HINDUISM AND SECULARISM IN PRESENT-DAY INDIA:
SOME REFLECTIONS AND EXPLORATIONS
These reflections are written by an ordinary Indian Hindu who has had neither any theological instruction, nor any spiritual training. At the very outset, I would also like to say that I am conscious of the grave period through which our society is passing, when political challenges are being raised by Hindu nationalists against the religious and cultural traditions of Muslims, and the ‘backward’ and ‘scheduled castes.’ Such a challenge to accepted Hindu traditions of living side by side with other religious and cultural traditions is being voiced in the name of producing a modern powerful Nation-State. The secular opposition to Hindu nationalism is also being raised in the name of producing a modern scientific society. This conflict between two western-oriented elite groups, seems to me, a denial of the lived culture of the masses of Indian people. We, all of us, are aware that Hindu culture is not a homogenous one; but that it encompasses very many cultural traditions rooted in history, and in the practices of people, who have developed special identities in different parts of the country. Even broad-based caste or sub-caste identities cannot really capture all of the important traditions and distinctions that create the several social identities that go to form the peoples of India. We are told the Anthropological Survey of India identifies around 2,800 distinct communities in India.
Certainly, Europeans also have such local identities; and even today these identities are not relinquished in the interests of a homogenous European Union. The growth of European Nation-States was part of the historical process, which gave rise to European imperial and colonizing powers. It is a path which brought immeasurable suffering to Europeans and the rest of the world. There is now a clearly articulated desire among the Europeans people to rediscover their local communities and identities, to dismantle the fearful imperial nation-state edifice and to find pleasure once again, as Voltaire put it, in ‘digging in your own garden.’
The rise of Hindu nationalism as a latter-date copy of nineteenth century European imperialism, is both anachronistic and incapable of political achievement. It is a creation of some politicians in their struggle to capture power and money. However, what is disturbing is that educated Indians, and in fact the elite of the country, seem only to speak from a historical cultural understanding that they have learnt from books written in the West.
The debates of the Indian elite seem to be ignorant not only of the culture and feelings of the ordinary masses, but they also brush aside in an insulting manner the local identities of people. These identities, the respect for their own culture and history, the belief in the principles of humanity and civic duty, are all enshrined in the knowledge the common people have gained from their religious myths, their religious beliefs, and the practices, the common sayings, and the social prescriptions, of their elders. To set aside a whole belief-system as so much superstition (as the secular leaders do), or to think that the religion of the people can be manipulated for political ends (as the Hindu nationalists do) is an insulting elite attitude towards the people. Another matter of great concern is that both the secular and the nationalist approaches seem to ignore the spiritual needs of people. If religion continues to be a living web of knowledge, security and comfort for the mass of the people, it is because through ordinary cultural-religious practices, the common person can follow a spiritual path of self-discovery, and a quest for spiritual unity. Unfortunately even the so-called traditionalist today does not seem to appreciate the personal need of people to retain spiritual belief or spiritual identity.
Perhaps the colonial period has much to answer for. Indians, more than any other third world people, perhaps, began to admire the West not only for its imperial conquest of the world, but also for its industrial prowess. Such unqualified admiration among our leaders of two generations ago also discounted in equal measure the value of Indian traditions, and knowledge. A sharp reaction to such self-denigration came from a few diehards, who read into myths ‘puranic’ knowledge of modern technologies, even of atomic energy and space travel!
In the West itself philosophers earlier in the twentieth century began to express their fears about the incompatibility between the rationality of science and religious belief. The Spanish philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno, felt that the two cardinal aspects of the modern mind, the need to believe, and the need for rationality, could never be reconciled, leaving a religious person who was also a scientist alienated from the one or the other part of his life. In the early part of this century such a distinction could be made with confidence. However, this rationalist society produced the great unreason of fascism, and Unamuno himself died in despair when the fascists took over his precious University of Salamanca in 1936. Modern thinkers challenge such a dichotomy between faith and reason. The growth of powerful scientific elites, the secrecy that shrouds the development of atomic energy and bio-technology; the refusal of scientific communities to discuss important social, ethical issues in public; all has painted a picture of a power-ridden, secretive theocracy, which is as irrational as any other social group, and which is ready to indulge in half-truths and manipulations of public opinion through disinformation.
Democratic discourse between communities is highlighting the fact that ‘truth’ can never be the preserve of an elite, but is produced through open dialogue amongst all sections of the people. The great Chinese leader, Mao Ze Dong, once wrote in a simple essay that great ideas come from social practice. As he himself was to discover, when power isolates leadership, gross acts of inhumanity are likely to be committed. Positions of power by themselves create falsehood and dogmas. The Church having lost much of its political significance is no longer the powerful monolith of the earlier centuries. Following the tragedies of the two great world wars, the people of the West are disenchanted with scientific panaceas and are searching for truth in life through community inter-action; by spiritual reflection, and once again by admitting a return to Nature.
The incompatibility between religious belief and scientific rationality that haunted earlier European thinkers continues to tear us apart today in India, since our society is in transition towards a modern capitalist society. It is wrong to believe that it is only the masses who somehow have to be cajoled into accepting the modern world. All of us, within our own circles, are tormented by the incompatibility of trying to remain Indian, while accepting what seems to be the necessities of modernization. I am very conscious within myself of such a strain, of trying to be an Indian, and at the same time of living in the modern world. I remember that the same strain was felt by my father, and even by my grandfather. When to this historical strain on our individual psyches, and on our culture, is added the cruelties of political exploitation of religion, we are forced to ask ourselves what is important to us as individuals; what we wish to cherish and preserve, and what we must change or transform. After several years of trying to grow into a scientific mentality; of trying to grow into a westernized modern mentality, and of trying to understand the present-day democratic, and secular meanings; I must confess that I realize that I personally remain a Hindu, and do not really wish to be anything else.
From the Hinduism that I learnt, both from texts and from discourses with several of my elders; I saw in the ascetic Vedantic principles what was to me an acceptable complete picture of cosmic relationships. Fundamental to Vedanta is the belief that Iswara, or God as Creator, or active force, is a manifestation of Brahman, the ever present, the all pervading, that which is and that which is not, and that which can never be qualified by words. Perhaps, this is the Hindu's understanding of the concept of Holy Spirit, and the immanence of this spiritual force throughout Creation and beyond space and time. While such a belief can be seen as too ‘mathematical,’ too impersonal, it has also given rise to a realization by human beings that God is not necessarily a distant force, but is present everywhere and can be reached if the inner desire is there. The concept of Aham Brahmasmi, of God in Man, again central to Vedanta, gets spiritual meaning only when we begin to see God in other human beings, in their opinions, actions and culture. The great ascetic, Sri Sankara, developed the cardinal concepts of Vedanta in the Eighth Century AD, in my opinion, building on Buddhist knowledge, and in response to it, if you like, as counter-reformation. In Buddhism we find that the three refuges for a human being are the Buddha, or the Godhead; Dharma which is cosmic law, encompassing human justice within wider cosmic forces and processes, as the ‘Wheel of Dharma;’ and Sanghas, that is, the communities of humanity. Such a concept of a spiritual community parallels the early Church. We are reminded that Jesus said: "When two or three of you are met in my name, there am I also." The concept of the Dove of God descending on a spiritual assembly further sanctifies the belief that people in spiritual communion are more than a mundane assembly; they carry within their assembly divine promise. The Prophet Mohammed has said that His community could not be in error, and the Islamic concept of the Umma parallels the notion of the Sangha. The very working of a community of people who are consciously aware of a spiritual dimension to their work also brings the individual closely in touch with himself or herself. Every-day life then becomes a part of a spiritual pilgrimage through life.
In terms of Hindu society, I can only say that such philosophical concepts did not develop in a historical abstract; but through a process of historical struggle to come to terms with social, human realities of a people drawn from several tribes, with different histories and different cultures. In my own belief, the origins of present-day caste society must be sought for in the terrible tribal conflicts of several thousand years ago; perhaps, between Dravidian peoples of the Indus valley civilization and the Aryan tribes, who most probably came much later to the Indus valley from the Farghana area 4000 years ago. The mixing of these tribes, their conflicts and wars can all be seen reflected in the stories that go to form our Puranas, and the great epics of the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata. Many modern historians do not give any historical weight to these myths. However, as the French sociologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, has pointed out that there is logic in the way cultures remember myths; and the reason why these myths are enshrined in epics and remembered orally and faithfully over several generations. Indian philosophers, religious leaders, and even historians, have, by and large, taken an ahistorical view of the Puranas, neither caring to question the reasons for their existence, nor attempting reconstructions to throw light on the critical pre-Buddhist periods. I personally find it difficult to account for the extraordinary persistence of a highly stratified, inequitous, colour-prejudiced caste system over several thousand years, if I do not seek its origins in the bloody beginnings of Indian society itself. Europeans have come to terms with their own myths. The German scholar, Schliemann, discovered Troy by re-reading the Iliad; and even conservative modern British historians like Churchill are able to give a historical presence to the stories of King Arthur. If we try to look at the development of Indian philosophy as influenced by historical processes, by the struggles and conflicts of one tribe with another, and the development of an unjust and unequal caste society, we perhaps see that Vedanta was a way by which the individual could transcend the limitations of an unsatisfactory historical present. Buddhism itself, with its emphasis on ethical action in the present, tried over a thousand years to change the nature of our unequal caste-ridden societies. While, perhaps, its great successes can be seen translated in the blending of physical racial distinctions between tribes over this period; the counter-reformation launched by elite Hindu castes retained many of the social injustices of early tribal conquests. Militaristic hegemony of the few over the many was secured, and continues to this day. In any case, Vedanta attempts transcendence not through ethical social action, but through inner transformation.
The path of spiritual development for the Hindu was a way by which an individual could try to transcend the narrowness and limitations of lived-in society with all its injustices. In my youth I thought that the individualist goal of Moksha, or individual liberation, was too ‘selfish,’ and that it was an escape from trying to tackle social and political realities. After several decades of work, I have realized that unless the individual Hindu wishes to seek his own liberation, he will not find either the knowledge or the strength in himself to seek dharma or justice in society. The knowledge that matters is more than instrumental knowledge, or paravidya as it is called, and comes, if it does, only after attempting a spiritual journey.
The ascetic tradition of Vedanta which has come down to us, and finds its expressions in the writings of modern great philosophers, such as J.Krishnamurthi, was felt insufficient to speak to ordinary people in their need during periods of social collapse. Such a grievous period of social collapse produced the Bhakti movement, in itself, perhaps a synthesis of ascetic Vedantic traditions and the older Tantric traditions which have always existed at the village level, from before the days of the Aryans, and have come down to us from Paleolithic times, with figures of the ‘Devi,’ the great goddess of creation. Archeological work throughout the world, by scientists such as Prof. Marija Gimbutas, has revealed the strength of these ancient matrifocal, peaceful cultures that created the first civilizations of the world, and produced also the agricultural revolution. In any case, the Vedantic and Tantric traditions of India were brought together in the spiritual renaissance of the Bhakti movement, which gave courage and identity to several ordinary people 400 to 500 years ago; and resulted in the composition of intimate religious music, by Thyagaraja, and Purandara Das; and influenced the writings and poetry perhaps of even the great Sufi masters, of Kabir and Amir Kushro. Here the highest knowledge is seen as mystical knowledge available to anyone; with scholasticism being the greatest stumbling block. It is the Bhakti movement that made the figure of Rama a personal God to be cherished in the heart of the devotee to help her or him overcome the erosion of social identity; and overcome the sufferings of people during a time of societal collapse. Thyagaraja and Ramdas through music showed how the devotee can transcend the present, can ask this God, who is enshrined in the intimate recesses of the heart for complete understanding of all human weaknesses; and through a process of devotion to receive the comfort of forgiveness and the ability to forgive others for their cruelties. Rama is the Ista devata the deeply personal god of the poor and the weak, because his is the story of God who suffers as man in life. Such a personal image of divinity cannot be transformed into a political vehicle without impiety. Humanity at other times has identified with God who suffers, who redeems through His suffering, who speaks to the poor as He does in the beatitudes. This is the image of a very personal and loving God, not of a fearful authoritarian distant God. The very worship of Rama that was central to the social-religious Bhakti movement enabled ordinary poor people to reach into their own hearts, see God there, and through dialogue with this personal god to transcend the difficulties of their own lives. To take this image, to take the name of Rama, and use it for a broad political purpose is a deeply irreligious act, and cannot speak to an ordinary Hindu who has come near to Rama, through the music of Thyagaraja and Ramadas, as I have done, among so many millions of other Hindus.
The original figure of the dark Rama still remains lost in the Vedic period of inter-tribal conflict, of Aryan bowmen attacking other, settled urban cultures. Theological conservatism, and the lack of concerned anthropological or historical enquiry, continue to leave this period in darkness, fitfully lit by great passages from the epics, remembered orally for a thousand years. The Ramayana, recreated in the classical Sanskrit of two-thousand years ago, was a courtly document of ineffectual prescriptions for the kings of those times. The story was magically transformed by the Bhakti saints a thousand years later to create a social revolution among the artisans, the poor, and the others, disinherited, lost and bewildered, by the exhausting wars of the period. No attempt was made then to make Rama a figure of revanchist Hinduism; nor would it have made any sense then.
The medieval world with all its grim cruelties never asked a person to give up his or her soul into the keeping of the State. The inner integrity of the lowliest person was respected, though scant respect was paid to the physical existence of the poor. The perpetrators of cruelty knew they had been cruel. But with the modern world's refusal to acknowledge the spiritual needs of people has come ordered modern society, which has sanctioned unspeakable bestialities in the name of civilization, from the holocaust of six million Jews to the bombing of Vietnam, and now the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia, a harbinger of massive, future racial attacks on minorities in cultured Europe. In our world, despite Nurnberg, there can be no individual responsibility, guilt, or remorse, or personal agony over what action to take; no examining of one's conscience. There is only State responsibility, or that of the system, which is supposed to be a rational expression of the good of the majority. The veils of disinformation, which in a less-educated age could never come between a person and his conscience, now spread the balm of oblivion over millions; and selfish cruelty is transmuted into scientific, national necessity.
The older Indian leaders have so far failed in their enterprise to create a modern Nation-State out of Indians. Our very diversity stands in the way of social regimentation, as well as the spiritual side to life in India, which is so commonplace that it passes unnoticed. The newer Hindu nationalists are undertaking this unfinished project, and mistakenly are trying to use the strength of religious tradition for this political purpose. The modern world with its messages of nationalism, and secularism does not speak the language of India, or of the culture of India. It does not permit an ordinary person to seek a resolution to the dilemma of life. These modern forces freeze us into a period of uncertainty, and add to our alienation and mental and spiritual torture. Such forces want to make us to be something that we do not wish to be.
What the Indian of today desires more than anything else is once again to feel a sense of integration with oneself as a human being, with one's society, and the rest of the communities that make up India. The world of the Hindu was never merely a world of Hindus. It was always a world of very many different cultures, some of whom called themselves Hindu, and some of whom called themselves by other religious denominations. The ordinary Hindu learnt to find a personal identity within the refuge of the culture known from the family. Here he or she learnt that life was also a pilgrimage. This pilgrimage was enriched by the insights received from friends of other communities. Modern forces deny the Hindu the chance of undertaking a spiritual pilgrimage. They hence attack the very nature of Hindu culture. Perhaps, such attacks on the nature of Hinduism are being launched because it is by excluding several other people that the Hindu elite can make a powerful base for themselves. It was to create such bases of political power that the country was partitioned without giving a chance to the common Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs to voice their opinions. Exclusion as a social principle would destroy the very culture of Hinduism, an inclusive field of several cultures and experiences, which could not deny the validity of any path without devaluing all of its paths.
At the very end of these reflections, I remember that when Jesus was challenged as to what was the truth, he said "I am the Truth". The desire to seek the truth is in every one of us. The truth we seek can only come to light through a spiritual journey that is an intensely personal journey. Making this personal journey into a political platform destroys the very essence of religion, since the sources of worldly power are antithetical to spiritual growth. If Satanic forces, or avidya, the mantle of ignorance, can act upon this world, it is through the agency of this very confusion of choice, between inner spiritual development, and the external realities of power.
Again one remembers the story of the temptations of Christ: When offered the whole world, He refused it; for His kingdom is not of this world. Our spiritual progress should illumine paths through which this world of ours can come to reflect that City of God, which can be glimpsed, if we wish, mirrored in the inner conscience, and where He has many mansions for all His children.