Past Glory and Present Shame
The fourteen branches of learning were taught in our country from the remote past until the inception of British rule. Let me tell you something interesting about them. You must have read about the Chinese pilgrims Fahsien and Hsuan Tsang. The former visited India early in the fifth century A.D. and the latter in the seventh century A.D. They have both recorded impressions of their travels here and given particularly glowing accounts of the big universities of Nalanda and Taksasila1. We learn about these institutions from archaeological investigations also. They were at the peak of their glory when Buddhism flourished in the country. It is noteworthy that the syllabuses of both these universities included the caturdasa-vidya. Of course Buddhist religious texts were also taught, but only after the students had learned the fourteen Hindu Sastras. The reason acquaintance with Vedic learning was a help to any religious community in acquiring knowledge and in character building. The Buddhists thus believed that education to be called education must include a course in the Hindu caturdasa-vidya.
In the South also these Sastras were taught at gatikasthanas2 and other institutions established by the rajas of Tamil Nadu. In the copper-plate inscriptions, dated 868 A.D., there is a reference to an educational institution at Bahur, between Cuddalore and Pondicerri, where it is stated that the fourteen vidyas were taught. Similarly, there was a school at Ennayiram, between Vizhupuram and Tindivanam, where the ancient Sastras were part of the syllabus as evidenced by an inscription of Rajendra Cola (11th century). There are many more similar examples.
Nowadays considerable research is conducted into Tamil history. It has inspired stories and novels. However, nobody seems to have dealt with the information that I have gained from my own historical inquiries - that the Tamil rulers supported the Vedas and Sastras in a big way. There is much talk about the need for impartiality in all matters and about the importance of having a scientific outlook, but we do not see any evidence of it in practice. The Buddhists were opposed to the Vedas, but they believed that an acquaintance with the fourteen Hindu Sastras was necessary to nurture the intelligence and shape the moral character of the students learning in their institutions. But people here who claim to have faith in our religion (it does not matter that they do nothing to promote our Sastras) maintain silence about the work done by Tamil kings in the past in the cause of Vedic learning.
We have come to such a pass that, if we are asked about our vidyas, we can do no better than keep silent. Indeed we do not even know what is meant by "vidya". In all likelihood we think it to be jugglery, witchcraft or magic. Vidya and Kala are the same. Kala means knowledge that waxes like the moon. Now most people think that "kala"3 means only dance.
We must no longer be ignorant of our Sastras or indifferent to them and we must try to be true to ourselves. That is why I want to speak briefly about the fourteen-or eighteen-branches of learning. You must at least learn their names.
Siksa, Vyakarana, Mimamsa, and Nyaya4 are among the fourteen Sastras. You may find these subjects somewhat tiresome and think that they do not serve the Self in any way. But I ask you, what about all your daily activities? How do they help the Self? You take so much time to read the newspaper which has a whole page or two on sports. What purpose does it serve in your daily life? Or, for that matter, in your inward growth?
One day, some years ago, I happened to be in a certain town. It was noontime and, as I went out, I saw a big crowd in front of a shop. The radio was blaring out the news and I was told that the crowd had gathered to listen to it.. I asked a passer-by what was so exciting about the news. He said that a cricket match was being played somewhere, some thousands of miles away across the seas in a far-off continent, and that the latest score was being announced.
The fact is that people are prepared to spend their time, money and energy on things they fancy but are of no practical value to them. Now I ask you to take an interest in our Sastras. They are certainly more useful than cricket and such other things. They may not seem to bring you any direct spiritual benefit. While their ultimate purpose is to take us to the path of enlightenment, they are essential to our knowledge and to making us mature.
Knowledge is a treasure and it is a gift Of the Lord. If you sharpen it with good education and the spirit of inquiry, the Ultimate Reality will be revealed to you in a flash. Man alone is the recipient of the divine blessing called speech. If it is used wisely he will have an abundance of good will. That is why so many Sastras relating to speech like Vyakarana, Nirukta, Siksa have been developed. Everyone of you must have at least a basic knowledge of these subjects.
Notes & References
For a detailed account of Nalanda, Taksasila and the ghatikasthanas, see The Guru Tradition. Ghatikasthanas are Vedic schools or universities which flourished in India in ancient and medieval times.
According to the Paramaguru, the English word "school" (or, for that matter, the French "ecole") is derived from "Kala".