Asato Ma Sadgamaya: Nothing 'religious' about it

Many years back, a young reporter from south India, on the Bollywood beat in an eveninger in Mumbai, was interviewing a film lyricist. During the course of the chat, the lyricist, a Hindu by birth, told the reporter that Hindi film songs are by and large in Urdu. Why lyrics, even the dialogues in Hindi movies till around the late 70s were mostly Urdu-based, he added.

The reporter was confused. He was till then under the impression that ‘Urdu was the language of the Muslims’. Incredulous, he asked the lyricist as much, who replied in typical bombast that language is beyond the confines of religion or caste. Most importantly, he said that “as long as the idea conveyed is good, does it matter whether it is in Hindi or Urdu?”

It is a story that is worth remembering now when the Supreme Court is hearing the case over whether to sing the daily prayer Asato Ma Sadgamaya in the 1,100 Kendriya Vidyalayas across the country.

The plea in front of the apex court is that the song should not be sung as a prayer in Kendriya Vidyalayas, as it is in Sanskrit. The petitioner’s broad contention is that Sanskrit prayers are Hindu by nature and hence against the minorities. The plea also states that the recital of the prayer is in violation of Article 28 of the Constitution that prohibits imparting religious instructions in government or government-aided institutions.

Says Sanskrit scholar Vijay Sharma in Hyderabad, “It is definitely sad that Asato Ma Sadgamaya is being seen as a religious prayer. Far from it, it is a cry to dispel darkness and infuse the light of knowledge.”

Taken from the Upanishad, the Sanskrit verse is Asato ma sadgamaya, Tamaso ma jyotirgamaya, Mrityorma amrtam gamaya, Om Shanti Shanti Shanti. In loose translation, it means: Lead me to truth from ignorance, lead me to light from darkness, lead me to immortality from death, peace, peace, peace.

“Tell me where is religion in it?” asks Vijay Sharma. “It is just the right thought to be inculcated into the minds of students in schools. There is a timeless quality to this prayer and is believed to be handed down by hoary sages of this land from several civilisations ago.”

Aside from the universality of the prayer, there is also a good ground to argue that just because it is in Sanskrit it does not mean it is Hindu in nature, says S K Krishnan, a school teacher in Karnataka.

“Sanskrit was the language of our ancestors, many of whom were not even adherents to any religion,” he adds.

It is a fact that the father of Indian Constitution, Dr B R Ambedkar, understood, which is why he supported Sanskrit as a national language. Ambedkar’s caveat was English should be the official language till such time (15 years) as Sanskrit became acceptable and was also learnt by the governing agencies in the States.

When questioned on this, Ambedkar reportedly said, “Why? What is the fault in Sanskrit?”

Coming back to the case, the government (through the Solicitor General Tushar Mehta) has done well to say that just because they are taken from scriptures they cannot be classified as religious.

Tushar Mehta also pointed out that the Supreme Court’s motto ‘Yato Dharma, Tato Jaya’ (where there is dharma, there is victory) is taken from Bhagavad Gita. Does it make the Supreme Court non-secular?”

However, Vijay Sharma adds, “Imposing religious views into school students is bad. But India and its institutions need not be wary of hiding its Hindu roots. Western countries don’t play down their Christian past. It is what adds beauty to European countries, for example. India need not play down its organic identity.”

Countries that forget their culture and heritage don’t remain countries for long. This is what history teaches us, says Krishnan.