In the traditional education system of India, children lived as disciples with the family of the guru and learned the vedic law. This is known as Gurukul Shiksha. Gurukul education meant total and integrated development of a child's capacities. Children were trained by the guru in asana, pranayama, mantra, dhyana, gyana, Upanishads, and in particular skills such as archery, warfare, economics, and so on. Apart from this, they also had to participate in household duties: chopping wood, bringing water, cooking, cleaning and all the necessary chores of living.
Children of rich as well as poor families lived and grew together, developing a deeper understanding of each other. They wore the same dress, ate the same food, had the same education, and thus, equality and fraternity became rooted within them. Gurukul training not only developed the intellect, but was also the start of a fulfilling life and was the fundamental basis for maintaining a healthy society, by nurturing spiritual awareness through worldly activities.
The gurukul system was complete and comprehensive, and produced the greatest 'Masters' in history. Rama was educated under his guru Rishi Vishwamitra and, at the age of fourteen sage Vashishtha was his guru. Lord Krishna had his education in the gurukul of Rishi Sandipani. Dronacharya was the guru of the Pandavas. It is believed that Christ was a member of the Essenes who led an ashram-like existence and it is likely they were involved in his spiritual education.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the tradition started, but by the 8th century, during the time of Shankaracharya, the gurukul system had greatly deteriorated from its former grandeur and was being replaced by the forerunner of our present education system. It is obvious, however, that our present education system, while preparing us for jobs and skills, neglects certain vital and central aspects necessary for balanced growth, physical health and mental peace.
Society is facing economic crisis, political upheaval and corruption, war, poverty, overpopulation, and a crumbling education system in which dissatisfied students are disrupting the normal course of both higher secondary and tertiary education. The individual, caught up in this chaotic and threatening situation, faces physical and mental tensions and insecurities which, without a doubt, play a large role in many of today's problems within the family unit and with the huge number of people facing psychosomatic and degenerative problems.
With a view to reviving the ancient system of gurukul and to provide the opportunity for children to grow within a spiritual atmosphere, the Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, held a one-month Gurukul Shiksha (Training) Course during the month of May. Under the guidance of the young sannyasins, the children were encouraged to develop a free and uninhibited lifestyle within the framework of yogic and spiritual self-discipline.
The children were free to do as they liked but were encouraged to be creative rather than destructive. No expectations were placed upon them, no examinations, criticisms or suppressions. All the children acted according to their aptitude without being labelled, for example, as 'brilliant' or 'hopeless', 'good' or 'bad', and thus all were allowed to live and grow according to their own individual needs and capacity and at their own rate.
Living with 400 free and uninhibited children is an experience that no sannyasin can forget, and vice versa. All participants, sannyasins and children alike, changed in some way, experienced new dimensions within themselves, learnt and taught. Some of these experiences have been recorded and printed in this issue.
Within the often hectic schedule and noisy, bustling atmosphere, we were forced to depend upon inner resources and creativity which we did not know we had, or which had atrophied from lack of use, or were blocked off by destructive mental processes and conditioning. Many blockages were blasted away by the force of the children's energy, their cutting insight and piercing awareness, their spontaneity and honesty, which often stopped us in our tracks, both physically and mentally.
Once the children became aware that they would not get into trouble if they did not conform and perform, and that within the ashram there were no set or agreed upon social norms and dogmas, many limitations fell away. The children began to open up, revealing their true inner nature and blossoming forth as happy, active beings, full of mischief and fun, wisdom and love, energy and light. Of course, there were exceptions, however, most of those cases were given extra time and attention. Problems, neuroses and complexes were worked through as far as possible within the time allowed and adjustments made, both within the children or in their environment. This seemed to solve most problems.
One of the biggest obstacles to the freeing-up process was the return of the worrying parent. The child would, in most cases, freeze up and return to his or her earlier model of being, often under the reproachful and occasionally threatening aspect of the parents. Even when the parents' arrival was benign and joyous, the child resumed its former role and sometimes, feeling mildly homesick, would cry when the parents left. This was usually quickly forgotten, however, as soon as some other distraction came up.
There seemed to be three stages within the ashram process. In the first few days the children tried to be 'good', acting in the way they had been brought up to believe children should act. They put on a show for all the swamis but at the same time they were exploring and testing, looking for opportunities to play and assessing the ashram and its inhabitants.
When the children found out they were free, they tended to be exuberant and mischievous, overreacting in the overthrow of old repressions. When the children discovered that being a nuisance did not bring joy and satisfaction, they found ways of having fun and being creative through yoga, play, learning and working. Realisations come quickly to children because they have no fixed concepts and blockages and are receptive, sensitive, and flexible. They are constantly changing and growing, living by feeling and intuition more than analytical intellect.
Our findings tend to agree with those educators who state that education does not have to be forced on children. Once children are given a choice, they will mostly go for what they need, and usually this means learning something new. This is especially so when they see others learning and having fun at the same time. For example, Ragan Callaway of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Canada, has shown that even pre-school children from the age of three years, need not be pressured into learning but will seek it out and seem to prize periods of individual instruction. These children learn to read quickly and Callaway suggests that this early acquisition of reading increases the complexity and flexibility of the central nervous system.
It is much more desirable that children want to learn and ask for it from within than being pressured. Most children will do this when their teacher shows patience and understanding. An authoritarian figure, however, appears very threatening to a child who may then close off, creating a less satisfying teacher / student relationship. Children are also notorious for trying to make such teachers angry.
In her book, Troubled Teachers' (McKay, 1978), Esther Rothman states that beneath the facade of the poor or 'stupid' student there are deep needs which are not being recognised or met by the teacher. She states that poor teaching is the reason students fail to learn. Not only students, but teachers also have unconscious conflicts, needs and motivations. Rothman states that: "Only when aggression, love and power are used constructively in the classroom, can real education begin."
Senior researcher Eigel Pederson of Montreal's McGill University, Canada, and his associates, have found that those who teach with love and compassion help their students achieve higher education, and better attitudes towards social and familial responsibilities. Pederson found that the students in his study who had achieved the highest levels in this regard came from one teacher who had reportedly kept control by sheer force of personality and her obvious affection for the children, never needing to loose her temper or resort to physical restraint.
The swamis and children in the ashram developed a very close and trusting relationship. There was a great deal of interaction and play as well as time for teaching. Through it all we came to realise that with yoga as the basis for this interaction, we had an ideal situation in which to help develop inner and outer skills. This is because through yoga we relax and we enhance the natural growth cycles.
Researchers have recently confirmed the fact that infants have up to fifty percent more brain cell interconnections, or synapses, than in adulthood. It is as though the child's brain is a sponge ready to absorb knowledge and this process is natural and spontaneous if unhindered by neurotic demands and tensions from outside sources. If both parent and child can just relax, the process of growth and learning will happen automatically and it will be fun too. When we add yoga to our lives we add a new dimension to the process, one which acts as a catalyst for fast, relaxed learning.