How Tenable Is It to Teach Just One Scriptural Text in State-Funded or Aided Institutions?

If moral teaching is to be part of a school curriculum in a multi-religious polity like our republic, there should be no argument against including moral insights from all our religions.

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News has come in that the Gujarat and Karnataka governments mean to induct the Srimadbhagwat Gita into school curricula under the rubric of “moral education”.

Now there can be little doubt that the Gita is an outstandingly stimulating read, unique in the modernity of its Q&A between Arjun, the first of avant-garde anti-war humanists, and Lord Krishna.

Indeed, the openness of the text lies in the fact that it not only seeks to answer many philosophical conundrums, but it also leaves room for further enquiry despite the authoritative assertions.

For example, we may still ask whether the Lord’s admonition to Arjun at one point to follow his Shatriya dharma is or is not construable as a problematic invocation of a social identity — a subject that has much troubled our republic in recent years.

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

Or, what may be the implications of that other admonition, namely, that we must follow our designated karmic actions and refrain from seeking the fruit of those actions for modern-day capitalists who must after all look to enhance their “bottom lines”; and whether the recommended selflessness may not after all have the effect of keeping the labouring classes from raising demands.

Be that as it may, the other question for our day is this: given that the Gita is the centrepiece, undeniably, of the Hindu religious epic, The Mahabharata, how does the Gujarat and Karnataka government’s proposal square with the explicit injunction of Article 28 of India’s still “secular” constitution, which reads:

Clause 1: “No religious instruction shall be provided in an educational institution wholly maintained out of state funds.”

Clause 3: “No person attending any educational institution recognised by the state or receiving aid out of state funds shall be required to take part in any religious worship that may be conducted in such institution any premises attached thereto.”

We may recall that keeping in mind the religious plurality of India, Mahatma Gandhi’s prayer meetings used to be inclusive of texts from all Indian religions — a course of reflection and action that he clearly sought to press into service to consolidate and further communal harmony and unity among all Indians. Few Hindus indeed may have practiced the noble humanist precept of Sarvadharma samabhav (equal respect for all religions) as he did, although, sadly, following this article of belief often propounded by ideologues of the Sangh did not win him any laurels from the self-appointed authenticators of true Sanatan faith.

Some spokespersons of the ruling BJP have countered the constitutional difficulty by arguing that the teachings of the Gita are more moral than religious, and therefore of universal application.

That position then raises other questions: why are not the equally excellent moral instructions embedded in the scriptures of other Indian religions of equal moral validity?

Take Sikhism. It may be argued with force that the quatrain at the very beginning of the Guru Granth Sahib furnishes an insight that if we all followed could set at rest much of our sectarian hate and violence towards one another across religious communities. Here is what it says:

Avle Allah Noor jo paya/Qudrat de sab bande/Ek hee Noor toun sab jug upja/Kaun bhale, kaun mande.”

Translation: The first Light that God created/Of that Light  is all humankind  made/Thus where is the question of who is high, or who is low.

What indeed may be a more unarguably encompassing moral teaching than what is encapsulated in those lines?

Indeed, keeping in mind India’s plurality, should it not be a great humanising lesson to school-going children that the Granth incorporates in its text the sayings/enunciations of saints who were Muslims and Dalits?

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

Or that the Guru’s Langar (hearth/provisions) remain accessible to women, men, children of all faiths, and of all status without discrimination, or how they are all obliged to do seva (service), including cleaning out their plates after they have been fed?

Go to the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament of the Bible, and we read such things as the following:

Love thy neighbour as thyself.

– Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

– Lay not thy treasure upon the earth, for thieves shall come and steal it; lay thy treasure in heaven…

– As a good tree is known by its good fruit, so good men are known by their good deeds.

Blessed are the peace-makers, for they shall inherit heaven.

– It is as difficult for a rich man to enter heaven as for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

And elsewhere in the book, the violent lynching instincts of a rabidly self-righteous mob is quelled thus:

Whoever among you is without sin may cast the first stone.”

Are these not moral teachings of the deepest worth, deserving of being offered to our young ones for moral edification?

In the much-maligned Islam, here is a gem-like instruction from the Quran – Lukum Deen-a-qum Walia Deen” – ergo, to you your religion, to me mine.

Can there be a more succinct guide to communal harmony and religious tolerance?

Then there is the injunction to spare from each one’s earning a portion (Zakat) for the collective welfare of the less fortunate, especially widows and orphans.

Is that a course not worth inculcating in a country which ranks at the near-bottom in the Global Hunger Index?

And, from the Dhamma of Buddhism: accept nothing that your best reason rejects as false, distorted, questionable – regardless of which authority it comes from.

What could be a more precious piece of moral teaching in days when an uncritically blind cult-worship afflicts so many parts of the world, including today’s Bharat?

That is, if indeed our educational system desires to enable our wards to grow to be intellectually self-reliant rather than conformist drum-beaters to authority and the untenable shibboleths it seeks to promote.

Then, as in the Bible, is the creed of non-violence enshrined in Jainist/Buddhist thought which holds up the non-affliction of pain on others as the ultimate moral high (Ahimsa Parmo Dharma).

And so on.

So, it may be asked – if moral teaching is to be part of a school curriculum in a multi-religious polity like our republic in which all citizens thus far remain equal before law and have the right to equality of all other kinds, including the right to “profess, practice, and propagate” whatever religion they follow, what can be the argument against including moral insights and teachings from all our religions? Especially since school-going boys and girls comprise young ones from all denominations that constitute the people of India who gave a constitution to themselves?

Or, have we forgotten?

And the fact that there can be no argument fuels the suspicion that the inclusion of the magnificent Gita all by itself to the exclusion of the texts mentioned above (and many others not mentioned here for lack of space) may have less to do with moral teachings and more to do with a dominant politics that continues to seek ways in which, subtly or not, a far-reaching transformation in the character of the polity and the state be effected, debilitating the majesty of the constitution to a point where a fait accompli confronts the secular-democratic republic .

After all, sophistry, however sophisticated it may be, has its limits even in a post-truth world.