Religious Principles in Governance and Education within a Pluralistic Society
18 February, 2003
After exploring the meanings of faith and service in the first two sessions, the essential work of the seminar began to take practical shape in the third session. The moderator was Ralph Singh. Presenters were Galina Ermolina, schoolteacher and leader of spiritual tours from Novozibirsk, Russia, Marjorie Julian, schoolteacher from the United States, Father Bento Rodrigues, Rector of Father Agnel School and director of a large orphanage, Ranjit Kalha, former Secretary of the Foreign Service Ministry, Government of India, Dr. Raj Wadhwa, Principal Emeritus of Vivekananda College, Delhi University, Dr. Devinder Kumar Kansal, Principal, Indira Gandhi Institute of Physical Education and Sports Sciences, University of Delhi, Mark Lichtenstein, President of Mexico School Board, New York State, USA, from which came students who ignorantly set fire to Gobind Sadan’s interfaith temple after September 11th, and Dr. Joseph Julian, Chairman of the Joint Eastern Europe Center for Democratic Education and Governance, Syracuse University, USA. All agreed on the major conclusion of the landmark Supreme Court ruling supporting education about all religions, and each looked at the implications of this ruling from a different perspective.
Ralph Singh opened the roundtable by reading a portion from that ruling: “What is required today is not religious education, but education about religions, their basics, the values inherent therein, and also a comparative study of the philosophy of all religions. Students have to be given the awareness that the essence of every religion is common, only the practice is different. Even if there are differences in certain areas, people have to learn to coexist and carry no hatred toward any religion. One should never forget that all the values are derived from one Ultimate Reality, Supreme Power, Self consciousness, to which man orients himself. To believe we have the divine spark in each of us, is the most important eternal value to be inculcated by the small children even before starting school.”
Ralph Singh pointed out that one of the ways that Baba Virsa Singh imparts this education at Gobind Sadan is through celebration of the major holy days of all religions. He also cited a passage from the Guru Granth Sahib: “Recognize that all scriptures are true—that the Bible, the Torah, the Vedas, the Quran are true. What is false is those who misinterpret their message.” He noted that Baba Virsa Singh had held a press conference challenging anyone who would attack anyone else’s prophet, “in keeping with the Sikh tradition in which the Ninth Guru gave his life so that the Hindu tradition would not be consumed by the Moghul rule at that time.” He brought up issues involved in trying to impart education about religions in schools: the possibility that some will use the opportunity to proselytize for their own religion, and the possibility of opening the door to fundamentalism. On the other hand, when such education is not imparted, children may have no training in moral values, or they may be so ignorant about other religions that they commit hate crimes, such as the arson that destroyed Gobind Sadan’s interfaith temple in the United States after September 11th.
As the leader of the Mexico School Board in New York State, from which some of those teenagers came who set the fire at Gobind Sadan USA, Mark Lichtenstein said that despite the dangers of fundamentalism, “Faith needs to be the catalyst toward positive change.” He described new efforts of Gobind Sadan USA: “Our vision is to have a multi-faith, multi-cultural approach to teaching about the world’s religions, cultures, and conflict management. We want to celebrate all the world’s religious holidays. We want to integrate that into our school systems’ calendars. We would like to develop student exchange programs with Gobind Sadan and eventually other places in the world. We are in the process of making curriculum changes and textbook changes to incorporate the world’s religions and multi-cultural issues on a more objective stance. And finally, we are involving our youth at Gobind Sadan in community service, actually helping Gobind Sadan to reconstruct the temple. What we need to do with our youth is to educate them that tolerance is not enough. We need to move beyond tolerance to understanding.”
Galina Ermolina described her efforts as a classroom teacher in Novozibirsk to divert interest from violent films into new kinds of films that give positive messages, and to get teenagers interested in interviewing the oldest members of their society to benefit from their historical experiences and viewpoints.
Marjorie Julian, a high school teacher in the United States, described the evolution of U.S. Supreme Court rulings concerning religious education. She pointed out after legislation was passed to prevent domination of schooling by any one religion, by the late 1970s it was recognized that diversity was to be celebrated and that schools should be able to teach about religions. Although the issue is still controversial, religion “is considered an important part of the curriculum and appears on standardized exams.”
Father Bento Rodrigues spoke from his experience as rector of the Father Agnel School: “Not only do we have to accept differences; we must enjoy differences.” He spoke of school as a nursery for developing the innate goodness that God has already created in a child. “If we fill our children with violence, what will come out of the child will be violence. An orange, if you cut it, you squeeze it, you get orange juice out of it. You can’t get any other thing. If we fill our children with love, concern, with respect for one another, we may do whatever we like—we may cut them, we may squeeze them, but what will come out of them will be love. . . . In our school we have Value Education as an important subject. We insist that all courses be integrated. Each week, we determine, “The value to be taught by this topic is:______. Prayer for the world as well as personal prayer is insisted upon. There is a period of silence before every period. We have seen the results. We involve the students in social work, for experience of sickness, old age, poverty, hunger death—so that they know that we all share the same human condition.”
Since the directors of the NCERT were unable to come on this day, the presentations thence shifted to the second topic under consideration: principles of faith expressed in government service.
Ranjit Kalha spoke from his extensive experience in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, describing how the Indian system of governance works and pointing out that there are enormous powers available to civil servants, and thus enormous temptation toward corruption. He cited the great influence of Baba Virsa Singh on his decisions, with regard to avoiding self-interest and egotism, and his teaching that “It is the Almighty who will take a decision, and therefore concentrate and meditate on the Almighty. That is the key.”
Dr. Raj Wadhwa described the problems of jealous rebellion against her by her staffmembers, and how she rode out the storm with the help of Babaji’s exhortations to stay firm on the basis of truth, with no feeling of vengeance or anger. She explained, “Without having those spiritual principles, fearlessness and firmness is not possible.”
Dr. Devinder Kumar Kansal added his views that the term “higher education” should be reserved for education that elevates one’s thinking and brings food for the soul. “We should have spirituality as a compulsory subject at national and international level.”
Professor Hillel Levine in his presentation highlighted the potential of educational materials to “foster violence and hatred.” He said this potential exists because of the exclusive tendencies in religions themselves: “For every way in which religion spells out heaven, it also spells out hell. And it also defines who goes to hell.” He cited inflammatory passages from textbooks which encourage hatred of various religions, and warned how dangerous such writings can be within society.
Dr. Joseph Julian developed a similar theme in his presentation, based on his experiences in Europe, including former Yugoslavia. He said, “I can’t think of any more important goal for our time than the goal of ‘Faith in the service of humanity.” But you know, we have faith in the service of many different dimensions today. What we’ve heard of over the past couple of years is faith in the service of zealots. Faith in the service of special interests. Faith in the service of states. Since the fall of the dictatorship in Portugal in 1974, we’ve seen a global movement towards open and democratic societies. But at the same time what we’ve seen is a resurgence of violence and religious strife. And the question is, how do we address that? The Court decision here in India said that one way to address that is to educate about religion. The question is, ‘How do you implement it?’ I would suggest there are three major areas to be looked at: One: Why is religion important to people? Two: What is religious liberty? And three: Why does religious liberty matter today? With regard to one, it seems to me that religious literacy is important. If education is designed to help young people understand the world that they lived in, and the world that they live in now. Surely they have to look at how religion shaped public life as time has gone by. Moreover, without an understanding of religious principles, so many of the dimensions of life remain dimensions that are not really understood by young people. How do you understand the literature, the music, the architecture of so many different countries without understanding how religion influenced that? Secondly, what is religious liberty? I would propose that students become familiar with the three R’s—rights, respect, responsibility. If you have the state controlling religion, you run the risk of losing your religious freedom. On the other hand, if you have religion ruling the state, you run the risk of losing your political freedom.”
In the ensuing discussion, the question was raised, “How to educate the educators?” Suggestions from the participants included these: Bring spiritual education out of informal education and into the formal stream. Organize orientation and refresher courses in interfaith-minded spiritual campuses such as the Ramakrishna Mission and Gobind Sadan Institute, so that diversity remains but values and ethics are highlighted. Training is needed for the heart, not just the mind, of the educator. Participants urged Gobind Sadan Institute to take a lead in these matters. Reverend Bob Hanson also spoke of the need for religious leaders to take an active role in educating their own congregations. He said, “About a month ago, seventy-five of us gathered around the tables at my Church and signed a covenant to work for peace, justice, and understanding in our community. In one way we are helping to teach ourselves, as well as our congregations and people in the community what it means to work and love one another. The other side is, that as a priest, one of my responsibilities is to teach the methods of tolerance, understanding, and justice. I have a number of teachers in my congregation. They happen to be special education teachers, helping students who are educationally, mentally, and physically challenged. For me the real answer for this is how we can do this on a very local level. How do we choose schools, parishes, organization to be models of what we want to have happen everywhere? And how do we empower those models to happen? We would work very hard through the principles of this place—Gobind Sadan—and others to engender this kind of teaching. In other parts of the world, we would find neighborhoods and communities to do this. So that we really take it from the universal level, which we are representing here today, to the local, grassroots level.”