The Supreme Court’s decision to refer to a Constitution bench if an extract from the Upanishads, ‘Asato Ma Sadgamaya’, could continue as a compulsory morning prayer song in Kendriya Vidyalaya schools across India brought to mind an old adage—Goodness is about what you do. Not who you pray to. A bench headed by Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman and Justice Vineet Saran believed the petition filed by a Madhya Pradesh-based advocate, Veenayak Shah, had raised questions of ‘seminal importance’, in particular as to the ‘correct interpretation of Article 28 (1) of the Constitution’ and placed it before the CJI to refer to a Constitution bench of at least five judges.
When translated from Sanskrit, the extract simply asks the divine to lead the supplicant from untruth to truth, from darkness to light, from the fear of death to immortality. While one does not know what the outcome of the whole issue would be, as a former student of Central Schools or KVs, as the Kendriya Vidyalayas are also referred to, I can say the extract more than served its purpose.
As KV students our day started with an assembly where besides this extract and the National Anthem, there would also be a ‘regional’ song, where irrespective of whether you understood or not, you could be ‘singing’ a Marathi, Punjabi, Odia, Tamil, or Assamese song depending on the day of the week. A few months of doing this and you invariably picked up stray words of a language you did not understand and wanted to know more.
Each day in the classroom began with the ‘Guru Vandana’ or thanksgiving from students to the teacher followed by one of the students—depending on which religion or part of the country they hailed from—sharing something. This ranged from Sikh classmates reciting the ‘Mul Mantra’ from the Guru Granth Sahib, Jain class-fellows sharing the ‘Namokar Mantra’ to Christian students saying the ‘Lord’s Prayer’.
The same SC bench has also allowed a fresh petition filed by Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind to be placed before the CJI that asks for quashing of Article 92 of ‘The Code’ of Kendriya Vidyalayas that mandates all schools to have a common prayer. Having studied in convent schools many of us non-Christians can still recite the Lord’s Prayer as fluently as the believer next to us. Most of us who studied in KVs never knew that ‘Hum honge kaamyab’ was actually a literal Hindi translation of the key Civil Rights Movement anthem ‘We Shall Overcome’ by Girija Kumar Mathur. Later one learnt that it was originally a gospel hymn ‘I’ll Overcome Some Day’ originally published by Charles Albert Tindley, an American Methodist minister in 1900. What’s more, the same song in the 1970s became a struggle song of the Students Federation of India, the students’ wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which otherwise shuns ‘god’.
These daily rituals practiced six times a week made most of us even more curious. So, imagine the joy when you saw your school prayer next to the logo of the Nepal Rastra Bank? Or noticing how the motto of nearly every single official body of Indonesia is in Sanskrit even though the country has over 80 percent Muslim population. One of the great philosophers known to man, Thomas Paine believed that the mind once enlightened cannot again become dark and isn’t that the purpose of any education?
Film historian and bestselling author