Get Involved

Was education in India limited to high caste Hindus?

A lie was propagated as part of larger perception peddling by British imperialists to destroy indigenous systems that flourished across

Dr Aniruddh Subhedar

Indian history has been a subject of scholarly debates periodically. General perception prevalent was that education in pre-British colonial era being limited and exclusive to upper caste Hindus.


People from lower castes didn\’t have any access to education hence widely remained illiterate. Several historians argued that upper caste Hindus (read Brahmins) had exclusive access to religious texts and custodians of these Dharmic books. Power of narratives may have led to this widely accepted perception that was evolved and spread about ancient India and its culture.

An objective and closer consideration of contemporary sources reveals a diametrically opposite picture. After having established their rule in various parts of India, British colonial masters felt the need to portray their rule as a blessing in disguise for Indians who were ‘uncultured and superstitious’ mass of people. We see this sentiment in Rudyard Kipling’s phrase, “white man\’s burden” that was to civilise the native races. Thus, everything pre-colonial, India\’s Dharmic ways, religion & faith, culture and education system was discredited, demonized and then justified its demolition. But, the contemporary data from beginning of 19th century has a different story to tell.

When the British began colonizing India, the imperialists made effort to study the land and its people. They studied and translated old Indian texts, surveys were done to understand and rule Indians better. These surveys and reports have become an important contemporary source to understand different aspects of the Indian society in 18th and 19th century.

Study on education system in India was a consequence of the debate in the House of Commons in 1813. The survey of Madras Presidency was conducted from 1820 to 1830. There was a semi-official survey in Bengal Presidency by W. Adam and an unofficial survey by G.W. Leitner during1882 in Punjab. In these surveys, a comparative analysis was done on status of education in that region before 1850 to that after 1882. Madras Presidency survey was the most exhaustive and detailed one. It covered points like number of schools, students and teachers, their castes, curriculum of the school, etc.


Many scholars have studied further on the surveys and consequent analyses based on these and other, documents. Shri Dharampal’s book ‘The Beautiful Tree’ was most comprehensive as it brought together data from various published and unpublished contemporary sources. It has become a practice in India that whatever is written in ancient times in our traditional itihas (History) is dismissed as unauthentic with little credibility if it doesn\’t fit the narrative. But the survey reports conducted by the British and statements of various British officials couldn\’t be discredited based on pre-colonial History documents.

Data from Madras Presidency

Presidency of Madras constituted Odiya, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada speaking areas. The surveys were thorough and covered all 21 districts of the Presidency. Contrary to common belief, indigenous schools not only had students that were not upper castes Hindus, but those from lower castes or \”Shudras\” were sometimes higher. For instance, in Odiya district of Ganjam, 808 students were Brahmins, 243 Vysees (Vaishyas or traders caste) and highest were Shudra students at1001 while those from other castes numbered at 888. These were Avarnas or their caste status was unknown and hence not regarded as “upper caste” Hindus per se.

In Malabar, upper caste students were 20 per cent while students bracketed as Shudras were 54 per cent. In Bellary, upper caste Brahmin and Vaishya students were 33 per cent whereas Shudras were 63 per cent. In Ganjam, upper caste students were around 35.6 per cent whereas Shudras and other caste students were 63.5 per cent. Only inTelugu speaking districts of Vishakhapatnam and Cuddapah, Shudra students were much lower than that of Brahmin and Vaishya students. It still was above 41 per cent.

Shudra students in schools had normal and regular practice. In this context, observation of Cuddapah\’s Collector that the age of admission for Brahmin boys was usually five to six years and that for Shudra boys was six to eight years. 

Some district reports gave details of books used in the curriculum. For instance, in Bellary district most commonly used were Ramayan, Mahabharat and Bhagavat. Ancient works of grammar like Nighantoo were also taught. Schools of Rajahmundry and Bellary had spiritual texts like Bal Ramayan, Rukmini Kalyanam, Gajendra Moksha, etc. in the curriculum. Panchtantra and Vetalpanchavimshati (Betal Pachhisi), the famous books to teach statecraft and political knowledge to the kids, were also in these schools. An interesting point mentioned in the Bellary report is that students of manufacturing classes were also taught Vishwakarma Puran. Vishwakarma is the deity of craftsmanship and architecture. Even today many engineering colleges in India celebrate Vishwakarma Jayanti.

If we look at data of various districts, almost everywhere the number of Shudra caste students was higher than upper caste ones. In the district of Tinnevelly (Tirunelveli), Brahmin students were 1921 in number, whereas Shudra and \’other caste\’ students were 2708 and 3003 respectively. In Seringapatanam, Brahmin and Vaishya students were 38 and 20 respectively and that of Shudra and \’other castes’ were 101 and 62 respectively. Out of 101 Shudra students, eight were females. In Coimbatore province, in districts like Polachy, Sattimungalum, Andoor, Eroad, Kongayund, Caroor, etc Brahmin students was 918, Vaishyas – 289, Shudras dominated at 6461 (including 82 female students) and other caste students were 226.

This was the pattern in other districts like Madura, Dindigul, Shivganga, Tanjore, Kumbhakonam also. Everywhere the highest number of students was from Shudra caste and small number of female students also belonged to Shudra caste only. In Nellore and Masulipatam, we found Brahmin students exceeding that of Shudra students. Here, it was more of an exception and here also Shudra students were substantial.

These numbers clearly prove that most people irrespective of caste had access to elementary and school level every caste and class had access to the education and schools. The facts revealed by Madras Presidency data were more or less in sync with that of Bengal – Bihar by W. Adam.

Bengal & Bihar: Adam\’s report on education

William Adam came to India as a Baptist missionary in 1818, though he later became a journalist. He conducted a semi-official survey in the Bengal Presidency which was financed by Governor General himself. His report was later published as ‘Reports on the State of Education in Bengal and Bihar 1836 and 1838’. This report covered various districts of Bengal, partBirbhum, Bardhwan, South Bihar and Tirhoot. Like the Madras Presidency survey, Adam\’s Report also covered various topics. What Adam recorded in terms of caste-composition in education was more revealing than the Madras data. In elementary schools not just the students but teachers also belonged to various castes. Other than Kayasth, Brahmin, Sadgop castes, there were teachers from 30 different castes; this included six Chandal teachers too. There were teachers from Teli, Sutar, Kahar and Napit castes too among others.

Similar to Madras Presidency, here also students from lower classes were in a higher percentage. Brahmin and Kayastha students didn\’t exceed 40 per cent anywhere. In Bardhwan district, we find 61 Dom and 61 Chandal students in the schools. Bardhwan also had 13 missionary schools; the number of Dom and Chandal students studying in them was just four. In these missionary schools only 86 students were from lower castes while the native schools had 674. Thus, contrary to the common narrative that the missionaries started educating the lower castes, we find that the lower caste students were in higher number in native schools as compared to those run by the missionaries.

Like Madras Presidency, books used in Bihar-Bengal schools too included religious, dharmic and spiritual texts, works on grammar and moral teachings books. It included Surya Purana, Adi Parva (Mahabharat), Ganga Vandana, Sudama Charitra, celebrated works of grammar and linguistics like Amar Singh, Shabda Subanta, Ashta Dhatu and Ashta Shabdi. Hitopadesh and Chanakya\’s works were also included in the curriculum.

One significant conclusion of Adam was that every village in Bihar and Bengal had at least one school. Thus, in 1,50,748 villages of the region, there were about1,00,000 schools. Similarly, he estimated that every district in Bengal had average 100 institutions of higher learning, putting total 1800 institutions of higher learning in 18 districts of Bengal. Even if every institute had minimum 6 scholars, the total number of scholars would be 10,800 in these institutions.

This data was collected by colonial rulers who had no sympathy or bias towards Indian education system. T.B. Macaulay famously said that totality of Indian knowledge does not even equal the contents of a single shelf of a good European library. Any positive image of indigenous education coming out of such surveys adds to the credibility of the information gathered.

Dr. G.W. Leitner on indigenous education in Punjab

The third survey was by Dr. G.W. Leitner who served as Principal in Government College, Lahore which was part of Punjab and as acting Director of Public Instruction in Punjab. It was later published as ‘History of Indigenous Education in the Panjab – Since Annexation and in 1882’. The work covers and compares the education system before 1850s (i.e. before the hold of British on Punjab) to that of 1882.

In starting itself, Leitner mentions how British rule adversely affected the indigenous education: “I am about to relate – I hope without extenuation or malice – history of the contact of a form of European with one of Asiatic civilisation; how, in spite of the best intentions, the most public – spirited officers and a generous Government that had the benefit of traditions of other provinces, the true education of the Panjab was crippled, checked, and is nearly destroyed; how opportunities for its healthy revival and development were either neglected or perverted; and how, far beyond the blame attaching to individuals, our system stands convicted or worse than official failure.” Also, Leitner mentions in the preface that “I fear that my account of the decline of indigenous education in the Panjab may offend some prejudices and oppose some interests. I have to appeal to rulers to put themselves in the position of the ruled, if they wish to understand them, and to criticise a Department to which I am attached by a long career and several friendships.”

Leitner’s words show the extent of damage that was done to indigenous education by the British rule. Leitner did an exhaustive study of schools and institutes in Punjab. Unlike Madras and Bengal Presidency data, we don’t find caste-wise classification of students and teachers here. Punjab was democratically different from Bengal, and Madras Presidency; it had a high percentage of Muslim population.

Hence, in Leitner’s data, we find classification on the basis Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit schools. We also find mention of the kind of work done by the Hindu scholars during that time. Like Hindi translation of Gautam Smriti by Pt. Guru Prasad, Mimansa Paribhasha by Pt. Rishi Kesh Shastri, commentary on Gautam Smriti by Pt. Dayaram. There were also History of England by Pt. Ram Krishna and Punjabi translation of Euclid by Yogi Shiva Nath. Thus, even in Leitner’s data, we find that India had a flourishing indigenous education system whose organic growth and evolution was stymied due to colonial rule.

It would be pertinent to quote G.L. Prendergast, a member of the Council in Bombay Presidency. He mentioned in April 1821:

“I need hardly mention what every member of the Board knows as well as I do, that there is hardly a village, great or small, throughout our territories, in which there is not at least one school, and in larger villages more; many in every town, and in large cities in every division; where young natives are taught reading, writing and arithmetic, upon a system so economical, from a handful or two of grain, to perhaps a rupee per month to the school master, according to the ability of the parents, and at the same time so simple and effectual, that there is hardly a cultivator or petty dealer who is not competent to keep his own accounts with a degree of accuracy, in my opinion, beyond what we meet with amongst the lower orders in our own country; whilst the more splendid dealers and bankers keep their books with a degree of ease, conciseness, and clearness I rather think fully equal to those of any British merchants.\”

Mention of this “economical” nature of Indian education system was also found in ‘Voyages to the East Indies’ by Austrian Missionary, Paolino Da Bartolomeo, who visited India between 1776 and 1789. He mentioned that in Malabar, teachers took only two Panams every two months or a small quantity of rice as fees – “so that this expense becomes very easy to the parents.” For the students who couldn’t even afford this, Paolino mentions: “There are some teachers who instruct children without any fee and are paid by overseers of the temple, or by chief of the caste.” We find similar facts mentioned by Leitner, that in Gurgaon district, Pandit Shadi Ram taught Yajurveda, Panini\’s grammar, Puranas, prosody, etc. No fee was taken from the students, \”the wealthy students live on their own resources and the poor students are fed by the teacher.\”

Thus, invariably from Madras to Punjab we find that India had a robust education system accessible to students across castes and class. Many would find this data unpalatable but our ancient texts mention that even Shudras were supposed to be given a respectable position in a king’s administration. In Mahabharat’s Shanti Parva, Bhishma gives lessons in politics and Raj-dharma (a king\’s duties) to Yudhishthira. Bhishma says that ‘a king should have four Brahmin ministers, eight Kshatriyas, twenty Vaishyas, three Shudra ministers and one from the Suta caste’. The number of Shudra minsters was expected to be about equal to that of Brahmins.

Data from British surveys shows that much like foreign rule wasn\’t able to totally penetrate the villages, which largely maintained autonomous on cultural issues. Similarly, in education also, the indigenous system was surviving and practiced in villages.

To understand Indian society, a more nuanced and non-prejudiced approach is needed. But, it’s a fact that study of Vedas and related Vedic texts was limited to Brahmins and to a lesser extent mostly upper castes. But, orthodox scholars considered Vedas and related Vedic texts as manuals to perform Yagyas only. Justifiability of such restriction could be debated separately. The data we get from the contemporary reports unambiguously establishes that revered religious and spiritual texts like Ramayan, Bhagvata, etc. were taught to students of all castes at elementary level itself.

It becomes pertinent to re-look, re-visit and re-evaluate the past and examine whether the image portrayed by westerners on Indian education was one sided based on intentionally cherry-picked quotations and instances. A careful inquiry is needed to clear separate the wheat from the chaff.

(Author is an assistant professor at Gurugram University and a research fellow at the Centre for Integrated and Holistic Studies.)

Reference links:

1) The Beautiful Tree by Shri Dharampal
Link: The Beautiful Tree by Shri Dharampal

2) W. Adam\’s report on Education system in Bengal and Bihar
Link: W. Adam\’s report on Education system in Bengal and Bihar

3) Dr. G.W. Leitner on indigenous education in Punjab
Link: Dr. G.W. Leitner on indigenous education in Punjab

4) Voyage to the East Indies by Paolino Da Bartolomeo
Link: Voyage to the East Indies by Paolino Da Bartolomeo

5) Bhishma to Yudhishthir in Shanti Parva
Link: Bhishma to Yudhishthir in Shantiparva

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *