No offence to Bhagvad Gita, but we already have a national testament

Narendra Modi is perfectly within his rights to give the Bhagvad Gita or anything else he chooses to heads of state around the world. But that does not de facto make the Gita India’s national book. According to the bizarre Sushma Swaraj school of logic, the moment Modi gifted Barack Obama with that special khadi-covered Gita it "was as good as proclaiming the Gita as our national testament."

Before Obama, Modi also gave the Gita to Japan’s Shinzo Abe and China’s Xi Jinping. But somehow in the world view of our Minister for External Affairs, Obama was the one that counted as the coup de grace.

Also note what Modi said when he took the Gita to Japan. He said he gives a Gita to monarchs and prime ministers "(b)ecause I don’t think I have anything more to give and the world has anything more to get than this."

He was talking about himself and the importance of the Gita to him. It’s entirely a personal gesture. And appropriately so.

 No offence to Bhagvad Gita, but we already have a national testament

Representational Image. AFP

By using the 5,151st birth anniversary celebration of the Gita as a launch pad to demand it become India’s national book, Swaraj and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad patriarch Ashok Singhal actually dragged Narendra Modi into an unnecessary controversy about holier-than-thou books and gifted his opposition with more airtime to raise the spectre of “Hindutva by stealth”. And no, just because the Gita does not mention the word “Hindu” does not mean that much for as The Telegraph points out the word Hindu would probably not have existed at the time the Gita was composed, especially if GIEO Gita is to be believed, and the book is 5,151 years old.

But this does not have to be a secularism issue at all. It’s not just about Gita vs Koran vs Guru Granth Sahib. As Shashi Tharoor tweets even “Hinduism is not a religion of a single holy book: Vedas, Puranas, Upanishads all equally sacred; & India has many other faiths w/holy books.” Privileging one holy book over another is a little different from privileging the Royal Bengal Tiger over the Great Indian Rhinoceros or the Wild Ass of the Rann of Kutch. The other animals do not really care one way or the other and it certainly has not made the tiger that much safer in India.

However the real reason why the Gita should not be India’s national book (which is different by the way from being designated a national treasure) is that position is already effectively taken if not officially so. Sushma Swaraj and Ashok Singhal might not know it but school children who have read Justice Leila Seth’s book We, the Children of India: The Preamble to our Constitution know it already.

In that book after listing our national anthem, our national symbol, our national animal and our national bird, Seth writes:

We also wrote a national book called the Constitution of India, which contains all the ideas and rules that keep our country working. This is the most important book in our country. It starts with the Preamble, which is the introduction. The Preamble is the soul of the Constitution. It sets out our national goals, such as justice and equality.

The free Indian state was founded on the principles of the Constitution even if the Gita might be part of the spiritual DNA of Indian civilization. The Constitution is both the bedrock and the scaffolding of the Indian nation. That is the litmus test we apply to our laws. We may swear to tell the truth on a Gita or a Koran or a Bible but in the end the direction of the Indian state is guided by the Constitution. Our lawmakers and judges have to ensure that everything they do is constitutional. Not Gita-worthy or Koran-abiding or Bible-approved.

It fell to Mamata Banerjee to make that important point. Didi is known to shoot her mouth off and say many preposterous things about conspiracies and bamboos and Haridas Pals, but she is on the right page when she says “The Constitution is the Holy Book in a democracy.”

Actually while holy books are in a sense handed down fully-formed, there is nothing divinely ordained about the Constitution. It is the product of discussion, deliberation and debate among all kinds of Indians to frame a vision for the Indian state. Our other national emblems are often serendipitous. We had no hand in the Royal Bengal Tiger making its home in India. Ashoka happened to have built his lion capital here and it survived the centuries. But the Constitution was created by Indians, for Indians, of Indians. If the idea of a national symbol is to unite people by an iconic representation of “the national people, values, goal or history” and "infuse pride and patriotism" in Indians across all demographic backgrounds, as the government's own website states, the Constitution is the obvious candidate.

That does not mean Modi or Swaraj or countless other Indians should not find answers, solace and wisdom in the Gita. Swaraj is correct when she says the study of the Gita should not be reserved for old age for it has prerna to offer right now which is what the Gita Prerana Utsav should have been about.

Anyhow those who think a “national book” designation is tantamount to a gesture of deep respect should think again. Perhaps we should pause and see how we are doing with some of the national symbols we already have. Just deeming something as a national symbol is meaningless lip service if we then proceed to treat it with callous disregard. The Royal Bengal tiger is our national animal and may well disappear from our forests in our lifetime as we gobble up its habitat and poach it into extinction. The Ganga is our National River and so polluted we have had to have a minister specifically tasked with trying to clean it up. The Gangetic dolphin is our national aquatic animal and is a critically endangered species struggling to survive because its habitat has been polluted by us. Those are national symbols that have become a national shame.

Given that track record will our leaders declare a “national book” so they can then proceed to desecrate its very principles with grand impunity?

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Updated Date: Dec 11, 2014 07:48:33 IST