Tomorrow, January 30, is the sixtieth anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. I wanted to share here the announcement I am sharing with my class (see below). There was a discussion at the Fireside Learning ning about cultural literacy and I was discouraged about the notion that there was nothing in Hindu culture that belongs to the "basics of basics," the essentials of cultural literacy. Now, I don't want to be in the business of drawing up any "basics of basics" (I think that's a very bad idea)... but at the same time, if people are going to promulgate lists, I feel obliged to lobby for them to be broad.

So, what I wanted to share through this example is how the students in my Indian Epics class are able to make a much deeper connection to Gandhi and his death through what they have already learned in the past couple of weeks in my class. I know that Gandhi is very important to my students because quotes from Gandhi regularly show up in the "favorite quotes" that they include on their webpages. But what do American students know about Gandhi, the Hindu?

Well, when looking through images to use in the announcement for January 30, I found a beautiful photograph of the memorial in New Delhi where Gandhi was cremated, and very clearly visible, the only visible writing at all, are the words "Hey Ram" - well, these are supposedly Gandhi's last words, spoken after the assassins' attack: "Oh Rama!" These words are often rendered in English as "Oh God" (if you saw the Ben Kingsley Gandhi movie, he does say the words before falling). I can see why it might be translated that way into English - but at the same time, Rama is not exactly "God" in the sense of English "God" with a capital G, the God of the Bible.

Anyway, I won't go into all the details - suffice to say that the students in my Indian Epics class now know perfectly well who Rama is and so they can appreciate this dimension of Gandhi's life and death in a new way because of this class. I think that is a good thing. Gandhi is surely one of the most remarkable individuals of the twentieth century, and this course I teach in the epics of ancient India has given the students a new perspective on his remarkable character here and now, sixty years after his death.

Here is the announcement (you can see how it fits into my style of announcements generally here in my class announcements blog, or by seeing the announcements as displayed at one of my course websites; I include something about "today's date" at the end of each day's announcements):

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January 30: Assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. On January 30 in 1948, sixty years ago today, Mohandas Gandhi was assassinated. The image below shows the memorial in New Delhi where Gandhi's body was cremated. Written on the stone you can see what were reportedly Gandhi's last words: "Hey Ram" (Oh Rama!) - his invocation of the god Rama will definitely mean something to the students in the Indian Epics class. Although it is a matter of some controversy as to whether those were Gandhi's last words, here is something he wrote in December 1947, just weeks before his assassination: "In the end it will be as Rama commands me. Thus I dance as He pulls the strings. I am in His hands and so I am experiencing ineffable peace." If you look closely at the photograph, you will see the words written in Devanagari script, gold letters on the black stone, just behind the burning stick of incense:

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Comment by Ellen Pham on January 30, 2008 at 10:05am
Hi Laura, I was also disappointed in the "basics of basics" discussion. I kept wanting to say, "I don't think the Chinese would see it that way..." and of course, one could replace "Chinese" with any cultural identify. Being "educated" is good, but there is an infinite variety of subjects and ways to be educated!

As a fairly normal, everyday person, I have to say that not being thoroughly versed in the western classical tradition has not been a great social disadvantage in my life, except when I'm talking with college professors : )

It is discouraging though, because the tone of those discussions tends to exclude people who aren't as educated in those areas, and because of this, the group tends to fold in on itself. I guess that's what is meant by the ivory tower.

No one likes to be looked down upon, or have their experiences and "truths" be discounted.

I'd email you directly with this, that might be a more appropriate format, but I can't figure out how! : )

ps I love Gandhi. What I know of him serves as a role model in my life.

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