WRITTEN BY R. NANJAPPA                        

Post No. 8534

Date uploaded in London – – – 19 August 2020   

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                                            Chapter 8 Part 1

                                       The Beautiful Tree  

Nursed by wrong information

It is the general belief among  [English] educated Indians that our educational system is

a gift from the British colonial masters. Most people have been led to believe that Indians

were largely uneducated and illiterate before they came, and that whatever prevailed in the

name of education was monopolised by the Brahmins, and that the other communities

were left out or lagged behind. They believe that especially the Sudras and those

regarded below them ( the present day Dalits) were denied education, and consequently

opportunities of advancement. This has been the main theme of our politicians since

Independence, and this belief lies at all efforts at so called educational reform.
Yet how many of them have really studied “history” beyond what is provided in the

text-books controlled by the state, and the political discourse? How many of them have

taken the pain and made the effort to verify facts from original sources?

Gandhiji’s struggle

Those who have knowledge of our struggle for Independence and of Gandhiji’s part in it

would be aware that education was an important part of Gandhiji’s constructive 

programme. He had his own insights and developed his own approach, culminating

in “Nai Talim”. But as one who knew the roots of India’s life and civilisation, he knew that

India had its own system of education which served it well for centuries. Speaking at

Chatham House in London on 20 October, 1931, Gandhiji said:

“I say without fear of my figures being challenged successfully, that today India

is more illiterate that it was fifty or a hundred years ago, and so is Burma,

because 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.”

Where is the proof?

Gandhiji’s claim ran counter to the popular perception of the day, (and it does to this day )

and was contested by imperial loyalists who demanded “precise references to the printed

documents.” Gandhiji was imprisoned on his return from London, and our freedom

struggle entered a critical phase which denied Gandhiji the time to take up such research

work. Unfortunately, none of his followers did any study or research in the subject.

The British rulers, for their own purposes, had caused some surveys/studies to be made

on the state of education in the areas ruled by them, but not all of this material was printed

and published. Some Indian writers had made use of some of the available material in their

books, but this material seems to have been ignored by the academic community, for

whatever reason. In any case, no one had accessed the original documents and made a

proper case to support Gandhi’s stand. 

It was thus left to Dharampal to visit the archives and gather the original material in

mid-1960s. Based on them, he published his book “The Beautiful Tree” in 1971. This title

is derived from Gandhiji’s phrase. Its subtitle ran:

“Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century.”

British Surveys of Indigenous Education

Three motives prompted the British to undertake such studies/surveys.

  1. Administrative : to understand the indigenous systems/manners/methods so that they

could entrench themselves the better, and also obtain a veneer of legitimacy

2. Enlightenment: influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment, of men like Adam Ferguson and

A.Maconochie, who were interested in learning about the arts and sciences of the people,

so that the knowledge  would not be lost even if the societies declined due to colonial


3. Projection and propagation of Christianity so that” Indians would become Christians…

without knowing it”.

Archival material

Whatever the motive, the material gathered adds up to a solid testimony to the extent,

effectiveness and practical worth of the system of education that prevailed in India.

The material gathered can be classified as:

  • Survey of Indigenous Education in Madras Presidency: 1822-1825. The Madras
  • Presidency then covered a huge area- the entire present Tamil Nadu, parts of Andhra, and beyond up to Ganjam, parts of Karnataka, and Malabar. It thus contained geographical and linguistic variety
  • Report of Fra Paolina Da Bartolomeo of Austria “On Education of Children in India”
  • 1776 to 1779 (published in Rome,1796)

– Alexander Walker on Indian Education. Literature c.1820

-W.Adam’s Report  “State of Education in Bengal: 1835-38.(which then included parts

of Bihar)

-G.W.Leitner’s “History of Education in the Punjab since Annexation and in 1882.

Important Conclusions

Dharampal has included all this archival material in his book, in full, or in extracts. The

material covers different parts of the country, with much linguistic variety. Based on this,

he draws conclusions which are striking. 

1. Contrary to the popular view, education was not confined to the Brahmins or the

twice born. “It was the groups termed Soodras and the castes considered

below them who predominated in the thousands of the then still-existing

schools in practically each of these areas.”[This is especially so in the Tamil

speaking areas]

2. This educational network was supported and sustained by sophisticated fiscal

arrangements of the pre-British Indian polity. Substantial proportion of the revenues had

long been assigned for public purposes. It is the collapse of this system through

centralisation of revenue that led to the collapse of education, along with social life

and economy.

3. This system of education was more advanced than what prevailed in

England at the relevant time. Indian system covered more children of the 

common people than the British at that time. Some of the features of the Indian

system were in fact taken to and applied in Britain!

                                                                     *** to be continued

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