I was admitted to the Government Primary School not far from my house outside the Shah Alami Gate. It was a newly built Urdu medium primary school on the banks of an irrigation channel which ran outside the city walls irrigating the outer Municipal gardens. Headmaster was a Sikh assisted by two Muslim teachers – we called them Maulvi Sahibs.
I looked so young – headmaster was reluctant to admit me. The headmaster wanted to know my age. My elder brother who went to admit me had no answer. Our births were never registered or compulsory. My brother told the headmaster to put in whatever age was necessary for admission. It used to be six years, while I was four plus as per the estimate of my family.
Later, I discovered that none of my brothers had a real date of birth. Neither my father nor my mother remembered the date of our births - we never celebrated anyone's birthdays – but remembered the dates when they died to feed the Brahmins on their anniversary – it was called the 'Shradh” ceremony. In our neighbourhood, there lived a family priest. Whenever a child was born, someone from the family would shout to the Priest and yell, “Panditji, a son was born this morning at 5 AM. Please enter his name and birth day and time in your register.” And, Panditji said ‘Yes, done ’. He gave me a name too .....”PRAN NATH”
When I grew up, I was told that Pran Nath was the name of the Deputy Commissioner of Lahore when I was born. And I was given this name wishing that I too should become a Deputy Commissioner one day, which I did not!
Whether it was really registered or not in his records by Panditji, it did not really matter. But Panditji at the request of the family did always produce a horoscope for every child at the time of an auspicious occasion – the thread ceremony, engagement or a marriage. You could always count on him.
When a child fell seriously ill, my mother would ask the Pandit to suggest some way to control the disease through divine intervention. He came up with such solutions too – feed a black cow, dog or donate eleven rupees to a temple.
In my case, date of my birth remained a mystery to me all my life. I was married two years after the partition. My horoscope had to be concocted as the Pandit had died during the riots. His registers of births and deaths – if he kept any – vanished in the fire that engulfed his house in Shah Alami Gate area.
On my insistence, my mother told me that I was born on a day when she was observing Nirjala Ekadashi fast which falls in June or July. But in my official school certificate my birth is recorded in December.
In my childhood, no one celebrated birthdays in Lahore – no one in my family at least. We were too many to be fussed about on birthdays. Birthday celebrations was more a western concept.
In my primary school class-room, there were no chairs or tables. We were seated on three rows of jute carpets or on hard floors. Our educational tools were - a wooden plank, 'takhti' two feet by one foot on which we wrote with a pen made of thin cane wood dipped in black ink from an ink pot. We carried to school a slate - for writing or doing mathematical sums or writing numerals.
The Takhti had to be cleaned and washed everyday by us or by our mothers. When the Takhti got full, we were told to write on soft floor or a slate. There was hardly any stationery needed to read or write at least up to primary classes– no heavy school bags of today. On hot days, we were asked to move under the shade of a tree and the teacher gave us lessons there.
As we moved up the ladder in government Primary Schools, we were introduced to a First Urdu Reader – a textbook containing lessons eulogising the benefits of the British Raj. King George was the most visible icon whose portrait was hung in the classroom. King's birthday used to be a holiday at school and on special occasions Headmasters unfurled the Union Jack. However, by the time I left the primary school, we had already started shouting 'Down Down the Union Jack' and 'Death to the British Raj'. Union Jack, the British flag, had become the object of childrens' hate - during my school days.
Before the Government-funded schools made their presence felt, Christian Missionary Schools were already in place – with the avowed aim of converting Indians to Christianity. They opened their doors as soon as the British guided by Lord Macualay decided to use English as the medium of administration, replacing Persian, which was the Court language during the Mughal and Sikh rules. The British had a government department to help Christian Missionaries to preach their religion and open new schools. Missionaries were also aided by the British and American Church Organisations to teach Christian values to the 'heathens' of India. With the rise of Indian nationalism, Government of India's direct participation in Christian Church activities diminished.
The best thing that happened to India and particularly to the Hindus of India in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was the revival of Hinduism through Arya Samaj established by Swami Dayanand in Punjab and other parts of India; Brahmo Samaj in Bengal and the emergence of a refined Hinduism based on ancient values as propounded by Swami Ramkrishna Paramhans and his disciple Swami Vivekanand. The Hindus all over India gained confidence and discovered a new pride in their ancient Vedic values.
Swami Dayanand's thoughts on Vedic religion, explanation of Vedic verses and interpretations are written in a book, called 'Satyarth Prakash' – The Light of Truth. It was an essential reading in DAV school where I was admitted after my primary education.
In the Punjab of my times, in Lahore, there was no compulsory primary education. Education was not for the masses. It was optional and primarily for the urban population in the cities where Government had opened some schools. Villagers had to send their children to the nearest urban centre. Primary education in the cities was free – beyond the primary, nominal fees were charged – but that too could not be afforded by the working classes. There was no compulsion to admit one's children to school – even in cities. Most people could not read and write. Outside every post office I noticed one or two letter-writers that wrote post cards or applications on behalf of the illiterate population for a price – and they made a living out of it. I saw such scribes outside the posh government offices too till the partition of India – they disappeared after independence.
Majority of the people did not send their children to the school on the ground of poverty and ignorance about the benefits of education. They felt children were better off bringing some money home by doing some odd jobs instead of wasting their time in schools where they learnt 'evil' ways of the west.
The girl child was even more neglected. The argument was – our girls are not going to work in offices – they have to learn their household duties to be good housewives. They were usually married off young at 15 or 16 or even earlier. I too, did not find it strange. My own sister was married at 16 – a few years before the partition. Whenever a girl was born, there was a gloom in the family as the girl's marriage involved expenses on dowry. Besides, girls' parents were supposed to be always bending respectfully before the boys' side. It was a common knowledge that some Punjabi Jats let their girl children die after their birth.
Muslims had some kind of aversion to the Government or Christian Missionary schools suspecting that such schools will turn them against Islam and their children would get Western ideas into their head. They preferred to send their children to Madrassas – where they learnt Urdu and the Holy Quran. At this stage, they usually learnt Quran by rote. I can recall their musical chants even today.
Many Hindus sent their children to schools called 'Pandhas' where some kind of commercial language called 'Landas' was taught along with speed arithmetic. Students of such schools were often heard rhythmically chanting mathematical tables. I have seen my brothers writing their accounts in the Landa language. That system is now getting extinct with the ready availability of calculators. The institutions of Pandhas – single teacher-schools developed human brains as calculators. I often wondered how students of these schools could multiply sums in a matter of seconds.
But, education in Government Primary Schools did not promote Christianity at least in my time. Before the classes started, we students chanted a prayer in praise of God, said in Urdu ..... 'Let the God be praised who made the universe, etc. The prayer only praised God and his creations – and his magnificence. There was no reference to the Muslim or the Christian or Hindu God.
Of course, next to God was King George V whose portraits were in all schools. The sun never sets over the British Empire, we were repeatedly told. We were also given lessons on the blessings of the British Raj.
Swami Dayanand was born in 1824 in the State of Morvi in Gujarat in a Brahmin family. His father was a Sanskrit scholar and a priest and wanted his son to follow his path and do the priestly duties. He was a worshipper of Lord Shiva.
Dayanand, however, was different. He was not impressed by the ritualistic Hindu religion and questioned the efficacy of worshipping idols.
To seek the truth, like Gautam, the Buddha – he left his home in 1840 at the age of 16 in search of the right Guru (teacher) – whom he ultimately found in Virjanand – in Mathura and studied Sanskrit and Vedas under him from 1860-1863. Swami Dayanand – (original name Mool Shankar) became a Sanyasi and renounced the world. He sought neither fame nor wealth. He travelled all over the country preaching the Vedic values and energising the Hindus.
Originally Swami Dayanand preached in Sanskrit which was understood only by the Sanskrit scholars. However, he changed to Hindi at the insistence of a great Bengali reformer Ishwar Chander Vidyasagar.
He authored a book called – Satyarath Prakash – The Light of Truth – originally written in Hindi, now available in all languages - which contains the essence of the four Vedas and the explanation and interpretation of Vedic verses and rhymes. It also contains critical analysis of other major religions of the world including Islam and Christianity. This book can be very informative to those involved in the comparative study of world religions..
Swami Dayanand opined that idol worship was not the part of the original Vedic religion – so the new Arya Samaj temples had no idols – no rituals. The adherents of Arya Samaj were required to do a community Havan (ritually burning fire with prayer and Mantras) in the temple along with the chanting of selected Vedic prayers.
Arya Samaj did not believe in any dogmas or cult. A Hindu couple could get married by the temple priest in any Arya Samaj temple – with minimal rituals and very little expense.
Arya Samaj temples were of simple constructions with a Yagyashala – prayer room and meeting halls for, lectures, library and discussions, etc. And, if they had more space, a primary school for children or vocational training institute for girls. If they had ample funds they provided free medical help – irrespective of caste or creed.
Swami Dayanand's message was warmly received by the progressive Hindu elite of the then province of Punjab and of the surrounding areas of North India. I will not go into religious aspects of Arya Samaj Movement except to say that it had an electrifying effect on the Hindus – who embraced the rediscovered Hindu thoughts replacing the ritualism of the contemporary conservative Hinduism which had degenerated over the years making religion a mystery to the common Hindu. Arya Samaj did not leave the study of Hindu scriptures only to Brahmins – but insisted that every caste, community should read the Vedas. Several Arya Samaj preachers were non-Brahmins. Vedic Prayers were readily available with translations. Vedas were for all to read and understand – not for the Brahmins and scholars alone. The Sanskrit verses (Mantras) were demystified. In D.A.V. Schools – Sanskrit and Vedas were taught regularly to all students, often compulsorily. There was a separate one hour class everyday of the week for what was termed 'Ved Path' class. The greatest contribution of the Arya Samaj, to my mind, was demystification of Hinduism and access to Vedas by high or low, rich or poor, Hindus and non-Hindus. Once you learnt the Sanskrit alphabets, Hindi language flowed automatically. And, I along with millions of other young Hindus was the beneficiary of educational institutions run by Arya Samaj - established by Swami Dayanand's followers.
He died in 1883 – his cook had poisoned him on the instigation of his opponents – but Swamiji gave some money to the cook and asked him to run away to save his life.
Swami Dayanand laid great emphasis on education of children – specially the girl children and made education his mission.
His disciples opened some Gurukuls – the ancient educational institutions where Vedas and other subjects were taught to young children who lived as Brahmacharis (bachelors) away from their families. Some Gurululs are still flourishing.
The other group of his disciples pleaded that the modern university education was needed in the changing world. They registered a D.A.V. (Dayanand Angle's Vedic) Trust in 1886 – which has flowered into a network of over five hundred D.A.V institutions all over India – including Technical and professional Colleges and schools. D.A.V institutions provide quality education not ignoring Vedic education.
D.A.V Movement led by new leaders of Arya Samaj resulted in the opening of scores of Dayanand Ayurvedic Schools – at primary, middle and high levels – followed by Colleges – all over Punjab initially. Some of the pioneering leaders voluntarily became teachers as Life Members taking basic minimum living expenses. Mahatma Hans Raj was the first among them who became the Headmaster for life for the first DAV school. Others followed – several of them. It is not fair to single out a few. Lala Suraj Bhan, who after partition of India became the Vice-Chancellor of the Punjab University - was one of them. He was the Headmaster of D.A.V High School in Lahore, where I had studied.
After my primary schooling, I moved over to a D.A.V. Institution. The D.A.V. Middle school was located not very far from the walled city of Lahore where I entered in the fifth class and continued till my Matriculation from D.A.V. High School, a kilometre further. These were great institutions taking in some four thousand students at a time. They taught Hindi, Sanskrit, English, Science and other subjects prescribed by the Education Department of Punjab virtually free of charge. There were some nominal charges. Although I had my first four years of schooling in an Urdu medium primary school, it did not take me long to get absorbed in the system with Hindi medium with fair amount of success. Teaching of English was not ignored in DAV schools. I did not discard Urdu – it was an optional subject in school, which I enjoyed. In the process my writing in both Hindi and Urdu became facile and easy.
English did not come easily to me – at least the spoken part of it in my school days. But before entering the High School, I learnt to write English essays and little short stories, thanks to the devotion and hard work of my teachers. All D.A.V. Institutions in the Province including Colleges followed the Punjab University curriculum. However, the contents had an Indian and nationalistic approach. No more 'God save the King' as we did in Government primary school. We sang Vande Mataram and Slokas(verses) from the Vedas in our prayers.
The morning started in the school with an invocation to God before a disciplined gathering and in an open compound, followed by some introductory remark by the Headmaster and moral guidance by other teachers on daily basis – e.g. How to treat your parents, teachers, what to eat, what to say and how to behave in general. The useful information went a long way in moulding the young minds. On Saturdays, the morning prayer was followed by Havan (Yajana) at the stage with all students in attendance. Four or five students including me were selected to chant Vedic Mantras which we knew by rote and there was little need to refer to the text.
The Headmaster and some learned teacher also addressed the assembly everyday or sometimes a speaker was invited from the outside world for the purpose.
Our 'Ved Path' teacher Pandit Mastan Chand, a Vedic scholar was a very conservative man. He liked me for my ability to chant Sanskrit Mantras and showered his affection on me. Apparently, he disliked boys who dressed dandily and according to current fashion. Students were not encouraged to wear western slacks and shirts – my normal dress to school used to be an Indian white pyjama and a simple shirt with a simple woollen jacket during winter. Fancy hair cuts and fancy hairstyles with scented hair oil were not to my teacher's liking. To my ill luck, one day I came to school with a new hair cut, freshly combed and well oiled hair – perhaps looking smarter than usual. Suddenly, I got a slap on my face from Pandit Mastan Chand with angry red eyes. He shouted at me, “You too, Pran, have joined the ranks of spoiled brats.”
And he pulled my hair and ruined them.
Tears came to my eyes. I could not understand the ire of Pandit Mastan Chand – felt humiliated before the class and wanted to complain against him to someone. Some of the students gathered around me in sympathy after the class adjourned but none had the guts to speak against the Ved Path teacher who was even respected by the headmaster.
I wanted to talk to my father – planned my strategy the whole day – how to tell him.
But, I realised that my father may react by giving me yet another slap saying “You must have been at fault”. With an army of children to look after, my father, for that matter, most fathers in that era, had no time to listen to the feelings of their children. He seldom asked me about my studies except chiding me at times for not studying enough. He himself had not studied beyond Primary. If a child tried to express his views to his older brother or father, he was told sternly “No talking back to elders. Understand?” And the matter ended.
Not that fathers those days did not talk. They talked quite a lot when they were in a mood and gave a lot of wanted or unwanted advice. But, if a child questioned him on the basis of his newly acquired knowledge, the usual reply was, “Son, my hair have not become white under the sun”. Questioning on the part of younger siblings was not tolerated – even if the elder was only two years older than you !
Before my time, my elder brothers studied in a Christian Missionary school. Perhaps D.A.V. Schools, with emphasis on Hindi were not so popular. But, after my admission to the D.A.V. School, my younger brothers followed the D.A.V. route and moral grooming of D.A.V. Schools helped us all – in studies as well as pride in our culture and heritage. All my younger brothers were double graduates.
Arya Samaj impacted the thinking of all Hindus. Hindus started believing in reconversion of their brethren who had left the Hindu fold – an unheard possibility earlier. A polluted Hindu man lost his place in society. He had no option but to convert to Islam or Christianity where he was welcomed with open arms.
A story is told of a large group of Kashmiri Pandits who were forced to embrace Islam as they were forcibly fed beef by some Muslims. Their Hindu brethren refused to accept them back. They approached Maharaja Gulab Singh of Kashmir, a Hindu Dogra ruler. They wanted to be back into the Hindu fold. Maharaja seemed to agree but the local Pandits wanted this issue to be referred to the Varanasi Brahmins – who ordained that they could not be reconverted.
Arya Samaj reversed the trend – and a 'Shudhi'( cleaning) Movement was launched to take back such Hindus who wanted to come back and even allowed Christians and Muslims to join the Hindu fold, if they wished. At least, forcible conversions were stalled, to some extent in India.
Another contribution of the DAVs and Arya Samaj was the rekindling of the nationalist spirit among the Hindus – the desire to free their country from the foreign bondage. The DAV institutions produced several young revolutionaries. In fact, these institutions became the breeding grounds of revolutionary ideas. Instead of Union Jack – the new national flag of the Congress was seen flying on top of the these institutions. Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Bhagat Singh and Subhash Chandra Bose became the national icons – for me and for all D.A.V. students.
DAV Schools were non denominational – Sikhs in large numbers were on their rolls - but Muslims seldom sought admission. Muslims, on the other hand, started opening their own Islamia Schools and Colleges on DAV lines – they were called Islamia schools or Colleges. Sikhs started their Khalsa schools and Colleges in Punjab.
Sanatan Dharam Educational Institutions called S.D. Schools or Colleges too started opening under the guidance of Goswami Ganesh Dutt in Punjab. 'Sanatan' means eternal or ancient. Although opposed to each other in methods of worship, followers of Sanatan Dharam never had violent clashes with followers of Arya Samaj.
Sanatan Dharam too was based on liberal Hindu ideals. Sanatan Dharam was for idol worship as had prevailed in India over the centuries. One could attain God, irrespective of the deity one worshipped – they contended. All deities led to the same one God, they argued.
Education was also communalised before partition – each religion having its own schools and Colleges. The new zeal for education resulted in expansion of the base of educational institutions in the country. People no longer solely depended on government- run schools.
At that time that Mahatama Gandhi propounded the idea of Hindustani which was neither Persianised Urdu nor Sanskritised Hindi. It was a language used by the common people of India. He wrote in this language in his official paper weekly Harijan and entrusted to Dr Zakir Hussian, Vice Chancellor of Jamia Millia University, the task of making the national educational policy of India. Dr. Zakir Hussian made serious contribution to develop a simple understandable language for all Indians. He later rose to be the President of independent India.
Today only the Bollywood films use the Hindustani as defined by Mahatma Gandhi.
In the early days of Hindi news of post independence era, the All India Radio (Akashvani) broadcast its news in Sanskritised Hindi. The older generation of refugees from Pakistan used to exclaim, “We have been turned into illiterates in our own country.”
The language, today, is becoming easy to understand for all listeners. Private TV news channels have brought in the Bollywood effect – the news channels are now broadcasting Hindi news which the masses can easily understand – a new Hindustani called Hindi is shaping up for peoples from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Dwarka to Puri. We can call it Hindustani too- though it is the new Hindi.
More and more schools in India – government or private – give liberal education based on secular principals. Some schools focus on moral education for the younger people – with emphasis varying from institution to institution. In recent years, I have criss-crossed India several times. Not for once, I have been handicapped in communicating my message in Hindi to local people. It was not true even two decades ago. Usually in the south, I had to communicate in English.
Education, today, reflects unity in diversity – especially the moral values. Moral values are universal irrespective of religious diversity in our country.