My speech on Dharampal’s Beautiful tree

23 March 2016
I am going to speak today on Dharampal seminal work The Beautiful Tree – Indigenous Indian Education in the 18th century. Until he came out with this piece, the Macaulay’s system was being roundly criticized but without any substantive proof that it replaced a much better system. Dharampal, as far as I know, was the first person to come out with impressive statistics of that period to make out a case that we had, at least in some parts of India, a functioning system of education before the British intervened.
The Beautiful tree, as we all know, was Gandhi’s expression. He posited in 1931 that the beautiful tree of Indian education was allowed to perish and the result was that India was more illiterate then than she had been fifty or one hundred years ago.
Dharampal, in his impressive essay, concludes that the neglect and uprooting of Indian education led to an obliteration of literacy and destroyed the Indian social balance in which people from all sections of society appear to have been able to receive an optimum schooling.
As many of you must have read this essay I don’t want to burden you with the statistics he had collected both from the Madras and Bengal Presidencies. But my contention is that the tree was not as beautiful as it is now made out to be. While it is true that the introduction of the new system of education led to severe disruption to the system that existed it was done with the active support of the higher classes of that day because they felt that the system had outlived its utility.
Now, how did the old system function? This was what Campbell, the Collector of Bellary , wrote that the books in use in the Telugu and Canarese schools in the district were in verse and in a dialect quite distinct from that of conversation and of business. He says: “The alphabets of the two dialects are the same, and he who reads one, can read, but not understand the other also. The natives therefore read these (to them unintelligible) books, to acquire the power of reading letters in the common dialects of business, but the poetical is quite different from the prose dialect which they speak and write, and though they read these books, it is to the pronunciation of syllables, not the meaning or construction of the words, that they attend. Indeed few teachers can explain, and still fewer scholars understand the purport of the numerous books they thus learn to repeat from memory. Every schoolboy can repeat verbatim a vast number of verses of the meaning of which he knows no more than the parrot which has been taught to utter certain words. Campbell, as Dharampal says, was a perceptive officer and it was he who explicitly stated the degeneration of education was ascribable to the gradual and general impoverishment of
the country. But the system as it existed during Campbell’s time, which was the early years of the 19th century, was not all that great. Firstly, it was a whimsical system without any set standard. Both the teachers and the students were hardly assessed. Secondly, women and Dalits were almost not in the picture. In the institutions of higher learning (the Veda Padashalas) in the Madras Presidency, Brahmins totally dominated, except perhaps in Malabar.
There was little wonder therefore the Indian elite demanded modern education in English For example in 1839, 70,000 persons, a really impressive number, petitioned Lord Elphinstone the then Governor of Madras demanding English education. They said in the petition that it would spread gradually to the inferior classes.
So it was clear that the persons who were supposed to nurture the tree were reluctant to do so.
Now let us come to the infamous Macaulay minutes:
Most of us who fulminate against him have read only portions of his minute. Its tone is arrogant, superior and blatantly racist. He spoke exactly like the imperialists that he represented. But what was the issue involved? Read this portion of his minute:
“All parties seem to be agreed on one point, that the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are moreover so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them. It seems to be admitted on all sides, that the intellectual improvement of those classes of the people who have the means of pursuing higher studies can at present be affected only by means of some language not vernacular amongst them.
What then shall that language be? One-half of the committee maintain that it should be the English. The other half strongly recommend the Arabic and Sanskrit. The whole question seems to me to be– which language is the best worth knowing?”
Thus the choice was between Sanskrit and Arabic on the one hand and English on the other. The vernacular languages were nowhere on the scene.
Now what would have happened if Sanskrit had been chosen as the language of higher studies? I don’t want to speculate. What would have happened if Sanskrit or Arabic or even Persian had been chosen as the Lingua Franca? I don’t want to speculate either.
But there are several countries which have chosen Arabic as the medium of higher studies. We all know where they stand when it comes to science.
The other oft repeated quote of Macaulay is this: I feel with them that it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, –a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. What they were supposed to do?
In the very next sentence he says this: To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population. If the vernacular languages have not become fit vehicles for conveying knowledge, who is to shoulder the blame? Can we keep blaming the British, seventy years after independence?
My contention is that I am not sure that the tree was all that beautiful. Whatever tree that ever was, was felled by the higher classes of Indians themselves. The British no doubt helped them. They would have been fools if they had not done so.
Dharampal says this in his seminal essay: What India possessed in the sphere of education two centuries ago and the factors which led to its decay and replacement are indeed a part of history. Even if the former could be brought back to life, in the context of today, or of the immediate future, many aspects of it would no longer be apposite. Yet what exists today has little relevance either. An understanding of what existed and of the processes which created the irrelevance India is burdened with today, in time, could help generate what best suits India’s requirements and the ethos of her people.
Most of us will agree with him that what exists today has little relevance. In the task of helping generate what best suits India’s requirements, I am sure the works of Dharampal will surely play a major role. Thank you.

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