Published On: Sun, Mar 20th, 2016

How India Made Britain More Literate: The ‘Beautiful Tree’ Beyond Dharampal – Swarajya

It wasn’t India which improved its schooling system by imitating Britain’s. Rather, it was the other way round.

Every Indian learns at some point about how India was educated by the British and how that brought about a cultural renaissance to a degenerated and stagnant India. Linked to this, Indian students also learn how two centuries prior to the colonization of India, Europe had undergone a renaissance and Lutheran reformation.

This had allowed Europe in general and Britain in particular to assume the role of civilizing the heathen world. How true is this grand narrative of the civilizing mission of the British?

The missing links

Mainstream European historiography has always presented Christianity as a positive influence over Pagan Europe. Thus Constantine is shown relieving the lot of slaves, highlighting his appreciation of allowing Church fathers to free a slave in a Church congregation.

In reality such a practice of freeing a slave existed not just for clergy but for all slave owners in Pagan Europe and the ceremony happened at Pagan temples. Factually though, religion became an additional chain for slaves and the slaves who escaped to “barbarian” lands resisting conversions had their feet cut off by Constantine. And this is seldom mentioned in such grand narratives.

Latter day praise of the Protestant movement is seen as a continuum of the same humanizing spirit of Christianity. A closer look reveals Protestant movement more as a reaction to the inevitable raise of modernism in Europe. And the modernism which was on the ascent in Europe was principally because of the rediscovery of philosophical traditions long dismissed as ‘pagan’.

Thus Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, in his infamous tract against the rebellious peasants opposing the crushing taxes of the high-born nobles, stated without mincing words

If the peasant is in open rebellion, then he is outside the law of God…Therefore, let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; (3)


Luther’s advice was religiously followed by the princes and Dukes and Counts who put to sword not less than 5000 peasants at Frankenhausen. And Luther delighted at the massacre of these peasants and declared with pride:

I, Martin Luther, slew all the peasants; all their blood is on my head for I commanded them to be slaughtered; all their blood is on my neck. But I pass it on to our Lord God, who commanded me to give this order.


England also fared no better in the treatment of its labour population which was mostly hereditary. Illiteracy of labourers, was intentional and was justified with religious reasons. In 1807, in the House of Commons, a British scientist Davies Gilbert vehemently opposed attempts to school the masses claiming that the education for the labouring classes

…would in effect be prejudicial to their morals and happiness: it would teach them to despise their lot in life, instead of making them good servants to agriculture and other laborious employments to which their rank in society had destined them….it would enable them to read seditious pamphlets, vicious books and publications against Christianity. (5)


Education – as a tool for social control

Even those who supported education for the peasant-labourer community considered it as a means of social control than any means of social emancipation of the toiling masses. Thus Sir James Phillips Kay-Shuttleworth, the First Baronet (1804 –1877), first secretary of the committee formed by the Privy Council to administer the Government grant for the public education in Britain, repeatedly stressed the point that the aim of the schools for the peasants’ children, “was to raise a new race of working people – respectful, cheerful, hard-working, loyal, pacific and religious.”

Often, education was taken up by churches and bundled with Sunday Bible classes. As such, the educational standards were abysmally low. For example in the strongly Methodist mining districts of Cornwall where more than 40,000 attended their Sunday schools in 1858, the Child Labour Inquiry found only one school teaching writing.

Data from Nottingham for the same year reveals that of the 22 children who attended only Sunday schools 17 children could not write . However the Sunday schools were praised by the elite Britons for they inculcated into the children of working class “moral restraint” . The educational missionary activity in London’s silk-weaving district of Spitalfields was prompted by need for social control which was felt after the strike in 1844 by coal miners .

The teachers were chosen not by their expertise in the subjects they taught but how well they had “a thorough knowledge of the saving powers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” . One son of a farmer who attended the village school remembered vividly how the children were taught to be “truthful, honest and obedient” to the authority failing which the children were shown by the teacher “a picture of what was said to be the devil – a dreadful looking person with a pitch fork…would deal with all wicked children and put them in the fire with this fork.” 

The trends continued well into nineteenth century and the malaise also affected the colonies as we will see later. However, by the first quarter of 19th century there was another wave building up from London and its suburbs. And their origins were from the coasts of India.

Re-discovery of the ‘Beautiful Tree’

The remark by Gandhi at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, on 20 October, 1931 about the more literate India is today well-known thanks to the pioneering work done by Dharampal. The metaphor of ‘beautiful tree’ for the Indic educational system has become famous at least among the Indo-philes. Sir Philip Hartog, the vice-chancellor of Dhaka University joined issue with Gandhi.

He commenced a correspondence with him, spanning almost a decade. Hartog had time and the bureaucratic services of an Empire at his dispense. He meticulously poured through reports and marshaled facts that suited him. Gandhi was at that time in the midst of freedom struggle spending most of his time in British prisons.

Hartog was invited to give a series of lectures in the University of London in order to allay the rising feeling among Indians that the British systematically destroyed the indigenous education. His lectures were promptly published as a book.

It was only after independence that Dharampal, the off-beat historian, set forth on the road less traveled going beyond the handed down wisdom of colonial frameworks and started going through the archives. The discoveries he made amazed him.

Reports after reports that the East India Company had made in the early nineteenth century in an exhaustive survey of indigenous education system commissioned by Col. T. Munroe revealed a far decentralized, more egalitarian system of education than the one existing in contemporary England. When Dharampal wished to publish his work the only person who was ready to do it was a Hindu nationalist historian and a publisher, Sitaram Goel.

Dharampal’s book ‘The Beautiful Tree’ contains a 1823 report by Ballari district collector. The collector mentions a curious fact:

The economy with which children are taught to write in the native schools, and the system by which the more advanced scholars are caused to teach the less advanced and at the same time to confirm their own knowledge is certainly admirable, and well deserved the imitation it has received in England.


This is the British acknowledgement of Indian system being imitated in Britain. With respect to how the saplings of ‘the beautiful tree’ were transported and transplanted in India Dharampal provides a mention of one Andrew Bell.

Carrying forward the work of Dharampal

Some decades after Dharampal’s work was published, James Tooley a British educationist was given a copy of “The Beautiful Tree” by an old book vendor in the old city of Hyderabad. That opened up new doors for Tooley who was already working on cost-effective quality education with specific focus on the developing countries. The result is a book titled “The beautiful tree: a personal journey into how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves” (Penguin Books India 2009)

Tooley started working on how the old educational system in India was financed. He also worked simultaneously on how educational system evolved in Great Britain. He discovered the extent to which the Indian education system was adapted or rather imitated in England. He started with Andrew Bell who was a “reverend”. In the words of Tooley, as he researched on the life of this Rev. Andrew Bell, what he discovered ‘seemed like dynamite’ to him.

For they vividly showed how the “economical” method of teaching in the private schools for the poor in India became translated into a method that transformed education in Victorian England and beyond.


Rev. Bell was in India to work in the asylum for the progeny of British soldiers through native Indian women, whom of course the soldiers abandoned. The imported teachers for these children were not exactly enthusiastic. One day as he was riding along Madras beach he noticed a native school session. He saw “little children writing with their fingers on sand, which after the fashion of such schools, had been strewn before them for that purpose” and he also saw “peer teaching – children learning from one another.” (

Bell had his Eureka moment. He experimented successfully with this method and in 1797 published the description of his “Madras method” in England. Tooley discovered that the new National Society for the Education for the Poor in 1811 adapted this Madras method and by 1821, 300,000 children were being educated by Bell’s principles .

Meanwhile Jospeh Lancaster has launched his famous Lancastrian schools for furthering education in England. Bell and Lancaster entered into a bitter controversy as to the intellectual property of the particular system of education. But Tooley points out that “it wasn’t invented by either Bell or Lancaster. It was based precisely on what the Rev.Dr.Andrew Bell had observed in India”.

Tooley further elaborates:

the cost-effective teaching methods used in the indigenous private schools of 19th century India were in fact a manifest strength; so much so…they were imitated in Britain , then across Europe and then the world and did so much to raise educational standards.


What is even more important is the way the funding of education changed in England. James Mill, father of John Stuart Mill observed in 1813, particularly around London the “rapid progress which the love of education” was making among “the lower orders in England”.

Funding of these schools, Tooley observes, was done through school fees and private schools for the poor were increasing in Victorian England. By 1851 of the 2,144,278 children put in day schools 85 percent were in private schools funded the same way the private schools of early 19th century India were funded. By 1861, 95 percent of the children were in school for an average of nearly six years. The horses of literacy were galloping in England.

But in India…

In India in 1854, Thomas Babington Macaulay had established his first school in India. Tooley under the appropriate heading “The men who uprooted the beautiful tree” states:

By 1858 this new system had delivered 452 schools and colleges with a total enrollment of 20,874 in 21 districts of Madras Presidency. But 36 years earlier Munro had found that a total of 11,575 schools and 1094 colleges with 157195 and 5431 students respectively!


The rate of growth of literacy in India under the British controlled Macaulay education system began to fall way back compared to the rate of growth of literacy in Britain under the Indic method of private school enrolment. The Macaulay system itself needed 60 years to improve upon the enrolment figures of Indian educational system. But even to achieve the kind of literary growth that the British society achieved under the Indic education system transplanted in England, the Macaulay system took seventy one years. Tooley observes wryly:

If the dynamics of the India private education system had been anything like those of the parallel system in England we would have seen a much larger growth in enrollment than had the British not intervened at all.


Macaulay system also perpetuated and amplified the social distances among the different occupational groups in India. Tooley states:

…completely against the committee’s explicit intentions, the new schools were excluding everyone apart from the elite, the Brahmins. Why? One source suggested that the government “was uneasy about low-caste people being admitted to the …Schools. It was feared that, if they were encouraged the upper classes would show resentment and withdraw their support.” So the new public schools became a vehicle to promote caste privilege, rather than a vehicle for improvement of all. Again it would seem that the indigenous system had unnoticed strengths in promoting education of all including the lowest castes.


Though Government spoke of the resentment of upper class Indians the fact is that the British educational system in its very nature was elitist and often prevented people form lower strata of the society into echelons of higher education. It was almost a universal phenomenon of colonialism. Economist Clark Kerr points out:

The British system of higher education until the middle of the nineteenth century was elitist, and largely hereditary elitist. Entry into Oxford and Cambridge was limited by rule to males who were members of the Anglican Church and in fact mostly to sons of the gentry and the upper middle classes. …Sub-Sahara Africa with its missionary schools and French lycees followed the meritocratic elite system then in effect in Britain and France.


It should also be noted that while British policy of education to masses was as a means of social control, the indigenous education in India was for empowering and liberating the individuals and the society. Nineteenth century South Travancore, one of the first victim states of colonialism, social stagnation and caste oppression reached the levels of social lunacy.

But here the most successful social revolutionaries were all (Ayya Vaikundar, Sri Narayana Guru and Ayyan Kali – to name a few) those who studied through native educational system. The cost-effective universal education which gave England its advantages over other European nations, also owes its positive features to that beautiful tree that stood in India, which as Gandhi stated was destroyed by the very British who benefited by it.


1. James Sands Elliott , Outlines of Greek and Roman Medicine, BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2008 p.112 (Here the author after depicting Constantine’s appreciation of Christian system in vivid and glowing terms, simply notes, “In pagan times there was a somewhat similar system of a master being able to redeem a slave and register the redemption in one of the temples.”

2. Entry for “Mutilation of the Body” in Encyclopaedic Dictionary Of Christian Antiquities (Ed. William Smith, Samuel Cheetham), Concept Publishing Company, 2005, p.244

3. Roland Bainton, Here I Stand – A Life of Martin Luther, READ BOOKS, 2007 p.280

4. Martin Luther quoted in Erasmus – The Right to Heresy, (Staffan Z Weig, READ BOOKS, 2008, p.145)

5. Hansard , 13 July 1807, quoted in John Rule, The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England 1750-1850: Chapter 10: Education for the labouring classes, Longman 1986, p 235

6. R. Johnson, ‘Educational policy and social control in early Victorian England’, Past and Present, no.73, 1976: quoted in John Rule, The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England 1750-1850: Chapter 10: Education for the labouring classes, Longman 1986, p.246

7. J.G.Rule, “The Labouring Miner in Cornwall circa. 1740-1870: a study in social history’, PhD Thesis, University of Warwick, 1971, pp.324-6

8. P.Gaskell, Artisans and Machinery, 1836, pp.243-4: quoted in R. Johnson, ‘Educational policy and social control in early Victorian England’, Past and Present, no.73, 1976: quoted in John Rule, The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England 1750-1850: Chapter 10: Education for the labouring classes, Longman 1986 p.248

9. Phillip McCann ,Popular education, socialization and social control : Spitalfields-1812-24, Popular education and socialization in the nineteenth century, Methuen, 1977 pp.1-29

10. John Rule, The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England 1750-1850: Chapter 10: Education for the labouring classes, Longman 1986 p.249

11. C.T.Trevail, 1927: quoted in John Rule, The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England 1750-1850: Chapter 10: Education for the labouring classes, Longman 1986 p.249

12. Collector, Bellary To Board Of Revenue:17.8.1823 (Tnsa: Brp: Vol.958 Pro.25.8.1823 Pp.7167-85 Nos.32-33): Dharampal, The Beautiful Tree, Other India Press, 1983:2000, p.190

13. Dharampal, The Beautiful Tree, Other India Press, 1983:2000, p.10

14. James Tooley, The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into how the World’s Poorest People are Educating Themselves, Cato Institute, 2009, p.229

15. James Tooley, 2009, p.229

16. James Tooley, 2009, p.230

17. James Tooley, 2009, p.230

18. James Tooley, 2009, p.230

19. James Tooley, 2009, p.237

20. James Tooley, 2009, p.235

21. James Tooley, 2009, p.238

22. James Tooley, 2009, p.232

23. Clark Kerr, The Great Transformation in Higher Education, 1960-1980, SUNY Press, 1991,p.8


Source: How India Made Britain More Literate: The ‘Beautiful Tree’ Beyond Dharampal – Swarajya

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