Traditional Brahmin Education in Modern Sringeri

Joël Dubois, California State University, Sacramento
(c) 2009--for free, fully cited distribution only

This section of the archive points out often-overlooked differences between traditional Brahmin education in the modern and pre-modern periods. By “traditional education,” I mean pedagogies and institutions aimed at preserving vedic sources and the Sanskritic traditions that interpret them. For at least three millennia, Brahmin boys have spent roughly a decade of their youth precisely memorizing veda, the extensive oral collections of hymns and ritual formulas initially composed in Sanskrit for the ritual of fire-offering. Today veda is for the most part recited independently of fire-offering, which is rarely performed.

Here I compare clues about education found in pre-modern sources to my own observation of Brahmin practice at the vedic school of Sringeri, as sampled in the audio visual materials linked to these pages. Interviews and conversations with Sringeri Brahmins who also studied and taught in other settings suggest that traditional education at Sringeri is broadly representative of what takes place in Brahmin communities throughout South India.

Modern observers have tended to regard modern Brahmins as strict preservers of ancient and medieval traditions. Numerous scholars, admittedly, have pointed out the striking contrasts between ancient Vedic and medieval Hindu rituals, proposing various explanations for the shift from aniconic fire-offering, in the ancient period, to rituals focused primarily on images, during the medieval and into the modern periods [1]. A few have also discerned more subtle changes in the daily rites of Brahmins, as well as the life cycle ceremonies that Brahmins still conduct for laypersons [2]. By and large, however, academic and lay observers alike still assume that Brahmin teachers and students studying veda and Sanskrit today do essentially the same things they did in the past. Undoubtedly there are important continuities; but I will argue that innovations in practice, as well as changes in the social networks that frame Brahmin study, have significantly transformed Brahmin education in the modern period.

Essay Outline

  1. Use of Writing and Printing
    a. Writing in Pre-modern India
    b. Printed Texts in Modern Vedic Recitation

  2. Social Networks
    a. Family & Community
    b. Careers Options
    c. Relations with Non-Brahmin Communities

Audio-Visual Material
NOTE: if unable to view videos or hear tapes, you may need to download & install the free version (vs. 14 day trial of upgraded program) of Real Media Player.

  1. Use of Books in Recitation Training
    a. Rg Veda Classroom
    b. Yajur Veda Classroom
    c. Sama Veda Classroom
    d. Sanskrit Instruction (1st year)
    e. Sanskrit Instruction (advanced)
    f. Yearly Examinations

  2. Interviews with Pathashala Students (in Kannada)
    [under construction]


[1] See especially Brian K. Smith, Reflections on Resemblance, Ritual and Religion Delhi (Motilal Banarsidass, 1998).


[2] See Pandurang Vaman Kane, History of Dharmasastra: Ancient and Medieval Religious and Civil Law in India (Pune: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1930-62); Shingon Einoo, “Changes in Hindu Ritual: With a Focus on the Morning Service,” in From Vedic Altar to Village Shrine: Towards the Interface Between Indology and Anthropology, Yasuhiko Nagano and Yasuke Ikari, ed. (Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology, 1993); and Joël Dubois, "Twilight Songs and Blessings for Meals: Daily Worship in Contemporary Brahmin Communities of South India" (forthcoming).