Studies from an eastern home
The Medieval University
OF all the creations of a people--their art, their science, their customs, their building, and the like--the highest and most spiritual is their language. In this is expressed the soul of nations. In it is left the impress of their love and hope, their ideals of achievement and their criticism of the world.
Next to their country, there is no other single factor which does so much to determine the nature and destiny of a people as their own speech. Races and faiths come and go, children are born, grow old, and die. Each contributes as it can to the common tongue, but it remains superior to them all. As its language holds the soul of the nation, so in like fashion its literature holds the soul of the language. Each of the national factors wins recognition and immortality from the whole by its power to contribute ideas, characters, and forms of beauty to this, the dream-world of the race.
As one studies an Indian vernacular, the vastness and distinctiveness of the Indian dream-world
continually grows on one. First there are the philosophical ideas which give its tone to the dream. Then there is the great gallery of ideal characters of which every Indian child by his birth is made a freeman, that gallery in which a man may wander all his life without one excursion into formal history: the dramatic background, as it were, of each generation of the national struggle. Then there are proverbs and fables innumerable, village-legends, quaint stories and metaphors, beggars' songs, ancestral hero-tales, cherished memories of saints and leaders, and all the floating literature that makes so large a part of the spiritual home of man without even incarnating itself in letters.
Gradually it dawns upon one that behind all this there is some central source of thought and strength, a fountain of authority, a standard of correctness that gives dignity and assurance. This academic authority lies in Sanskrit. Each of the Indian vernaculars throughout its long history has followed steadfastly in the wake of the classical tongue. All its higher literature has consisted of translations, and even where it has not been direct translation the motif always claimed a Sanskrit source. In that language all the great culture of the nation has been preserved. Through it anyone might come in contact with the highest ideas of the race.
But Sanskrit is in itself a learned tongue; to acquire it takes many years of a man's life. The question arises: How has it been maintained in its purity and power from age to age? Each treasure is guarded and developed by its own social formation. What was the society, and what the education, that kept this living? Here we come upon the schools of the Brahmins. It is impossible to realise without some personal experience the definiteness and coherence of the old Hindu culture. Even to this day those who live near a family of ministering priests will hear father and son chanting the sacred texts, hour after hour, day after day, from morn onwards. To the Brahmin even his house is a school. But still more formal and absorbing was the organisation of the tols or schools of Sanskrit. With these India was netted from end to end, and men would come from the most distant parts to sit at the feet of some renowned teacher. The New Learning takes little note of university centres whose names are entered in no register, whose students are contented to work year after year for pure love of knowledge, without examination and without degree; where there is so little self-consciousness that no man ever thought of making a list of their names. Yet if disinterested love of truth and inheritance of deep and complex knowledge be the distinction of a university, the
[paragraph continues] New Learning with its great colleges and their immense revenues may well bow its, head before the seats of learning of the Indian past. Benares and Nasik, Ujjain, Conjeeveram, and the ancient Taxila--to name only a few of the larger and more important of these seats--what pictures they call up to the mind's eye! Not all the provinces are famous for one thing. The South has kept the memory of the Vedas; Ujjain has held the palm in astronomy and mathematics, Benares in grammar, and Bengal in logic.
To any one of these, from the most distant parts of India, young students will travel, on foot for the most part, and beg, penniless, to be accepted by the chosen teacher. One in the days of Buddha desiring to learn medicine went all the way from Rajgir to Taxila, where Peshawar now stands. He was taken as a pupil by the great master of healing at whose door he knocked, and years passed happily by while he worked on, absorbed in the quest of knowledge. Then came the day when his master set him the final test, or as we should say, called for his doctor's thesis. He was to go out into the fields and bring in all the medicinal plants he knew. He went, but after long search he came back in great trouble of mind. He could not bring in all the healing herbs, he said, for all plants were of some use in medicine. And he demonstrated before his
master the value to the physician of each one separately. Long afterwards, it is told, when he had returned as a great scholar to Magadha, this youth was allowed to heal Lord Buddha himself when he lay ill of a fever.
Such a glimpse of the ancient university remained as true in the days of Chaitanya of Nuddea, in the fifteenth century, as it was in the time from which it comes down to us. Nay, I have heard from an. older generation how it was in their own boyhood, only the other day. It is a marvellously intense and earnest life that is revealed to us in the routine of the old tols. A household of some fifty or sixty students, distributed over a number of mud cottages arranged round a central tank, made up the college of a single teacher. They arrive at the age of twenty, perhaps, having broken the first ground of the subject of themselves, and would often remain unmarried till thirty-five. In at least one tol that I have heard of, at Vikramapore in Bengal, there were three students admitted from Maharashtra, for the fame of Bengal logic went far and wide, and all India knew the names of its best teachers. Here in such tols as this was lived out the great ideal of brahmacharya--the celibate student dwelling as a son in his master's house.
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.