Vedic Knowledge and Modern Education

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Introduction and Overview

Vedic knowledge was previously imparted in a systematic manner, covering the nature of spirit and transcendence, social duties and moral responsibilities, as well as vocational education based upon a person’s role in society. For example, Mahabharata describes how the Pāndava and the Kaurava were sent for education to Dronacharya where they were taught spiritual topics, their duties as kings, and the science of warfare and weaponry. This principle—i.e. spirituality, duties, and vocation—still holds good. However, much by way of duties and vocations has now changed. This article argues that the traditional Gurukula system—with its rigorous emphasis on the chanting of Vedic mantras, the performance of yajñas, and the rigorous mastering of Sanskrit to understand the Sanskrit texts—is no longer necessary and in many cases impractical. We should instead view the Gurukula as centers of scientific education of reality based on Vedic principles. That requires Vedic knowledge to be transformed into modern subjects, alongside the replacement of their flawed ideas with the truth.

State of Current Education

The Basic Principle of Education

The material world is like an inverted tree, and each person has a position in that tree. At any position in the tree, you can easily see downward, but it is very hard to see upward. This means that if you are sitting at a particular leaf, you will only know about that leaf. If you climb up and come to a twig, then you would see the twig and all the leaves that are directly emanating from the twig. As you climb up further, you can see a branch that emanates many twigs which then emanate many leaves. Our knowledge grows through this process.

This growth can be described in two words—broadening and deepening. By broadening I mean that as we climb up the tree, a greater number of branches, twigs, and leaves come into our vision; our knowledge is broadened by rising. Similarly, as we climb up the tree, we find a new kind of unity that reconciles the aforementioned diversity; our understanding is deepened by the unity that reconciles a greater amount of diversity. The broadening of the knowledge and the deepening of the understanding always tend to go hand-in-hand.

The State of Primary Education

Realizing this principle is extremely important to grasp the problem of modern education. At present, we ask children to broaden their knowledge by cramming many subjects without deepening their understanding of the truth or even how all this fits together.

If you examine the teaching patterns in present-day schools, you will find middle grades imparting education in many diverse and unrelated areas—algebra, geometry, arithmetic, biology, chemistry, physics, civics, geography, history, languages, literature, computers, art, sports, dramatics, etc. Not only are these subjects taught by different teachers—who have a very limited understanding of the other subjects—but there is also no attempt to show how civics and geography are parts of the same tree of knowledge as physics and biology. Nobody today has the understanding of how algebra and linguistics, or biology and computers, can be unified as branches of a single knowledge tree.

The result is that children cram lessons, spit them out from memory during an exam, and erase them from memory after the exam. Most children come out of the education system hating it, but as they grow up, they push their children into the same system again.

The State of Higher Education

Children hope that the situation will get better when they narrow their focus to one or two specific subjects when they enter a university program, but it actually gets worse. This is because theories taught by narrowly focused programs are more disconnected from each other, from the real world, and they increase the difference in the understanding of truth between students undergoing different programs.

As a child progresses through the education system, the number of subjects they are taught naturally decreases. School children are taught arts, social sciences, physical sciences, life sciences, and logical sciences. By the time of high school, students limit their focus either to physical sciences, life sciences, or social sciences; art students detach from science; and so forth. As one enters college, each of the physical, life, or social sciences are further divided, and one picks a specialization. For example, there are separate departments for physics, chemistry, and mathematics in all universities. If one pursues a master’s program, the focus is further narrowed within a department. If one goes into a doctoral program, a very specific topic, within a very narrow area, is assigned for investigation. And this trend continues later in life through post-doctoral studies and research. In short, the education focus is very broad in school and rapidly narrows subsequently.

Education Fails the Basic Principles

As time passes, and we become more educated, our expertise narrows, because the education system teaches us more and more about less and less. In the logical limit of this ongoing educational effort, we know everything about nothing. The modern education system goes from diverse branches towards leaves, rather than from those branches toward the root. The modern system neither broadens our thinking nor deepens our understanding; it rather narrows and shallows. As you enter the specialized fields of modern science you begin to see enormous amounts of data generated in each field, but very little understanding of how to parse and comprehend this data variety.

There are also many difficulties in broadening the knowledge because it is divided into departments that remain incommunicado. And we cannot build bridges because attempts to unify diverse areas are viewed as a threat to current individualities. Thus, knowledge is not a single tree with many branches. It can at best be called a forest of many trees, which have grown haphazardly, although they coexist in the same ecosystem. Just as you can get lost in a forest, similarly one can get lost in the dizzying jargon of the diverse departments of education.

Flaws in Current Education

Problems in Modern Education

I could have begun with discussing how to impart Vedic knowledge, but I have begun by describing the problem in modern education. This is because we cannot replace an existing system with a new one without knowing what to replace, why to replace it, and how to replace it.

The essential problem with modern education is that it is not broadening and deepening. We cannot see how diverse branches are part of a single tree. The human mind cannot hold large amounts of data. And since we cannot obtain an understanding of the whole, we focus on the leaves on one branch—thereby overlooking the roots. As we forego the study of the higher parts of the tree, there is a decline in intellectual sophistication, emotional acceptance of others, and moral judgment of our duties based on context. The world is seen as many fragmented and conflicting ideologies, which no center holding them together. Desolation and immorality follow as natural consequences.

Modern education is beset with cynicism about the potential for unification because you cannot find any academic pressure to unify diverse departments, or even emerge with a unified understanding of their diverse theories. Nobody in a university believes that one day there would be one department that would be regarded as the supreme department to which every single student has to enroll, regardless of what they are studying, because this department unifies all other departments. Nobody in the modern education system actually practices a hierarchy of the departments—even though they profess reductionism over and over—because the fact is that they are unable to reduce.

Anyone seeking the truth about reality is quickly lost in the forest of many trees. If one examines these trees, we can find that they propose contradictory ideas and theories, and while they demonstrate some convergence within their own domains from leaves to roots, ultimately there are so many trees that you can never conclusively answer any of the fundamental human questions. In fact, many people now mock these questions, calling them a waste of time. It is now fashionable to disregard deeper questions and focus on superficial details.

Such an education system serves no ultimate purpose; it can, however, create employable specialists. Thus, education is now entirely about vocations, not about a true understanding of reality, which can then be used to convincingly decide the nature of truth, right, and good. As society heads towards greater confusion due to ignorance, we can expect more unhappiness, more disruptions, and more decadence.

Flase Dogmas of Modern Education

Most children dislike education because it is not relevant to their interests. What does the study of soils, mountains, and seas have to do with one who is interested in art? What does the study of varied species of animals and plants have to do with one who wants to be a soldier?

The basic premise underlying the modern system of education imparting knowledge of diverse subjects is that children are born blank slates, rather than with innate proclivities. Since they don’t know anything at birth, they cannot be inclined toward anything. Therefore, if we expose them to everything, then over time, perhaps they will decide what they are eventually interested in. This forces children to undergo courses and examinations that they don’t consider relevant or useful to their interests. They hate the education system and fail to gain from it.

Yet another dogma about the modern education system is that if children learn everything, they will find a use for it later in life. This is actually more problematic because even if you know some biology it is worthless unless you know the details. A little knowledge can be very dangerous. You are not going to cure your diseases with a high school biology education. You will still need to go to a real doctor who knows the full science, not just a few parts that you were taught rather superficially and simplistically during your primary education.

Most modern education is also completely at odds with the kinds of questions that naturally arise in a child owing to their gradual psychological development. For example, children naturally ask their parents and teachers about where they came from. Parents mostly trivialize the question (e.g. that a stork delivered the baby) or provide a materialistic explanation (e.g. that the child is produced by a sexual union), when this question can be the beginning of an investigation into who we are, why we are here, and how we came here.

The dogmas of blank slate minds being exposed to a lot of oversimplified and superficial information during early childhood to generate some interest in them render the entire education process pointless. Then by suppressing and mocking the natural curiosities of a child, and diverting their attention to subjects unrelated to those curiosities, they exaggerate the irrelevant and undermine the important. The net result is that the majority of children hate their subjects, teachers, and schools, and always dream of escaping to other things.

Academic Presentations of Vedic Knowledge

Vedic knowledge is taught in modern universities as part of the department of religion, with religion being only one of the dozens of departments. This approach to Vedic knowledge treats it as yet another subject to be crammed just like the other subjects. What could be the use of such cramming? We have to view Vedic knowledge as the center of education—i.e. that there is a tree that has something at the root and something at the leaves. With that understanding, we can go from leaf to root, and then grow more branches and leaves.

When Vedic knowledge is taught as yet another subject in yet another department as yet another specialty, the education loses all meaning. Vedic knowledge is not another subject of knowledge—like civics, geometry, or chemistry. Vedic knowledge is that which can unify all other subjects. The Vedic method of teaching also views different departments as parts of a single tree. Acquiring it means understanding the root idea, the trunk ideas, and the branch ideas until one can explain everything based on these ideas. All things in this world are modeled using ideas; we just don’t understand the process by which they are diversified. Education means seeing the idea hierarchy, understanding how it is produced from a root, and producing the most useful new branches, twigs, and leaves on the tree for everyone’s consumption.

Vedic and modern education obviously differ in many ideas that they impart. But before we examine and understand that difference, we have to recognize that they differ in the notion of education and the concept of knowledge itself as a single tree vs. a forest of trees.

Solving Education’s Problems

Making Education Relevant to Children

There are two prominent problems that a theory and methodology of education must solve—(1) making the education relevant to a child based on their natural proclivities, because the child is not born a blank slate, and (2) adapting it to their developmental stages.

We cannot impart the same type of education to every child because there is no universal definition of a human child. Children are all different. We also cannot expose them to ideas incongruent or misaligned with their current stage of psychological development. Finally, we cannot teach them disconnected subjects that are never going to get unified, even as they progress later in life, and they will just have to abandon those subjects as they grow up, making the entire time spent during primary education a complete wastage of time.

We can solve all these problems by focusing on one word: relevance. What is relevant to everyone? What is relevant to a specific child? What is relevant at a given age? What will be relevant later on? What is necessary for everyone for us to create a productive and moral society?

If we know how a human is different from animals, then we can answer the question: What is relevant to everyone? If we know the specific proclivities of a particular child, then we can answer the question: What is relevant to a specific child? If we know about the stages of psychological and spiritual development, then we can answer the question: What is relevant at a given age? If have a good understanding of what is to come later in life, then we can answer the question: What will be relevant to a person as they grow up? And if we understand that nobody can be happy by breaking nature’s laws, then we can answer the question: What will create a morally productive society?

Reforming Modern Education

Education theory is a huge area of modern study that lies at the intersection of developmental psychology, the questions of what constitutes education, the pragmatic needs of modern society that drive vocations, and the methodologies by which education must be imparted.

We cannot do justice to any of these in a post like this, and we don’t aim to. The intent is to make enough points about the Vedic system of knowledge and education that it can help us see how this system is dramatically different than modern education, and how it overcomes the numerous problems of the modern system, including, but not limited to, broadening the knowledge and deepening the understanding, unifying the diverse fields of knowledge into a single theory of nature, and making education relevant and interesting to children to motivate them to get educated not just because they consider it a necessary evil, but because they find the knowledge relevant to who they are.

A formal theory of education needs many things. These include a grasp of how we picture the world through ideas in our mind, how changing those ideas changes both the mind and the world, how these ideas are organized in an inverted-tree structure, how different branches of knowledge are different branches of this tree, how they cover different aspects of the world, the differences between primary and vocational knowledge, the developmental stages of psychological development, and how education can be relevant, just, competitive, and fair.

Education Needs a Philosophy

The current education system is modeled after a single idea: industrialization. Children are trained in subjects that will aid the advancement of industrialization. Industrialization in turn depends on a mechanical view of nature and life. In this view, a child is a combination of chemicals, and by education and training, we transform this adaptive machine into something useful for an industrial society.

Therefore, it doesn’t matter what the child likes or not. The only thing that matters is what the industrial system needs. The child has to be trained to become useful for the industrial system. The industrial system needs many things, which are often disconnected. But since this system is man-made, therefore, we don’t need a philosophy of humanity, a philosophy of nature, and the purpose of human life.

We cannot change education unless we change the idea underlying education, namely, industrialization. Survival is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end. Then what is the end? It is a spiritual goal of life, which requires us to discuss the nature of spirit, how that spirit is caught in matter, how it must behave while under the control of matter, and how it can get liberated from the laws of matter controlling it.

This is what I mean by “philosophy”. If we cannot answer these questions, then we cannot formulate a theory of education. Education is the most urgent need at present. If we had only one thing we could change in the world, it would not be politics, environment, economics, healthcare, or national boundaries. It would be education that shapes the new generation which shapes everything else. But shaping education needs a philosophy about the nature of ideas, the structure of the tree of ideas, and how it grows and expands.

Education and Sāńkhya Philosophy

Primary vs. Secondary Knowledge

Vedic texts describe the process of the creation of the universe, as it progresses through two distinct but important stages. That process offers us useful insights into the progressive education process. Lord Brahma—the first created being—is described in Vedic texts to be the person who undergoes education before he applies his knowledge to the creation of the planets, species, universal administration, etc. The universal creation is divided into two parts—called primary and secondary. The primary creation is about the essential universal principles that apply to everything at all places and times. The secondary creation concerns the specific applications to some in some places and times.

Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu creates the principles—from bottom to top—and manifests Lord Brahma as the embodiment of the topmost principle (mahattattva) on a lotus (space in which the petals are directions with unique meanings). Lord Brahma attempts to understand the universe top-down by climbing down the stem of the lotus for 10,000 celestial years but fails to find the bottom of the universe—i.e. the origin from which the lotus has sprung. He then climbs back up, sits on the lotus where he hears the sound ‘tapa’ and performs austerities.

Climbing down the lotus is looking deeper. Lord Brahma initially executes the same process of investigation as modern materialistic scientists who think that the universe must be comprised of the smallest parts, which will be known by digging deeper into material objects. Lord Brahma finds that as he digs deeper and deeper—by climbing down the lotus—he cannot find any foundation. Going down the stem means dividing something big into smaller parts. There is no limit to how much you can divide. For example, you can divide 1 by 2 to get 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, etc. At each step, you create two branches out of each node. But by such division, you can never reach the origin—i.e. the number 0—although you can get closer and closer. If you actually understand the process of division, you know that there is no logical limit to it. The origin is assumed in everything, including the process of division, and yet, you cannot reach this number by division.

The lesson is that the foundation of the material world is not the smallest atom. The foundation is the biggest idea. The universe originates in the biggest idea, not the smallest atoms. The universe is sandwiched between two ideas—everything and nothing. The idea ‘everything’ is at the top of the universe (above Brahma) and the idea ‘nothing’ is at the bottom of the universe (the root of the lotus). If one tries to seek the origin downwards, neither can one reach this origin, and even if someone got close to it, their conclusion would be that the foundation is ‘nothing’. Looking deeper inside matter is an infinite process, and it ultimately ends with the conclusion of definitive nothingness.

This is the essence of Lord Brahma’s education before he becomes the secondary creator. This can be a child’s education before the child becomes a productive person. The understanding of the universe as an inverted tree—in which we begin with the idea of ‘everything’ and go on dividing it into smaller parts to obtain ‘nothing’ is the primary knowledge. Both ‘everything’ and ‘nothing’ have forms, and the things between them also have forms. What we call sociology, economics, management, physics, chemistry, biology, cosmology, medicine, law, etc. are secondary knowledge—i.e. in between the extremes. Lord Viṣṇu creates the limits and lets secondary creators create things in between and within these limits. Some are thus running upwards towards everything and others are running downwards toward nothing.

The meaning of primary and secondary creations applies to primary and secondary education. Primary education must explain the root of the tree, and this education is relevant to everyone because there is a common root. Secondary education can then explain one of the many branches, twigs, and leaves emanating out of this root, based on the proclivities of the children. Even as they will learn different subjects, they don’t lose the sense of unity and coherence in knowledge. But as they learn different subjects, they are forced to learn about every branch, twig, and leaf; they have the primary knowledge of the root, and they can select one of the secondary types of knowing.

Four Great Qualities

The term mahattattva means the “essence of greatness”. Ultimately, Lord Viṣṇu is the essence of greatness, but in Him, all the great qualities are combined. The same qualities are divided and separated as mahattattva, creating many different ideas about greatness. None of these ideas is the greatest because they lack the other qualities of greatness. And yet, even perfecting one of these qualities is a wonderful thing.

These great qualities are divided into four parts: (a) truth, (b) austerity, (c) cleanliness, and (d) kindness. Austerity and kindness are related: Sacrifice your happiness (austerity) and give others happiness (kindness). Truth and cleanliness are also related: Pursue the highest knowledge (truth) through a systematic and disciplined life (cleanliness). Then they are collectively related: Sacrifices must be made in the pursuit of truth and in the practice of a disciplined life, but even as you make sacrifices, be kind by not demanding them from others.

This is the essence of greatness and it constitutes primary education. We can also call it character development. It doesn’t matter if you ultimately become a teacher, researcher, soldier, politician, businessman, or professional. If you embody the four essences of greatness, then you will be a great teacher, researcher, soldier, politician, businessman, or professional. Being a great person is the primary necessity, and being a teacher, researcher, soldier, politician, businessman, or professional is a secondary necessity. The purpose of education is to create great people, who will then create a great society. To achieve it, children must be taught about greatness right from childhood.

Before a child’s mind is crammed with information that may be practically useful later in life, they must be told stories about great kings, great sages, and great devotees. A child will remember these stories for the rest of their lives, and he or she will become an ideal citizen, who will then make others ideal citizens of a society. By imbibing the principles of greatness in childhood, we ensure that they become great people later in life, regardless of their chosen vocation or profession. This education is the most essential primary education.

Sāńkhya’s View of Developmental Psychology

Dissemination of knowledge depends on the mental and intellectual development of the child. For example, we cannot impart the understanding of karma to a young child because the discussion of hell will conjure up images of ruthless punishments, painful torture, and immense suffering. This is not suitable for a young child, but it is appropriate information in the late teens. Similarly, we cannot teach them logic unless they understand the nature of concepts, how all concepts are produced from opposites, and how these opposites create principles of mutual exclusion and non-contradiction. Everything has a time and an order. If this order is violated, knowledge can’t be grasped.

Sāńkhya is a theory of matter, but also a bottom-up theory of a child’s development. It begins in sense objects and proceeds into sensations, senses, concepts, judgments, intentions, morals, the consequences of actions, the nature of our desires, and finally the spirit soul. One of the great facts about Sāńkhya is that we are not trying to understand things irrelevant to us; we are trying to understand how we perceive and conceive the world. There is nothing of greater relevance to us than the understanding of how our experiences are created.

Therefore, there is nothing boring about this education; education is a description of who we are, how we experience, and why we experience certain things as opposed to others. This is not theoretical because we have various kinds of experiences to test the theory. Sāńkhya is a theory of experience, which begins in the objects we experience and culminates in the subject who experiences. There are many additional material stages that lie between the objects and the subject. All these stages are relevant to our understanding of the mind-body complex; they are relevant to understanding other people, cultures, and societies, and they are imperative to grasp the laws of nature.

The Developmental Stages in Sāńkhya

Sāńkhya can be viewed as the different developmental stages of a child, which proceed from ordinary objects to sense and mind apparatus to the self beyond these. These stages are briefly highlighted here. There is of course much more to Sāńkhya than this brief summary.

  • First, there are sense objects—e.g. you can see apples, trees, houses, etc. Accompanying these sense objects is also the perception of change—e.g. that if you eat an apple, it disappears, and time changes things. There are also sensations of pleasure and pain.
  • Second, there are properties—e.g. you realize that there is something called color, shape, smell, taste, etc.—which are in the objects, and yet not purely objects. For example, you can show people red and blue, but you cannot show them the idea of color.
  • Third, you understand that you have many kinds of senses—e.g. taste vs. smell vs. sight—and therefore there are other people who can also see, taste, touch, and smell. A child begins to understand that just as I can experience, other people can also experience.
  • Fourth, we understand that concepts apply to many objects; for instance, apple is a concept, and the red, round, sweet thing in my hand is actually one of many apples. This is the beginning of mental development beyond the sensual experience of the world.
  • Fifth, we understand that the diversity of concepts is produced from a few concepts: this is the dawn of scientific thinking, in which a child realizes that conceptual diversity can be reduced to a few essential ideas, which constitute a theory about nature.
  • Sixth, the child begins to understand that all such theories are motivated due to goals, or solving some specific problems; different people are interested in trying to solve different problems; they can have different goals, and hence prioritize different subjects.
  • Seventh, the child realizes that these differences must be resolved by constituting moral principles of right and wrong, good and bad, which have to be applied to society at large. Society cannot be governed simply by my goals, but by moral principles.
  • Eighth, the child can see that even though there are moral principles, not everyone is acting according to these principles. What are the consequences of not acting morally? This leads to an understanding of karma and transmigration through different bodies.
  • Ninth, once transmigration is understood, the child can see how other living beings—i.e. animals—are living different kinds of lives (they have different capacities for perception, sensations, and emotions) but they cannot understand how they got that life.
  • Tenth, the child sees that humans can realize the nature of birth and death, and this is the main problem of life; the goal of life is to exit this cycle; everything else we do has to be done with the goal of ending the cycle. The purpose of life is transcendence.

In Sāńkhya, these stages are called bhūta (sense object), tanmātra (properties), indriya (senses), manas (mind), buddhi (intellect), ahamkāra (ego), mahattattva (morality), karma (consequences), guna (innate qualities), and jīvā (the soul). If a child is systematically taught these ten topics over ten grades, then children out of school will know everything that needs to be known by everyone. If schooling is begun at 6, and a child undergoes systematic education over the next 10 years, then by the age of 16 he or she would understand the highest conclusion of life—athāto brahma jijñāsā—now (that you are in human life), therefore, you must inquire into the nature of the self.

Principles of Vocational Education

Preparing for the Real World

Once the child has acquired this conclusion, the next 2 to 9 years can be spent in vocational education, according to one’s guna and karma. It is essential that the child is informed about the nature of guna and karma before they enter a particular type of vocational training because without this knowledge they will never understand what types of work they are capable of and how they can become great in their chosen vocations. Prior school education, therefore, is essential to make a child understand what they should choose as a vocation in life.

A great problem in modern times is that children go through school without a good understanding of what they need to do after school. All children look at the latest fads, do some personal research, consider what their friends are doing, where they can make the most money, etc., and then make a decision, without understanding themselves. This is a flawed approach to picking a vocation—which is called Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra—because you cannot be successful (materially or spiritually) just by looking at the fads, what other people are doing, where the most money is to be earned, etc. The best route to one’s success is their guna and karma. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no guidance today on this front. As a result, the choices that children are making are no better than a coin toss—i.e. random.

An understanding of guna and karma is necessary to realize what kinds of professions are most viable for a person, but also understand how embodying greatness in their chosen vocation is the path to the ultimate aim of life, i.e. transcendence. When children understand that the greatest vocational guide in their day-to-day life is their guna and karma rather than their research and random discussions with friends, they can pick the right kind of vocation themselves. Formerly, wise teachers were capable of understanding a person’s guna and karma in order to engage the students in the right kind of vocational activity. This is not impossible today either. One needs an understanding of the material modes because based on those modes one can see a person’s previous life, and based on that one can know karma.

Types of Vocational Education

By vocational education, I mean secondary knowledge. This can mean arts and crafts for the Sudra, economics, management, production, trading, and finances for the Vaisya, sociology, law, military, diplomacy, and governance for Kshatriya, and linguistics, logic, and philosophy for the Brahmana. The essence of this education is to prepare a person to become a secondary creator. They need to be trained in the specific things that they will create. This corresponds to the modern system of pre-college, vocational diplomas, and college education.

Vocational education can be short (typically for workers) or long (typically for intellectuals). If one has gone through school until the age of 16 years, then they can complete their vocational education anywhere between the ages of 18 to 25 years. Most workers would be capable of contributing to society by the age of 18, while most intellectuals would be ready to contribute to society by the age of 25. This is the time by which they can be considered sufficiently qualified and capable to formally begin practicing the vocation of their own choosing.

Vocational education gets a person constructively engaged in society. We expect the education of the Brahmana to be more arduous and extensive than the education of the Sudra. Thus, only those who are capable, interested, and qualified will venture into such vocational roles. Since society is structured hierarchically, attaining a higher position in society also entails attaining a higher level of qualification. The value of a social stratum is recognizable only when the hurdles in attaining that stratum are significantly higher than the previous strata.

Forms of Higher Education

Typically, the education of the Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra ends by the time they get vocationally occupied. Of course, they can become apprentices to learn more. But beyond an initial education, they grow in expertise and experience, not in knowledge. That is, they learn how to apply the knowledge in better ways, but they don’t grasp new ideas. However, for the Brahmana, education is a lifelong process. It includes educating others, but also to be on the lifelong path to the study of Vedic texts and the elucidation of Vedic knowledge to others.

The tree of knowledge is infinite because it can always grow new branches, twigs, and leaves. Brahmana can also be the creators of new forms of knowledge. One of the key lessons of modern science is that completely new fields of knowledge that were heretofore unknown have been created. For example, until a few centuries ago, subjects such as particle physics and organic chemistry did not exist. The organizational theory was unheard of, as was the subject of psychoanalysis. All these are not entirely new areas of knowledge because they are created from the same original principles. Nevertheless, society has to continually produce new forms of knowledge to engage the intellectuals.

Intellectuals relish entering, exploring, and understanding new areas of knowledge. Intellectuals also like to debate and discuss; they like to write treatises and split hairs often on very minor points. This is not a bad idea at all. In fact, the six systems of theistic philosophy in the Vedic tradition—namely, Sāńkhya, Yoga, Mimānsa, Vedānta, Nyaya, and Vaiśeṣika—are byproducts of intellectual activities based on Vedic texts. These fields are not directly Vedic texts. But what are the intellectuals going to do if not expound on Vedic philosophy?

The Vedic tradition has been alive for millennia because of its ability to support and encourage literally infinite intellectual work within the ambit of life’s basic goals. As long as the principles of greatness are not violated, intellectual work is not scorned. We can expect that those interested in Vedic philosophy will not only explain its conclusion but also create new forms of knowledge based on Vedic principles, quite like modern science has created many new departments. Their conclusions will not diverge from each other. All these departments of knowledge will simply be the many trunks, branches, twigs, and leaves of an ever-expanding tree of knowledge with a single root.

Modernity and Tradition

Considerations of Daivī Varṇāśrama

We must note that the classical Vedic system—called Varṇāśrama—doesn’t support the education of Sudra. In other words, the children of the Sudra were not allowed to go to a teacher, obtain any education, and then determine whether they are qualified for any higher roles in society. This is the fundamental reason that over time some Sudras felt that they were left behind in society because the upper three classes—Brahmana, Kshatriya, and Vaisya—got educated, and by that education, they could change their roles. The classic Varṇāśrama system allowed social mobility between the top three classes but excluded the children from the lowest class. This class can be a disenfranchised and disenchanted population that revolts against the higher classes (especially as its size grows) to dismantle the classful hierarchy.

The Daivī Varṇāśrama system is different. In this system, there is primary education for all classes—regardless of their birth—bringing them to the point where they can make informed vocational choices. In the modern age, the differences in guna and karma between the four classes have declined rapidly and most of the population is therefore Sudra. If we follow the classic Varṇāśrama system, there would be hardly anyone to educate! The Daivī Varṇāśrama system, therefore, envisions that the social classes are based on a person’s eternal form, not their present conditioned state. For example, there are certain things that each person naturally relishes doing; some people may like administration, while others prefer business; some may like intellectual knowledge while others prefer art. These traits are real and eternal; the temporary and illusory are the numerous modifications of these traits by the three modes of material nature—e.g. a person interested in reading devours fiction rather than true knowledge, or a person perceptive in art considers ugliness as beauty. Under the guidance of the right teacher, our native tendencies can be encouraged, practiced, and realized.

Primary education is meant to give all children a chance to excel. The message to such children is similar to what modern society gives to its children—study well so that you can lead a higher life later. In other words, education is not limited to any class, and every class has the option of full social mobility across any other class. This system of Daivī Varṇāśrama has been taught and practiced by the Vaishnava Acharyas in recent times. One must bear in mind that it is not the classical Varṇāśrama system that forbade education for the Sudra.

The Traditional Gurukula System

The Gurukula were residential schools in which children studied under the tutelage of an enlightened teacher and helped him in running the school by collecting alms, firewood, fruits, and growing whatever minimal was feasible within their modest means. Śrimad Bhāgavatam describes how Kṛṣṇa and Balarama went to Sāndipani Muni for education where they mastered 64 arts in a very short period of time, indicating how a single teacher had mastery over all branches of knowledge and he was a complete educational institution in himself.

The Gurukula system was focused on the development of Brahmana—and the role of the Brahmana in traditional Vedic society was teaching and performing yajña. Extensive mastery of Sanskrit was required both for the performance of yajña as well as for teaching Vedic knowledge to disciples because the tradition was based on the oral transmission of knowledge. With the dawn of Kali-yuga, the oral tradition was converted into a written tradition and all prominent Acharyas have written extensive commentaries on the Vedic texts.

The traditional system of yajña has disappeared because people are not capable of performing complex procedures accurately and inaccurate performances produce no results. This yajña is no longer viable because most of these procedures do not produce expected outcomes.

In this sense, all the key functions of the traditional Gurukula are now unnecessary: (1) the system of yajña is now ineffective, (2) the accurate pronunciation of the Vedic mantras is not viable for most people, and (3) the preservation of Vedic scriptures by learning an oral tradition has been replaced by printed books. Since the mantra, yajña, and the preservation of the oral tradition are no longer necessities, the learning of Sanskrit and exclusive reliance upon it may be personally interesting to people, but is not essential in today’s world.

A Modern Gurukula System

The purpose of the Gurukula is to impart three things: (1) knowledge of transcendence beyond matter, (2) understanding of matter and its laws, and (3) moral and theistic vocational education to create a stable and peaceful society. For such a system to be successful today, it has to educate a person in the same kinds of fields that modern education offers—e.g. economics, sociology, management, biology, medicine, mathematics, architecture, etc.—but by using a different set of concepts. These concepts have to be drawn from Vedic philosophy.

Thus, when we speak of a Gurukula in today’s times, we should not conjure images of children reciting Vedic mantras, performing yajña, or mastering Sanskrit so that they can preserve an oral tradition. We must rather envision Vedic knowledge as being used to answer the questions that are relevant today, such that education can replace materialistic and atheistic ideas. It is said that the inquisitive soul must inquire from a teacher by submissively asking questions. The questions being asked today are quite different from the questions that were previously asked. The answers to these questions can be based on Vedic ideas, but they have to be answers to different questions.

For example, people at present want to discuss whether capitalism is better than socialism, whether women and men are equal or unequal, whether rationality is more important than emotionality, whether the universe is stable or expanding, whether time flows one way or two ways, how the species were created one by one, how fossil records tell us about the past, how old is the universe and how long will it live, are we alone in the universe or are there others, what is the origin of language, does the mind think in a language or is thought separate from language, how can machines do what the minds to today, why is nature mathematical, how do our minds know the world, how our dreams created, what is the ideal organization structure, does the structure create a function or does function create structure, etc.

The list of questions is endless, and the questions vary from the previous ones. We cannot pretend that people are the same as those in the past because their concerns, requirements, problems, and needs have changed drastically. This change creates new kinds of questions.

The purpose of education is to answer one’s questions. The purpose is also to take one to the final conclusion. With these two in mind, we have to reinvent education—not by changing the ideas—but by answering a new set of questions using the same principles. The Brahmana previously had education and yajña as their main responsibilities towards society. Now, yajña is no longer their sole prerogative. Similarly, we have printed translations of the Vedic texts available in many languages. The key requirement is to make the knowledge accessible in a modern way—i.e. by answering the questions that people are asking now, not the questions that they were asking previously.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "Vedic Knowledge and Modern Education," in Shabda Journal, May 13, 2017,