For almost 500 years, Vedic hymns were never written. It’s not that the written script of the language had not developed but there was fear that the written text would fall in the hands of undesirable people and the monopoly over this knowledge would be lost. So, an elaborate system was devised to pass on the knowledge of the Vedas from one generation to the next, and only a chosen few could be the recipients.
Anybody who had mastered this knowledge enjoyed a position of privilege and influence in that society. Once the rigid system of social stratification in the form of four Varnas (castes) was in place, it was considered safe to have all the four Vedas in the form of written text. Reading and recitation of these texts was taught in gurukuls where pupils belonging only to higher castes could enter.
After a journey of 5,000 years, we are witnessing the same kind of rigid hierarchy in our modern day gurukuls, such as colleges and universities of higher education. Now, the access to the most sought after knowledge is available to just one class — the rich. At the top of the heap are universities in the US and Europe. It is a well-known fact that the children of moneybags (also known as captains of industry) get their degrees from the top colleges abroad. It is indeed tough for the children of ordinary mortals to get an entry in to these western gurukuls. It is no secret that children of big donors are given preferential treatment and they don’t have to stand in serpentine queues for admissions. And this happens virtually everywhere, at home and abroad. No wonder that in several Ivy League colleges, we have buildings and academic chairs named after the fathers and forefathers of some industry captains.
Meanwhile, our public colleges and universities that had served us well until about 30 years ago have been on a downward spiral. These are the same universities that had produced some world renowned scholars in the past but have been ruined by neglected and political meddling. Mumbai University is one such example.
Decline of public universities in our country began after higher education was opened up to private entrepreneurs. Today, we have more than 500 universities — public, private and deemed. The value of the degree given by some of these private universities is not even worth the paper it is printed on. We do not know how good some of these institutions are in imparting knowledge, but we do know for sure that they are very efficient in printing all kinds of degrees, diplomas and certificates each year and making good money in the name of providing ‘quality education’.
We have this mess in higher education because the society and the State have abdicated their responsibilities of educating the citizens. The other blunder has been to allow market forces to have a free run. If we want to build a just and strong society, we need to make quality education accessible to our deserving young men and women, irrespective of their economic status.
The author is a teacher and corporate trainer