When Supreme Court Judge Justice Dave says he needs to be a dictator to introduce lessons on Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita in schools, he obviously presumes that this cannot be done within the framework of our Constitution. This may not be correct for many reasons.
Justice AR Dave on August 3 had said that Indians should revert to their ancient traditions, and texts such as Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita should be introduced to children at an early age.
Chief Justice Ahmadi in the famous SR Bommai case has observed that “The term 'secular' has advisedly not been defined presumably because it is a very elastic term not capable of a precise definition.” But Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution of India concretise secularism by prohibiting discrimination on the ground of religion. So to say teaching only Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita in schools is against the Constitution it needs to be first established, as a matter of legal principle, that these are religious texts which stand on the same footing as sacred texts of other religions.
The tritest distinctions between sacred texts of other religions and Hindu scriptures has been described well by the Andhra Pradesh High Court in a 2009 judgment- “the tenets of any religion are contained in specific Holy Books or scriptures and they are traceable to the ultimate Spiritual Personality of that religion. For instance, in respect of Christianity, Bible happens to be the source of tenets and Jesus Christ is its founder. Similarly, for Islam, Kuran is the Holy Scripture and …Similar attributes are present for Judaism, Buddhism etc. However, one cannot identify any particular religious text as the sole basis for Hinduism nor can one authoritatively proclaim that a particular Spiritual Personality is the sole propounder thereof.” What flows from this undisputable statement is that Mahabharata or Bhagavad Gita doesn’t mean the same thing to Hinduism as what the Bible means to Christianity or Kuran means to Islam. The existence of Hindusim does not rest on any text.
The peculiarity of a Hindu text is intertwined with the peculiarity of Hinduism itself. Almost all ancient Sanskrit texts refer to some form of faith or divinity even while discussing the most secular aspects of life. For instance, the ancient Indian surgeon Shushruta’s compendium, Sushruta Samhita', which is one of the oldest treatise dealing with surgery in the world indicates that he was probably the first surgeon to perform plastic surgical operations. He explained his journey in the field of medicine by explaining the chain of divine sources through which the knowledge of Ayurveda came to him, beginning with Lord Brahma. Similarly, Panini’s monumental works on Sanskrit grammar are said to have been gifted to him directly by Lord Shiva. Belief in or adherence to the religious concepts mentioned in these scriptures has never been a mandatory prerequisite for Hindus to incorporate these secular values in their daily life. For example, a student of Sanskrit grammar in Takshahsila or Nalanda University did not have to believe in the divinity behind Panini’s knowledge.
Viewed in this context, the “Hindutva” judgment of the Supreme Court gains a lot of significance. Chief Justice JS Verma writes “it cannot be doubted…that the words 'Hinduism' or 'Hindutva' are not necessarily to be understood and construed narrowly, confined only to the strict Hindu religious practices unrelated to the culture and ethos of the people of India, depicting the way of life of the Indian people. Unless the context of a speech indicates a contrary meaning or use in the abstract, these terms are indicative more of a way of life of the Indian people and are not confined merely to describe persons practising the Hindu religion as a faith.” Therefore, the Supreme Court has said Hinduism is per se a secular concept, unless spoken about or referred to only in terms of faith. Can this be said of another religion? In any context, can Islam or Christianity be spoken about without the dogma of religion?
When Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita are sought to be taught in schools, they are only meant to inculcate values necessary to make future society less corrupt, non-violent and disciplined. If these texts can provide the right content for such a curriculum on value education in schools, why should the fact that the texts also contain references to divinity and faith be a hindrance? Dr S Radhakrishnan, while comparing the Gita with Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, during a lecture in 1911 said, “The main questions and topics of dispute (in the Gita) are the same as those which occupy the attention of the western moralists.” He adds, “The case of Arjuna is typical of what is taking place every minute of our lives. It expresses what every one of us has often felt… a conflict between duty and inclination, a struggle between reason and sense.” Any curriculum on value education has to be centered on these topics. Are we going to ignore this treasure trove of indigenous literature on such topics only because some people believe that “God” gave them to us?
Also of relevance is another important judgment of the Supreme Court that deals with the importance of Sanskrit qua other languages. The question before the Supreme Court was whether the CBSE has to necessarily offer Arabic and Persian as electives in School only because Sanskrit was being offered. The Court made it very clear that Sanskrit cannot be treated on par with languages that do not form part of our national culture- “In view of the importance of Sanskrit for nurturing our cultural heritage, because of which even the official education policy has highlighted the need of studying Sanskrit; making of Sanskrit alone as an elective subject, while not conceding this status to Arabic and/or Persian, would not in any way militate against the basic tenet of secularism.” Applying the same analogy, the Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita, being texts with origins in our national culture, cannot
be equated with sacred texts of
A major criticism of making one’s own culture and tradition as the basis of education has been that it militates against the concept of 'Universalism'. It is said that teaching only Hindu texts could make students ethnocentric or narrow-minded. Nothing can be further from truth. In his famous lecture called “Swaraj in Ideas”, philosopher K.C. Bhattacharya deplored the propagation of “rootless” universalism- “Thought or reason may be universal, but ideas are carved out of it differently by different cultures according to their respective genius. No idea of one cultural language can exactly be translated in another cultural language. Every culture has its distinctive 'physiognomy' which is reflected in each vital idea and ideal presented by the culture. A patchwork of ideas of different cultures offends against scholarly sense just as much as patchwork of ideals offends against the spiritual sense.”
In other words, the Mahabharata and Gita stand apart from other texts not only because they are secular in essence but also because they are expressions of ideas and ideals distinct to our culture and are a product of this country’s genius.
Earlier this year the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has proposed to start a three-year value education programme across its schools in collaboration with the Ramakrishna Mission.
The web-page of Ramakrishna Math on value education lists “chanting and study of Srimad Bhagavad Gita” as one of its activities for students. In fact, children in hundreds of schools run across the country by Hindu institutions like Ramakrishna Math, Chinmaya Mission, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan are being taught Gita and other Hindu scriptures as a part of the curriculum. Many of these schools are considered best in the country as academic institutions. Are we to equate such institutions founded by spiritual giants like Swami Vivekananda and statesmen like Kulapati KM Munshi with missionary scholars that make bible prayers mandatory?
Are we to make a patchwork of our national heritage in the name of secularism? Whether to instill pride in young minds about our heritage or to inculcate values necessary to become responsible citizens of India, Hindu scriptures like the Mahabharata and Gita stand on a footing different from sacred texts of other religions.
Adithya Reddy (The writer is a practising lawyer in Madras High Court)