Giving gifts to teachers: a tribute or a bribe | Sunday Observer

Giving gifts to teachers: a tribute or a bribe

20 August, 2023

In Sri Lanka, as in most South Asian countries, the concept of Guru Bhakti (devotion to one’s teachers) plays a significant role in education. We can all remember the time when the class venerated their “Sirs” and “Madams” with betel leaves or handshake or hug at the beginning and end of the school term. For the most part, payment for their timeless instructions took the form of school fees which they receive as salaries from the school’s administration or the State.

However, there is now a trend of gifts, or accurately a list of gifts, that students are now obliged to give their teachers. There is nothing wrong with giving gifts to your instructors, but in an increasing number of schools, this practice is enforced and it is often unwarranted given the rising cost of education.

Guru Dakshina

The Mahabharata recounts the story of Dronacharya and Ekalavaya. Dronacharya; the revered martial arts teacher of the Kuru clan was approached by Ekalavaya, a son of a poor hunter, for his instruction. Dronacharya, a proud Brahmin, didn’t want the low-born Ekalavaya to learn alongside the high caste Kshatriya refused to admit him to the college given the number of princes under his tutelage.

Eklavya in his heart had already accepted Dronacharya as his teacher. He went home and made a statue of the warrior Brahmin. Over the following years, with sincerity and practice, he learnt archery and became better than the princes at the art. He became so good at it that, he would hear the sound of the animal, shoot an arrow at it and claim the animal.

One day, Arjuna, the third Pandava and hero of the Mahabharat epic, found out about this talented archer. Making matters worse, he saw that Eklavya was far better than him. He went to Eklavya and asked him, ‘Who taught you archery?’

‘Dronacharya,’ said Eklavya. Hearing this, Arjuna went up to Dronacharya and said angrily, ‘What is this? You have cheated us. What you have done is a crime. You were supposed to teach me exclusively, but you taught this man and made him more skillful than me.’

Dronacharya was baffled and confused at Arjuna’s allegations. He wondered who this student of his was, who had learned the art from him but whose name and identity he did not know! He thought hard, but could not come up with an answer for Arjuna. He could not believe, this student was better than even Arjuna.

Both, Dronacharya and Arjuna decided to meet the boy.

Eklavya welcomed his master with great honour and love. He led both of them to the statue he had made of Dronacharya. Eklavya had practised archery over all the years, considering and believing the statue to be his Guru.

In ancient times, a common practice in learning was - Guru Dakshina, where a student would give a token of gift or fee for the knowledge gained by the student.

Dronacharya said, “Eklavya, you must give me some Guru Dakshina. You must give me the thumb of your right hand.” Eklavya knew that without the thumb, archery could not be practised.

Eklavya without a second thought gave the thumb of his right hand to his Guru.

“More than a thumb”

Parents who wished to remain anonymous said that schools demanded a long list of items as gifts to teachers. These gifts can range from stationery to toiletries. “It’s a bigger problem when you have several children and you have to prepare gift lists to each of their teachers,” one parent said.

Although Guru Dakshina is an ancient practice, this form of patronage is ingrained in society and has been in South Asian culture for a long period of time. In Sri Lanka, teachers of traditional arts such as dance, music and martial arts, demand a set payment that include various items. But these gifts are part of old tradition and are an authentic expression of Guru Dakshina.

But unlike the epic, the “Guru Dakshina” demanded by schools is a far-cry from cultural sentimentality and costs families more than a thumb.


A teacher’s job is not easy, the occupation demands work that you take home daily. There is also pressure from parents and their peers who put an emphasis on students’ success on teachers. They do all this while working in one of the most meagrely paid occupations in Sri Lanka.

Although private education is one of the most lucrative industries in the country, teacher salaries have been stagnant for years. Some teachers are turning to giving private classes to make ends meet while a few have been making themselves into celebrity tuition teachers who earn by the million. Given this situation, some might argue that gift giving is fair because teachers in formal educational are severely underpaid.

“Public service motivation”

There are some who would call this form of gift giving a form of enforced bribery. If this way of paying homage to teachers is contractual then how can we stop society at large from developing a socially acceptable form of bribery? Is bribery the most viable mode of public service motivation; especially in a developing economy bogged down with layers of bureaucracy?

Nonetheless, bribery and corruption are rampant in the Global South and sadly the most efficient way of doing business by default. But can we call giving gifts to teachers a form of bribery if, as argued, a contractual. And there is the question of parents hard pressed to provide these gifts to ensure that their children are not dejected in front of their peers. If this factor is in play, could we define the whole practice as an elaborate racket?

In the complex landscape of education, the evolving practice of giving gifts to teachers has ignited discussions about tradition, ethics and the dynamics of education in societies such as Sri Lanka. The roots of Guru Dakshina, steeped in cultural sentimentality and respect for teachers, have evolved into a more complex phenomenon that warrants careful examination.

The challenge lies in finding a balance between acknowledging the hard work of educators and preserving the authenticity of the teacher-student relationship. While some traditional forms of Guru Dakshina, such as those practised in traditional arts, are rooted in cultural authenticity, the proliferation of enforced gift lists in modern educational settings warrants scrutiny.

A thumping conclusion lies in the recognition that education is the foundation of society’s progress. The teacher-student relationship is sacred, a source of inspiration and knowledge transmission. As communities evolve, it’s crucial to retain the spirit of respect and gratitude toward teachers, while adapting practices to align with modern realities.

Whether it’s through fair compensation, improved working conditions, or fostering an environment where the intrinsic value of teaching is cherished, the true essence of Guru Bhakti should always shine through. Let’s ensure that our expressions of gratitude to teachers enrich the learning experience, strengthen the fabric of education and uphold the integrity of this noble profession.