The Radhakrishnan Commission’s Recommendations for the Inclusion of Comparative Religion1
Dr. Arpita Mitra, Associate Fellow, VIF

On the occasion of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s birthday on 5 September, let us revisit an almost forgotten contribution of his. The man, whose birthday is celebrated as Teacher’s Day, had also served as the Chairperson of the University Education Commission (1948-49), set up by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and Education Minister, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, to assess the situation and the needs of the university education system in the country. Since Radhakrishnan chaired the Commission, it came to be known as the Radhakrishnan Commission.

This ten-member commission, which included one British and two American members, visited 25 major universities in India and submitted its report of recommendations. The Commission is remembered today for its contribution towards outlining university autonomy and determining centre-state relations in education. However, what has been forgotten—or perhaps deliberately ignored—is that in his Report of the Commission (1950), Radhakrishnan strongly argued for the inclusion of comparative religious education in the curriculum. According to him, this was not only a means of acquainting Indians with their spiritual heritage, but also the only way of countering religious bigotry and prejudice and highlighting the unity of all religions. In the wake of Partition and mass-scale communal violence, the Indian government was not prepared to implement this component from his recommendations. After 70 years has elapsed, we are still not in a position to implement this recommendation!

The Report of the Radhakrishnan Commission2 had an entire chapter on Religious Education (Chapter VIII, pp. 250-65), which included sub-themes like the history of the problem, starting from the pre-British period to contemporary times; the relevant articles from the Indian Constitution and some examples from the Americana and Australian Constitutions; different dimensions of the secular state, the Indian view of religion, spiritual realization as the basis of religion, universal religion, and so on; and finally, practical measures for religious education. The chapter concluded with the recommendations “(1) that all educational institutions start work with a few minutes for silent meditation, (2) that in the first year of the Degree course lives of the great religious leaders like Gautama the Buddha, Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, Jesus, Samkara, Ramanuja, Madhava, Mohammad, Kabir, Nanak, Gandhi, be taught, (3) that in the second year some selections of a universalist, character from the Scriptures of the world be studied, (4) that in the third year, the central problems of the philosophy of religion be considered.”3

Radhakrishnan discussed the provisions of the Indian Constitution relevant to the theme of religious education. Where does his recommendation of including religious education stand with reference to Article 28(1) & 28(3) (during that time, this was Article 22), which forbids religious instruction in educational institutions wholly maintained out of state funds? In response to this question, Radhakrishnan explained: “In the course of the discussion of Article 22 in the Constituent Assembly, the question was raised whether in institutions wholly maintained out of State funds like the Government Sanskrit College in Calcutta, where the Upanisads and the Gita are studied, their study would be permitted and Dr. Ambedkar replied: “My own view is this, that religious instruction is to be distinguished from research or study. These are quite different things. Religious instruction means this. For instance, so far as the Islamic religion is concerned, it means that you believe in one God, that you believe that Pagambar the Prophet is the last prophet and so on, in other words, what we call dogma. A dogma is quite different from study.” In other words, even in institutions maintained by Government, religion can be studied critically, as part of a course in general culture. There is a difference between the preaching of dogma and a philosophical study of religion. While the former is precluded, the latter is permitted. There shall be no sectarian indoctrination in State institutions. But history of religion and of religious institutions, comparative religion, philosophy of religion can all be studied even in institutions maintained wholly out of State funds.”4

Radhakrishnan argued that the adoption of “the Indian outlook on religion” would not be inconsistent with the principles of the Indian Constitution. According to him, the central features of this Indian outlook are: religion is not dogma or ritual, it is realization and transformation of life through training and discipline. The yardstick of a one’s religiosity is one’s character, not intellectual belief. The Report further stated: “The abuse of religion has led to the secular conception of the State. It does not mean that nothing is sacred or worthy of reverence. It does not say that all our activities are profane and devoted to the sordid ideals of selfish advancement. We do not accept a purely scientific materialism as the philosophy of the State. That would be to violate our nature, our svabhava, our characteristic genius, our svadharma. Though we have no State religion, we cannot forget that a deeply religious strain has run throughout our history like a golden thread.”5 Furthermore: “…we have the makings of a national faith, a national way of life which is essentially democratic and religious…If we bear in mind that the whole future of our democracy depends on freedom of conscience, freedom of inquiry, moral solidarity, our secularism is an act of supreme courage and sublime loyalty to our national faith.”6

The idea of secularism as professed by Radhakrishnan has been severely criticized by the Indian Marxist intellectuals. Irfan Habib, for instance, considers Radhakrishnan’s ideas as a distortion of the idea of secularism.7 According to Habib, such ideas have opened the door to majority communalism. He says that Radhakrishnan’s idea that there should be religious instructions in schools is upheld by the Indian Supreme Court, whereas the Constitution prohibits religious instruction in government schools. Firstly, such critics are unable to apprehend the difference between religious instruction and curricular education in comparative religion. In the words of Radhakrishnan himself: “To prescribe dogmatic religions in a community of many different faiths is to revive the religious controversies of the past. To turn the students over to theologians of different denominations for instruction in the conflicting systems of salvation is to undermine that fellowship of learning which defines a college or a university.” 8 His recommendation was aimed precisely at countering a bigoted attitude towards one’s own and others’ religion that could result from instruction in denominational institutions that teach the components of only one religion. Here lies the importance of comparative religious studies, that help us understand others’ religion as well as religion in general in a prejudice-free environment.

Secondly, the truth is that the Radhakrishnan Commission’s recommendations regarding comparative religious education in the curriculum were never really adopted. The number of religious studies or comparative religion departments or courses in universities across India bears testimony to the fact. If it was never adopted, how could it lead to communalism? On the contrary, perhaps its adoption would have helped in combating communalism.

Notes:
  1. This commentary is an extracted and modified version from Arpita Mitra, ‘Interreligious Education in a Post-secular World: The Relevance of the Radhakrishnan Commission’s Recommendations in the Indian Context’ in Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion, special issue “Interreligious Dialogue: From Religion to Geopolitics”, edited by Giuseppe Giordan and Andrew Lynch, Leiden, Brill, 2019 .

  2. Government of India, The Report of the University Education Commission (December 1948-August 1949), New Delhi, Government of India, 1950.
  3. Ibid., p. 265.
  4. Ibid., p. 255.
  5. Ibid., p. 257.
  6. Ibid., p. 257.
  7. Irfan Habib, Irfan, Interview on “The Indian variant of secularism opens the door to majority communalism”, Scroll.in, 14 August 2015.
  8. Report of the University Education Commission, p. 258.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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