Physical Education in Ancient India
India has had a long history of physical education, far more ancient than Greece. But in our times When the Olympic Games occurring every four years have become probably the biggest planetary event, most people know that the Games originated more than two thousand years ago in Greece. In addition, Greeks have given the Western world through many beautiful statues a keen sense of bodily perfection, an ideal of physical beauty unsurpassed to this day. There was such an emphasis on the importance of beauty and physical prowesses that some of the highest honours in Greek society were bestowed on athletes, to an extent unknown before and unsurpassed since.
India had already a very cultured society one or two millennia at least before the Greek awakening around 800 B.C. Yet, if ancient Greeks are easily perceived as very physical in their preoccupations, Indians in contrast are rather seen as metaphysical beings, hardly interested in material things. And it is indeed true that at a certain stage of the development of Indian culture, a deep influence has been cast on Indian collective psyche, bringing about a tendency to consider physical life as somewhat unreal.
Yet India is also well known as the native place of Yoga. Therefore knowledge about body and spirit and methods appropriate to perfection of body and spirit could evolve in India. Could this have happened in an environment generally indifferent to physical exercises and physical education?
We should remember the heroes that India gave to herself who rep resent not only great qualities of courage and valour but also of physical strength and excellence. Here is how Valmiki. describes Rama in the opening verses of the Ramayana:
There is a famous king by the name of Rama, born in the line of great Ikshwaku. He is of subdued sense and of exceeding might. He has mighty arms reaching to the
knees. His throat is marked with three auspicious conch shell lines. He has high and broad shoulders, well-formed head, graceful forehead, strongest jaws, and deeply embedded collar bones. His eyes are large, and his colour is of soft lustrous green. He is neither too tall, nor very short, but well-formed and of symmetrical limbs. This highly beautiful and mighty Rama is supremely intelligent, and of eloquent speech.
Centuries later, Rama was described again by the poet Kalidasa echoing Valmiki's description:
Young, with arms long as the pole of the yoke, with sturdy shoulders, with a chest broad as a door panel, and a full broad neck, Raghu was above his father by the excellence of his body, and yet through his modesty he looked smaller.
Let us think of Arjuna, as described in Mahabharata:
Without him whose arms are long and symmetrical, and stout and like unto a couple of iron maces and round and marked by the scars of the bow-strings and graced with the bow and sword and other weapons and encircled with golden bracelets and like unto a couple of five-headed snakes, without that tiger among men the sky itself seemeth to be with out the sun.
Similarly for Bhima,
whose body was beautifully proportioned, perfect specimen of manhood with his broad chest, slim waist and narrow hips.
tall like a golden palm tree capable of slaying a lion.
and many others, endowed with resplendent bodies, whose feats of strength, endurance and agility fill the pages of Mahabharata. These heroes are not abstract images, their bodies are not less praised than their commitment to dharma, their loyalty , their devotion or their generosity.
What was the secret of this superhuman force of body and mind which we see pulsating in the heroes of Ramayana and Mahabharata? What was, it that stood behind a civilization which produced such characters? Without a great and unique discipline involving a perfect education of body, soul and mind, this would have been impossible. We will see later how physical education was an integral part of the educational curriculum, but first it must be said that, at the basis of the ancient system of education was the all important discipline of Brahmacharya. Ancient Indians knew that, in the same way a wave is not separate from the ocean, man is not separate from the universe and the universal energy. The same force which moves in stars and planets moves in man. And they knew that the source of energy is spiritual but in the physical world the basis, the foundation on which it stands is physical. Man can increase his capacity as a receptacle of this energy. By the discipline of Brahmacharya, by keeping alive his burning aspiration for the knowledge of the Brahman, by having control over his desires and passions, by maintaining a receptive state of mind, he can retain and even largely increase energy in his soul, brain and body.
And indeed, if we turn to the ancient texts, the Vedas and Upanishads, we will see that the body, far from being regarded by spiritual seekers as an obstacle, something to be discarded, was considered as a receptacle for strength (bald}. Strength was among physical qualities the most praised:
बलेन लापेकस्तिठति बलमुपास्वेति
The existence of the world is dependent on strength. Be devoted to strength.
(Chhandogya Upanishad 7.8.1)
We find numerous prayers asking that strength might be given:
वलं धेहि तनूषु नो वलमिन्द्रानळुत्सु नः ।
वलं तोकाय तनयाय जीवसे त्वं हि वलदा असि ।।
Equip our body with strength, O Indra, shower strength in our bulls. Shower strength for life on our progeny. You are verily the bestower of strength.
तेजोऽसि तेजो मयि धेहि । वीर्यमसि वीर्य मयि धेहि ।।
बलमसि वलं मयि धेहि । ओजोऽस्योजो मयि धेहि ।।
मन्युरसि मन्युं मयि धेहि । सहोऽसि सहो मयि धेहि ।।
Thou art splendour, bestow splendour on me.
Thou art potency, bestow potency on me.
Thou art strength, bestow strength on me.
Thou art virility, bestow virility on me.
Thou art force of action, bestow the same on me.
Thou art prowess, bestow prowess on me.
The teacher and his pupil are together united in an aspiration to become strong:
सह वीर्यम् करवावहै
Together may we make unto us strength and virility.
(Taittiriya Upanishad, 2.1)
There was a lot of appreciation about those who were strong, stout and in possession of vigour and might. Up to twenty-two adjectives in Sanskrit can be used to praise the strong! The Rishis of the Vedas and
Upanishads believed in a body with firm limbs, strong and hard like stone:
अश्मा भवतु नस्तनूः
May our body become invincible like a rock.
During the Vedic and the Upanishadic periods, and even later, there was an emphasis on the pursuit of an integral aim of life, which deter mined the discipline of integral education. Both the material and spiritual poles of the being had their place in this system. The ancient Sanskrit adage "Shariram adyam khalu dharma sadhanam" (a sound body is the veritable instrument of the pursuit of the ideal law of life) underlined the importance of physical education. And indeed it occupied an important place in the. educational curriculum. Among the large variety of sciences and arts offered to students, 3 Upavedas, or sciences, were in some way related to the education of the body: the Upaveda of Rigveda, called Ayurveda (the science and art of sustenance, protection and maintenance of long life); the Upaveda of
Yajurveda, called Dhanurveda (science dealing with weapons of war and art of warfare); and the Upaveda of Samaveda, called Gandharvaveda (science of music, singing, dancing and dramatics).
When one studies Ayurveda, the real extent of the importance given by ancient India to the body, its proper development and its proper training, stands fully revealed. Ayurveda, also known as the science for prolongation of life, makes a thorough study of the human body, its different types and needs, and proposes accordingly specific exercises and methods for optimum body development, with emphasis on strength and agility. There are many important parts of Ayurveda, such as its science of nutrition and others; but presently we shall concentrate on its views on physical exercises. In Ayurveda, strength was considered as the basis of health and physical development. By the acquisition of strength, each and every internal organ, the heart, the brain, the lungs, the liver and the kidneys, the external senses, the limbs, ought to be able to perform their functions without any fault or disorder.
Exercise or Vyayama was considered the surest means of acquiring strength. Therefore, the knowledge of physical exercises, their nature, types, exact measure of exercise, benefits of exercise and even contra indications and many details about the science of exercise were included in the curriculum elaborated by Ayurveda. To give a small example of how detailed were the prescriptions, it was said, for instance, that the appearance of perspiration on the nose, the forehead, the joints of hands and legs and dryness in the mouth were the symptoms which indicated that one has taken exercise to the half extent of one's capacity. Exercise was also used by the ancient physicians as a modality of treatment, like in modem medical science. For some of the diseases certain exercises were prescribed but exercises could be prohibited altogether in other specific cases.
Ayurveda strongly advised to exercise in right measure. Susruta recommends daily exercise, because it leads to the development of the complexion of the body, strengthens and shapes the muscles, improves the appetite and produces lightness in the body, helps in warding off laziness and gives power to endure hard work, mental strain, thirst, cold or heat. Imbecility and senile decay never approach him who exercises properly, and the muscles of his body remain firm and steady. Charaka relates the fitness of the body with a non-diseased existence: the man who is well-proportioned in flesh, well-knit in figure, and firm
of sense is not likely to be overpowered by violent disease.
लाघवं कर्मसामर्थ्य स्थैर्य दुःखसहिष्णुता ।
दोषक्षयोऽग्निवृद्धिश्च व्यायामादुपजायते ।।
Physical exercise brings about lightness, capacity to work, stability, immunity to ailments, elimination of morbidities as well as a good metabolism.
At the base of Ayurveda is an important distinction between different types of bodies: the body can be of three kinds: Sthula (obese), Madhya (medium) and Krsa (thin). However, Ayurveda holds that every individual has his own physical personality beyond these types and it should be recognized as such. Of the three types the medium type personality is considered best by Ayurveda. There is another classification of body types based upon the preponderance of the three basic humours, Vata (wind). Pitta (bile), Kapha (phlegm). So there are Vata types, Pitta types and Kapha types. The ideal is to have the three humours equally balanced, which leads to perfect health. For each type of body different regimens are suggested. In addition, there are other factors influencing the personality, which are to be taken into consideration before one begins to take physical exercise, such as strength, diet, as well as the season of the year and the physical nature of the country.
One important outcome of a regular practice of appropriate physical exercise is the symmetrical development of body parts. The concept of such development was highly elaborated in Ayurveda. The Sanskrit literature of the epic period has ample references describing the ideal symmetrical body: the neck is strong and stable, the shoulders are broad and muscular, the arms long and heavy, the chest broad, the waist or girdle slim like conch, the forehead broad and the head round, etc. Charaka and Susruta both have described such ideal development. They gave minute descriptions of every part of the body and of the signs and symptoms of their perfect and ideal development. They described all parts of the body, up to the smallest, from the sole of the feet up to the texture of hairs. Charaka has described ideal and proportionate development of about thirty three different parts.
Ayurveda has sometimes been called "the science of positive health", and it is obvious, if only through the brief notes given above, that at its basis was a vast knowledge about the human body, not only a theoretical knowledge but a very practical one that had been elaborated through observation and experimentation.
Of the three Upavedas studied by the young men of ancient India, the second was Dhanurveda. Unlike the name suggests, it does not exclusively deal with archery, but stands for the study of all weapons of war. A military training was given mostly to kshatriyas but far from exclusively. Firstly, it is interesting to point out that the teachers of Dhanurveda (like Dronacharya, the teacher of the Pandavas and the Kauravas) were specifically from the brahmana class. Secondly, the Mahabharata refers to the acquisition of knowledge about war and weapons for all the fourvarnas. Kautiliya also approves of the participation of vaishyas and shudras in the army. Therefore the popular notion that the military profession was the exclusive, monopoly of the kshatriyasis without foundation.
To be able to develop high proficiency in weapons and movements of war, one naturally required a lot of endurance, strength, suppleness, speed and generally a high level of physical fitness. All these qualities had to be developed through exercises (Vyayama) and sports like hunting (mrigaya). There was a specific training — involving a lot of physical exertion— in various methods of warfare. The armies consisted of four divisions ("chaturanga": horses, infantry, elephants, war-chariots); skills in arts like horse-riding, chariot-driving, elephant-riding were taught. Young warriors had also to learn the use of different kinds of weapons such as sword, lance, javelin (tomara), axe, mace, nooses (pasha), slings, etc.
Wrestling or Bahuyuddha (literally, fighting with arms) was the only sort of fight without weapons. A wrestler was supposed to have a precise and detailed knowledge of all the vital parts of the body (marma sthana), the nerves, the muscles, the joints and ligaments. Only with this knowledge could he vanquish his opponent. In the Mahabharata, we find a lively description of a wrestling tournament at the court of king Virata. Bhima, who lives there in hiding, is known as the cook of the king. But this extraordinary cook is going to show that he is capable of amazing physical feats:
And there came athletes from all quarters by thousands, like hosts of celestials to the abode of Brahma or Siva to witness that festival. And they were endued with huge bodies and great prowess, like the demons called Kalakhanjas. And elated with their prowess and proud of their strength, they were highly honoured by the king. And their shoulders and waists and necks were like those of lions, and their bodies were very clean, and their hearts were quite at ease. And they had many a time won success in the lists in the presence of kings. And amongst them there was one who towered above the rest and challenged them all to a combat. And there was none that dared to approach him as he proudly stalked in the arena. And when the athletes stood sad and dispirited, the king of the Matsyas made him fight with his cook. And urged by the king, Bhima made up his mind reluctantly, for he could not openly disobey the royal behest. And that tiger among men then having worshipped the king, entered the spacious arena, pacing with the careless steps of a tiger. And the son of Kunti then girded up his loins to the great delight of the spectators. And Bhima then summoned to the combat that athlete known by the name of Jimuta who was like unto the Asura Vrita whose prowess was widely known. And both of them were possessed of great courage, and both were endued with terrible prowess. And they were like a couple of infuriate and huge-bodied elephants, each sixty years old. And those brave tigers among men then cheerfully engaged in a wrestling combat, desirous of vanquishing each other. And terrible was the encounter that took place between them, like the clash of the thunderbolt against the stony mountain-breast. And both of them were exceedingly powerful, and extremely delighted at each other's strength. And desirous of vanquishing each other, each stood eager to take advantage of his adversary's lapse. And both were greatly delighted and both looked like infuriate elephants of prodigious size. And various were the modes of attack and defence that they exhibited with their clenched fists. And each dashed against the
other and flung his adversary to a distance. And each cast the other down and pressed him close to the ground. And each got up again and squeezed the other in his arms. And each threw the other violently off his place by boxing him on the breast. And each caught the other by the legs and whirling him round threw him down on the ground. And they slapped each other with their palms that struck as hard as the thunderbolt. And they also struck each other with their outstretched fingers, and stretching them out like spears thrust the nails into each other's body. And they gave each other violent kicks. And they struck knee and head against head, producing the crash of one stone against another. And in this manner that furious combat between those warriors raged on without weapons, sustained mainly by the power of their arms and their physical and mental energy, to the infinite delight of the con course of spectators. And all people... took deep interest in that encounter of those powerful wrestlers who fought like Indra and the Asura Vritra.
And they cheered both of them with loud acclamations of applause. And the broad-chested and long-armed experts in wrestling then pulled and pressed and whirled and hurled down each other and struck each other with their knees, expressing all the while their scorn for each other in loud voices. And they began to fight with their bare arms in this way, which were like spiked maces of iron. And at last the powerful and mighty-armed Bhima, the slayer of his foes, shouting aloud seized the vociferous athlete by the arms even as the lion seizes the elephant, and taking him up from the ground and holding him up from the ground and holding him aloft, began to whirl him round, to the great astonishment of the assembled athletes and the people of Matsya. And having whirled him round, and round a hundred times till he was insensible, the strong-armed Vrikodara dashed him to death on the g found."
Of all the arts of war, archery was certainly the noblest. It is the one that has inspired epic poets the most.
They regarded it as a symbol of supreme victory and incomparable prowess. It is deeply embedded in the Indian culture and even now is still strongly engraved in the mind and imagination of the people of India. Who in India does not have a special place in his heart for the image of the two brothers, Rama and Laksman, bows resting on their shoulders, quivers on their backs, walking through the forests? Who does not shudder when he recalls the mighty Arjuna at Kurukshetra, facing the army of Dhritarastra, and so overcome by grief that he abandons his bow and arrows?
एवमुक्त्वाऽर्जुनः संख्ये रथोपस्थ उपाविशत्।
विसृज्य सशरं चापं शोकसंविग्नमानसः ।।
Having said so Arjuna with his mind overwhelmed with agony threw away his bow together with the arrows and sat idle on the chariot in the battle-field.
(Bhagavad Gita, 1.47)
"The trial of the princes" by Nandalal Bose — a depiction of the archery test conducted by Dronacharya for his students, the Pandavas and the Kauravas.
Who does not remember king Dushyanta removing his bow with respect at the entrance of the peaceful hermitage of the great Rishi Kanva?
The practice of archery was a stupendous task. The Indian bow, as even the Greeks testify, was as long as a man's height and the Indians used an arrow which was three cubits in length with a heavy point. It naturally required a powerful man to handle such weapons. The Greek writers testify to the fact that such an arrow, when released from the powerful bow was thrown with such a tremendous force that it could pierce iron plates of great thickness. To secure an unerring aim with such a bow required constant practice. The practice which Arjuna is said to have had as a pupil under Drona was long and arduous, and it is stated that he used to practise even at night. The object of such practice was to secure unerring aim and achieve rapidity of throw. The archer was also expected to practise in all sorts of positions. Bows were of different lengths depending on the uses and the users. They were classified according to their weights and the strength of their cords. To pull the string of some bows or even to fix the string on to a bow was an extremely difficult task. In Chhandogya Upanishad we find the binding of a hard bow amongst examples of actions requiring a great strength:
यान्यन्यानि वीर्यवन्ति कर्माणि यथाग्नेर्मन्थनम्
आजे: सरणं दृढस्य धनुष आयमनम्
Other examples of actions that need strength are: churning of woodsticks to produce fire, running in the battle field, stretching of a powerful bow...
(Chhandogya Upanishad 1.3)
However warriors were so well trained that they were able to practise archery even on horse-back. They first learnt to hit a stationary tar get, then a moving target while standing still, then they practised aiming at targets while they were moving either backwards or in a circle. They were even able to aim at a target while riding and moving away from the target.
The youth of ancient India used to take a keen interest in learning the art of archery and also a great delight in exhibiting their skill in big
tournaments specially held for this purpose. Sometimes they would win a bride for themselves in "Svayamvara" by showing their skill in archery. In the Mahabharata, we have a fascinating account of the Svayamvara of Draupadi, the daughter of king Draupada. The competitors were asked to bend the specially mighty bow and shoot five arrows at a fish hanging from the ceiling in such a way that it was continuously moving. The catch was that the participants in the contest had to hit the target while looking down at the reflection of the moving fish in a water vessel kept on the floor below. Arjuna won by demonstrating extraordinary skill. It is interesting to note that this particular feat called Radhavedha was one among various other such feats which took place in tournaments not only during the epic period but even later.
Indeed it must be said that the study of Dhanurveda continued long after the end of the historical period of ancient India known as the epic period. Indian princes of later ages were intensively trained in Dhanurveda and were famous for their military valour. King Hemangada of the Kalingas bore scars on his forearm on account of the constant practice of archery. We are told of the hands of some princes whose skin had become very hard by the constant friction of the bow string. A king like Samudragupta who was named the "prince of poets" was no less proficient in the sterner arts of the warrior. On some coins, he is depicted trampling on a live tiger, which falls back as he shoots it. Wearing only waist cloth, turban and some jewellery, he stands as the very picture of energy. All these princes had a hall of exercises attached to the palace where they were able to exercise daily. In Bana's "Kadambari", we have a vivid description of the kind of education that was imparted to the princes. He tells us that King Tarapida of Ujjain had a "palace of learning" built for his son, the prince Chandrapida, outside the city. Underneath was a vast gymnasium. The young prince stayed there for years, preparing for adult life. Let us have a look at the vast range of his studies and let us see how physical education was deeply interwoven in the curriculum of the prince:
Chandrapida undisturbed in mind kept to his work by the king, quickly grasped all the sciences taught him by his teachers, whose efforts were quickened by his great powers, as they brought to light his natural abilities; the whole range of arts assembled in his mind as in a pure
jewelled mirror. He gained the highest skill in word, sentence, proof, law, and royal policy; in all kinds of weapons such as the bow, quoit, shield, scimitar, dart, mace, battle axe, and club; in driving and elephant riding; in musical instruments, such as the lute, fife, drum, cymbal and pipe; in the laws of dancing laid down by Bharata and others and the science of music such as Narada; in the management of elephants, the knowledge of a horse's age and the marks of men; in painting, leaf-cutting, the use of books and writing; in all the arts of gambling, knowledge of the cries of birds, and astronomy; in testing of jewels, carpentry, the working of ivory, in architecture, physics, mechanics, antidotes, mining, crossing of rivers, leaping and jumping and sleight of hand; in stories, dramas, romances, poems; in the Mahabharata, the Puranas, the Itihasa and the Ramayana; in all kinds of writing, all foreign languages, all technicalities, all mechanical arts, in metre and in every other art. And while he ceaselessly studied, even in his childhood an inborn vigour like that of Bhima shone forth in him and stirred the world in wonder. For, when he was put in play the young elephants, who had attacked him as if he were a lion's whelp, had their limbs bowed down by his grasp on their ears and could not move; with one stroke of his scimitar he cut down palm trees as if they were lotus-stalks; his shafts, like those of Parasurama when he blazed to consume the forest of earth's royal stems, cleft only the loftiest peaks; he exercised himself with an iron club which ten men were need ed to lift
We can see that the programme of physical education was integrated to such an extent that it lost its separate existence and identity and became one with the whole programme of education.
Directly linked with Dhanurveda, because of the need to develop strength and fitness of the warriors, were a wide range of exercises (Vyayama), sports and games (Krida). Actually these were not exclusively meant for people supposed to join an army. People from all walks of life were advised to practise them according to their different capabilities.
Amongst the physical exercises called Vyayama, some of them were very strenuous. For instance Bharasrama consisted in lifting heavy weights made of sandbags of various sizes. They had to be lifted several times by hands and legs. Another exercise, still prevalent today, was Stambhasrama. Stambha signifies pillar and Stambhasrama means exercise performed on the pillar or with the help of a pillar. The athlete was supposed to exercise by grasping the pillar with his arms and legs and whirling round the pillar. This exercise is now known as mullakhamba. These are only two among many other types of exercises like boxing, swimming, running, etc.
Amongst many sports and games of ancient India, we must mention the games with wild beasts and the games with horses. Gajavahyali Vinoda (sports with elephants) was a kind of race-competition between a man and a elephant. It, took place in a stadium built specially to this effect. It was, of course, extremely dangerous as the man could be trampled on by an angry elephant.
Other kinds of sports existed where a man fought unarmed with beasts such as elephants, bulls, buffaloes, etc. In the tournament held by King Virata, referred to above, Bhima had to fight against tigers, lions and elephants. During the great war he fought unarmed with the elephant of king Bhagadatta by entering through hind legs under the belly of the elephant and from there giving blows with his clenched fists. The Bhagvata Purana gives interesting accounts of Krishna fighting a furious elephant, of Balarama killing an ass by catching hold of his hind-legs, whirling him about and thrashing him against a tree. It gives a description of Krishna killing a wild bull by holding the two horns and wringing its neck. Even during the later periods, such fights were still in use. The kings of the Gupta dynasty were lovers of manly sports like these fights with wild beasts.
Asva-kanduka-krida, the sport with horses, was perhaps the most sophisticated game of ancient India. It was practised in a special play ground of specific dimensions called Vahyali. The game was played by two teams. The riders held strong sticks of cane (geddika) and had to strike a round ball made of wood covered with leather. Each team tried to send the ball towards the opposite goal. This game was very similar to what we now call polo.
To all these exercises and games must be added hunting, already mentioned. Hunting was believed to be an excellent activity for keeping fit.
There is an amusing scene in Kalidasa's Shakuntalam where ill effects and benefits of hunting are debated. Vidusaka, the jester, the king's confidant, complains about the hardships of the chase: "O my fate! I am tired of being friends with this king who is so addicted to the chase. 'Here is deer', 'There is a boar', 'Yonder's a tiger', thus, even at mid-day we wander about from forest to forest, amid rocks of woods with summer-thinned tree-shades. We drink hot, stinking waters of mountain-torrents, astringent from the mixture of leaves. At irregular hours, we get our meal consisting chiefly of meat roasted in pits. And even in the nights, I cannot have enough sleep, as my joints are all dislocated by riding on horse-back." The General of the king, on the contrary, states that hunting makes one intimate with the art of striking down moving targets, give understandings of the signs of fear and ferocity of wild beasts and endows the body with excellent qualities owing to a conquest over fatigue. He adds that hunting reduces fat, controls the abdominal overgrowth and keeps the body light and agile. We may add that hunting was part of the duty of a king, as he had to protect the hermitages of the forest against wild beasts.
Education as seen by the Rishis of ancient India aimed at perfection — a perfection of the total human nature. It would have been surprising then if this education did not look after the aesthetic needs of the individual. As a matter of fact, openness to poetry, art, and beauty was a quality very much part of the ideal of a perfect man. And since our main concern here is the body, it must be mentioned that, if ancient Indians cherished their ideal of a strong body, they did not forget that a perfect body is also a body which can move with grace; which, through various postures, can express feelings or ideas, which can coordinate with ease its different movements, which is able to feel and follow a certain rhythm. This is why Gandharvaveda was part of the subjects taught to the students. This Upaveda was derived from Samaveda and it is a well known fact that the entire Samaveda is meant to be sung. Gandharvaveda was mainly concerned with the art of singing, dancing, playing instruments but it also included dramatics. Later around the 3rd century A.D, an important treatise on music, dance and drama, the Natya Shastra was written by the sage Bharata. It described in detail the different modes of dancing, the gestures of hands and feet, the many different postures. It seems that even in the Vedic period dancing was practised by both men and women. We hear of some groups of ascetics
or recluses, the Ajivikas, who used dance and music as a means of spiritual progress. In the Mahabharata, we find that Arjuna, the great archer, was also expert in dancing and, while Bhima served King Virata as cook, he , under the pseudonym of Brhannala, offered his services as a dance-teacher. He taught the art of singing, playing of various instruments and dancing to the royal princess, Bettara and her maids.
Dancing was one of the sixty-four arts that a cultured lady was expected to master. There were dancing-halls attached to the palaces, where women could practise regularly under the supervision of a professional teacher. Sometimes professional dancers used to come and give performances in front of the king and his court. But dance did not exist only in palaces. It seems that there were various kinds of popular dances in which the people took part. There was, for instance, a great performance of group dance by women folk at the birth of Rama. The Balacarita describes how the lads and maidens of the cowherds rejoiced by singing and dancing on festive occasions.
However, it would be wrong to suppose from what has just been said that the education of women was limited to so-called feminine arts. It appears that women had the possibility, if they so chose, to get trained in warfare. The Rig-veda speaks of girls joining the army in large numbers. They were so skilled that men did not regard it as shameful to fight with such women. In the Ramayana, queen Kaikeyi reminds her husband that she accompanied him in the battle and was even able to save him by pulling him away from the battleground at the time when he was wounded. Women of royal families were expected to undergo a training in Dhanurveda, to learn the skills of charioteering and horse-riding like kings and princes. During the Maurya dynasty, it is certain that there existed women warriors. Megasthenes, the Greek traveller, who visited India at that time, speaks of armed women who served the king as his body-guards and escorted him while he went hunting. Megasthenes must have marvelled at this custom, as Greek women were expected chiefly to look after their household.
Let us add as a conclusion that ancient Indians, no less than ancient Greeks, used to enjoy public games. They took delight in watching skilled archers, mighty wrestlers or nimble acrobats. They were eager to admire their beautiful and healthy bodies. Many sports festivals were held on religious occasions. The festival of Samaja, in particular, which took place on every fifth day of new lunar months and which
was dedicated to Saraswati, is believed to date back from Vedic times. These festivals organized by the kings gave people the opportunity of discovering the valour of the youth having finished their training period. Special arenas or stadia were constructed, depending on the kind of competition. Royal balconies were built. Galleries for spectators were erected and decorated with flags and flowers. Invitations were extend ed by the rulers who organized the festival by sending special envoys to different parts of the country. Of course, boys and girls were fond of these social gatherings and parents of young people studying at Universities like Varanasi or Taksila sent messages for their sons to come and watch the tournaments. These festivals lasted for days and were even celebrated during the whole night, as fires were kept burning till the appearance of dawn. Even that element which was so predominant in ancient Greek games — the element of poetry and art — was also there in ancient Indian games. Poets were present and tried to earn laurels by reciting their compositions. The crowd watched wonderful feats of archery, parades of war-elephants, wrestling competitions, horse races. To enliven the scene and entertain the crowd, outside the arena, musicians, acrobats, dancers exhibited their skills, tricks and performances. The drums and flutes of some orchestras added their joyous note to the general atmosphere of merriment and rejoicing. Watching these festivals must have been as exciting as being part of the Greek crowds at Olympia.
Greeks, like Indians, had the keenest appetite for activities of all kinds, physical, mental, emotional. They took delight in human achievements and particularly physical achievements. They enthusiastically admired all-round excellence, '"arete", and their heroes embodied their ideal. Yet there is a trend in the Greek conception of life which is intensely tragic: there was a keen sense that life, this life which they loved so fiercely, was so brief. As Homer puts in: "As is the life of the leaves, so is that of men. The wind scatters the leaves to the ground: the vigorous forest puts forth others, and they grow in the spring-season. Soon one generation of men comes and another ceases." The tragic note was produced by the tension between these two forces, passionate delight in life and apprehension of its unalterable framework. The Greek men wanted so much their fame to be immortal probably because they dreaded the dim shadowy life that was supposed to await them in Hades.
The Indian conception of life starts from a deeper centre. The Indian
idea of existence is not physical but spiritual. Man himself is not matter, but a spirit that uses life and body and that gradually should move to self-discovery. This spirit can become one with God, one with the spirit of the universe. This belief in a gradual soul evolution with a final perfection is at the basis of the Indian conception of existence. So man was allowed to fill in life opulently with colour and beauty and enjoyment. But all activities were seen as opportunities for spiritual progress. To maintain one's body in good health, to train and discipline one's body, to delight in the breaking of one's bodily limits, all these human concerns and aspirations were recognized and encouraged, but they were seen as means of finding one's highest reality, the union with the supreme Self.
अमृतस्य देव धारणो भूयासम् । शरीरं मे विचर्षणम् । जिह्वा मे मधुमत्तमा ।
O God, may I become a vessel of immortality. May my body be swift to all works, may my tongue drop pure honey.
(Taittiriya Upanishad, 1.4)
Perhaps the full implications of the importance of the body to the spirit and of the spirit to the body were not worked out. As a result, in the course of history, India tended to neglect bodily life. The time has come now when the right balance of the body and the spirit should be achieved under a new ideal of divine life in a divine body.
This essay is based on the material
Physical Education in Ancient India,
by S.H. Deshpande,
Bharatiya Vidya Prakasan,