Education under Aurangzeb

A Madrasa Scene: Mark the boys & girls studying together

Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi

During the reign of Aurangzeb an attempt was made to introduce free education, but unfortunately the attempts were not successful. However as an experiment Aurangzeb ordered the opening of madrasas to cater to the Bohras of Gujarat. Teachers were appointed and a system of monthly examination was introduced. It was further ordained that the result of the students would be communicated to the emperor for his personal assessment.

Bernier, the French traveller who was in India during Aurangzeb’s reign, deplored the deficiencies of the educational system. To prove his point, he quoted Aurangzeb’s reproaches against his tutor for having wasted time on grammar and metaphysics, while ignoring geography, history, and politics. [Bernier pp. 155–57]

 No attempt was made to control education, even though the state gave large grants of rent-free lands to ulama for setting up madrasas. There were no regular examinations, and no organization for maintaining standards. Yet Mughal education had its special values, for Muslim education did not decay in the eighteenth century with the decline of Muslim political authority. The reduced calls made by the state employment on Muslim manpower left more men free to devote themselves to academic and literary work. A number of educational institutions and foundations, including the colleges established by Ghazi-ud-din Khan Firuz Jang, Sharaf-ud-daulah, and Raushan-ud-daulah in Delhi belong to this period.

        The standardization of the educational curriculum was accomplished in the eighteenth century. The Dars-i-Nizamiya, named after Mulla Nizam-ud-din (d.1748) provided instruction in grammar, rhetoric, philosophy, logic, scholasticism, tafsir (commentary on the Quran), fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), hadith, and mathematics. This curriculum has been criticized for containing too many books on grammar and logic and in general for devoting too much attention to formal subjects, and too little to useful secular subjects like history and natural sciences or even religious subjects like tafsir and hadith. But it provided good mental discipline, and its general adoption was responsible for the widespread interest in intellectual and philosophical matters. In the period in which it was systematized it was perhaps reasonably adequate for the average student. Those wishing to specialize or pursue a particular branch of knowledge went to the experts in that subject. The needs of the students specially interested in religious subjects were better served at institutions like Madrasa-i-Rahimiya, the forerunner of the modern seminary of Deoband, where tafsir and hadith were the principal subjects of study, but for those needing a general education to qualify for the posts of munshis, qazis, or religious preachers, Dars-i-Nizamiya provided a satisfactory basis until modern times.

        Bernier, despite his criticism of the educational system, has left evidence that, at least two intellectuals of the Mughal court tried to learn about Western philosophy. One of them was Fazil Khan, the prime minister, whom Bernier taught

“the principal languages of Europe, after he had translated for him the whole philosophy of Gassendi in Latin, and whose leave [to depart] he could not obtain, until he had copied for him a select number of best European books, thereby to supply the loss he should suffer of his person.”

The other was Danishmand Khan, who supported Bernier for a number of years.

“My Nawab, Agha Danishmand Khan, expects my arrival with much impatience,” Bernier wrote. “He can no more dispense with his philosophical studies in the afternoon than avoid devoting the morning to his weighty duties as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Grand Master of the Horse. Astronomy, geography, and anatomy are his favorite pursuits, and he reads with avidity the works of Gassendy and Descartes.”

[Bernier, pp. 352–53]

For the Hindus, Banaras was an important seat of learning. According to Bernier it could be considered as ‘the general school of the Gentiles’. He in fact compares it and calls it as the ‘Athens of India’. As he is comparing the Indian learning with Europe and fails to comprehend the indigenous method of teaching, he is constrained to comment that the town however ‘contains no colleges or regular classes, as in our universities’. He goes on to mention that the eminent teachers took their classes with ‘four disciples, others six or seven, and most eminent may have twelve twelve or fifteen’. These students would sit at the feet of their tutors ‘in different parts of the town in private houses’ and merchants’ gardens in the suburb of the town for ‘ten or twelve years’, during which time ‘the work of instruction proceeds but slowly’.

[Bernier, p. 334]

He further says that this pursuit of knowledge ‘entertains no hope that honours or emoluments’ may be awarded to them at the end. The scholars’ dietary wants were taken care of in the shape of ‘kichery, a mingled mess of vegetables’ supplied by the rich merchants.

[Bernier, p. 335]

Tavernier on the other hand describes a college established by Raja Jai Singh at Banaras near the Temple of Visvesvara. This college, he says, was meant for the education of the young men ‘of good families’. The medium of instruction was Sanskrit:

“I saw the children of the Prince, who were being educated there by several Brahmans, who taught them to read and write in a language which is reserved to the priests of the idols (i.e. Sanskrit) and very different from that spoken by the people.”

[Tavernier, II, pp. 182-83]

Tavernier while describing this institution further says:

“…throwing my eyes upwards, I perceived a double gallery which ran all round it (the building), and in the lower the two Princes were seated, accompanied by many young nobles and numerous Brahmans, who were making different figures like those of mathematics, on the ground with chalk.”

[Tavernier, II, p. 183]

It is also interesting to note that Tavernier mentions that the college teachers had in their possession two globes, presented to them by the Dutch. Tavernier says that when enquired where France was ‘I pointed out the position of France upon them’.