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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Education is as fundamental as the air we breathe.

 

Might this picture from the past become a predictor for the school iniform of the future?

Might this picture from the past become a predictor for the school uniform of the future?

I live in a cottage, one of a row of four, which stand alone, surrounded by trees and open fields, in a beautiful part of the English countryside. One of the aspects of this bucolic existence that I usually take for granted, is the clear clean air  with which I am able to fill my lungs. I don’t usually give this a lot of thought, but a number of recent news items have given me good reason to be relieved that I live here, and not in other parts of the world.

On a couple of occasions when working in India I have developed a somewhat irritating cough. I generally put this down to the excessive noxious fumes emanating from the congested traffic, exposure to which is often intensified by travelling the streets in the back of an open sided auto-rickshaw. Belching exhaust fumes create a murky fog that hangs above the road and often make for an unpleasant travelling experience. Several reports from scientific surveys conducted in recent months confirm that my summation of the cause of my cough is probably correct. The Supreme Court in Delhi received a report from the Indian Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority last Friday, which gave an alarming picture of the air quality in the capital city. The report confirmed the assertions made in a World Health Organization study of 1,600 cities, which indicated that Delhi’s air pollution is now officially at the highest level of any city in the world.

Understandably the Indian Environment Pollution Authority have recommended urgent action to address this alarming issue, which is already having a negative impact upon the health of city dwellers. Limiting the number of motor vehicles allowed on the roads at any one time, and taking greater actions to manage exhaust emissions are proposals that one might expect. However, it was another proposal that particularly caught my attention. The authors of the report have urged the Supreme Court to order that all schools in Delhi should be closed on days when levels of air pollution are deemed to pose a threat to public health.

This proposal of such drastic action must obviously be of concern to all teachers and parents in the city, yet this would certainly not be a unique situation. In Shanghai recently, as the city experienced one its worst recorded instances of air pollution, the authorities ordered that all school children should be kept indoors for the sake of their health. Elsewhere in China severe pollution recently forced school closures and the shutdown of the airport in the city of Harbin.

My only visit to Shanghai was to the airport from which I departed China a few years ago. I recall from my window seat on the plane looking down and being disappointed that rather than a view of Shanghai’s famous skyline, all I could see was a murky orange cloud of smog. My memories of a visit to Delhi last year are of an excellent conference, the magnificent monument of the Qutub Minar and the moving memorial to Gandhi at Raj Ghat, but also of the slightly acrid taste of the air around the international airport.

The concerns expressed for the health of children living in these cities, and the many others which have high levels of pollution and poor air quality must surely lead to drastic action. The children currently attending schools (when they are open) in these toxic environments are being left a dreadful legacy. It is probably their generation that will be required to apply even more drastic measures to undo the havoc currently being reaped across the globe. That is, of course, assuming that they are fit enough to take on this daunting task. I find myself wondering how teachers in schools in these cities address the current environmental challenges with their students? Many of today’s primary school children have never seen a pure blue sky. At night there are no stars visible, and it is no longer possible to appreciate a view across the city from a distant hill. Will history teachers be recalling the time when blue skies and stars were experienced by city dwellers? Will sweeping vistas be understood only from the pictures presented by art teachers as a point of reference for their students?

Some scientists are claiming that it is already too late to reverse this terrible decline. Others are more optimistic and believe that if actions are taken now it may be possible to correct much of the damage. There must be an imperative upon every individual to assist in addressing this calamitous situation, and education should certainly be at the forefront of this action. It cannot be claimed that we do not know the causes of the environmental disaster that we are currently witnessing, not only in India and China, but in much of the world. It is unacceptable to expect that those children who are currently attending our schools should shoulder the responsibility for addressing this catastrophe in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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