A Pedagogic Engagement with Great Characters: Overcoming Stereotypes

History is about human narratives—and at tines narratives of people with extraordinary courage and fearlessness. However, because of political stereotypes, we often do injustice to these characters. Is it possible to engage with these narratives differently? An educator speaks of this possibility by invoking Bhagat Singh and Swami Vivekananda.


Prof. Avijit Pathak teaches at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


 Although many of us tend to think that we live in a disenchanted world, the fact is that for all of us—particularly for children—there is a longing for great ideals, great personalities; we all want to be inspired; we want believe that it is possible to do great things. This possibly explains the constant search for ‘role models’—great historical figures, charismatic leaders, prophets, visionaries.  In fact, for children, one important experience of studying history (not chronicle of facts, events, wars and treaties; but history as the unfolding of human narratives: the stories of overcoming difficulties and obstacles, the stories that illumine our souls) is to find great ideals, inspiring figures, role models. No, I am not valorizing the practice of ‘hero-worshipping’ culture; nor am I supporting the cult of deconstruction—deconstruction of all ideals, and reducing a great character into a set of motives, categories and structural factors. There is some magic and wonder in , to take just two illustrations, Swami Vivekananda and Bhagat Singh; and a good teacher of history endowed with the spirit of life-affirming pedagogy should not miss the opportunity to enchant the child, and take her to a world in which meanness is overcome, limits are transcended, and the fineness of human possibility is affirmed.

Bhagat Singh
Bhagat Singh

True, it is a difficult process. Because we live in a world in which great figures are appropriated, stereotyped and falsified. How often we are told—particularly by the radical Left—that Bhagat Singh was a revolutionary, an atheist; whereas Swami Vivekananda was just a Hindu saint; one was a secularist, another was a believer; one was a potential Marxist, another was a proponent of ‘advaita’ philosophy; one was a leftist, another was inclined to the rightist trend; and hence the twin could not meet. Likewise, in the clever game of political appropriation the rightists argue that Bhagat Singh was a militant nationalist, and Vivekananda enhanced our ‘Hindu’ pride; and hence both should be worshipped as icons. Yes, a history teacher needs to acquire the courage and clarity to see beyond this politics of appropriation and partial reading, and present before the young learner the richness of their visions and practices. It is in this context that I wish to explore the meaning of Bhagat Singh’s atheism and Swami Vivekananda’s religiosity, and argue why it is important for every educator and learner to learn from their atheism as well as religiosity in order to live beautifully and meaningfully.

Let me begin with Bhagat Singh’s remarkably insightful essay: Why I am an Atheist. Yes, in his essay Singh was clear in his conviction: ‘By the end of 1926 I had been convinced as to the baselessness of the theory of existence of an almighty supreme being who created, guided and controlled the universe.’ There was deep impact of Bakunin, Marx, Lenin and Trotsky on his thinking. They were all atheists; and Singh too arrived at the conclusion: ‘No more mysticism. No more blind faith. Realism became our cult.’ In the essay Singh celebrated the power of Reason; and the world that he saw around him—‘the world of woes and miseries, a veritable, eternal combination of numberless tragedies’—made him refute the idea of ‘an almighty, omniscient and omnipotent God’.  With deep sensitivity, anguish and reason Singh asked a pertinent question: ‘I ask why your omnipotent God does not stop every man when he is committing any sin or offence? Why did he not kill warlords or kill the fury of war in them and thus avoid the catastrophe hurled down on the head of humanity by the Great War? Why does he not produce a certain sentiment in the mind of the British people to liberate India?  Where is God? What is he doing? Is he enjoying all these woes of human race? A Nero, a Changez: Down with him.’

Not to believe in God is difficult, particularly at the moment of crisis. ‘The idea of God’, wrote Singh, ‘is helpful to man in distress.’  Singh too was in deep crisis; even police officials began to persuade him to offer his prayers to God regularly. Yes, he knew: ‘belief softens the hardships, even can make them pleasant.’  And ‘ to stand upon one’s own legs amid storms and hurricanes is not a child’s play.’ See his conviction:

I wanted to settle for myself whether it was in the days of peace and enjoyment alone that I could boast of being an atheist or whether during such hard times as well, I could stick to those principles of mine. After great consideration I decided that I could not lead myself to believe in and pray to god. No, I never did. That was the real test and I came out successful. …A god-believing Hindu might be expecting to be reborn as a king, a Muslim or a Christian might dream of the luxuries to be enjoyed in paradise and the reward he is to get for his suffering and sacrifices. But, what am I too expect? I know the moment the rope is fitted round my neck and rafters removed from under my feet, that will be the final moment—that will be the last moment.

Was it his ‘vanity’? In his essay Singh asked this question time and again? No, it was not his’ ahankar’—his egotistic pride. Instead, his faith in himself—his ability to trust the power within, not the power of a God existing out there—gave him the courage: ‘I have read of atheists facing all troubles quite boldly; so am I trying to stand like a man with an erect head to the last, even on the gallows.’

Bhagat Singh was an atheist. Yet, he was a believer. What did he believe in? Of course, not in a God who does things for you, not in the kind of prayers that only demand comfort and consolation from the imaginary God at the time of crisis, not in bribing and appeasing God (as if God were the all-powerful police inspector); but in the infinite in him—in his innate possibilities, in his ability to experience death without breaking down. The kind of atheism Bhagat Singh talked about is not cynicism; nor is it nihilism; instead, it is intense faith—faith in the self (and this self is not ‘ego’, it is not selfishness, it is the ultimate light that makes one fearless). Paradoxically, most of the people whom we call ‘religious’ are not really believers; they do not believe that they are the children of God; they do not believe that they carry the infinite within themselves; instead, they are terribly weak; their God doesn’t reside in their inner world, their God exists in temples, mosques and churches; their God needs their bribes, rituals, pujas. In fact, as I wish to argue, Swami Vivekananda would have appreciated Bhagat Singh’s atheism more than the religion of the so-called religious people.

Swami Vivekananda 1885
Vivekananda 1885

I feel tempted to quote what Swami Vivekananda spoke in a remarkably insightful lecture on Practical Vedanta: ‘We can do everything. The Vedanta teaches men to have faith in themselves first. As certain religions of the world say that a man who does not believe in a Personal God outside of himself is an atheist, so the Vedanta says, a man who does not believe in himself is an atheist.’  Yes, Bhagat Singh was endowed with this faith; he did not have faith in a Personal God; but, his faith in himself was remarkable. And Vivekananda too was asserting the need for this kind of faith: ‘Throughout the history of mankind, if any motive power has been more potent than another in the lives of all great men and women, it is that of faith in them. … The old religions said that he was an atheist who did not believe in God. The new religion says that he is an atheist who does not believe in himself.’  But then, as he reminded us, this faith is not selfish faith. Vedanta, it should not be forgotten, is the doctrine of oneness. ‘It means faith in all, because you are all. Love for yourselves means love for all, love for animals, love for everything, for you are all one. It is the great faith which will make the world better.’  And see the wonder. Almost in the same language Bhagat Singh was conveying his message: ‘With no selfish motive or desire to be awarded here or hereafter, quite disinterestedly, have I devoted my life to the cause of independence, because I could not do otherwise. The day we find a great number of men and women with this psychology, who cannot devote themselves to anything else than the service of mankind and emancipation of the suffering humanity, that day shall inaugurate the era of liberty. Not to become a king, nor to gain any other rewards here, or in the next birth or after death in paradise, shall they be inspired… to establish liberty and peace shall they tread this—to their individual selves perilous and to their noble selves the only glorious imaginable—path.’

Vivekananda was spiritual; but then, his religion was not of the kind that Bhagat Singh opposed; instead, as I am arguing, both spoke the same thing—the beauty of fearlessness. ‘If there is sin, this is the only sin—to say that you are weak, or others are weak’, said Vivekananda. For him, as I assume, Bhagat Singh’s fearlessness is true religiosity, whereas what goes on in the name of religion—the fear that the institutionalized priest craft generates, and thereby compels man to pray only for his immediate material gains and comforts—has got nothing to do with what the Vedantic ideal preaches: ‘If you are not a prophet, there never has been anything true of God. If you are not God, there never was any God, and never will be.’  I believe Bhagat Singh would be the first one to agree with what Vivekananda spoke in a lecture on The Mission of the Vedanta: ‘If you have faith in all the three hundred and thirty millions of your mythological gods, and in all the gods which foreigners have now and again introduced into your midst, and still have no faith in yourselves, there is no salvation for you. Have faith in yourselves, and stand up on that faith and be strong; that is what we need.’  Furthermore, Vivekananda’s religiosity was not an escape from the world. Like Bhagat Singh , he too wanted to eradicate slavery, poverty and exploitation.

We are living at a time when great historical figures are appropriated, and reduced into stereotypes that suit partisan political objectives. And even the way we write history is not free from this politics of inclusion and exclusion. It doesn’t matter whether the leftists or rightists are writing it. As children grow up, they learn this sort of history—from school texts, parents and teachers, political activists. And how often this sort of instant consumption distorts thinking—‘Hindu’ Vivekananda vs. ‘Marxist’ Bhagat Singh; ‘reactionary’ Gandhi vs. ‘subaltern’ Ambedkar; ‘radical’ atheism vs. ‘conservative’ religiosity!. This does not allow the mind to grow, to go deeper, to enter the domain of ambiguities and paradoxes. A meaningful pedagogic intervention seems to be the only answer to this malady.  What is the task of a teacher? It is to encourage the learners to be ready for surprise, to overcome simplistic stereotypes, and see the unity amidst contradictions. Vivekananda’s spirituality and Bhagat Singh’s atheism may have sharp differences; but the wonder is that they often converge. And that is precisely the task of a great teacher: to encourage the learner to go beyond the semantics (atheism or Vedanta), and feel the real essence. And only then is it possible for the young child to understand that education is about the creative art of dialogues, it is not just a matter of intellectual cognition, it is about intuition, it is the ability to experience the flash of truth.

[Due to its contemporary relevance we are again publishing this article.]



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