Bhagavad Gita in Schools: Rote Learning of Illiberal Theological Text Will Trump Rational Inquiry

The book is full of obscurantist themes and ideas which require critical engagement of the kind school teachers will not be willing or able to provide.

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Earlier this week, the Gujarat government announced that the Bhagavad Gita will be part of the school syllabus for classes VI to XII across the state from the academic year 2022-23. The Karnataka government is also considering introducing the Gita as part of ‘moral education’ in state schools. It can be expected that other Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled states, and perhaps the Central Board of Secondary Education too, may follow soon.

Gujarat education minister Jitu Vaghani says that the decision to introduce the Gita is in line with the Union government’s New Education Policy, which advocates the introduction of traditional and ancient culture that will make students proud of India’s glorious past.

Even earlier, changes had been made in NCERT textbooks to reflect grand narratives of ‘pride in our rich cultural heritage’. Such moves make the intentions of the BJP clear: to push their ideological agenda by giving a eulogistic account of our glorious past.

The Gita has acquired a certain popularity in the world of Hindu thought. Though Hindus see the Gita’s message as a ‘universal truth’, it remains a religious text. If it is to be part of the school curriculum, it is hard to see why Muslim and Christian teachings – which their adherents also believe are ‘universal’ – should not also be taught. Unless, of course, the aim is to underline the salience (and even superiority) of Hinduism over other religions that Indians profess.

But there is a deeper, pedagogic point of concern as well. Though touted as a popular text on which great personalities have provided their commentaries, the Gita is full of obscurantist themes and ideas which require critical engagement of the kind school teachers will not be willing or able to provide. This will make it difficult for students to make much sense of the text in the classroom, and will lead to rote learning without any sense of understanding. Given the prevailing pedagogy, teachers will stifle the rational sensibilities of their students and encourage them merely to commit to memory the verses of the Gita. In fact, this is how the exposure of the members of the laity to Gita has happened at the popular level. It is this aspect of memorisation as a propaganda tool that has made it popular as a theological text.

Why should the Gita be considered an obscurantist theological text? A short review of the Gita and B.R. Ambedkar’s critique of the text will provide an appropriate answer to this question.

In the 18 chapters comprising 700 shlokas (verse-form), the Bhagavad Gita is presented as a narrative where Lord Krishna is in conversation with the Pandava prince Arjuna in the middle of the battlefield. Arjuna breaks down and refuses to fight at the start of the battle against his Kaurava cousins as he is overcome with grief and confusion at the thought of the loss of life of his kith and kin during the course of the ensuing battle.  The lord then presents the illusoriness of grief to Arjuna and expounds on the nature of the self or the soul.

Also read: There’s a Right – and Wrong – Way to Teach Scriptures in Government Schools

Beyond this basic ‘storyline’, the Gita’s substance is essentially theological. The central concepts that it deals with in this exposition are karma, samkhya and yoga. There are differences among different commentators about what these concepts mean. But essentially these are theological themes dealt with in the Gita. How can a text whose substance is theological be thrust upon students?

One of its central themes is karma and the most popular verse often quoted is the one that says we are not entitled to the fruits of our actions (Chapter 2, verse 47):

karmay-evādhikāras te mā phalehu kadāchana
mā karma-phala-hetur bhūr mā te sa
go ’stvakarmai

(‘You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction.’)

 What is the message conveyed by this shloka? It goes against the very practical psychology of why we work. What should young students make out of this and how should one follow this as a value? Children go to school to acquire knowledge and aspire to do better in life. That is the value of hard work that is taught to them. But here is a statement from the Gita presented as a gospel truth that is in conflict with the value of hard work.

What good does this do for school-going children? In fact, this will demotivate them as this shloka strongly suggests that they should not have right to fruits of their action and, by implication, arrest their aspirations. Further, there is no philosophical argument for this statement – no reference to the greater good of all. The shloka is merely a theological statement as what follows from this in the Gita is that all actions have to be surrendered to the lord.

Babasaheb Ambedkar is right when he says that “it is neither a book of religion nor a treatise on philosophy”. In the chapter titled ‘Essays on the Bhagwat Gita: Philosophic Defence of Counter-Revolution: Krishna and His Gita’ (Volume 3 of his writings and speeches published by the Maharashtra government), Ambedkar begins by questioning what exactly is the teaching of the Gita. Quoting extensively from different scholars with a variety of opinions which are incompatible with each other, he concludes that there is no clear message in the Gita.

However, Ambedkar has been a bit generous in his critique of the Gita when he says that it is a book that defends religious dogmas on philosophic grounds and so “uses philosophy to defend religion”. Sadly, the Gita even fails to do that. It actually defends one dogma by appealing to the other. This can be seen by examining a verse of the Gita on caste.

The theology of the Gita, through the idea of karma, unfolds the caste system. In fact Lord Krishna proclaims that he is the creator of the four-fold social order Chaturvarnya (Chapter 4, verse 13). Ambedkar also mentions this verse as an illustration of one of the dogmas of Gita:

chātur-varya-mayā siha gua-karma-vibhāgaśha
tasya kartāram api mā
viddhyakartāram avyayam

(‘The four categories of occupations were created by Me according to people’s qualities and activities. Although I am the Creator of this system, know Me to be the Non-doer and Eternal’.)

Are students supposed to learn the moral rightness of the caste system that has been ordained by the lord himself? However cleverly the modern-day casteists attempt to offer a scholarly defence (one that can be obviously read as extremely pretentious) of this social order – interpreting it differently by appealing to symbolic meanings in terms of qualities and actions of human beings – it just does not appear to be convincing.

If it is claimed, as some orthodox scholars do, that the categories are based on innate qualities and activities, then a counter question can be posed as: why does he (the lord) create such differences in qualities. There is no answer and sometimes a tepid response is given in terms of karma theory which is another theological explanation devoid of philosophical substance. It is a case of defending one dogma by the other.

Ambedkar, therefore, is right when he contends that it is not a philosophical text. He gives an example of how a dogma is defended in the Gita. In response to Arjuna’s remorse in the battlefield, Lord Krishna provides a justification of the war. He preaches that there is no ground for remorse in war and killing because the soul knows no death and cannot be killed and it is only the body which is destroyed. But the body is unreal and the soul is real. In that case, how does one answer the following: If the body is not real, why did the Lord create an illusory body and then put the soul into it?

Also read: Reading ‘The Gita’ Without Glossing Over Its Contradictions

These are not philosophical defences but one dogma being defended by invoking another dogma. When asked what the validity of this statement is – i.e. the dogma invoked to defend an earlier dogma – the Gita appeals to the Vedas as the source of this statement, which has to be accepted as authoritative. If at all there is any semblance of an argument in the Gita it is by defending the indefensible by invoking one dogma to defend the other one. The Gita, thus, is an illiberal theological text with regressive ideas.

When a theological text is elevated to the status of “unique universal inspiration” and is taught by teachers as part of the curriculum, what is likely to be the fate of students who seek to subject the shlokas to logic and analysis? Instead of developing a rational outlook and an attitude of critical enquiry, it is obvious that students will be driven to learn the Gita by heart. What purpose will be served by this kind of rote learning should be obvious.

S.K. Arun Murthi taught philosophy in the humanities and social sciences department, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali, Punjab.