Analysis

Redefining the secular mode for India

By Romila Thapar

17 January 2018

India needs to own its historical secularism, rather than reject it as an alien concept, to move the country towards more just governance.
Flickr / M. Aditya Bharadwaj

Flickr / M. Aditya Bharadwaj

Let us begin with the assumption that we want a secular society in India. How then would one define it? Very briefly, it would be a society governed largely by rational principles, such as ensuring the social welfare of all its citizens. This would be done by providing employment and a reasonable distribution of income, healthcare, access to education, and a guarantee of human rights. Such a society is possible within the framework of certain polities, since some are better equipped than others for this purpose. A secularising process is problematic since every society has multiple identities that have evolved through its history. A secular society need not deny religion (based on belief and not on rational principles), but at the same time it should not give primacy to religious organisations determining the character of the society. A secular society therefore is not anti-religious, but cannot permit religion to control the functioning of society.

Let me start with speaking about what I mean by secular. First, I would like to emphasise that the prevalent Indian definition of secularism is not only inadequate but tangential. Second, I would like to consider what is meant by secularising society as different from endorsing the secular. Third, I would like to argue that religious articulation and organisation has been historically different in India (and possibly China) from that of Europe, and our understanding of it needs rethinking. And fourth, I would like to argue that there has been in Indian thought, a strong potential for nurturing a secular society.

The definition currently popular in India either equates secularism with atheism which is incorrect; or else more commonly, it describes secularism as the harmonious co-existence of all religions, which is desirable but is not the same as being secular. This is sometimes described as the Indian definition of secularism. Its origin goes back to nationalist leaders challenging colonialism, and who used it as a counter to communalism, both Hindu and Muslim. Right wing religious nationalisms were not essentially anti-colonial. Communalism denied a shared history to Indians. It subscribed to the colonial interpretation of the Indian past and saw Indian society as a collection of discrete religious communities, such as the Hindu and the Muslim. The co-existence of religions pays virtually no attention to the negative feature that the religions were of unequal status, which is a potential source of conflict. Describing the religions as those of the majority and the minority communities, has underlined the inequality. Furthermore, in understanding secularism as the co-existence of religions, religion remains the primary factor in social functioning.

The ideology of secularism in Europe has a historical context. It was formulated primarily as a social and political ethic, which, at that point in eighteenth century Europe, was pertinent to many aspects of life and thought. As one aspect in the modernising of society, it opposed organised religious institutions that had social and political control over society. For example, it contended with the control of the Church over education, as well as the exercise of religious identities in many areas of governance.

This coincided approximately with capitalism, based on industrialisation and colonialism, becoming dominant and giving rise to nationalisms of various kinds. Since nationalisms are now virtually universal and are present in the history of most societies of the world, the debates on secularisation and modernisation are widely relevant. They have ceased to be pertinent only to the history of Europe. But our historical experience has not been identical with that of Europe and therefore we need to work out the nature and function of secularisation in our context. One obvious difference is the centrality of caste, different from class. Closely related to caste are sects characteristic of the evolution of our religions. We have to know the nature of their function in our society, varying in space and time. Secularism in India is not confrontation between Church and State since the institution of the Church competing with the State was not an Indian feature. Historically, rulers were the patrons of religious sects.

When fundamentalist groups speak about returning to pristine values, they ignore the fact that reconstructions of the past are determined by the needs of the present.

Ideological change is a constant complement to historical change. The choice that is often posed today is between reinforcing religious modes, spoken of as ‘tradition’ or ‘culture’ from earlier times, or alternately, rethinking these and introducing a secular mode into the functioning of our society. The first option is virtually annulled by the fact that contemporary Indian forms of religious organisation are not the same as they were in pre-colonial times. History changes and so do the institutions linked to it. The experience of colonialism was a social and cultural disjuncture. When fundamentalist groups of all hues speak about returning to pristine cultures and values, they deliberately ignore the fact that reconstructions of the past are by their very nature determined by the needs of the present.

Since religion has been made into the formidable counterpart to the secular, let me define religion. At one level it is the personal belief of the individual, in terms of what she chooses to worship, and the nature of the relationship between her and what she worships. This is the level that is rarely open to historical observation. The worshipper has a choice as long as the worship does not conflict with the rights of co-citizens. The other level which is of prime importance to the historian is the way in which religious ideologues organise religious institutions to function as social organisations as well. The study of these institutions and organisations illumines the nature of the society in which they are located.

There is always a tension between the two levels – between the informal and the formal. In the Hindu religions for instance, this was illustrated by the bhakti form of worship in relation to temple worship; or in Islam, between the Sufi forms and praying in the mosque. This allowed more open definitions of each religion permitting the presence of alternate forms. The equivalent religious organisations today – the varieties of the Samajas, the Jamaats, the Prabhandak Committees, and so on – are far from loosening their control on society. Quite the reverse. They are leaping into politics, even if it means performing Yogic feats to prove their competence. These activities are loudly applauded by the subservient media.

Religion involves belief in a deity or deities, which is/are believed to be the prime cause of creation. Deities can be in the image of the human or can be formless. Human society is said to function through a code of ethics and laws which are claimed as divinely sanctioned. There is a belief in an immortal soul and therefore in life after death either as rebirth or as Heaven/Hell, a belief tied into divine punishment if the social and sacred code is transgressed. The code governs the practise of religion and is also the basis of the propagation of the religion and the organisation of its followers. Such organisations interpret codes of behaviour and claim social authority.

The role of religion

This leads to the question of what is the secular. Secular ideas as potentially important to society have been a part of philosophical thinking, to a greater or a lesser degree, in virtually all societies although they may not always be recognised. I think therefore that the idea of the secular needs a fuller discussion. I would argue that secularism in its broadest meaning is a system of thinking that seeks to define the functioning of the universe and of human society without involving divine intervention. Most importantly, it does not deny religion but at the same time does not give it a role in social concerns. For me this is the crux of the relationship of religion to a secular society.

This implies that it treats deity, divine sanction and the immortality of the soul as irrelevant to the functioning of society. It gives priorities to laws, social ethics and moral codes. It regards these as made by human societies and not by any God or gods. Laws therefore, are not immutable and can be adjusted when required, without an appeal to divine sanction. When religious laws restrict social action, a secular policy could be a form of release from these. What it does imply is the primacy of civil laws governing the entire society. Identities of religion, race, caste, language and so on would be subordinated to the identity of citizenship defined as the equal rights and obligations of all citizens on the state. This of course raises other questions, some of which could impinge on the role of programmes of affirmative action in relation to other identities.

Where religion focuses on the aspirations of the individual or a particular religious community, secular values by contrast refer to and are ideally aimed at the well-being of the entire society. Policies relating to the entitlements of the citizen – social welfare, education, health, distributive and social justice and the rule of law can be, and should be, the constituents and primary concerns of a secular society. However these have to be integrated as a process of governance, since they can also be abused by those in power. Ensuring the just practice of law becomes a necessity. These are aspects of the secularising of society.

The secular state is not expected to be the patron of any specific religious activity. Unlike post-Reformation Europe – where the patronage of the king was generally confined to either Catholicism or Protestantism – Indian kings generally patronised more than one religion, and even some that were opposed to each other, such as Buddhism and Shaivism. Frequently patronage changed from reign to reign. The significant difference in the secular state is the negation of such patronage. A case in point is that when the Somanatha temple was being rebuilt, KM Munshi wanted the Government of India to finance the rebuilding, and this demand was supported by most cabinet ministers and senior politicians. But Nehru objected strongly to this, arguing that it was a secular government and the rebuilding of the temple should come from private funds. So a Trust was established and funds collected from private sources. However, this did not apply to the government subsidising pilgrims going on Hajj.

All religions do not teach the same values. For example, attitudes to violence differ: Crusades and Jihads are glorified in Christianity and Islam, the Bhagavad Gita makes violence contingent on what is believed to be evil, a belief that can be used with flexibility. I have often thought of how different the message of the Gita would have been, had the Buddha been the mentor of Arjuna on the battlefield at Kurukshetra, and not Krishna.

If secularism is not to be interpreted as merely the co-existence of all religions, then let me also firmly reiterate that it does not mean a turn to atheism, as is sometimes thought – even if atheism would solve some of these problems. The secularising of society is essentially the reconfiguration of entitlements to a decent life, and of law and ethics. It requires the relocating of religion to the extent that the institutions of religion do not have priority in the functioning of society. State financing should go to the institutions that are foundational to the welfare of society as a whole and not to those with religious affiliations. It also requires that social ethics in themselves, unconnected with religion, should be the foundation of laws binding on all citizens.

It is often argued that secularism is alien to Indian civilisation and tradition. I would therefore like to consider the veracity of this statement. The constituents of secularism which make up the concept are not alien to Indian thought, although as a concept it was not given a label. Both history and philosophy provide evidence of a concern with these ideas in various forms. The most frequently evoked king in connection with religious tolerance, is of course Ashoka Maurya. In his edicts he calls for not only the co-existence of all religious sects but equal respect for those who represented them, irrespective of whether they were brahmanas or Buddhists. Akbar too, many centuries later, echoed these sentiments and called for respecting all religions, emphasising what he thought were their common features. Harshavardhana of Kanauj, like most Indian kings, patronised more than one religion – even those that were on occasion antagonistic to each other, such as the Buddhism and Shaivism. Similarly, Aurangzeb included brahmanas and jogis as recipients of his patronage. But this was not secularism, since the focus remained on the pre-eminence of religion. Royal patronage to more than one religion is different from secularism. Its purpose was often to invoke religious authority in order to serve political ends, to provide a kind of catchment area of support for the king as the patron.

However, what is closer to secularism but is seldom quoted these days, is Ashoka’s definition of dhamma / dharma, which he defines as a social ethic rather than religion. Many of his edicts refer to what he thought of as the social responsibilities and relationships among various categories of people and these were unconnected with any religion. This was an idea fostered by Buddhism, Jainism and other sects opposed to brahmanical orthodoxy. This could be a hint of endorsing the secular although it still cannot be called secularism.

Viewed historically religions are created by men and women in response to personal or social concerns. The organisations that grow from religious roots are mechanisms of propagating religious ideas, assisted often by access to resources and power. This encourages the creation of relationships ranging from co-existence to confrontations. These are situations of religious plurality, but are inevitably conditioned by a hierarchy of dominance and subordination. This remained characteristic of India over many centuries, although the status of sects could change over time. To some extent this was tied into the structure of caste society, where large caste clusters defined and adjusted their religion to accord with social needs. Today we read their motivation as religious, but often the religious sect and its status represented the outcome of social and political assertion.

For the larger part of the Indian population, religion has been neither monolithic nor uniform. For those calling themselves Hindus, there was no historical founder, no single sacred book that was viewed as the most authoritative by all, no ecclesiastical organisation culminating in a Church, no rites of conversion and no over-arching identity that drew in all related sects. Muslims and Christians had all these but they too – until recently – were fragmented into sects. The practise of their religion responded to local needs, custom and caste, rather than an assumed monolithic unity. Thus the Mapillah Muslims of Kerala and the Meo Muslims of Rajasthan had only a little in common in their practice of Islam, beyond praying in the mosque (even if all of them did so). The social code or shari’a was considered essential to Islamic observance, yet the same shari’a did not hold for all Muslims. Sectarian confrontations have littered the history of Islam, not least being the continuing divide between Sunnis and Shias that accounts for so much bloodshed. As with Hindu society so with the Islamic, sectarian differences are frequently rooted in caste/zat, and region, especially in relation to customary law, and also in considering economic disparities. The religious process therefore was different from that experienced in Europe, where Christianity was the sole religion, despite the split into Catholocism and Protestantism, and the Church was the singular institution.

It is only in recent years that there has been a process of what has been called Islamisation, where the intention is to wipe out divergence and have all Muslims observe a single official form of Islam. This is parallel to current attempts to reformulate Hinduism. The efforts of Hindutva for example, are aimed at creating a Syndicated Hinduism – a Judeo-Christian-type religion. The reason for this change is undoubtedly because such a version can be more easily manipulated and organised for political mobilisation, particularly against the idea of secularising society.

In some ways a disjuncture in the understanding of religion in Indian society came with colonialism: colonial policy redefined the concept of religion in India. It cut across the pluralism, the blurred edges and the overlapping forms of the many religious identities, and instead created sharply demarcated community identities with a sense of religious uniformity within each community. Such identities had existed to a limited extent in pre-colonial times, largely restricted to the ruling class. But even the elite hardly saw themselves as members of a monolithic community because upper caste practices differed from those of lesser castes. The Muslim Sayyad, Momin and bhishti, did not see themselves as a single community; nor did the Sikh khatri mix with the Mazhabi Sikhs such as the Ramgarhias, let alone the brahmanas with the candalas. The general population happily crossed the boundaries of formal religion and caste codes, and supported whichever deity or practice appealed to them, identifying themselves by sects that remained ever fluid.

In the late nineteenth century these identities were shuffled into a hierarchy in the census, requiring each person to choose an identity from among the half-a-dozen religious labels provided. This denied a shared history and replaced it with a history of religious communities each occupying a separate vertical slot in society. Religious groups began to re-orient their relationships in the new context of the colonial polity. Not that such re-orientations had not happened in the earlier past, but the earlier identities were more fluid, had greater continuities and plurality was maintained.

Morality, legality and spirituality

Moving away from supposedly divinely sanctioned laws is not impossible. In the last century we have experienced two major debates on religious law and society. The status of the Shari’a and its legal interpretation in a democratic society, was discussed in terms of updating it in the period just prior to 1947, but the debate seems to have petered out with Partition. Subsequently there was a debate on the Hindu Code Bill. Still later, changes in the status of the Dalits in India were a rejection of the Dharmashastra codes. Such steps can be extended further as secular laws.

To argue for a secular state in India today is not easy. Its implications are misinterpreted or misrepresented, often deliberately so. It is equated with Westernisation and described as a Western imposition on what is projected as the Indian tradition. Not surprisingly the more materialist modes of Westernisation, such as increasing personal wealth through neo-liberalism, with declining attention to the economic growth of the larger numbers of people, are not objected to. These are not seen as the imposition of Westernisation through corporate capitalism, even though they are directly and overwhelmingly so. With all of us now entangled in an international market economy, any charge of Westernisation is pathetic.

Adherence to this economy has introduced substantial change in Indian society: there is the insecurity of a competitive system moving away from familiar moorings and creating new social mores. The resulting cultural alienation, not always recognised as such, brings many social problems. One among these is the visibility of middle-class NRIs as role models, some of whom are attempting to recreate an imagined ‘shining India’ of the past, by deliberately misinterpreting history and fostering religiosity as a palliative for alienation, a palliative that is also attractive to middle-class India.

As a result of these changes there is also a refusal to concede a kind of proto-secular thinking which has been present in Indian thought for many centuries. We need to remember that confrontations between philosophical ideologies with some supporting religion and others opposing it, are not a recent phenomena. They are a continuing feature of Indian history since earliest times. It is sometimes argued that philosophical materialism did not exist in Indian thought as it did not produce a major text in the Indian tradition. Others claim that such texts did once exist but were subsequently suppressed. However, the teaching was obviously known, was effective, and was powerful. It is referred to and reflected in lengthy passages in the texts of those trying to refute it. From the third century BC to the seventeenth century AD, there are references to debates on the questions raised by materialist philosophy with quotations from those endorsing this perspective. Despite the erosion of texts therefore, it remained a presence that had to be contended with.

A brief summary of philosophical views suggests that Indian philosophical schools and ideologies from earliest times were divided into two broad categories, and each of the two called the other pashanda: heretical or fraudulent. The two were the Astikas and the Nastikas. These can be loosely translated as the orthodox or conservative thinkers and the heterodox. The Astikas accepted deity as the first cause, accepted rebirth and the conditions it brought as the result of actions in a previous life, and regarded the Vedas as divine revelation; and by contrast the Nastikas, denied deity and theism as well as rebirth and the immortality of the soul and rejected the sanction of the Vedas. The Nastika sects ranged from the Lokayata, later called Charvaka, to Buddhists and Jainas, all frequently in disagreement with each other but nevertheless opposed to conservative views.

The heterodox were initially itinerant teachers, addressing the audiences that gathered in parks on the edges of cities. The debates were sharp and contentious, the Buddha describing some participants as wriggling like eels around an argument, quibbling over the finer points. Logic was the lamp of learning. They held that the universe is self-created, and according to some its source is the combining of four elements – earth, air, fire and water. These elements also create the body, with its tangible proof of life which is terminated at death. There is no immortality, no soul, and everything dies with death.

They argued further that evidence can come only from perception and from defining a cause, and not from inference – smoke can only be identified if a fire can be perceived. Knowledge comes from the perceptions of bodily sense organs. One should rely on evidence, causation, and rationality, not on fate or supposed divine sanction. Rituals are invented by brahmanas just to earn a livelihood. Caste is an artificial creation and is not divinely ordained. Laws are also man-made and can be changed. Where a few advocated a hedonistic lifestyle, many – such as the Buddhists and Jainas – propagated the establishing of social ethics as the mainspring of human behaviour, where the laws and values of society should relate to how one treats one’s fellow human beings.

My intention in giving this rather inadequate summary is to point out that these ideas were constantly debated. They were clearly in opposition to Vedic Brahmanism and to the later Puranic Hinduism. Not surprisingly, ritual texts of Hinduism, such as the Puranas, treat these ideas with sarcasm, but in the philosophical texts they are the source of serious discussion. Philosophical schools seeking to establish themselves had either to refute or else make some concession to heterodox thought. This is particularly so in the period from the eighth to the twelfth centuries AD, when interestingly the Hinduism of the Puranas was being widely established especially among the elite. The references in these texts to the Nastikas being the ‘mahamohas’, those that delude and create illusions was to be expected, given the competition between the two.

The fourteenth century compendium of philosophical schools, the Sarva-darshana-samgraha, composed by the philosopher Madhavacharya, begins with a discussion of Charvaka views on rationality. Passages are quoted from Charvaka teaching and are refuted, nevertheless this refutation cannot hide the presence and significance of this teaching. Even though in Brahmanical texts the heterodox are linked with peripatetic teachers, drop-outs, and renouncers, all the same they could not be over-looked. Colonial scholars in the nineteenth century enquired about philosophical schools from their brahmana informants who predictably gave precedence to the Astika view and the Nastika was set aside. We today do the same.

Under the umbrella of what came to be called Hinduism in the colonial period and parallel to the orthodox religion, were a variety of sects of many centuries before. These ranged from the Bhakti sects of the Vaishnavas, Shaivas and Shaktas, the Buddhist and Jaina sects, those of the Nathapanthis, and of the Sufis, among others. They were not necessarily atheist, in fact few were so. But they reiterated the basic characteristic of religion in India which primarily meant the freedom to choose or even to create one’s religion. This happened when a group would come together with a teacher and be recognised as a sect, and the sect often became a caste. An example of this is the origin and history of the Lingayat sect and caste of medieval times. Its teaching was opposed to Vedic Brahmanism and its caste base was mixed. But today it is both a distinct caste with its own hierarchy of jatis and a religious sect, and playing a central role in the politics of Karnataka. In a sense this illustrates the point that the larger religion was a mosaic of sects, which possibly allowed smaller groups in society to co-exist with lesser confrontation. In the juxtaposition of secularism with religious organisations in such contexts, there are inevitably new questions seeking answers.

The Indian context

The history of religion in India is, therefore, different from that of Europe. If a secular response is to be sought it will have to be in the context of this difference. Hence the need for a new understanding of the role of religion in the history of Indian society, as well as a redefinition of secularism to mean more than just a co-existence of monolithic religions. In such a redefinition, the establishing of a social ethic from a secular position, far from being alien to Indian tradition, would be in the mainstream.

In what I have said so far, I am not arguing for the abolition of religion or for replacing it with Nastika philosophy. But I am arguing that we put religion where it belongs – namely as one component of Indian society. It is by no means the principal feature that has subordinated all others, as some have argued. Furthermore we should not allow religious identities to override the essentials of social functioning and governance. I have argued that the range of thinking from theism to atheism has been present in India almost throughout its history, and has been constantly under discussion. An awareness of this would be of help today before we rush to dismiss some ways of thinking, such as materialist philosophies, by calling them alien. That the social ethic and the laws that go to support it are not dependent on divine sanction, and that the existence of deities can be doubted, are ideas familiar to us since antiquity. In the past they were more openly debated, but today this would be opposed for fear of the multiple claims to hurt religious sentiments. The real purpose of such claims is to deny freedom of discussion and to facilitate the political mobilisation of religious groups.

In Europe the Church hounded non-theistic thinking, banned the texts and burnt the thinkers. In India the Nastikas occasionally met with a violent end as when Buddhist monks were killed in Kashmir and Jaina monks were impaled in Tamil Nadu. But this did not prevent their ideas from being continuously discussed. We need to bring our heterodox traditions once more into the mainstream as an enviable heritage representing an impressive way of thought. This would legitimise critical enquiry and the rational basis of causation, so essential to knowledge and to social wellbeing. For obvious historical reasons I am not suggesting that this tradition constitutes secularism. However, if secularism is treated as a philosophical concept it could find roots in earlier forms of Indian thought, should such roots be required.

The need to introduce the secular mode into governance in India is urgent for at least two reasons. One is that religions in India are being reformulated as monolithic structures with little flexibility. This disallows even the freedom of religious expression and reiterates religion as the central feature of social functioning. Belief is becoming hide-bound. Social ethics have to conform to the supposedly immutable and divinely sanctioned laws. These are often inventions of our times to overcome the problems we face, and have little to do with earlier social codes. The ironic use of the term ‘honour killings’ is a recent example of this. The intention is to disallow freedom to women and Dalits when they transgress the social code, by murdering them and then justifying the murder as a way of upholding traditional caste codes.

Religious communities frequently claim that their sentiments have been hurt by what is said in a particular book. This is an easy way to demand the banning of the book. Such books are those that suggest that we reconsider our identities and review our social codes. The source of such demands usually lies in a religious fundamentalist group which claims to speak for an entire community – and gets away with it because the Indian intelligentsia takes it lying down. A demonstration of this inability to stand up to being browbeaten, was the recent decision of the Academic Council of Delhi University, to remove from the syllabus, a thought-provoking essay by Ramanujam on the variant versions of the Ramayana. Is this because of apathy and unconcern, or the fear of yet more physical assaults by political gangs using the cover of religion, or, as in the cartoon controversy, not wishing to lose a political vote bank even at the cost of destroying a basic function of education?

This is not altogether unconnected to the fears and insecurities introduced by various contemporary economic and social changes. The process of Hinduisation and of Islamisation and suchlike are seen as defence mechanisms, although they often aim at political provocation. The presence of religious fundamentalism is not always directly confrontational. More often it is subtle, and subtle in a variety of ways – in news reports on riots, in advertisements in the media, and in many programmes presented on TV. Subtlety has a lulling effect and the idea of the secular finds decreasing resonance in Indian society.

The second reason takes me back to my earlier statement about the two levels of religious belief – the personal and the public. When religion becomes an organising agency and intervenes in controlling social relationships, it diminishes the possibility of a secular society. The secularising of society means that governance has to focus on what is essential: social welfare ensuring basic needs such as water, food, healthcare, access to quality education, income distribution and employment, and a guarantee of human rights not just in law but in practice. These are not to be treated as isolated items, as they often are, but as an integrated pattern of the polity. The ensuring of these essentials means pro-active governance willing to face confrontations from organisations geared to religion, and already controlling many of these activities, or where they are in effect a political lobby.

Negative discrimination continuing from the past cannot be annulled only by affirmative action in the present. There has to be a removal of the factors that encourage discrimination. It is only when a society does not have to make concessions to specific identities and there is a universal availability of the constituents of social welfare that such a society can be called free and democratic. We are a long way from that.

We today may perhaps still have the freedom to choose the values that should govern our society. Should we support a politics that allows religious communities to direct the form of our future and thereby continue to fracture it, or, should we demand a society that relocates religion through a process of ensuring the primacy of social ethics, laws and values as intrinsic in themselves and not claiming religious sanction. In short, the focus should shift from the co-existence of religions to the co-existence of citizens, with equal access to rights and a commitment to obligations, guarded by the vigilance of a free and just society.

~ Romila Thapar is one of the foremost historians of India and Professor Emerita at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has published seminal books and is the recipient of many awards.

~This essay was first published in January 2013 

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