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Guru-Shishya Parampara: An Introduction to the Ancient Indian Education System

The system of Guru-Shishya Parampara traces its roots back to 5000 BC and has been an inseparable part of the Ancient Indian Civilisation. The word ‘guru-shishya parampara’ can be simplified in the following fashion- guru means a teacher; shishya means a student; and parampara means tradition. Together, the term guru-shishya parampara relates to the relationship between a teacher and his disciple. A key feature of this system was that the students were required to stay at the Gurukul (the teacher’s residence) till their shiksha (education) was completed.

Artwork by Vandit Rana


Often, the equation between guru-shishya is paralleled with the relationship that a modern-day teacher-student shares. While that might be the most appropriate Hindi-to-English translation, the relationship between a guru and a shishya is far more multi-faceted. Children as young as 8 would join a gurukul and spend nearly 15-17 years with their teacher (till they turned 23-25 years in age).

The study followed a multi-disciplinary model. Science, Linguistics, Agriculture, Metallurgy, Warfare, Logic, and Critical Thinking were vital to the curriculum. Equal importance was given to yoga and spiritual progress. Students could also pursue an education in music, dance, and painting which helped them develop an artistic temperament. The profundity of the Vedas was disseminated orally. The guru would recite shlokas (Vedic verses) to his disciples, known as Shruti (what is listened to). Thus, it is abundantly clear that a guru performed multiple roles besides that of an educator.


Eklavya's Sacrifice

Examples of iconic guru-shishya duos are scattered across the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. The most famous tale is that of Guru Dronacharya. He was the teacher of both the Pandavas and Kauravas. Impressed by Arjun’s skills in Dhanurvidya (archery), he vowed to make him the best archer there ever was. However, he soon realised that Eklavya was equally adept in archery and could potentially outperform Arjuna. Althugh, Eklavya had been deprived of a formal gurukul shikshan, he had trained himself under an effigy of Guru Dronacharya. Since Eklavya’s capabilities threatened the Guru’s word to Arjuna, Dronacharya asked Eklavya for his thumb as gurudakshina (compensation a shishya gave to his guru at the end of his education) which he readily agreed to. The above is emblematic of just how much shishyas were willing to sacrifice for their gurus.

Eklavya Stamp (Source: Government Open Data License)(

Other famous Guru-shishya duos in Mahabharata include Guru Parshuram, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who was a mentor to both Dronacharya and Bhishma Pitamah.

Gurus in Ramayana

In Ramayana, we find Guru Vashishtha, who taught all the four sons of King Dashratha- Rama, Lakshman, Bharat, and Shatrughna. In the same epic, another Guru, Rishi Valmiki, is responsible for the education of Luv and Kush, the sons of Shri Ram and Mother Sita.

The End of a Dynasty

Yet another notable example is that of Chanakya and Chandragupta. Chanakya, on being humiliated in the court of Dhanananda, swore to destroy his empire. Hence, his disciple, Chandragupta, defeated the Nandas and became a King. His reign would mark the beginning of one of the strongest, pan-Indian empires- The Mauryan Empire.

The Making of a Spiritual Leader

More recent examples are that of Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Swami Vivekananda. Swami Vivekananda was a sage and a visionary. It was his zest to spread his Guru’s teachings that he travelled the whole country and delivered the famous Chicago Address in 1893. Through his speeches that reflected the ideology of Ramakrishna Paramhansa, he instilled pride in Indians in their native culture and religion.


Unfortunately, the incumbent education system in India is the one introduced by the British Minister, Thomas Babington Macaulay. It wreaks of colonialism, as proven in the following extract of his letter addressed to his father, dated 12 October 1836-

“Our English schools are flourishing wonderfully; we find it difficult to provide instruction to all. The effect of this education on Hindus is prodigious. No Hindu who has received an English education ever remains sincerely attached to his religion. It is my firm belief that if our plans of education are followed up, there will not be a single idolater among the respected classes 30 years hence.”

The current order was established with the notorious intention to avert Indians from their native culture, to ensure that they don’t confide in their ancestors’ legacy, and consequently, don’t bother to sustain it. Rabindranath Tagore also raised a similar argument. He strongly opposed the Western education system and advocated for an education system with emphasis on Indic roots.


Though not as popular, Gurukuls are still present in India, mostly in the form of spiritual centres, such as Advaita Vedanta, a philosophy that is widely expressed through classical dance. According to the references found in Natya Shastra, Kuchipudi originated as a form of Advaita Vedanta. The dancers are trained in the guru-shishya fashion, and the tradition still lives on in other forms of classical dances as well.

Kuchipudi Performer by Augustus Pinu

Given the intentions behind drafting the British-based education system, it is time India takes recourse to Gurukul shiksha, which is adapted to skills necessary in modern times. A holistic approach to education with a fusion of Indian and western elements will not only connect the younger Indians to their culture but also equip them with the necessary skill set to compete in the international world.


Pratha Editorial Team


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