Postural Punishment in Indian Schools

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Poster No. 14 in the 'Children of India' series
published by Indian Book Depot (Map House), Delhi

Transmission of knowledge in South Asian societies has played a role in shaping the pedagogy used to teach Yoga in its variety of forms across the world. Contemporary debates on such topics as the power dynamics of teacher-student relationships, adjustments, consent, healthy boundaries, mythologising practices/gurus, etc., face the challenge of disentangling cultural norms from the idiosyncrasies of gurus and their teachings. 

In an effort to understand the influence that cultural context plays in forming some of these teaching methods, a valuable historical resource is the collection of surveys by William Adam1 on the indigenous teaching methods in vernacular education in the early nineteenth century. These extensive field reports were conducted in north India, especially Bengal and Bihar, between 1835 and 1838 in a variety of native languages (namely Bengali, Hindi and Urdu and occasionally Persian and Sanskrit). They provide a window into the educational framework, both public and private, that existed in village communities prior to British interference.

In the case of public education, each village aimed to support a guru-mahashay (school master) charged with providing a secular education, in the main, of basic literacy and arithmetic at schools known as Pathshalas.Adam estimated that around one-hundred thousand of these unregulated schools existed across the region at the time.

As a supplement to Adam's census data, a contemporary missionary, Rev. Alexander Duff, wrote in the Calcutta Review (Vol. II, No. IV, Art. I, p. 334),3 a descriptive account of 'The System of Discipline' in use by guru-mahashays. Duff's account includes a list of fifteen different kinds of punishments, all corporal in nature, which he considered 'of most ordinary occurrence' (see below). It should be noted that the application of such punishments depended solely on the guru’s discretion. Also, Rev. J. Long1, who wrote about Adam's work, states that these techniques were gradually falling out of use.

It is interesting to consider the similarities between several of these punishments and some āsanas of yoga. For example, standing on one leg (similar to vṛkṣāsana), holding one leg behind the head (as in ekapādaśīrṣāsana), binding both hands around the legs in a seated or standing forward-fold (a punishment called murga that is still used in India today4 and is somewhat similar in form to the standing version of titibhāsana), and hanging upside-down from a tree (known as tapakār āsan in the Jog Pradīpyakā). Here, the line between a corporal punishment and a yoga posture becomes as thin as the historical one between tapas and yoga. The distinction is a matter of context and interpretation. Nonetheless, one might infer that using such postures as a form of punishment in schools may stem from their association with ascetics (tapasvin).

“A boy is made to bend forward with his face toward the ground; a heavy brick is then placed on his back, and another on his neck; and should he let either of them fall, within the prescribed period of half an hour or so, he is punished with the cane.
Or, a boy is condemned to stand for half an hour or an hour on one foot; and, should he shake or quiver, or let down the uplifted leg before the time, he is severely punished.
Again, a boy is made to sit on the floor in an exceedingly constrained position, with one leg turned up behind his neck.
Or, still worse, he is made to sit with his feet resting on two bricks, and his head bent down between both legs, with his hands twisted round each leg so as painfully to catch the ears.
Again, a boy is made to hang for a few minutes, with his head downwards, from the branch of a neighbouring tree. 
Or, his hands and feet are bound with cords; to these members so bound a rope is fastened; and the boy is then hoisted up by means of a pully attached to the beams or rafters of the school.
Again, nettles, dipped in water, are applied to the body, which becomes irritated and swollen; the pain is excruciating and often lasts a whole day; but, however great the itching and the pain, the sufferer is not allowed to rub or touch the skin for relief, under the dread of a flagellation in addition. 
Or the boy is put up in a sack along with some nettles, or a cat, or some other noisome creature, and then rolled along the ground. 
Again, the fingers of both hands are inserted across each other with a stick between and two sticks without drawn close together and tied. 
Or, a boy is made to measure so many cubits on the ground, by marking it along with the tip of his nose. 
Again, four boys are made to seize another, two holding the arms and two the feet; they then alternately swing him and throw him violently to the ground. 
Or, two boys are made to seize another by the ears; and, with these organs well outstretched, he is made to run along for the amusement of the bystanders. 
Again, a boy is constrained to pull his own ears; and, if he fail to extend them sufficiently, he is visited with a sorer chastisement.
Or, two boys, when both have given offence, are made to knock their heads several times against each other.
Again, the boy who first comes to school in the morning receives one stroke of the cane on the palm of the hand, the next receives two strokes, and so each in succession, as he arrives, receives a number of strokes equal to the number of boys that preceded him, - the first being the privileged administrator of them all.” 

(Duff 1846: 334; repeated in Adam and Long 1868: 10)

The biographical accounts of Adam5 and Duff,respectively, reveal two ambitious Scotsman with somewhat opposing agendas. Adam mastered the Sanskrit language, as well as Bengali, and worked closely with progressive contemporaries, such a Rammohun Roy, to produce translations of important texts, such as a Bengali translation of the New Testament and the English translation of the Vedas. He was later appointed Professor of Oriental Literature at Harvard7. His passion for avante-garde views led him to become an active abolitionist in the World Anti-Slavery Movement, a founder of the influential British India Society in 1839, and an advocate for women's equality. Conversely, Duff was an active interventionist, who successfully established the Grand Assembly's Institution in Calcutta and was instrumental in establishing government policy that promoted the English language and a western-style education at the expense of indigenous languages and modes of education.

I would like to thank Jason Birch and Matthew Remski for their very constructive comments on a draft of this post.

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1  W. Adam and J. Long, Adam’s Reports on Vernacular Education in Bengal and Behar, Calcutta, 1868.

2  Nigel Crook (Editor), The Transmission of Knowledge in South Asia: Essays on Education, Religion, History, and PoliticsSchool of Oriental and African Studies, 23 May 1996.

3  Alexander Duff (Editor), Art. I The state of Indigenous Education in Bengal and BeharNo. IV, Vol. II, Second Edition, Calcutta Review Vol. II, October - December, 1844, Third Edition, Calcutta: W. Thacker and Co.; London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1846.

4  Jha Madan Mohan, From Special To Inclusive Education In India: Case Studies Of Three Schools In DelhiPearson Education India, 1 September 2010.

 S. C. Sanial, The Rev. William Adam,  Bengal: Past and Present
, Vol. VIII. Series 15 - 16 Art. XVI p. 251, Journal of the Calcutta Historical Society (January - June, 1914)

 George Smith, The Life of Alexander Duff D.D., LL.D., London: Hooder and Stoughton (1879)

 Josiah Quincy, The History of Harvard University, Volume II, p. 390, Cambridge: John Owen (1840)

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