on Dec. 11, 2007
There’s been a kerfuffle in the media in the past few days over the entrance policy for the new Hindu school in Harrow. Various parties have submitted statements to newspapers and been interviewed on the radio.
The Krishna-Avanti Hindu School is to be built and run with money from central government and, like the name suggests, its a school for Hindu children. Unlike America and many other countries, the UK has a policy of supporting public schools where all the students profess one faith. The only criteria is that there is sufficient demand from local parents.
The ‘faith schools’ argument- some people like the idea because the schools seem to have better discipline and produce good exam results; some don’t like the idea because they are potentially socially divisive - has been going on for a year or two, fuelled by anxieties over growing fundamentalism in British society.
However, the recent media flurry - before a single brick has been laid - is about who gets to decide what Hinduism is and therefore which children get to become pupils. The school is already heavily over-subscribed because it is the first of its kind in this country and many of the 40,000 Hindus in the London borough of Harrow would like their children to go there next year.
As I have written elsewhere, the word ‘Hindu’ means many things to many people; and to some people it means subscribing to a vague, non-denominational, pick-and-mix type of faith largely based on the country of birth or ethnicity. But that’s the problem when you employ one term to fit the thousands of historical faith communities originating in India.
Many Hindu groups applied to the government to run the first ever Hindu school, but only one could be given the go-ahead. A group known as the I-Foundation won the bid, satisfying the government as to their suitability and competence for the job. Whilst in general most of the other Hindu groups did not take the success of this group to be the source of dismay - it was, after all, to be a school of their own faith - there were a few persons who did. And this week, when the school admissions policy was announced, and it was seen that the criteria included practising the Hindu faith at home and local temple, and being a vegetarian, it was enough to send those few persons to the media in protest.
Leaving aside the fact that the admissions policy to any similar faith school requires the fulfillment of similar criteria, (Catholic schools, for instance, ask that the child is actually a practising Catholic, and have certain conditions that need to be satisfied beforehand to prove it) the protesters seemed particularly annoyed that vegetarianism was included as a requirement.
ISKCON is the official ‘faith partner’ for this new school and, strange to say, the Hindus who complained felt that a certain sectarian bias was in evidence by this dietary requirement. Of course, as anyone who has read anything of Hinduism will know, ahimsa or non-violence, is a cardinal creed of the faith and it is only in more recent years that anyone has attempted to challenge this.
But let me stop here and share with you a letter sent to the main Asian newspaper here. Its from Nitin Mehta, a Hindu, the secretary of the Young Indian Vegetarians, who was recently awarded the OBE for services to his community. He was quite forthright in his rebuttal:
Anuja Prashar’s article, ‘Does Practise Make Perfect’? shows how confused Hindus like her have become regarding this faith. Part of the problem is the word ‘Hindu’ itself. While at one time it meant a people or a nationality, it now means a faith. A faith has certain principles by which its adherents live, it cannot mean that anything goes. The problem is that many Hindus and quite a few Hindu leaders want their Hinduism without any annoying restrictions.
Dr.Gautem Sen of the London School of Economics whom Anuja quotes: ‘ I am sympathetic to giving vegetarianism a higher status within Hinduism, though not a vegetarian myself, but to use it to exclude virtually everyone is absurd’ is a good example of this thought process.
Dr. Sen is obviously a proud Hindu but it would be nice to know what salient values of Hinduism he practises in everyday life. The Krishna Avanti primary school is based on Hindu ethos and vegetarianism is a very crucial part of this ethos–what problem do Anuja and other Hindu leaders have with it? Why do they want meat to be served in a school which is based on Hindu principles? Why did they feel the need to do go to the national press about this? Do they serve meat in Arya Samaj schools and colleges in India? The government wants every one to eat five portions of fruit and veg a day and what on earth could be the objection for the students to be served a healthy, sattvic lunch at this school? Anuja goes on to question the very notion that Hinduism can be practised! She lays the blame on ‘ the Christian origins of most of the ISKCON followers’. This is an unfortunate slur on millions all over the world who have come to Krishna.
ISKCON, whose founder was Srila Prabhupada, and whose teachings this movement follows, has nothing to do with the Christian origins of its adherents. Srila Prabhupada taught that it is not enough to be proud of your faith, you have to practise it. It is therefore essential to differentiate between born Hindus and praticing Hindus. As a guide to who is a practising Hindu one has to look at the life of a Hindu monk. Certainly there is no Hindu monk I know of that eats meat, fish or eggs.
Anuja does not want a separation between a ‘universal, all encompassing Hinduism and those that practise their Hinduism.’ By that logic even beef would be OK and if it is not why not? There are, after all, no rules in Anuja’s view of Hinduism. Our young people are constantly mocked that our religion cannot be taken seriously because there are no core values that Hindus adhere to. Vegetarianism is in fact one of the greatest gifts of Hinduism to the world. Meat eating is destroying the planet, is the cause of many diseases and above all a cause of immense cruelty to animals. Instead of promoting this great gift to the world, meat-eating Hindus want vegetarianism to become irrelevant to the faith.
Anuja claims that ISKCON-Hindu school would sit, ‘uncomfortably with the Hindu integrative, democratic and egalitarian principles of a Dharmic world view’. ISKCON devotees distribute free food to tens of thousands of people in UK, they have translated the Bhagavad Gita in most of the worlds languages, and their egalitarian principles extend to animals. It is no use saying how great our Dharma is and then have chicken for dinner. Ahimsa and compassion are the greatest gems of our Dharma take them and away and there is not much to differentiate us from other religions.