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Bhagavad Gita in syllabus

Targeting young minds: BJP plans to introduce Bhagavad Gita as subject in Gujarat

Print edition : Apr 22, 2022 T+T-
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President Ram Nath Kovind presented with a copy of the Bhagavad Gita by Gujarat Speaker Nimaben Acharya during a special Assembly session, in Gandhinagar on March 24, 2022.

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Jitu Vaghani, Gujarat’s Education Minister.

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At a Bhagavad Gita recital during Gita Jayanti celebrations in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, on December 7, 2019.

The Gujarat government’s plan to introduce the Bhagavad Gita as a compulsory subject in school leads to a strong backlash from secularists, who suspect the move is yet another part of the BJP’s polarising agenda.

The Gujarat State government has announced a plan to introduce the Bhagavad Gita as a compulsory subject from class VI to class XII in State board schools. Soon after Gujarat announced its plan, Karnataka, which too has a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, said that it would also consider introducing the 700-verse scripture, which is part of the Mahabharata epic, in its classrooms. Earlier, in February, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) said that it would be introducing the Bhagavad Gita as a subject in its primary schools.

Secularists, who are concerned about the trend, said that the agenda behind the move was insidious and dangerous. They found it even more worrying that the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have reportedly endorsed the decision in Gujarat.

Frontline spoke to authorities on the Gita , including academics and activists, and most of them said that to teach children this text the instructors had to be knowledgeable and capable of simplifying, contextualising and explaining the larger value contained in it for the younger age groups. Rationalists, however, categorically stated that if the Gita was not interpreted correctly it could be seen as perpetuating violence and social ills such as the caste system.

Government rationale

Jitu Vaghani, Gujarat’s Education Minister, justified the move, saying: “ Shrimad Bhagavad Gita’s values, principles and importance are accepted by people of all religions. In class VI, it will be introduced in such a way that students will develop an interest in it.”

Vaghani told the Legislative Assembly that students would be taught the importance of the Bhagavad Gita in the beginning and then, to keep their interest alive, stories would be introduced in the form of ‘shlokas’, ‘shloka’ songs, essays, debates, plays and quizzes. He also said that students from class IX onwards would be taught an advanced level of the text.

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According to him, the plan was conceived in line with the National Education Policy (NEP) that was released in July 2020. An official circular from the Gujarat government said the idea was to “cultivate a sense of pride and connection to traditions”, adding that it planned to introduce the text in the new academic year beginning June 2022.

The NEP devotes an entire chapter towards “holistic and multidisciplinary” education. It does not compel educators to introduce spiritual texts but does encourage the exploration of ancient Indian literary works. An educator who did not wish to be named said that creative licence can probably be used to interpret the policy, which is perhaps what the Gujarat government has done.

An extract from the NEP indicates how the policy is subject to interpretation: “A holistic and multidisciplinary education, as described so beautifully in India’s past, is indeed what is needed for the education of India to lead the country into the 21st century and the fourth industrial revolution. Even engineering institutions, such as IITs, will move towards more holistic and multidisciplinary education with more arts and humanities. Students of arts and humanities will aim to learn more science and all will make an effort to incorporate more vocational subjects and soft skills.”

Furthermore, the policy says: “Imaginative and flexible curricular structures will enable creative combinations of disciplines for study, and would offer multiple entry and exit points, thus, removing currently prevalent rigid boundaries and creating new possibilities for life-long learning.”

The essence of the Gita

According to historical material, the Bhagavad Gita , directly translated, means “The Song of God”. Other titles include “The Word of God” or “The Divine Song”. Considered the most holy of all Hindu texts, the Gita makes up chapters 23-40 of Book VI of the Mahabharata . The narrative essentially revolves around Arjuna, the warrior, who faces a conflict when the prospect of war with his cousins appears before him.

According to the Gita , he cannot bring himself to kill people he grew up with. So, he leans on his charioteer, Krishna, who literally and metaphorically steers him through this crisis. The conflict is used as a backdrop by Krishna, who is an incarnation of God, to explain and reveal the truth of the world to Arjuna. The dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna is read as counsel on navigating life. Several scholars have pointed out that the conversations are layered and nuanced. It takes a fair amount of enlightenment to truly grasp the complexities and larger message.

Also read: Assault on reason

On the issue of learning the Gita’s teachings, the collective opinion of authorities on the text was that if the scripture is not taught properly or with the wrong intention, more damage than good will come out of it.

S.K. Arun Murthi, a retired professor of philosophy who taught humanities and social sciences at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Mohali, has written extensively on the plan to introduce the Gita in the school curriculum. He said: “I feel very strongly that developing critical and analytical thinking is probably the most important aspect of education for a student. Teaching the Gita will be restricted to forcing students to memorise verses of the text. Such rote learning discourages debate and the faculty of reasoning will be sidelined. In the 1970s, we used to have the Bal Vihars organised by the Chinmaya Mission that taught children spirituality. The children would learn the ‘shlokas’ by rote during those classes. I don’t believe many even understood what they were learning.”

He added: “In the course of the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna, there are a host of dogmas that the Gita presents (to have been delivered by the Lord). It defends one dogma by invoking another dogma. Babasaheb Ambedkar deliberates on three of them in his essay as illustrations. The first one is on the ‘justification of war’. The second one is its defence of the four-fold caste system known as chaturvarnya and the third one is about karma, or action, held by most as the central teaching of the Gita , popularly known as karma yoga.”

According to him, all these dogmas are presented in verses and many have dilated on these, with scholarly pretensions giving rise to a range of discourses that can be termed as hermeneutics of the Gita . He said: “Justification of violence and caste form part of the scholarly pretensions and interpretations. Caste system is defended by invoking the idea of karma. For example, Arjuna is exhorted to take up arms as, being a ‘kshatriya’, it is his duty to fight. By invoking the idea of innate dispositions, qualities and activities of a person, the idea of caste is given a different spin and justified. The scripture, as the word of the Lord, can be misread without a debate and this in turn can perpetuate violence and the caste system.”

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Speaking in the context of education, Murthi said: “In the Hindu tradition, scriptures like the Gita are held to be sources of knowledge and are not to be questioned. Therefore, there is little scope for debate and analysis, which should be an important part of any form of education. Some might argue that the Gita is not a religious text and, in this way, it has been elevated to the status of a universal cultural text. Given that it explicitly deals with transcendental matters of God, world and self and their relationship, and assumes a certain authority as a scripture in these matters, it becomes a de facto religious text. Therefore, my resistance to the introduction of the Gita is as follows: when I am going for a secular education, why should I have to learn about a religious text, more so when there is no scope for critical engagement and a rational debate on unanalysable categories and concepts like God, self and the world?”

Father Cedric Prakash, a Jesuit and human rights activist who teaches in Ahmedabad, said that if the intention was to learn lessons from religious texts, then the government should not stop at the Gita , it should introduce a course in world religion. He said: “Teach what is good in all faiths. Teach from the Bible, the Quran, the Guru Granth Sahib and the Avesta. Let it be a compulsory subject maintaining the plurality of India and the secular ethos of the country. If they want to provide a holistic education, provide them in moral science, value education, constitutional education.”

Father Cedric Prakash, who has been witnessing the polarisation in Gujarat since the 2002 communal riots, said: “We must note that the first thing any fascist does is to infiltrate the education system. Here is where they can shape gullible and naive minds.” As to why the Bhagavad Gita in particular, he said: “It is clearly to show the Hindus that we are giving the Hindu faith importance. This is a ploy....to continue to polarise.”

Indira Hirway, an economist and director of the Centre for Development Alternatives in Ahmedabad, supported Father Cedric Prakash’s views, stating that if India defines itself as secular, it should teach the principles of all holy texts. She said: “The trouble now is the communal divide ensures that Hindus support these initiatives. It is tragic that there is no pushback from educationists. This is a wrong step. I am a follower and really respect the Gita , but I fear when they teach it will be about Hinduism being the best religion, which is harmful in an already polarised atmosphere. Obviously, the idea is to create the Hindu rashtra and even highly educated people are lapping it up.”

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Irfan Engineer of the Centre for Study and Secularism in Mumbai said: “These governments are teaching not the morals in the Bhagavad Gita , they are more interested in sending a political message to society. That message is: Now this is a Hindu society.” According to Engineer, the Gita has its merits and its lessons should be taught. In fact, he added, even minority institutions should teach world religions. However, he pointed out that the Hindutva agenda has been spreading. For instance, the subtext of Hindus being the dominant community has already seeped into school curricula. He said: “I recently read a textbook, which, while describing Diwali, said ‘our’ Diwali is celebrated in this way and ‘their’ Eid is celebrated that way. Aren’t Muslims also part of this country? Who is going to comb through all of this?”

In support of the move

Countering the strong backlash from rationalists, Neema Majmudar, a well-known teacher of Indian philosophy and the Bhagavad Gita in Mumbai, said that she believed if any culture had a jewel to offer which was good for humanity, it should be shared and taught. Neema Majmudar, who has international experience, having worked for the United Nations, said that Indians “unfortunately are so apologetic and shy of their culture”, but, according to her, they must display the richness of the country’s heritage. She added: “The beauty of the Gita is that it is all-inclusive. No one is left out. Setting aside the religious aspect, it has so much to offer the world. I do agree though that whoever teaches it has to deliver it correctly.”

Neema Majmudar also said that the text helped the psychological health of everyone and no one must be deprived of its teachings. In the context of children, she said, it was important to help every child build self-confidence and a strong self-image. They need to understand the negativity of jealousy and constant competition. She said: “The Gita shows us how to develop a healthy nurturing relationship with ourselves. You tell me, what is harmful? Who will not benefit from this? I think the whole world has to have access to it. It will only produce good human beings.”

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