“Just as a mother gives birth to us biologically, teachers give us ‘second birth’ intellectually,” says author and mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik. Teachers have had a huge significance in our lives not just in this century but their presence has been essential since the ancient era. With changing times, the culture of ‘gurukul and shishya’ has changed but the importance of the relationship between a teacher and a student remains the same.
“Teachers (acharya, upadyay) are a very important part of the Indian culture. They have been respected since ancient times,” Devdutt explains. In the bygone period, students used to stay away from their families to gain the intellectual as well as physical training from their gurus.
“Two types of teachers existed. Those who gave us knowledge and skill. And those who revealed to us ‘brahma-vidya’ or the ultimate secret of the world that helps us realise our humanity. Both helped us live a full and complete life. And so were important,” he adds.
It was a different era altogether, but be it through teaching Vedas or through the art of warfare, many gurus are still popular because of the extraordinary wisdom they passed on to their pupils. According to Devdutt, some important teachers from the mythological age were – Vasishtha and Vishwamitra, who are remembered as Lord Ram’s gurus, Sandipani who was Lord Krishna’s guru, Dronacharya who taught Arjuna, and Ashtavakra who was King Janaka’s guru.
Arjun’s teacher Dronacharya was well known for his expertise in military arts. He taught both the Kauravas and Pandavas but Arjun was largely believed to his favourite student.
Vishwamitra, the teacher of Lord Ram and Lakshman, imparted the knowledge of how to use celestial weapons ‘Devastras’ in a war.
Vasishtha, another guru of Lord Rama, had his hermitage on the banks of river Saraswati. A peace loving and selfless sage, he had complete knowledge of the whole cosmos and the god. Many of his Shlokas are found in the Vedas as well.
Valmiki, the sage who authored Ramayana, was also the teacher of Lord Ram’s sons Lav and Kush. He taught the twins about shastras and the art of using weapons.
While popular belief is that teachers only belonged to a particular caste, Devdutt explains that there were different teachers for different caste groups. “There were teachers like Drona who would not teach a charioteer’s son like Karna or a tribal like Ekalavya. But there were also teachers like Gautama who did not care for the caste groups of their students, such as Satyakama,” the mythologist says.
Times have changed but some core teachings from the ancient era can still be imbibed in the present scenario. The three key lessons that Devdutt feels must be learned from the education system in the mythical culture even today are:
1. Knowledge, unlike wealth, cannot be inherited
2. Practical knowledge, like Vishwamitra taking Ram to the forest, is as important as theoretical knowledge, like Vasistha teaching Ram in a hermitage
3. True knowledge is the knowledge of humanity, of the self and the others (brahma-vidya).
Although he believes that lessons from the mythological era should be remembered, he feels that every age has its own gurus and none of them can be termed relevant to the present day. However, he feels that we should see the principles of the past and apply them to the present times.
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