What's involved in becoming a volunteer scripture teacher at your local primary school?
There are differences depending on which country or state you are in, and which religion you wish to teach.
But many of the challenges will be similar regardless of jurisdiction or religion. Challenges like how to teach a class of students with a wide age range - from 6 to 12 years, how to answer "difficult questions" in a way that satisfies each child, and how much focus to put on the wider cultural aspects of a religion.
Sydney lawyer, Kaushik Murali, spoke to me on The Learning Capacity Podcast about his experience as a volunteer Hindu scripture teacher
Listen to the interview
- Teaching scripture at school as a volunteer
- Religion & culture
- Teaching scripture to a wide age range of students
- Using stories to teach scripture
- Advice for potential scripture teaching volunteers
People & organisations mentioned
If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:
Episode 100 of The Learning Capacity Podcast
Volunteer Hindu Scripture Teacher in Primary School: Kaushik Murali
Peter Barnes: Kaushik, the reason we're chatting today is that you've been volunteering to teach the Hinduism scripture class at a local primary school. How did this happen?
Kaushik Murali: Well, my firstborn daughter, she's a six year old and she's in year one at this primary school. And as you know, I'm Indian and, I guess, Hindu by birth. And I'm married to an Australian woman. And so we're a half-half household. And one of the things I think my wife wanted was to make sure my kids know enough about the Indian side, given that we live in Australia now and it's, I guess, harder to access compared to when we were in India.
So one of the ways we thought we would do that is by attending Hinduism scripture classes in her school. And I volunteered because these scripture classes are obviously done by volunteer teachers, generally parent teachers. And I think the last one we had was in and out. She wasn't very reliable. So we thought we should kind of have an overhaul, I guess, of the teaching staff for Hinduism. And now there are two of us.
I'm only a part-timer. I'm not a part-timer, I'm more the substitute teacher in case the other Hindu teacher can't make it. And it's only happened once so far, and so I stepped in.
Peter: It sounds like, from what you're saying, that this is not coming from a deep religious conviction. It's more about cultural values and transferring that.
Kaushik: Yes, I grew up in a fairly religious family. Not crazy conservative, but we understood our religion, we understood the practices and the culture and the values that came with it, I guess, fairly well. It was ingrained in us growing up.
But then as you get older and travel the world and meet more people, and you suddenly realize that we all have possibly the same values, we just come at it from different ways. And then, obviously, the religious fervour that sits behind those values, I guess, tends to go away. So we're not, no, we're not religious by any stretch.
But I think I understand enough about my religion. I know the stories, I know the lessons it's trying to pass. Which was possibly the main reason why I volunteered to do this in the first place, because I know enough about my culture, which I think I can pass on to the next generation. Or so I thought.
Peter: Right, so you're not a Hindu priest. You're kind of an amateur.
Kaushik: I am. I am a hardcore amateur. I'm a professional amateur.
Peter: And professionally you're a lawyer. Is that correct?
Kaushik: I am. I'm an in-house lawyer and I used to be a litigator as well. So any chance to talk before an audience, and kids are a captive audience.
Peter: So do you have to do any course to become a volunteer scripture teacher?
Kaushik: There is a basic course which is driven by what's called the Vishva Hindu Parishad, which is the Hindu body, I guess, which also has a presence in Australia. And I think they have some links with the Department of Education, and so they are the approved providers of Hinduism, if you will.
Peter: For our listeners, we're talking about this happening in a New South Wales public school in Australia.
Peter: So did you have to do anything via the New South Wales Education Department to be allowed to teach this class?
Vishva Hindu Parishad is the gatekeeper for Hindu scripture
Kaushik: Obviously you go through your probity checks for kids and all that, which is basic. Given the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the VHP, they have some modules which I think the New South Wales Department of Education has approved as being the right portions, I guess, of scripture that can be taught to kids in the school. And Vishva Hindu Parishad is the body that approves it. And they're very moderate, so you don't find dogmatic stances on Hinduism come in through that body. But, yeah, so Vishva Hindu Parishad is the gatekeeper for Hindu scripture in at least New South Wales.
Peter: Someone once told me that Hinduism is not so much, in India, so much a religion alone, but more a series of rituals. And in a cultural sense. Is that a fair assessment or a fair summary of the situation? And if it is, how are you approaching these classes? From a religious angle or from a ritual angle, or from a cultural angle? Or just stories? Tell us the approach.
Teaching scripture through stories
Kaushik: That's a good question. At least the way Indians commonly tout Hinduism is it's not a religion, it is a way of life. At least that's the catch-cry I've heard growing up. But I think any religion could say that. Because what I guess it has done is, given how long religions have been around and the generations of people that have gone through that particular way of life, it comes down to a sum total of your rituals and practices. All your beliefs and your values are embodied in these rituals and these practices.
When you say ritual, I guess it gives it a bit of a pagan feel probably, or something a bit more, I don't know, cultish probably even. And Hinduism certainly has its share of that. As you, yourself, know with your association with India, there's definitely some rites and rituals and practices that we go through which are pretty old world and probably some might say irrelevant at this point.
I certainly don't approach my scripture class through that. I don't speak of the rites and the rituals at all. I try to focus or I do it through stories, stories that I grew up listening to. Talks about the Indian gods, what they did. And as you know, Hindu gods are all a representation of some facet of our natural life. So there will be a god for food, there'll be a god for wind, there'll be a god for creation, there'll be a god for destruction.
So everything is deified. Every natural element is deified in some way. So my classes, I try to do it through stories that I grew up listening to, and see what lessons we can learn from that story, what value system we can learn from that story. So it's almost a bit like Aesop's fables, if you will, but just using Indian stories rather than Greek stories.
Teaching a class with ages from 6 to 11
Peter: And you will have in your class kids ranging from kindergarten up to year six, I imagine.
Kaushik: Yes. So I think the youngest are the six year olds and, yeah, they go up to about 10, 11.
Peter: And do they all kind of get what you're talking about? Are you pitching? Do you have to pitch it differently to different age groups in that class?
Kaushik: That's certainly a challenge and sometimes that's, as a teacher, I think I question how effective these classroom settings are where you get such a vast range of age difference between students. And as you know, Peter, talking to a six year old and then a seven year old requires a different tack compared to speaking to a 10 year old or 11 year old.
Their insight into the statements you make are very different from what a 10 year old or 11 year old does. So that is something I've certainly found challenging because, yeah, you feel you're not being authentic.
Advice for potential scripture teaching volunteers
Peter: So, Kaushik, given that you've just mentioned that the age range is a little challenging, what advice would you have for other parents who may wish to, or not even parents, grandparents, members of the community, who may wish to volunteer to do scripture classes for their particular religion?
Kaushik: Look, that's a good question, and I've certainly found it challenging in my class. In growing up when we used to ask questions that challenged, say, the authenticity of a story, a religious story. Generally you were just asked to shut up and not question things beyond a certain measure.
Because obviously, as I've realized now, my parents and the elders in our community themselves didn't have the answers. And I'm sure we've all experienced it in different ways where kids ask you some pretty curly questions which don't have straightforward answers.
And religion certainly falls into that, scripture certainly falls into that bracket where, after a point, you don't have cogent answers to good questions from kids. And certainly not answers that kids will understand well.
Peter: And I guess with kids who are ranging for ages from six to 12, their perception of the answer will be different depending on their age and their knowledge. So that's pretty hard, I imagine.
Kaushik: Correct. So as it is, when you're trying to tackle these hard balls from kids, I think it becomes even harder, like you said, when that age range is so different. And you only have half an hour to get your point across in a particular class.
And so sometimes I feel I'm not being authentic, because I'm trying to find a fine balance which is going to answer a question that a six year old, say, raised in class, but the 12 year old is waiting to find out the answer for. And I'm trying to find a way to couch that answer which both the 12 year old and the six year old can take away and make sense of it.
And so that, I find, is definitely a challenge. But, yeah, my message to parents who either put their kids in scripture class or want to teach kids scripture, volunteer to be scripture teachers for different religions, get ready to tackle some hard questions. Because we don't live in an era where you can just ask kids to shut up and not question anymore.
And I think the biggest takeaway is when you're trying to defend a particular religion, it gets quite hard because obviously there is you have to have that leap of faith up to a point. And kids cotton onto that very quickly.
So I don't know if I'm necessarily answering your question, but the point I want you to take away is it's probably going to be even harder for kids who attend scripture classes to almost follow that religion going forward because of the challenges within the system of trying to answer curly questions to such a vast age group. Not necessarily finding the conviction yourself to be able to do it.
Peter: Interesting, Kaushik. So actually we don't want to get into this area of the value of these scripture classes, but just to reflect that dipping a child into a religious education for 30 minutes a week, probably on its own, they need the religion in their whole life, at home, everywhere else, to really make an impact, I imagine.
Kaushik: I agree, I agree. That's definitely important. 30 minutes a week doesn't necessarily do it justice either.
Peter: Great, Kaushik. Thank you so much for talking to us today.