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

When the state backs a particular text such as the Gita, to the exclusion of others, its message is that Hindu texts have primacy over the rest, and that these texts, unlike the rest, represent ‘Indian ethics’ or ‘Indian culture’.

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Dara Shukoh translated the Bhagavad Gita into Persian in the 17th century and some hundred years later, Warren Hastings supervised its translation into English.

In The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography, Richard Davis discusses how the Marwari businessman, Jayadayal Goyandka, follows Krishna’s direction to Arjuna to spread the teachings and the principles of the Gita by setting up the Gita Press in 1923, to publish and spread the text in Hindi throughout North India at an affordable price.

Over the past century, the Gita has been translated into all major languages. According to Sanskrit scholar Robert P. Goldman, it is today perhaps one of most recognised works in the Hindu canon. 

While one can appreciate the cultural value and significance of this ancient scripture, the Gujarat government’s decision to include it in the curriculum of government schools for classes 6 to 12 as a compulsory component has raised eyebrows. Some see the move as linked to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s larger political project of Hindutva. 

Also read: The Gita and Gandhi’s Decision Against Violence

The teaching of religion in schools in the United States also arose out of a political project.

As Noah Feldman explains, following the election of the “unpolished” Andrew Jackson as the US President in 1828, American elites felt that education that inculcates moral values was the only way to protect the US from falling into chaos through the election of low-brow and degenerate people. As most American elites in the 1820s and 1830s were Protestant Christians, the solution for them lay in introducing the Bible, particularly the Gospels, as part of the public school curriculum. 

While this addition to the syllabus was seen as ‘innocuous’ by the majority Protestant Christians, it was an affront for Catholics and Jews. Catholics, whose numbers increased in the US following mass immigration from Ireland, believed that only a priest could teach the Bible. It was a Protestant notion that any member of the laity could expound on what the verses meant. For Jews, the foisting of Christian beliefs was seen as an attack on their own religious identity.

US Supreme Court judge, Justice Hugo La Fayette Black. Photo: Wikipedia/Public domain

Eventually, from the 1940s onwards, the fundamentalist belief that the US is a ‘Christian nation’ was challenged after the US Supreme Court, especially Justice Hugo L. Black, advocated the separation of the state from religion. 

When morning prayers in public schools were challenged in the US, the state argued that children were not being coerced to pray. However, Justice Black pointed out that there is an indirect coercion on minorities to conform when the government places its power and resources behind a particular prayer or religious activity.

Black’s reasoning still holds true today, as majority privilege prevents sections of the dominant community from understanding how minorities feel when they are made to accept a particular tradition or practice, which they don’t ascribe to.

Similarly, the practice of reading out verses from the Bible in American public schools, without any comment or exposition, was struck down as the state was endorsing a particular religion. The reading of the Bible verses itself was a source of consternation among Christians, as there are different versions of the Bible, whether it be the King James version used by Protestants or the Douay-Rheims version used by some Catholics.

So one can imagine the impact the endorsement of the Bible had on non-Christian minorities. 

It is interesting to note that the language used by Hindu nationalists in 21st century India, is eerily similar to the views of the American Christian fundamentalists of the 1820s. The Bhagavad Gita needs to be taught in public schools as a source for building good morals, according to the Karnataka education minister.

It has been argued that the Bhagavad Gita is not a religious text and that it is meant for all people. However well-intentioned that characterisation may be, one cannot divorce the text from its religious connotations and origins. Some argue that Hinduism is a way of life, and hence its scripture can be accepted by all. The same argument can be made about several belief-systems.

Almost all major religions prescribe a set of ethical principles, they are all concerned with a way of life. Therefore, there is no logical reason for the government to privilege the Bhagavad Gita over any other text. 

Of course, there can be many benefits in learning about religion in schools. Religious illiteracy breeds ignorance and prejudice.

For instance, those in India who view Muslims as ‘invaders’ are probably ignorant of the fact that Islam initially reached India peacefully through Arab traders, centuries before the Ghaznavid conquests.

Mahmud of Ghazni receives a robe of honor from the caliph al-Qadir in 1000. Miniature from the Rashid al-Din’s Jami‘ al-Tawarikh. Photo: Edinburgh University Library/Public domain

Christianity explored the shores of Kerala far before most of Europe had even heard of it, and Judaism established its presence in the sub-continent in ancient times. Ancient religious texts are also relics of the past and they grapple with questions of human existence, as do non-religious classics. Ancient writings, including epics and scriptures, have literary value as well. 

The German model recognises the value of including religious education in schools. Article 7 (3) of the German constitution permits religious instruction in public schools; however, the participation in such classes is strictly voluntary. In recognition of the growing religious diversity due to immigration, German states have started including Islamic religious content in their schools.

India, which is far more religiously diverse compared to Germany, should also adopt an inclusive approach, if at all public schools start including religious texts in the curriculum. 

One can celebrate the diversity of the country by referring to the canons and texts of all major religions in India, but the moment the state places its weight behind a particular text such as the Bhagavad Gita, to the exclusion of others, it sends out a message of endorsement. A message that Hindu texts have primacy over the rest, and that these texts, unlike the rest, represent ‘Indian ethics’ or ‘Indian culture’, relegating a multitude of identities to the margins. 

While Indian secularism is not hostile to religion like the French laïcité, it does proscribe the state from engaging in preferential treatment or endorsement of one religious identity over another. When the chief minister of Karnataka glibly statesif not Bhagavad Gita, what else will give moral values?’, he implies that the other religious texts are lower in status in terms of moral education. Such a statement not only sends a message of endorsement to the adherents of the Bhagavad Gita, but it also sends a message of disapproval to those who don’t conform. 

Students talk to a police officer as they leave after not being allowed to enter the PU College while wearing Hijab, in Udupi, Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. Photo: PTI

There are some who may argue that they had to go through catechism or other forms of religious instruction in minority institutions as children. It is only natural for private institutions, especially those aligned with a particular religion, to endorse the principles of their conviction. However, the moment the state through its instrumentalities such as government schools endorses or disapproves a religion, it alienates those who don’t subscribe to such belief systems. Alienation owing to one’s identity strikes at the heart of the idea of India as a pluralistic nation. 

In 1974, the religious studies scholar James V. Panoch argued that the pedagogical approach to teaching religion in public schools should be academic in nature, not devotional. While public schools can help increase awareness of religion, especially through a comparative study, it should not aim for the acceptance of any particular religion by students. Public schools should not engage in the business of endorsing or disapproving any religion.

Also read: How a Simple Conversation Brought About Hindu-Muslim Unity in a UP School

These principles were later incorporated in the guidelines on teaching religion in public schools, prepared by a task force headed by Harvard Divinity School scholar Diane L. Moore. It will be instructive for Indian policy makers to keep these principles in mind. 

At the same time, there is sufficient reason to suspect whether the Gujarat government’s inclusion of the Gita as a compulsory component in the government school curriculum and the current ruminations of the Karnataka chief minister, are genuinely linked to imparting moral values. Removing minority symbols in the name of uniformity, while promoting one particular religious scripture, sends a clear message about the direction the country is heading.

At a time when communal peace is severely strained, the last thing we need is the state to get excessively entangled with religion by tinkering with the education system of our country. 

Arvind Kurian Abraham is an advocate with an LLM from Harvard Law School and a B.A LL.B (Honours) from NUJS.