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The Six Roles of the Ancient Teacher – Which Will You Be Today?

Imagine having your class, calm and attentive, under the cool shade of a large sycamore tree where you enjoy the natural light of the afternoon sun and a cooling breeze that makes the leaves dance.

This was a regular day at school in ancient India.

The primary teaching method of this simple yet sophisticated system was the oral tradition where the children would orally memorize vedic hymns and mantras to protect their original tone and the magical pronunciation of the Vedic texts.

Yet chanting, repetition and memorising was not all that was going on. Also at play was what was known as ‘Chintan’ – that is to say thinking. Not only training the mind to receive new knowledge, to contemplate fully these new understandings and to apply them to daily life, but also working to understand the very nature of the mind itself were prerequisites for any educational pursuits.

Sanskrit is the language you would hear as you sat under that sycamore tree and you would witness the students studying subjects such as maths, astronomy, algebra, architecture, business ethics, morals, human values, spiritual knowledge, medicine as well as life skills such as hunting, foraging, archery and even the strategies of politics and war.

All in all, these students would live and work at the home, or Gurukula, of their teacher for twelve years before making their own way in the world.

Like all education systems, it was a system that worked because of its teachers. Yet in the Sanskrit language, there are actually six distinct and discrete ways to describe a teacher, depending on the nature and intent of the teaching that is taking place at any time.

Let’s take a look.

ADHYAPAK [aa-duhya-pak]: This is the teacher who imparts information. The teacher who shares facts from the body of knowledge of subjects such as chemistry, physics and maths, who provides systems and equations that are exact and fixed. 

Think what I think.

UPADHYAYA [uppa-duhya]: This is the teacher who also imparts information but combines it with knowledge, knowledge often drawn from their personal and lived experiences. Imagine a teacher who is teaching history or geography or human values yet combines this information with stories from his own travels, far and wide, sharing his experiences of myriad cultural diversity he has witnessed on his travels.

Feel what I feel.

ACHARYA [aa-charr-ya]: This is the teacher who imparts skills. Think of a sports coach or a language trainer or a teacher of hunting or foraging. 

Do what I do.

PANDIT [pun-dit]: This is the teacher who specialises in a single subject yet offers deep insight into it. This teacher is the master, sharing his mastery in areas such trigonometry or astronomy. 

Know what I know

DHRISTA [dhrris-ta]: This is the teacher who has a visionary view on the subject and teaches you to think in that manner. This can be any subject teacher but what makes the difference is that the teacher acts more like a guide or a counsellor to the student, knowing his or her strength in a particular subject and guiding them to think progressively where their abilities and inclinations lie. Here it can also mean that a teacher has a revolutionary view on the subject, one that offers a whole new level of understanding. 

Go beyond what we know

GURU [gu-roo]: The teacher who is able to awaken wisdom in you, to lead you from darkness to light, is a Guru. The Guru is considered an institution in and of himself. With years of experience and deep insight into the nature of the self and the world, the Guru is a person held in higher acclaim than even the parents in a child's life. How a student conducts himself academically, socially, personally is synonymous with the teaching of the Guru. Put simply, the student is a reflection of the Guru and his teachings

Go beyond what we are

It is clear that the role of the teacher in ancient times was one full of responsibility. He was expected to make sure that students were not only academically sound but spiritually and morally enlightened too. In short, the responsibility was to create a well-developed, well-rounded human. The emphasis was not on just producing literate people but a well-developed personality capable of thinking, of solving problems with empathy, imbued with a deep sense of belonging and genuine interest in doing good both emotionally and financially. 

In a world where education has become fixated on the measurable, it is the Adhyapak in us that seems to get all the attention. This is a dangerous situation, as it means (and we see this in our political elite, regardless of what country they come from), we have people who are regarded as successes of the system yet whose character, values and ability to think, are deeply flawed.

So, as we enter our modern classrooms, which teacher are we being today and which teachers do the students - and their world - need most. [ITL]

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