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.
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.