The ashram or the dwelling place was the ancient seat of learning and acted as the university and schools of today. It was the key institution where the Vedas were learned and practiced. The Rishi lived with his pupils. He taught them the message of the gods through mantras, how to worship them through sacrifice and inspire men to follow the ordinances of Gita. Each ashram was a closely knit family and not like the modern, impersonal schools of today. It rested on the collective support of the community who looked up to it as a source of inspiration for life well lived.
In Vedic India, the Rishi was a not a priest. He was a teacher whose life was dedicated to the Gods and Gita. The first step in translating Gita in life was through training in self-disciplined behaviour under an Acharya. He was a spiritual guide to the student. At an early stage of consecration a young person had to learn how to conform to the Gita through vratas or pledges of disciplined behaviour. Diksha stood for a life of discipline dedicated to prayers, to learning and teaching. When a Arya was consecrated he became a Brahmachari.
In succeeding ages our culture maintained its vitality because it depended on this class of dedicated, self-disciplined students for its creative vigour. A culture flourishes only when its educational system imparts a sense of mission to the youth and trains them to lead a disciplined life. If the new generation grows up in self-indulgence, then the system fails to capture the values of the culture. Consequently, decay follows bringing with it social, moral, cultural disintegration.
The above paragraph explains two things. Why has the Indian civilisation survived in spite of many foreign invasions that attempted to destroy the Indian way of life. The rishis and students passed on the knowledge of Gita from generation to generation. Since they were spread through out the country, even if an invader destroyed 25 ashrams there were thousand others that survived.
Secondly, what is the reason for the current decay in our society. It is to do with the failure of the current educational system, I am not authority on education but do feel the mass based education of today has failed to deliver. It is bookish, impersonal, continuously harps on acquisition of material objects, does not teach us how to handle life and ignores personality development. Instead of reading about Indian books, we study European literature in Shakespeare and Macbeth. This has made a substantial part of the urban population ignorant about Indian culture. As a recent issue of The Outlook has pointed out, a number of urban Indians between 20-30 years are using religion / spirituality as a tool to cope with Stress.
Today, some of us turn spiritual after we cross fifty. Are we getting the maximum benefit out of doing so? The answer is No. After having lived most of our lives in ignorance and suffered thereafter, we turn spiritual. Having realised the benefits of spirituality, some of us might be tempted to ask ourselves, Had I done this thirty years ago would I have lived life differently?
Brahmacharya was during the period of training only. Marriage, children was part of the tradition. The student of a Rishi, dedicated to Gita was looked up to as a leader and was to play the role of a dominant minority in society providing insight, judgment to translate values into life. It is my belief that over time, these students came to be known as Brahmans. This might be one of the reasons why Brahmans, a minority came to wield power as they did and do so today.
The highest function which the rishi had to perform was to compose, preserve and transmit the sacred hymns. The divinity of the Vedas became one of the fundamental values of Vedic culture. In a sense it was a unifying factor and a source of perennial inspiration. Chanting of the Vedas was not the exclusive privilege of the Brahmans. The rishis extended their sphere of influence through out India. In the process Aryan traditions mixed with Dravidian, tribal traditions to become a single culture. Aryan culture started moving South/Westwards. One of the Rishis Agastya is credited with being the father of Tamil grammar and poetry. The Namboodiri brahmans of Kerala claim descent from Parashurama.