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.