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Home / Columns / Spare our children these phoney stories

Spare our children these phoney stories

Chanakya talks of the honesty test The study of the lives of great personalities is part of school textbooks across the world, and so it should be.

columns Updated: Aug 09, 2015 00:49 IST

The study of the lives of great personalities is part of school textbooks across the world, and so it should be.

From each life, the intelligent can glean valuable lessons: What was the spark that brought genius to life? How harsh was the grindstone on which calibre was sharpened? At what point did signs of future celebrity emerge? And of course, what pearls fell from the mouths of the enlightened?

In all modesty I must acknowledge that I’m not averse to children — and indeed their parents — reading about the life and teachings of my namesake. In fact, I would say that the quicker you can get on to the study of the Arthashastra, the better: As long as your mind is mature enough to grasp the twists and turns of statecraft, it will be well worth your while. It may or may not carry you to the halls of power; but either way, you will be a force to reckon with.

But it’s with considerable disquiet that I read about the inclusion of a self-styled godman, Asaram, in a textbook for third graders in Jodhpur. He features alongside Mother Teresa, Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Guru Nanak.

To position this gent alongside these genuinely great souls is travesty enough; to label him ‘great saint’, as the authors of the book are reported to have done, left me reaching for my anti-sickness herbs.

Asaram has been in jail for two years on charges of raping a couple of his devotees at his ashrams in Rajasthan and Gujarat. His son, Narayan Sai, also facing rape charges, is similarly cooling his heels.

Asaram is the latest in a rogue’s gallery — or at any rate a collection of controversials — that also includes Swami Nityananda (alleged sexual misconduct), Gurmeet Ram Rahim (alleged to have got some his followers castrated) and Rampal (charged with murder).

These are men who might well have also featured in textbooks, such was their following. Ram Rahim, in any case, took no chances, immortalising himself in a movie called ‘Messenger of God’. The more controversial the godman, it seems, the more the alacrity with which the almighty is co-opted.

The worst thing about some of these so-called godmen is that they operated with complete impunity for years before coming a cropper with the law. Their biggest weapon is the gullibility of their followers, who will not hear a word against their leader; those who do not follow out of devotion are sometimes brought into line by terror.

And there’s nothing like a glowing mention in a children’s textbook to start building that gullibility early, seeds of disastrous trust sowed not with abandon but by design. If you put down the phoney godmen’s success to our abysmal literacy rate, it’s doubly galling that those with access to education are served up such tripe.

To my mind, there are two factors critical to making the study of the great a success. First, educationists must choose carefully: include only the truly, indisputably great. Second, be totally honest about their life stories.

When you are looking to mould young, impressionable minds, you need to exercise care. The life they read about has to be of someone who made a positive difference to the age in which they lived. It also needs to be interesting, but most such lives, luckily, are very readable: In an age where the distraction of the smart phone and television is everywhere, it would be a non-starter to feature a life devoid of the odd up and down.

It’s also worth pointing out that in order to be ensconced with the immortals, one must, ideally, be dead. Death brings with it the assurance that the incumbent can no longer do something to destroy his legacy; idolising the living is always fraught with that risk.

Back to the truth test: It goes without saying that no description of a person’s life is complete without his warts. Gandhi’s greatness is brought into sharp relief by accounts of his failures as a father and husband. Nehru is pilloried by some historians for the 1962 war, but that has done little to damage his place in the pantheon of the greats.

I haven’t had the misfortune of thumbing through the Rajasthan textbook, but I would bet my bottom silver coin that it has completely eschewed any attempt at satisfying the honesty criterion.

Is there even a mention of the cloud — however euphemistically — that Asaram’s career is currently under?

Here I have to note, with some regret, that the current political dispensation in India provides, wittingly and unwittingly, a favourable climate for seeds of ill-advised trust to sprout. The BJP government in Haryana has engaged history revisionist Dinanath Batra to help it frame education policy. Expect textbooks to carry lessons on the good and the great, but only those of a particular cultural or political stripe; this is a man who wants Westernised birthday celebrations to be scrapped and says maps of India should incorporate all our neighbours as part of Akhand Bharat. His books have been adopted in Gujarat.

Reports emerge every now and then of textbooks lionising Prime Minister Narendra Modi. To his credit, the popular PM has tweeted against this practice, saying that the life story of living individuals should not be part of the school curriculum.

Rewriting the nation’s history is but a short step away from rewriting a biography, and there is every indication that we have embarked on this perilous path.

After their parents were fed a version of our past written by one school of historians, it looks as if today’s children are going to be raised on a diet prepared by the opposite school.

It’s long been a source of great grief to me that our education system requires students to cram. Why not use this opportunity to get them to think? Present them with the theories of history, the proofs that underpin each, and allow them to make up their own minds. In any case, a substantial degree of uncertainty about your past — as long, of course, as you are aware of some of the finest strategic minds in history, and here the Mauryan period is critical — is perfectly acceptable.

As George Santayana noted, those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. I shudder to think what fate awaits those fed false stories, about the past and about people.

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