‘Get in and study’ you would have heard this phrase many times. Have you ever wondered why no one asks you to ‘get out and study.’ Dating back to the earliest universities, Indian students were the first ones to experience an open system of education ‘Open’ here means nothing above ones head. Nature is a great source of learning. The gurukul culture which had later been transformed into institutionalized universities was soon becoming extinct. It was Rabindranath Tagore who reintroduced an open air school in 1901. Shantiniketan, which is now famous as a university was founded by Tagore with the objective of bringing back the ancient guru-shishya culture, where the teacher would guide the student with the warmth of a parent, in the open.

Forest universities were first originated in India.  They were places which were far away from the commotion of the towns and had India’s earliest teachers, the gurus. They taught in Ashrams and Gurukulams which were located far from the towns. The Vedas, which are the first known oral books contain thoughts of a highly civilised society that was replete with exquisite references to nature and the concept of inter-dependence of living organisms. The gurus wanted the people to realise their humble status in the infinite universe before embarking on the long journey of learning.

The institutionalised universities led to the inception of famous universities such as Nalanda and Takshshila.  Students from China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia and West Asia came down to these universities to gain perspective. Some students even made long & tedious journeys by foot just to get to India and learn from the Brahmin & Buddhist scholars. The rush for learning in India was similar to today’s rush of studying in European countries. Historians were always hesitant to refer to the Indian schools as universities. The talented professionals who could build the best toads, dams, palaces, irrigation systems were dhoti-clad.

This was one factor which probably increased the ‘scepticism’ of the historian’s world wide. There were medical practitioners of yore, who were the masters of healing. From conducting complex surgeries to procuring herbs, they could do everything. They even possessed an additional spiritual insight. Ironically some of them were regarded as witch doctors.

Indians were obsessed with acquiring knowledge.  They wanted to learn and grow in every field. Indians made discoveries in science, mathematics and medicine.  Sanskrit was considered to be the mother of all languages and teachers were highly respected in the shlokas.  Initiation of the alphabet was done in most parts of India through a ceremonial process. The sacred thread ceremony or the Upanayanam marked the beginning of education for children aged between 8-12. The guru accepted a token gift which was known as Guru Dakshina after imparting years of knowledge.

Epics such as the Mahabharata give examples of famous Ashrams such as Naimisha, which was a forest university headed by Saunaka.  Other Hermitages mentioned in the epic are those of Vyasa, Vasishtha and Viswamitra.  Subjects ranging from geometry to biology were covered.  The forest universities believed in the concept of holistic learning.  The Mahabharata was first recited at Takshashila by Vaishampayana, a student of Vyasa.

Takshashila is described as a great centre of learning for Buddhist Jatakatales, written around the 5thcentury CE.  The Chinese travellerFaHien mentioned it in his account of his visit to Takshashila in 405 CE.  Takshashila made great contributions to Sanskritlanguage. It is also associated with the great Chanakya.  His book Arthashastra is said to have been composed in Takshashila itself. Jataka, another famous physician and surgeon studied here.

People who went to Takashshila for higher education were trained in the Vedas.  Apart from this there were 18 Sippas or Arts that were taught. The Sippas included technical and scientific education. Takashshila also had special schools training in Military Sciences, Law and Medicine.  There was also a demand for archery courses. 104 princes were believed to be enrolled at the same time. Not all the students came from affluent families.

Practical training was extremely essential for learning.  For example, in medicine, the practical course included a comprehensive knowledge on medicinal plants. Students were asked to give demonstrations of what they had learned. Students from rich families had to move out of the country after the theoretical education course in order to experience the hardships.