Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič



Updated: Nov 23, 2020

This workshop was conducted as part of the fourth annual Teaching History conference, The Idea of Culture, in August 2018 in Calcutta.

Kumkum Roy. I think one of the important things to keep in mind is that while this workshop is about textbooks, it is also about issues of peace and reconciliation. Maybe, somewhere, when we are looking at the textbooks, it might be useful to think about that and what is happening with those. While it may have seemed that some of us are complacent about the textbooks, I don’t think that is the case at all. Most of us are aware of how rapidly things are changing around us. And the fact that we will need multipronged responses to it. This is not something that can come on an institutional basis at the moment, but it is something we all need to think about and engage with in different ways. Perhaps there is no single formulaic response that we can offer—we need to think about different ways, different strategies of response.

One pragmatic suggestion for teachers, as a teacher, is that: there is always some space in our schools where we don’t work within an exam framework. So, when you don’t have a board exam, you can experiment and open up things for your students in different ways. That is one quick suggestion. We need to keep in mind that many of the books we have been discussing—the NCERT books, for example, are translated into several regional languages apart from being translated into Hindi. And it is also useful to keep in mind that many schools in many states across the country use these books, either modified or in different ways, even if we don’t have access to them.

One more point I wanted to make is that we are working in a situation where there is a digital divide. So while digital media may sound accessible to many of us, they remain inaccessible especially in the government-school scenario where the majority of the most under-privileged learners study. In those spaces, digital access is not something that is easy. You will find that even in a very privileged space like JNU, something which we took for granted for a number of years, subscription to JSTOR has now been discontinued. This is just to give you an idea of where we are located in terms of digital access. So let us not minimize the importance of other modes of communication—I think, for example, that face-to-face communication remains extremely important. And as teachers we are privileged to be able to participate in face-to-face interactions with learners. To make the most of that opportunity in different ways—that is important for us.

The Ramayana is something I presume everybody is more or less familiar with—I have shared one excerpt with all of you. The other is from the Rohantamiga Jataka.That is perhaps more important and more interesting to talk about. In the case of Valmiki’s Ramayana, we are focusing on the Aranya Kanda. We are starting from when Shurpanakha sees Rama up to where Sita is abducted by Ravana. The Ramayana we will come to later. What did you make of the reading of the Rohantamiga Jataka? Any response from the audience?

. . . the rope cut through his skin, flesh and his bone. Realizing his plight the Bodhisatta let outa cry so that the other deer would know that he was trapped. Hearing this, the other deer were scared, and, breaking into three groups, fled as fast as they could. Not seeing the Bodhisatta amongst them, Chitta thought:“My elder brother must be in distress.” Rushing back, he saw that the Bodhisatta was indeed trapped. The Bodhisatta warned him: “Brother, do not stay here. Danger lurks.” He added:

[A conversation between the two brothers]

Deer, run for your lives Brother Chitta, you should also leave at once. Look after the others as I used to do. You are now their only refuge.

Rohanta, I will not go, I am here bound by love. I will not abandon you even if I die.

Our parents are blind, they need you Return to them, or they will die.

Rohanta, I will not go, I am here bound by love. If you are in distress, how can I go? I will not abandon you even if I die. Chitta remained standing to his right, reassuring him. Sutana, too, not being able to find her brothers, thought that both of them were in distress, and went back to the lake.

[Another conversation]

Run away, o frightened one, I am trapped. What will you gain by waiting here? Go quickly and look after the other deer Just as I used to do. Why stay here? Rohanta, I will not go, I am here bound by love. I will not abandon you even if I die.

Our parents are blind, they need you Return to them, or they will die. Rohanta, I will not go, I am here bound by love. I will not abandon you even if I die. So she took her position to the left of Rohanta. Seeing the deer flee, and hearing the cry of the Bodhisatta, the hunter thought that the king of the deer had been ensnared. He armed himself to slaughter the deer and arrived at the spot. Seeing him, the Bodhisatta said: Here comes the hunter’s son, armed to the teeth With arrow or sword, he will kill all of us. Seeing the hunter, Chitta remained where he was. Sutana, however, fled. But then she thought, “ Where will I go leaving my brothers behind?” She too returned, and took her position. Scared of the hunter, she fled, but then, she did the impossible. She returned to face certain death along with her brothers. When the hunter saw the three animals together, he was filled with compassion. He figured out that they were siblings. He thought: “The king of the deer is trapped; but these two creatures refuse to flee thinking it would be humiliating. I wonder who they are.” So he asked: Who are these deer to you? They are free, while you are bound Yet they stand by your side. They are not afraid that they may die. The Bodhisatta replied: They are my brother and sister. Risking their lives, they stand by my side. The hunter’s heart melted when he heard the Bodhisatta. Sensing this, Chitta intervened: “Brother Nishada, do not think this king of ours is an ordinary deer. He is the lord of 80,000 deer. He observes the shilas, is compassionate towards all, and is wise. He looks after our blind parents, worn out with age. If you destroy him, you will in effect be destroying five lives—his, ours, and those of our parents. However, if you spare him, you will earn the merit of saving five lives.

Blind and helpless, they will die of grief if they lose their son Free my brother; save the lives of all five. Hearing Chitta, the hunter replied: “Lord, have no fear.” I free him who serves his parents Let them be happy with him once again. Then he started thinking: “What is the use of the royal reward? If I kill this noble deer, either the earth will suck me into the deepest hell or my head will burst, split by a thunderbolt.” Having made up his mind, he went to the great being, removed the stake, tore apart the leather thong, embraced the deer, lifted him and laid him down near the water, then gently removed the noose and carefully joined torn veins, nerves, flesh and skin. He washed away the blood, and massaged him. Soon, the wounds healed and the injured leg looked as good as new, covered with skin and hair. Seeing this, Chitta addressed the hunter: Seeing the great deer liberated, I rejoice O hunter, may you too enjoy such bliss with your near ones. Now the Great One thought, “Did the hunter trap me for himself, or on instructions from someone else?” He questioned the hunter accordingly. The hunter replied. “I had no need to capture you. The chief queen, Khema, wanted to hear you preach the dhamma, that is why I trapped you.” The Bodhisatta said: “If that is so, you have displayed great courage in setting me free. Come, take me to the king. I will teach the queen about dhamma.” The hunter replied: “Lord, kings are very cruel. Who knows what will happen if I take you there? Go wherever you please.” The Great Being realized that the hunter had performed an extremely difficult task in setting him free. So he decided to ensure that he would receive his due reward. He thought for a while and told the hunter: “Brother, stroke my back.” As soon as he did so, his palm was full of golden hair. The hunter asked “Lord, what should I do with this?’ The Bodhisatta replied “Show this to the king and queen and tell them: ‘these are the hairs of the golden deer.’ Then, recite the verses that I teach you for the queen. The moment she hears them, her desires will be quenched.” Saying this, he taught him ten verses on the dhamma and the five shilas, before bidding him goodbye.

Shabana Anwar. I am a teacher-educator at the Modern Academy of Continuing Education. If I were to teach this story to Class 3 or Class 2 or even narrate it to pre-schoolers in nursery, I would focus on how a very violent situation was solved by using sweet words. It is possible to use words to negotiate and to come out of any situation without using violence—I would focus on that.

One day, Khema devi had a dream at dawn. She dreamt that a golden deer was seated on a golden seat, and was instructing her about dhamma. The deer’s voice was as sweet as the tinkling of golden anklets. She was listening to him, spellbound, when suddenly, the deer rose and left. As she woke up, she shouted; “Get hold of the deer.” Her maids laughed when they heard her. They thought: “All the windows and doors are firmly shut; and yet the mistress wants us to catch some deer!” The queen also understood that she had seen a dream. She thought: “If I tell the king that I saw a dream, he will not pay me any attention. However, if I say that this is my craving because of my pregnancy, he will definitely try and fulfill my desire.” Having made up her mind, and being determined to hear the golden deer, she pretended to be in agony, and lay down. The king came and asked her,” Dear, are you ill?” Khema replied: “No, but I have a wish.” “What is it, my dear? “I want to hear words of dhamma from the mouth of a golden deer.” “Dear, why do you wish for the impossible? There is no such thing as a golden deer.” “If my wish is not fulfilled, I will die here and now.” Saying this, she turned her back to the king.

Audience. I found a similarity between the Ramayana story where Sita wants that golden deer. The woman is lusting for something and that is what leads to a kind of conflict. That is what I found common when I was reading both the stories and the symbol of the golden deer. That is what they are running after.

Shukuna Mukherjee. To me they come across as conveying a set of moral values. The most important being the victory of concern for others over greed. It really fascinated me because in today’s world, values like tolerance, patience, concern for others—they are receding into the background where our self-interest is what we really need to fulfil.

O khattiya king, if you serve your parents according to dhamma in this world, you will attain heaven.

O khattiya king, if you look after your wife and children according to dhamma in this world, you will attain heaven.

O khattiya king, if you look after your friends and ministers according to dhamma in this world, you will attain heaven.

O khattiya king, if you engage in yuddha and yatra (wars and tours) according to dhamma in this world, you will attain heaven.

O khattiya king, if you look after your subjects (praja) in both town and village according to dhamma in this world, you will attain heaven.

O khattiya king, if you take care of the paura-janapada (people in the town and countryside) according to dhamma in this world, you will attain heaven.

O khattiya king, if you pay respects to samanas (wandering ascetics) and Brahmins according to dhamma in this world, you will attain heaven.

O khattiya king, if you treat lesser creatures according to dhamma in this world, you will attain heaven.

O khattiya king, if you serve your parents according to dhamma in this world, you will attain heaven

Follow dhamma, o lord, this is the source of all happiness.

If you follow dhamma in this world, you will attain heaven.

May you never swerve from the path of dhamma.

Even the gods such as Indra attained heaven by practicing dhamma.

Kings in the past, who followed this advice, who were dutiful and disciplined, attained heaven.

Athvi. I am a student of literature, so I see it in a very different way. For me, the entire narrative was a little problematic for the simple reason that I found the women characters rather flimsy. ‘I want to run away’, then ‘ I don’t want to run away’! Most importantly, we have Khema who wants to listen to the 10 Dhammas. When you end up listening to the Dhammas, they are very male-centric. Yet, she seems to be pretty happy just listening to that. It has nothing for her and yet it is supposed to satisfy her longing for it—I found that very problematic.

Sneha. I have just completed my BA. My comments are a continuation of Athvi’s. I found the women characters strange too, especially the queen—she wanted to listen to the Dhamma. But when she went to the king, she said she had had a dream and wanted a golden deer. There is a conflict of interest over here. It is not the king who says: these are your rewards—it is the queen who does that. I too found it a very male-centric Dhamma, yet the queen seems so satisfied with it. Somehow I could not relate to that aspect of it. But one thing I really liked is that despite the screaming matches and fistfights, it preaches a very peaceful way of resolving things—things can be done in a better way