What is Secularism?
The word “Secularism” literally means temporal or worldly. It is an American concept introduced by Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA, when he coined the term “a wall of separation between church and state”. Christianity is an organised Abrahamic religion, with one religious head. The Pope heads the Roman Catholic Church, the archbishop of Canterbury is the most senior cleric of the Protestants, while the reigning monarch or the Queen of England is the Supreme Governor of the Protestant Church of England. Under them are the various denominations and congregations that herd and manage the lives of their faithful. Registrations of birth, marriages, divorce and death are done by the Church, just as baptisms and burials are. In addition to facilitating these events and maintaining records, the Church collects tithe, a mandatory contribution of one-tenth of one’s income and equivalent to a tax, used for the development of the Church. In each of these functions, the Church competes as an alternate power centre vis-à-vis the State. Gaining, or leaving, a Church membership are defining moments in a devout Christian’s life, not to be taken lightly.
Early settlers in the US were Christians fleeing religious persecution from other denominations of Christianity, and the persecuted met their tormentors who were persecuted too. So much for religious tolerance. The first wave of settlers, known as The Pilgrims, were Puritans who the Protestant Church of England religiously persecuted. The Puritans were Protestants too, but they believed the Church of England had not sufficiently reformed and had not entirely discarded all Roman Catholic practices. Hence, they deemed the official Church was not “pure enough” and stayed away from Church services, attempting to set up a parallel, “purer” Church. The Act of Uniformity 1559 imposed a fine of one shilling for not attending official Church of England services every Sunday and holy day, impacting the Puritans. As the impositions and penalties increased, they fled to Holland and then to Plymouth Colony or modern-day Plymouth in Massachusetts, USA. Likewise, the Province of Maryland was established as a “safe haven” for fleeing English Catholics persecuted by the same Protestant Church of England.
Across the USA, they came from different denominations, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, Quakers, and Congregationalists, with similar tales of persecution. They came from various Christian countries where a delicate and finely tuned power balance between the rulers and the clergy had been achieved over the generations. The newly-formed American Government briefly experimented with a State religion, but discrimination within the Church led to divisions amongst the settlers. The Government didn’t want to be sucked into religious controversies, nor did they want the immigrant population fighting amongst themselves when the American Natives were yet to be fully dealt with. At this stage, Thomas Jefferson came up with the novel idea of “a wall of separation between church and state”. The Churches favoured this separation too, as they feared an oversight by the emerging structure of civil servants or politicians would interfere with their ability to manage their denominations. Moreover, since the Church rivals and competes with the State as an alternate power centre, the separation of “Church and State” or Secularism, even in an overwhelming Christian America, worked to the advantage of both the Institutions, clearly marking out their areas of influence and power over peoples’ lives.
Today, the US Military has 210 recognised faiths that they offer chaplain services. Two American soldiers may fight shoulder to shoulder, but they will refer to a chaplain from their Church for their religious needs and spiritual guidance. They may fight shoulder to shoulder, but a member of The Evangelical Methodist Church of America will not seek solace from a Chaplain from The Evangelical Covenant Church In America. Contrast this with a typical Indian Army regiment, e.g. the religious practices of the Sikh Regiment of the Indian Army remain the same for everyone from Commanding Officer downwards, irrespective of their faiths as individuals. Similarly, in Santani practice: Is a Shiv Bhakt debarred from visiting a Ram Mandir or seeking blessings at a Durga Pandal or Ganesh temple?
This fluidity and freedom to choose one Gods and modes of worship or even way of life is possible because Sanatana Dharma is structurally different from Christianity or the Abrahamic faiths. There is no apex authority; there is no concept of controlling registrations of births, deaths, marriages, divorces or even funerals. As per Manu Smriti and the Vedas, there are eight forms of marriages, with customs and ceremonies varying as per the region, caste and local conditions. Four of these forms have been subsumed under the Hindu Marriage Act 1956, and no Hindu institutional certification, approval, registration or consent is mandatory for marriage. Specific forms of marriage that involve killing the bride’s family or abduction of the bride are illegal today, and rightly so.
Similarly, compared to the mandatory “tithe”, contributions to a temple or a Hindu religious cause are voluntary. At no point in time do these contributions take the form of a statutory obligation. There are no fines for failure to visit a temple or for not following a prescribed religious practice. Such a thought in Sanatana Dharma is inconceivable. Hindu spiritual or religious institutes do not impose themselves on the devotee and simply do not compete with the State. In fact, explicitly, Sanatana Dharma defers to the State in all temporal and worldly matters, as the physical world is ultimately deemed Maya or illusory. Temples have been known to flourish under royal or community patronage, and conversely, a flourishing temple is a projection of the ruler or community’s power and success.
A classic example of this deference to State power is Muslim-majority Indonesia, which has the world’s largest population of Muslims and the fourth largest Hindu population globally. After India, only Nepal and Bangladesh have larger Hindu populations. When Indonesia won Independence from the Dutch, the Muslim majority demanded imposition and conversion to Islam. Shocked by this diktat, the peace-loving Hindus of Indonesia launched a non-violent protest, petitioned the Indonesian Government and others and mobilised the Parisada Hindu Dharma Bali or later known as Parisada Hindu Dharma Indonesia, a reform and revival movement. The Indonesian State has adopted Pancasila as its official, foundational philosophical theory. Pancasila comprises of two Old Javanese words originally derived from Sanskrit: “pañca” (“five”) and “sīla” (“principles”). The first of these five principles is the Unity of the Belief in the Almighty God, which seemingly clashes with the polytheist nature of Sanatana Dharma with the diversity of its Gods. Instead of taking to arms or engaging in a religious war, the PHDB reformed temple practices and ceremonies to comply with the law and adopted the religion to a monotheistic form by ultimately worshipping Brahman or Acintya. Having the distinction of being a Secular State with elements of Islamic theology, Indonesia has a Ministry of Religion with a Department or each of its recognised six religions. Atheism is explicitly banned in Indonesia, and every Indonesian citizen must believe in One God! Today, Hinduism is one of Indonesia’s six officially recognised religions. The debate and emergent structure adopted is a fine example of one aspect of Indonesia’s nation-building project,
In India, this debate and discussion never occurred. Bharata never had theological Kingdoms till the Muslim invaders arrived, conquered and ruled, as per Sharia Law. Sanatana Dharma presupposes all religions to be different paths to the same almighty and accords respect and freedom to all faiths, irrespective of the personal preference of the ruler. Bharata follows the tradition of Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam, that is, the whole of humanity is a family and Atithi Devo Bhavah, that is, treat the guest as God. Ancient and modern India has given refuge to Tibetians, Parsees, Jews and even Polish refugees during World War 2.
The rise of Secularism
During the 1850s, with the rise of communist philosophies, the concept of Secularism caught on in Europe. In 1851, a newspaper editor from England, George Jacob Holyoake, claimed credit for coining the word “Secularism”. America provided a template for Europe to resolve the friction between the Church and State by the separation of powers. Secularism became the rage for godless, revolution-seeking Communists as well, and copious literature and debate ensued. Into this environment, impressionable Indians, then British citizens, sailed to England for higher education and virtually the entire leadership of the original Congress movement had been exposed to this thought.
On 15th August 1947, India gained Independence by handing over reins from the English to Macaulayputras, “a class of Indians brown of skin but English in taste and temperament”. The various facets of the nation-building project were stillborn; whether it was a national language and the interplay with the nation’s various other languages, management of our collective heritage, documenting India’s history, dropping colonial customs in the Armed Forces to imbibe the local culture or defining the collective identity as Indians. The default mode was to defer to the days of the Raj and preserve the status quo.
In fact, the Indian mind had been so subservient to their English masters that since Independence, Britain’s domestic intelligence service, the MI5 and NOT Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI6, posted a security liaison officer (SLO) in New Delhi. In the act of treason, India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) worked with the MI5 rather than the Government of India until Indira Gandhi scrapped the position in 1971, but I digress.
The depth of thought and erudition in Sanatani practices and its interplay with the rulers was never considered. At no point in the narrative was it acknowledged that temples and religious figures in Sanatana Dharma simply do not compete for State power. Even in Shivaji’s Hindu Rashtra, the State’s power was uncontested and supreme. That is why politicians from even rabidly anti-Hindu political parties can visit temples, seek blessings and receive preferential treatment from the administrators. For example, Siddaramaiah, an alleged atheist, visited Shri Manjunatheswara Temple in Dharamastala, Karnataka, while Karnataka Chief Minister. He was greeted and escorted through the temple premises by Padma Bhushan awardee, Dr Veerendra Heggade, the hereditary Administrator or Dharmadhikari of the temple. For those who don’t know, Dr Heggade is the twenty-first Dharmadhikari of the temple since its consecration by his family. Dr Heggade is not a Hindu but a Jain, while the priests are Vaishnavites, and the temple and deity are Shaivite. These differences have made no difference to Dr Heggade’s stellar stewardship of the temple or the reverence with which Hindus regard him. In my opinion, there is no greater example of religious tolerance and acceptance based on mutual respect.
The shadow of the formation of a theological State, bloodily carved out of India, further clouded clear thinking. Secularism remained an unexplored concept, imported from the West and informally imposed on the people of India. Till the Emergency was declared.
The Western concept of Secularism was corrupted and introduced in 1976 by Mrs Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. The 42nd Amendment consisted of 55 amendments and insertions into the Constitution and three words inserted into the Preamble of the Constitution. In a one-sided debate spanning 26th, 27th and 28th October 1976, the focus remained on various amendments introduced to strengthen Mrs Gandhi’s hold on Emergency-like powers in the post-Emergency world. However, with the looming power-grab that stole the limelight, the insertions to the Preamble, the words Socialism, Secularism and Integrity, were not debated but were reduced to laudatory footnotes, with Secularism remaining a vague, undefined concept.
In an interview with the Times of India, and not on the floor of the House, Mrs Gandhi coined her definition of “Indian version of Secularism” as respect for all religions and not opposition to any religion. Speaker after speaker hailed her ideals, while the esteemed Members of Parliament (MPs) forgot to point out that Fundamental Rights remained suspended. There was no debate or discussion on the need for or definition of Secularism. Some members described it as “equality of all religions”, “respect for all religions”, and “minority rights” even as no voices from Hindu samaj were heard. Dr Harvey Austin and T Balakrishnaiah were the only two MPs who acknowledged it was the generosity and tolerance of the majority community that made such a discussion even possible. The formation of Pakistan as a theological State left scars that were on display. The warped view of the MPs was the simplistic notion that Secularism was merely the absence of a theological State. The Indian State is yet to define the “Indian version of Secularism”.
The 42nd Amendment was passed. In a House of 517 members, 346 voted “Yes”, two voted “No”, the rest, in particular, Jan Sangh members, were in jail. However, the exact definition of Secularism, its appropriateness for the Indian socio-economic context, and its impact on the overwhelming majority of the country remained open for abuse by politicians chasing narrow electoral gains. Since 1976, Indian Secularism has morphed into “bashing the majority community while appeasing the most significant minority”. Anything that does not fit the “Indian version of Secularism” is labelled as “communal”. This casual approach constitutes intellectual laziness and ineptitude over generations.
Since the concept of Secularism is irrelevant to Sanatana Dharma, it is time for a full-blown debate on India’s secular ideals and a review of the insertion of the word “Secular” in the Preamble to the Constitution. The scope of the discussion must include:
A deeper understanding and recognition of Sanatana Dharma’s role in enforcing State power
The State’s role, or rather, the desired lack of it, in the administration of Hindu religious bodies
Constitutional safeguards for Hindus, especially in regions where they are numerically fewer
Introduce an Amendment to drop the word “Secular” from the Preamble and replace it with a well-defined term that reflects the generous, tolerant, liberal and accommodating nature of Sanatana Dharma and encapsulates the ethos of Bharat Desh, not that of a borrowed Western concept which was then corrupted to meet narrow political gains.