A Rationale for the Gurukula System of Education
A gurukula is a traditional school that is run by an acharya, a brahmana who teaches young boys both primary educational topics and moral behavior. Gurukula literally means the “house of the guru.” From the age of five, boys who have been accepted as students by the acharya go away from their own families to live in his ashram as members of his own family until they have completed their studies. The rationale for this system of education is to produce men who are thoroughly pure and moral in thought and behavior. Since moral behavior is best changed through close association with those who have the the highest nature, and since the gurukula system utilizes this principle to a superlative degree, the gurukula system of education is necessary for establishing a high degree of moral behavior throughout all classes of society.
The authority of the gurukula system rests on the idea that human nature is the primary basis of moral behavior. We can understand this from our experience with petty theft. Although most people who walk into a store feel no urge to steal, a shoplifter for some reason has an irresistible urge. Even though he knows that stealing is wrong, he cannot help himself. Immoral behavior, however, is not limited to petty theft. Greedy business leaders in
To understand how the gurukula system changes and improves the nature of its students, it is necessary to understand the conception of human nature the gurukula system is based on. This conception is found in the sāńkhya system of philosophy. According to the sāńkhya model, a particular combination of the three modes of material nature (the guṇas) determines one’s psychological nature. The three modes are goodness, passion, and ignorance (sattva, rajas, tamas), and all three are always present in various proportions in all embodied living beings. Usually, one of the modes of nature is dominant, and the dominant mode will significantly color one’s psychological predisposition. And this psychological predisposition will usually determine one’s place in society as an intellectual, an administrator, a producer, or a worker (bramhana, kshatriya, vaishya, or shudra). All societies everywhere have these classes.
Despite psychological predisposition, the modes of nature in any one person are subject to change. As explained by Lord Krishna in the Gita, the modes of nature one possesses change through association: puruṣaḥ prakṛti-stho hi bhuńkte prakṛti-jān guṇān, kāraṇaḿ guṇa-sańgo ‘sya sad-asad-yoni-janmasu, “The living entity in material nature thus follows the ways of life, enjoying the three modes of nature. This is due to his association with that material nature. Thus he meets with good and evil among various species” (Bhagavad-gītā 13.22). The important words here are kāraṇam guṇa-sańgaḥ, that association with the modes of nature causes one’s psychological predisposition. This explains why our petty shoplifters and greedy business leaders simply cannot help themselves. Asat-sańga, bad association, predisposes them to immoral habits of thought and action. Classroom instruction in ethics alone cannot help them.
The remedy for asat-sańga is sat-sańga, or good association. Earlier in the Gita, Lord Krishna introduces this truth by saying, sańgāt sañjāyate kāmaḥ—from association develops desire (2.62). This is where the concept of satsang comes from. The gurukula system takes advantage of this principle by making mandatory the residence of students at the acharya’s ashram. Because the acharya is a brahmana and therefore in the mode of goodness, or sattva-guṇa, his close assocition will improve the student’s own nature. According to the Gita (18.42), the qualities of a brahmana are peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, knowledge, wisdom and religiousness. Other members of society should adopt these qualities as far as possible. Politicians and military leaders should be wise and self-controlled. Business leaders should be fair and equitable in their business dealings. And workers should be honest, dilligent, and not given to stealing. Through the principle of satsang, the gurukula system systematically develops moral behavior to the highest degree possible throughout all sections of society.
Of course, day schools will always be the main kind of school. As per the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, Nārada Muni himself in a former lifetime had attended a day-school run by a brahmana. The principle of satsang is valid in day schools, too. But Nārada, in narrating his life to Vyāsadeva, credited his spiritual advancement to close association with great saintly persons who he once served during the rainy season.
O muni, in the last millennium I was born as the son of a certain maidservant engaged in the service of brāhmaṇas who were following the principles of Vedānta. When they were living together during the four months of the rainy season, I was engaged in their personal service. Although they were impartial by nature, those followers of the Vedānta blessed me with their causeless mercy. As far as I was concerned, I was self-controlled and had no attachment for sports, even though I was a boy. In addition, I was not naughty, and I did not speak more than required. Once only, by their permission, I took the remnants of their food, and by so doing all my sins were at once eradicated. Thus being engaged, I became purified in heart, and at that time the very nature of the transcendentalist became attractive to me. (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 1.5.23 – 25)
Nārada’s example here nicely illustrates the efficacy of satsang, which the gurukula utilizes to the highest degree. The difference between day schools and gurukulas would be something like the difference between public schools and college preparatory schools, but at the level of primary education and more for the sake of producing morally stalwart members of society. Due to close association with the acharya, gurukulas will have an advantage over day schools in their ability to produce men who are pure in thought and habit. This is the rationale for establishing gurukulas. This is not to say that the gurukula system will completely eradicate vice, but as a social institution it will do much to help control it.
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(First published in Mandir Vani, the souvenir for the 5th Annual Hindu Mandir Executives Conference, 22 - 24th August, 2010, in Houston, Texas, USA.)
Krishna Kirti Das is President of the Samprajña Institute, a public policy research center that focuses on areas where dharma and public policy meet. The Samprajña Institute’s website can be found at http://samprajna.org.