The recent announcement about the proposed establishment of the Bharatiya Shiksha Board in order to revitalise and teach Vedic education has had its usual share of supporters and sceptics. This initiative is considered as a step towards getting students to learn about Vedic culture, as well as the canonical texts and practices of Hinduism. Keeping ideological issues aside, we can ask specific questions about the teachers who are going to teach, the expectations from the students, as well as the implications of teaching religious studies in schools and colleges.
First, if the Vedas are to be taught as part of our education system, the teachers presumably would be those who are well versed withand allowed to studythe Vedas. Since there is a proscription on studying the Vedas, will this create an exclusive class among the twice-born who will teach this course? After all, Vedic pathshalas exist in many places in the country and they have an essential caste aspect to the instruction in that almost exclusively only boys and men from the privileged groups at the top of the social hierarchy are allowed to learn the Vedas. And, these privileged typically are also the ones who strictly follow caste practices and the vocation of priests. This is important to emphasise since, unlike the non-priestly Brahmin community, the priestly class has to follow a large number of rituals through the course of the day.
Having such teachers will also entail that schools and colleges have special places/rooms for them, thus continuing the segregation of castes within the space of educational institutions and bringing religious rituals directly into these spaces. Brahminism, it should be remembered, is deeply immersed in ritual practices. Will the students who learn Vedic education also follow these Brahminical practices? If so, what are the implications for the caste dynamics in our society?
One reason for introducing this proposal seems to be based on the belief that our education system is somehow biased against Hinduism and that a course correction is needed. This would imply that our education system is as much biased against other religions too. Is it that the so-called secular education does not know how to deal with cultural and religious aspects of a society? If so, then it is a problem that needs to be fixed by taking the disciplines of religious and cultural studies more seriously. It is ironic that we do not have well-established religious studies departments in any of our modern educational institutions. It is ironic that these departments when situated outside India produce most of the scholarship about these religions, at least in the medium of English. We need to produce a scholarly and critical approach to frame meaningful syllabuses in Vedic studies too, otherwise we will end up depending too much on the religious leaders themselves for interpreting these religions.
There is also an added worry. Some of the supporters of this decision feel that this initiative is welcome because it would mitigate the harm that the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RtE) Act has done, revealing a hidden agenda in the introduction of this course. The belief that the RtE has caused damage to Hindu-run educational institutions is factually wrong and ideologically based on false premises that somehow this act is for poor students who, by default, belong to other religions. (There is a hidden assumption about caste in this belief.) And even if the poor students are Hindus, they are not seen as descendants of Vedic civilisation. Thus, this belief reinforces the suspicion that the introduction of Vedic education is another way of introducing Brahminical education.
Finally, who are those who will embrace this initiative? If the government believes that this will inspire Hindus, it would be sadly mistaken. If anything, the majority of middle, upper and the aspiring classes of Hindus (particularly those at the top of the twice-born hierarchy) would rather send their children to missionary and international schools. Moreover, there are already many such schools offering Vedic education and very few Hindus, including the hierarchically privileged who send their children there. It thus seems that the major target of this initiative is the non-Hindus and the non-Brahmins. Vedic education seems to be primarily targeted towards the non-Hindus of our society in order to show them the greatness of this culture, and, in doing this, Vedic is being equated with Indian rather surreptitiously. While we do not have to dispute the value of the contribution of the Vedic period in matters such as philosophy, language, and the arts, we cannot create a system to suggest to all Indians (including the non-Brahminical Hindus) that their heritage is the Vedic.
However, we must also note that the reason why such an initiative can become a political tool is that our education system is still dominated by naive Eurocentric reason. Students and parents are genuinely frustrated by this structure of education and the suspicion that it has towards non-Western sources. So, this initiative is a wake-up call to all of us worried about the content and methods of our education system, which will hopefully find ways to integrate multiple perspectives that are sensitive to the experiences and reason of the non-West.