A simple home in a corner of Tenali town in Andhra Pradesh is the site of an amazing initiative to keep alive and propagate ancient Indic knowledge and learning systems, and civilizational identity
Tenali is a bustling town, about 32 km from Guntur in Andhra Pradesh. The name is a corruption of the original Teravali, and is of immense historical significance for being one of the cultural capitals of the Vijayanagara empire, and for producing one of Telugu literature’s wittiest poets, Tenali Ramakrishna. It has a history dating back to the Andhra-Satavahanas of the 3rd century CE.
The tradition continues. In a nondescript corner of the town lies a walled structure of considerable vintage, which has for over 20 years produced some of the finest scholars who have gone on to become professors, principals, and vice-chancellors of various universities in India. This walled structure is the site of the Tenali Examination, which takes place twice a year, attended by students and examiners drawn from various corners of Bharat.
A few years ago, the French government sponsored a couple of research scholars to learn Sanskrit and Indian philosophical systems under the aegis of the French Institute at Puducherry. They trained for about two years under S.L.P Anjaneyulu, a Vedanta scholar. Anajaneyulu is a product of the Tenali Examination, and has trained another scholar named Lakshmudhara Sarma to carry the knowledge tradition forward.
We also have a second generation scholar, Prof. K. Ramasubramanian who is today a professor at IIT Bomay. He not only holds a doctorate in Theoretical Physics, but has undergone a rigorous 14-semester-long traditional training in Advaita Vedanta before graduating from the Tenali Exam. He is also the recipient of the prestigious Badarayana Prashasti conferred by the President of India.
These are but just two examples to showcase the sort of towering scholarship that this little known Tenali Exam produces.
The Vigour of a Civilization
The vigour, vitality and indeed, the very survival of any nation as a unique civilization and culture depends on the extent to which it retains and propagates its singular traditions.
Traditions in the sense of the original markers of any civilization typically include philosophical, moral and ethical conceptions, which, sustained over long periods, become both the language and the grammar of its culture. And this grammar finds expression in its people in the form of the gods they worship, the rituals they practice, and the ideals they believe in and espouse as their national ideals.
This is true for many of the world’s ancient civilizations—from the Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Indian. The one solidarity that runs through all of these civilizations is an emphasis and reverence for the continuity of tradition in all spheres of human endeavour: in rituals, in worship, in community life, and most importantly, in education.
Tradition is the thread that binds us to our roots. The chief value of tradition is the fact that it teaches us patience, tolerance and a spirit of accommodation.
Learning: The Indian Conception
The ancient Indian knowledge systems have survived unbroken for thousands of years. While we only have textual descriptions and evidence of traditions in the ancient Greek and other civilizations, they are essentially museum pieces, for there is no person alive today who practices these traditions.
On the other hand, vast bodies of ancient Indic knowledge systems continue as living traditions because they have been taught and propagated by real people for countless generations. This has become possible only because of the ancient Indian conception of learning, which Radha Kumud Mookerji accurately captures in his encyclopaedic Education in Ancient India:
“The pupil must find the teacher. He must live with him as a member of his family and is treated by him in every way as his son. The school is a natural formation, not artificially constituted….The constant and intimate association between teacher and taught is vital to education…[T]he pupil is to imbibe the inward method of the teacher, the secrets of his efficiency, the spirit of his life and work, and these things are too subtle to be taught….The making of man depends on the human factor. Here the personal touch, the living relationship between the pupil and teacher make education. The pupil belongs to the teacher and not to an institution or the abstraction called the school. A modern school teaches pupils by ‘classes’, and not as individuals with their differences.”
This conception of education extended to almost all fields of knowledge: Vedic and ritual learning, artisans, sculptors and builders learning their craft, businessmen handing down family and community trade secrets, artists, musicians, dancers…all the way up to people who were well-versed in making paan: a treatise named Tambula Manjari spread over 700 verses is dedicated to this art.
In our own time, this tradition is most visible in traditional Vedic and Sanskrit schools, and in the fields of
classical music and dance. Others include traditional art like Odisha’s Patachitra, Chitrakattis (Kalamkari is its modern day descendant), the fabric makers and weavers of Kashi, and so on.
The other distinguishing feature of both the conception and product of traditional education is its longevity measured as withstanding the test of time.
The most visible, physical manifestation of this is our classical and medieval sculptures and temples. The building of these structures often spanned several generations (for example, the Kailasanatha temple at Ellora took about 150 years or nearly six generations to build), which meant that this knowledge system had to be preserved intact over this period.
This is the reason the Guru-Shishya parampara (lineage, tradition) was so highly prized in India. It ensured unbroken continuity of knowledge both in teaching and application.
The Decay of the Beautiful Tree
What is also notable is the fact that for the most part, this educational system received no State support. The community, cutting across caste lines, funded and sustained it. More notably, this system functioned in the same manner across the vast geography of an undivided India, which was split into various kingdoms and not politically united under one umbrella.
But it received a rude shock when the British politically unified India under the imperial crown. Addressing the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, in October 1931, Mohandas Gandhi said: “…today India is more illiterate than it was 50 or 100 years ago…the British administrators instead of looking after education and other matters which had existed began to root them out. They scratched the soil and began to look at the root, and left the root like that and the beautiful tree perished.”
One needs to read the late historian and political philosopher Dharampal’s volumes that show in excruciating detail how the British systematically destroyed a vastly superior system of education in cold blood.
Regrettably, independent India under Nehru perpetuated this destruction with greater zeal than even the British.
One of the first casualties of this Nehruvian destruction was Sanskrit. With it, much of the traditional learning systems and subjects were uprooted from mainstream education all the way up to the university level.
Simultaneously, with the Marxist takeover of institutions of education and public discourse, liberal arts and humanities courses were infused with ideology.
This has resulted in at least three generations of Indians who have become, in the words of Ananda Coomaraswamy, “a nondescript and superficial being deprived of all roots, a sort of intellectual pariah who does not belong to the East or the West, the past or the future.”
To fully appreciate the extent of this educational decay, one needs to step back only about 70 years.
The mid-19th to mid-20th century period witnessed an awe-inspiring galaxy of scholars and thinkers who were not only rooted deep in India’s native ethos but had mastered Western scholarship and methodology, and were able to head-butt Western distortions of Indian traditions and knowledge systems.
This confidence precisely derived from their deep-rootedness. Masters like Ganganath Jha, P.V. Kane, M. Hiriyanna, S. Srikanta Sastri, S. Shama Sastri, Surendranath Dasgupta, Jadunath Sarkar, R.K. Mookerji, D.V. Gundappa, V. Raghavan, K. Krishnamurti, and Ananda Coomaraswamy, not only used the Western scholarly framework to defend and uphold native systems but used the Western idiom to express the same. Their collective scholarship runs into tens of thousands of pages, and are timeless treasures.
However, the Nehruvian era mixed with the deadly Marxist potion not only destroyed this confidence by uprooting native knowledge systems, but pushed such bright minds primarily into the arms of science, technology, and medicine, because ancient knowledge systems would not only lead to impoverishment in the material world but would come with the baggage of insult and derision for those who dared to swim against the tide.
Additionally, a centralized Nehruvian polity and economy also inflicted enormous damage to the communities that sustained traditional learning and knowledge systems.
We are witness to the consequences now: in higher education, Indians need to study abroad to learn about India, often at the feet of academics who have politico-religious agendas, and need to toe their line to get degrees.
Mainstream universities in India have all but abolished ancient knowledge systems. Traditional pandits and scholars not only barely eke out an existence but are crippled by a lack of contemporary idiom.
But the West understands the importance of the so-called liberal arts studies, which it primarily uses to fashion policy from time to time.
Equally, the global corporatization of the products of native, ancient knowledge systems is also the result of the West’s long and sustained investment in studying, cultivating, and commercializing them. This applies not only to physical products like clothes and Ayurveda but to “intangibles” like Yoga and meditation.
In other areas like academics, rampant distortion and misrepresentation of ancient Indian philosophical and other
texts has almost become the norm. Second and third generation Western scholarship in this area build on the earlier distortions via citations, peer reviews, and so on: the result is an infinite chain of inane and twisted scholarship.
The Civilizational Continuum Project
It is to stem this increasingly ominous danger to the very survival of India as the only ancient, non-Abrahamic and living civilization that India needs to invest heavily in what I term as Bharata’s Civilizational Continuum Project.
This investment needs to happen in a sustained fashion and must be modelled on the Indian conception of learning: over at least six generations with no expectation of material rewards. And this investment must be independent of State patronage or interference.
To be sure, this is happening in bits and spurts, is highly scattered, and severely underfunded to make any visible impact on the global discourse. If anything, this is happening only due to the sincere efforts of Indians who still live their lives in tune with the ancient Indian ethos and who wish to pass it on to the future generations.
However, even these spurts have been enormously successful in producing top-rate talent and scholarship with meagre resources.
The Open University Model
The Tenali Examination system is the brainchild of Bhagavatula Anjaneya Sarma, an Advaita Vedanta scholar of repute. His home is the venue of the Tenali Exam.
In his own words, he is the “13th generation Vidwan” of a long lineage of traditional scholars in his ancestry. In the late 1980s, he observed that only three scholars in the traditional mould existed in Andhra Pradesh, and all three were of advanced age. Anjaneya Sarma conceived of this examination system to perpetuate traditional scholarship among future generations and kicked off the process on 1 April 1994.
The Tenali Exam is a simple yet enormously effective model of the Open University system.
Teachers are scattered all over the country—Bangalore, Kanchipuram, Chennai, Jaipur, Pune, Goa, and Varanasi, to name a few. They train students at their homes in the traditional gurukula fashion. Examiners and students travel to Tenali twice a year to sit for their semester exams.
Teachers are paid an honorarium and students, a stipend, both deposited in respective recurring deposit accounts.
The accumulated sum can be withdrawn by the recipients only after they have successfully completed the course. If a student drops out midway, only a partial sum will be paid out—for the duration the student has studied the course.
Students are trained in and take examinations in these ancient knowledge streams, each having a history of atleast 2,000 years:
Tarka (Logic): Six years
Mimamsa (Vedic Karma Kanda portion): Two-and-a-half years
Vedanta: Six-and-a-half years
Vyakarana (Grammar): Seven years
Exceptional students can complete the course earlier than the prescribed duration by taking a “super exam”.
The training is rigorous and demanding. The examination comprises both an oral and a written component with a minimum pass percentage of 50 in both. Failing to meet this minimum percentage in both components entails the student to take the exam all over again. There’s no concept of averaging out the percentage to award the passing grade.
The idea behind this rigour is to ensure that the student has not merely studied the subject but has mastered it. If a student misses two exams consecutively, he will be out of the course.
But there’s more.
Once the student clears the Tenali Exam, he needs to take the final or the Vidwat exam at the Kanchipuram Shankara Mutt. This exam is completely oral and tests the limits of the student’s learning. A student who clears this is awarded a certificate, a cash prize, and the Ratnam (gem) honorific: Tarka Ratnam, Vedanta Ratnam, and so on.
Anjaneya Sarma says that his vision is to produce an unbroken tradition of scholars and teachers spanning generations—in other words, a graduate of the Tenali Exam will himself become a teacher and an examiner.
His vision has been an eminent success.
Recognizing the kind of scholars the Tenali Exam produced, Jayendra Saraswati, the pontiff of the Kanchi Mutt agreed to sponsor 40 students starting from 2006.
And so, from April 1994 up to now, the Tenali Exam has produced about 50 high-ranking scholars who have gone on to become vice-chancellors, professors, researchers, and academics in various organizations. They continue to visit Tenali as examiners.
Eminent examples include K. Vishwanatha Sarma, a reader at Rashtreeya Vidyapeeth at Tirupathi, K.E. Devanathan, the vice-chancellor of the Tirupati Vedic University, and Manidravid Sastry, perhaps the greatest Mimamsa and Advaita Vedanta scholar today.
The Tenali Impact
The impact of the Tenali system can also be seen in the Vidwat Sabhas (gathering of scholars) in which majority of the young scholars are Tenali graduates.
A little known fact is that because both the course and the examination is of such exacting standards, the Tenali “brand” has global recognition—its graduates are absorbed by institutions run by the Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanams, the Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan, Kendriya Vidyapeetham and so on. Scholars abroad visit India regularly to learn from Tenali graduates.
More significantly, a keystone of this model is its sheer simplicity. Says Anajaneya Sarma: “We don’t need elaborate buildings or high-tech equipment but just the bare minimum required to facilitate adhyayana (study), adhyapana (teaching), and rakshana (preservation).”
And it shows. His home, the venue of the examination, is spartan, and houses a modest goshala (cowshed) and is every inch a traditional gurukulam.
Student and teacher records, and accounts are meticulously maintained as are the checks and balances.
During exam time, he provides accommodation and food to students and examiners at his own home.
The Tenali model is the continuation of the age-old method of imparting education in India, the same unbroken civilizational practice that R.K. Mookerji noted when he spoke of the school being the “natural formation, not artificially constituted….The constant and intimate association between teacher and taught is vital to education…(T)he pupil is to imbibe the inward method of the teacher, the secrets of his efficiency, the spirit of his life and work..”
Indeed, it won’t be farfetched to claim that this is reminiscent of say, King Janaka’s massive Shastra Sabhas where eminent scholars from across the country would gather to debate, discuss and learn from one another.
The Tenali Exam is one of the few oases of educational excellence in ancient knowledge systems in a world that mindlessly pursues education as a means of turning humans into yet another commercial resource.
Scaling Up the Tenali Model
With some imagination, study and planning, the Tenali model can be replicated in the so-called Liberal Arts with a
focus on Indic Studies. But what will really make it successful is the aspect of scale. If this model can be scaled up, it will make a significant impact.
Setting up dedicated and specialist Indic institutions based on this model can also be seen as a complementary approach for making that level of impact. It goes without saying that there’s no dearth of employment and career opportunities for graduates who meet such exacting standards.
To conclude on a blunt note, evolving such institutions is not an option but an urgent necessity. The other option is to become a Christian outpost of the West or an Islamic outpost of the Middle East.
China, for example, recognized this threat decades ago, and made huge investments to study its past. Today, almost every major university in the world has dedicated Chinese Studies chairs funded by the Chinese government. China has taken back its civilizational narrative into its own hands, and keeps a watch on alien interpretations of its nativity.
Such investments in Bharata’s Civilizational Continuum Project will be a good beginning in that direction.
This feature has been enabled by Indic Academy, a not for profit, focussed on nurturing scholarship in Indology and promoting a Dharmic narrative. Indic Academy is also supporting students and teachers of the Tenali Exams.