Haryana’s Decision to Include the Bhagavad Gita in School Curriculum Skews the Idea of Education

The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Haryana has proposed the introduction of the Bhagavad Gita in school curricula across government-run schools in the state. This move is slated be in effect from the next academic session that would commence on 1 April 2015. {{name}}
11 March, 2015

The next academic session will bring a change in curriculum for school students in Haryana, who will now have to study shlokas from the Bhagavad Gita as part of their syllabus. This move comes shortly after external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj called for the Gita to be declared a national holy book.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented a copy of the book to US president Barack Obama on his maiden visit to the United States and to Japan's Emperor Akihito last September. While presenting the book to the emperor in Japan, Modi said, “For gifting I brought a Gita. I do not know what will happen in India after this. There may be a TV debate on this. Our secular friends will create ‘toofan’ (storm) that what does Modi think of himself? He has taken a Gita with him that means he has made this one also communal. … Anyway, they should also have their livelihood and if I am not there then how will they earn their livelihood?”

Much time has passed since, and secular livelihoods do not seem as easily threatened as Modi had believed them to be in the immediate aftermath of his electoral victory. It is now time to question what it means for the Gita to be part of the curriculum, not because of what Modi or Sushma Swaraj say, but because an answer takes us closer to understanding what we mean by the very idea of education.

The Gita is set at the beginning of the great war of the Mahabharata. The very first chapter is set on the battlefield where Arjuna, astride his chariot, takes in the view of a hostile army arrayed before him, comprising his kinsmen and elders. Unable to comprehend killing them, he is ready to lay down his arms, and he voices this predicament to his charioteer Krishna. (The translations here are taken from the popular Gita press edition, and while scholars may debate the nuances, the broad thrust remains unchanged in most translations):

37. … Krishna, it does not behove us to kill our relations, the sons of Dhritarashtra. For, how can we be happy after killing our own kinsmen?

38–39 … Even though these people, with their mind blinded by greed, perceive no evil in destroying their own race and no sin in treason to friends, why should not we, O Krishna, who see clearly the sin accruing from the destruction of one’s family, think of desisting from committing this foul deed.

Arjuna goes on to describe the consequences of the destruction of a family.

40. Age-long family traditions disappear with the destruction of a family; and virtue having been lost, vice takes hold of the entire race.

41. With the preponderance of vice, Krishna, the women of the family become corrupt; and with the corruption of women, O descendant of Vrshni, there ensues an intermixture of castes.

42. Progeny due to promiscuity damns the destroyers of the race as well as the race itself. Deprived of the offerings of rice and water (sraddha) the manes of their race also fall.

43. Through these evils bringing about an intermixture of castes, the age-long caste traditions and family customs of the killers of kinsmen get extinct.

The consequences of the destruction of one’s family, as spelled out by Arjuna, cannot be excised out of the text. They help frame Arjuna’s dilemma, and even when Krishna goes on to address the philosophical doubts that assail Arjuna, he says nothing that would contradict these worries. If there is any counter to the assumption that impiety corrupts women—and that once corrupted, women become responsible for the intermingling of castes and set humans on the road to destruction—we are not privy to it in the Gita.

The fear of the intermingling of castes and the need to uphold the hierarchy that governs an ancient social order is intrinsic to the Gita. In chapter XVIII, Krishna notes, as he espouses the path to liberation

47. Better is one’s own duty, though devoid of merit, than the duty of another well-performed; for performing the duty ordained by his own nature, man does not incur sin.

The idea of duty here is an inherited one, and is spelled out by Krishna before reaching his conclusion:

41. The duties of the Brahamanas, the Kshatriyas and the Vaishyas, as well as of the Shudras have been assigned according to their inborn qualities, Arjuna.

42. Subjugation of the mind and senses, enduring hardships for the discharge of one’s sacred obligations, external and internal purity, forgiving the faults of others, straightness of mind, senses and behaviour, belief in the Vedas and other scriptures, God and life after death etc., study and teaching of the Vedas and other scriptures and realization of the truth relating to God—all these constitute the natural duties of a Brahamana

43. Heroism, majesty, firmness, diligence and dauntlessness in battle, bestowing gifts, and Lordliness—all these constitute the natural duty of a Kshatriya.

44. Agriculture, rearing of cows and honest exchange of merchandise—these constitute the natural duty of a Vaishya (a member of the trading class); and service of the other classes is the natural duty even of a Shudra (a member of the labouring class).

The danger of intermingling of castes is highlighted once again, attributed in this case, not to miscegenation but to any confusion that may arise regarding the tasks that have been assigned to us by virtue of our birth.

Those who espouse the introduction of shlokas from the Gita in the school curriculum must keep these verses in mind. While upholding the case for value-based education in schools the Supreme Court in a 2002 judgment observed:

What is sought is to have value based education and for ‘religion’ it is stated that students be given the awareness that the essence of every religion is common. Only practices differ. There is a specific caution that all steps should be taken in advance to ensure that no personal prejudices or narrow minded perceptions are allowed to distort the real purpose. Dogmas and superstitions should not be propagated in the name of education about religions. What is sought to be imparted is incorporated in Article 51(A)(e), which provides “to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities; to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women” And to see that universal values, such as truth, righteous conduct, peace, love and non-violence be the foundation of education.

The imputations about women, the references made to the maintenance of a caste hierarchy and the emphasis laid on the Shudras’ duty to serve other classes, would, in isolation or collectively violate the Supreme Court judgment that allows the inclusion of value based education in school curriculum.

The state of Haryana can no doubt argue that it has sought to include only a few shlokas—to be selected by Dinanath Batra, who is heading the Educational Consultative Committee that will advise the State Council of Educational Research and Training on the shlokas to be inserted—from the Gita in the curriculum. But the Gita is a text that has to be read as a whole. Individual shlokas only make sense within the larger context in which they are embedded. Any attempt to make sense of a few select shlokas would take us through all of the Gita, and thus any student who displays a modicum of intellectual curiosity will have to wrestle with the implications of the shlokas cited above, whether they are part of the curriculum or not. Perhaps, such a student would then have to demand answers from politicians such as Sushma Swaraj who claim the status of a national scripture for the Gita.

None of this is meant to argue against the fact that the Gita is important in understanding the evolution of what we call Hinduism today, or that the questions it wrestles with and the answers it provides are of importance. This is why it is necessary to take note of what is problematic about the text, and ensure that its inclusion in the curriculum also deals with the questions raised above. Any attempt to whitewash such difficulties away would be an assault not only on our past but also on the complexities of a text we are in danger of bowdlerizing in a misguided attempt to force it into school curricula.

This argument holds true for any religious text—Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Buddhist, Jain or any other—that we want to introduce into schools. It must allow itself to stand the scrutiny of reason and criticism in the schoolroom. This will necessarily be in contradiction to its sacred status, which demands that the text lie outside such scrutiny. It is ironic that we seek to introduce scriptures in the classroom at a time when one of the biggest problems with our education system is that even history or mathematics are taught as scripture, with the student unquestioningly forced to accept what the teacher says.

In the case of the Gita, it is only through an understanding of the ambiguities inherent in the text that we can begin addressing Sushma Swaraj’s demand for naming it our national scripture. The existence of the debilitating hierarchy of caste in our society and the problematic attitude towards women are not just social ills that ail our country, they are embedded in some of our deeply held beliefs. It is only when we confront these issues and realise their implications that we can even begin to think of initiating a change in such thinking. Unfortunately, this is exactly what we have always managed to avoid. And it needs no great understanding of the past to know that it is the student asking the right questions who will suffer the most when Haryana seeks to impart knowledge of the Gita in the classroom.