September 5 is observed as Teachers’ Day in honour of Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), the second President of India, who was born on that day. But how did it get instituted? Dr. Radhakrishnan’s 75thbirthday on September 5, 1962 came within weeks of his being elevated to the President’s post. He was flooded with felicitations from home and abroad, a testimony to his wide reputation as professor and exponent of Indian philosophy. Those who wished him included international figures like Dr. Albert Schweitzer, Daisetz T. Sukuzi, Horace Alexander, Arnold J. Toynbee, Kingsley Martin, and Charles A. Moore etc. At home, politicians cutting across party lines hailed his contribution to education and Indic scholarship. “But above all, he is a great teacher, from whom all of us have learnt much, and will continue to learn”, stated Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in his message.
But Dr. Radhakrishnan wished that his 75th birthday should not be celebrated as such. It is should the observed as Teachers’ Day in honour of the noble profession he had been attached with throughout his career. The Teachers’ Day was instituted thus in 1962. The convention of collecting funds for teachers in need started that very year. But due to the Indo-Chinese War erupting on October 20, 1962 the money collected during 1962 and 1963 were put in defence bonds.
Every year the President of India gives away National Awards to teachers on September 5. It is awarded to outstanding teachers of primary, middle and higher secondary schools in recognition to their meritorious services. Not only is the academic efficiency recognized, but genuine interest/affection towards children, reputation in local community and involvement in social life of the community also considered.
These awards are being given annually since 1959, even before the Teachers’ Day came into existence. In 1968, the scope of the awards was extended to the teachers of Sanskrit Pathshalas run on traditional lines. In 1976, the scope was further enlarged to include Arabic/Persian teachers of Madrasas. Further reforms in 1993 led to the inclusion of teachers from Sainik Schools, Navodaya Schools and schools run by the Atomic Energy Education Society. Maximum numbers of awards could go up to 350 during a year. The awardees are selected through three tier system of district committee, state committee and union government.
India has a long tradition of venerating the teachers. In the Vedic times the students were taught at teacher’s home, serving him in their free time. It was called Gurukul system, which was in principle free of cost, except the student would pay a Gurudakshina (a symbolic fee in cash, kind or vow). The emphasis was on moulding their character as much as honing their intellectual faculty. A student in ancient India was identified by the lineage of his teacher. This gave rise to the concept of Guru-Shishya Parampara i.e. mentor-disciple relationship. In later centuries the teacher would reside in student’s home – like Dronacharya staying with the Kauravas in the Mahabharata.
The subsequent centuries saw the rise of residential universities, which were apparently copied from Buddhist monasteries. It meant teachers and students met on neutral ground. The Taxilla University in northwestern India (in present day Pakistan) was world’s first university. India had several universities like Taxilla, Nalanda, Vikramshila, Odantapuri, Vallabhi, Pushpagiri etc. But their destruction in the medieval era by foreign invaders left a great void in education.
Teachers again came to the fore with introduction of modern education in India in early nineteenth century. The Hindu College (estd.1817), now Presidency University in Kolkata, was the first institution of higher learning in the modern sense of the term. This institution played a major role in the creating a modern national discourse. The youthful teacher who inspired it was Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1809-1831), an Anglo-Indian who lived merely for 23 years. He captured the imagination of his pupils by inculcating rationalism and humanism of contemporaneous Europe in them.
He also wrote the first known patriotic poem of India viz. My Native Land –“My country in thy days of glory past/A beauteous halo circled round thy brow/And worshipped as a deity thou wast/Where is thy glory, where the reverence now”. Derozio was hounded out of Hindu College, by irate parents of his pupils, who accused him of corrupting the morale of his followers. He passed away prematurely shortly afterwards. But his pupil-disciples who were called Derozians or Young Bengal grew up into leading lights of the society. They included likes of Radhanath Sikdar (1813-1870) who trigonometrically calculated the height of Mt.Everest, orator Ram Gopal Ghose and writer Peary Chand Mitra.
In western India it was Bal Shastri Jambehkar (1812-1845) who was pioneer teacher to a generation of public personae. A teacher of mathematics at newly established Elphistone Institution (now Elphinstone College) in Bombay his students included Dadabhai Naoroji, V.N. Mandlik, Sorabji Shapurji, Dr. Bhau Daji. They were the pioneers of public life in erstwhile Bombay Presidency. Jambhekar, along with Rugoonath Hurrychanderjee and Junardhan Wassoodewjee, brought out English-Marathi bi-lingual newspaper Bombay Durpan (Bombay Mirror) in January, 1832.
Poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and political leader Madan Mohan Malaviya (1861-1945) donned to role of educationists. Tagore through his Visva Bharati University and Malaviya through his Banaras Hindu University represented two different approaches to national education. They stand out as iconic teachers.
With increasing commercialization and professionalization of education, value system is under threat. If education is seen as commodity, then role of teacher is reduced to mere service provider. The rise of distance education and online education has made teacher content provider. But professional and commercial achievements alone cannot be benchmark of success in life. Nor can these alone lead to a happy society. Idealism and sensibilities have profound role to pay. Teachers are best placed to instill and inspire those virtues. Every one of us owes something good to our teachers. It is often the noblest part of us.
The writer is an independent researcher and columnist based in New Delhi.
Views expressed in the article are author’s personal.