When a religion treats the labouring castes as impure, naturally the indignity of labour becomes the essence of the nation. Does not this situation need to change?
The Modi government seems to believe that a change should be brought in school curriculum by re-working the text books that NCERT brings out. To this effect the ministry of human resource development, it appears, is taking steps. According to reports in the media, lessons from Vedas and Upanishads will be incorporated in the text books to educate the student community about ancient Indian civilisation and culture. There is not just one view of ancient India. The so-called Vedic view is nothing but the Brahminic view.
No one should have any objection if those sections of Vedas and Upanishads which focus on human equality in the realm of spiritual systems of India are included in the text books. But along with such portions from Vedas and Upanishads, the egalitarian teachings from the Buddhist Suthas and Pitakas, and Jain theories of non-violence should also be included. Equally important are the materialist discourses of Charvakas, which injected the earliest rational thinking among our ancestors. The Dalitist narrative of ancient India, which focuses a great deal on production and science, is also extremely relevant to the discourse of development today.
Ancient India, for example, was known for producing scientific tools and instruments that enhanced the country’s productivity. The Vedas and Upanishads don’t just ignore the production process and its contribution, but in certain sections negated “production” as pollution. Labour classes were the lower castes, and that’s why they were invisibilised in these text written by the brahmins.
For a comprehensive view and understanding of ancient India, it must be studied from the point of view of dignity of labour. And the contemporary development debate has to be linked to the question of dignity of labour even in ancient times because our under-development is closely associated to the notion of indignity of labour in Indian civil society.
For example, the earliest pot and brick was made in ancient India. The Indus Valley Civilisation was built on the advanced skills of brick making and pottery. But those who make bricks and pots today are considered to be people of “neech jati” by Vedic pundits. Even the secular, academic understanding holds a similar opinion of labour. Today a Vedic pundit is not one who respects the brick and pot maker, but one who bathes several times if a potter touches him/her. School children, who need to be part of the contemporary developmental discourse, should know that treating production as pollution is a socially constructed wrong. Such a spiritual, social notion hampers development.
One of our glorious ancient heritages is the shaving blade (or, the barber’s knife). If the clean shaven faces of Hindu divine figures like Rama and Krishna are any indication, by Kritha and Dwpara yuga India had created what was, perhaps, the sharpest blade in the ancient world. At a time when no nation in the world seemed to know about it, Indian ironsmiths were hammering shaving blades and surgical knives that made advancements in other fields possible.
Realistically, a definite time frame of when the blade/knife was invented and used could be drawn from the timeline of Jain and Buddhist schools, both of whom had the compulsory practice of shaving their head, including for female monks.
We also have enough evidence to show that Indian leather technology was also very advanced in ancient times. But leather technocrats began to be treated as untouchable by the Vedic forces and the situation has not changed to date. Is it not necessary to deconstruct a mindset that still exists, not just of our school going population, but also the teachers themselves?
The present set of NCERT books were prepared when Prof. Krishna Kumar was the director. They adopted a so-called secular approach to rewrite the text books, to undo the communal overtones introduced under the supervision of Dr Murali Manohar Joshi, the National Democratic Alliance’s HRD minister. But the so-called secular view isn’t without its inherent prejudices. A friend of mine had taken a children’s book I had written on dignity of labour, Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land: Dignity of Labour in our Times, to Prof. Krishna Kumar, who, it appears, looked at it with disdain. Nothing was incorporated.
The so-called communist scholars claim that they are champions of labour, but they too refuse to understand that religion and caste in India are real. When a religion treats the labouring castes as impure, naturally the indignity of labour becomes the essence of the nation. Does not this situation need to change? How can it change without incorporating a heavy dose of dignity of labour in our schools?
Yet another important aspect of ancient Indian life that needs to come into text books is the food culture. No social group in ancient India was vegetarian — not even the Jains and Buddhists. Now the Vedic pundits and Hindutva forces are hegemonising vegetarianism, ignoring plural choice based food cultures, particularly meat eating. This will be an exercise in exceptionalism which no nation can suffer. If Mr Modi’s development model is couched in vegetarianism, future Indians will suffer from huge nutrition deficiencies.
Any selective teaching of ancient India is harmful because a multi-cultural, modern society cannot be connected to any one set of values. If a government takes a position on religious ethics, it cannot be partisan. If text books need to contain some aspects of Vedas, the Bible, Quran and Guru Granth cannot be left out. Rewriting what India studies and learns cannot be driven by Hindutva nationalism.
If God and religion are universal, the core books of all religions are also universal. It is a different thing that one religion has more following and another has less. India, thus, cannot treat Hinduism as the only Indian religion.
HRD minister Smriti Irani should not commit the same mistake that Dr Joshi committed by converting the ministry of human resource development into the ministry of Hindu resource development. Let the Prime Minister keep a watch, as he, hopefully, knows the difference.
The writer is director, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad
[Courtesy: Asian Age, June 10, 2014]