Fifth Column: Lessons from yoga

Religious studies can be a subject in schools and colleges but religion cannot define Indian civilisation.

Written by Tavleen Singh | Updated: June 14, 2015 12:00:37 am
column, sunday column, express column, International yoga day, yoga, yoga day, PM Narendra Modi, Modi govt, Indian education, hindu-muslim, hindutva, pre-islamic india, saffronisation, Dalai Lama, Narayan Murthy, Murty Classical Library of India, PM Modi, Indian Express What needs to happen is for Indian languages, literature and history to be taught without religion or religious people getting in the way.

The bizarre hysterics over yoga that we have witnessed in recent days gives me a chance to write about a subject close to my heart: the de-colonisation of Indian education. It should have happened when the British left but did not, and probably because, had it been tried, there would have been Hindu-Muslim problems of the kind we have seen over yoga. So Indian schools, from the finest to the worst, continue to produce children who have no idea what it means to be Indian. In elite private schools, the only language children speak today is English, but at least they learn to speak and read it well. In lesser ‘English medium’ schools, children end up unlearning their mother tongue without learning to speak English intelligibly. Yet, every time someone speaks of the need to Indianise education, shrieks of ‘saffronisation’ rent the skies.

There is good reason for this. Too often the people demanding change are Hindutva types whose idea of what needs to be done is confined to exalting pre-Islamic India and degrading what came after. This comes from having an idea of Indian civilisation so limited that it becomes dangerous.

What needs to happen is for Indian languages, literature and history to be taught without religion or religious people getting in the way. It is stupid to believe that you cannot have both Kalidasa and Ghalib. But the hysteria over yoga proves that religious fanatics, both Hindu and Muslim and usually semi-literate, manage always to poison the discourse. It is a shame that the Minister of Human Resource Development has been too busy fighting small battles with big academics to come up with an education policy designed to de-colonise Indian education. It not only can be done, it must be done, and there is a way.

Every March, for the past five years, I have attended the Dalai Lama’s teachings in Delhi. It is a great privilege to spend two days listening to him explain the mysteries of religion and spirituality, and every year he makes it a point to tell us that he is teaching us knowledge that Tibet took from India.

He jokes about how the high mountains of Tibet kept it safe and how sad it is that India lost what she once had. This time, I asked how it could be taught to a new generation of Indians if it always ended up as a fight between Hindus and Muslims. And, he said wisely that perhaps what was wrong was the way that it was being presented.

This is true. So it is time to rescue the great riches of Indian civilisation from the clutches of fanatics, and to acknowledge that if it is presented better, it will be possible for Indian children to inherit what is their right to inherit. This can only come through a new and enlightened education policy that evolves through discourse and that keeps religious fanatics and hyper-nationalists out. It is because of them that not just yoga but languages have become infused with religious hues that they should never have. Every time a Muslim child learns Sanskrit, it becomes headline news, and every time a Hindu child learns Urdu, the same thing happens. This is absurd. Both languages belong fully to India and should not divide Hindus and Muslims.

It saddens me that when my son wanted to learn Sanskrit he had to go to universities abroad, because in India it is taught so badly that schoolchildren dread Sanskrit class. It saddens me, as I have said before in this column, that the best English translation of the Ramayana that I have read came from the Clay Sanskrit Library. The translation was by an American for a library financed by an American millionaire. It has now been reborn in India as the Murty Classical Library of India, thanks to the wisdom and generosity of Rohan Murty, the son of Narayana Murthy.

Not even the greatest effort by private individuals can make the difference we need. If we want India to have schools and colleges that are truly Indian and not just bad copies, then there has to be a real effort to come up with a new education policy with a specific task put before it. Perhaps a good way to begin would be by the Prime Minister appointing a minister of education.

We used to have one until Rajiv Gandhi came up with the post-modern idea of reinventing him as the minister of HRD. It has been downhill ever since because too many departments have been clubbed together in the interests of developing human beings into a resource. But, even with an education minister and a new education policy, what is most important is to keep religious fanatics out of the discourse. Religious studies can be a subject in schools and colleges but religion cannot define Indian civilisation.

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