Sunday, November 27, 2011


(A Viable Alternative to Secularism in India)

From the above study one might rightly say that Western Secularism, without radical changes in it, is totally out of place in India. Rightly therefore Upendra Baxi states with the support of socio-political thinkers like Madan T. N. and Ashish Nandy:

“Secularism, in the prevailing conditions in South Asia as a generally shared credo of life, is impossible, as a basis of state action impractical, and as a blueprint for the foreseeable future impossible…. Madan describes secularism ‘as an alien cultural ideology, which lacks the strong support of the state:’ ‘secularism’ has become a ‘vacuous word’ and a ‘phantom concept’…”[1]

            This does not mean that we can ignore without serious consequences to national unity and integration, the reality of Religious Pluralism, inter-religious rivalry and the rise of Religious Fundamentalism in practically all the religions of the sub-continent. Our formula, “Religiosity of Dialogal Liberation”, seems to be a right alternative to ‘secularism’, capable of doing justice to the various challenges of the Indian situation of religious pluralism and socio-economic injustice. We use the term “Religiosity” to give the central place to religions respecting the Indian ethos. If this “Religiosity” is dialogal it cannot degenerate into fundamentalism or fanaticism. As we have seen just above, Islam has problems of dialoguing with other religions with a sense of equality accepting their salvific values. Hinduism may find it difficult in collaborating with other religions in liberating people from caste-oppression or economic misery due to their faith in karma, especially sanchit and prarabdha karma. In our effort to face problems of this sort from various religions we shall first deal with the axiomatically accepted view that context changes the text and then consider the praxis of re-reading the non-Christian scriptures from the context.

The Axiom ‘The Context Changes the Text’

One of the chief assumptions of contextual theology is the saying that context changes the text. This assumption is today accepted almost as an axiom. The context of a person is a sort of mental category, a la Kantian Categories, through which the subject tries to reach the Noumenon. Let us take the example of a film like The Bandit Queen. In this film what would strike the high-caste Hindus and what would strike the oppressed caste of Phoolan Devi herself must have been very different. The high-caste Hindus might not have found anything abominable or even strange in the approving looks of the wives of the men who were raping her or parading her naked through the length and breadth of the village. How different must have been the perception, both in details and in substance, of the women of the caste of Phoolan Devi! One might say that in films people would perceive what they are interested in, on the conscious or the unconscious level. This is the psychological aspect of the influence of the context. Oxford Companion to Mind says: “…the direct realism of immediate experience of the object world has been abandoned. It is now, however, fairly generally accepted that stored knowledge and assumptions actively affect even the simplest perceptions.”

Let us take the example of Magnificat about which the Liberation Theologians wax eloquent. Traditionally it was understood as a hymn of praise and thanksgiving sung leisurely by an immaculately conceived innocent village girl. But what a different meaning the poor and the oppressed Christians of Latin America gave to this hymn! They primarily concentrated on the following verses:
            ‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord
            and my spirit exults in God my saviour;
            because he has taken upon his lowly handmaid.

            He has shown the power of his arm,
            he has routed the proud of heart.
            He has pulled down princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly.
            The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich sent empty away.
            (Lk. 1:46,47,51,52)

For persons who suffer oppression it is the cry of an oppressed woman for justice. It is a revolutionary song, which needs completely a new revolutionary tune and a thoroughly new interpretation.

But there are other epistemological aspects too in the above-said axiom that context changes the text. From the time of Heisenburg even scientists began to take for granted the subjective elements even in the most ‘objective’ physico-chemical sciences. It is much more so in human sciences like history and sociology. William James used to say that in Love, Politics, and in Religion people prove what they want to prove because they have to prove it. When we are involved with the poor, poverty, misery and oppression have different meanings.

Re-reading the Scriptures

            When we enter into dialogue with other religions, we have to be aware not only of the above axiom but also of the praxis of the Liberation Theologians of re-reading the scriptures. But in the context of religious pluralism and dialogue we are called upon to re-read not only the Bible but also the non-Christian scriptures. As far as the Indic Religions are concerned, as we have seen in our study of Indian Ethos, dialogal attitudes come natural to them. In the past, where the Muslims were a small minority, their talk about dialogue and secularism seems to have been a ploy for survival. Now it seems that a few Western Muslim Scholars began to have sincere dialogue with other religions especially with the Christians. Such dialogues led them to re-read the Quran and they have begun to bring out Quranic texts which are inclusive and inspirational for inter-religious dialogue. Here a few sample texts from the Quran are given:

To you be your way, And to me mine” (Holy Quran, 109:6).

“To each among you have prescribed a Law and an Open Way. If God so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to God; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which you dispute” (Holy Quran, 5:48).

“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair), of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other. (Not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all these things)” (49:13). Cfr. Also 2:213; 10:29; 30:21).

Some Anti-caste texts from the Hindu scriptures:

Here we shall narrate the well-known Upanishadic story which shows how the character of a person determines his caste, not his birth. The story of Satyakama described in the Chandogya Upanishad well brings out this idea (IV:4:5). Satyakama, the bastard son of a low caste woman goes to a Brahmin sage named Gautama with the desire for learning. When he was asked about his gotra (family) he told the truth. Pleased with his truthfulness the guru said: “None but the Brahmana could thus explain. Bring the fuel, my dear, I will receive you as a pupil. Thou hast not departed from the truth”. Gita IV:13 and IX:4:32, could be interpreted in this way.[2]

            Here below a paragraph from Dr. Pandurang Kane, a scholar in Dharmasastra Literature is given. It is the result of the Re-reading of the Mahabharata with an anti-caste mind-set.  

Shanti 188:10 says ‘there is no real distinction between the varnas (since) it was formerly created by Brahma, and has the system of varnas on account of the various actions (of men)’. Shanti (189:4 and 8) avers ‘that man is known as brahmana in whom are seen truthfulness, generosity, absence of wickedness, shame (restraint for avoiding wrong-doing), compassion and a life of austerity; if these signs are observed in a sudra and not found in brahmana, the sudra is not a sudra (should not be treated as a sudra) and the brahmana is not a brahmana. A similar passage occurs in Vanaparva 216:14 and 15[3].

            Recently, I had the privilege of attending an international seminar organized by a group of secular persons from different parts of the world. One of the main topics of this seminar was The Humane face of Socially Engaged Hinduism. The participants including those from the West, were well aware of the common and uncritical understanding of Hinduism, as a world-denying religion with no concern for the sufferings and miseries of fellow human beings, be it poverty, disease or caste-discrimination.

            They were also aware of another uncritical assumption about Hinduism. It is that because of the Hindu belief in Sanchit Karma (accumulated evil effects of the actions of the previous birth) the victims of contagious diseases, social marginalization, economic injustice, etc. suffer in the present birth as a just punishment for their sinful deeds in the previous birth. Hence, we would have no serious responsibility of alleviating their sufferings since they suffer what they deserve.

            A number of scholarly papers could parade numerous scriptural statements from the Vedas to the mediaeval and modern bhakti literature which teach the value of compassion and loving service. Here we shall cite a few of them:

Rigveda (10:117: 3 and 5)

Bounteaous is he who gives to the beggar who comes to him in want of food and feeble.

Success attends him at the shout of battle. He makes a friend of him in future troubles.
Let the rich satisfy the poor implorer, and bend his eye upon a longer way.
Riches come now to one, now to another, and like wheels of cars are ever rolling.

Bhagavad Purana

Na tvaham kamaye rajyam na svargam napunarbhavam, kamaye dukataptanam praninamartinasham
The meaning of this verse in a rather liberal paraphrase is that the Saint begs of the Lord, as the greatest gift and grace, to allow him to share the sufferings of all the people, for he considers this grace greater than that of his own Salvation.

Bhagavad Gita

            Those who work for the total welfare of all beings (loksangraha) (Cfr. 3:20 and 25), are worthy of ‘Salvation’.

            Those who are involved in the well-being of all beings (sarva-bhuta-hite-ratah) are also worthy of ‘Salvation’ (cfr. 5:25 and 12:4).

From the Sacred writings of the Saints

            From Thiruvelluvar :

“To give to the destitute is true charity. All other gifts have the nature of (what is done for) a measured return. (Even in a low state) not to adopt the mean expedient of saying, ‘I have nothing’, but to give is the characteristic of the man of noble birth. The power of those who perform penance is the power of enduring hunger. It is inferior to the power of those who remove the hunger of others”[4]. 

            From the writings of Thirumular:

“Padamada kovil pahavarku onru eel, nadamadakovil nambaarku anka aha.
Nadamakovil namabarku onru eel  padamadakovil pahavarku  atu ame.”
It means that what we offer to the Lord in the temple will not reach our fellow-humans, but what we offer to the walking temple that is our fellow human being will certainly reach our fellow humans, and it may also reach the Lord.” 
            From the writings of Narsinh Mehta:

Vaishnava janato tene kahiye pida paray janere
Paradukhe upakara kare toye man abhiman na anere
(= They are the true Vaishnavas who know the sufferings of others. And if these people do something to alleviate the sorrows of others they do it with no sense of pride or a superiority complex).

Our Formula as an Alternative to Western Secularism:

Religiosity of Dialogal Liberation

            In this formula for the Indian context, religion is brought to the centre in keeping with the spirit of the Indian Ethos. But we give religion this central place in so far as it is in dialogue with other religions without letting it fall into religious fundamentalism. Besides, the various religions are expected to cooperate with one-another for the total welfare of the people and of the nation as a whole. The three concepts in this formula are complementary and mutually enriching.

            We accept the axiomatically considered formula in situations of Religious Pluralism that “To be Religious means to be Inter-Religious”. In situations of Religious Pluralism a fundamentalistic, exclusivistic and self-righteous religion, with no openness for dialogue with other religions, will function like a cancer-cell. A cancer cell is one of the most powerful and the most rapidly multiplying cells. But the fact is that it eventually destroys itself and the body (organism) as a whole, as it happens to any parasite. The reason simply is that a cancer cell does not follow the homeo-static system of the organism, which is responsible for the multiplication and differentiation of the various organs and limbs of the organism. A particular minority community in a nation can take all the advantages of being citizens and the privileges all the minority communities while at the same timework as terrorists and fifth-columnists. The Rightist parties in the Western Europe accuse the Muslims of such parasitic disloyalty. Here I shall cite just a few sentences from a speech by a panicky Rightist MP from Netherlands: “The Pew Research Centre reported that half of French Muslims see their loyalty to Islam as greater than their loyalty to France. One-third of French Muslims do not object to suicide attacks. The British Centre for Social Cohesion reported that one-third of British Muslim students are in favour of a worldwide caliphate” (From the speech delivered in New York by Geert Wilders, an MP from Netherlands). In a country like ours, inculcating and promoting a culture of dialogue on the personal and the institutional levels are of paramount importance.

            Following the example of Aloysius Piereis SJ, we do highlight the Liberative potential of all religions. All the religions in India have the ideals and potential to cooperate with other religions to build India as a prosperous, progressive, well united peace-loving and peace-making great nation.

            Recently the Polite Bureau of the Marxists has publicly declared that it does not oppose true religiosity (spirituality) but opposes mechanical ritualism. Dialogal Liberation implies cooperating with people of other religions to make India a better place to live in and to oppose the dehumanizing factors of Indian society, whatever these things may mean. For instance, so many of us Indians complain about corruption in various sectors of Indian life. If all the Religions in India cooperate to eradicate corruption on the basis of different religions, India will not remain one of the most corrupt countries of the world. Remember, the national ideal expressed in the mantra SATYAMEVA JAYATE has become an empty slogan. The unfortunate thing in our country is that adharma (all kinds of evil) conquers dharma because the so-called religious people are busy with opposing and putting down other religions thereby losing the precious time and energy meant for “dharma samsthapana” or the establishment of dharma with all its values. To fight for the national priorities like ecological balance, national hygiene including the cleaning up the polluted rivers, opposing caste-atrocities and fighting against the adharma of degrading poverty, side-by-side with dehumanizing luxury, all the religions could be brought together. This means that the religion to which we want to give a central place in Indian life is not an escapistic religion but one that can collaborate with people of all the religions of India for a better present and a brighter future.

            Religiosity of dialogal liberation is not an unrealizable Euthopian dream. Let me tell you what happened to me some years back. I was invited by a Catholic priest to inaugurate a bridge in the Kottayam dist. of Kerala. This bridge was built with the cooperation of the Hindu, Muslim and Christian communities. The idea of this bridge was mooted by a Catholic priest in consultation with a couple of Non-Catholic Christian priests, when the government had failed to respond to their applications. This bridge would serve the Hindu pilgrims to Sabarimala by shortening the distance by several miles and by making the route through a less dangerous forest. When the Hindu and Muslim leaders were contacted they were only too willing to cooperate with the Christians. Though the chief beneficiaries of this new bridge were the Hindu pilgrims, all the other communities on the other side of the bridge could get easy access to the nearby town. For the inauguration a sumptuous meal was organized for the thousands of people who took part in building the bridge and the road which connected it to the main road. The meal was prepared by the women from the three communities while the men-folk were still busy with giving finishing touches to the bridge and to the roads. At the end of the meal all were served delicious payasam, a south Indian delicacy. At the end of the inaugural functions, I ended my speech with the following parable:

             Once a man, fairly well dressed, knocked at the door of a house and asked for a meal. The housewife told him that the family had already taken the meal and so she would not be in a position to give him a decent meal respecting his status. Taking out a smooth white stone from his pocket, the guest said, “This magical payasam-stone can produce delicious payasam if you could put a pot of water on the stove.” When the water was about to boil, he put the payasam-stone into the pot.

            Due to the peculiar dynamics of the rural communication system, already some neighbours had arrived to observe the magical power of the payasam-stone. After tasting a little liquid from the boiling pot, he said, “Excellent payasam! But if somebody could contribute a little salt, it would taste better.” After tasting the liquid again, he asked for some rice and some milk. The neighbours began to vie with one another in complying with his polite requests. After tasting the payasam again and again, he courteously requested for sugar and coconut chips and then for some spices like cardamom, cumin seed, pepper and the like. After tasting the payasam getting ready in the pot he said: “I am going to serve the most delicious payasam the type of which you have never tasted. But if somebody would bring some cashew-nuts, I can assure you that it will give you some unforgettable taste”. While keeping on stirring the payasam in the pot he requested the house-wife to make the people sit in a line and give each one a bowl or a cup. He served all of them delicious payasam.

            This parable illustrates the underlying assumption of this paper – that religions are not contradictorily opposed but complimentarily related notwithstanding their serious differences. All the religions in India have the ideals and potential to make India a better, greater and a more united nation. By speaking about Dialogal Liberation we want to point out that here we are not advocating a status-quo religion or an escapistic religion but a religion which is conscious of its duty of dharma-samsthapana in its broadest sense. In a dialogal sense it can include the World Family Ideal, the Christian Kingdom of God Ideal and the Umma Ideal of Dialoging Muslims.
To Conclude
            Right at the outset we tried to understand the Western concept of secularism. In the light of various descriptions and definitions of this concept from different sources, we came to the conclusion that secular ideology in its initial stages was very much materialistic and worldly, and that ‘Lokayata’ would be a right translation of this ‘Western Secularism’. We also saw that the secularism prescribed as pancea for all the ills of Mother India is not a well thought out and philosophically digested ideology, but the fall-out of various anti-clerical, anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment, revolutions and upheavals in the West.

            The result of this ‘secularism-drug’ had been disastrous in the Western ethos notwithstanding its minor gains. As far as India is concerned, the artificial separation of state and religion on secularistic prescription would go against the Indian mind-set and ethos. But the truth is that the communalistic cancer is sapping Mother India’s energies and resources which are needed to help her millions of hungry, naked and homeless children. To make India united, integrated and energetic the formula suggested by us is Religiosity of Dialogal Liberation. This ideal is not very different from the Gandhian sarva-dharma-samabhav or sarva-dharma-mamabhav except that the religions should not stand for status quo but must use their collective energies to build up a better and a greater India according to the ideals of vasudhaiva kutumbakam or Kingdom of God. This ideal is totally against ghettoistic, exclusivistic and self-righteous religious attitudes.

            Training in such ideals and axioms as ‘to be Religious means to be Inter-Religious’, ‘context changes the text’ and ‘re-reading the scriptures’ from the context can promote a culture of Religiosity of Dialogal Liberation. This can be done in the existing national structures like the educational institutions, panchayat institutions, Gandhian institutions like Ashrams and Gandhi Vidyapiths. In some of the educational institution of Western Europe there are centres for training in citizenship substituting the traditional centres for religious teachings (catechism). In India such centres could be started with an emphasis on Religiosity of Dialogal Liberation. Common celebrations of national and religious festivals can inculcate inter-religious values especially among the common folk. Multi-religious symbols could be promoted in the government offices without at the same time giving the freedom of using the symbols of one’s own religion. The mass-media could be encouraged to present India as a mosaic of many religious, ethnic, linguistic and racial groups, as a living symbol to the ideal of unity in diversity, and a model in the process for many nations which are struggling to cope with problems of Religious Pluralism and Religious Fundamentalism.

Amidst the din of communal politics, our suggestion for educating the people in the Religiosity of Dialogal Liberation would be like a cry in the desert. But I firmly believe that sooner or later our traditional resilience and wisdom will triumph. Let us cooperate with our countrymen in the spirit of the Religiosity of Dialogal Liberation to realize the ideal of our ancestors, vasudhaiva kutumbkam and atraiva vishvam bhavati eknidam.

[1] “The ‘Struggle’ for the Redefinition of Secularism in India: Some Preliminary Reflections” in Secularism and Liberation, Rudolf Heredia & Edward Mathias (edit)., New Delhi:: ISI, 1995, p.56.
[2] Cfr. Ishanand Vempeny, “Inspirational in the Non-Biblical Scriptures”, Bangalore: TPI, 1973, p.203. In the same book an effort was made to re-read the scriptures with an anti-caste mind-set. Cfr. ibid., pp. 199-206.
[3] Kane, History of Dharmasastra, vol.5, Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1962, p.1642.
[4] The version of Andrew and John Lazarus, Madras, The Teachers’ Publishing House, p.47

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