Interpretation is without a doubt the most critical part of reading

Raj ghat Samadhi the memorial in Delhi that marks the spot of Mahatma Gandhi's cremation. A moving place where respectful crowds stand in silence.

Raj Ghat Samadhi the memorial in Delhi that marks the spot of Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation. A moving place where respectful crowds stand in silence.

January 30th this year marked the 67th anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by the Hindu fundamentalist Nathuram Godse, as he walked from Birla House in Delhi to conduct a prayer meeting. This savage act plunged a nation into mourning and is commemorated today by supporters of Gandhi’s stance on non-violence and social activism across India and the wider world. As is usual, the date provoked comments on Gandhi’s legacy in several Indian papers this year, and my attention was particularly drawn to one in the Hindu, written by Varghese K. George under the heading Gita, Gandhi and Godse (Hindu Jan 30th 2015).

The article is interesting for constructing an argument that both Gandhi and Godse had been opposed to British rule in India. They had also shared the same Hindu faith and were profoundly influenced by the contents of the Bhagavad Gita, which was written at some point between 400 BCE and 400 CE. In his article, George stresses the point that many great leaders and campaigners, including Gandhi, and Martin Luther King junior, and he might equally have added Aung San Suu Kyi, have been driven by a religious conviction that shaped their view of the world, and in particular their beliefs in both social justice and the means by which this might be achieved. He then goes on to discuss the fact that Godse whilst profoundly influenced by the words of the Bhagavad Gita, gave this text an interpretation that was so far removed from that of Gandhi’s that he became a murderer, whilst Gandhi died a martyr.

George makes a very articulate and well-reasoned case within his article for a debate about the place of religious doctrine in the politics of today’s largely secular societies. He points out that the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been very pointed in his presentation of copies of the Gita to a number of world leaders, including President Barak Obama, and the Japanese Emperor Akihito. This he suggests, may well have angered some of the Indian population in what has been firmly established by the 1950 constitution as a secular state. India is in fact home to representatives of all the world’s major religions, and it has been argued that the secular nature of the state has been an important factor in the retention of social accord since independence in 1947.

This is certainly an interesting debate, but reading this from a teacher’s perspective, of even greater interest is the discussion within this article of the interpretation of religious texts and the ways in which these are conveyed to others. Gandhi’s reading of the Gita was undoubtedly influenced by his contact with other religious texts, including the Christian Bible and the Moslem Quran, both of which he found to have passages that greatly moved him. Writing in From Yeravanda Mandir, Gandhi stated that in his opinion “All faiths constitute a revelation of Truth, but all are imperfect and liable to error.” However, he also believed that these great religious texts called upon adherents to their faith to treat all men with respect and to abhor violence.

Gandhi’s interpretation clearly did not sit well with Nathurum Godse and his colleagues, who chose to justify their appalling actions through reference to religion. It was in part, Gandhi’s respect for the rights of India’s Moslem’s to assert their opinions and choices that so incensed Godse and many others of similar extreme views. As a result of this a terrible crime was committed and both men lost their lives. Within his article, Varghese K. George makes the important point, that whilst leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King junior have used religious books to justify their non-violence, so have many despots of the past used the same texts to support their actions of mass killing through crusades, Jihad and “holy wars” against those who hold a different set of beliefs. As George emphasises at the conclusion of his piece, it is all about our reading of the text rather than simply the words contained on the page.

The Hindu article struck a chord with me as I was leaving Bangalore, having over the past two weeks enjoyed the company of Hindus, Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and secularists all working together in various situations. At no time did I feel greatly distanced from these individuals, or the views that shape the ways in which they behave, despite not personally subscribing to their religious beliefs. Yet I read increasingly in the media and hear repeatedly on the radio that men are killing each other and inflicting their distorted view of the world and are justifying this mayhem by reference to scripture. Such behaviour is an affront to education which surely must have as a major aim the promotion of respect and tolerance. Those who are most directly involved in acts of violence are for the most part not educated men, and those who lead them choose to use their own education as a means of controlling others for their personal ends rather than working towards a better society for all.  As teachers there must be an imperative upon us to assist children to interpret religion as providing a set of guiding principles aimed at creating a more just and caring society. If we do not believe that religion has a part to play in challenging violence and aggression, then it should have no place in our schools.

Postscript:

Nathuram Godse and his co-conspirator Narayan Apte were both hanged on November 15th 1949 for their part in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. I am quite sure that the decision to execute these two men would have been opposed by Gandhi, who would have seen violence as playing no part in the implementation of justice.

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6 thoughts on “Interpretation is without a doubt the most critical part of reading

  1. This is why I believe we need to re-assess the purpose and method of education today including the role of teachers in the whole process. This is particularly important in today’s culture of intolerance and violent attempts to impose one’s faith and beliefs (religious, political and other) on others. Hasn’t the focus shifted too far on to developing ‘able machines’ rather than bringing out the best in every individual – physical, mental and spiritual as Gandhi advised (your previous post). However, in a situation where certain groups are calling for the fundamental, founding principles of secularism and socialism to be removed from the constitution of India itself, it is important that education / teachers not only prepare children to be doctors, engineers and accountants, but also to be human beings.

    • Absolutely right Benny. Give me an honest illiterate auto rickshaw driver ahead of an educated crooked politician every time. On the other hand, an educated honest auto rickshaw might make a decent politician!

  2. The same article also spoke about Gandhiji having read the Bible and the Koran with equal fervour as the Gita. In fact none of these texts advocate non-violence or for that matter the opposite of secularism. It is disturbing that world over people take the refuge of the religious textsfollowed in their part of the world to support their acts of violence and inhumaneness.
    Also, i think this is one example where a couple of people have asocial tendencies and garner enough support for it to become a mass phenomenon. Much like the support that our not-so-straightforwrad politicians and Godmen enjoy!

    • Hi Rajani,
      Sadly, I feel that some people hide behind a religion of philosophy rather than thinking for themselves. Most religious texts have a moral message, but we have reached a point where some individuals have used these books as a justification for the evil intentions that were never expressed in the very scriptures that they quote.

  3. I dont think it is just a couple of people but the problem seems to be worldwide, where violence is perpetuated in the name of religion. Many of these people who share these ideas are well “educated”, having studied in premier institutes. To me, that is alarming.
    So can education solve the problem, and create a new way of thinking or is the problem even deeper? If education addresses only the academic and the social, raising citizens who are insensitive to the rights of others, than we have failed.
    I agree with Benny that education has to be holistic in its approach addressing body, soul and spirit to be effective in it’s mission of raising “human beings” in society!

    • Hi Shuba,
      Education clearly has an important role. After all, it is a kind of false education that indoctrinates people into believing that they are justified in committing violence in the name of God – whether this is Christian, Moslem, Hindu or any other. Whilst teachers cannot solve the problem alone, we must have a role to play by setting an example and challenging those who perpetuate violence as a means to a selfish end.

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