What should we teach our children: Mahavira’s birth date, or that he was the last of the 24 great pathfinders born in every cycle of the universe, or his philosophy of multiple truths? The date of Buddha’s death or that his previous lives are recorded in the Jataka Tales or his doctrine that showed the way out of suffering? The geographical location of the Kurukshetra War or stories of Ravana’s flying chariot that brought Rama back to Ayodhya or the nature of the world based on rebirth described in the Bhagwad Gita? The spot where Jesus was crucified or the story of the immaculate conception of Jesus or the parables through which he revealed God’s unconditional love? The dispute over succession between Prophet Muhammad’s father-in-law and son-in-law, the story of how he travelled from Mecca to Jerusalem to the Seventh Heaven on a great winged horse or the code of conduct he presented to the world?
What we choose to teach our children reveals our prejudices and our hierarchies: it shows us up – what we consider to be true and worthy knowledge and what we dismiss as irrelevant and false – whether we are parochial, global or cosmic in outlook.
History gives us objective truth about the past based on data: archaeology, epigraphy, archaeology, and contemporary records. How the data-points are joined to create a pattern remains speculative, rooted on the political leanings of the historian. For example, some historians qualify events of 1857 as an Uprising, others as Mutiny, but no one disputes the data that numerous battles were fought between various groups of Indians and the East India Company that sought political control in the subcontinent.
Mythology gives us subjective truth of a people through their stories, symbols and rituals; by its very nature it is indifferent to rationality. Every tribe, community, and religion has its own version of reality. For some the perfect world was created in six days before God decided to rest. For others the Creator emerges from the lotus that rises from the navel of the preserver who sleeps on the coils of a serpent that floats on an infinite ocean.
In the Nehruvian era, we were taught to value history and cultivate scientific temper, outgrowing religion and mythology. We inherited the colonial attitude of qualifying mythology as ‘false knowledge of the uneducated’. We overlooked the fact that the colonisers never treated their own Biblical mythology as falsehood. In our quest to be secular we turned indifferent, even hostile, to people’s faiths. Hindu customs and beliefs were especially at the receiving end for various political reasons.
Today scholars are recognising how beneath the veneer of secular rationality wars across the world, such as the ongoing conflict in Gaza, can be traced to mythologies of the Chosen People and the Promised Land and medieval crusades. Post-modern scholars and psychologists are talking about the value of subjective truths and personal and cultural narratives to navigate our way through life. In other words, people are realising mythology is not ‘falsehood’ but personal and communal truths, critical for human survival.
We need to stop emulating archaic mindsets that sought to overthrow ‘false’ gods with ‘true’ gods. Let’s teach children to recognise that human lives are shaped by both objective and subjective truths, not all Hindu. We have to move from vi-vaad or argument, where we only seek to prove others wrong, to sam-vaad or discussion, where we learn to appreciate why others cling to a truth so different than ours.