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Education and Secularism

By Dr Jyotsna Bhattacharjee

Our country seems to be going through a devastating crisis. Several incidents like communal strife, religious hatred, attacks on temples, churches and other religious places have clearly indicated the importance of secular education in the educational institutions. We often hear of various kinds of vandalism perpetrated in diverse religious places. Such incidents have demonstrated the intolerance of some people towards others’ religion. The dictionary meaning of religion is that it is a particular system of faith and worship. It is supposed to unite people. But now we see that religion is dividing the people instead of uniting them. Whether it is the Upanishads, or the Bible, or the Quran, all these religious texts teach the followers the value of love and devotion. Violence is repugnant to every religion. All religious texts suggest various ways to attain God or the Absolute Reality. Hence the aim of every religion is same, only the means are different.
Unfortunately most people belonging to diverse faiths do not seem to understand the true significance of religion. They have vitiated the true spirit of religion by misinterpreting the teachings of their religion. Sages and scholars through the ages have taught people to respect all religions. Our ways may be  different, but God is the same. As Swami Vivekananda said: “Religion does not consist in dogmas and creeds, temples and churches, rituals and ceremonies…… . It is the manifestation of divinity, already in man”
Indian philosophers since ancient era have believed that divinity is potentially existent in every man. But due to various factors the divinity stays dormant and it has to be made actual by every individual by properly following the religious exercises and the moral principles. If we ponder over the religious texts of diverse religions, we will find that they all suggest ways to make us better human beings. In ancient era people in general adhered to high moral values. But today all the values seem to have been lost and people are committing heinous crimes in the name of religion. Hence it has become very important to impart right education to children, so that they can work for the welfare of humanity and can make themselves better human beings. They must bring out the divinity lying quiescent in the mind.
From history we learn that education was never regarded as the responsibility of the government in ancient India. The medieval rulers occasionally sponsored arts, but education for people in general was never considered as important enough to be the responsibility of the state. As far as we know from ancient literature, children from the royal households and from the aristocratic families were sent to the hermitages of famed gurus or preceptors who were well-known for their skill and accomplishments. They were venerated by the populace, including the rulers of the kingdom. The disciples lived in the hermitages and they were looked after by the guru and the gurumata as their own children. The state control of education did not even arise.
In that age the study of religion was considered to be an integral part of education and the character of young pupils was supposed to be moulded according to the religious model. From the ancient literature we learn about Ashramite education. The disciples were taught religion, morality, warfare and all the necessary things which would be needed for success and happiness in their future life. Their education was not confined to merely books. It was a practical kind of education, which taught them the rules of life. They had to do hard work according to the command of the preceptor. They were given necessary training to face any situation in future life. Moral, physical, spiritual and practical education was imparted to the disciples. The entire process of education depended on the will of the preceptor and it was totally free of state interference.
Then the British came and they started a new mode of education policy. Initially they accepted the classical pattern. Warren Hastings established the Calcutta Madrasa in 1781 and Benaras Sanskrit college in 1792. A few years later Charles Grant tried to introduce a comprehensive system of English education, but he failed. Many schools were set up all around the country by the missionaries, pre-eminently by William Carey.
After securing firm control over the administration in India, the British took an active interest in education. People in general were apprehensive about the intention of foreign rulers. They were afraid that the British rulers wanted to impose Christianity in the country through western education. However in 1935 it was resolved that the objective of the British government would be to promote European literature and science amongst the “natives of India”.
The move to impart western education in schools was supported by the leading Indians of that era. But some people were opposed to the introduction of western education. However this apprehension appeared to be unfounded. The famous dispatch of Sir Charles Wood in 1854, which laid the foundation of modern education system in the universities of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay reiterated the sound principle of religions neutrality. The document said: “Government institutions were founded for the benefit of the whole population in India. Education should be strictly secular”.
It was mainly due to the apprehension of the people that the English rulers were trying to impose Christianity on the people of India, the revolt of 1857 occurred. The British government suppressed the revolt and after that the Queen’s Proclamation declared: “We declaim alike the right and desire to impose our religious beliefs and mode of worship on our subjects”.
Accordingly the first Education Commission was appointed in 1882 for the smooth running of the education system. The commission observed, “The declared neutrality of the state forbids it connecting the institution directly maintained by it with any one form of faith, and the other alternative of giving equal facilities in such institutions for the inculcation of all forms of faith involve political difficulties, which are believed to be inseparable”. At the same time the commission recommended that an attempt might be made to prepare a moral text book based on the fundamental principles of religion. The word “religion” did not refer to any particular religion.
In 1884, the government of India advanced its response in the following way. “It is doubtful whether such a moral text book of morality, sufficiently vague and colourless to be accepted by the Christians, Hindus and Muslims would do much to remedy the defects or the shortcomings of such education”. The position of religious education remained the same till 1947.
After independence the government of India appointed the Education Commission in 1948, which was headed by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan. It recommended that in degree courses the lives of great religious teachers, notably Buddha, Confucious, Zoroastra, Christ, Ramanujan, Nanak, Muhammad and Kabir be taught. Dr. A. L. Mudaliar was the chairman of the Secondary Education Commission and the commission suggested the holding of an assembly at the start of the day’s session with all the teachers and the students being present. It also suggested a denominational prayer at the assembly. Because of the constitutional provision of a secular state, the commission thought that religious education could not be imparted in schools except “on a voluntary basis and outside the regular school hours…… such instruction should be given to the children of the particular faith and with the consent of the parents and management concerned”.
In i959 the central Advisory Board of Education appointed a special committee to consider the education system. The committee was in favour of religious and moral instruction in educational institutions. The Kothari Commiussion also recommended education in social, moral and spiritual values. It proposed that a few hours in the time table may be set apart for religious and moral education, “as all religions stress upon certain fundamental qualities of character.