The decision to introduce the Bhagavad Gita in the Haryana school curriculum goes against India’s secular character and its present policy of education

It was reported in February that the Haryana government’s Educational Consultative Committee (ECC), headed by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue Dinanath Batra, urged the State Council of Educational Research and Training to suggest slokas from the Bhagavad Gita that could be introduced in the school curriculum.

This move wasn’t surprising; it is perfectly in line with other events: Prime Minister Narendra Modi presenting the Gita to the heads of states, Sushma Swaraj demanding that the Gita be declared “Rashtriya Granth” (national scripture), and Mr. Batra being appointed to the Haryana government’s ECC. All of these moves are consistent with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideology. But do they fit with the Constitution, which enshrines the principle of secularism, as well as the education policy of the country?

The National Policy on Education (NPE 1986, modified in 1992), which is the current educational policy of the country, notes as a concern that the “goals of secularism, socialism, democracy and professional ethics are coming under increasing strain” (NPE-86, 1.11). It further argues that education should further the “goals of … secularism and democracy” through contribution “to national cohesion, a scientific temper and independence of mind and spirit.” (ibid, 2.2) The policy declares that the “National System of Education will be based on a national curricular framework” which “will be designed to promote values such as India’s common cultural heritage, egalitarianism, democracy and secularism … and inculcation of the scientific temper. All educational programmes will be carried on in strict conformity with secular values.” (ibid, 3.4, emphasis added)

These quotes make it clear beyond any doubt that the existing National Policy on Education is committed to egalitarianism, secularism, democracy and scientific temper, and wants all educational programmes to be carried on in strict conformity with secular values. Is the Haryana government’s decision to include slokas from the Bhagavad Gita in the school curriculum in conformity with all the values then?

Idea of secularism

Properly speaking, secularism is a doctrine that rejects religion and religious considerations in the state’s policies, their implementation, and decisions. Secularism is the doctrine of keeping religion out of the state’s decisions and actions. But we have, instead, interpreted secularism as ‘Sarva Dharma Samabhava,’ where the state professes equal respect for all religions. This kind of an interpretation could be used to argue that compulsorily teaching selected verses from the Bhagavad Gita does not violate the principle of secularism. However, this interpretation is internally inconsistent and some implications of it are almost impossible to implement.

But even if we ignore those internal contradictions, ‘Sarva Dharma Samabhava’, coupled with the principle of equality, demands that scriptures from any one religion cannot be chosen to be included in the curriculum. If this is the case, then selected verses from scriptures of all religions professed by Indian citizens — Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, etc. — should be included. Not doing this or not accepting these will amount to rejecting even the ‘Sarva-Dharma Samabhava’ as a principle of state policy and functioning. So far, there seems to be no decision to include any other scripture other than the Gita. Therefore, the plan to include the Gita in the curriculum is certainly communal in character and goes against the education policy.

Independence of mind is possible only through the development of critical reason. Critical reason demands that all beliefs be examined on rational grounds before they are accepted. If the beliefs happen to be of the nature that influence society, going beyond an individual’s private life, then this critical examination has to be public, as everyone is affected by them. That is, if the Gita or any other religious scripture is included in the curriculum, it needs to be critically examined at par with all scientific, political and social theories and ideologies.

The state can, of course, present the argument that only those slokas which have acceptance as moral values and which can be rationally defended will be selected from the Gita. But all scriptures have moral values that can be cherry-picked and presented as something good for humanity. This kind of cherry-picking does not help in understanding their overall character and philosophy. And they will result in indoctrinating the young into a religion whose book they do not understand. This precisely is the kind of education that prepares the ground for fundamentalism.

Need for critical reading

The only way the acceptable teachings of the Gita can be learnt and indoctrination can be avoided is through critical reading which involves a rigorous interrogation of values and their justifications. For example, say, we take the very appreciable list of virtues “Modesty, sincerity, non-violence, patience, honesty, respect for one’s teacher, integrity, firmness, self-control.” (Fosse, Lars Martin, The Bhagavad Gita, 13:7) If we want children to appreciate these virtues, then they should also understand the reasons behind considering them worthy of acceptance. The rationale the Gita provides emerges from a certain theory of the cosmos, of human beings and human action that is based on the acceptance of eternal soul (purusha or atma), primordial matter (prakriti), the three gunas of the prakriti, bondage of the soul, the Brahmn, and so on. Without elucidating these concepts, no argument can be built to accept the virtues as far as the Gita is concerned.

But accepting these concepts has at the least three serious problems. One, the arguments are so subtle and complex that schoolchildren who are under the age of 16-17 cannot understand them at all. Teaching these values through the Gita before the 11th standard can only count as indoctrination.

Two, arguments provided for the cosmic conceptual scheme hang on faith; there is no sound rational argument to accept this scheme. Therefore, it could be taught only as theory, believed by some people, and not as ‘truth’. This would be very difficult in our schools.

Three, the same cosmic scheme is also used to justify the varna structure of society and to build an argument that people should be devoted to the duty prescribed by their varna. Krishna declares that he “brought forth the four-class system.” (ibid, 4:13). This structure is used to declare “women, traders, peasants, and servants” as born out of ‘papayoni.’ (ibid, 9:32) The attitudes and tasks of these varnasare fixed. Brahmins are supposed to have “[t]ranquility, self-control, austerity, purity, patience, rectitude, knowledge, understanding, and faith in religion” that are “born of their nature.” (ibid, 18:42) “Heroism, energy, resolution, capability, abstention from retreat in battle, generosity, and the exercise of power” is the nature of Kshatriyas. (ibid, 18:43) The Vaishyas are supposed to be doing “[f]arming, cow herding, and trade”, while the Shudras are “characterised by service.” (ibid, 18:44) And then it tells you that “Men attain perfection by devoting themselves to their separate tasks. … A man finds perfection by worshipping through his own,” thus putting a seal directly from God on the fate of these varnas. (ibid, 18:45-46)

The problem is not in studying the Gita to understand the religious thinking of ancient Hindus; rather, it is in taking Gita as an uncritical guide in accordance with what it demands: “let scripture be your authority when you establish what you should do and not do.”(ibid, 16:24)

There are several problems in including the Gita in the Haryana school curriculum. They relate to the preference of one religion over another, a clear programme of indoctrination, pedagogical difficulties, and an uncritical preaching of casteism through varna theory. The introduction of Gita in the curriculum, therefore, is certainly a decision that goes against the present policy of education and the secular character of the country. The decision seems to be motivated by the desire to proclaim hegemony of a section of upper caste Hindus. If this decision is seen in conjunction with other decisions such as making suryanamaskar compulsory in Rajasthan schools, and banning the consumption of beef in Maharashtra, it is difficult to draw any other conclusion. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a stiff enough resistance to these decisions from any quarter of society.

(Rohit Dhankar is professor and director, academic development at Azim Premji University, Bangalore, and founder member, Digantar, Jaipur.)

http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/indoctrination-in-the-guise-of-education/article7045761.ece#.VRi2CL623Fs.gmail