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Origin and Development of Buddhist Education System: A Brief Survey

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Origin and Development of Buddhist Education System: A Brief Survey
Dr. Arvind Kumar Singh
Asst. Professor, School of Buddhist Studies & Civilization
Gautam Buddha University, Greater Noida
Gautam Buddha Nagar, Uttar Pradesh-201308 (INDIA)

Historically, the system of Buddhist education was really started from training of Buddhist Order or Saṃgha in monasteris. Buddhism centred round monasteries as the institutional base for its educational system. All educational systems, sacred as well as secular, was in the hands of the Monks. It is generally believed that the Saṃgha is considered as a learning society[1]. “From the very beginning the life of monk-educator was held in high esteem, and it thus attracted creative and talented individuals…The monks‟ educational activities were based on the Buddha‟s injunction to the monks to go out into the world and teach them dharma out of sympathy for the world, out of concern for the welfare and happiness of the multitude”.[2]

The Buddhist system of education in certain sense is said to be modeled upon that of Brahmanical education. For example, in the Bramanical system, the itimate relationship between the teacher and the pupil is inaugurated by a religious ceremony called Upanayana while in the Buddhist system of education, called Pabbajjā. Furthermore, like Bramanical education, finding of a teacher was aslo a prerequisite for ordination as in the Buddhist educational system. The rules of first and final ordination (Pabajjā and Upasampadā) were applied in Buddhist system similar to that of Brahmanical systems.[3] But in spite of these similarities, there were still features of difference between Buddhist and Brahmanical educations relating to the aims, course of training as well as organizational pattern etc[4].

If the essential of Brahmanical education is the system of pupils living with their teacher under his house (Gurugrha) called domestic educational system, the tradition of Buddhist system is that of monasteries. It functioned within the regimen of monastic life. The difference is very significant. It led Buddhism in India to different lines of evolution and to become a distinctive system of education which attracted students from various parts of the world as said by Prof. Mookerji that:

“In fact Buddhist education begins with the destruction of domestic ties as the strating-point. The necessity of a domestic environment under the Brahmanical scheme did not thus favour the expansion of the small school under an individual teacher into a larger educational federation controlled by a collective body of teacher, as was the characteristic of the Buddhist system”[5].

Origin of Buddhist Education System

It is in the training of Monks and Novices in monastic organizations that the actual system of Buddhist education is to be seen. We have known that the five ascetics ordained and became the first disciples of the Buddha after listened to his first sermon, then Brothers Kassapa, Yasa, all amount to sixty members. In this way, Saṃgha, its rules and the commencement of Buddhist education have been begun. Theoretically, Buddhist education has place for all the castes without discrimination on sex, religion, and nation etc. There were of course teachings which were taught in the monasteries and the people respectively. One text in the Dīgha Nikāya relates the Buddha had very clearly asked his disciples to provide education and guidance to the laity as well[6]. In fact, the laity who did not enter the Order but believed in Buddhism were not admitted in monastic schools. Therefore, they only could receive their religious education under the guidance of the monks from monasteries which were the exclusive centers of such education[7].

Now another question arises: what is the nature of the Buddhist monastic education. Firstly, a system was known as Nissaya system, meaning literally dependence on a teacher. As in Brahmanical system, the Nissaya period was one of learning and novitiate which preceded the attainment of the full status of a monk for at least ten years; but period is reduced to five years for a learned and competent person, while another might do so all his life. It may be noted that a novice must be properly trained under special guidance of two other superior monks. One was called the Upajjhaya who instructed the young monks in the sacred texts, while another was called Acāryā who assumed responsibility for his conduct. And all teaching also had to be imparted by word of mouth and retained in the memory[8]. It is generally believed that the initial education was imparted by private teacher not in public institutions. But gradually, the changes emerged as the system was geared to the needs of new monastic life. Monasteries were considered as educational institutions. Remarking on the rise of organized institutions A.S Altekar said:

“Corporate educational institutions were first evolved in ancient Indian in connection with Buddhist monasteries. The Buddha had emphasized the vital important of imparting systematic instructions to novices, who were required to be educated for ten years not only in spiritual practices, but also in the study of the sacred literature which required a good grounding in Pāli and Sanskrit, logic and metaphysics[9].

Undoubtedly, very soon the monasteries became not ly the centres of the new religion but also the centres of learning. In order to meet the needs of a new monastic life, the Buddha‟s teaching curriculum mainly emphasized two things-morality and knowledge. In other words, there was three-fold aim: moral, intellectual and spiritual in Buddhist education. The Order of monks was expected to imbibe a high standard of morality and also acquire true knowledge so that they could preserve and defend the tradition and doctrine among themselves and against the opponents as L.M. Joshi remarked[10]. Therefore, the teaching curriculum of the monks and nuns was mainly based on the Suttanta, Vinaya and the Dhamma. Although the art of writing in its elementary from was known during the pre-Buddhist period, education in the early Buddhist age was not dependent upon written literature, teaching mainly oral. In addition, the monks were required to engage themselves in scholarly debate and discussions to deepen their knowledge and understanding.[11]

For serving a purpose of their religious education and spiritual culture, all monks were brought together in the monasteries where they not only lived but also received education and guided the laity in general. It means that the monastery organized itself into an educational institution in variety ways as A. S Altekar said:

“At first, they were intended for monks and nuns only, but later on for the lay population as well; for was soon discovered that the best way of getting a good supply of novices of the right type and of propagating the religion among the masses was to mould the pliant minds of the young generation by taking up its education[12].

No doubt, the monastic establishment as the institution base for Buddhist education. They naturally developed into centres of culture and learning conforming to new intellectual needs and interests. Some developed into universities remarking the first systematical educational institutions in ancient India. Onwards we shall hint at how Buddhist education has evolved through many centuries.

Development of Buddhist education through Maintenance and Endowment

Maintenance and endowment of Buddhist monasteries as an act of spiritual merit has been made by the Kings, princes and rich merchants. It was their great patrons and supports that many Buddhist monasteries grew rich, fine buildings in respond to the needs of new monastic life. As a result, monasteries became the centres of learning and culture serving a purpose of their religious education and spiritual life. In the course of time, some of ancient Indian monasteries developed into famous universities disseminated not only Buddhist teaching but also non-brahmanical studies and secular branches of learning from which the masters and poets and debators of Mahāyanā made reputation for themselves. More concretely speaking, there were various types of education like spiritual education, moral education and literary education, generally all educations toward high standards of life, sacred as well as secular were imparted students coming from various parts of the country and world as given by L.M Joshi[13]. From the interesting light of monastic education and its evolution as described by Chinese pilgrim-scholars especially Fa- hsien, Yuan chwang and I-tsing who visited and studied in India, we do find somewhat the name of Buddhist universities and their educational system as will be seen below[14]

It could be said that one of great contributions of Buddhism to Indian educational system is the establishment of monastic education as a seat of learning, as the status of university. The most famous centre of learning in the early Buddhist age was Takkkhaśilā called Taxila where attracted scholars from different and distant parts of India such Benaras, Rājagaha, Kosala, the central region, North Country etc. The fame of Taxila was due to its teachers. They are always mentioned as being „world renowned‟. Taxila provided only higher education and students went for specialization. The three Vedas, grammar, philosophy and eighteen sippas was the principal subject selected for specialization at Taxila. It also were included the medicine, military arts, astrology, commerce, agriculture etc. Taxila continued to flourish down to the end of the Kushāna rule (c.250 A.D.). Gone were the days of its former educational glory nerver to return.[15] Following the the educational glory and importance of Taxila, other seat of learning as Universities where specialized in educational system covered religious and secular studies known as Nālandā, Valabhī, Vikramaśilā etc. They are the famous centres of later Buddhist education. Among of them, Nālandā University perhaps was the most famous centre of higher education and advanced studies. On the basis of descriptions of Chinese pilgrims, R. K. Mookerji writes that there were 1,500 teachers and 8,500 students at Nālandā[16]. It was Nālandā University where some of eminent scholars like Dharmapāla, Dharmakirti, Jayasena and so forth, who once lived and studied.[17] The courses of study at Nālandā University according to Mookerji are the openness system of education. There covered a wide range of studies, all prevalent subjects of both Brahmanical and Buddhist, sacred and secular, philosophical and practical, science and arts. It also was the greatest centre of education not only for the study of Buddhist logic and Mahāyāna Philosophy but also other philosophical system such as Veda, Vedanta and the Samkhyā[18]. Education atmosphere in Nālandā was clearly manifested by the life itself of teacher and leaner there. In the words of Joshi L.M said that,

“The students and teachers of Nālandā lived a very academic and moral life; they were all men of great learning, ability and eminence; they strictly observed the moral precepts and the rules of their order”[19].

It could be said that Nālandā University seems to have been represented the institutions of higher learning in Buddhism. Following in Nālandā‟s fame, there were other Buddhist universities that their educational system was enough studies of both aspects religion as well as secular. From description given by Altekar, another great centre of learning was at Valabhi, the capital of the Kingdom of Maitrakas. Accroding to the remarks of I-tsing, if Nālandā specialized in Mahāyāna studies, University of Valabhī was the rival centre of Hinayāna studies. There were about a hundred monastic buildings and 6,000 Monks-students lived and studied in Valabhī University. The leading Buddhist scholars of the University were Sthiramati and Gunamati. Like Nālandā, Valabhī imparted higher education on secular subjects also. With considerable support from the citizens and the Maitraka kings (c, 480-775), maintained a library and continued to be a famous centre of education attracting studens down to the 12th century[20]. Similarly, Vikramaśilā also was another famous centre of education after Nalanda and Valabhī. University of Vikramaśilā consisted of 108 temples and 6 colleges. There were also 108 Buddhist scholars who appointed by state for looking after its educational and religious activities[21]. From reference of Tibetan sources, P.V Bapat remarked the educational system of Vikramaśilā University that, “The University granted the degree of Pandita, equivalent to Master of Art[22]. That is to say that, topics like grammar, philosophy, logic, etc must have been taught in Vikramaśilā.

The interesting thing here is that at the time of Chinese pilgrim-scholars‟s visit to India respectively such as Fa-Hien, Yuan chwang and I-tsing in the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries Buddhism was said to be on the decline in several parts of the country[23], yet Buddhism continued to be strong in Bihar and Bengal down to the 12th century A.D.and we find Buddhist monasteries in that region like those at Odantapurī and Jagadalla Vihāra (founded by king Rāmapāla at his capital Rāmāvatī)[24] were aslo famous centers of education spreading the holy knowledge both India and abroad. Of which, Odantapurī (located in modern Bihar) where there were at one time a thousand monks in residence. It is said to be a famous centre of Buddhist Tantrika learning and was taken as the model on which the first Buddhist monastery built in Tibet.[25] Buddhism also flourished in Kashmir and it became an important centre of international Buddhist learning known as Jayendra Vihāra where attracted famous Buddhist scholars such as Kumārjīva, Yuan chwang who came here for study and a large number of Kashmir scholars went out abroad to spread of Buddhism. Most famous among them was Guṇavarman who made a great contribution to the propagation of Buddhism in Ceylon, Java and China[26]. Thus, we would not be wrong if we assume that the well-endowed Buddhist monasteries were respectable centres of learning and education at least of the status of modern dgree college.

With the expansion of Islamic influence in 12th – 15th centuries in Asia, Buddhism along with its way of education seems to be overshadowed in India. However, nobody can deny the fact that Buddhism was an integrated part of Indian education. The contribution of Buddhism to the cause of learning and education in India in particular and the world in general was indeed very great as history recorded above. Furthermore, it is through education that Buddhism has given much great contributions to building and developing culture of each host country where it has been spread.


  1. Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Vol. V, p. 23
  2. Goyal, S.R., “Buddhism and Indian History and Culture”, p. 156
  3. Mookerji, R.K., “Ancient Indian Education”, Motilal Bnanrsidass, pp. 394-398
  4. See, Dr Suraj Narain Sharma, “Buddhist Social and Moral education”, Parimal Publications, Delhi, 1994, p. 44-45
  5. Mookerji, R. K., “Ancient Indian Education”, p. 460
  6. Digha Nikāya, Vol. III, p. 146
  7. A.S Altekar, “Education in Ancient India”, p. 230-31
  8. P.V. Babat, “2500 years of Buddhism”, p. 157-58
  9. Altekar, A. S., “Education in Ancient India”.,p. 75
  10. L. M. Joshi, “Studies in The Buddhistic Culture of India”, Motilal Banarsidass, p. 125-26
  11. Mookerji, R. K., “Ancient Indian Education”, p. 450-52
  12. Altekar, A. S., “Education in Anicent Indian”, p.77
  13. L. M. Joshi, “Studies in the Buddhistic Culture of India”, p. 126
  14. For Education as Described by Chinese pilgrims, vide R.K Mookerji, “Ancient Indian Education”, Chapters XXI-XXIV, S.R. Goyal “Buddhism in Indian History and Culture”, pp. 167-174, P.V. Bapat “2500 years of Buddhism”, pp. 162-164, Lal Mani Joshi “Studis in The Budddhistic Culture of India”, pp. 126-134
  15. A.S. Altekar, “Education in Ancient India”, pp.106-112
  16. R.K Mookerji, “Ancient Indian Education”, p. 565
  17. L.M Joshi “Studies in the Buddhistic Culture of India”, p. 136
  18. R.K Mookerji, op.cit., p. 566
  19. Joshi, L.M, “Studies in the Buddhistic Culture of India” p. 135
  20. Altekar, A. S., “Education in Ancient Indian”, p. 127
  21. R.K Mookerji, “Ancient Indian Education”, p.586
  22. P.V. Babat, “2500 Years of Buddhism”, p. 168
  23. Joshi, L. M., “Studies in the Buddhistic Culture of Indian”, p. 302
  24. A.S. Altekar, “Education in Ancient India”, p. 131
  25. Joshi, L.M., op.cit, p.139
  26. A.S Altekar., “Education in Ancient India”, p. 132


By Dr. Arvind Kumar Singh