Unless the word religion is made extremely malleable, there is nothing remotely religious about asato ma.


“From the untruth, lead me to the truth. From darkness, lead me to light. From death, lead me to immortality.” “Protect us both. Nourish us both. May our efforts be filled with vigour. May our studies be filled with energy. May we not hate each other.”

Both are invocations for peace, shanti mantras. The first has lines that begin asato ma sadgamaya, the second has lines that begin saha navavatu. Most Indians, and Indian children, have heard these hundreds of times, without realising religious instruction was being imparted and without comprehending seminal Constitutional rights were being violated. There was a day and age when Indians, and Indian children, were more familiar with Sanskrit than seminaries (with the same etymological root as seminal). In that day and age, they might even have understood the Sanskrit, without relying on English-language translations that can also be imperfect and inaccurate. Today’s grandparents might have known the Sanskrit and today’s parents might have gathered the purport of the Sanskrit via the vernacular. Unless the word religion is made extremely malleable, there is nothing remotely religious about asato ma. Unless the word religion is rendered truly pliable, there is nothing remotely religious about saha navavatu either—it is a prayer for teacher and student, together.

The Constitution has been around for a long time and so have Kendriya Vidyalayas. But because people knew, they didn’t object. They didn’t object to joining hands in salutation either, any more than one objects to namaste. Namaste means “I bow down to you”. Today, namaste is sacrilege. Far better to say “hello” and shake someone by the hand. Far better to place your hand on your chest during the national anthem. These are things the West does. Tautologically, these must be superior.

Today, knowledge comes from the Internet. There is a generation that doesn’t know Sanskrit and doesn’t know the vernacular either. It cannot distinguish a good English translation from a bad one. Therefore, blood pressures shoot up because a bad saha navavatu translation mentions “God”. Both shanti mantras are from Upanishads—asato ma from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and saha navavatu from the Taittiriya Upanishad. We now have a generation that knows these Upanishads exist only because a few mantras figure here and there. It knows there is something called the Mundaka Upanishad only because of GK questions about Satyameva Jayate. But then, Upanishads are tainted because of their association with “religion”. (I will not use the word dharma, because Upanishads are about dharma, which cannot be equated with religion.) We will not mention them unless they are recycled back to us via the West.

We can’t have associations with religion in a secular country. (One should read the Constituent Assembly debates to understand why “secular” was consciously kept out.) If a seminal question hasn’t been asked so far, about Kendriya Vidyalayas or other taints, this doesn’t mean it can’t be asked now. Impressionable young minds must be protected. Why just Kendriya Vidyalayas? A range of educational institutions have Sanskrit mottos—from Upanishads, Vedas, even Bhagavad Gita.

The Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan has something from the Ishopanishad. How about Hidayatullah National Law University? Or Gujarat National Law University, quoting from the Rig Veda? Or several IITs and IIMs? Nothing much can be done about private educational institutions. But wherever there is state funding, once the Constitutional Bench has delivered the decision, there must be careful purging, and not just from educational institutions. This petition provides the thin end of the wedge. Yato dharma tato jaya, the Supreme Court’s motto, doesn’t belong in a modern secular country. It occurs multiple times in the Mahabharata, usually described as a Hindu epic. Satyameva jayate doesn’t belong as a national motto. Nor does the national emblem, unless an exception is made for Buddhism.

What is seminal in importance is often conditioned by subjectivity in perception. To most citizens, resolving 30 million cases pending in district and taluka courts is seminal in importance. Add four million in High Courts and 60,000 in the Supreme Court. In most countries, including the West, Supreme Courts are much more selective and transparent about admitting writ petitions, realising trade-offs of time in administering justice. They are probably more conscious of their own history and legacy. In India, special leave petitions (SLPs) were introduced in 1861 and permission (then to Privy Council) was only given in “rarest of rare” cases. In the Constitution, SLPs were meant to be the Supreme Court’s residual powers, to be used in exceptional cases, with High Courts normally the last court of appeal. Today, SLPs amount to more than 50% of cases admitted by the Supreme Court, taking up 40% of productive time.

If Constitutional cases are important, why doesn’t the Supreme Court curb SLPs? Can one have better case management, not just in other courts, but also the Supreme Court? Can one have clear demarcations of time allotted to Division Benches vis-à-vis Constitutional Benches? Can one have some precision in pinning down what involves “a substantial question of law as to the interpretation” of the Constitution? For that matter, why can’t case management and its administration be handed over to professionals, leaving free time for judges to do what they do best, interpret law? That’s the reason many educational institutions hire professionals for administrative functions, leaving teachers free to teach. It should be no different for courts. These are questions citizens will call seminal. On administration of justice, I am sorely tempted to quote from Chapter 8 of the Manu Smriti, or Shanti Parva/Anushasana Parva of the Mahabharata. But those are not text we want our progeny to be familiar with.

For our progeny’s future, we wait for an interpretation of Article 28(1). For those unfamiliar, this is what it says. “28(1)—No religion instruction shall be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of state funds.” If we don’t want this in a secular country, what does Article 28(2) mean? “Nothing in clause (1) shall apply to an educational institution which is administered by the state but has been established under any endowment or trust which requires that religious instruction shall be imparted in such institution.” If I add Article 28(3), there will be more confusion.

Bibek Debroy, a renowned economist, scholar and translator, is chairman of Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. As a translator, he is best known for his magnificent rendition of the Mahabharata and the Valmiki Ramayana. The views expressed are personal.