Gurukula in a Historical Context (Part 1)
In ancient days, the students during the period of their study used to reside in the house of the preceptors. The children who had developed some signs of intelligence used to be left by their guardians in the care of preceptors. The children would study in the catuspáthii attached to their preceptor’s residence till they were 24 years of age. They were provided with food, accommodation and clothes free of charge. On or after 24 years of age, they used to return home with Abhijiṋánapatram (Certificate of Merit) given by the preceptors. Sometimes, some meritorious students would return to their own countries and home with certificate of merit after completing their studies even before completing 24 years of age.
In those days there were a large number of important seats of learning such as: Kanchipuram (people mistakenly utter Kanchibharam), Dakśińii Mathura (Madurai), Trichur, Udipi, Punyánagini (Pune), Ujjayaini, Avantiká, Brghukaccha (Baroch), Shrii Shaelam (Salem), Vishákhápattanam (Vizag), Vidishá, Shivapuri, Takśashilá (Taxila), Baráhamúlá Jálandhara, Kányaubja (Kanoj), Vriśńipur (Bidhur), Prayag, Káshi, Urubilva (Gaya), Saoráth (Mithila), Madhubani (Mithila), Banagram (Mithila), Maheshii (Mithila-Mandan Mishra’s village), Visarpii (Vispi-the birthplace of poet Vidyapati Thakur), Bhagadattapura, Bhargavapur, Bhagalpur (Angadesh), Kalhangráma (Kahalgaon-Angadesh), Jainagar, Janakpur (Nepal), Kantiká, Contai (Midnapur), Táralipta (Midnapur), Bardhmána, Ekacakrá (Birbhum), Indrahása (Birbhum), Indráhása (Bankura), Kantakiipura (Katwa-Burdwan), Navadvipa, Kaliina (Kalna-Burdwan), Vansavatiká (Bansbere), Dvarbaśinii (Janai, Hooghly), Panduka or Penŕo (Hooghly), Jagdala (24 Parganas), Bilvapuśkarińii (Nadia), Pancastúpii, Pánchthupii (Murshidibad), Phullashrii/Gaelá (Bakharganj), Koálipáŕá (Faridpur), Vikrampur (Dacca), Kalikuccha (British Tripura’s district headquarter was Comilla), Srihat (Sylhet), Shońipura, Prajjyotiśpur (Assam), Bhattapalli or Bhápárá, Kumárhatta or Hallishahar, Darshaná (Nadia – at present Kuśt́hiyá), Srikhanda (Burdwan), etc.
The guardians used to consider themselves fortunate in sending their children to these seats of learning. Usually, the Upádhyáyas (lecturers or assistant lecturers) used to give classes to the students. The academic side was controlled by Adhyápakas, the adhyápakas activities were supervised by the Ácáryas who in turn were assisted by upa-acáryas. The meaning of the word acárya is: one who imparts lessons to others by their exemplary conduct – Ácarańát páthayati yah sah ácaryah. That means, the Ácáryas will have to teach others by their exemplary conduct. Only then the education imparted by them will be firmly established and properly assimilated by the pupils.
Those who used to run the catuspáthiis, whether big or small, didn’t have enough resources of their own. Their only wealth or capital was sufficient academic knowledge earned through untiring zeal and efforts. The local kings, rich persons and the public used to provide them with money and other resources and they would give it unconditionally. That is to say, no strings were attached to praise the donors in exchange for their monetary help. These catuspáthiis were not the flag bearers or proponents of any set dogma or ism. Their only task was to disseminate the flow of knowledge and wisdom through out the length or breadth of the country without partiality. People would give respect to the head of the Catuspáthii or Mahavidyálaya1 whose erudition had brought universal recognition, even more than they would honour the king of the land. Even the king used to rise up from the throne in honour of such scholarly heads of Catuspáthiis. Of those great scholars or Mahámahopádhyáyas, those who would provide ten thousand students of his institution with free food, clothes, education and accommodation were called Kulapati.
These days, we notice that in some places in northern India, the chancellors of universities are called Kulapatiis or vice-chancellors (upakulapati). (In those days, the universities were called Gurukulas). The word vishvavidyálaya is of recent origin. It is just the literal translation of the English word university. Indiscriminate use of these terms creates confusion in grasping the meaning because present chancellors do not provide 10,000 students with free food, accommodation, clothes or education, but if anyone does something like that or will do like that in future, will certainly be qualified to be considered as Kulapati. In Bengal, people mistakenly call chancellors as Acáryas or vice chancellors as upacáryas. It is also a case of defective use of terminology because the acáryas or upacáryas do not teach or do not set an example of ideal conduct. For this the proper term should be Prajiṋa-dhiipaka (Prajiṋa +adhiipaka) or Vidyádhiipaka (vidya + adhiipaka). I suppose you have properly understood the meaning of the word “kulapati”.
1 One of the meanings of Kulapati is the supremo of kula (family or lineage), i.e. whose greatness in comparison to that of others has been recognized.
Another meaning of kulapati is the headman of the family. Suppose there is a family having 105 members. The person whom the remaining 104 persons obey unhesitatingly and accept his undisputed authority is called kulapati.
4 May 1986, Madhumálaiṋca, Kolkata