Question: Could you explain the purpose and benefits of the gurukula system and if it still has a place in modern society? What are the qualities of a proper teacher and how are they exhibited in a gurukula?
Answer: In the past, when a male brahmana child was seven or eight years old, he was sent to gurukula where he studied and lived with the teacher. The age of going to gurukula varied according to the varna of the child The traditional teachers were not appointed by an external authority as teachers. In fact, they did not work under any authority. They taught because it was their dharma, the supreme duty of their life and there was no other ulterior motive involved. The students who came to study had a predisposition to a certain occupation, or varna identity, which was inherent in their nature (or genes). This predisposition was not an external imposition on them, so therefore it was very natural for them to follow this pre-disposed system.
If the gurukula system is applied now, especially in the West, it is bound to fail. In fact, there have been such attempts, which have turned out to be a complete failure and traumatic for the children for the following reasons:
Firstly, children in the West were taken away from their parents when they were only five years old. This in itself is a huge error and a shock for the child. In Vedic culture a child would not go to gurukula at the tender ago of five. A child was seven or eight years of age or even older. Sri Krishna Himself was eleven when he went to gurukula. Children need the love and affection of their parents at this age, and are not to be placed in an unfamiliar and strict environment in which their appointed teacher acts more like a commander, showing little affection for these children. Today’s modern teachers have generally not been adequately trained to display the demeanor of the gurus of the old time who were compassionate towards their students, nor are they of the appropriate caliber and qualification. There may be exceptions, but this is the general situation as far as I know. So such gurukulas are basically gurukulas without a guru. It is like a body without a proper head on it.
Secondly, in the past, gurukula students did not have to wake up pre-dawn and take a cold shower. Today’s children, before coming to gurukula, have lived in better facilities, unlike in the past, where the facilities at home were not much different from those in the gurukula. The whole training in some of modern day gurukulas is more like a military training and a torture for the student’s mind. The children undergo this oppressive treatment out of compulsion, and naturally revolt against it at the first opportunity they have, which is early adulthood.
Thirdly, the education provided to children at gurukulas is neither traditional nor modern, rendering them a complete misfit in society. The gurukula educational system and lifestyle is not supported by modern society. Education should make the student a worthy member of the society in which he is going to live. It should not happen that after the gurukula education is complete, the student has to learn himself how to get by in society.
This, however, does not mean that gurukula education is completely obsolete. One really has to understand the purpose of gurukula, how it functioned, what society was like in the past and how the goal of gurukula education can be achieved in the modern context. It is not simply a matter of imitating the past. There must be a balance and a blend of both modern education and traditional training, if the gurukula system is to survive and have an impact on today’s society. The goal of the gurukula education should be to train students in such a way that they not only have the knowledge of students of the modern education system, but that they know even more than them. Gurukula graduates should not feel inferior to their peers in society.
Recently Baba Ramadeva has started a scheme to open 500 gurukulas in India. I have no knowledge about his education system and curriculum, but I hope that he will consider the mistakes made by others in the past and improve over it.