Friday, November 11, 2011



Bandhu Ishanand Vempeny, SJ

In politics today, both Indian and International, perhaps few other words of frequent use are as confusing, abused and misunderstood as Secularism. The West is believed to be the cradle of this concept. But, as we shall see soon, in the Western dictionaries secularism is described as something opposed to religion, as something which has nothing to do with God or with anything super-natural or transcendental. But see the confusion: as it were a revenge of religion on secularism, there are secular priests, secular monasticism and secular religious institutes! If priest and religious congregations belong to the very core of religion, are we not, willy-nilly, trying to describe a ‘square circle’ thereby falling into contradictio in terminis?

In the East, especially in India, the fate of this concept is worse than that of a volley-ball champion in a foot-ball team, though not in the sense of foot-ball icons like Maradona and Thiery Henry scoring their goals ‘with the hand of God’. Today, especially in the West, sex (kama) and economics (artha) are considered to be part and parcel of man’s secular activities. But listen to what a highly placed Hindu god-man has to say about sex and sex-play. This god-man is no other than Vatsyayana the author of kamasutra. He wrote in the introduction to this literary master-piece:

“After reading and considering the works of Babhravya and other ancient authors, and thinking over the meaning of the rules given by them, this treatise was composed according to the precepts of the Holy Writ, for the benefit of the world, by Vatsyayana, while leading the life of a religious student at Banaras, and wholly engaged in the contemplation of the deity”[1].

            Here a god-man, not a charvaka atheist, speaks of sex-play in its crudest and most refined forms with a sacral, nay sacramental air. But in the West and even among the Westernized Indians, sex is looked upon as one of the most secular aspects of human life. In Hinduism Vedanga literature, including vyakaran (grammer) especially Panini Vyakaran, is given scriptural (smruti) status. With minor reservations, this can be said about the other Indic Religions as well, like Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. In the regions where the Indic Religions are pre-dominant, one might say, people ‘live, move and have their being in religion’, while proclaiming themselves as citizens of secular countries. This can be said about Islam more emphatically, as we shall soon see. If so what is Western Secularism in the Indian context?

On the other hand in India communal tension and inter-religious rivalry are on the increase and often flare up into riots and bloodshed. A number of cities in India like, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Vadodara, Meerut, Jamshedpur and Pune are smouldering volcanoes of communal fury. In the Indian situation of antagonistic religions, is there any ideology other than secularism equal to the task of securing law and order for us, and of creating a situation of inter-religious cooperation, harmony and peace? In my opinion, secularism interpreted as Religiosity of Dialogal Liberation, taking into account of two of the main aspects of Indian context, namely the situation of Religious Pluralism with inter-religious rivalry and socio-economic injustice. The Gandhian concept of sarva-dharma-samabhav takes into account primarily the former aspect of the Indian context without necessarily implying the latter. ‘Dialogal Liberation’ advocates inter-religious cooperation to fight for socio-economic justice in the Indian situation of caste-discrimination and economic oppression.  

Some Procedural Remarks (Abstract)

First we shall clarify the Western concept of secularism in terms of its original meaning. This will be followed by certain terminological and conceptual studies to see how this Western concept was thrust into the Indian body-politics and how the Indian ethos cannot and does not accept it meaningfully without radically transforming it. In the second part, we take a bird's eye-view of some of the circumstances, which gave birth to this concept in the West. Its positive and the negative consequences will be dealt with in the third part. It is in the fourth part that we make a rather extensive study of the Indian Ethos first concentrating on the Indic Religions and then on Islam which is part and parcel of Indian Ethos. In the light of authoritative documents we shall point out how Western Secularism is totally incompatible with Islam though some Muslims argue for Western Secularism in countries where Islam is a small minority as in Western Europe and a sizable minority as in India. In the fifth and final part we officially deal with Religiosity of Dialogal Liberation after explaining the axiom, context changes the text and the liberationist concept of re-reading the scriptures.


A. Concepts Related to ‘Western Secularism’

Since the concept ‘Secularism’ is a very confusing one, both in the West and in India, and it is used indiscriminately, some explanations and clarifications are necessary to make some sense out of this paper and of any debate on this topic especially in India. The ‘concept paper’ for the CBCI under the title, “Secularism: A Positive Christian Commitment”, affirms that “There is no other alternative to secularism for the citizens, especially for Christians and other minorities for achieving the goals of justice, equality, human dignity and fraternity” (p.10). Does it mean the Western concept of secularism which either marginalizes religion and God or opposes them? Is the meaning of this term given by the Sangh Parivar the same as that of the Indian constitution?

Secular comes from the Latin word ‘saeculum’ which means age, era, century, this age, etc and indirectly means the world of change, samsar. According to the Random House Dictionary ‘secular’ is that which pertains “to worldly things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual or sacred”. The Encyclopedia Britannica gives a similar definition.

The Encyclopedia of Religion says that the proponents of secularism consciously denounce all forms of supernaturalism and the agencies devoted to it, advocating non-religious or anti-religious principles as the basis for personal morality and social organization[2]. A Dictionary of Christian Theology (Alan Richardson, Ed., London: SCM Press, 1976), from the points of view of the reformed churches, describes the spheres of the secular taken away from the religious sphere: “By the nineteenth century the secular was often thought of as the sphere in which neither the Church nor the Christian conscience had any right to interfere (politics, business, science, etc.). By the twentieth century many more areas of life have been thus ‘secularized’ (universities, education generally, hospitals, social services, art, etc.)”[3]. According to Gerald O'Colins secularism “rules out other-worldly religious values and causes, as distracting illusions which prevent man from achieving a free and fruitful existence. In brief, radical secularism is atheism.”[4] Harvey Cox in his extreme optimism and enthusiasm for the secularization of the world wrote: “The age of a secular city, the epoch whose ethos is quickly spreading into every corner of the globe is an age of no religion at all’. It no longer looks to religious rules and rituals for its morality or its meanings”[5].

Another word derived from ‘secularism’ is ‘secularisation’ which means historical processes and movements which imply a change from religious and supernatural to natural and this-worldly purposes. The well-known historian, Professor K. N. Panikkar points out two aspects of secularization: “First, a struggle to develop a system of belief and social practice regulated by reason through a rationalist critique of religion and social mores. Second, an attempt to de-emphasize otherworldliness and to focus attention on the reality of material existence”[6].  ‘Secularization’ first became current in the European languages, at the time of the Peace Treaty of Westphalia, in Germany in 1648[7]. The parties to this treaty were the Holy Roman Empire, France, Sweden and the Protestant princes. By this treaty the Holy Roman theocracy abdicated much of its power to the local princes and ‘secularisation’ was used  "to describe the transfer of territories previously under ecclesiastical control to the dominion of lay political authorities”[8].

Dr. R. Heredia points out the search by social scientists for secular substitutes for religion: “However, in a functionalist perspective like that of Durkheim, secularization would imply the functional substitution of religion by some other symbolic reality capable of creating the moral consensus, the collective consciousness, the social solidarity that in Durkheim’s view is a sine qua non for any society. This could be done by a “civil religion” (Bellah 1970: 168-69) or an “ideology” (Geertz 1973: 193-233). Obviously there will be limitations to how functional such substitutes can be, especially if one considers religion to be a universal functional prerequisite, as some do (Pasrons and Shils 1951: 25). Indeed, in so far as these secular substitutes do perform the function of religion, they in fact become “sacralised”! Certainly this has happened with political ideologies and national symbols and rites”[9].

            Dr. Upendra Baxi enumerates five varieties of secularism pointed out by Larry Shiner in 1967:

-         decline of religion (‘The previously accepted symbols, doctrines and institutions lose their prestige and influence’ the culmination of the process being the creation of a ‘religionless society’).
-         conformity with this-world (turning away from the supernatural).
-         disengagement of society from religion (where society, and state strive to constitute themselves as an ‘autonomous reality’ or ‘separation of religion and politics’ – in short, ‘differentiation’).
-         transposition of religious beliefs and institutions (knowledge, patterns of behaviour and institutional arrangement… once understood ‘as grounded in divine power are transformed into phenomena of purely human creation and responsibility’).
-         desacralisation of the world (culminating in the banishment of ‘sacred’ or ‘mysterious’ – culminating in perfectly rationally manipulable society)”[10].

In the light of these considerations one might say that ‘secular’ in the West meant in its origin, non-religious if not anti-religious realities this worldly rather than other-worldly, temporal rather than eternal. The secularist movements inaugurated by G. J. Holyoake (1817-1906) and by Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891) in England was an extreme form of secularism which left behind, as the DCT says “bitter anti-religious propaganda and hatred of Christianity” especially in England. The French and Marxist revolutionaries opposed tooth and nail religion and god and they struggled to propagate secularism as a concept totally anti-religious.

B. Concepts and Attitudes Related to ‘Indian Secularism’

            There are concepts in the Indian languages which notwithstanding their verbal, etymological similarities, do not signify what secularism represents in the West. Indeed, the 42nd amendment (1976) inserted the word secularism in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution. A verbal translation (vachyarth) of this term, without bothering about its lokshanarth or bhavarth (inner or symbolic meaning), is found in the Indian vernaculars like Hindi dharma-nirapeksa (indifferent or neutral to religion) into Gujarati as Bin-sampradayik (non-sectarian) and into Malayalam as matetara (independent of religion). But there is an Indian term backed by a philosophical system is lokayata [loka + ayata (ayatana) = the world + base: based on the material world] of the Charvaka Philosophical system. Even those who accept the Western concept of secularism would not feel at home with the concept lokayata in spite of its similarity.

            The situations and the circumstances from which ‘secularism’ took its origin in India are quite different from those of the West. The conflict between the Church and the State certainly has something to do with the origin of this ideology in the West. It is often said that whereas in the West this ideology took its origin primarily in the context of Church-State conflicts, in India it grew if not born in the context of Religious Pluralism especially when there arose conflicts between religions. True, Religious Pluralism was a fact of life in India from time immemorial. In fact, some sort of minor religious conflicts arose in the context of Buddhism and Jainism. But emperors like Ashoka nipped it in the bud through various administrative measures. Even the Muslim rulers like Akbar and Hydar-ali saw to it that their rule would not lead to serious inter-religious conflicts.

            If Rigveda teaches ekam sat viprah bahudha vadanti (Truth is one but scholars speaks of it diversely) it may not have originated in the context of religious pluralism as we understand today. The chatushkoti of Vedant (fourfold opposing affirmation of a thing) and the Saptabhanginaya of Jainism (the sevenfold opposing affirmations of a thing) based on anekantvada (many-sidedness of reality) seem to depend more on peculiar mind-sets of the people rather than religious pluralism as we understand today. It is this mind-set, which produced the well-known parable of the four congenitally blind people describing the nature of an elephant by touching its different limbs.

            Though the term lokayata is similar to the anti-religious secularism advocated by Marxism in Eastern Europe and China, the Indian Marxists did not accept the lokayata brand of materialistic secularism. It is interesting for us to be aware of the following tenets of lokayata materialistic secularism:

  1. “Sacred literature should be discarded as being false.
  2. There is no deity or supernatural.
  3. There is no immortal soul; nothing exists after the death of the body.
  4. All is derived from material elements.
  5. Only direct perception (pratyaksa) gives true knowledge.
  6. Religious injunctions and the sacerdotal class are useless.
  7. The aim of life is to get the maximum of pleasure”[11].

Here it must be noted that this thoroughgoing materialistic atheism with its hedonistic slogans, Kamah paramo dharma (pleasure is the supreme religion) and Runam krutva ghrutam pibet (make as much debt as possible and drink ghee) had hardly any followers in India down the centuries. This system remained, by and large, in the text-books and in the wishful thinking and day-dreams of passionately hedonistic people. The highly religious Indian society, for whom religion is a basic-structure rather than a super-structure, never let this ideology flourish.

After independence Indian democracy willy-nilly followed the Gandhian and the Nehruvian concepts of secularism. Dr. Rudolf Heredia writes about these two and other brands of secularism in India:

“Nehruvian dharma-nirapeksata and Gandhian sarva-dharma-samabhav represent the two most significant models of secular ideologies that were subsumed into the national consensus, where ‘they are frequently mistaken for or conflated with each other’ (Bharuch, ibid; 2925). There were others too, like Tagore with his deep humanism and Lohia with his committed socialism that by and large supported rather than undermined this consensus. Eventually the various tensions and contradictions between these diverse ‘secularism’ were also fused or rather confused”[12].

In the beginning of the Preamble of the Indian Constitution the word secular was inserted in the 42nd amendment: “We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign ‘Socialist’ Secular Democratic Re-public and to secure to all its citizens…” Dr. Upendra Baxi briefly analyzes the meaning of this concept in the Indian Constitution:

i.                     the state by itself, shall not espouse or establish or practise any religion;
ii.                   public revenues will not be used to promote any religion;
iii.                  the state shall have the power to regulate any ‘economic, financial or other secular activity’ associated with religious practice (Article 25 (2) (a) of the Constitution);
iv.                 the state shall have the power through the law to provide for ‘social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of public character to all classes and sections of Hindus (Article 25 (2) (b) of the Constitution);
v.                   the practice of untouchability (in so far as it may be justified Hindu religion) is constitutionally outlawed by Article 17;
vi.                 every individual person will have, in that order, an equal right to freedom of conscience and religion;
vii.                these rights are however subject to the power of the state through law to impose restrictions on the ground of ‘public order, morality and health’;
viii.              these rights are furthermore subject to other fundamental rights in Part III;
ix.                 the Courts, especially the Supreme Court, shall have the final ‘say’ on adjudging state action as valid or otherwise under the above principles”[13].

Even during the early stages of the Indian Republic these implications of ‘secularism’ could not be practiced. Asghar Ali Engineer states:

“Also right from the beginning, the Indian Constitution had certain features which were problematic for a secular state. The Constitution provides for maintenance of certain Hindu temples (for example the one in the former state or Travancore-Cochin), from the consolidated fund of India. Can a secular state maintain any religious place, shrine or temple? Also, in its Directive Principles, it makes provision for banning cow slaughter. Such a ban could be justified for milch cattle and those animals who are young and useful but can an absolute ban be imposed on cow slaughter by a secular state? Also, the retention of personal laws poses a question. Can a secular state permit retention of different laws for different religious groups in the matter of marriage, divorce, inheritance, adoptions, etc.? The question of personal laws has assumed serious proportions in recent times”[14].

These are just few of the exceptions of the Western Ideology of Secularism in India. Even Nehru himself allowed the Congress party in Kerala to align itself to Muslim League, a party exclusively for the Muslims. In fact, the Marxist leader Nambudhiripad not only made an alliance with this Muslim party but agreed to carve out a Muslim majority area called Malapuram as a separate district because of the demand by the Muslims for this alliance. These few examples are just to show how this concept had to be restrained and restricted even at the infancy of Independent India.

[1] Dr. J. L. Paranoo (edit). Kamasutra, New Delhi: New Light Publishers, Year of publication not given, pp.17-18.
[2] Mircea Eliade (ed). New York: Maxmillan Publishing Company, Vol.13, “Secularization”, 1987, p.159
[3] Alan Richardson (edit), “Secular Secularization”, London: SCM Press Ltd., 1976, p.310.
[4] The Theology of Secularity, Dublin: The Mercier Press, 1974, p.12
[5] The Secular City, London: SCM Press, 1965, p.3
[6] Communal Threat Secular Challenge, Madras: Earthworm Books Pvt. Ltd., 1997, p.16.
[7] Encyclopaedia of Religion, Op. Cit., ibid, p.159
[8] Encyclopaedia of Religion, Op. Cit., ibid, p.159
[9] Rudolf Heredia & Edward Mathias (edit), Secularism and Liberation, New Delhi: ISI, 1995, pp.17-18.
[10] Upendra Baxi, “The ‘Struggle’ for the Redefinition of Secularism in India: Some Preliminary Reflections”, Rudolf Heredia & Edward  Mathias (edit)., op.cit., p.59.
[11] D. Riepe, The Naturalistic Tradition in Indian Thought, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1964, p.58.
[12] “Secularism and Secularisation: Nation Building in a Multi-Religious Society” in Secularism and Liberation, Rudolf Heredia & Edward Mathias (edit), New Delhi: ISI, 1995, p.23.
[13] “The ‘Struggle’ for the Redefinition of Secularism in India: Some Preliminary Reflections”, Rudolf Heredia & Edward Mathias (edit)., op.cit., pp.61-62.
[14] “Secularism in India-Theory and Practice”, Rudolf Heredia & Edward Mathias (edit)., op.cit., p.51.
Part II will be posted shortly........

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