Sacred Roots of Secularism

Paulos Mar Gregorios

Even Marxists see today that religion needs reinterpretation. It may (or may not) once have been the opium of the masses. Perhaps some Europeans in the nineteenth century, including Marx and Engels, saw it that way. But today, in twentieth century India, religion is anything but a soporific, lulling the oppressed to quiescence and inaction. It rouses the vilest passions and activates the most murderous hatred; it drives people to the frenzy of loot and arson. In the name of Ram or Allah, people take the law into their own hands and demolish ancient mosques, desecrate deities and enter other people’s mandirs, with sinister defiance to commit sacrilege in the sanctum sanctorum. Drunk, perhaps, but certainly not opiated.

Ayodhya and the aftermath have shown us that Hindus and Muslims are not very different at this point. Perhaps Christians and Sikhs are not either. But is this religion? Is this what the Sanatana Dharma and the Quran teach?

Would all this have happened if politicians had not entered the fray, both in Ayodhya and in the aftermath? Ayodhya was not a religious issue to start with. Politicians beguiled unsuspecting Hindus to think it was, in order to get their votes. In the aftermath too, the politics of vote - getting has fanned the flames of rioting.

The aftermath story will not fully come out till at least ten years later. Better so, since the situation remains frighteningly volatile. But the few first hand reports the present writer has heard confirm the view that some politicians have not yet turned saints. They use the situation to settle old political vendettas.

Is that politics? Is that what the Dharmasastras and the Shariath teach?

Clearly, the problem is not the simple mixing of religion with politics as such, but the horrid marriage of decadent religion and rotten politics.

Anyone can ask the question: What is Hindutva? What is Islam? Even the second question is not so easy to answer, because opinions vary. The first is notoriously difficult to answer.

What is Hindutva? First, the word Hindutva is not at all in the Indian tradition. It is a purely political word of recent creation. One searches in vain for the word Hindu in the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Even the word India, one finds in Herodotus, but not in our classical Indian tradition.

The Samhitas or collections of scriptures usually are divided into four aspects: jnana (Knowing Ultimate Reality), yoga (method of self-realisation), Kriya (consecration of temples, deities etc.) and carya (personal discipline). Within these four aspects, there are myriads of possibilities and no compendious account can be given. Any summary of the Sanatana Dharma will be necessarily selective.

My good friend Chaturvedi Badrinath will expound the original meaning of dharma as that which upholds all reality, the undergirding principle of all existence, beyond all mata and sampradaya. Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, who was President of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh when he died in 1968, in strange and bizarre circumstances, thought along the same lines. The present writer agrees with them both, and thinks that the essence of dharma is to be found in the quality of our relationship to reality and to each other, rather than in any dogmatic teachings; also that essence is, or at least should be, acceptable to Hindu and Muslim, Buddhist and Jaina, Christian and Sikh, and even to those who profess no religion.

The debate should centre around three points:

1. Which is the more correct interpretation of Sanatana Dharma, that of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya or V. D. Savarkar’s notions of Hindutva and Hindu rashtra as further expounded by M. S. Golwalkar? How do Mahatma Gandhi’s teaching relate to the Sanatana Dharma and to Golwalkar?

2. Can any interpretation of Sanatana Dharma or of the Shariath justify the demolition of the mosque or “structure” at Ayodhya, or the bloody vandalism in the aftermath?

3. Are there elements common to Sanatana Dharma and the Shariath on which all of us in India can agree and on the basis of which we can live together as a pluralistic polity?

What is Islam? What is its essential message? What sense can we make of Swami Vivekananda’s dictum that the equality of all human beings propounded by Vedanta is most practically achieved in Islam?

It is practically impossible to get any agreement about the essence of Islam among the diverse Muslim sects - Shias and Sunnis, Sufis and Wahabis, Deobandis and Brelvis, Even more difficult is the gap in understanding between the mullahs and maulavis on the one hand and the educated Muslim on the other. Both are minorities among Muslims; the common people among the Muslims of India are caught between the two.

A scholastic summary of Islam would be the five aspects of iman or faith, in Allah, in Angels, in the Quran, in God’s messengers, and in the last day of Judgement; and the five practical aspects: the Shahadah or bearing witness to the One God, the Salat or Namaz or prayer and worship the Zakat or acts of charity, the Sawm or fasting and the Haj or pilgrimage. One reason why the maulvis do not want to encourage too much secular western education is that they fear it might go counter to many of these faith aspects and practical aspects.

The maulvis do not want the spread of Western ‘secularism’ in our land. Therefore they do not want Muslim children to have too much of this western education. They are much more opposed to secularism and secularisation than even the BJP or the Hindu Virat Sabha. The maulvis look upon the educated Muslims as betrayers of the Islamic heritage, and have difficulty in regarding even Aligarh Muslim University or the Jamia Millia Islamia or Jamia Millia Hamdard as friends of Islam.

Islam, in principle, encourages the acquisition of all knowledge. But the maulvi thinks of Knowledge primarily in terms of kalam or theology. Is it possible to acquire modern scientific and technological knowledge without accepting its secular basis? Can our Muslim universities and other institutions of education pioneer projects to develop an educational curriculum which imparts modern knowledge on the basis of Islamic faith?

Secularism as such is not going to solve the communal problem; in fact, it will only confound the issue. Can our ruling elite see that far?

Perhaps the Hindu Virat Sabha and the Marxists can take some cues here. In order to build a genuinely pluralistic, democratic, united India, what is needed is not so much the promotion of either secularism or Hindutva, but the provision of dharmic or true Islamic alternatives to the secular ideology as a basis for knowledge. These alternatives should of course, be developed, in open debate and in friendly dialogue among contending positions. Secularism is no basis for the unity of Secular Democratic India. That basis can come only from the pluralistic, mutually respectful co-operation of many traditions. That is the essence of Sanatana Dharma, as we have practised it in India for millennia, of course with sad and notable exceptions.

(From: Indian Currents, Vol. IV, No, 19, p. 4)