are not to be convinced of the relevance or utility of the texts. It is the Anglo-phonics with whom the engagement must begin in a serious manner. Major debates are needed with them in social media, on television and public discourse so that the space for Indian languages and their texts is created.
  1. The reintroduction of our ancient Shastras, Poems, Plays, and Commentaries should be done through the printed medium. It cannot be done by making new school text books. It is not the strategy of syllabi alteration that can ever work, especially in the school stage. It cannot be done by making new books on history, literature, religion or civic duties or ‘value’ education. That will amount to just replacing ‘ideas’ injected under the same system of teaching and examination.
  2. What we need are not new courses but new teaching. We should stop talking ideas but doing ideas. What has been made into ‘extra-curricular’ has to be made curricular. Just by prescribing new books on the history of Indian painting, a child cannot be made to like it. Children have to be given a choice to paint, sing, dance, enact, experiment in labs, do social service and teach their own juniors. This means a total refurbishing of the ‘mug and vomit’ system. It calls for a ‘create and serve’ model. The people who will ‘Make in India’ will have to be ‘made in schools’.
  3. This also calls for a much bigger investment in education. But there is no other way. We have to be reminded that India during its best days, invested more in culture and education than any other civilization in the world. It is at the university level that a deep textual study of the Shastras has to be introduced.
  4. It would be a disaster to introduce them as a class by themselves, as Indology or Hindu Culture. They have to be taught as part of the subjects to which they belong. Arthashastra should be part of BA, MA, and PhD in Economics, Political Science and International Studies, Natyashastra of degrees in Literature, Charakasamhitaa of MBBS, Dhanurveda in military training, and so forth. Our Modernists and Socialists would have to be convinced that if their ‘sahib race’, rose out of the clutches of medievalism through Greek and Roman Texts, Indians can do the same with their own texts. The Euro-Americans have adopted the Mediterranean texts to the extent that they have declared themselves as ‘heirs’ to them and created a category called ‘Western’ civilization beginning with the Greeks and ending with the Americans.
  5. The classical Shastras if studied seriously, demand a relinquishing of several notions such as these: (i) Sanskrit was a language of non-democratic oppression, (ii)ancient India as a feudal anti-people civilization, (iii) caste/varnaashrama system as an article of Hindu faith and not a socio-economic order, (iv) kingship was a divine order, and several other stereotypes about India that are the order of day. It is only by going to the texts with an open mind that they would be once again meaningful.

Results Expected

  1. Unification of “India” and “Bharat” or filling of the gap between the governors and the governed.
  2. Closer synergy between the Indian languages and a greater role of transformed traditional vidyaas.
  3. A more democratic society, more tolerant and integrated.
  4. Revival of new forms of arts and a successful resistance against technological consumerism and restoration of respect for environment.

These should quite sum it up.


1. Gupt, Bharat. (1994, 1996, 2006) Dramatic Concepts Greek and Indian. Delhi. DK Printworld.

2. McEvilley, Thomas. (2002) The Shape of Ancient Thought. New York. Allworth Press.

3. Gupt, Bharat (1986) “Valmiki’s Ramayana and the Nâtyashâstra.” In Sangeeta Natak. 81-82 (July-Dec.1986) 63-76.

4. Gupt, Bharat (1998) “Classifications on Lokadharmi and Natyadharmi.”  Sangeeta Natak 95. (Jan.-March 1990) 35-44.

5. Mahabharata (1955). Gorakhpur. Gita Press.

6. Nâtyashâstra with Abhinahavabhaaratii. Ed. Ramakrishna Kavi. 4 vols.  Gaekwad’s Oriental Series. Baroda: Oriental Institut2, vol. I (1956), vol. II (1934), vol. III (1954), vol. IV (1964).

(This is the text of the author’s speech at the Platinum Jubilee of Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan Lecture, 17 October 2014)

Dr. Bharat Gupt

Dr. Bharat Gupt is a retired Associate Professor who taught at Delhi University. He can be contacted at