Making sense of utterances by worthies is part of our job. But we have been left completely stumped by what Justice SN Srivastava of the Allahabad High Court had to say on Monday. What was supposed to be a ruling on the sale of temple properties in Varanasi ended up being an exhortation to make the Bhagwad Gita the “Rashtriya Dharma Shastra” of the country. It’s one thing for Hindutva nutters with little regard for the Constitution and the secular principles of our nation to come up with this idea. It’s quite another for a sitting judge (Justice Srivastava retires later this week) of a High Court to make an observation that not only flouts the professional rule-book but also puts the secular credentials of the judiciary he represents on its head. His convoluted logic was that since India recognised a national flag, a national bird, a national anthem and a national flower, it would be grand to have a national text.
Justice Srivastava seems to have left the sluice gates open by referring to the Gita as the ideal national ‘dharma’ text. He keeps quiet about whether he defines dharma, in this context, as ‘religion’ or ‘duty’ or both. He has backed his observation by quoting the scripture of secular India, the Constitution, referring to Article 51A. The Article cites the fundamental duties of every citizen of India to “abide by the Constitution and respect its ideals and institutions, the National Anthem and the National Flag”. Among other things, it also states the need to “value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture” and to “promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood... transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectarian diversities”. Where does the Bhagwad Gita, or for that matter any text, religious or otherwise, fit into this scheme of things?
The Bhagwad Gita is a text in the same way that the Bible, the Koran, the Guru Granth Sahib or, for that matter, any great work of literature is: a greatly illuminating text by which everyone, regardless of what faith they profess (atheism included), can receive the message of humanism. The problem that arises if any single text is made the ‘guidebook’ of a multi-cultural, multi-religious nation is that such an act will render, in perception, the other texts less worthy. Another fall-out will be that the Gita, open to all readers, will be straitjacketed as a Hindu text and a Hindu text alone. The government is right to ignore the judge’s observation. We thought it wise to clear the air before the ‘usual suspects’ use Justice Srivastava’s unfortunate and needless observation for their own chest-beating, gong-ringing purpose.