Can Mr Firoz Khan Teach Sanskrit? I Hope So!

Cambridge, MA. Firoz KhanThere is tumult in many Indian cities the past few days, in protest against Prime Minister Modi’s new citizenship law. It ostensibly aims to bring order to rules favoring the immigration of persecuted minorities From Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, but in fact —and by design, many complain — it discriminates against Muslims, who are not to be counted among the persecuted, and opens the way to counting religion as a criterion for citizenship and, in a worst case scenario, even for living in the country. There may be several sides to the debate, favoring the law and against it, but it has roused all of India in a way not seen in years. The whole affair is much in the news, and I will not further comment on it here, except to hope that India continues to be a model for the world in respecting people of religions large and small and that the Prime Minister lives up to the ideals he recently outlined on Mahatma Gandhi's 150th birthday.

But as a teacher, I was more particularly disappointed to read the news that there was an uproar over the recent appointment of Mr Firoz Khan, a young Muslim in Varanasi, as a teacher of Sanskrit in the prestigious Benares Hindu University. He was appointed, the Vice-Chancellor has repeatedly pointed out, simply because he is the best qualified candidate for the job. Protesters, seizing the moment to make vehement public protests, have driven him temporarily (we hope) into hiding, insisting that only a Hindu should be allowed to teach Sanskrit, a sacred language. (For millennia, most people were barred from learning the language, and some even from hearing it.)

Mr Khan is neither claiming nor being given any explicit religious authority. He is a language teacher, not a pandit. But my inclination is to say that even if he was being given a religious role and in some conscious manner intending to teach the language as sacred, then all the better.

We tend to think of our religions and heritages as our private property. Even if we are willing to listen to and learn from people of other faiths, too often at the end of the day we expect people to recede into their own traditions: I take care of mine, you take care of yours; I speak for mine, you speak for yours. But finding qualified people who can teach other people’s traditions with knowledge and empathy seems a wonderful idea long overdue.

It is true that I am hardly neutral here, being a Catholic who has for the better part of four decades taught Hinduism. We Western academics have presumed to teach any and all religions for centuries. But the solution is not less interreligious teaching, but more: the teaching field now needs to be balanced, with every religion able to be taught by believers in other traditions, in universities but also in seminaries too.

It would be a great step forward were we to find qualified people to teach the (sacred) languages of religions other than their own — and also the scriptures and traditions: not only Christians such as me teaching Hinduism or other religions of the world, but also a Muslim teaching New Testament; a Buddhist teaching Hebrew, mindful of its sacredness; a Hindu explaining Christology, and so on.

That we learn each other’s traditions has been a very fine development, and a good for the entire human race. That we should now regularly educate scholars and teachers who can also with intellectual and spiritual seriousness teach traditions other than their own is a goal for this century. I wish Mr Khan well: may his teaching be safe and successful! I commend the university for standing by him. But I can only hope that in India and the West too, we witness more and more teaching across religious and cultural divides, not less.