10. Secularism as it is

10.1. Its definition

To start with the beginning, Indian secularism was borrowed from Europe. There, secularism meant that society took the freedom to organize itself without caring about the dogmas of the Churches. At the intellectual level, it meant that thinkers took the freedom to independently formulate insights regardless of their conformity with Church teachings. This included the freedom to frontally criticize these Church teachings.

In the modern times when it became a political term, secularism meant basically : freedom from religion. But then it did not mean a state-enforced freedom from religion. It was not totalitarianism, the freedom of the authorities to meddle in people's intimate beliefs or commitments. Freedom means having the options to take something or to leave it. The communist effort to weed out religion has never gone by the name of secularism, it was called totalitarianism.

So, secularism rather means freedom regarding religion : the freedom to take it or to leave it (freedom without a choice between alternatives is hardly freedom). By guaranteeing this freedom, secularism subjects the adherence or submission to the tenets of a religion to individual choice. Secularism recognizes the logical priority of the individual's choice to follow a religion, to this religion's actual claim on the individual's adherence.

By placing the free choice of the individual above the duties or dogmas imposed by religion, secularism has done enough to emancipate man from religion. Man can choose a religious view or commitment rather than having it imposed on him. In that sense, secularism does not mean anti-religious activism. It only means subjecting religion to human choice, which was revolutionary enough in the European context of Church power trying to impose itself.

Since the individual's freedom of choice regarding religion or Weltanschauung was made the norm, the state authority was bound to neutrality in these matters. Imposing any view of the ultimate, including atheism, was precisely what the state was prevented from doing by secularism. Yet, some Marxists in India have called this simple concept of state neutrality regarding religion a non-modern concept of secularism. They think the state should actively campaign against religion.128

If any concept of secularism is non-modern, it is the feudal concept that the people are not capable of thinking for themselves, and that a priesthood should be empowered to drill the new world view (such as atheism) into them and to persecute and otherwise fight any alternative views. What is modern, what is the essence of modernity, is not the belief that a certain belief system should be imposed on the people by the state ; on the contrary, it is the confidence in human freedom, in free exploration, in man's capability of learning for himself from his own experience.

So, secularism as a political term means : neutrality of the government in religious matters. That is all. Secularism does not mean that the state promotes one belief system, it means that the state limits itself to guaranteeing the individual's freedom to find out about these matters for himself. That at least is the correct meaning of the term "secularism" as it has historically developed in the West, in a period when individual freedom was considered the topmost value. If one chooses secularism as a component for a state system, it remains to be seen how this fundamental concept is worked out in the details of a secular Constitution, but that state neutrality and respect for the individual's intellectual and religious freedom should be the spirit of such a Constitution, is certain.

About the origin of the term, this much should be known. The Latin word saeculum, exactly like the Hebrew word olam ( Arabic alam), means : time cycle, eternity, era, world. From era, the more common meaning century is derived. For Sanskrit equivalents, one would think of kalpa, and of samsara. As a synonym for secular, the word temporal is sometimes used ; as its antonym, spiritual or eternal. These terms have entered the modern languages mostly via Church parlance.

Originally, "secular" as a political term does not imply non-religion, or freedom from religion, or any specific attitude to religion whatsoever. In fact, the source of the term's political meaning is a case of Church terminology. Among priests, regular priests are rule- bound, i.e. monastic, and fully dedicated to spiritual life, while secular priests are worldly i.e. involved in world-oriented or temporal duties, especially as parish priest. Both are religious, but regulars have a spirit- oriented and seculars a world-oriented life.129

In its acquired political meaning, secularism, being a doctrine concerning the state, leaves any spirit-oriented choices to the individual, and limits the state to pursuing world oriented objectives. Secularism does not limit the individual who is left free to pursue religion, with the state guaranteeing this freedom. Secularism limits the state, and prevents it from espousing other causes than its worldly functions. Secularism limits the state's authority over the individual to the latter's behaviour, and refuses it access to his mind.130

In a larger context of civilizational philosophy, we may criticize the essentially individualistic character of this historically developed, visibly European secularism. But for the time being, if at all one wants to practice secularism, I think this is the sane and genuine variety, as opposed to the existing alternative, the totalitarian attempts to weed out religion from people's minds and private lives.

Dictatorship is an unrestricted (as opposed to a restricted, esp. by democratic feedback) claim on people's lives. Totalitarianism is stronger, it is a claim on people's minds. The demand voiced by a section of the Indian secularists, that the state be used in order to spread atheism, is the product of a totalitarian mentality. It is moreover a clear aberration of the modern concept of secularism as it has historically taken shape in Europe. So to the extent that there is no conceptual apparatus outside the modern Europe- originated thought categories, secularism should be defended in its genuine European sense, against the Stalinist perversion of secularism that still has quite a following in India.


10.2 Hindu secularism

Concerning secularism, there is however another discussion going on : is it true that Hindu culture is intrinsically secular?131 Not only many Hindu leaders, even Javed Habib, one of the BMAC leaders, is no record as saying : "India has survived as a secular nation because the majority is Hindu."132 And is there not within Hindu tradition an alternative, if not superior or more adapted, type of secularism?

When we say that secularism is in a sense a very individual-centered doctrine, we must realize that that is not a very alien thing to Hindu culture. While Hindu culture historically has its basis in a strong community structure, with joint family, gotra, jati, varna, as grades of integration between the individual and society as a whole, in matters of religion it has always been individualistic. There is no regular group gathering in temples prescribed in Hindu tradition. Of course, there are social rituals surrounding life events like marriage and cremation, and religious festivals, and for these the community congregates. But the innermost and actually religious level of Hindu culture is an individual affair. And it could not have been otherwise. Action and ritual may be community affairs, but the basis of real religion is a culture of consciousness, and consciousness is individual.

In Islam and Christianity, any concept of consciousness culture is very marginal. Of course, when saying prayers with genuine intent, people are in fact practicing a kind of bhakti yoga. These Pagan elements that treat religion as a matter of individual mental experience, are unavoidable and in fact indispensable in any religion, because they spring from man's intrinsic religious instinct.

In Christianity these elements of a culture of inner life have sometimes appeared, but the stray occasions of Christian mysticism have never developed into a systematized tradition, because the Church opposed it. The Church correctly saw in this culture of consciousness an implicit Pagan doctrine of liberation from ignorance through meditation, contrary to the Christian doctrine of salvation from sin through Christ.

Islam too knows of consciousness culture only through the Pagan infusion of Sufism. Doctors of Islam like Al- Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyyah correctly rejected mysticism as unfounded in the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet : these don't teach any technique of access of the individual to a spiritual reality, but on the contrary claim for the Prophet a sole and final intercessory status between God and man. All that Islam wants its followers to do, is to perform certain actions (saying prayers, giving alms, participating in jihad), it does not at all focus on any culture or exploration of individual consciousness.

In Hindu culture, even in its most unsophisticated popular forms, this focus on individual consciousness is always there. No group prayers, one's religious experience is one's personal affair. Therefore, the concept of leaving religion to the care of the individual, with no authority above him empowered to dictate beliefs or religious practices, which in the West constituted a cultural revolution called secularism, is nothing new to Hindu culture.

This is not an idealization but a firm reality : no matter what the "evils of Hindu society" may have been, subjecting the individual's freedom of religion to any public authority is not one of them. No wonder that Voltaire, who strongly opposed the Church's totalitarian grip over men's lives, and may count as one of the ideologues of secularism, mentioned the religions of India and China as a model of how religion could be a free exploration by the individual.

So, religion is a personal affair. The Hindu state has no right to forbid or promote any religious doctrine (the way Ashok, the hero of the Nehruvians, is said to have promoted Buddhism). And religious organizations have no say in political decision-making.


10.3. Marxism and secularism

Marxists reject as non-modern the Gandhian conception of secularism as "equal respect for all religions" (about which, see ch.10.6). And they defy Mahatma Gandhi where he said that secularism should mean "equal respect, not equal disrespect, for all religions". The Leftists' version of secularism quite certainly intends "equal disrespect for all religions".

Indian Leftist intellectuals (I am not aware of the existence of leftist proletarians in India) do advocate a deliberate policy of eradicating religion from the people's consciousness. You do not hear a lot of this long-term project, but occasionally yet another Platform for Secularism (or Action Committee, or People's Rally, etc., for Secularism) is set up, and then they announce their demand that religious TV programmes be banned, that any presence of religious symbols or texts at state functions be banned, that use of state buildings for any religious event be banned, that religious education be banned from schools set up to impart secular education, etc. Since Marxists dismiss freedom as a bourgeois- liberalist illusion, they don't feel inhibited in making bans and suppression their central demands.

Of course, the Marxist programme of using state power to eradicate religion is, in the countries where it has been practiced, a memory 133 of horror as well as an outrageous failure. It is totally objectionable and we will not waste any more paper on it. However, we do have to deal with the rationale for this intention, which gives them a good conscience in advocating an all-out government campaign against religion.

The Marxists start from Marx' perception that religion is an anti-rational superstition from the primitive age, and an opium of the people which prevents men from living in reality and emancipating themselves.

Let us start with the opium part. It is quite correct that religion, like drug-taking, is practiced in order to have a certain mental experience. And it is a fact that people spend a lot of time and money on arranging for such mental experiences. A missionary told me that he has a very hard time to extract from the villagers one Rupee per month for the upkeep of the village well, but when someone comes from the city with a video-set and some films, they can all take out five Rupees to spend a Sunday watching films. A mental kick is worth a lot more to people than the necessities of humdrum existence. That is why people can spend vast sums on a Durga Puja or some such religious festival, only to throw the Murti into the river at the end of the festival.

But the difference is that religion, in its best sense, is not a benumbing drug. Religious consciousness is not amnesia, forgetfulness.134 It is quite the opposite, it is an awakening. In its more profound dimension, it is an awakening to the inner reality. In its more outward dimension, the festivals and rituals, it is an awakening to and a celebration of the world's time-cycles and life-cycles, an explicitation of participation in the world order (the Vedic concept of Rta). It is a very successful and time-tested way of giving colour and meaning to our existence. It breaks through the grey and prosaic life that the Communists want to impose on us.

But the Marxists think that religion is an evil, because it is anti-reason ; while reason is a good in itself, which moreover emancipates man by equipping him with the intellectual as well as technological means to determine his own destiny. Now this notion of reason and religion stems from a specifically European situation, that conditioned Marx' thought about religion. The fact that Indian Marxists have simply transposed Marx' limited view to the Indian situation is just another example of how dogmatic Marxists generally are. It also shows how utterly ignorant the Indian Leftist (and generally secularist) intelligentsia is of India's home-grown religious culture.

"Know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." That is what Saint Paul said, borrowing it from many Pagans before him. It was an injunction to practice religion. And yet, it could be the motto of Reason.135 What Saint Paul meant with this dictum is a different chapter, but fact is that Pagan religions saw themselves as a culture of truth, as an exploration, as an experience, not at all as a belief in a set of dogmas.

By the time Marx was writing, the dominant religion taught man something very different from seeking out the truth for himself. The Protestants (to which Marx' family formally belonged) as well as the Jews (of whom Marx' father used to be one, before conversion for careerist reasons) extracted their doctrines from Scripture. Reason was to be used in interpreting Scripture, but it was not radical and autonomous. The Catholics paid much less attention to Scripture, but were subject to Church tradition and the doctrinal authority of the Holy See ; Catholic philosophy was equally barred from being a radical and autonomous exploration by Reason.

It is a Christian curiosity that religion connotes authoritative Church teaching, or Scripture teaching, and therefore implies belief. That is why, in the European Enlightenment context, the dichotomy secular/non-secular has come to connote rational/non-rational, or reason/belief. For instance, secular morality is usually taken to mean "morality not based on scriptural belief, but rationally founded in the human experience". However, it must be stressed that this connotation of secular/non-secular with reason/belief results from a Christian peculiarity, viz. the appropriation of the entire spiritual as well as ethical domain by the Church, sole guardian of Salvation.

A second typical element that made religion as Marx knew it, into an opium, was this notion of the Hereafter. While many cultures have believed in a life after death, some even in an eternal such life, it is typical for Christianity (as opposed to even Judaism) that this afterlife was treated as the hour of truth, as the life that really matters, and of which the quality depends on your conduct (sometimes taken to mean passive acceptance of your position and obedience to the worldly authorities) in this finite time in the lower world.

So, in order to bring man back to the verifiable reality of this life, and in order to make him fully use and explore reason, the belief in infallible Church dogma or in infallible Revealed Scripture had to be abolished. Since no religion was known to Marx except the anti- rational belief systems based on Revelation and Dogma, the struggle for Reason and against belief in Dogma and Revelation, seemingly became a struggle against religion. In that context, secularism could be seen as more than a separation of politics and religion, not as the best way of letting the two domains flourish on their own terms, but as an offensive of anti-religious reason against anti-rational beliefs. The secularization of the state was then not seen as the full realization of the desired separation of politics and religion but only as a step in an ongoing offensive against religion: from a full control of religion, via a secularized state, to a full destruction of religion even in the private sphere. If religion is an evil, why stop at chasing it from the public domain ? It should be destroyed altogether.

To restore the term secularism to its fundamental meaning, we have to take it out of this peculiar perception determined by the European context. And we hasten to add that while secularism is an established and unchallenged value in European culture today, the perception that religion as such is an evil, is limited to certain ideological groups, and by no means considered an integral part of secularism. Christians, among them the dominant Christian-Democratic parties, have fully accepted secularism as a state doctrine. This is of course due to the influence which humanism has had on modern Christianity. Hardly any Christian today believes he should impose his doctrines on others through state power.


10.4. Real secularism through real religion

Secularism is fundamentally not a matter of reason versus belief. Because religion is not intrinsically a matter of belief. The demand that you believe that Jesus was the Saviour from original sin, and that He was resurrected, and that He was God's only-begotten Son, or the demand that you believe that Mohammed was Allah's final spokesman and that the Quran is Allah's own word : these claims on human assent and belief, even though they have grabbed a major part of the world, and even though they have become synonymous with religion in the minds of many millions, are a caricature of religion.

In the vast majority of religions that have existed in humanity's history, beliefs were never a defining element. Of course, people had their beliefs. But that did not put them either inside or outside the community. Religion was not so much a matter of doctrine (which in turn should not be reduced to belief), but of practice. There is on the one hand the exploration of consciousness, which as such was mostly limited to a class of adepts. This could involve an unsystematic seeking of visions, as by taking hallucinogenic drugs, or it could be developed into a systematic discipline. This was all a matter for experience, not for dogma. There is on the other the outward aspect of religion, ritual. What our modernists decry as empty ritual was not so empty at all. It was a very effective way to order life, celebrate the cosmic cycles, and consecrate the community.

As dr. Schipper, the Dutch sinologist and practicing Taoist priest, has stressed, ritual is not a symbolic representation of a specific doctrine.136 Of course, philosophically-minded practitioners may choose to shape ritual so as to physically reflect certain cosmological conceptions. But that is not the point of ritual. By far the most people in world history who have participated in rituals, had little idea of any cosmological or otherwise doctrinal content of the ritual, and yet it performed its function impeccably. A new religious movement, back in the old days, meant not a new doctrine, but a new ritual.

So, treating religion as a hotchpotch of beliefs that have no place in a reason-oriented society, that should therefore be thrown out of the public arena, and ultimately also chased out of the private sphere, is based on a crude identification of religion with the crude belief systems of Christianity and Islam. It is only when we discard these narrow ideas about religion, when we broaden and deepen this understanding of religion, to encompass more rational and humanist religions than those two which happen to have conquered the world, that we can have a correct understanding of secularism. It is their utterly superficial notion of religion that has made the secularists devise such a crude and despotic kind of secularism.

But are there then no objectively negative and harmful beliefs which a secular state should actively endeavor to weed out ? It is a fact that in the lower stretches of religion, which is a much-encompassing human phenomenon, you find very base superstitions and practices (like witchcraft, but I add that this meaning of the term does injustice to the historical witches, women who had kept a lot of pre-Christian lore alive, and were consequently blackened in Christian preaching and writing, and burned at the stake). Where such things come in conflict with public morality, health and the law of the land, the state has to intervene on purely secular grounds. But when it comes to "weeding out superstitions" from people's minds, then the secular state has to stand aside and leave it to educators in the broadest sense of the term to transform popular consciousness.

Thus, I don't believe the Indian state should wage a campaign against superstitions like the belief that the Creator of the universe has spoken through a prophet, or the belief that a section of humanity has a God-given right to lord it over the unbelievers, or the belief that there is merit in attacking the unbelievers that their religious practices. Even if these beliefs have terrible consequences in the secular filed, like Partitions and riots, it is not the duty of the state to campaign against them.

Such superstitions which are in flagrant conflict with scientific universalism, should be dealt with by intellectuals, and the state will have done more than its share if it does not impede the broadcasting of their criticism of these superstitions. The state should just refrain from banning books eventhough they hurt the feelings of those steeped in the said superstitions. It should refrain from pressurizing or boycotting or prosecuting people who perform their legitimate task of educating people concerning such superstitions. It should refrain from imposing history-distortions on schoolbooks, i.e. from concealing the truth about the evil effects of such superstitions. (That the Indian state is so far not secular enough to refrain from this sabotage of the intellectual struggle against superstition, is shown in ch. 12)


10.5 Secularism and Chaturvarnya

The doctrine that the realm of thought and the realm of power have to be scrupulously separated, is not an 18th- century European invention. It is abundantly present in the Indian tradition. It is implied in a doctrine and an institution which no-one dares to mention without putting on a grimace of horror and uttering shrieks of indignation : Chaturvarnya, usually mistranslated as the caste system.

I may briefly repeat that there is a radical distinction between the division of Hindu society (as of some disappearing tribal societies) in endogamous groups (castes or jatis), and the idealized division into four colours (varnas), which historically has come to be superimposed upon the actual division in castes. Within the varna ideology one should make the distinction between its historically acquired hereditary dimension137 and its fundamental categorization of the social function into four groups, each with its own duties.

So, when I mention varna, please don't start fuming about Brahmin tyranny and the "wretched condition of the downtrodden". What I mean is the distinction between four functions in society : Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra, quite apart from the way in which the personnel for these functions gets selected or the way they treat each other.

It is a fact of life that "the apple does not fall far from the tree", that children have a statistical tendency to resemble their parents, not only in appearance but also in aptitudes. This trend is strengthened by the traditional social setting, in which children would automatically receive training in their parents' professional skills, in the family business. Nevertheless, the relation between parents' and children's aptitudes is only statistical : there are plenty of cases where young people have a genuine desire for a different kind of profession. Therefore, the Bhagavad Gita says (apparently against a swelling trend to fix profession on birth) that not birth, but aptitude or quality (guna) determines one's varna. The Buddha too said that moral conduct and mental disposition, not birth, determined who is a Brahmin.138 So, the division of human society in four varnas is distinct from its fixation into a hereditary caste system.

Another important component of the varna ideology, is the strict separation between the activities of the varnas. In the discussion of indigenous Hindu secularism, we should draw attention to the separation between the two authority-wielding varnas, the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas. In the Varna ideology, the Brahmin is the man of knowledge, whose authority is intellectual and universal : truth does not change with crossing borders. The Kshatriya is the man of action, whose authority is political and subject to limitation in time and space: his authority lasts a legislature and is limited to a state.

The idea of separation between these two varnas can ideally be understood as a separation between the secular domain of action and politics, and the non- secular domain of knowledge and spirituality. Like the separation between the three powers in the modern democracy (legislative, executive and judicial), this separation between the domain of power and the domain of the Word must be welcomed as the best way of letting the two domains flourish optimally.139 The separation between the domain of government and the sphere of thought is not a matter of universal consensus : its antithesis is Plato's notion of the "philosopher-king". This notion is contradictory as well as utopian (which is why the thoroughly realistic social philosophy of Hinduism rejects it), and the philosopher Karl Popper correctly saw it as the ideological core of totalitarianism and as an "enemy of free society".

Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo have sometimes described social and political developments in varna terms. Thus, feudalism was Kshatriya Raj, capitalism Vaishya Raj, and communism Shudra Raj.140 Even in all those countries where no jati system exists, varna categories can be meaningfully applied. For example, modern problems can be described as a mixing-up of caste activities or attitudes. Commercial gurus like Rajneesh are a mix of Brahmin and Vaishya (the profit-oriented varna), corrupt politicians are a mix of Kshatriya and Vaishya.

For a poisonous mix of Kshatriya and Brahmin, a classic example is Jawaharlal Nehru. He acted as a Brahmin where he should have been a Kshatriya, and he wanted to use Kshatriya political power to push an ideology and destroy other ideologies, something he should have left to people in Brahmin functions.141

When the Chinese invaded Tibet, action was called for, a Kshatriya approach.142 Instead, Nehru philosophized that the Chinese felt strategically insecure, and that therefore their annexation of Tibet was understandable.143 But understanding is a Brahmin's business, not the duty of a Kshatriya at the helm of a state.

In his dealings with Pakistan too, he tried to "see their viewpoint also", and consequently made concessions of which millions of Hindus have suffered the consequences (handing over pieces of territory, stopping the reconquest of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir when it was succeeding, refraining from efforts to enforce the Pakistani part of the Nehru-Liaqat pact). The duty of a ruler is not to see the other party's viewpoint (in the political arena all parties are well capable of looking after their own interests), but to take care of his own people's interests.

The 1962 Chinese invasion was the final demonstration that Nehru was singularly unfit to rule the country : instead of keeping an eye on strategic realities, he was indulging in his ideological trip of socialism and non- aligned "peaceful co-existence". This incurable sleepwalker could have made a fine editor of a secularist paper, or some such lower-end Brahmin job, but in Kshatriya functions like ruling a country besieged by enemies, his qualities were quite misplaced.

So, the Brahmin and Kshatriya functions have to be kept separate. Rulers should not wage ideological campaigns, they should govern the country taking ideology-based realities as they are. On the other hand, in a modern state, the ruler is constrained by a philosophy embodied in the Constitution. And his decision are influenced by a general framework of values and ideas. So there is also an intimate connection between ideology and polity, between Brahmin and Kshatriya. More precisely : there is a subordination of polity to ideology, though only to the extent that the exigencies of the political reality leave room for ideological choices.

In a sense, that is the application of the hierarchical principle inherent in the varna doctrine : while there is equality in the sense that the actual groupings in society, the jatis, should have a maximum of internal autonomy (their own mores, their own judiciary), and that all people have different duties according to their varna, and need not be concerned with other people's duty, there is a hierarchy in the functions of the varnas. The Shudra (the worker who serves an employer, the artist who please an audience) is subordinate in the sense that he is employed by the other varnas. The Vaishya citizenry is subordinate to the public order enforced by the Kshatriya. And the Kshatriya rulers are, in framing their policies, subordinate to the Brahmin realm of literate culture and ideology. A policy necessarily stems from a social philosophy, which in turn is integrated in a larger world-view. it is in this functional co-operation that the different social functions (varnas) of thought and government, are co- ordinated into a larger social order.


10.6. Sarva Dharma Samabhava

The slogan "Sarva dharma samabhava", or "equal respect for all religions" is not a part of Hindu tradition, it is a recent creation of Mahatma Gandhi. One may of course argue that it is in the spirit of Hindu tradition. But that is precisely the question : does "equal respect for all religions" really sum up traditional Hindu secularism?

We need not go into the exact meaning of the word dharma here. The Mahatma wrote and thought largely in English, and the original phrase is the English one, so dharma merely figures as a translation of religion. What he meant, was in effect: equal respect for Christianity Islam and Hinduism.

Now, some people take this to mean that all religions are equally true. It seems the Mahatma himself has on several occasions put it like that. Latter-day cults like the Baha'i and the Ramakrishna Mission in its new non-Hindu colours, declare that all Prophets, as well as their messages and Scriptures, are "equally true". Of course, this is rank nonsense.

The utterances of prophets are just as much statements on which logical operations are possible, as anyone else's statements. Of course, where they use metaphors and other figures of speech, that special type of language has to be taken into account, just as when non- prophets use such language. but effectively, even prophets' statements can be true and untrue, and if that is too hard to swallow, let us at least agree that two prophetic statements can be in conflict, or logically irreconcilable.

When Krishna says that it is always He who is the object of devotion, no matter what the form of the mental and physical focus of worship may be (such as gods and idols), he is in logical conflict with Mohammed who declares that Allah does not tolerate other gods beside Himself and wants idols to be destroyed. These two cannot be true at the same time. Either these many forms are fit for worship, or they are not.

Now, one might try to be clever and say that at some higher logical level, a synthesis of two opposites is possible. Alright : God's unity and God's multiplicity through many forms are indeed compatible, are two ways of looking at the same thing. But the point in exclusivist doctrines is precisely that this synthesis is rejected. Only one viewpoint takes you to heaven, all the others, and especially syncretistic attempts to associate idolatrous viewpoints with the strict monotheist viewpoint, lead straight to hell.

When two prophets give an opposite opinion on the same question, one can still say that both were not really talking about the same thing, because the cultural circumstances were different. Thus, some founders taught non-violence and non-killing, including strict vegetarianism, while others exhorted their followers to kill and gave the example themselves, and sanctioned animal sacrifices. But then, what is prophethood if it is so determined by cultural circumstances ? If the one and eternal God had one plan for humanity and wanted to teach it his one religion, why is He sending a Mahavira teaching absolute non-violence to one place and a Mohammed teaching war to another place ? It seems there is something wrong with the notion of prophet as an agent sent by the one God.

One may distort history and say that the Indians to whom Mahavira preached were less warlike than the Arabs to whom Mohammed preached. This does injustice to both peoples, but mostly to the Pagan Arabs, who were far more humane in their warfare than the Prophet ; but let us now suppose it is true. Then what was the point of God sending prophets, if He just gave the different peoples what they already had ? He sent the Prophets precisely to change things. So, if He could, through Mohammed, make the Arabs give up idolatry, totally alter the position of women, and other such drastic changes, why didn't He also order them to become vegetarians as He had done to the Indians long before via Mahavira ?

The answer is that Mahavira wasn't God's spokesman. His insight was human, and he never pretended more than that.144 Anyone can see for himself that getting killed is an occasion of suffering, so it is something one should not inflict on other sentient beings : that is how non-violence can be thought up without needing God's intervention. And the state of Liberation or Enlightenment which Upanishadic teachers taught, was always presented as a state which everyone can achieve, not as something which God has exclusively given to this or that chosen prophet.

The truth is universal, and to the extent that religions hold up this universal truth, they can be said to be true. But what constitutes the difference between religions, is mostly the way and degree of putting other things than the universal truth in the centre. Some religions take the natural aspiration for truth in their followers, and then channel it towards peculiar and exclusivistic doctrines that have little in common with the universal truth.

Let us drop this pipe-dream that all religions are equally true. We may say that the spiritual aspirations in human beings, regardless of the culture they happen to be born into, are equally true. But the belief systems that feed on this basic human urge for universal truth, often by mis-educating and misdirecting man towards non- universalist beliefs, cannot at all be said to be equally true.

It should be clear that "Sarva dharma samabhava", if interpreted as "equal truth of all religions" oversteps the limits of secularism as a doctrine of the state, unconcerned with the internal affairs of religion : it is a far-reaching statement about the nature of religion itself. It is moreover an untenable statement. It is, on top of that, at least in most of its formulations, far from religiously neutral : it rejects the Hindu humanist conception of religious teachings (as being products of the universal human consciousness), and espouses the Islamic prophetic conception of religious teachings (as being God-given messages). Finally, it discourages critical thought about religion, and is thus opposed to the scientific temper. So, this doctrine of the "equal truth of all religions" is not really helping anyone. We better discard it.

Both the line taken by the Communists, that all religions are equally untrue and deserve equal disrespect, and the line taken by the sentimentalists, that all religions are equally worthy of respect because equally true, do injustice to the fundamentally human character of religious culture. The human intention behind a given religious practice is worthy of respect. But the belief systems and concomitant moral codes are open to criticism, like any human construction, and some of them may be discarded, even while others may stand the test of experience and remain sanatana, forever. So, there is no apriori equality between religions. It is a different matter that people believing in superstitious doctrines still deserve equal respect with the people whose insight is more advanced. In that sense there should of course be "equal respect for all religions".

To conclude this reflection on the "equality of all religions", let us mention the view that secularism is really a synthesis of all religions. Secularist Mahesh Jethmalani agrees with the BJP view that a common civil code for members of all religious communities in India is a legitimate demand of secularism, but he agrees on the basis of an unusual interpretation of the term: "The [uniform civil code] is in keeping with the needs of a modern Republic. It is devoid of Hindu ritualism and is rational in the extreme. It is religiously neutral, in that it calls upon the Hindu as much as the Muslim to eschew traditional ways of life in the interests of a new 'national religion' which synthesizes the best from all the religions in the land."145

It goes without saying that our secularist's bias is showing. On top of his explicit exclusives against Hindu ritualism, there is his stress on synthesis, which very word is enough to enchant a Hindu, but incapable of arousing a Muslim's interest.146 This synthesis of the best of all religions is a make-believe, which is held up to fool Hindus, but which the members of a number of religions will scornfully reject, because it would go against the exclusive claims which constitute the basic identity of their religions.

Moreover, our secularist's utter superficiality and non- comprehension of religion is showing. As Mahatma Gandhi understood well enough, in spite of his prayer-sessions with readings from different Scriptures, one religion (in his case Hinduism) is quite sufficient to guide an an individual all through life. A "combination of religions" is as nonsensical as two suns shining in the sky. What is possible is one broad-minded religion which can assimilate new forms : one Sanatana Dharma which is intrinsically pluralist, and can appreciate new accents (as on brotherhood and social service147) proposed by other religions. But a synthesis of the doctrines that everyone makes his own Liberation through yoga,, that Jesus has brought Salvation once and for all, and that you get a ticket to Heaven by affirming that Mohammed is the final Prophet, is simply nonsense.

Synthesis implies the rejection of the rejection of synthesis. So it means the rejection of the exclusivist claims of Islam and Christianity. I agree with our secularist that synthesis and a "new national religion" are the solution. That "national religion" is age-old, it is Sanatana Dharma. But this Dharma is sanat kumar, eternally young, so it is indeed new, especially to those who are under the spell of secularism and have blacked out from their consciousness this age-old heritage.

The most surprising thing about Mahesh Jethmalani's secularism, is that it is quite the opposite of a separation of state and religion : it has the ambition of creating and promoting a religion through state arrangements like the common civil code. In my secularist homeland, we have a uniform civil code, but no one there is fantastic enough to see it as a stratagem in a larger project of floating a new religion. In fact, we think it is none of the state's business to create, destroy, promote, discourage, or indeed to synthesize a religion. We think it is none of the state's business to "call upon [members of the different religions] to eschew traditional ways of life": those ways that are in conflict with the law, are simply forbidden, and all others, traditional or not, are simply left to the people's own choice. The secular state is not making any call to eschew any ways of life whatsoever.

A truly secular state is by definition not a despotic state. It does not choose or devise or synthesize a religion for you. It is a self-restrained state. That is why the Nehruvian socialist doctrine of a hungry state, with state initiative and state guidance, has naturally combined with a perverted and despotic kind of secularism.


10.7. Dharma

The official Hindi term for secularism is dharmanirpekshata, i.e. dharma-neutrality. Critics of Nehruvian secularism say the correct translation would be panthanirpekshata or sampradayanirpekshata, i.e. sect- neutrality.

Of course, sect-neutrality is an indispensable component of secularism. Perhaps the secularist translators wanted to add another component by preferring the term dharma- neutrality.

The word religion, in most European languages, can be both an uncountable and a countable substantive.148 As an uncountable, it means "the religious dimension", and leaves any sect-wise or belief-wise contents to that religious dimension unspecified. As a countable, it means "a religion", "a set of religious doctrines and practices", "a sect united around common doctrines and practices".

As a translation of both these uses of the term religion, westernized Indians have employed the word dharma. As an example of the countable use, the well- known Gandhian slogan sarva-dharma-samabhava means "equal respect for all religions". "A dharma" here means "a religion". By contrast, the expression Dharma Rajya uses dharma as an uncountable. it is, however, not normally rendered as "rule of religion" but as "rule of righteousness". And that opens the discussion of the exact meaning of the term dharma.

Dharma means : that which sustains.

Every singular or composite entity has its own dharma, its swadharma. All the composite classes to which an entity belongs, have again their own dharma. Thus, an individual his dharma, which is partly specific to himself, partly in common with the family he belongs to : kula-dharma. This in turn is partly in common with the jati to which the family belongs : the jati-dharma. In the varna-ideology, every jati is categorized under one of the four varnas, so the jati-dharma will partly be differentiating from the other classes within the varna, and partly be the common dharma of the entire varna. Further, all varnas, and all classifications of any kind, ultimately share in a universal human dharma, manava- dharma. And this in turn is part of the over-all cosmic dharma (the cosmic ordered pattern, for which the specific Vedic term is Rta).

Let us give another example that has nothing to do with traditional Hindu society. Every individual cow has her own dharma. While partly individual, it is largely a common dharma of the cow species : the biological characteristics and functions that define the cow's role in the larger ecosystem. The cow dharma is partly specific, partly in common with the mammal dharma (skipping several intermediate classifications), which is again partly mammal-specific, partly in common with the all-vertebrates dharma. The vertebrate dharma is partly the all-animal dharma, which is partly specific and differentiating from the plant dharma, and partly the common dharma of all living beings. Thus, self- regulation and procreation are the dharma of all living beings, but the animal dharma involves breathing oxygen while the plant dharma involves breathing carbondioxide.

Materially, one's dharma is the actualization of an inner programming (primarily, but not exhaustively, the genetic programming). Formally, it is the playing of a role within the larger ecosystem, in interaction with all the other entities with their own allotted dharmas.

This inner programming which determines one's dharma, is called guna, quality, characteristics, or more uniquely swabhava, own nature. In lower species, this programming is exclusively biological, i.e. mostly genetical and partly environmental. In man, one section of the environmental factors, called learning or education, gains immensely in importance. So, an individual's guna is partly uniquely individual, partly in common with his family, tribe, etc. through genetics as well as through a common environment (common experiences), and it is partly a matter of learning (a directed programme of experiences), and to that extent it is in common with those who go through the same learning.

The integration into the larger system is an automatical affair in the lower species. In man, it is in large measure a matter of conscious assent to what is consciously perceived as one's role in the larger whole. In lower life forms, as in machine, dharma is the actual functioning of a norm, the fact that processes do not take place at random, but conform to and preserve a given order, e.g. the thermoregulation processes which preserve a constant body temperature in mammals, or the maintenance of the optimum population level of a given species within a given ecosystem. In human society, it is partly that, because man participates in the general biological laws ; but partly, the human dharma is a conscious participation in the actualization and the upholding of a system of norms. To that extent, the manava-dharma is not merely the actual functioning of an in-built norm, but the conscious acceptance and fulfilling of one's duty.

So, for the individual human being, dharma primarily means duty. Dharma means the acceptance and fulfillment of one's duty, i.e. the behaviour and occupation corresponding to one's place within the system. For society as a whole, it means the integrative system comprising all individual and group duties. it is the social order which is upheld by the conscious participation of all members.

Now what does this have to do with religion ? Hindu social philosophy recognizes four goals (purusharthas) in human life: Kama (pleasure), Artha (gain), Dharma (duty) and Moksha (liberation). It is clear that religion in its strictest and highest sense, as the individual's spiritual life, belongs to the fourth aim, liberation. The inner spiritual process, the freeing oneself of bondage through purification of the mind, is directed towards moksha. Then where did dharma get to be associated with religion ?

The dharma is the norm system which ideally regulates all human activity. Man's life is ordered by the social as well as by the larger cosmic order. Now, there is a specific category of activities, which have no other use or function, except to explicitate man's integration in a social or cosmic order. For instance, one ordering of human society is the division in age groups. Every primitive society has rituals explicating this ordering dimension : the rites of passage from one age group to the next. For another instance, one dimension of the cosmic order, is the division of the year cycle in seasons. The starting-points of the seasons may be defined astronomically (solstice, equinox, full or empty moon), or through atmospherical or terrestrial events (end of the harvest, first rain), but at any rate, they divide the year into different stages, each with its own characteristics and concomitant human activities (its own dharma), which altogether form a cycle or recurring totality. The celebrations at each of these fixed points of the year cycle, have no other function but to explicitate this aspect (of unity through a differentiation into different phases each with its own dharma) of the cosmic order.

Celebrations and rituals are an essential aspect of dharma. One can be born, become a man, start living with a woman, exchange this life for the next, all without any pomp or ritual. It can be done : animals do it. but it is not done. Precisely because man is a conscious being, he wants to give conscious expression to the different phases that make up a cycle, and to the different functions that make up a society. That is one of the reasons why people wear job-specific uniforms. That is the reason why children are baptized, why diplomas are handed out in a big ceremony, why couples are wedded in great gathering of friends and relatives, with a specific ritual, why another ritual is gone through to say farewell to someone who has died, etc.

So, in that sense, rituals and celebrations are the most human component of our participation in the social and cosmic order, of our dharma. Take for instance, the Holi festival. Holi is first of all a spring celebration. The exuberant ritual of throwing paint at eachother and not sparing eachother at all, is a variety of the standard elements of spring rituals the world over. In some places in Europe, on the first real spring day, i.e. when the sun is out and it unmistakably feels like spring, youngsters from upper-storey windows pour buckets of water on unsuspecting passers-by. The logic is that on the first day of spring, people need to wake up from their winter slumber. So, spring rituals like Holi are shocking and unrespectful.

On top of that, it seems that Holi also has a varna connotation : it is the day of the Shudra varna, when the class of people who habitually get their hands dirty, are free to draw the other varnas into a celebration of their own part in society. Similarly, Raksha Bandhan ("bond of protection", the day of the thread) is the celebration of the Brahmin varna, Vijayadashami (victory day) of the Kshatriya varna, and Deepawali (apart from being a typical autumn festival, with candles to get through the dark months) celebrates the Vaishya varna. So, every function in society gets explicit expression on a specially reserved day. This is how dharma, the system of duties, gives rise to rituals and celebrations, the things that we often categorize under the heading religion.

So, dharma, or duty, in its broader sense implies also the activities that explicitate the world order, the useless rituals and celebrations, which from the outer or public part of religion.

Modernist bores, of course, are against all this waste of money and especially of time. Under their pressure, some religious people have tried to de-emphasize the role of rituals and celebrations, and stressed the religious dimension of useful work: "Work is worship". But the modernists can't be appeased with this defensive excuse, so in a recent seminar in Delhi, they countered it with an extended slogan : "Work is worship, but worship is not work". So, it is time to explain to these people that the value of these rituals and celebrations resides in the very fact that they are not work, that they are meant not to be useful. They are a popular way of directly tuning in to the larger order, of explicating the order of which our activities are implicitly a part, of strengthening the awareness that makes the daily treadmill of useful work meaningful. This expression of awareness of the world order constitutes the difference between animals, who simply obey and fulfill this order, and human being, who consciously participate in it.

Anyway, we have established that dharma basically means duty and "participation in the social order". In the broader sense, it means all the customs and rituals that give expression to this social order, to its values and norms. In a broad sense, we could call this culture. The purely non-functional, expressive and ritual part of it, can be called religion, as long as we don't forget that there is a deeper, inner dimension to religion which is not concerned with the world order, but on the contrary with moksha (i.e. unconcern with the world).

From the basic meaning, we may derive the meaning : the virtue of being conscious of and faithful to one's duty. And since duty is defined relative to the world order, this can be re-worded as : the virtue of respecting and upholding the world order. The common translation of this derived meaning is righteousness. Thus, Dharma Rajya is "rule of righteousness". That is what Ram Rajya, Ram's rule, is supposed to epitomize and symbolize.

The same meaning, we find in Dharma Yuddha, the "war of righteousness". Some people, very ignorant or inspired by anti-Hindu motives, translate this as religious war. And then they conclude : see, you Hindus, you also have this concept of crusade or jihad. In reality, the "war of righteousness" is not a jihad at all. Dharma Yuddha means firstly a chivalrous war, a war in which a number of rules are observed, a war in which the world order is respected, as opposed to the all-out war in which anything goes as long as it results in victory. Secondly, it can be stretched to mean (but this is non- classical) a war in defense of the world order, against those violate and threaten this order. Dharma is concerned with people's conduct (achaar), not with their belief or opinion (vichaar). Therefore, a Dharma Yuddha is by definition never directed against unbelievers or "heterodox believers", but exclusively against people who through their actions break the rules and arrangements that constitute the world order.

In this connection, the Mahabharata, and especially its episode known as the Bhagavad Gita, is sometimes mentioned as containing the Hindu doctrine of "Religious War". In reality, the Gita is explicitly not about a war between Believers and Unbelievers, between Chosen ones and Doomed ones. For instance, Dronacharya is equally attached to the Pandavas as to the kauravas, both have been his pupils, but because of his specific secular status, he is duty-bound to fight on the Kaurava side.

It is purely worldly events that had pitted the two camps against eachother, not a theology. The Kauravas had violated the order by breaking an agreement with the Pandavas and remaining irreconcilable in their unrighteous position. They had not refused to accept some belief system, they had merely violated a secular agreement. After that, honour and the secular interest of their family force the Pandavas to take up arms. This is now their duty, as Krishna reminds the wavering Arjuna. The religious element in the Gita pre-battle discussion is, that the capacity for doing one's secular duty is grounded in an insight into the true nature of the Self, who is a foreigner incarnated in this world, and not affected by the worldly situations in which he finds it his duty to operate.

So, the concepts of "dharma" and "religion" overlap only partly. The term dharmanirpekshata becomes a bit absurd or even sinister when it turns out to say "duty- neutrality" or "righteousness-neutrality" (though it applies accurately to the utter corruption in which Nehru's secular socialism has plunged the Indian state). The absurdity really comes out when we translate it as "value-system-neutrality". You just cannot have a polity without a value-system that sustains the unity and integrity of the whole. Even secularism implies something of a value-system.

So, if we start from the uncountable use of the word dharma (righteousness etc.), we have to reject dharmanirpekshata as the translation for the Western concept of "secularism".

Let us consider the countable use : one dharma, two dharmas, etc. As we have seen, this use of the word exists. There is the soldier's dharma, the sweeper's dharma, the schoolboy's dharma, etc. There is the individual dharma, the occupational dharma, the family dharma, the tribal dharma, and of course the state dharma. So there are indeed many dharmas. Every entity has its own duty or value system, based on its definition, its characteristics, its place in the larger whole. The state too has its own dharma. The state's dharma is not at all neutral, it is very specific. It is different from the school dharma, from the prison dharma, from the village dharma. To illustrate its distinct dharma, the state, like every entity, has its own dharma-typical celebrations. In a Saint Thomas school, they celebrate Saint Thomas feast. In a family (at least in the West), they celebrate every member's birthday. In a village, they have a celebration upon completion of the harvest. And the Indian Republic celebrates Independence Day and Republic Day.

So, in a world of many dharmas, the secular state too has its own dharma. There is no room for any dharma- neutrality. Let us use the words in their proper meaning. Secularism is sect-neutrality, sampradayanirpekshata. This term at once expresses the opposition to sampradayikta, sectarianism (or communalism).

This precise and unambiguous translation also clinches the issue regarding yet another term proposed as the equivalent of secularism : Lokayat. This term means worldliness. It was the name of an ancient school of thought, mostly known as the materialists. One could say they were atheist and even anti-religious (the two are not synonymous, cfr. Buddha's atheist religion), but they were just as much a sampradaya, a sect. And materialism and atheism are just as much belief systems as theism, monotheism, pantheism and the rest. By contrast, secularism is not a belief system. It is merely a political arrangement that separates the state from sects and belief systems. So, regarding the Lokayat-sect, both ancient and modern (the Leftist sampradaya), and regarding the atheist belief system, the secular state has to kept strict non-commitment and neutrality.




[Back to Contents Page]  [Back to VOD Books]  [Back to Home]


Home

Articles

Books

Book Reviews

Interviews

Dutch Articles

About

Download

Print

 

 

 

 

VOD Authors

VOD Home