Schools and crime against children

November 9, 2014

[This was written a few weeks back. And is more of an outburst of anger than a reasoned argument. The Bangalore police seems to be taking a similar view on the responsibility of the management.]

Rohit Dhankar

And yet gain, the newspapers inform on 22nd October 2014 that a nursery level student is sexually abused in a Bangalore school. The third incident in recent months.

A school that does not feel mortally ashamed on child abuse in its precincts and does not accept responsibility unconditionally for whatever happens to children there, is nothing more than a den of thugs. “Alma meter”, the Latin phrase, is often used for the institution from which one receives a bachelor’s degree; but it is equally applicable to a school as well. The literal meaning of “alma meter” is “nurturing mother”. What kind of nurturing a school where sexual abuse is possible can offer?

The NCF 2005 recommends that “schools must be marked by the values of … dignity and rights of children. These values must be consciously made part of the perspective of the school and form the foundation of school practice. An enabling learning environment is one where children feel secure, where there is absence of fear”. How does one square up this idea of school with the everyday some or other news of child abuse emanating from these places we call schools today?

The schools are supposed to introduce children to the “grandeurs and servitudes”, to borrow from Oakeshott, of being human. This grandeur lies in keenness and depth of human understanding; in experiencing the sublimity of beauty and richness of moral consciousness. The servitude of being human lies in demand for exacting standards in understanding, feelings, thoughts and action; and to submit to guiding principles. It demands a discipline of thought and action. Thus schools are places infused with the spirit of satyam (truth and knowledge), shivam (goodness) and sundaram (beauty). None of these can survive in an environment where child abuse is possible; even imaginable.

Schools are not places of pure rigour; they are spaces where children should enjoy life and form lasting pleasant memories of their childhood well spend and well lived. Then only they will be able to help children form morally and intellectually satisfying self-identity; then only they will be able to gift them opportunities to form their own personhood.

An abused child is devalues, her self-confidence and identify are ripped apart. Her humanity is denied; she is used as an object of desire in the vilest possible manner. Her curiosity to know and concentration is destroyed, her faith in the goodness of the world is shaken, assumed protectiveness from adults is demolished; an exceedingly evil picture of humanity is painted on her consciousness. The progress she was making in forming a coherent, beautiful, enjoyable and sane picture of the world in her tender mind is disrupted. Her enthusiasm for life is dampened.

The perpetrator of such a crime discards his own humanity and reduces himself into an evil monster. His deadly sickness of mind and evilness of heart are revealed to the world. The society for the sake of its own sanity has to still grant the status of humanity and recognise rights to such an abomination; but as far as his own actions are concerned he is nothing more than a foul bundle of flesh and blood.

The schools where such acts are possible should lose their recognition immediately; be they public or private. Their management should be held responsible for such unpardonable laxity. Collecting hundreds of children in a tightly controlled and often locked compound where even parents cannot enter without permission is an act that demands responsibility and accountability. The management of schools cannot shirk this moral duty. They are dealing with the most cherished part of the humanity; most cherished part of people’s lives. They cannot be allowed to hide behind unpredictability of some of their employees. The management should be made to pay an unaffordable price for such incidents in their institutions.

Having said that, we should realise that this is not a matter of surveillance and security cameras alone. It is a matter of ideas, sensitivity, moral uprightness and discipline of each member of the staff. Running of a school is primarily a moral enterprise. The utilitarian and business consideration are secondary and can be taken into account if and only if the primary moral considerations are satisfied. Failing in the primary moral considerations should render the management unfit to run schools.

There are too many educational institutions being run without the proper understanding of the nature of educational engagement and obligations one has to accept when dealing with tender minds. The crime against children in schools is a symptom. The real disease is callousness, lack of understanding of the educational enterprise and/or administrative capability. If a school director hires a teacher or games instructor or a bus driver that commits crime against children it should be considered his/her direct responsibility; and he/she should be made to pay for this. In defending himself/herself on the plea of other human beings being independent agents such a director/manager is simply failing to show adequate level of remorse and moral accountability. A person lacking in either should be considered unfit for running an enterprise like a school.

The crime against children in schools is an indicator of sliding moral responsibility of all involved. It cannot be corrected by coercive measures alone. The schools, if they want to retain the tags of alma meter and vidyamandirs themselves have to come forward in owning this responsibility and improving their own understanding, sensitivity and efficiency. The relationship between the teachers and children is a very delicate one. Too much of restrictions and external rules will impoverish it to the level where it will become impossible to providing intellectual and moral guidance to the children. In spite of rules and procedures this relationship has to retain its spontaneity, purity and deeply felt affection. Therefore, the only possibility that remains is qualities of the mind and character of the teachers and management. The schools have to create a sensitive code of conduct for themselves, on their own accord.


Teaching Religion in Schools: Problems and Possibilities

July 28, 2014

Rohit Dhankar

Published in Deccan Herald, on 28th July 2014;

One often comes across expression of worries regarding lack of moral values in present day education. The teaching of religion in schools is advanced as a preferred solution to this problem. Teaching of religion is also often suggested as a means to reduce tension and strife between followers’ of different faiths.

Basically these claims boil down to two contentions: one, that knowledge of each other’s religion will enhance mutual goodwill; and two, that religion can become a viable basis of moral development in a secular democratic society. Both contentions stand in need of critical examination.

Such examination will require a distinction between ‘religious teaching’ and ‘teaching about religions’. This distinction is often ignored when arguments to introduce religion in curriculum are advanced. ‘Religious teaching’ indicates teaching of the religious dogmas as well as acceptance of those dogmas. For example, teaching Hinduism for a vaishnavite may involve making students believe that Krishna was really an avatar of Vishnu. Teaching Islam and Christianity will respectively involve making the students believe that Muhammad was really a prophet of Allah and that Christ was really the son of God.

‘Teaching about religions’, on the other hand, will limit to helping the students to understand the religious beliefs, but without any commitment to their truth. In ‘teaching about religions’, then, the three religious beliefs mentioned above need to be understood, critically examined; but the students are not required to accept them.

Religious teaching, then, will be incompatible with a secular education system. That leads to the assumption that those who want to introduce religion in curriculum are recommending ‘teaching about religions’.

In principle understanding of each other’s belief systems should facilitate better mutual understanding, and therefore, enhance harmonious living of different religious groups. This should also increase sensitivity and tolerance as knowledge of the others’ beliefs helps understanding emotional importance of those beliefs for them. But in a multi-religious secular democracy there might be serious practical problems in teaching about religions in schools.

Let’s note that one important aim of education in democracies is to develop critical citizenship; as no democracy can function well without constantly watchful citizens. Development of critical citizenship necessarily require independence of judgment and action. Which in turn will demand critical rational examination of all ideas and beliefs. Therefore, if one has to teach about religions in a democratic system what is being taught has to submit to critical rational examination. The study of religions, then, cannot be a “reverential study” as Gandhi along with many other often recommended. It has to be a critical study rationally examining every belief and event in the history of religions.

Critical study of religions in schools is likely to create a practical problem with two dimensions. One, lack of teachers who can deal with religious beliefs and history with respect, without biases and at the same time without slightest compromise in incisive analysis, without compromising on precise expression of the results of rational enquiry; whether they be favourable or unfavourable to religious beliefs. Our system at resent does not have enough teachers who can take up this task. The second dimension is that the very people who are recommending teaching about religion today will oppose it when religious beliefs like avatar-hood of Krishna, prophet-hood of Mohammad and status of Christ as son of God will be seriously interrogated in classrooms across the nation.

This, however, is not an argument against teaching about religions in schools. This is only to indicate that serious preparation will be required before we could do that. We have to prepare teachers and we have to prepare the public to take critique of religions in a rational and mutually accommodating spirit. A beginning in the second could be made in the press by examining religious beliefs and history more seriously than we do at the moment.

The second claim that religions can provide a basis for moral development is based on the false assumption that in essentials all religions meet in perfect harmony. This claim is born out of unduly reverential study of religions and not out of critical study of them. Actually religions are more often in serious confrontation with each other. Claim of harmony is more of a politically correct statement than a substantiated one. This disharmony between different religious belief systems is enough to dash all hope of religions becoming basis of moral development in a secular system.

But there are even more unsurmountable problems. Moral development does not mean memorisation of moral maxims like “always tell the truth”. Nor is it complete even if one is conditioned to act according to such maxims. Moral development necessarily requires ability to make reasoned judgment in the face of value conflicts. There can be no predetermined formula to resolve value conflicts arising in different actual contexts. The religious ethics is essentially a faith based ethics. It depends on the dogma or divine command, and therefore, is not capable of independent rational judgment. Another problem in religious ethics is that it is essentially utilitarian and self-centred. You obey religious dogma or divine command because you want personal favours from the divinity or you want salvation. It, therefore, depends on non-rational uncritical belief; for personal benefit. How does one square development of critical reason for democratic citizenship and uncritical belief formation in the same classroom?

In conclusion perhaps we can say that teaching about religions cannot form a basis for moral development. Though, it could be very important for development of mutual understanding and sensitivity between different religious groups. However, even for this second purpose introduction of critical study of different religious in schools will require enormous preparation and a very cautious approach.

Place of religion in public schools: Part 5

August 6, 2013

Religious behaviour of teachers outside the school

Rohit Dhankar

The three last questions raised in the meeting I referred to in Part 1 of this series seem to be the most difficult ones to deal with. In the first glance they seem to be guaranteed in a democracy—freedom to practice and propagate one’s faith; but a little analysis brings out, if not objectionable, certainly worry some issues. Let’s try to understand what is involved here.

I have changed the order of the questions, and restate them as below:

  • Should teachers participate in public religious activities like keertan or namaaz every day or very frequently?
  • Should teachers be allowed to work for better adherence to their own religion amongst their co-religionists in the community, though do not preach it to the followers of other religions?
  • Should teachers be allowed to preach their religion in the immediate community in which the school is situated and from which the children come to school?

Teachers participating in public religious activities

It sounds ridiculous to even raise such an issue. As mentioned above, democracy is all about choosing one’s beliefs and living according to them. Therefore, there is no ground for denying that same freedom to teachers. Actually one may stop here and consider the matter closed. However, perhaps it is worthwhile to explore a little further.

Why does one participate ostensively in keertans, daily poojas and namaazs? Now of course we are speculating on other people’s motives and mental states, to which we have no direct access. Nor am I quoting here any empirical study to understand such motives. Therefore, what I say next might sound very biased and unreasonable. Still, it seems to me, it is worth speculating.

Perhaps one can imagine at the least five reasons for participating in such activities in an ostensive manner: 1. Plain entertainment; 2. Socialisation; 3. Solidarity with ones own community of believers; 4. Solace in times of difficulty; and 5. Spiritual progress. Of course, there could be more reasons, but I am unable to extend the list at this moment. And, of course, there could be a combination of these reasons.

One may object that no one goes for pooja, keertan and namaaz for entertainment. I am reasonably certain on the basis of personal experience that for pooja and keertan people do go for entertainment as well, even if the number of such people is very small; regarding namaaz or other religious activities, I am not sure; however theoretically speaking this is not impossible. Participating in religious activities for entertainment, all other things being equal, is no different from going to a movie or to a play for the same purpose. It is not something which any individual or organisation can objet to, as long as it stays in legal bounds. However, Ganesh pooja, other noisy poojas and Friday namaaz on roads tend to cause public nuisance. One has to regulate them in public interest and other people’s right to go about their business in an unhindered manner. But the organisers and participants in such activities are also within their rights of association and public gathering. All they have to do is cooperate with the state authority to cause as little disturbance as possible. Usually, though, they are less than willing to cooperate. Actually, they use such occasions to cause maximum inconvenience, and to show that their religion can brazenly browbeat both the public and the state. And still, no school can object to participation of their teachers in such activities.

Socialisation through pooja, keertan and namaaz is no different from socialising in a club with a couple of Patialas of some good whisky. There is nothing objectionable in that, either morally or politically. Nor is there anything particularly religious about it. Such activates might give good opportunity to be with the community, to keep in touch with one’s acquaintances and even for making new acquiesces. This, too, can be no concern of the schools if their teachers socialise through religious activities.

Solidarity with and belongingness to some group of likeminded people seem to be a fundamental human need. It is a necessary basis for forming self-identity as we all see ourselves in the mirror of other people’s social behaviour towards us. Self awareness and identity is the basis of one’s purpose in life and one’s epistemic, ethical and aesthetic (styam, shivam, sundaram) belief systems. Therefore, through expressing solidarity with groups one forms and enriches oneself, as well as fulfils a social obligation by helping others to do the same. Who can object to such a fundamental need and obligation? But groups and socio-political-religious formations need some unifying principles which each member accepts. Such unifying principles may be exclusionary and closed in nature. All exclusionary group formations to my mind are potentially dangerous for a democracy. Therefore, one has to be aware of divisive potential of expression of solidarity. Religion seems to be especially prone to such divisive potential, due to its characteristics discussed earlier. Still, all other things being equal, no school can object to its teachers’ participation in religious activities for purposes of solidarity.

Seeking solace and spiritual growth through participation in religious activities are obviously the legitimate religious ends. There might be people who may not regard such motivations particularly commendable, still no on has a right to object to other people’s seeking solace and spiritual growth—whatever the later might mean! Therefore, it seems participation in religious activities out-side the school timings is a personal matter of the teachers and the school transgresses it’s legitimate concerns even in questioning such activities.

Working for better adherence to their own religion

Making others co-religionists to act in accordance with their religious code of conduct or dogma’s may not be such a simple matter. One has to think how one proceeds to do that. If there is peaceful persuasion; even on non-rational and religious logic (?), but leaving the persuaded person to make his own decision; one can not object to it. However, religious zealots who want to make others more faithful then they are, rarely remain in the bounds of peaceful persuasion. Numerous incidents in India connected with misbehaviour of self-styled protectors of Hindu vales on valentine day or violence against girls peacefully enjoying themselves in bars, are case in point. The self-styled protectors of Indian culture and Hindu values in such cases claim to be correcting deviant behaviour of their own coreligionists. Umpteen number of incidents of this nature could be sited in other religious communities as well. Enforcement of burka on Muslim women against their wishes, objection to school girls participating in singing and dancing on stage in school functions, passing various fatwas (not all fatwas), etc. are common examples in Muslim community. Therefore, one has to make a distinction between willing participation of to be persuaded and enforced against their wishes. If the persuasion is within the bounds of the law of the land, even by teachers, it can hardly be objected to.

We should also keep in mind that the grounds given to behave in a particular religious manner; for example, Hindu girls not wearing jeans and Muslim girls always wearing burka; are unlikely to be rationally justified and are likely to encroach upon peoples autonomy, even if does in a peaceful manner. A teacher who used such arguments in the community is unlikely to contribute to rational enquiry in the school. The children will see through his pretended behaviour in the school. This is not a very happy situation, but as long as one remains impartial to people and ideals in the schools, and fosters critical enquiry in the school, his public behaviour can not be objected to. I am certain that such a teacher will not be very suitable for a secular democratic school, but the school can not put restrictions on what he does in his private time and in his private capacity.

Preaching of one’s own religion to others

Preach as a verb means to “deliver a sermon or religious address to an assembled group of people, typically in church” (OUP). As a noun preaching means to “publicly proclaim or teach (a religious message or belief)”. Here preaching is used as ‘preaching to convert’. More accurate word to express that meaning would have been “proselytizing” in place of “preaching”. The original conversation was in Hindi and word used was “dharma-prachar” in the sense of “attempting to convert” (dharma-parivartan) others to one’s own religion. We will continue here to use the simpler word “preaching” in the sense of “preaching to convert”.

Before we examine appropriateness of a teacher as a religious preacher, some time spent on understanding the motivation and implications of attempts to convert will be useful. A natural question that comes to one’s mind is: why do people try to convert others to their own religion?

It is hard to deny in the modern world that a major reason is to gain/consolidate social, political and economic power. Religion has always been associated with economic and political power, most often in favour of the privileged; but some times in favour of the underprivileged too. However, by the time a religion gets institutionalised it creates its own privileged and then works for their benefit all along. In the name of nuanced understanding—which most often is nothing more than obfuscation—one can site examples of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Bukti Movement as counter examples, and claim that they all started to ameliorate sufferings of the downtrodden. But by the time they firmed up as religions or created stable institutions (in case of Bhakti) they all started fighting for power and siding with the powerful. Therefore, when people see religious conversion as power games and attempts to dominate other religious groups they are seeing right.

Of course there is nothing wrong in trying to make democracy work in one’s favour. But that requires having a principle of unity that is not exclusionist, admits rational pursuit, and works for justice for all. Religion as a principle of unity fails on all counts. Therefore, playing power games with religion is playing them unfairly.

But not all people active in proselytizing are totally devoid of other motives; they may genuinely believe that converting to their own religion is actually good for the converted and the society in general. They almost always believe that their own religious belief system is the only true religion, all others are false. This is particularly true of so called Semitic religions: that is Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Hinduism basically is not a proselytizing religion, and multiplicity of religious truths is admitted in it. Reza Aslan thinks that “like “Hinduism,” “paganism” is a meaningless and somewhat derogatory catchall term created by those outside the tradition to categorize what is in reality an almost unlimited variety of beliefs and practices.” There is substantial amount of truth in this claim, even if it is not wholly true. Perhaps that is why Hindu zealots require racial, ethnic, and geopolitical elements to brew their own brand of fanaticism. Their idea of “matribhoomi” and “punyabhoom” being the same within actual or claimed boundaries of Bharat is necessary to turn Hinduism into a fanatical religion. Earlier, when Hindus had heir rifts with Buddhism the caste based hierarchical organisation of the society could be used to pepper over doctrinal differences, now that has become impossible. Therefore, they want a single doctrine and other ingredients to create fanaticism.

Islam and Christianity never had any doubt that their religion is the only true religion and anyone who does not accept that will definitely go to hell. Many Muslim clerics and ordinary believers will express that opinion as a matter of fact, without slightest hesitation. Many of them also believe, on the basis of scriptural authority, that it is the duty of the believers to spread the truth by all means they can. This, of course, will be objected to, but we can get into that debate later. One who converts a non-believer to faith is sure to get the rewards by admittance in heaven.

The problem with all this is that it is closed minded view which declares all other views false and is not open to examination. If a person happens to be indoctrinated into an unjustifiable belief system, and from within that belief system, if he does something to benefit others according to his own view; it can not be justified. His assumed to be good intentions alone are not enough here, as the very basis of his action is unjustified. This also leaves the room open for using force.

Of course, religious conversion could also happen for solace. We have dealt with the benefits and problems of religious solace earlier, need not revisit that here. Sometimes, spiritual growth is sited as reasons for conversion. Spirituality is not a clearly defined concept. On close analysis it looks like religion’s surreptitious attempts to disguise itself behind a veil of mystery. Unless a clearer understanding and articulation of what spirituality happens to be is available, we can not discuss it. My guess is that spirituality is either disguised religion or it has nothing that normal garden variety of secular morality or purposes in life can not provide.

This quick, partial and cursory analysis seems to point that a preacher for conversion is unlikely to be a good, impartial and secular teacher. His understanding of the world and humanity is likely to be marked by dogma, and rational enquiry for him would be of a certain variety that will always look up to theology. Therefore, the schools should not allow their teachers to be religious preachers. I am not aware of the rules and regulations for public servants, but suspect that they are not allowed to be part of organisations that proselytise. As I am not sure on this, any authentic information is welcome. (I am being lazy, do not want to look for material on the issue and read it!)

That brings us to the end of this series. I am aware that there are many logical gaps in my analysis and I may lack information on many issues. I have also become aware of further study/investigating on several issues during the course of writing. In a way it is a working understanding that is open to be questioned and to be refined. Therefore, critiques is welcome.



6th August 2013

Rohit Dhankar, Azim Premji University, Bangalore and Digantar, Jaipur

Place of religion in public schools: Part 4

July 22, 2013

Religious behaviour of students and teaches in the school

Rohit Dhankar

We are discussing place of religion in public schools in a secular democracy. What I am saying here may be totally irrelevant in a theocratic state or a country which does not place any value on secularism. Secondly, even within a secular democracy we are interested in public schools, most of which are state funded. Some of what is said may be applicable to denominational schools, but rest may not.

I am assuming (it could be argues quite plausibly, but I am leaving that out for lack of space) that education system in a secular democracy is duty bound to help children grow up into active and critical citizens who can make informed choices and can defend those choices in public. Of course education will have other aims as well; but I am deliberately taking this one for the sake our argument.

Democracy gives every citizen equal rights to autonomously choose the life they want to live within the constitutional framework; which is designed to promote equality, personal autonomy, liberty and freedom. Thus in a democracy every citizen needs to learn: 1. To understand and respect the others views and freedoms; and 2. To care about them. These seem to be necessary qualities of an active and critical democratic citizen; though not enough in themselves. Therefore, the job of the school becomes to help students understand others’ views and respect other people as equals even if one can not agree and respect their views. (There is a difference between respecting a person and respecting a belief. Demand to respect all beliefs equally is an impossible hypocrisy; while demand of equal respect to all people is a democratic ideal, and is possible.) This is a very difficult attitude to develop, and perhaps no one succeeds completely; but we all have to keep trying thorugh all our lives; that is, if we want to live in a democracy.

We should understand that a secular state can not preach anti-religion ideas. It has to give people freedom to choose their personal beliefs; the schools can preach neither religious dogma, not atheistic ones. They can simple present them and analyse them. A secular school can not disdain, prohibit or insult in any way religious behaviour of its students. It can make its policies strictly on the secular and constitutional grounds but if the children want to participate in pooja or namaz, and even if remain out of school for these purpose, it can do nothing. However, the usual penalty for being absent, if there is such a rule in the school, applies to those who remain absent for pooja and namaz as well. It seems to me that the school should also bring the fact that by remaining absent they are losing opportunity to learn to students notice. But the final choice has to be that of the students. This is necessary as students have to learn to weigh pros and cons of their decisions and learn to be responsible for them. But at the same time he school, to my mind, should also not deviate from its settles time-table to make room for such activities. For example, there could be a demand for having Tuesday or Friday as the weekly holiday. All other things being equal, the schools should not consider that on the religious grounds of the communities living around it. In India there are too many religions, we shall never be able to manage such adjustments. However, in a mono-religious society such adjustments may be possible; but mono-religious societies are rarely, if ever, secular and democratic.

A secular rational attitude demands that one does not curb or promote any belief system through force and rules. Not even the secular and rational belief system. The only possible way is that of dialogue and rational persuasion where people make their own decisions on the basis of their own lights. So a school can not stop children from attending their pooja or namaaz even if they remain absent from the school for that purpose.

Teachers’ display of religious behaviour or symbols in the school

Some secular states take the position that as public functionaries teachers should not be allowed to display such behaviour or symbols. To my mind it is a very complex issue. Let’s take the example of thick band of moli (the red-white thread that Hindu priests tie on the wrists of their yejmaans on every auspicious occasion) which many Hindu teachers, officials, politicians, and so on display prominently these days. Actually I distinctly remember that about two decades back it used to be a thin kachcha dhaga that used to break on its on mostly by the end of the second day. Now it has become a think band which does not break for months, and usually becomes very dirty. It has nothing to do with Hindu religion as such. It is an assertion and display of identity. It is a social-political act, associated with religion but not unalienable part of it. Similarly, prominent display of a cross around a Christian’s neck or a round skull cap on a Muslim’s head are markers—and these days also an assertion, like moli—of identity and not really essential part of religion. I think it could be plausibly argued that in modern India a feeling of underlining difference with others is also mixed with these markers of identity. Conceptually, all identity marks have an element of difference from the other, as any identity has to do two things: proclaiming who you are and also who you are not. Our ambiguous attitude to religion and habit of our democratic state to prostrate before any thing vaguely religious have made these symbols into assertion of political power, solidarity to ones own community and challenge to others. Thus, as I understand the situation these symbols at the present juncture in Indian polity are dividing the society; and slowly but certainly nudging us to move away from dispassionate secular politics, pushing us towards aggressive identity politics where democratic principles are definitely a casualty.

Personally, I feel that we should have a dress-code for all public servants. And these markers should not be allowed in that dress-code. Not because the state wants to take an anti-religion or anti-identity stand; but simply because a public servant should, particularly in present times, make all efforts to communicate that whatever her religious and political views she stands in absolutely identical relationship with all citizens in her role as a public servant. That is a stand in principle; but that can not happen in present day India. Therefore, as a compromise somewhat uncomfortable compromise one has to accept the display of these markers in office. That brings an added responsibility on the public servants that they should communicate in their behaviour a totally secular dealing with all citizens; people should develop a confidence that in spite of these identity markers the person will act according to our secular constitution. At present this is not communicated. And so there is a problem here.

A teacher, in this sense, is a public servant. She should, ideally speaking, refrain from public display of these makers, but our constitution does not prohibit it; therefore, even strictly secular schools can not ban or strongly oppose these practices. As a result we will have to live with them. Sadly, enough.

Preaching of ones religion in the school

In short no school has the right to preach any religion, and so no teacher can preach one’s religion in the school. But we need to understand the place of religion in curriculum and school life in a little more detail.

In addition to what we have discussed above—display of religious behaviour or symbols in the school—lets make two more categories: ‘teaching religion’ and ‘teaching about religion’. Teaching religion here would mean teaching religious beliefs in the school and hoping that the children will acquire those beliefs. It will also include religious practices in the schools—for example, various kinds of prayers in the school, including Saraswati and Gandhi’s supposed to be secular bhajans. Teaching about religion would simply means an attempt to make the religious belief systems known to the students, understand them and examine them as one examines any political, social or scientific theory.

Teaching religion is clearly contradictory to the ideal of democratic citizenship. The Morning Prayer in the schools, saraswati statues, gayatri-mantras on the walls etc. are all non-secular and objectionable practices. This certainly amounts to practicing religion in schools. Actively teaching religion in schools will also be objectionable on the same token.

Teaching about religion, however, seems to be a logical necessity for ay curriculum in a secular country. We have to provide children with the knowledge base needed to understand the history, culture and belief systems of all citizens if we want them to make independent and informed choices in life. Even if we do not like religious belief systems people live by them and the children may make the same choice. It is the duty of the school to inform them about these possibilities, as impartially as possible. But school can not present them as necessarily true beliefs. If we want our children to be informed about Ram and Karishna we will have to present views of those who consider them as avataras, we have to present the views of those who consider them historical figures, and also of those who consider them simply imaginary mythological figures, who never actually existed. We have to share these views with available evidence, if any. We can say that there are some Hindus who think that Ram was Vishnu’s avatar; but we also have to inform them that there are other people, Hindus as well as non-Hindus, who believe neither in Vishnu nor in Ram as his avatar. We will have to present the critique of what is supposed to be their lives and preaching. For example, we will have to inform children that in the eyes of some agniparisksha was injustice to Sita and banishing Sita from Ayodhya later was simple desire to cling to power and cowardice in some people’s eyes. I am putting all this rather in a crude sense; but the point I am making is for presentation of various contrasting views with their arguments and available evidence. One can make that as sophisticated as one pleases or the occasion demands. In case of Muhammad (as he is definitely a historical figure) we have to talk of him exactly as we talk of, say Marx, or Plato, or Nehru, or Buddha or Mahavir. We have to inform the children that Muslims consider him the last and final prophet. But we will also have to inform that there are plenty of people in the world who do not believe in God so they think no one could really be a prophet or an avatar or a sun of God. Therefore, all prophets and self-proclaimed avatars were either misguided people or they deliberately spread lies. That, however, does not preclude the possibility of spreading lies for imagined good of mankind. We will have to present both views with equimindedness, and leave the children to make their own decision. What I am arguing for is that teaching about religion will have to be done in a rational manner. All religious figures in this scheme will get only as much respect as any philosopher or historical figure; no less no more. They will face all the questions that other philosophers and historical figures face, whether they like or not. Similarly all religious scriptures will have to be analysed exactly as any other book on philosophy or political theory. I believe that would be of immense benefit to the children and to the country.

But that will also require a huge amount of preparation. We have to have balanced and authentic curricula, we have to decide at what age the children should be introduced to what kind of issues and information, we will have to have a huge number of teachers who can teach in a rational and impartial manner. Perhaps team teaching could be explores—education about religion could done by a team that has teachers from different religions in it, and not by a single teacher. Are we ready for it? I do not know, let sociologists and political scientists answer that. Should we teach about religion in this sense? Yes, I am certain of that. Should teachers preach their own religions in school? Not at all.

That leaves us with one more issue from the initial discussion. Teachers’ religious behaviour out side the school. The next and last part of this series will deal with that.indus HHh


To be Concluded.


22nd July 2013

Rohit Dhankar, Azim Premji University, Bangalore and Digantar, Jaipur

Place of religion in public schools: Part 3

July 19, 2013

As I mentioned at the end of the part 2, before going to the third set of questions listed in Part 1 we still have to deal with three issues (at the end of part two I listed them as two issues, but it seems it is better if the first itself is divided into two, making a total of three, I have also changed their order of listing):

  1. Contribution of religion to the development of humanity,
  2. The impact of religions on believers’ lives, and,
  3. Impact on sociopolitical life of a society in general.

I will deal with these issues very briefly, only to indicate some basic characteristics.

Contribution of religion to the development of humanity

It seems to me that religion provided one of the most powerful early coherent pictures of the universe to humanity, therefore put in on the path of making sense of the world. It also provided moral code to live by, therefore, bringing humanity out of pure instinctive behaviour, making humans to some extent masters of their own behaviour and responsible for it. This gave social purposes, ways of organising society, and possibility of cohesive social life.

Religious theories had to keep pace with growing human self-awareness and intellect; therefore, they had to develop more and more abstract concepts and more and more sophisticated ways of organising thought. But we should remember that there always was a counter force of human intellect to religion and this development in human thought was a result of constant interaction with this counter force. But all said and done, religious thought contributed to development of philosophy and science; even if mainly by providing a counterpoint and stimulating debates.

It is undeniable that religion contributed tremendously to the development of arts, architecture, literature, music, dance forms and so on. That made human life artistically richer and culturally sophisticated.

So religion made significant contribution to development of culture and civilisation. I have made these remarks only to indicate that there is no need to deny contribution of religion to development of human race.

Religion’s impact on the believers’ lives

It is clear even to a casual observer of social behaviour of people that religion has a tremendous appeal to a large number of us. People find source of moral behaviour in religion. All religions do emphasise some or other moral code. There seem to be some common points regarding values like truth, compassion, helping others, and so on in these various religious moral codes. This gives the believers an ethical anchor to regulate their lives and aspire for higher achievements in this field. This is very important in human life; it gives it purpose and something to look forward to. A basic human need once self-awareness is awakened.

Religion also provides personal solace in times of distress. Faith in some higher power or set of principles that will unerringly lead to good at the end gives people a sense of security and even the endurance of unwelcome situation becomes meaningful. Particularly in the face of unreadable loss—death of some one dear, for example—leaving everything on some benevolent power and desire to earn merit in the eyes of this power provides with a psychological means to deal with it.

Religious rituals can provide with a rhythm and regularity, and therefore, discipline, in one’s life. This might be very reassuring in the face of fleeting, ever changing, and strenuous life of a modern human. Religion also gives a sense of identity—who I am—and a strong sense of belongingness—a fellow feeling with other believers.

But religion provides all these goods for a tremendous price. It often takes the most important attribute of humanness away. It tries to put believers—and mostly succeeds—in a permanent tutelage; denies them the chance of ever coming of age, becoming self assured independent beings. It tries to close their minds, makes them fit objects to be manipulated, and permanently blocks their further growth of consciousness, knowledge and even morality. It tries to hijacks their consciousness, to take all genuine artifacts from it away and replaces them with spurious goods. It demands the most degrading servitude. I know, what I have just said is rather strong, and with a bit of polemics in it. Therefore, I must explain.

The most important event in human evolution, to my mind, is the awakening of self-awareness. Self-awareness as used here is consciousness of “I” as an entity different from all else I happen to be aware of. Different does not mean disconnected, nor does it mean totally different having no similarities at all. All it means is having some attribute, however small, that is nowhere else but in me. Self-awareness once awakened immediately wants to understand what is going around me, what is this world, how it functions, what should I do, what is my purpose, and a host of other questions of this nature. It is freedom from instinct and mindless natural laws; it is declaration of independence, of autonomy, of freedom to choose. Freedom of choice may give a thrill of power, power not necessarily on others, but of consciously bringing about situations that I want, that satisfy me. But it immediately brings in tremendous responsibility. If I am making my choices then I face dilemmas as to what should I want, and as to how do I get what I want. If I make a wrong choice in either, then that is my responsibility and I have no one to blame for it. I have limited knowledge, limited powers of action and see forces around me that are much beyond my comprehension and powers to control. That makes me vulnerable, that makes me alone. I may get very scared of this vulnerability and loneliness. But I do have cognitive capabilities that may develop into sophisticated reason and I may improve upon my skills and capabilities to deal with the world. If I take this path of dealing with my uncertainties, vulnerabilities, fears and loneliness then I retain that spark of humanity—freedom of choice[1]—that emerged with self-awareness. But the responsibility and fears may weigh me down and this freedom of choice may become a burden to me, a burden too great to bear. In such a case I may barter it for some security from my vulnerabilities and seek solace in some dogma propounded by someone else. In this case I have found a cell to hide from my humanity and throwing this burden away. Religion provides such dogmas and hiding places easily enough. That is why I say that it takes away the most precious gift of humanity in exchange of illusory solace. (We must remember that there are plenty more merchants ready to buy this gift of humanity, some political theories may act as such merchant, but we are dealing with religion alone here.)

The capacity of the religion to provide solace partly comes from the dogma and partly from the feeling of belongingness. The dogma can not be rationally questioned, examined and modified. It is immutable ultimate truth. But it can not be proved. And human reason, that irreverent terrible child of self-awareness, demands grounds for acceptance of these dogmas. So it has to be discredited, dulled and bribed by the promises of fantastically pleasurable after life; or subdued by the fears of a terrible after life, or plainly threatened in this life by the force of believers’ community. Thus the only means what can make me capable of making my own choices, capable of coming of age, growing out of tutelage and becoming my own master; is subdued or destroyed. That condemns me to be in permanent tutelage either of the dogma or of the community or of both. That blocks all possibility of me becoming a self assured human being, confident of my own ideas and actions.

If I were to deal with the vulnerabilities of life on my own, with the aid of my own capabilities of observation, capabilities of freely and intelligently learning in the society, capabilities of reason; I would have created concepts, principles, formed attitudes, dispositions, likings and dislikings. These mental-artifacts would have populated and shaped my consciousness. They would have been genuine artifacts created by my own consciousness. But in accepting the dogma and dictum of my religious community unquestioningly, unexamined, I am denied the possibility of creating these genuine artifacts to shape my own consciousness. In their place, by accepting the tutelage of religion, my consciousness if filed and shaped by the ideas, concepts, attitudes, dispositions—artifacts—that agree with the dogma and are dictated by the community. Thus, my consciousness is hijacked. It is no more my own; it is taken away from me. I have sold my soul, to use a religious metaphor. Well, the devil is not the only one after my soul; there are other merchants as well.

The religious dogma, once accepted, becomes the central part of my world view. As we noted above, it is immutable and ultimate truth. If I question it I am in danger of losing faith. Since it can not be justified on rational grounds, it has to survive on the fear or lures of afterlife; and on fear of loosing belongingness to a community of believers. All my other belief to form my world view and understanding have to fall in line with this dogma and its implications. Therefore, further development of my understanding of the world has to be subordinated to religious precepts and community sanctions. That seals my fate in terms of growth of my understanding, be that ethical, epistemic or aesthetic.

Since all this depends on my abandoning my own reason and acceptance of the dogma on the authority of the scriptures and their authorised interpreters, I am mentally prepared to obey them to wherever they lead me. I am a fit tool to be used for some one else’s purposes. If my controllers be caring for humanity and morally upright people, I may be used for service of the society and humanity. If they be interested in money and luxury, I am prepared to work for them and provide means for their luxurious lives. If they be power hungry bigots I am ready to be used as cannon fodder in the violence they will create. I barter one kind of vulnerabilities for another kind. But now my reason is dulled and I do not see these vulnerabilities for what they are. I see them as achievements and earning of religious merit. So I get illusory security and solace.

This is a deliberately painted extreme picture of religious mind-set. Every believer does not end up there. There is a huge middle ground. That middle ground does have many avenues that are unobjectionable and sane enough. But the religious mind-set does have the potential, propensity and danger of reaching at the above described level, and often enough reaches there. The firmer and absoluter the belief grows, so does the danger of above painted scenario coming more and more true.

Impact on sociopolitical life of a society in general

Some important contributions of religion to sociopolitical life we have already discussed in the first section above. We need not repeat that here.

In addition to those positive contributions religion also seem to have a very marked propensity to treat any deviant behaviour with suspicion and harshness. The history of religions is full of various kinds of persecutions meted out to people questioning the dogma or going against the custom. Non-believers in most religions are looked upon with suspicion. Often, but not in all religions, they are targets of harassment, disdain, and conversion. Mixing of the believers with nonbelievers is often looked upon as undesirable. These attitudes contribute to fragmentation of society.

The religious dogma drives its staying power from psychological insecurity, strength of unreasoned faith and social feeling of belongingness; therefore, any challenge to it draws violent emotional and vociferous social response; any debate is denied and ultimate truth of the dogma is asserted unconditionally.

Religious faith is rationally insecure and often hypocritical. That forces it to oppose growth of knowledge and understanding that may challenge the dogma. Almost all religions perpetuate inequality, particularly against women. All religions curb freedom of expression severely. And create political rift in the society. They are against democratic norms. I do not need to argue these clams, they are self evidently true. But if need be arguments to support them can be worked out easily enough.

Now we are ready to explore the place of religion in schools. And that will be the Part 4 of this series.

To be continued….


19th July 2013

Rohit Dhankar, Azim Premji University, Bangalore and Digantar, Jaipur

[1] Freedom of choice is a hotly contested idea. Many believe this is only an illusion; there is no freedom of choice for humans. This is not the place to deal with the issue. Here I am taking it as a fundamental assumption. My immediate reasons for that are: 1. If we humans have no freedom of choice at all, every thing in it is totally determined by social, cultural, political and economic conditions; then there is no point is this debate at all. The debate itself is completely determined by the very same conditions. It’s a meaningless rigmarole of natural forces. Let’s put an end to is—if we do have that choice!—and go have a good drink. 2. Even if we have no freedom of choice we live our lives under the illusion that we do. This is not the kind of illusion that we can throw away and still keep on living as usual. This is a binding illusion of human condition. So for all practical purposes it is as good as if were real.

Place of religion in public schools: Part 2

July 6, 2013

Rohit Dhankar

[As “Part 2” in the title indicates his post is in continuation of the earlier one with the same title.]

After the little discussion on secularism and freedom to practice and preach one’s religion in a democracy we can proceed to the second set of questions.

Meaning of religion—

  1. Isn’t dharma the knowledge of right and wrong? Then how can we be secular? Every one needs the knowledge to distinguish right from wrong.
  2. What is religion? What is the difference between ‘religion’ and ‘dharma’?

Secularism is translated into Hindi as “dharma-nirapekhshta”. Dharma-nirapekshata is also understood as ‘unconcerned or indifferent to dharma’. If dharma is interpreted as moral duty or morality or ‘knowledge of right from wrong’ then indifference to moral principles or moral duties becomes the same thing as ‘dharma-nirpekshata’. But how can one live in a society as an amoral being? Thus the question.

This confusion arises out of the use of term ‘dharma’ for religion. Dharma has several—one feels too many—meanings in Sanskrit, and is used in almost all those meanings in Hindi as well. Some of these meanings are close to religion: religion, faith, denomination, sect. As in Hindu-dharma, Tantric Pantha, Islam dhama, etc. Others are close to morality: righteousness, duty, merit, virtue. As in ‘it is dhama of the Raja to protect his praja’ or ‘it is a father’s dharma to get his children educated’. Still others indicate law and rights; and still more indicating properties or nature of something: nature, quality, attribute. As in ‘the dharma of water is coolness’, the dharma of agni is to burn’. In Hindi textbooks properties of matter are called ‘guna-dharma’.

In ‘dharma-nirapekshata’ the term dharma is actually used in the sense of pantha, majahab, religion, samyradaya. Thus it is pantha-nirapekshata or sampradaya-nirapekshata; and not indifference to duty or moral principles. What is happening here is that the term dharama is being interpreted in a sense it is not intended to. When we talk of ‘Hindu-dharma’, ‘Bodh-dharma’, ‘Islam-dharma’, etc. we are using the term dharma as an equivalent to religion, majham, pantha. One can be nirapeksha of religion without being indifferent to morality. But very often this question is asked to deliberately confuse the debate, rather then as a genuine point in a dialogue. In such cases the person asking the question already knows the different we have delineated above, but still makes the point to show that secularism in impossible. I am not sure if the question here was not just for the sake of asking, rather than being a genuine issue in the dialogue.

That brings us to: what is religion? First I will try to give a short answer and then will try to elaborate upon it. To start with we can say that religion is a system of beliefs. The religious belief-system provides the believer with purpose of life, principles to direct her conduct, principles to organise society and polity, and a world view to make sense of her existence and experience. Humans are sentient beings. Sentience includes at the least: intelligence, self-awareness and consciousness. A self-aware intelligent being can not help but ask such questions as: what am I? Does my life have a purpose? What is this world? What is my place in this world? What is good human life? Though these questions may not be always be asked at a conscious deliberative level, answers to them are always assumed in human life. The religion as a belief-system provides answers to these and similar questions.

Religion, though, is not the only belief-system that provides answers to these questions. There are several other kinds of belief-systems available to modern humans what do the same job, and better, in the eyes of some. For example: atheism, rational belief systems of various kinds that do not use religious belief-systems, science being included. Actually philosophy actively seeks answers to the very same questions without necessarily being religious. Therefore, just by saying that religion is a system of beliefs we are not providing a good enough definition of religion. We need criteria to distinguish a belief system that is religious from one that is not.

But before we jump into these difficult waters lets dwell a bit on understanding what a belief-system is. A simple—but good enough for our purpose—definition of belief could be: belief is a claim about something that we accept as true. Something as simple as “trees need water to grow” is an example of a belief if we accept it to be true. We may take a number of beliefs like: “Trees need soil, water and air to grow. They grow from seeds. Humans use various parts of trees for their own purposes. They purify air. If all the trees die human race will also die out.” These beliefs taken together could be called a belief-system about trees. Therefore, any world-view that we form to make sense of our life, experiences, purposes, desires, et al is a belief-system. As per this definition a political ideology, scientific explanation of the world, philosophical systems, etc. all are belief-systems. As mentioned above, present day humans due to being self-aware and intelligent can not live without a belief-system; be that implicit or explicit to her/him. They form their beliefs on the basis of experience of nature and living in a society. Language plays an important role in all this; perhaps the most important role as a belief can not even exist without language.

Now, perhaps, we can come back to our question: how do we distinguish a religious belief-system from a non-religious one? In other words: what is the difference between, say, a political ideology and a religion? Between a philosophical explanation of the world and life and a religion?

Unfortunately no perfect answer is available. But we can try to construct a reasonable and useful one. Often, it is claimed that the idea of God is central to a religious belief system. But Buddhism and Jainism do not seem to necessarily recognise the need of a God. However, even in them there is a clear tendency to raise their founders and other realised ones to the level of divinity. Still, the God cannot be taken to be a necessary part of religious belief system.

The best indicator perhaps is belief in after-life. All religions have belief in some or other form of life after death. None thinks that the human life ends at death. Hindus, of course, are famous for belief in rebirth, haven and hell. Islam does not believe in rebirth but does hold that humans will attain haven or hell as per their religious merits. Christianity also believes in haven and hell. Buddhism does not believe in haven or hell, but does believe that life does not end at death, unless one attains nirvana. It believes that as long as we live dukkha will remain; the only way to end dukkha is to merge into maha-shunya, nothingness. In sum: it seems all religions believe in life after death, some with hope for better world, some with trepidation. What I have written above about life after death in various religions is rather rudimentary and crude, not a detailed and accurate account. But enough to make the point that all religions believe in life after death. We will see below that this fact has immense psychological importance for religions. So, one criterion for a religious belief-system is acceptance of life after death.

One notices that all religions have some central dogmas which are basic to construct their belief systems. In Christianity Immaculate Conception and Christ being son of God will qualify as central dogmas, among some more. All Christians are supposed to believe in these. Similarly in Islam only one Allah and Mohammad being the last prophet are part of central dogmas. For Buddhism four arya-styas will be part of central dogmas. The nature of central dogmas in all religions is such that they can not be justified rationally, and often can not be even be refuted rationally. Therefore, have to be accepted on the bass of faith and authority. This can be seen as the second characterisation of a religious belief-system: that a religion necessarily has central dogmas that can not be rationally justifies, have to be taken on faith, and can not be questioned.

The idea of central dogmas requires two explanations. One, Hinduism as commonly understood poses a problem: there is no central dogma that all Hindus believe in. The theory of Karma (crudely put that our actions have impact on our live and eventually govern it) is often mentioned as something that comes closest to a central dogma. But not all Hindus believe in karma theory. On the face of it, then, it seems that Hinduism has no central dogma. This, however, can be explained if we see Hinduism not as a single religion but as a group of religions (panthas) with very strong family resemblance and respect for each other. I suspect, (by no means am certain on this issue so would be grateful if some one in the know informs me on this point), that Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Tantra, and other sects of Hinduism may have clearly articulated central dogmas. Another point that we should remember in this regard is that the term Hinduism is much more ambiguous than Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, etc. Hinduism can be interpreted as a geographical term: all people living on the east of Sindhu river in the Indian subcontinent are Hindus; that is how it was employed originally. There is no surprise in fact that this land may have had several religions so close to each other and so overlapping sets of believers in them that outsiders could not see the subtle differences. Without this, or some such qualification, Hinduism as it is today, will hardly qualify as a religion in the Semitic sense of the term. Thus we can still retain the second characterization of religious belief-system if we see Hinduism as a set of belief-systems very closely related to each other.

The second point we must explain here is: rational refutation of the central dogmas. The religious minded make a lot of this fact. They would claim, for example, that the existence of the God can not be disproved rationally therefore the God exists or that there are no rational grounds for atheism. This is a fallacy. Taking lack of rational refutation of a claim to be positive proof will lead us into very serious problems. This is not the place to go into nitty-gritties of epistemology; therefore I will just give a simple counter example and rest the case. Suppose I claim that at this very moment there is a white elephant in your room which can not be apprehended through your five senses and this white elephant is controlling all your thoughts and actions. If you accept that ‘lack of rational refutation of a claim is its positive proof’ then you should believe in the existence of my white elephant in your room now. One who believes in this becomes so vulnerable that she/he can be made to believe almost anything. That will result into a total abandonment of one’s own reason and autonomy in the matters of beliefs. (And that, by the way, is the strength of or problem with religion. Whether it is seen as strength or a problem depends on the point of view one takes.)

Belief in after-life and in a set of central dogmas, then, can be taken as epistemic characteristics of religious belief-systems. Properly speaking one can collapse them into one: belief in a set of central dogmas that can not be rationally established and can not be questioned; as belief in after-life can be taken as part of the set of central dogmas. But then we will loose insight into the psychology of belief, as after-life plays a central role in that. Also, most religions are more open to debate after-life than the rest of their central dogmas.

Religions, however, are more than just epistemic belief-systems of academic interest. They are social practices and organised associations of humans as well. The belief-system has to be expressed in social life as well as guarded from enquiring human intellect. This is achieved through: 1. Formal articulating the central dogmas in a scripture; 2. having official interpreters of the scriptures; and 3. creating rituals and social practices that identify the believers from non-believers.

These three characteristics of religion as social practice have immense impact on the lives of believes as well as non-believers sharing socio-political and geographical space with them. Therefore, it is in order to make an attempt at understanding them a little better.

Religions have their scriptures that articulate the central dogmas and their implications in the social life. These scriptures are so deeply respected that they can not be criticised. The sanctity of the scriptures is a necessity to protect the central dogmas from being critiqued and questioned. They are embodiments of the central dogmas. One can easily understand this if looks at the reactions of Hindus—it is a relatively modern phenomenon—on a deviant interpretation or critique of Ramayana these days. Or, if ne notices the response of Muslims to any questioning of Koran. Perhaps Buddhists are the most relaxed in this matter.

Similarly, all religions have their official interpreters of the scriptures and dogmas. If a common man/woman tries to interpret religions scriptures in one’s own light he/she encounters a general refrain from the religious minded and their sympathisers that ‘that is not what Gita or Koran or Bible means’. One can not understand its true meaning without studying with the official interpreters. And the official interpreters develop a whole shastra called theology to interpret and rationalise the scriptures. The interpretation of the scriptures then is closely guarded, by violent force is necessary.

All religions also have their ways of worship or dhayana specific to them. Some of them specify the object of worship and its rituals very strictly; while others might be more relaxed about them. But all do have some form or other of worship. Form of worship may also change over time; a religion which has very strict specifications may relax them over time and may even change. Vedic Hinduism is a case in point. Islam admits Allah the only object of worship, and Allah even visits punishment on those who worship anything else. On the other hand, Krishna in Gita declares that whomsoever you may worship, all of it will finally go to him. Still Hindu forms of worship can be easily recognised from Islamic forms, in spite of the ‘openness’ exhibited in this statement of Krishna. These social markers of believers do not end with distinct form of worship alone. They further guide believers in their ways of living: what to eat, how to dress, how to great, and so on.

If the above analysis has any merit we can look at religions at two levels: a. At the level of belief –system; and b. At the level of social practice. Both are closely associated with each other. Historically speaking it is not necessary that the belief-system emerges first. It may have been the case in some religions that the social practice was established first and the belief-system was formulated later. The other way round is also possible: to oppose or change a prevalent social practice the belief-system may have been formulate first, to begin a new religion. But all modern religions do have these characteristic.

To summarise then, religion is a belief-system that:

  1. Accepts after-life, or in other words, life-after death.
  2. Has a set o central dogmas that can not be justified rationally, has to be accepted on faith and can not be questioned and criticised.

Religion also has a social practice aspect that is characterised by:

  1. Scriptures that articulate the central dogmas and workout their implications for life.
  2. Authorised or official interpreter(s) of the scriptures and the dogmas.
  3. A set of social practices and behaviour patterns that distinguish its adherents from other people.

I am aware that this is becoming rather long, tedious and boring for a blog. But we can not properly answer questions regarding place of religion in schools without understanding what it happens to be. Before going to the third set of questions listed in Part 1, then,  we still have to deal with two issues: 1. The impact of religions on their believers and on socio-political life in general, and 2. Contribution of religion(s) to the development of humanity. These will be the subject of part 3 in this series.

To be continued….


Place of religion in public schools: Part 1

July 3, 2013

Rohit Dhankar

Recently, I had an occasion to be part of a discussion on ‘place of religion in public schools’ with the teachers. This article uses the glimpses of the discussion. The idea, here, is not to report the discussion as it happened, but to reflect on some salient points that emerged in course of the discussion.  The teachers were of a school that proclaims itself to be a secular school in strict sense of the term. The occasion of discussion was created because the teachers and coordinators in the school had some doubts, confusions and disagreements. None of these doubts, confusions and disagreements seems to be philosophically and politically profound. Rather, they have emerged in course of day to day dealings with practical situations in the school and it appears that the opinions, concerns and doubts of these teachers were representatives of cross-section of larger community of the teachers in India. It, thus, goes beyond the concerns of a single school in question and makes these un-profound doubts of the teachers worth discussing and reflecting upon. The note from the organizers of the discussion put forth two questions:

  1. What is the place of religion in a public school?
  2. What should be the view and attitude of teachers towards religion in a public school?

The term ‘public school’ here is used to distinguish the schools from avowedly religious schools or schools run by religious denominations. It includes all government run schools and all schools recognized by the appropriate authorities which are not in the category of religious schools even if run by private parties.

I was supposed to lead the discussion. To start with, I found the two questions articulated above too general, and therefore, presenting a danger of making the discussion removed from actual concerns. So I asked the teachers to articulate their own problems and concerns. The issues and questions raised and articulated by the teachers themselves could be organized as follows, though these are not their exact words:

  1. Meaning of secularism—
    1. What is secularism?
    2. Can a person (teacher) who is deeply religious and has his/her religious beliefs firmly set in his mind behave as a secular person in public?
    3. Can a person who is deeply religions be secular in his private and family life?
    4. If a country declares itself to be secular how can it give freedom to preach various religions? How can it allow its citizens freedom to practice religion of their choice?
    5. Can people actually be secular? Does not everyone necessarily have a religion?
  2. Meaning of religion—
    1. Isn’t dharma the knowledge of right and wrong? Then how can we be secular? Every one needs the knowledge to distinguish right from wrong.
    2. What is religion? What is the difference between ‘religion’ and ‘dharma’?
  3. What should the school do if the children come half a day late every Tuesday on account of pooja in Hanuman temple or leave every Friday at lunch time to participate in the Jumma Namaz? Should it allow them, or try to dissuade them? Or simply prohibit coming late or leaving early?
  4. Display of religious symbols and behaviour in the school—
    1. Should teachers be allowed to display their religious symbols like thick moli dora on their wrist? Or tilak on their forehead in school? Should children similarly be allowed to display these symbols in school?
    2. What if a female teacher, while in school, covers her head every time she hears azaan from nearby Mosque, though normally she does not keep her had covered? Should children be allowed similar behaviour?
    3. Should teachers be allowed to preach their religion in the school? How are the above activities different from preaching their religion?
  5. Religious behaviour of teachers outside the school—
    1. Should teachers be allowed to preach their religion in the immediate community in which the school is situated and from which the children come to school?
    2. Should teachers be allowed to work for better adherence to their own religion amongst their co-religionists in the community, though do not preach it to the followers of other religions?
    3. Should teachers participate in public religious activities like keertan or namaaz every day or very frequently?

I was somewhat surprised at these questions. Many of them would not have come up in my own schools—where I studied—in late 50s and 60s. People would not have cared about them anyway. But then I remembered that when I recently visited my own Higher Secondary School I was surprised to find a Hanuman temple sitting on one of its entrances. There was no temple when I studied there. It seems the public discourse on religion is changing or has changed. Any ways, I did not answer these questions directly in the discussion, rather tried to develop a dialogue on them. But in this post I am articulating my own position and not trying to reproduce the dialogue. Perhaps in present day educational discourse these are important questions. I would be very much interested in readers’ (if there are any) views on these questions and my own position on them.

I will try to take these questions one by one below, more or less as I articulated my views in the discussion. I am not sure if the teachers were convinced by the answers that emerged in the discussion or by my views on these issues, most probably not.

Meaning of secularism

What is secularism?

The teachers had a range of views on secularism: from respecting all religions equally to being totally indifferent and unconcerned about religions, to taking any anti-religion stance. They also saw secularism as an ideology of the state and of an individual.

It seems to me that the term secularism mainly addresses the issues of relationship between the state and religion and of public behaviour in general. Secularism is an ideology that claims that humans are capable of solving their social and political problems on the basis of their experience and reason in this world. They neither need to wait for life after death nor for any divine intervention. The state and society should organise their policies in a manner that they are not influenced by religious dogma or practices. That the state is indifferent to all religions, and further it treats all its citizens equally and fairly according to its own rule and policies and does not discriminate on the basis of their religious beliefs and affiliations. Secularism has no problem with citizens’ beliefs and religious practices as long as they do not interfere with other citizens’ rights. Religious beliefs of citizens are their private mater.

In India, however, there seems to be a debate on two significantly different meanings of secularism. One view of secularism is “state being equidistant and unconcerned with all religions”, that is what I will mean by secularism in this article. The other meaning is “equal respect for all religions”, which I will call sarva-dharma-samabhava here. Difference can be illustrated by an example. Recently, I have heard (am not sure), that the Madhya Pradesh government has decided to make financial support available to senior citizens for char-dhaam-yatra. This decision is against the idea of secularism, as state has got to do nothing with religions and char-dham-yatra of its citizens is their own private business. But if one takes sarva-dharma-samabhava as the state ideology, then the state provision of financial support to citizens from all religions—haz for Muslims, pilgrimage for Christians, Gurudwara pilgrimage for Sikhs, and so on—it becomes acceptable.

The idea of sarvadharama-samabhava is said to be propagated by Gandhi. He called it equimindedness or equal respect towards all religions. The present-day interpretation and practice of sarvadharma-samabhava is different from how Gandhi viewed it. Let’s dwell on this difference a bit. To understand Gandhi’s idea of sarvadharma-samabhava we have to begin with his understanding of relationship between religion and reason. He has written much on the subject. I will give just two examples to make the point here. Gandhi did not preach blind faith in and following of scriptures. In response to Mr. Andrews he writes “I reject any religious doctrine that does not appeal to reason and is in conflict with morality. I tolerate unreasonable religious sentiment when it is not immoral”. (Emphasis added, CWMG Vol.21, Young India, 21-7-1929) In Young India 19-1-21 while writing on untouchability he states “[T]he devil has always quoted scriptures. But scriptures cannot transcend reason and truth. They are intended to purify reason and illuminate truth. I am not going to burn a spotless horse because the Vedas are reported to have advised, tolerated, or sanctioned the sacrifice.” (CWMG vol.22) Thus he is prepared to submit religious scriptures to the test of reason and morality. In connection with an incident of stoning to death in Afghanistan, he wrote “[W]hatever may have been necessary or permissible during the Prophet’s lifetime and in that age, this particular form of penalty cannot be defended on the mere ground of its mention in the Koran. Every formula of every religion has, in this age of reason, to submit to the test of reason and universal justice if it is to ask for universal assent. Error can claim no exemption even if it can be supported by the scriptures of the world”. (Young India, 26-2-1925, CWMG Vol.30) He obviously was not scared of expressing his views on what is conjoined in scriptures be they Veda or Koran.

All religions accordion to him are man-made and imperfect because man himself is imperfect. “Religion of our conception, being thus imperfect, is always subject to a process of evolution and re-interpretation.” (September 23, 1939; CWMG Vol.50) In the same article he goes on “[A]nd if all faiths outlined by men are imperfect, the question of comparative merit does not arise. All faiths constitute a revelation of Truth, but all are imperfect and liable to error. Reverence for other faiths need not blind us to their faults.” Thus Gandhi’s idea of equal respect emerges from three key assumptions: one, all religions are man made and therefore imperfect. Two, all have both errors and truths. Three, religious dogmas can be revaluated and reinterpreted in the light of reason and morality of the day. If that be so, there is no reason to respect any one of them over the others. As a result his sarvadharma-samabhava is an appeal for open-mindedness and critical examination of religion; it is not for blind faith but for healthy scepticism about one’s own religion and healthy recognition of merits in other religions.

But modern-day Indian sarvadharma-samabhava is equal capitulating in the face of all religions. One can not interrogate and raise questions about religion. Hussain, Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie are victims of this mentality. The current interpretation of sarvadharma-samabhava bans critique of religion, kills freedom of expression. It sets all religions in competition with each other for more and more preferential treatment from the state, more and more freedom to create public inconvenience in the name of melas, poojas, namaaz and muharram. If one religion encroaches on the road to build a temple, the current sarvadharma-samabhava attitude does not allow the law to take its course and declare that as an encroachment and act to remove it. Rather it prefers abject surrender to encroachment in the name of Mosques, Chapels and Gurudwaras constructions as well. It is a mindless bowing down in front of religious force and can not be justified as a kind of secularism or even as Gandhian sarve dharma sambhava at all. However, the Constitution of India correctly interpreted, and if implemented in spirit, still has the strength to uphold secularism in its true spirit of equal distance from all religions.

In the schools, therefore, we should prefer secularism in the sense of school policies being totally independent of religious considerations and feelings. That brings us to the second question in this section.

Can a person (teacher) who is deeply religious and has his/her religious beliefs firmly set in his mind behave as a secular person in public?

In the discussion with teachers I crated a fictitious example. Suppose there is a judge, she is a deeply religious person; she lives a religious life and does her worship (pooja, namaaz, ardas, attending mass, or whatever). Actually lives her personal life according to the tenets of her own religion, and believes in her religious dogma. As a judge she has to adjudicate according to the legal framework of the country. The question is: is it possible for her to act strictly as per the secular legal system of the country in spite of her personal belief in her own religion? Some teachers thought it is possible without any difficulty, some others thought it is not possible. Those who thought it is not possible did not think that this person is going to pass her judgment on the cases as per her own religious laws. For example they did not think that she will award different punishments for the same crime (say murder) to a shudra  and a brahmin, as stipulated in Manu Smriti, even if she happens to be a devout Hindu. Or that she will award punishment to a thief as per Koran rather than as per Indian Penal Code if she happens to be a Muslim. In this they all agreed that she can actually act as per the current legal framework. Their problem was that she is going to be biased in favour of her own co-religionists and if a matter between the religions arises will be tiled towards her own religion. But that is a human failing, and has nothing particularly to do with religion. Favouritism can happen on grounds of caste, political affiliation, kinship or friendship basis. Her being religious does not necessarily make her any more biased than her other affiliations.

Therefore, at least theoretically there is no contradiction between a person being deeply religious in her personal life and acting as per the secular principles in the public affairs. A teacher can be religious in personal life and be secular in fulfilling his responsibilities in the school. He can teach, for example, history in a manner a true historian would do.

The possibility of leanings towards one’s favourite ideology, be that religious, communism or atheism, perhaps can not be totally ruled out. But in a school, or any other work place, with clearly laid down norms of behaviour, collective responsibility and transparency; society can control this tendency and keep it within harmless limits.

Can a person who is deeply religions be secular in his private and family life?

This is difficult to define what secularism in personal and family life would mean. Secularism is more of a principle for functioning of a state, and perhaps, of functioning of individuals in a multi-religious society and its public affairs. If the state policies, laws and rules of governance are not influenced by the religious doctrines, they are applied in spirit and they are non-discriminatory to its citizens, it is a secular state. A functionary of the state behaving as per those rules and principles is a secular citizen. Beyond that, what citizens believe in their personal lives is not really a matter of secularism. However, there might be people who prefer company of their own co-religionists and shun contact with believers of other religions. State can hardly do anything about it, even if this is an unfortunate attitude and eventually will fragment the society if majority of its members develop such attitudes. This kind of attitudes can not be corrected through laws, they are a matter of understanding. Friendship is definitely a personal matter. And religious beliefs may influence it. But there are umpteen numbers of examples where religious people do develop very close friendships with people from religions other than their own. A person who has this kind of biased attitude certainly can not be called secular in their social behaviours. But neither could they be corrected through making rules nor is it necessary that religious belief is going to promote such attitudes among believers.

Family life is a different mater altogether. The way of living, decorating one’s house, daily routine, visits of religious places, teaching of children, regulating one’s relationship with family members are all too personal for the state or any external agency to intervene. If a person is religious, his family behaviour will definitely be influenced by his religion. All one can expect in the name of secularism perhaps here is that a religious father or mother refrains from imposing his/her own views on other family members. That is very difficult, and perhaps religious people tend more to impose their views on their children than secular people do. But that is a matter of empirical study. In a democracy, all citizens have right to choose their own life and parents have no rights to impose their own choices on their children.

If a country declares itself to be secular how can it give freedom to preach various religions? How can it allow it’s citizens freedom to practice religion of their choice?

There have been secular states which don’t give freedom of publicly professing, practicing and preaching one’s religion to his/her fellow citizens. Peoples’ Republic of China has been one such state, and is one even now, in spite of relative openness compared to earlier times. Freedom to profess, practice and preach one’s religion for all citizens comes from the ideals of democracy, not from those of secularism. The fundamental principle of democracy is freedom to choose the kind of life one wants to live. And this freedom has to be extended to all citizens. For many people religious belief is a central issue in deciding the kind of life they want to live. And therefore, freedom to profess, practice and reach one’s religion can not be divorced from democratic values. Also, there is no necessary contradiction between secularism and believing in any particular religion as we have seen above. Therefore there is no reason for a democracy to curtail its citizens’ freedom to practice religion of their choice. A democracy necessarily has to be secular; however, a secular state may not necessarily be a democracy. The nation states which have a preferred religion are not true democracies, even if they claim to be so.

Can people actually be secular? Does not everyone necessarily have a religion?

This obviously is a mistaken question, in spite of the fact that it is asked ever so often. First, we have seen above that being religious and secular in public behaviour are not necessarily contradictory. Therefore, people who do believe in any particular religion can also be secular simultaneously.

But that is not the actual meaning of this question. The real questions here can be understood as:

  1. Can there be a person who does not believe in any religion?
  2. Can there be a person who does not believe in God?

These are naive questions very often asked by religious minded and theist people. It seems such questions arise out of unwarranted generalisations on the basis of one’s own state of mind. It is premised on ‘Since I am believer, therefore, others also must be believers’. Often people assume that moral principles are impossible to emerge but from religious belief. And since living in a society entails morality of some or other kind, therefore, everyone has a religious belief. But if we accept that there could be secular morality then necessity of religious belief for moral behaviour is no more there.

Actually the more forceful question is the second: it is assumed that human beings necessarily believe in some divine power. Often in teachers meetings—not in the one I have referred to here—people cling on such simple utterances as “he Ram” or “ohh God” as proof of belief in God. Another popular assumption is that every one believes in something or other, whatever that person believes is his God. This emerges out of ambiguity in the concept of God. One wonders if these questions are really worth engaging with. They seem to be results of confused state of mind regarding the meaning of religious belief and the God.

To be continued….


30th June 2013

Rohit Dhankar, Azim Premji University, Bangalore and Digantar, Jaipur