Mohan Bhagwat says 70% of Indian population was educated pre-British Raj; but didn’t Shastras say Shudras and women must be left uneducated?
6:30 AM, 11 March, 2023
The Shastra literature that Bhagwat is talking about does not provide a descriptive narrative of equal respect for all occupations.
Mohan Bhagwat, the sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has been making quite unusual statements in the recent past. A few days back, he said God did not create caste in India, but it was pundits (priests) who did so. A few days later, he said that the shastras for a long time were transmitted only orally and till then they were good. But, while writing them, wrong things were introduced into them. These two statements had some reform intentions.
Mohan Bhagwat on Sunday (March 5) said 70 per cent of India’s population was educated before British rule. He further said there was no unemployment in the country then. The media reported this statement quite widely.
The first girls’ school
While writing in the context of Savitribai Phule Jayanti on March 7, in the Punekar News, Camil Parkhe wrote an interesting article about an American missionary lady called Cynthia Farrar, who started the first girls’ school in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1824. Farrar became the inspiration for Mahatma Jyotirao Phule to start a girls’ school in Pune where Savitribai and Fatima taught.
India today considers Savitribai as the first woman teacher of India in a nationalistic sense. But, actually, Cynathia Farrar should be considered the first woman teacher. She never married but all her life worked for girls’ education in India and died in 1862 in Ahmednagar.
Parkhe says: “Cynthia Farrar’s important identity is being the teacher of veteran social reformer Savitribai Phule, wife of Mahatma Jyotiba Phule. Farrar is also a pioneer of women’s education in India and she is credited with launching many girls’ schools and girls’ boarding schools in Mumbai and Ahmednagar”.
Were such girl schools started by Hindu Brahmin missionaries in India at any time in history?
To have more than 70 per cent Indians educated would mean that Shudras and Dalits, who were living around villages and towns, were also educated. The pre-British India that Bhagwat was talking about was Mughal rule. Bhagwat’s statement implies that in Muslim period more than 70 per cent of Indians were educated. If that was so, why was Muslim rule bad? There were no 70 per cent Muslims in India when they were ruling. If Muslim rulers educated Shudras and Dalits, then why did they remain illiterate till recent times?
Bhagwat’s statement generally reflects the RSS truism. If RSS is saying that caste and women’s inequality entered into the Sanskrit shastras by later writers, the RSS and BJP government can now constitute a review committee and remove all the references to caste and women’s inequality from them. As of now, in what they call shastras and puranas, even the caste of Gods is mentioned. For example, Rama is mentioned as Kshatriya and Krishna is mentioned as Yadav (Yadu).
Caste groups like Shudras (OBCS) and Chandals (Dalits) are mentioned in a very derogatory manner, whereas Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vysya communities are mentioned as most respectable and which need to be served by the Shudras and Chandals.
Nobody can stop the RSS and BJP government from changing that language in shastras. The right to priesthood education can be given to all occupational groups whom they consider or recognise as Hindu. This is a necessary step because Bhagwat as head of the RSS is saying ‘God did not create caste’. Whatever is incorporated by men could be removed from those books.
Spiritual equality is dependent on equal opportunity of spiritual education. The RSS/BJP can initiate Hindu spiritual schools for all Hindu children. It is well known that till recent times Shudras and Dalits had no right to read the Hindu spiritual books. Within the books their life is portrayed as equivalent to animals. The debate about such language in Ramcharitmanas in the UP Assembly is well known.
The central issue is that the right to education in an equal environment must be guaranteed in all spheres. The curriculum should also contain the teaching material that inculcates dignity for all professions and occupations of Indians. The Shastra literature that Bhagwat is talking about does not provide a descriptive narrative of equal respect for all production occupations.
No society at any point of time could survive without agriculture, animal economy and artisan instrument making. In all Shastras — from Rigveda to Ramayana and Mahabharata — all these occupations were treated un-divine, hence Shudra or Chandala. This language cannot be accepted by modern youth studying in colleges and universities. Therefore, change is necessary. The RSS/BJP, as religious socio-political formations, need to initiate a process of review.
To claim that in pre-British India 70 per cent Indians were educated implies that Shudras, Dalits and women were educated in the Brahminic gurukuls in Sanskrit. Where is the evidence? When the Shastras themselves are saying that Shudras/ Chandals and women must be kept out of the education system, what does Bhagwat mean by saying that 70 per cent Indians were educated in pre-British India?
The first open school that in principle accepted to educate all caste and community children was initiated by William Carey, a British missionary, with the support of Raja Ram Mohan Roy in 1817 in Calcutta. The first girls’ school, as per available information, was opened in 1824 in Bombay by the American Marathi Mission. Cynathia Farrar came to India as part of that mission school and dedicated entire life to teaching girl students from all castes.
Was there a Brahmin or Hindu mission either during the Muslim rule or earlier to educate all castes/community or occupational group children in India? Without such missions, who were educating 70 per cent children of India? No monarchical state was running schools in India. Brahmins, who were the Dwijas (mainly literate among Brahmins and Kshatriyas, not even Vysyas), should have done that. But the Shastras did not allow them to do so.
Even during Mughal rule, there were no schools established for all caste/community children in Persian language. The Mughal rulers, including Akbar, went by the advice of Brahmin pundits, who were against universal education. The most tragic part of the pre-British Mughal rule was that lower-caste converts to Islam were not educated by Muslim mullahs, who came from the high castes or from Pathan or Mughal races. That is the reason why lower-caste Muslim illiteracy is higher than that of Dalits today.
Nationalism cannot be instilled by telling untruthful stories to the Shudra/OBC/ Dalit/ Adivasi masses today, who are the main voters. Let the nationalist spirit be instilled by accepting the mistakes of the past. The future of the nation should be built on honesty and self-correction, not on falsehood.
(Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist and author. He has been campaigning for English medium education in all government schools of India for the past 30 years.)