November 21, 2007

When States Bed with Faiths...

... they breed monsters. Mostly, that is. History is replete with marauding armies of gods, murdering and maiming millions of men, women, and children. All in the name of their revered gods and their god-like men. To defend and propagate their faiths, not backed by evidence and reason, but swords and cannons. The horrors of the Third Reich, the Stalinist Russia, Mao's Cultural Revolution, and the Taliban are the modern day Frankensteins created by States acting on Faiths and Myths. Occasionally, these holy dalliances produce just a chuckle or two. Krishna-Avanti, a small parochial school in the London suburb of Mayfair, is involved in one such instance.

Closely associated with the ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), Krishna-Avanti describes itself as a "Voluntary-Aided Hindu faith school". It has made the news today for its exclusive views on who it considers as a practicing Hindu. I quote from the school's admission policy:

  1. Daily prayer and deity worship either at a temple or at home
  2. Acceptance and following of the Vedic scriptures, in particular the Bhagavad Gita
  3. Involvement in regular (at least weekly) temple related voluntary work
  4. Minimum fortnightly attendance of temple worship and/or programmes
  5. Abstention from all meat (including fish and eggs) and any intoxication (including alcohol, smoking and drugs)

That's a bit too strict even for Manu, so the school has relaxed some of the conditions for the second tier admissions. How about monthly worship and celebration of at least three festivals — Diwali, Janmashtami, and Ramnavami — at the local temple, while following a vegetarian diet? That should be a piece of... er... egg-free cake! The first two appear to be so, but why restrict the Hindus to a vegetarian diet?

According to the Census of India Baseline Report 2004, fully three quarters of the Indians aged 15 years and above, are not vegetarians. A Hindu-CNN Survey (via ) 2006, reports that, among the brahmins, only a bare majority of 55% follow a vegetarian diet (via Applying Krishna-Avanti's diet criterion for practicing Hindus, I reckon that the community constitutes only 20% of India's population. Sorry, Mr. Prime Minister, you now have a brand new minority to lose your sleep over!

It does not come as a surprise to me that an overwhelming majority of the Hindus eat fish and meat. The Laws of Manu prescribe that the brahmin priests be offered, "seasoning (for the rice), such as broths and pot herbs, sweet and sour milk, and honey, (as well as) various (kinds of) hard food which require mastication, and of soft food, roots, fruits, savoury meat, and fragrant drinks", during the performance of funeral rites (v.226,227, Chapter III, The Laws of Manu). Shiva, a member of the Hindu trinity of gods, is said to have consumed the meat offered by a devout hunter, Kannappan, with relish, over the objections of the priests. In an earlier post, I had pointed to the benefits of consuming bull's meat, touted by the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

Notwithstanding the proscriptions or lack of them against eating meat, it is indeed very difficult to define a practicing Hindu. I can hunt and kill animals, stamp out the annoying bugs, and of course, kill other men, while remaining a Hindu. I don't need to have read the Bhagavad Gita, none of the Vedas, or the Puranas. Several brahmins and priests, whom I know personally, have never read a single verse from the Upanishads. I can be a monist, a dualist, or even an atheist — if I followed the tenets of the Caravaka school of thought — and still lay claim to my being a practicing Hindu.

None of these contentions invalidate the Krishna-Avanti's right as a private school to define an admission policy of its choice. The problem is that the policy was expressly crafted to qualify for a faith-based school grant from the British Government, as acknowledged by the school foundation's spokesperson:

Under the rules of funding of faith schools, the school is obliged to have a set of criteria for admission that is relevant to the faith. The criteria -- for example, the one about abstention from meat and intoxication -- reflect the mainstream Hindus in this country.

Of course, if the State decided that it should fund "faith schools", it must have a clearly stated defininion of the faith on which the school is based. The bureaucrats have no patience for references to the abstract concepts of Brahman, or Maya and the subtle differences between the Samkhya and the Mimamsa schools. They must have a list — a list of acceptable, ordered, criteria — so they could save their backsides, in case questions were raised about the propriety of their decisions. What if they had signed off on a grant request from a school that professed its faith in the promise of virgins in heaven for sex-starved young men? In these days and times, it would be downright suicidal, would it not?

  1. Welcome back. I had almost started thinking you have quit blogging!
    The UK Government funds faith-based schools?!
    The obligation they feel to be nice and politically all-things-for-all-people is, one day, going to be their undoing.

  2. I loved the part where you lucidly define Hinduism and the (absence of) rules it has. This is also the first time I'm hearing about a Hindu faith-based school.

  3. There are Hindu faith based schools at least in North India but there are no set rules for admission based on faith(they don't accept it openly at least).In the assembly Hindu prayers are recited but otherwise whatever they do is their wish.I never heard of a Hindu School in outside India.
    Meat is served as 'prasad' in temples where animals are sacrificed so there is no reason to believe that Hindus are supposed to be vegetarians by faith.Vegetariansim in Hindus depends more on geography than faith. Hindus living near the sea survive on seafood.


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