By Akshay Bakaya

[An edited version of this paper was published under the title The RSS Educationist as Mahabharata Charioteer in the volume Education and Democracy in India, New Delhi, 2003]

Teaching is central to the whole Hindu nationalist enterprise. At its core, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, lit. ‘National Volunteers Organization’) itself, with its own shikshaks and bauddhiks (teachers, intellectual sessions) in neighborhood shakhas (branches) defines its noiseless but assiduous method as a long-term strategy of ‘going to classes rather than to the masses’. Many RSS affiliates too, on different fronts – religious, tribal, etc. – see themselves as involved in teaching important truths, in reshaping the minds of specific target audiences.

After the 1948-49 ban and the general backlash against the RSS following the Mahatma’s assassination, many swayamsevaks entered the safer, more effective field of school education and under discreet regional labels, developed a private-schools network. This schooling strategy has mostly received only passing mention [1] in the substantial work on Hindu nationalism and the RSS family of organizations (the Sangh Parivar) by Indian and international scholars. RSS educational action and materials use Hindi more than English, the case with the scholars being vice versa. Also, many academics, like the politicians, have been more occupied with questions of ‘culture and identity’ than with mundane matters of health, education, food, water, fuel energy and transport (they have all this).

At the time the idea of RSS schools took off, the constitution-makers had been through considerable argument about educational choices for the new nation, notably the challenge of exorcizing the Mahatma’s ghost and disengaging themselves from his Basic Education (Nai Taleem) plan for Indian schools, based on productive manual work and economic autonomy of the school, a repugnant prospect for the upper-caste elites. In the end, what the national leadership and Constituent Assembly solemnly affirmed, after examining various Western models, was the ideal of a Common School system, with a promise of universal and free primary education for all within ten years. Of course, such an affirmation did not rid the country of the elite’s own priorities, and their indifference to those of the masses. Gandhian, Soviet or post-war French models notwithstanding, any challenge to exclusive private education for the few seemed out of the question. In the name of established traditions of community initiatives (founding a school was a good deed), guaranteeing spaces and institutions to minority cultures after the trauma of partition, indeed the inadequacy of public resources allocated to schooling, the expansion of private education (though in English) was presented as simply supplementing state schooling (in the ‘mother tongue’). The bureaucracy also carved out for itself a privileged space within public education, with the Central Schools (mostly English) network across India, justified by their transferable All-India status (education was on the States List), the Armed forces and several other corporate institutions preserved their own educational enclaves. Gradually moving away from grand declarations, the public educational discourse and system were adjusted to social hierarchies, and ‘Model’ schools, ‘Navodaya’ schools, etc. continued marking themselves off from a neglected general category, always in the name of identifying ‘merit’ and promoting excellence.

The Central Schools were an example of a typical ‘controlled-imitation’ of British norms and values. Trapped in competitions with dominant rules, one is condemned only to make copies of originals. One saw the same navy-blue and maroon school blazers, the steel-grey or Khaki trousers (though striped neckties were ostensibly rejected by state schools [2]). Quite like the Deans, Provosts, and Proctors of Indian universities, there were the House Masters, Prefects and Monitors in Central schools, though with a proud Indian newness to their names: Ashoka, Shivaji, Tagore and Raman. Morning assemblies continued with uniformed students in rows praying in the church-like congregational mode even when chanting extracts from the Upanishads (oblivious of meaning and context, standing with shoes on, and regardless of individual religious convictions).

As for the upper or middle-class Hindu families still attached to Christian schools, their motivation clearly remained a ‘good education’ in English rather than making Christians out of their children. Prayers, sermons and choirs were accepted in good humor as harmless, and hardly viewed as threatening cultural or religious identity.

The social constituency of the RSS has always been located amongst non-English-speaking urban circles. This milieu, ambitious and eager to mark itself off from the masses, swore by a more ‘patriotic’, ostensibly Sanskritized culture and language, at once admiring and resentful of the prestige of the ruling Westernized elite (epitomized by Nehru). However, despite the rhetoric against ‘submission to Western values’, to ‘Lord Macaulay’, the RSS – or the Jan Sangh party it set up under an anglicized orator (Syama Pershad Mookerjee) – never challenged the principle of cultural hierarchy and domination, or the disproportionate privileges of English in India).

The mid-1980s decade, marked by Hindu identity movements in politics also witnessed redefinitions of taste and sophistication, after the Westward-looking elite’s own re-appropriation of ‘Indian culture’ via ‘Festivals of India’ in Europe and the US and its mediators phenomenon (‘culture-vultures’). In the following years, schooling choices in the urban milieu made more clear-cut cultural distinctions, Christian institutions being overshadowed by schools ostensibly adhering to Indian Values (read ‘timeless Hindu culture’). New Delhi’s Sardar Patel Vidyalaya has been a prototypical example, the overflow going to newer schools adopting the true-Indian stance.

The social divide among ‘True Indians’

But in matters of cultural nationalism too, social class remains the great divider. Schools and their clientele only have the cultural ambitions they can afford. While the elite offer their children an ethnically-chic finishing (at school, in family and friends circles), complete with classical Indian dance lessons, appreciation of the ragas of Indian music and digitally mastered heritage, what is affordable for lower and middle class families is not this exotic, Eternal India, in English (‘Where the Festival Never Ends’), but Bharatiya vidya (‘Indian Knowledge’) in Hindi, more readily available at the Vidya Bharati (lit. ‘Goddess of Knowledge’) schools set up under RSS patronage. Named after Saraswati, Hindu goddess of speech, music, arts and ideas (in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi), or after the Bhagawad Gita (Haryana), these Shishu (primary), Bal (middle) and Vidya Mandir (senior secondary) schools are located in neighborhoods – Karol Bagh, Lajpat Nagar, Jhandewalan, to take Delhi’s example – which to the English-speaking elite are synonymous with vulgar, boorish upstarts, a world with which they keep a careful physical, social and cultural distance. Before the intellectual and cultural elite was itself hit hard, with Hindu nationalists taking over the State’s top academic and other institutions – such as the University Grants Commission (UGC), the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), the Indian Council of Cultural relations ICCR, the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS), the national board for the audio-visual media (Prasar Bharati) – the sophisticated few were more complacent. Far from having to use RSS schools for their children’s education, they were unaware of their existence.

Two RSS schools vie for the distinction of being the first in India. At the west end of the Hindi belt, a school named the Srimad Bhagavad Gita Vidyalaya, was set up at Kurukshetra under the initiative of Lala Nathu Ram and inaugurated by the RSS chief M.S. Golwalkar in 1946. At the east end, a Saraswati Shishu Mandir was set up in 1950-51 in Gorakhpur (eastern UP) by Nanaji Deshmukh, then RSS Pracharak at Gorakhpur, an important junction in Eastern UP close to Nepal. Nanaji’s new school was blessed not only by the RSS chief Golwalkar, but also by the Congress leader, Purushottam Das Tandon, who led the traditionalist Hindu faction in the Congress after Sardar Patel’s passing in 1950. The brochures now claim that the Vidya Bharati has been ‘in the service of the nation since 1952’ though this apex organization of RSS education was formally set up and given a name only in 1977-78 at the time when the Janata regime – with RSS veterans like Vajpayee and Advani as Union ministers – came to power. With the creation of the Vidya Bharati, regional committees such as the Shishu Shiksha Prabandh Samiti (Uttar Pradesh), the Hindu Shiksha Samiti (Haryana), the Samarth Shiksha Samiti (Delhi), etc., though conserved, were brought under its authority. Again, the festivities organized by the new RSS organization (Delhi, November 1978) were not only graced by RSS men like the then Sarsanghachalak (supreme leader) Balasaheb Deoras, but also by the Education Minister P.C. Chunder and the President of India, N.Sanjiva Reddy.

In the complex political dynamic and distance between a reputed figure like Sardar Patel and the more plebian RSS he tried to patronize and control (for its organized power and numbers), we might see a homological parallel with the cultural distance and dynamic between the Sardar Patel (or the ‘Sanskriti’) type of school and the RSS schools lower down. RSS educationists in fact admire their more sophisticated, English-speaking counterparts, to say nothing of their hunger for approval from Western thinkers. Founders of educational movements and institutions like K.M. Munshi (of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan fame) are models for the Vidya Bharati (as its name suggests), as indeed are Aurobindo, Vivekananda, and their (rarer) institutions. Vidya Bharati’s National Guide or Margadarshak Lajja Ram Tomar admitted to a ‘numbers versus quality’ debate within his organization. His own preference went to rapid expansion – at least one RSS school in every development bloc – as against setting examples as Nanaji seems to argue in retrospect. But the course has been set for decades now, and the Vidya Bharati network, accounting for about 2% of schools in India, now claims to be the ‘largest educational NGO’, not only in India, but in the world. According to a VB folder giving a detailed breakdown for 31st March 2000, VB schools in towns had risen from 5,251 to 6,381 in three years; schools in villages had gone from 4219 to 6,918; in tribal areas from 830 to 993; in backward areas from 583 to 3,118. The figures may give an inadequate picture, since many of these schools are single-teacher Ekal Vidyalayas or ‘value-inculcation centers’ (Samskar Kendras) in villages or slum areas. However a total of 12,923 centres in March 1997 had risen to 17,410 institutions three years later.

Worldly scrambles and saintly superiority

At age ninety, a man like Nanaji may be more concerned with how he will be remembered. His attitude to this somewhat down-to-artha movement has become less reliable. Conversely, the story of the RSS education movement is also being told from a more virile and aggressive Kshatriya angle now, re-situating the beginnings, not to 1952, but to the 1946 school in Kurukshetra. The sanctimonious Nanaji himself seems to straddle a dividing line (interface) between the directly-political and saintly zones, the complementary raja/dharma separation of powers being ever alive on the field of power in India. He quit his quiet, ashram-like school after its first year, plunging into direct action when the RSS set up its political party (now BJP) for the first parliamentary elections (1951-52). Later he emerged as instrumental, alongside another saintly figure, Jaya Prakash Narayan (JP) in the post-Emergency merging of the Jana Sangh into a unified Janata Party, ostensibly refusing positions of worldly power (ministerial berths) in its government. Margadarshak Lajja Ram Tomar stresses the continuity between the present Vidya Bharati and the founder’s venerable legacy (‘All this is thanks to him’, yeh sab unhi ka diya hua hai). But the old white-bearded ‘ascetic’, who sports a large portrait of the Mahatma in his room affects to be pained by the ‘materialistic’ turn the movement has taken, obsessed with expansion, land, buildings and resources, carelessly recruiting inexpensive but mediocre teachers. Indeed, Nanaji dismissed all hope of social change through institutions, even RSS shakhas. “Who are they to inculcate samskars (values) in others? Have they changed themselves?” For him, corruption in the BJP was proof enough that a lifetime of RSS shakhas could not inculcate the right values. He denied any link with the current Vidya Bharati network, even with today’s RSS. Away from politics, power and bureaucratic institutions, like a Rama in exile, he stuck to his Chitrakoot ashram, working with ordinary village folk.

Cynicism as a fine art, as Dharma

But as we said, renouncers and action men, though distinct, are complementary in India. At the Sanskriti Bhavan at Kurukshetra, a recent photograph displayed in the guest suite shows Nanaji in person, presiding over a ceremony where UP governer S.S. Bhandari is seen honouring the Vidya Bharati Margadarshak, Lajja Ram Tomar. In the picture, each man seems to be keeping to his distinct nature and duties, his svabhava and svadharma. A teacher is honored, a ruler acknowledges his importance, a saintly figure graces the occasion. The sudden realization that all three are simply old RSS comrades brings to mind three well-known maxims concerning the organization: a) once a swayamsevak, always a swayamsevak, b) the RSS itself is Hindu Rashtra in miniature and c) adapting means to the end, adjusting truth to circumstance, is a samskar inculcated early in the RSS.

The editor of Manthan (lit. ‘churning’), RSS journal of ideas, makes this clear in an article on the relevance of the Mahabharata and the Bhagawadgita today, throughout which he compares the RSS to Krishna’s avatara come to re-establish dharma. “For our Pandava army, if today’s Yogeshvara [the RSS leader] enjoins you to pronounce [Yuddhisthara’s famous lie] Ashvatthama hato as the truth, why the hesitation? If you have to shoot arrows hiding behind ten Shikhandins, why the shame? If you have to send dear Ghatotkacha into the jaws of death, why the attachment? (Vidya Bharati Pradipika‚ Special ‘Awakening’ issue, 5102 Yugabda [July-Sept 2000]. We shall come back to the theory of killing as not-really-killing presently.

With the triumph of the Kurukshetra or Kshatriya strategy, with warriors overshadowing the goddess of speech (while the political iron is hot) the rugged Panjabi Khattri, Dina Nath Batra, saviour and builder of the town’s Bhagawadgita School has moved to a more prominent role in Delhi, the centre of political power, as VB’s Secretary General (Rashtriya Mantri, lit. ‘national minister’). Lajja Ram Tomar, with his image of the celibate Brahmachari and Yogi, his long career in RSS education in UP, and until recently Sangathan Mantri or Organizing Secretary at VB’s national registered office at Lucknow, has moved up in terms of symbolic prestige. As the new Rashtriya Margdarshak, ‘National Guide’ working out of Kurukshetra’s ashram-like Sanskriti Bhavan, he succeeds Ranga Hari of Bombay, marking a break with a tradition of Maharashtrian Brahmin domination in the RSS and its affiliates.

The somewhat-less-sacred Batra (who has been a householder), with his specific configuration of social capital, is the Suitable Man. After the Partition, Panjabi Khattri networks in politics, administration and business, established a strong presence in the capital. Key Arya Samajis, active in the educational economy in Lahore and other Panjab towns, moved to Delhi. Batra’s own trajectory is typical: brought up at Dera Ghazi Khan (now in Pakistan), Principal at one of the Arya Samaj’s DAV (Dayananda Anglo-Vedic) schools in Dera Bassi, Panjab, Principal at the Gita School at Kurukshetra, Panjab and satyagrahi in the battle for a Hindu-majority Haryana State. RSS men and Arya Samajis in Delhi further developed their special relationships in the corridors of the Education Ministry and curriculum boards in the capital. The ease with which some Nai Sarak publishers could get text-books written by friends and prescribed in government schools [3] through all the proper channels was impressive.

Dina Nath Batra is a practical man who means business. The sanctimonious traditions of the original Maharashtrian RSS sit lightly on him. Anti-Macaulay rhetoric does not prevent him from straining to use Macaulay’s language in his interviews, despite the ostensible RSS disapproval of the ‘flaunting’ of English [4].

With the Indian elites eager to keep up with global (American) norms, any top educationist unable, like Lajja Ram Tomar to speak English, would be taken less seriously in the capital. This tendency is now visible in the field of politics too, where a younger English-speaking crop of leaders has come into prominence, in all parties, Left or Right. Readily recognized by sophisticated newsmagazines as the ‘Education Minister’s own Ideas Man’ (Outlook Dec.17, 2000, rebuttal Feb.11), while Tomar remains hidden from the sophisticated, it is Batra who tenders advice over the phone, suggests right people for right jobs, in various national institutions, and is familiar with modern techniques like verbal dissuasion through legal action, e.g. the libel suit brought against the Congress Party which lampoons the Vidya Bharati as ‘communalist’ (shunning repeated suggestions, however, that it launch its own schools for the poorest).

Celibate Brahmacharya: a key to the RSS missionary’s authority

The source of Margadarshak Tomar’s superior moral and spiritual power in the world of RSS education seems to be located more in a way of life that commands prestige in Hindu society – brahmacharya [5] – than in any path-breaking intellectual originality. Tomar’s writings are rich only in the RSS’ usual, rather un-spiritual glories, despite the claims that spirituality lies at the basis of all Hindu life. In fact, the RSS, like the Arya Samaj before it, seems essentially to generate Hindu-golden-age fantasies as mirror images parasitic upon a rival’s ‘original’, in every field. The ‘Hinduism’ of the RSS is deprived of anything that could be special and worthy of universal human interest. Its ‘superiority’ is reduced to the pointless claim of temporal antecedence. The delusion is that the world will be impressed with the claim that Ancient Indian Sages propounded ‘scientific’ theories similar (indeed identical) to what is now standard in the West, only much earlier [6]. In a typical essay celebrating Ancient India’s science and power, included in a volume [7] prefaced by an admiring RSS chief (nuclear physicist, Allahabad) Rajendra Singh alias Rajju Bhaiya, Margadarshak Tomar literally claims (p.8-16) that: Ruins of Hindu empires can be seen today all over America and Europe. Molten gold flowed in the drains of Nagpur for six months when the English set fire to the Bhonsla Maratha palace. The Rig Veda verse (I,50,8) is a calculation of the speed of light, the Sama Veda is the founding text of music. The sleepless Mussolini had to admit the superiority of Indian music when Onkar Nath Thakur finally lulled him to sleep with a raga. A plaque under Manu’s statue in Paris says (in English!) ‘First Law giver of the World’, Sushruta is the world’s first surgeon, the ‘German scientist (sic) Schopenhauer’ calls the Upanishads the source of all (scientific) knowledge, the Chandogya Upanishad 3.1:1.3 (sic) describes the earth’s movement on its axis as the cause of night and day, Samkhya’s detailed account of the origins of the universe precedes that of American astronomers, and gives its age precisely as 2000 million years, as against the Bible’s 6000. India first ‘imagined the quantity of zero’. Sanskrit is the language ‘most suitable for computers’. Ancient Yoga texts give the number of human blood vessels as 72000, the same number that modern anatomy has established. A handwritten manuscript of Vedic sage Bharadwaj on aviation engineering is kept at the Baroda Royal Library. India had 80% literacy in Upanishadic times. The Ganges is sacred for scientific reasons (no bacteria can develop or survive in it, this is confirmed by laboratory tests), Aurangzeb had Ganges water follow him on camels everywhere. The Pipal tree and the Tulsi plant are sacred because they are the only plant species producing oxygen, not carbon dioxide at night. Chinese travelers have recorded that they got only milk to drink in India, which flowed in all her rivers. Hindu dharma is founded on three pillars : science, spirituality and national ekatmata, i.e. absolute identity of spirit between individual and nation (not Atman and Brahman).

To go unchallenged with all this and more [8] RSS intellectuals count upon the credulity of the children in these schools, their distance from sources of critical knowledge, their understandable complicity in the search for collective self-image, and their typical confidence in the good faith of their elders.

But the real redeeming power that saves the RSS Pracharak (‘missionary’) from a challenge to his intellectual and spiritual authority still remains the deeply anchored notion of brahmacharya. Tomar himself explained how unspilt semen, retas, produces tapas, ojas, then tejas, rising to the head and giving special powers (siddhi) to the brahmachari. One might argue that such ascribed powers have little basis in human physiology, but cultural representations can produce social magic or charisma that is perfectly real and effective. The making of a Mahatma out of Mohandas Gandhi would have been impossible without a vow of abstinence. Roaming Indian swamis lose their Indian disciples overnight when they marry in America like the promising Bal Yogi, and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s fathering a daughter in Germany came as a treacherous blow to his admirers.

In his general deportment, the Margadarshak affects a certain indifference to worldly matters. The speech and manner typical of the RSS Pracharak is meant to be the mark of a Yogi having mastered the senses and reached a higher level of consciousness. Tomar seemed unaware, for instance, of mundane facts like fellow-traveller Arun Shourie’s polemical attacks (Worshipping False Gods) on Ambedkar, a figure ‘strategically included’ (like Gandhi) in Vidya Bharati’s growing gallery of (now about a hundred) great Indians. Muslims included: zero, Christians: zero, Nehru kept out). In contrast to the loquacious Dalit activists at Chanderi (M.P), the Pracharak was self-satisfied and uncurious about other societies, who can only learn from (ancient) India. He was indifferent even to the cultural diversity of India: to take the example of language, it had to be shuddha or ‘pure’ Hindi – the stilted, idiom developed in the late 19th century through a ‘cleansing’ and Sanskritization of the dominant Persianized idiom – that must unite the nation into a single culture, because it was the language most easily understood across India by the masses. The popular Hindi cinema, advertisement and entertainment industry, which avoids Sanskritized Hindi precisely to ensure popular comprehension and involvement, may not agree. [9]

RSS schools have developed purified Hindu equivalents of several practices of cultural rivals, notably those dear to the 19th century Christian missionaries: moral education, school choirs, greek and latin, sport, even grace-saying before meals [10]. Hindus have observed birth festivals only of divine beings according to a lunar calendar (Janamashthami, Ramanavami, Ganesha Chaturthi, Vijayadashami etc.) but the ‘Christian’ birthday (cake and candles) for mortals, instead of being critiqued for celebrating birth in transient lives, is countered with Vidya Bharati’s Hindu ‘Janma Divas’ for school and home, the lighting of earthen lamps (culturally ‘superior’ to blowing out the same number of candles), loud playing of the Vidya-Bharati-produced birthday cassette (which parents are ‘encouraged’ to buy, like several other VB products), etc.

The ‘Ten Qualities Inculcated among Students in Vidya Bharati Schools’ according to a VB folder in English are: 1. Gratefulness to God and Nature; 2. Respect for Hindu Cultural Traditions; 3. Love for the Country; 4. Respect for Parents, Teachers and Saintly Persons; 5. A regulated life; 6. Discipline and Respect for the Law; 7. Hard Work; 8. Co-Operation in Socially Useful Productive Work; 9. Sacrifice for the Common Good; and 10. Spirit of Service. Apart for the addition of ‘Hindu’ in point 2, there is hardly a principle here which does not have a Protestant flavor about it. Viewed from, say, a Vedantic perspective, serious objections could be raised to many of these ten commandments.

However, the prologue published on the opening page of many Vidya Bharati’s publications laments that “while every developed nation of the world makes it a priority to educate its young generation in its own religion and culture, it is the misfortune of Bharat, the very land of dharma, that there is no arrangement for education in our own religion and culture. This is one of the reasons for the sorry state of affairs in our country”. Vidya Bharati theoretical tracts and books, overflowing with Sanskrit terminology, claim to be expositions of ancient systems. But barechested disciples seeking jnana at the feet of the guru are more suitable today for televised serials. The modern RSS has settled for making the best of things as they stand. Never losing sight of the educational market, Vidya Bharati’s internal speeches admit to a ‘compulsion to work within the system’ given that ‘society is not ready for fundamental change’ [11]

The unprosperous, self-sacrificing parent paying for a Vidya Bharati private school (charging a couple of hundred rather than several thousand rupees a month in fees) wishes mainly to save his child from the horrors of government schools, desiring his individual advancement more than the ‘nurturing of a new generation of youth woven in the colors of Hindutva’ as VB brochures would have it. This is comparable to the upper class Hindu’s worldly priorities when he chose Christian schools for his children. There is however a difference between the protected insulation of members of a ‘majority community’ pragmatically choosing minority (Christian) institutions, and the real, along-the-grain effects of Hindu-pride acculturation carried on in RSS schools on more vulnerable lower-middle class Hindu children. Ranga Hari – Vidya Bharati’s previous Margadarshak – writes in the special issue cited above: “I myself have been educated in a Christian school. Arun Shourie is a student of a Christian school. In fact even Venerable Guruji [Golwalkar] was educated in a Christian school. But why didn’t we become Christians? Because in our upbringing at home we have received tradition of unbending faith on our dharma”. (Vidya Bharati Pradipika, July-Sept 2000). One might add that this education, as in the case of Tomar (of the Baptist Mission School in Agra [12]) did reinforce a complex of inferiority and an obsession for alignment with Christian standards.

The RSS educationists adapt and re-deploy religious symbols, working towards a uniform Hindu-nationalization of young minds. The RSS school principal posted at Chanderi (Madhya Pradesh) with no local roots in the town, allowed no distinguishing features to this extraordinary cultural island, with its high concentration of Jain sari traders and Muslim weavers over generations. His school was least concerned with regional specificity, and for him the thousands of Vidya Bharati schools across the nation were simply ‘one and the same school, working towards a single ideal’. True to RSS style, he rejected internal conflict in Hindu society as contrary to its spirit, as the unfortunate result of ‘politics’ (Tomar had even attributed the origins of caste to Muslim rule), and denied that education in ancient India had ever been a socially exclusive affair. The well-known Mahabharata episode of Eklavya, the brilliant low-caste archer that the Brahmin Guru Dronacharya rejected, and who paid with his right thumb for his insistent devotion, was explained away as an exception. A fundamental value that RSS schools live by, however, is such submission to arbitrary authority (of sacred elders, teachers), a priority for many Indian parents. An RSS high-school principal at Agra proudly recounted how parents transferred their adolescent sons getting into ‘bad habits’ (getting interested in girls) to the disciplined atmosphere of his school. The ‘guardians-of-morality’ strategy of the educationists is often cynical but effective in winning social approval : individual students and teachers are required to submit to the norms of their own communities (a Jain must not touch meat, a Kashmiri Pandit can). Many parents are impressed at seeing their children taught to touch their elders’ feet ‘like the young Rama and Lakshmana’ and to break into Sanskrit prayer on sundry occasions. Most of these chants are RSS compositions or adaptations aiming to ‘backdate’ Indian ideas ‘as good as’ Western ones to ancient times, like nationalism. Noticing the Persian word ‘Hindu’ in a Sanskrit shloka painted on the façade of the Sanskriti Bhavan, I asked for its scriptural source. The Margadarshak finally admitted it was recently composed, protesting that Sanskrit remained a living language ever open to creativity. But he also cynically admitted that most parents were credulous enough to accept any chant in Sanskrit as sacred Veda-vani, sound of the Veda.

The True-Indian look at the RSS school

The Mahatma, aware of the ideological and spiritual significance of dress (indeed nudity) in the Indian tradition spent years experimenting with costume, before settling for the peasant’s loincloth. Clothing matters in RSS schools (quite like the British khakhi shorts of the RSS) are symptomatic of the cultural contradictions of the organization. If the Vidya Bharati is working to revive spirituality (the motto is indeed sa vidya ya vimuktaye, ‘only that is Knowledge which liberates’) and the golden past for our future, it could hardly have set a more confusing example. There are four distinct, but compulsory, rules of dress for four categories of people: women teachers, girl students, male teachers, boy students. The woman teacher is required to wear a specified plain sari. Objections to teachers wearing the (less decent, less Hindu?) churidar-kamiz have led to incomprehension and tensions, even resignations.

But the ‘Hindu’ sari (earlier called the Bombay Parsi style), is not even an option for girl students. The RSS school’s answer to the ‘indecency’ of skirts and buttoned blouses is the shalwar-qamiz (a Perso-Arabic term), a fact which suggests that the ‘traumatized Hindu psyche’ has been more accepting of un-Indian influences than the RSS would have us believe. Indeed any school would be hard put today even to imagine any purely Hindu attire to prescribe for good Indian girls. No national consensus exists among Hindus even about the appropriateness of covering chest and head with chunnis and pallus: what may be a mark of decency in the North (a tradition admittedly attributed to Muslim influence, never seen in ancient sculpture) could be shocking even to grandmothers in the South : only widows or prostitutes covered their heads here. Wearing flowers in the hair, perfectly compatible with Hindu piety in the South, evokes only vulgarity in the North.

Male teachers, called acharyas (traditionally a term reserved for great masters of theology and metaphysics like Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, etc.), and meant to be role-models for the young, offer a suitably venerable image by dressing in authentic Hindu white dhotis (assorted not with a bare torso, but a kurta (Persian). That RSS teachers have to forego their trousers and forcibly be taught dhoti-tying as part of teacher training speaks volumes about the suitability of the gurus themselves to be examples. Given their realistic bent, RSS schools let some teachers negotiate exoneration, notably the ones teaching prestigious subjects like mathematics and science. As for boy students, the idea of Hindu attire could only provoke hilarity: they dress in navy blue trousers and white shirts (weekdays) or khaki trousers (Saturdays), continuing the colonial practice.

Divine avataras: the importance of speaking from Kurukshetra

The fact that the RSS Guru M.S. Golwalkar inaugurated the first RSS school in Kurukshetra and that it was named the Srimad Bhagavad Gita school is charged with symbolic importance. Though this Haryana town has produced no evidence of being the location of the epic war, ‘Kurukshetra’ remains synonymous with Dharmakshetra, the Field of Righteousness, as the opening verse of the Mahabharata’s central lesson, the Bhagavad Gita itself testifies. Golwalkar understood the importance of lessons from Kurukshetra. Only months before his death in 1973, inaugurating the second Gita school on the same campus, he reminded the audience:

“This is the land of Kurukshetra. The war of the Kauravas and Pandavas is said to have taken place at this very spot. On the first day of the war, Lord Krishna had inspired Arjuna and showed him the way of Dharma with the Bhagawad Gita lesson. […] At the time of the Shilanyas [in 1946], I had expressed the wish that this school, established in the memory of Lord Krishna who gave the sacred knowledge of karma-yoga to the whole world, should become an example in the values propounded by Him” [13].

At the start of the Mahabharata war, Arjuna is wracked (as Indians today could be) with scruples about killing his Bharata kinsmen for worldly gains. It is only after Krishna’s persuasive lesson, the Gita, that his doubts are dispelled and he firmly forges ahead on the Field of Righteousness. The RSS presents contemporary Indians as being in the same predicament (in the just war against adharma) and understands the need of patient persuasion before unhesitating action can be undertaken. We would do well to remember that, for the Hindu nationalist intellectual, Nathuram Vinayak Godse (editor of Agrani, and Hindu Rashtra), his killing of Gandhi, comparable in his view to the just killing of Guru Dronacharya in the Mahabharata, was nothing but the Gita’s teaching properly understood. Godse expounded his approach in detail before the special court; he knew the Gita by heart, recited Cantos II, XI, and XVIII on the evening before the hanging and took his copy to the gallows. If he has been not been proclaimed more assertively as a national hero, it is out of realistic precaution, given the persistent Indian and international prestige of the Mahatma, and the absolute priority – ritual, theological and moral – of ahimsa, non-violence, in the more prestigious later Brahminical tradition.

Indeed, Agehananda Bharati (1923-91), the Vienna-born Advaita-Vedantist sannyasi and cultural anthropologist, wrote (1976): “In the Bhagavadgita, the Lord Krishna says that the consummate yogi cannot do things wrong; even if he kills, he doesn’t, because he does not identify with the body or the mind which kills. This has given rise to ideas both naive and dangerous. It accounts for the latent Hindu fascism which, fortunately for the world, has no power except in India [….] So far, it is the spiritually minded and the weird alone who intuit the gigantic power which would be unleashed if people at large took Krishna’s advice seriously. For if they did, Hitler would be in his own. With the phony mysticism that floated around the Nazi fortresses, the top leaders might have vaguely absorbed these teachings. It is not impossible that they got hold of some translations, and seeing themselves as Arjunas and Krishnas, acted the new Aryan heroes who made their own rules, and who believed that murdering might not be murdering after all, and that they as superior hierophants were doing what Krishna had suggested. This sounds monstrous when said in the West, but I have heard it dozens of times enunciated by gentle Hindu scholars who would not kill a single fly or eat a single fish” [14]. Bharati alludes to an earlier article which “examines a situation totally unknown in the West: that extremely religious, non-violent Hindus greatly admire Adolph Hitler. When told about the Nazi atrocities and Auschwitz, etc., these are mostly rejected as American propaganda. One very famous, gentle swami whom I spoke to about the camps, showing him a picture made after the liberation of Auschwitz, said that these corpses had been dug out from some cemetery, put together and photographed so as to spread evil notions about Hitler.” [15]

For RSS examples in Nazi-admiration, one need not go farther than its greatest leader Golwalkar (chief 1940-73) who wrote:

“To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the semitic Races, the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well nigh impossible is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by” [16]. (‘Hindusthan’ – a deliberate modification of the Persian Hindustan – was used earlier by Savarkar in the early 1920s).

Bharat or Hindusthan remains for the RSS and its educationists the field of battle between forces of dark and light, adharma and dharma. As we know, each time that dharma languishes (yada yadahi dharmasya glanirbhavate…, (BhG IV, 7) the Lord’s avatara manifests himself on earth. The nationally telecast Mahabharata, with each episode opening with this shloka, sent an “unforgettable wave of emotion throughout the country” and reconciled RSS Pracharaks with the audio-visual media they had earlier viewed with great suspicion : “In fact if these modern means are used for healthy entertainment and popular education we can bring about the desired transformation in the popular consciousness of India. (Vidya Bharati pradipika quarterly July-Sept. 2000).

Yoga versus Yoga :

Vidya Bharati education claims to be nothing less than a system based on Yoga. ‘Rajju Bhaiyya’s’ preface to the Margadarshak’s volume hails Lajja Ram Tomar as the propounder of key educative concepts such as yogadharit shiksha (Yoga-based education), the ‘schools as centers of social awakening’ etc. The term Yoga (lit. ‘harnessing’, ‘yoking’ all forces to a single end) could mean many different things, but it must be pointed out that the most prestigious tradition is the one codified by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra, more compatible with a ‘comfortably seated’ individual (no acrobatics) than with rows of children repeating OM in unison – using an experimental meditational technique, seeking an ecstatic (or rather ‘enstatic’) state of consciousness, kaivalya – purusha rid of prakriti – freed of all objects of consciousness, least of all a nation. Later commentaries (Vyasa, Vachaspatimishra, Vijnanabhikshu..) only comment upon and interpret this sacred, first manual of Yoga.

But the Vidya Bharati educationists can hardly afford to base their approach on the Yoga Sutra. Their Yoga manual is the Bhagawad Gita itself – a religious and devotional text, not a rigorous, technical exposition of Samkhya or Yoga. Its main originality is that it offers the Kshatriya a reconciliation of moksha, ultimate liberation from rebirths, with worldly concerns and bloody violence. This theological argument, the possibility of a ‘karma-yogi’, in this prestigious and popular text, has made Gita-interpretation a major stake in Indian nationalism, among declared karma-yogis as varied as Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Tilak and Gandhi and indeed the assassin Godse, all of whom have had to explain their life efforts in terms of the Gita.

Yoking and harnessing all forces is indeed the rule among RSS educationists, and metaphors of chariots, charioteers, horses, reins, abound in Vidya Bharati language. Dina Nath Batra, national minister of RSS education, steered the chariot of the Bhagavad Gita School through 30 years of sacrifice and battle against adversaries like Congress ministers in Haryana, the 1975-77 Emergency rule etc. The principal’s office itself was the charioteer’s box. After his retirement as principal in 1992, the Vidya Bharati’s Sanskriti Bhavan in Kurukshetra became the suta’s seat on the national scene, pointing the way to other chariots (schools) and Arjunas (children) on the Kuru-field that is Bharat, clearly drawing the Pandava-Kaurava lines.

An issue of the Gita School magazine in 1992 marks Batra’s retirement as principal and ‘re-tyre-ment’, as a contributor puts it, as Rashtriya Mantri of the Vidya Bharati. It is a challenge to read through so many pages of tribute, but one ‘Ode in Eight Couplets’ is worth quoting. Contributed by a Sanskrit teacher in Kurukshetra, the ashta-shloka is titled nothing less than Batrahindusutomahan, ‘Batra-Hindu-charioteer-the-Great’. A variation on the opening verse of the Bhagawad Gita, it goes :

Dharmakshetre kurukshetre gita vidyalayo mahan

Yatra gitokta karmadi sakriyam pathyate dhruvam

‘In Kurukshetra, Field of Righteousness stands the great Gita School

Where the Gita’s lesson on righteous action is actively and steadfastly studied

The composition goes on to acclaim the ‘students flocking from the four corners of the land’ and ‘treading the path of knowledge in a spirit of love for the Motherland’. The ‘illustrious Dina Nath – mahabhagah, ‘to whose lot falls the greater share’ (of devotion) – has ‘taken on the challenge voluntarily.’ ‘Having sacrificed everything for the Nation, he has ever guided the Gita Vidyalaya’s chariot with a firm and able hand, propagating Vidya Bharati education among the children of the land.’ The abhinandan ends with wishes for a ‘long and healthy life to Batra-the-Great-Charioteer-of-the-Hindus.’

Nishkama karma (‘non-desire action’) assumes that it is not the pursuit of worldly power itself that binds the self to the transient flow of births and deaths (samsara), but the desire for the fruits of the undertaken action. The effort is one of redefining one’s struggle for rashtra ‘kingdom’ (or nation), as selfless renouncement, indeed as divine sacrifice. Whenever this is successfully done, the dirt of cupidity is magically washed off one’s hands, and the votary of nishkama karma earns himself an additional worldly profit : entitlement to sacred, guiding functions in the field of power. Of course the mauvaise foi, bad faith, of the ‘casteless’ Hindus who swear by the Bhagawad Gita lies in fact that the Gita clearly answered the question of why Arjuna must fight and kill, rather than renounce worldly power, with the ‘categorical imperative’ of birth in a particular caste, svadharma. Indeed, apart from its earlier more circumspect arguments (compensatory enjoyment with heavenly nymphs, social reputation etc.) the author of the Gita left the born Kshatriya with no choice: his essential nature, svabhava, will get the better of Arjuna, whatever he decides.

Is a disinterested act possible?

Should the RSS Pracharaks, acting in the name of the Gita and denying any self-interest and desire for fruit, be taken at their word? Must we not ask, with Pierre Bourdieu, the fundamental question: is a disinterested act possible? The task of social science must be to uncover the hidden logic of all human practice, especially the subtle, unavowed, indeed unperceived, interests involved. From economics and politics to academics, art, religion, indeed in philosophy and social science, human practice is engendered within specific playing-fields, each with their tacit rules of the game, their initiated players, their specific stakes. Viewed thus, the typically disinterested intellectuals, or swayamsevaks, even sannyasis, can be seen as playing social games which have turned disinterestedness itself into a crucial stake, a vested interest, with the reward coming in a currency quite different from material wealth or brute power. Who could claim that the admiration, respect, and prestige that the disinterested man earns is any less a valuable booty than piles of yellow gold and all it can buy, or the direct command of armies? Samman, pratishtha, Mahatma status, the devotion of bhaktas, these are flourishing markets where what is amassed upon the field of power is symbolic capital, and that is where the ‘karma-yogi’s interests lie. What is at stake is nothing less than control over the meaning of words, of life, of the universe: the eternal secret of the prestige, power and domination of the Indian sage. Immortality is a bigger trophy than transient power. As Savarkar, a hero of the Vidya Bharati educationists, put it: “Those who understood this principle [sacrifice] let their names be remembered, pronounced with reverence! Those who did not join them in the holy war, through indifference or hesitation, may their names never be remembered by their country.” (This of course did not prevent the hero from writing in private: “..if the government in its manifold beneficence and mercy release me, I for one cannot but be the staunchest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the English government. […] The mighty alone can afford to be merciful and therefore where else can the prodigal son return but to the parental doors of the government?” [17]

Indian tradition itself is alive to the truth of ever-present desire and interestedness. Not only does the Yajurveda candidly announce “let him offer sacrifice, he who desires heaven” Svarga kamo yajeta but even in the later, mystic, Vedantic tradition, the term used to describe one who seeks to realize his essential identity with the Absolute Brahman, is mumukshuh, ‘the one who desires’ moksha. In the Mahabharata (Book XII), Bhima reminding us that moksha is one of the four ‘pursuits’ of man (purusharthas), mischievously asks if the man interested in moksha, is not moved by the same libido, kamashakti, that drives all men. And indeed, ‘hunger for reverence’ samman ki bhukh, emerged as a key motivation in our interviews at Chanderi with the ill-paid school teachers of the RSS school.

Dina Nath Batra (see ‘He Is Only a Humble Worker’, Outlook, 11 Feb.2002) is also a disinterested man. He gave up a principal’s post at a DAV (Dayananda Anglo-Vedic) school in Dera Bassi in the summer of 1964, to lead Kurukshetra’s Gita school out of economic bankruptcy, a task undertaken with the solemn declaration that Guruji Golwalkar’s own project could not be allowed to fail. Among reasons for such schools being in crisis, we might count Nehru’s secularism and the presence Congress regimes at Centre and state, obstacles to the progress of RSS schools. The flagging of the Nehruvian spirit after the China war in 1962 was a time of daring for the Sangh, which also set up the VHP in 1964. Note the timing of Batraji’s disinterested move to Kurukshetra, immediately upon Nehru’s death. Giving up on obsolete ‘Anglo-Vedic’ schools (already under RSS influence) to ‘Guruji’s own’ school, from a nondescript Panjab town to sacred Kurukshetra, could be seen as a dexterous move by an ambitious RSS Pracharak with a strategic feel for things. The swayamsevak from Dera Bassi is the Vidya Bharati’s National Minister in Delhi today (‘The Education Minister’s Own Ideas Man’, Outlook, 17 Dec. 2001).

With Batra’s sturdy disposition towards hard work, the Kurukshetra campus prospered. In 1973, the second, residential, Gita Niketan opened, ‘for the e-light (elite)’ as Batra put it, affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education in New Delhi, not to Haryana State. Batra retired as principal in 1992 but stayed on as new National Minister, developing Vidya Bharati’s pedagogical base camp, the Sanskriti Bhavan, on the school campus.

Marking out the demonic Kauravas

The asuras specific to our age, responsible for the languishing of dharma in Bharat this time, have to be properly identified for the war to get on in right earnest. Vidya Bharati minister Batra uses the label Trijut Parivar, the Three Ms. Of ‘foreign origin’, these illegitimate off-spring (putra) are : the Marx-putras, i.e. the leftists or vamapanthis, the Macaulay-putras or the English-educated, and the Madrassa-putras, the (unpatriotic) Muslims. The metaphor of the three Ms effectively brings to mind the ‘five Ms’, or the pancha makara, of the vamachari (left-handed, ‘sinistral’) Tantric heretics, usually abhorred by orthodox upper-caste Hindus. Of these, three are most often quoted: madya (liquor), mansa (meat), and maithuna (sexual rites) the other two being matsya (fish) and mudra (bodily gestures, or parched beans). The puritan’s analogy between the ‘dirty-minded’ Tantrics and the Trijut Parivar (Marxists-Muslims-Macaulay) works only on a subtle psychological plane. Left-handed Tantric doctrines are seen as Hinduism’s own dirty linen, not to be washed in public. An RSS thinker (retired from the Philosophy Deptt. at Kurukshetra University) volunteering part-time services at Kurukshetra’s Sanskriti Bhavan, has discreetly tried persuading Tantric sects to publicly repudiate these corrupt practices. Apparently in vain (sale nahi mante, ‘the scoundrels won’t listen’). Tantrics consider themselves, with justification, as true heirs of Vedic and Upanishadic traditions. Worldwide interest in (Patanjali’s) Yoga, Tantric Yoga, and Vajrayana Buddhism could one day count among antidotes to ‘Hindutva’. For long, it is the desire to get rid of them that has nagged the battalions in Khaki shorts, from the British Indian Police to the RSS.

The ‘Madrassa-putra’ label applies not only to die-hard Islamists, but indeed to all those born Muslim, resented for persisting in a foreign faith with no excuse now of Muslim rule. Adoption of Islam is viewed in RSS teaching as a choice forced always at the point of the sword. Asked if one could imagine other reasons for conversion (proximity to Muslim emperors and nobility, escape from Hinduism, the appeal of universal brotherhood, the passion, poetry and music of Sufi masters, avoidance of the jiziya tax) the flustered RSS school principal in Chanderi (with a 40% population of Muslim weavers) settled for a simple answer: ‘Such is not our view’.

The RSS sees even the contemporary Indian Muslim or Christian as a convert answerable for a personal choice, though his identity is due to the accident of birth, quite as in the case of Hindus. The defiled convert is then viewed as purifiable, reconvertible. Swami Shraddhananda’s (d.1923) strategy of using a shuddhi (purification) ceremony (traditionally meant to purify caste Hindus having ritually defiled themselves) as reconversion to Hinduism is typically deployed upon young tribal Christians brought to residential RSS schools. The easier Christian test paves the way for a higher ambition : to force Muslims to prove their allegiance to a Hindu Rashtra amidst strident calls for ‘homecoming’ (paravartan or ghar-vapasi).

Credentials of Madrassa-putras doubling as Marx-putras – such as some leading activists of SAHMAT (the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust) – are doubly suspect. It has to be said, however, that the Marxist foes of ‘saffronisation’, the most articulate and vociferous, are Hindutva’s favourite enemies. They are, not entirely without justification, considered unqualified to opine on Indian matters (and now internationally orphaned). Communists are at odds with religious or mystic experience, and particularly uncomfortable with Indian thought and tradition. The RSS loves recalling their embarrassing history in general, and their clearly articulated support for ‘national self-determination of Indian Muslims’ (partition), in particular. The rather complacent attitude of the CPM, and organizations like SAHMAT, vis a vis the Islamic fundamentalists, and their uncritical defence of Koranic schools makes them easy targets. A CPM militant, who has party pamphlets on RSS education to her credit, asserted at the SAHMAT conference (4-6 August 2001) that “children are at least getting some education there”. Then why attack RSS schools teaching the whole state curriculum? It is with glee that Dina Nath Batra handed me a copy of NCERT Director (once a swayamsevak) J.S. Rajput’s newspaper article batting off SAHMAT’s attacks on ‘saffronisation’. There are significant structural similarities between the CPM and the RSS – sacred allegiance to Party/Sangh, sacred ideology, organizational rigidity, ostentatious veneration of symbols and flags, hero and martyr cults, endorsement of dictatorship and mass violence, strategies of institutional infiltration and veiled Party-friendly fronts [18], clichéd language, a dread of humor, etc. Political enemies thrive on each other. Engagement in a game with common basic rules ensures that competing teams look alike. Polemics and one-upmanship is preferred to curiosity and critique, like-minded players gather in enclaves (seminars, conventions) to fine-tune their own strategy, and points are scored from a distance. Teams play mainly to one’s own gallery, often ignoring those outside the game.

The categorizing label of ‘saffronisation’ to describe RSS efforts is revealing. One can hardly count upon political rivals of the RSS to remind Hindus at large that the motivations of this organization are incompatible with the renunciation of worldly concerns that the saffron cloth signifies. The backdrop banner at the SAHMAT convention (4-6 August 2001) against the educational strategy of the RSS portrayed a valiant geometrical instrument, jaws open, countering a terrible Hindu trishul. Apart from the point that defining the spiritual signifance of Shiva’s trident cannot be left to the RSS or the VHP, such precise, measured ‘scientific’ approaches to questions ultimately concerning the meaning of life are arbitrary. The deployment of a geometrical instrument against the trishul seems to assume that a positivist study and mastery of the world – despite the suffering it has wrought, not least of all under ‘scientific socialism’ – is an ambition inherently superior, say, to mystic quests.

Love and Hate in the Time of Globalization

As for the RSS attitude to the third M, things get complicated. Take the attitude to things ‘Western’. Despite the Swadeshi, buy-Indian rhetoric – in strategic emulation of Gandhi (VB publications sometimes exhort pupils to boycott transnational brands of consumer goods, giving lists of preferable Indian equivalents) – the RSS has come up with no Indian or Hindu critique of consumerism. This may be simply due to the fact that the classes amongst which the commodities are distributed and consumed are the mainstay of RSS politics. Hindu nationalists admire success in business. No shopkeeper sporting the saffron flag, or an industrialist close to the Jana Sangh or BJP has been known to publicly renounce trading in ‘western items’ like toilet soaps, shampoos or toothpaste, calling for a return to Indian clay or ash, reetha lather seeds or neem-sticks in their place. The rhetoric of the superiority of the spiritual East over the materialist West has made little difference to the pragmatic materialism of Hindu nationalist traders, ever willing to compromise economic independence for floods of imported goods, even from the Chinese enemy.

Given the alleged opposition to ‘Macaulay-putras’, one might also have expected the Vidya Bharati to object to the exalted status of English. However, even though few RSS leaders are comfortable with English, they have come to terms with its conservation as the de facto first language of India. RSS educationists assert that they are opposed in principle (not sociological necessity) to learning in English. But their English teaching, confined to one period a day, is begun in the earliest school years and is advertized as more effective than that of the ‘so-called’ English-medium schools. Given that government schools have kept English out of primary education under a double-edged ‘mother-tongue’ logic, this (somewhat illusory [19]) lure of early English is another reason for RSS schools being seen as a step above government schools.

Recognition of the greater prestige of anything originally in English extends, significantly, to educational theory (typical of ‘B.Ed’ course books in UP or Haryana). Quotes in English (roman typeface) proudly stand out here and there within the Hindi text in books and articles published by Vidya Bharati educationists, to add a touch of seriousness to their argument. Consider six consecutive pages (78- 83) of Dina Nath Batra’s manual of education Shiksha mein Triveni [The Three Strands in Education], ostensibly based on Bharatiya darshana, ‘Indian philosophy’: p.78 : skauts ke niyamon me ek niyam hai, ‘One Good turn Every Day’ : ‘The scouts have a rule, ‘one good turn a day’; p. 79 [quote attributed to Rousseau] : ruso ne kaha tha, ‘To live is not merely to breathe, it is to act to make use of your organs, sense faculties – of all those parts of ourselves which give us the feeling of existence’ [Hindu and Buddhist doctrines may differ]; p. 81 : In good old days our youngmen (sic) used to face the powder but now a days (sic) they powder the face; p. 82 : ‘Because the teachers are hot and the classrooms are boring’. [Rabindranath Tagore]; on p.82, the ‘five principles of education’ according to ‘Randhawa and Mithaylux’ (B.Ed textbook?) are spelt out in English, on ‘classroom atmosphere’, ‘quizzing techniques’, ‘dialogue’, ‘making learning entertaining’ etc.; p. 83 : these days in class rooms the syllabus is covered some how. The boy is not covered up’.

For the upper-caste audience of the RSS, the desire to improve their English has become stronger, in order to access better opportunities, most outside state employment today. Affirmative action (1989-90) led to an extra 27% OBC reservations in higher education and administration, and in the globalized environment new government jobs are few and far between. TOEFL language tests etc. have become a major concern of this milieu (US emigration being the dream of many a Hindu nationalist).

RSS educators are concerned with India’s ‘image’ in the (Western) world, but on terms and conditions, not of ancient India, but of the contemporary West. International sporting events are an example: widely relayed in the media, they hold out some hope for symbolic satisfactions [20]. The Olympics include no Indian sport (not even if we count the colonial game of cricket). RSS intellectuals who proudly describe to impressionable youth how impressed Hitler was with Indian Kabaddi (allegedly demonstrated to him by Subhash Bose and others) are in fact embarrassed with things Indian unfashionable in the West, and could not dare demand the inclusion of Kabaddi in the Olympics. There remains the nagging desire somehow to join the bandwagon of powerful nations with nuclear bombs and fast cars, typically dreams of catching up with something happening elsewhere, something American. The use of the American phrase ‘Way of Life’ as the very ‘definition’ of Hindutva (‘Hindu-ness’), after its use by a Supreme Court judge, is symptomatic. Though India’s voice in the world has lately withered down to abject whining for a fairer hearing from Washington, what is sold to the young in shakhas and schools are prouder fantasies of ‘invincibility’ (Ajayyancha vishvasya dehisha shaktim, goes the RSS anthem) and of making India the ‘crown of the world’ (jag sirmaur banayen bharat, echoes a Hindi prayer sung in Vidya Bharati schools).

One real objection of RSS educationists to the West is ‘indecency’ i.e., i.e. anything sensual or sexual. The tables seem paradoxically turned, the once-puritan Christian West (ever damning the depravity of Hindus, the debaucheries of Krishna, of the Vallabhacharya and other Hindu sects) being paid back in the same coin, long after Freud and the West’s own sexual revolution. In the very field where the claim of Indian superiority and seniority would make sense – the sexual motif coloring everything Hindu, from Vedic cosmology to popular devotion – puritan colonizers seem to have shamed modern Hindus into silence. Paradoxically, it is now the RSS which issues fatwas against ‘un-Indian’ Valentine-day festivities: ‘In India, love is not expressed like this’ declared Chief K.S. Sudarshan, Feb. 2002, careful not to propose Indian alternatives. Unmoved by the abundant erotic lore in Sanskrit, Hindu nationalists would restrict the feminine Indian body to reproductive and nurturing functions, a fount of patriotic mother’s milk and brave Hindu fighters.

Another source of uneasiness with western culture are notions of democracy and individual rights. Parallel to attacks on ‘electoral opportunism’ and generally all political conflict, against their declared ideal of Hindu-family-type consensus in society, there is also the effort to prove that democracy first originated in India. It is through the forging of linguistic neologisms (manavadhikara for ‘human rights’, lokatantra for ‘democracy’) or the practice of expressing modern European concepts with radically different Sanskrit terms (rashtra for ‘nation’ vijnana for physics and chemistry, ekatmata for ‘national spirit’ etc) that modern Hindus have made Sanskrit out to be a language merely adequating modern western thought. In fact, adhikara, special privilege, is not ‘equal rights’, bhrashtachara, corrupted conduct, is non-compliance with one’s svadharma (birth-ascribed duties) and svabhava (essential nature), not use of public office or resources for personal benefit etc., a practice compatible with ancient Indian tradition. Jnana and vijnana have more to do with gnosis, or mystic realization than with the secular science curriculum. A recent Education Ministry monograph on ‘Human Rights and Indian Values’ (by a Judge writing RSS language) offers an ideal illustration of such linguistic back-dating and forging.

Sixth Millenium: Hindu Rashtra as most advanced civilization

The Vidya Bharati dates its publications on the new RSS calendar. What some may accept as year 2002, is in fact the year 5104 Yugabd, literally ‘year of the Aeon’. Vidya Bharati publications mention the ‘Christian Era’ date in an ostensibly subordinate position, lower down in parentheses, though in the interest of intelligibility they cannot do away with it. However, reconciling the Old-Civilizations romanticism of European orientalists – adopted by the Hindu Renaissance and then by the RSS – with a specifically Hindu view of the last 5000 years is in fact an inextricable problem, for traditional Hinduism regards the same period as the Age of Degeneration. Puranic tradition situates the beginning of Kaliyuga in February 3102 BC. Such a tradition of dating publications (e.g.1962 = 5064 Kaliyuga) has been used, with others (Shaka, Vikrama etc.), in recent times. There, Kaliyuga could only have been meant as a damning comment on our age, with writers having no promises of early redemption to sell. Variety persisted even in recent RSS publications: in a 1990 booklet on khagol-shastra or astronomy for Vidya Bharati schools, V.B.Ghanekar first mentions the date as akshaya tritiya‚ shaka samvat 1912. There follows an Introduction by Vidya Bharati’s Sangathan Mantri (Tomar) dated ashadha krishna-2, Vikram Samvat 2047 as well as ‘Hindu Samrajya Divas’ (Hindu Rule Day), 10 June 1990’.

If the theological Hindu view were to be allowed, swayamsevak scouts would have nothing really to hope for before another 426,896-years when the tenth avatara Kalkin, amidst flood and fire would mark the end of Kaliyuga, and the cyclic return of the golden age, Kritayuga. Not to be discouraged by such Hindu hurdles, modern RSS thinkers, cleverly retaining 3102 BC as the point of departure, have discreetly walked out of Kaliyuga into a new Yugabda system, at once living up to the criteria of Christianity and Islam and chalking up a higher figure (at 5104, India, already in the sixth millennium, must be more advanced, more senior, entitled to more power and authority).

Sanskriti Jnana or the blackout of Indian thought

Oldest and best, but still engaged in the unending struggle against demonic forces of adharma (Marxists dominating education, Muslims blocking a view of history and society, the Westernized corrupting values), the Kurukshetra educationists have worked out educational modules for all schools affiliated to the Vidya Bharati.

But this in no way implies that reading matter on Hinduism, Indian history and culture, abundantly produced by publishers Indian and foreign, would actually be made available in RSS schools. Competent English translations of Vedic hymns, the Upanishads, and other primary Sanskrit texts are available in paperback, encyclopaedias and introductions to Hinduism, including low-cost South Asian editions of books published abroad – much rarer in Hindi than in English – are easy to get. A handy Vidya Bharati digest of material produced by competent specialists, with VB’s own commentary, could have been just the answer to the long ‘neglect of Hindu culture’ by India’s pseudo-secularist, Macaulayan, secular state. But the idea of keeping such supplementary reading in libraries of VB schools, or including them in VB quizzes and national contests, in a word, of encouraging an intellectual culture, does not at all seem to be a priority of the Vidya Bharati. ‘Upanishads? Students and teacher can get them elsewhere, later’. Where? National guide Lajja Ram Tomar does not show the way: jahan bhi jayen!, ‘Where they like!’

The most interesting critics of the RSS, those personally having lived through the RSS experience in childhood or youth [21] describe their erstwhile companions and leaders as intolerant of ‘too much reading’. What is important, they were told as swayamsevaks, was being given to them – typically the RSS chief’s annual speech, retold or rewritten by local leaders. They were expected to devote the rest of their time to more worthwhile things like mobilizing and organizing, rather than wasting time reading. Leaders seemed apprehensive of manthan (minds ‘churning’) among ordinary members and going astray (which they did), of apostates doing damage later with I-was-a-swayamsevak type of accounts, the hardest to refute. (Ex-swayamsevak Des Raj Goyal’s book on the RSS drew only one comment from RSS spokesman Malkani: “We have not seen this book, and do not intend to see it.” – a mollah’s approach to undesirable literature.

It is not modesty of means that explains this lack of books in RSS schools. After all, the preferred choice – the computer – is not cheaper: this auspicious icon, its vahana (the mouse) by its feet, symbolizes (rather than offers) Knowledge. It is protected from dust and damage like a religious idol, and reverently unveiled before visitors.

A look at VB books makes the anti-intellectual spirit even more apparent. This must be in keeping with the declared ambition of ‘arousing pride’ in young hearts, a task not always compatible with being a stickler for detail. A special, compulsory VB curriculum with six extra subjects, is superimposed upon the official syllabus, though, due to political protests in Parliament and State assemblies, not (yet) recognized or evaluated by the official certification system: (i) Moral and Spiritual Education; (ii) Culture and History; (iii) Sanskrit; (iv) Physical education; (v) Yoga; and (vi) Music and Art. Distinct National Committees within the organization’s National Academic Council determine the curriculum of these subjects. The efforts of the present Education Minister seem centered on integrating the same teaching through various avenues (notably control of the apex educational councils mentioned earlier) into the mainstream of Indian education.

VB publications include proud hagiographies of selected mahapurushas, heroes ancient and modern, scientists, gods and politicians all in a single continuum. Apart from the theoretical treatises, prescribed reading for teachers and others, there is the now well-known Vidya Bharati series of slim Know-your-Culture booklets (the Sanskriti-jnana series), one for every age group from standard IV to XII. The concrete objective of this Sanskriti Gyan series is taking an in-house national examination organized every summer for students, and teachers. The candidates are expected to memorize the single correct answer for each question from the booklet relevant to each specific level and all test questions are from the booklet. Students and teachers are evaluated on a 100-point scale. Earlier experiments revealed that with the teachers’ own limited knowledge, ‘complicated questions’ such as ‘In which Indian state does the Kaveri river flow?’ led to confusion and controversy with parents. The ‘correct answers’ are now provided in the booklets. Margadarshak Tomar candidly asked: ‘What would a school-teacher know about where the Kaveri is?’ confirming fears about the teachers’ competence in general, and about the RSS attitude to South India in particular. The teachers themselves are now tested at three levels, each comprising three booklets: praveshika (std. IV to VI); madhyama (VII to IX) and uttama (X to XII). A national survey by the Vidya Bharati Shodh Sansthan (research institute) at Lucknow reveals that the ‘average marks scored by the participating students 77.38%, practically equal the teachers’ score 77.50%’ (VB Pradipika, July-Sept. 2000). The number of students taking this exam is said to have reached a million in 2001, those having scored above 50% receiving certificates of merit. The certificates are awarded in local school ceremonies, but it is emphasized that they come ‘directly from Kurukshetra’, reminding us of the sacred nature of such certification.

In the Sanskriti jnana materials, details about India’s ancient culture and science remain firmly hidden. Names of venerable men, and some venerable women, sacred places, even schools of thought abound (Name the six Indian darshanas. Answer : Samkhya, Yoga, Mimansa, Vedanta, Nyaya, Vaisheshika), but not as anything worth exploring, or appropriating for oneself, even in a manner accessible to young students (age 10-18). The names are there only to be revered (or in case of enemies, detested), and remembered: Who set up the five sacred mathas of Hinduism accross India? Adiguru Shankaracharya. Which tyrant got Guru Gobind Singh’s two sons buried alive for refusing to give up Hinduism (sic)? Aurangzeb.

The logic of the Western tradition of Quiz Contests, in contrast with ancient shastrartha debate, is incompatible with any thought and reflection by the student. Quizzes (as well as prestigious exams like SAT, GMAT, TOEFL etc.) require recognition of a correct answer, assumed in advance, to facilitate quick attribution of points, and unambiguous classification in order of ‘merit’, often with mechanized processes. Any real probe into the scientific or other doctrines of ancient India may lead to more confusion and embarrassment than an RSS educationist can handle. I asked Mr.Tomar why no introduction could be proposed to the young reader about Indian spirituality or ‘ways of seeing’ (darshanas), to the doctrinal positions of the revered sages and texts, or the celebrated Indian ‘scientists’ like Kanada (Vaisheshika thought) or Kapila (Samkhya thought). If ancient Indian thought is urgently to be handed down to the culturally deprived young generations then is this not the very place to introduce basic notions?

In fact, fundamental principles of Indian thought (samsara, moksha, atman, brahman) can be assimilated more easily from unschooled, non-English-speaking people than at the ‘Hindu schools’ of the RSS. The ambition of the RSS schools is not moksha, but getting students ready to ‘meet the challenges of today’s world’, which requires that we learn modern western science, that we score the highest marks possible in the existing examinations system, etc. The material and scientific heights reached by ancient India in fields like atomic physics, mathematics, astronomy, aviation, medicine and surgery are trumpeted – the present Indian Education Minister Joshi (physicist and RSS Pracharak), regularly names Kapila, Kanada and Sushruta – but is careful not to go into technical details.

Margdarshak Tomar’s explanation for omitting presentations of Indian thought was that the booklets ‘would become too thick’. In his view the poor students had a ‘hard time learning even the names by heart’. Asked if transmitting ideas itself, even more than revered names, should not be the priority (an option simply excluded by the logic of quizzes), he reminded me that students and teachers were ‘free to go elsewhere and find out for themselves’.

Clearly, the reason why the Margadarshak is not in favor of wasting time on Indian doctrines or ‘science’ is that they simply do not tally with the now-dominant western disciplines, the only ones the RSS leaders recognize. The educational market and the targeted jobs clearly ascribe no value to ancient Indian views: these are doctrines having little to do with training successful scientists, engineers or software developers who wish to get ahead in the ‘global environment’. None amongst the RSS leaders – from Doctorji Hedgewar, Vir Savarkar, or Guru Golwalkar (BHU zoologist) to Rajendra Singh (physicist, chief before K.S. Sudarshan) and education minister MM Joshi would countenance any RSS school student calling into question the existing physics or chemistry curriculum, to defend more Indian viewpoints: Samkhya’s view of the procession of natural phenomena from primordial prakriti, and the concomitant ideal of the isolation (kaivalya) of pure consciousness from it, all this makes no sense, regardless of the Gita’s Samkhya colors. Nor could Kanada’s Vaisheshika view stand any chance in the chemistry class, with its atoms (paramanu) of earth, air, water, fire, and of the five other substances: ether, time, space, soul and mind. It is easier to find Christian parents and American politicians rejecting Darwinist evolution and asserting creationist views than to find a Hindu nationalist standing up against an NCERT science text-book to defend a Hindu darshana. Beating Macaulayans and Marxists with the stick of ‘our ancient (and superior) Indian scientists’, is a game that cannot be carried too far, though it quenches the middle-class thirst for symbolic satisfactions and succeeds in putting flustered Marxists’ on the defensive.

Tantra Yoga as Gray’s Anatomy

Yoga may be presented as an exception to this rule of censorship. Its success in the West makes it the one indigenous system unlikely to embarrass the modern Hindu before the Western world. However, most popular western books on Yoga ignore its central teaching and ends, selling Yoga as some kind of health workout, at most a technique to calm the tired executive’s mind before he gets back to his business deadlines. Agehananda Bharati speaks of the ‘pizza effect’ in culture: just as the humble south-Italian pizza gained prestige in the refined North after its success in America, anything Indian – music, dance, crafts, the Mahabharata, Yoga, Ayurveda, gurus, even novelists, software programmers, film-makers and economists gain prestige in India after approval in the West. Ideas that have not made serious headway there, like the notion of samsara and moksha remain embarrassing. A modern guru like Narendranath Dutt alias ‘Swami Vivekananda’ [22], who set up Ramakrishna Missions across the world could hardly afford to take his alleged guru’s mystical priorities seriously as the content of his own teaching.

The RSS school principal at Chanderi, apologetic about the lack of ‘proper facilities for Yoga’ in his school (he meant a gymnasium), asserted that the object of daily ‘Yoga’, including brahmanada (chanting of OM) in VB schools was to help students to concentrate better on their studies and to face the challenges confronting the nation. Though Yogic meditation has little to do with rashtra (the Raja’s domain), even less the Nation, the principal was sure that Yoga ‘automatically’ led to rashtriya chintan, ‘national thought’. One can only speculate about the automatic national effects Yoga could produce if practiced on the other side of the border, by Chinese or Pakistani adepts.

A central theme of Yoga, more precisely of its Tantric traditions, is the kundalini complex. Kundalini, ‘the coiled one’, fem. is a function of an imaginary secondary body, lingadeha or sukshma sharira, a concept used to achieve the merging experience (samadhi, ‘bringing into One’). Sanskrit sources are quite clear that this subtle or signified body – with its system of energy ducts [23] is kalpanatmika, ‘imaginary’, a formal support or crutch for meditation. It is not claimed to be a body actually placed upon or fusing with the sthula sharira, the gross or fleshly body. The Yogi learns to arouse the kundalini, until it pierces its way up to the sahasrara chakra where it merges with the Absolute and drenches the rapturous yogi with the ambrosia of immortality.

All this has nothing whatsoever to do with human anatomy, and no purpose is served by trying to force the chakras into becoming glands, ganglia or plexuses. But, as Agehananda (1976) put it: ‘there is hardly any topic in the yoga-and-meditation universe of discourse about which so much rubbish has been spewed out, both by Indians and occidentals, over the past fifty years. It is not my intention to conduct a campaign against Swami Vivekananda’s memory, but here again, his dangerous, attractive little Raja-Yoga volume has created a tradition of nonsense. Actual and peripheral psychiatrists and psychologists have picked it up. The most fantastic and baseless comparisons and speculations have been marshalled […]’ [24]

The cover illustration of the VB’s yoga manual shows, as we might have feared, an anatomical chart with the Sahasrara chakra presented as corresponding to a ‘pineal gland’ displayed adjacent to it. The chakra system is again reduced to an Indian anticipation of later western discoveries. The anahata chakra is a kind of ‘equivalent’ of the adrenalin gland, while the muladhara chakra is paired with testicles and ovaries. What dangerous paths the kundalini, rising from such depths, could take in RSS Yoga classes – through the pancreas, the adrenalin gland, the heart, and the thyroid – to pierce the pineal gland, allegedly to help students with curriculum or patriotism can only be a matter of speculation.

Moved by practical reason, RSS schools duly gain Government approval, and entitlement to conduct public examinations at various levels thanks to relations cultivated with local notables, ‘BEOs’ (Bloc Education Officers), and the DPIs (Directors of Public Instruction). The exceptions are Mizoram (no RSS schools) and CPM-ruled West Bengal, where refusal of government recognition (proving this is perfectly possible, whatever the motivations in this case) obliges RSS education to stop after class IV (age 9). In Chanderi, Dalit activists recounted the successful sabotage of public education, as well as a new Ambedkar school, by dominant groups, politicians and administrators to prevent any attempt at Dalit assertion (categorized as ‘separatism’). Ensuring that the RSS school remains the best option available, governing notables get their tightly disciplined teachers to teach by the book whatever syllabus is prescribed by the state. Eager for new clients, RSS schools across India, unembarrassed by compromises with ‘Macaulay’, advertise the number of their school alumni included in state merit lists, and admitted into engineering and medical colleges.

Safer fortresses: the innocence and legitimacy of a school

For an organization keen on discreet political and ideological work, schools are indeed the safest and most-protected centers of RSS action. The RSS has learnt from experience to be prepared for government bans on its activities. The organization which never harassed the British authorities (who returned the favor) has faced national bans three times in independent India. After the first one, declared by the once-sympathetic Sardar Patel, the RSS has developed camouflage into a fine art. Apart from uniformed RSS shakhas themselves (where membership still cannot be formally proved), almost every RSS activity, including the very publication of its national weeklies Organiser and Panchajanya, is carried out without the RSS label. The explicit RSS name, from which many parents would shy away (the Mahatma’s-assassin accusation sticks), or which may provoke serious political trouble, is never seen on the facade of a school building, on brochures or admission forms, though VB workers and leaders have little hesitation in orally affirming (not everywhere) the fact that the Vidya Bharati schools work under RSS inspiration [25].

Today, even in the event of a ban on the RSS, individuals, publications, or organizations only “inspired” by an organization cannot easily be pinned down by the law, in the absence of a real political will on the part of a national government to counter an ideology of uncompromising hate. Closing down private schools is not a simple proposition, when the state has little better to offer. During Emergency rule, when, say, Dina Nath Batra spent time in jail (making a hero out of him) Bansilal’s Congress regime in Haryana, though putting a stop to RSS shakha drills in the school, only sent a substitute principal to manage the Bhagawad Gita School. With adequate influence in political, administrative and business circles, generous public land for schools is handed out for almost nothing by chief ministers (e.g. Sundarlal Patwa’s land-gift for the Chanderi school), public buildings (like the town’s Public Library, with the marble plaque still intact) are simply taken over, becoming RSS schools in the ‘greater public good’ (against the objectionable mixing of the sexes, useless indoor games, etc.).

India’s resistance to straight-jacketing

However, there seems to be a stubborn elasticity in the face of organized RSS efforts in different fields since the 1920s. In his last speech at Kurukshetra (1973), Golwalkar vent his spleen on the ungrateful Indian youth, deaf to the RSS message (he did not live to see the revival of the RSS the Emergency ensured). RSS teachers themselves, in off-the-record interviews, may deny their attachment to the ‘movement’s’ ideals (‘We are their slaves, they think they have bought us for a few rupees’). Students delivering tutored ‘patriotic’ speeches or slogans on important occasions only parrot their lines (often forgetting them). After ten years of RSS education, and later exposed to the outside world, a student from Chanderi himself wishes to meet with alumni to rethink matters. Historical figures least loved by the RSS still remain role models, entitled to the love of children from RSS schools, forcing the educationists to (mis)use the authority (with ‘quotes’) of men like Jawaharlal Nehru. The variety in Indian culture and religion itself, more than ideological counterfire by English-speaking secularists or Marxists seems to have protected India from the civil war and mass pogroms inherent in the ‘Mahabharata-model’ with its two-camps vision. To the frustation of the RSS, it is the unschooled, traditional, religious Hindu, perfectly reverent of renouncers, Yogis, Sannyasis, and naked monks, who has kept a wary distance from Hindu-nationalist militants. The RSS principal in Chanderi admitted, “When we stand at street-corners and apply the tilak on all foreheads (Hindu or Muslim) on the occasion of our Indian Varsha pratipada (RSS’ ‘Hindu New Year’), we have to keep explaining to the Hindus that this is their New Year’s Day! They don’t even know!” Or care much, but like the ‘consenting’ Muslims, avoid argument.

Commenting on this steam-roller determination for uniformity, a leading critic of RSS thought, with childhood RSS memories, remarked: “Our Hindu society did not accept even a thinker of the status of Shankaracharya as the last word, as the Only Great Thinker. His doctrine was ripped to pieces, by Ramanuja and many others. There is room in Hindu society for everyone, and there is no problem with some worshipping a Golwalkar. But if men who know no Sanskrit (or Hindi or English) want their Follow-One-Leader principle (the ekchalak anuvartitva of the RSS) to be the rule for all Indians, then what is that but war against India?” [26]

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