Bhagavad Gita: response to some issues raised through emails and comments

Rohit Dhankar

My article “Indoctrination in the guise of education” in The Hindu on 30th March 2015 attracted some appreciation and lots of angry rejoinders.

While browsing through the comments and reading the emails and letters I saw a pattern in the criticism that was leveled of the view I took in the article on teaching shlokas from Gita in schools. The pattern in the responses is so clear and has such overwhelming majority that it gives an indication of some very wide spread ideas regarding Gita, schooling in the country and ways of thinking about religion. It seems the people who support shlokas from Gita in schools and comment on the online newspaper articles have some general ideas some of which look like misconceptions to me.

In this chain of article I will try to understand and respond to some of these rejoinders. Actually, many people on The Hindu website tried to clear some of these misconceptions but it seems they were largely ignored, as the same ideas were repeated again and again in the comments.

The general refrain of the comments and the emails boils down to a few issues. They can be articulated as follows:

  1. Why no one objects to teaching of Bible in Christian schools and that of Quran in the Madrasas?
  2. The values propounded in Gita are universal and non-sectarian, therefore, including shlokas from Gita to teach those values is no violation of the principle of secularism.
  3. The moral values that the Gita teaches are independent of the basic assumptions it makes regarding the God, atman, karma theory etc.
  4. The varna-system mentioned in the Gita is based on qualities of people and not on birth.
  5. The moral values are the same in every culture and religion.
  6. Gita is not at all a religious book, it is universal and for all humanity.
  7. There is a long established tradition of including religious material in school curriculum in the form of poetry of Kabir, Meera, etc. and life stories of Buddha, Mahaveer, Christ and Muhammad. So why object to Gita?

Many of these contentions may have some substance, I will try to see their relevance in the context of the issues my article discusses. I will try to respond to each one of them below.

  1. Bible in Christian schools and Quran in Madrasas

My article deals with the public education (government school system) which is run by the state, with public funding. Following the principle of state secularism is mandatory for these schools.

Our constitution also gives freedom to minority run schools to preserve and propagate their culture, languages and religion. They are not part of the government education system. Some of them are partly funded by the government, but that is also allowed. However, there is a debate regarding this later point, as some object to state funding of schools that include teaching of religion in the school curriculum.

In any case there is absolutely no case of Bible or Quran being compulsorily taught in the public schools.

  1. What is wrong in using shlokas from Gita in teaching moral values which are non-sectarian

This is somewhat complex issue and the position I am taking in my said article may not be widely shared. Therefore, I would like to share in in relatively greater detail. The point in teaching values like “modesty, sincerity, non-violence, patience, honesty, integrity, firmness, self-control” is not to memories the list of these values. Rather it is to live according to them. But life necessarily involve value contradiction. For example a boy or girl in Indian society who is ‘firm’ on his/her choices may be considered ‘immodest’ and ‘disobedient’ by elders. Or to take another example: non-violence may often come into conflict with self-protection or protection of someone else against violent injustice.

Moral development means being able to make a reasoned judgment in such cases of value conflicts. If we want our children to develop into independent decision makers they need to resolve such conflicts on their own in adult life. Therefore, further unpacking of this very important capability of reasoned moral judgment it will require. It seems to me one who can make a reasoned moral judgment should:

  1. Understanding the meaning of the values which are sought to be taught. For example, to be ‘honest’ one needs to know what it means to be honest in various tricky situations.
  2.  Have a commitment to that value at intellectual and emotional level. That is, being intellectually clear in mind that one wants to be honest and feels emotionally inclined to the same.
  3.  Intellectual commitment demands understanding the justification(s) of that value. That is, one should know why s/he values honesty. This justification cannot be that my teacher, father or guru (or the Gita) said so; one should understand and accept the reasons behind it. And,
  4. Should be able to judge relative importance of values when they come into conflict. For example, if there is a conflict in being honest and kindness to someone, one should be able to choose one of them on rational grounds. This is impossible if one does not understand justification for each value clearly.

The values which are found common in many religions are basically humanitarian values emerging out of overall experience of human race. However, all the values and their importance in various religions are not the same. Actually, there is much variance and also contradiction between various religions regarding moral values. But that is not the subject of this artcile.

Religions, in a way, misappropriate these humanitarian values. Often they become ‘religious’ because of the kind of justification provided in the religious belief systems, and not by themselves. To understand this point let’s take a very old moral principle articulated in many cultures.

Mahabharata in 13.114.8 says:

न तत्परस्य संदद्यात्प्रतिकूलम यदात्मनः। एष संक्षेप्तो धर्मः कामादन्यः प्रवर्तते।।

Which means “One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of Righteousness.” (KM Ganguli, Mahabharata Anushasan Parva, chapter 113. Different editions of Mahabharata have discrepancy regarding number of chapters and shlokas that’s why the discrepancy in the chapter and number of the shloka here.)

The Mahabharata seems to justify this on more than one kinds of grounds. Let’s look at two such justifications and try to understand the difference between ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ justifications. It seems in many shlokas Mahabharata justifies the above mentioned principle by claiming that ‘one who follows this will attain happiness in the next world (life)’. This is a religious explanation as the punarjanma is an idea which is part of a religious explanation of the world and cannot be proved or disproved by ordinary means of knowledge. However, in the same chapter Mahabharata also says “When One injures another, the injured turns round and injures the injurer. Similarly, when one cherishes another, that other cherishes the cherisher.” If this is provided as the justification for the same principle it would be ‘non-religious’; as it refers to the nature of creatures and not to any faith based belief, or unjustifiable teleology of human life. One can observe the nature of creatures and can prove or disprove this claim.

One should note that the principle remains the same; what makes it religious or non-religious is the nature of justification provided.

Now, we can come to Gita. That are the kinds of justifications Gita provides for the values I have quoted in my article? These recommended qualities of person come in chapter 13, verse 7. Chapter thirteen is about “The Body called the Field, the Soul called the Knower of the Field and Discrimination between them”. (S. Radhakrishnan) Verses 7 to 11 declare what is true knowledge and what is not. Verse 12 declares that one can gain eternal life by knowing the Brahmn. The whole chapter is about body, soul, Brahmn and the knowledge which gives life eternal. The justification of the values listed is unmistakably grounded in this conceptual scheme which is unmistakably religious in nature. Many of these claims—like the existence and nature of the soul and brahmn—can be questioned and can neither be proved nor disproved by ordinary means of knowledge.

If we consider these values secular and non-sectarian then we do not need Gita to teach them. There are plenty of other ways of teaching as well as to justify them. If we are using Gita, then either we think that Gita gives a good justification; or we want to use and establish authority of a religious text. Both are problematic. That is why I suggest that use of Gita in teaching these values in schools run by a secular state is difficult to justify. Unless, one is ready to critically examine all aspects of the argument, and does not take anything on faith. And is also ready to give curricular space to other religious texts like Quran, Bible, etc. Then it could become an ethical discourse which is philosophical in nature. But that is not what the Haryana government is planning. Nor is it possible at the elementary school level.

I am aware that one of the objection to my article was that Gita is not a religious book. And I have again claimed above that it is. This issue will be dealt with in the subsequent posts.

(to be continued)


8 Responses to Bhagavad Gita: response to some issues raised through emails and comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Apart from this issue just want to know your response to one event. The killing of Charlie Hebdo for featuring God in illicit manner. Some people believe what ever she did was fair as freedom of expression is there for every individual whereas others believe it was not good way of expressing the thought since people had a faith and belief and one should be sensible towards others.
    Whatever ISIS did was totally wrong..


  2. Anonymous says:

    One more reason why Gita is a religious text is that most of its chapters try to establish the supremacy of Krishna. His self claim of being omnipresent and omnipotent. And constant plea to Arjuna and also to the whole world to surrender to him. I think Krishna is a Hindu deity/ lord/ bhagwan. Islam, Christianity, Buddhism etc do not subscribe to Krishna in any way I think. So Gita is a religious text.


  3. Aruna says:

    By the word “Subscribe” in above comment I mean that Islam, Christianity, also to an extent Buddhism and many other religions certainly do not uphold the supremacy of Krishna. They have their own supreme deities. Though most of the values subscribed are similar as pointed out by Rohit Dhankar. I would also like to point out that many of the shlokas in Gita especially chapter 18 if i remember correctly justify violence and war and killing of ones own kith and kin for the sake of dharma. Claims like “everything is fair in Love and war” also sound paradoxical as love and war are two opposite meaning words. Many other shlokas are highly esoteric and metaphysical whose truth cannot be established or the claims cannot be rationalized using reason. The pedagogical implication of instruction of such a text for young children is that they cannot discern its validity and have to uncritically accept the teacher’s dictat and there is no way but to rote memorize these verses especially if it is mandatory to write these shlokas in exams in order to pass.


  4. Anonymous says:

    Hello… Thank you for giving time to write about the religious texts and the various interpretations… Your posts are helping to understand these issues better…

    As I understand this I think, Gita, Quran and Bible are all religious texts and I feel that there is a part of the population in all religions who interpret the understanding and teaching received from these – connected to bringing out the good in oneself and for the entire humanity as well…

    Its really interesting how the values prescribed contradict amongst themselves in various situations… what’s even more interesting is how does critical thinking and rationality help? How do we develop that? Further, I wonder – can rationality be totally objective in issues like these?

    With regards and thanks.


  5. Anonymous says:

    Rohit – Just want to clairfy a point.

    From your article:

    “This structure is used to declare “women, traders, peasants, and servants” as born out of ‘papayoni.’ (ibid, 9:32)”

    This is incorrect. That verses does not “declare” that women, traders etc. are “paynonis”. It says that papayoni, (emphasis on the comma) women, traders etc are all my bhaktas. See The word “api”, meaning also is in both the first and second lines of the verse and it does not indicate anywhere that those types of humans are of “papayoni”.

    That being said, I agree that that the Gita is a religious text – that is all you really needed to say. A critical analysis of Gita cannot be made by hand picking a few verses here and there. Please keep in mind that that this was a conversation between Krishna and Arjuna a very, very long time ago – don’t try to retrofit those values into the current values- it simply will not make any sense.


    • rdhankar says:

      Thanks for your comment. The interpretation of 9:32 is subject of my next little post. I am not trying to fit the values of Gita to today’s world. I am trying to tell those who want to do this, that it is unjustified move. Also, I am not analysing Gita fully; all I want to do is to communicate: 1. Moral values are not simple statements, they also have a justificatory part. 2. That justificatory part often might be problematic if one picks up religious books for teaching moral values. Actually, I appreciate Gita’s ‘nishkam-karm’. I also find the argument advanced to establish nishkam karma interesting; but not convincing.


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