D Sampath Kumar

Should we teach our kids Hindu epics?

D Sampathkumar Chennai | Updated on September 03, 2014

There are those who view it merely as tales, albeit of epic proportions.

Why not? These are works of scholarship and we must not let prejudice stand in the way of learning

Should we teach the kids Ramayana and the Mahabharata in their schools? That is the question that Justice Dave, the retired Supreme Court judge has answered in the affirmative.

Not surprisingly, there have been voices of protest too, with Justice Katju and Sitaram Yechury of the CPM, being the more prominent ones.

There are those who view it merely as tales, albeit of epic proportions. The average Thai or the Balenese dancer rendering an episode from the Ramayana would doubtless be surprised if told that he or she is portraying divinity.

But there is no doubt that for most Hindus there is an element of religiosity associated with these tales, so much so, that even reciting parts of it or listening to a discourse on some aspect of the story is an act of worship. If collective perception is reality, then we have to confer on them some degree of sacredness in a religious sense.

Is it an act of unsecular behaviour?

But does that make the teaching of it in the classroom for the purpose of imbuing students with some sense of moral values, an act of unsecular behaviour? At least that is what Katju and Yechury would have us believe when they say it is not secular even if they don't go so far as to brand it as communal.

I am a little unsure that teaching Ramayana or Mahabharata in schools is per se anti-secular. For, if that were indeed to be the case, the whole Church of South India would stand accused of such unsecular behaviour with regard to the content and pedagogy of moral science course in secondary schools run by them back in the time when I was a student at one of their establishments. And they surely, cannot be.

Back then, the Directorate of School Education had prescribed to all affiliated institutions, that students be instructed over two sessions in a week, either scriptural knowledge or moral conduct (moral science, as they called it).

At my school, the students were divided into two groups - those that were interested in delving deeper into those portions of the Bible that dealt with what Christ told his followers and those who would prefer to be taught something else. In the instant case, that turned out to be stories from the Bible that predated Christ's advent on this earth. The first one was religious instruction and the second well, moral science.

Technically, the school authorities were right. If Christianity is about what Christ taught his followers, then the retelling of it, by extension, became a course in religious instruction. In contrast, whatever was part of the Bible but dealt with events that occured before the advent of Christ, wasn't religious instruction but moral science as it dealt with stuff, well at least much of it anyway, that attested to some higher, nobler principle.

We certainly didn't complain. For a number of reasons. It was fun. While it didn't rank on par with PT (Physical Training), it easily trumped general science and social studies.

It had the added advantage of being billeted with girls in the class. The gender ratio being skewed so heavily in favour of boys that girls were of necessity very few and for some strange logistical reason, the powers that be, thought that they were better off being accommodated in just one of the three sections of the classes although the unstated opinion among the boys was that the latter's cheerful presence be spread uniformly across all the three.

There were quite a few with a disdain for footwear of any kind (the school after all didn't have footwear code) bordering on the the degree of aversion that the Massai tribesmen, who routinely won Olympic marathon golds exhibited, were to be shod in shoes with a fresh coat of Cherry Blossom- Black on the days that moral science classes were scheduled.

Moral science classes

There were so few girls, but even fewer among them were interested in religious instruction. So much so, a christian girl, and I use the word in a literal and not in its metaphorical sense, was practically an oxymoron! So, there was that attraction to moral science. And if that wasn't compensation enough, the subject itself was such fun to read up. It dealt with deeds of valour, avarice and hate among all those biblical characters.

The teacher would make some general remarks about some aspect of moral behaviour and illustrate it with a story from the bible. I remember one from those days even to this day as I came within a toucher being caught out by my teacher when he asked me to narrate the story that exemplified the spirit of charity even to one's enemies.

He was known to wield a mean cane if the transgression was serious enough to warrant it. I knew my turn was up anytime then as student after student flunked the test. In desperation, I turned to my friend silently beseeching him to give me the answer if he knew it. My prayers were answered when in a voice that is barely above a whisper he uttered the words in Tamil, 'Saulin palayathil Daveedu' - meaning, the story of David's stealthy entry into the camp of Saul.

I knew that story of course. Saul, envious of David's growing reputation as a warrior thought up many strategies to finish him off. David escapes each time without ever being aware that it was Saul who was behind it. Finally, after another failed attempt which reveals to David that it was Saul who all along had plotted to kill him, decides to put an end to it.

That night he surreptiously enters the tent where Saul was sleeping and quietly walks away with his spear and the water jug. David was effectively telling Saul that he could have killed him that night if he had wanted to. The story ends with a chastened Saul forswearing enmity to become the best of friends with David and winning many battles in his company.

The principle underlying it is not much different from the message in a Thirukkural couplet where the Tamil poet, Tiruvalluvar, enjoins upon us to shame our enemies with acts of good deed as a punishment. There were many such tales.

The best part of it was that these tales from the bible containing moral values imparted to a young audience made up almost entirely of Hindu boys was undertaken by a muslim teacher, austere of manner and devout of beliefs. The secular cycle, if you may call it, was thus complete.

Tradition of learning

It was difficult to visualise a school curriculum that didn't have some aspect of religion built in. Back then, if you had Tamil language as a subject of study in higher classes then poetry was a major component. There might have been something called a secular tamil poetry, even in those days. But you can't claim to have tasted the sweetness or rejoiced in its elegance without delving into the works of Kambar (Ramayana), Villiputturar (Mahabharat), Sekkizhar (Periapuranam - an epic compilation detailing Lord Siva's acts of divine grace to his devotees) and so on.

It was mandatory reading for not just Hindu students but those of Christian and Muslim students as well. Of course, we also had selections from the works of poet Umar (a poetic account of the life of the Prophet Mohammad) and Veeramamunivar - an Italian Jesuit priest by the name of Constance Benize whose collection of verses - Thempavani, or a garland of poems as sweet as nectar - was a required reading.

As one looks back, it is hard to reject a view that an inquiry into eclectic sources of knowledge not only did it not scar our religious psyche but more importantly, enriched us culturally. We have had a tradition of seeing learning as just that - learning. Scholarship is not something that you put behind a prism of peculiar discernment that refracts everything into shades of saffron, green and other colours communal to secular spectrum. The recent controversy only suggests that somewhere along the way, we have regressed from our earlier nature that was marked by innocence.

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Published on August 05, 2014
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