SECULARISM AND COMMUNALISM: MOST ABUSED WORDS
Seshachalam Dutta, Ph.D. &
Shree Vinekar, M.D.
There is no equivalent to the term "secularism" in Indian languages. It was a term borrowed from the West and used without comprehending its proper meaning. It has been much abused by Indian journalists and politicians alike.
George Holyoakes's 1896 publication "English Secularism" defines secularism as:
Secularism is a code of duty pertaining to this life, founded on considerations purely human, and intended mainly for those who find theology indefinite or inadequate, unreliable or unbelievable.
Its essential principles are three:
(1) The improvement of this life by material means.
(2) That science is the available Providence of man.
(3) That it is good to do good. Whether there be other good or not, the good of the present life is good, and it is good to seek that good."
(None of the three principles are incompatible with Hindu philosophy or practice as expounded below in contrast to many other popular religions of today. In fact, there has not been any coflict with Science for the Hindus.)
Holyoake held that secularism and secular ethics should take no interest at all in religious questions (as they were irrelevant), and was thus to be distinguished from strong free thought and atheism. In this he disagreed with Charles Bradlaugh, and the disagreement split the secularist movement between those who argued that anti-religious movements and activism was not necessary or desirable and those who argued that it was.
"Secularism" is the assertion that governmental practices or institutions should exist separately from religion and/or religious beliefs.
The term secularism was pejoratively used originally by the Christian Church in medieval period. The life of a common man in Europe was so miserable with widespread poverty and various form of slavery that Church in response to such misery, to protect the Nobles, propagated the doctrine that there is no happiness in this world and only by being "faithful" believer in this life, there will be happiness in the Heaven yearned for in ones imagined after-life.
Anyone who advocates worldly pleasures was considered by the Church as secular and to be condemned. By the time of European Renaissance, with the recognition of the autocracy and corruption of the Church, the intellectuals in Europe defied the church, challenged its teachings and accepted the term secularism to characterize the worldly concern irrespective of the promise of afterlife. They drew their inspiration from the writings of the Greek and Roman Philosophers. One such philosopher was Epicurus, who held Gods are busy in their own world and have no interest in this world and Man should seek happiness and fulfillment in this world.
The Church wrongly interpreted this pragmatic philosophy of his to mean that he was advocating licentious, immoral pleasures without caring for the heavenly salvation. Epicurus never advocated anti-social or immoral behavior; he simply advocated practical form of worldliness. Epicureanism was again revived in the 19th century by many philosophers, prominently by Karl Marx whose doctoral dissertation was on this subject. Marx took anti religious position and advocated pure dialectical materialism.
All the followers of Marxism avidly espouse antireligious secularism. Thus secularism had the connotation of anti-religiousness, as well as anti-traditional social attitude. Extreme individualism and defiance of social mores and norms as we witnessed by hippies and beatniks are attributed to this thinking, again unfairly. Several 20th century intellectuals, including scientists and Humanists like Julian Huxley and Albert Einstein called themselves secularists and interpreted the term to mean that their interest was to advocate welfare of this society in this world regardless of the religious beliefs of the members of the society. This thought was already prevalent among the framers of the American Constitution, especially Thomas Jefferson, who advocated strict separation of Church and State without diminishing the spirituality of the citizens. The word secularism was never used by Thomas Jefferson or any of the founding fathers of the United States of America to characterize religious neutrality of State.
At the present day this interpretation of secularism as a principle of mainly advocating concern for the social welfare without deliberately antagonizing the Church has been accepted – the emphasis is in not to antagonize the church or faith. In fact, even Pope Pius coined the term "Secular Christianity" to promote the church priests' social activism by who-so-ever willing to be active in matters of societal interest without wearing Church insignia.
It is, therefore, clear to all who are familiar with the Indian political scenarios and also the above-mentioned senses, connotations, and authentic meanings of Secularism that the term Secularism is used in India with no clear concept except by the Indian Communists who correctly accept the atheistic Marxian doctrine of wiping out any religious influence, as Marx called it "the opium of the masses."
However, in practice the Communists in India are becoming close allies of the Christians and Muslims as most of them adopted these religions in rebellion towards to the majority Hindus prior to their espousing Communism. They do not give up their identity as a religious minority and declare themselves as atheists, especially when there are affirmative action and reservation benefits. This unholy alliance is particularly evident in Kerala, West Bengal, etc. The Maoists in India are becoming allies of the Christian missionaries. All of these related facts are mentioned to illustrate that even the communists in India are not truly Secularists in practice. Neither are they likely to be secular if they become the ruling power at the center.
Now, is there such a thing as Secular Hinduism?
Where does secularism fit in with Hinduism? The relatively new term "secular" does not apply to Hinduism which has a history of nearly 10 thousand years, because Hinduism is both secular and spiritual. Refined form of Hinduism (Upanishadic) does not advocate that "salvation" is only to be achieved in the afterlife. It advocates Man's perfection in this life, here and now, promoting spirituality as the means to achieve inner peace and tranquility in a dissonant and chaotic world; furthermore, spirituality is hoped to raise the "state of Man" to "Divine" which is seen as the highest human potential.
Example: Bhagavat Gita, chapter 2, last verse:
Esha Brahmi sthitihi Partha nainaam prapya vimuhyati,
sthitwa asyaam antakale api Brahmanirvanam rucchati
Having not attained such a state of perfection (Brahmi Sthiti) one would be subjected to illusions about the reality (and will not be free of temptations and misinterpretations of reality) and after attaining this state one will always be grounded in reality; but holding on to this state of mind even until the end of ones life- (i.e., in this world itself), one would reach divine perfection (Rucchati meaning "goes to" - Brahma Nirvana) experiencing eternal bliss and attain nirvana, (nirvana meaning liberation from all imperfect frames of reference, caused by the genetically inherited memories or by learned paradigms, with the ability to recognize the true nature of the Brahman and to identify with It as the only ultimate reality.)
There is some semantic confusion as to whether the above quote can be considered purely philosophical and extra-religious in the Hindu tradition, and whether it could even be universally applicable to all human beings as a supra-religious philosophical principle, or is it "religious" because Gita is considered to be one of the scriptures of the Hindus.
Nevertheless, one must note that this verse from Gita does not presume presence of God, presence of after-life, etc., and limits itself to the concerns of attaining a state of mind in this life that will permit one to do good irrespective of any other considerations, and ultimately liberate one even from the usual hackneyed paradigms like "theology." In that sense it is a similar stance like the "Secular Christianity" but goes deeper than focusing on not wearing the insignia.
(See "Dhee: Essence of Hinduness" Part I and II on http://www.swaveda.com/ and http://www.kalyan97.blogspot.com/ with discussion on freedom of thought and absence of dogma which make the term "Hindu Fundamentalism" an oxymoron.)
Most Hindus know that freedom of thought, absence of dogma, and even atheism are totally compatible with Hinduism, therefore, secularism even with its focus on pure materialism is not new for the Hindu thinkers (as propounded by Charvaka). That secularism does not need to be taught newly to Hindus is historically a self evident truth.
They have welcomed other religions and have practiced governance without regards to religious concerns long before the arrival of the British is well known. With all accusations about BJP being affiliated with Hindutva political philosophy, which is falsely characterized by the so-called "Secular" English media in India as anti-secular, these accusations of BJP being non-secular or anti-secular are unfouded when the governance by BJP dominated NDA government is scrutinized for its secular stance and performance in comparison to the stance taken by the Indian National Congress and policies implemented and endorsed by it when in power. (See "Indian Secularism: A Sham" Part I & II on this page)
So there is no such thing like "pseudo-secularism" in Hinduness, Hindutva, or Hinduism. There are both, secularism-this worldliness, and spirituality, which pertains to the inner life of human consciousness - in Hinduism; both of which are integral to reformed Hinduism as well as truly interpreted traditional Hinduism (as is by Kashmiri Shaivism). Both can co-exist and can be practiced concurrently by any knowledgeable Hindu. It is bothersome to hear the abuse of the term secularism by politicians and journalists alike but even more so when they portray it as totally absent in Hinduism and Hindu history or even more so when the word "secular" is used as an antonym of "Hindu."
Hinduism in its philosophy, principles, and practice is historically the most open minded and open system religion and Hindu society has historically been more pluralistic than any other society dominated by religions other than Hinduism. This is an undeniable fact which the modern so-called secular English media conveniently ignore. In the history of India there have been million Gandhis among the ordinary people all over India who have not had to be taught religious tolerance, and therefore, viewing Mahatma Gandhi as the first and only proponent of accepting other religions is also a myth that is propagated by these media.
The other abused term is "Communalism" and particularly "Hindu Communalism" which is pejoratively used to label "Hindu Nationalism", a universally accepted dignified term. On the question of Hindu Nationalism we could hold a healthy civilized debate without "name calling." The words "Communalism" and "Hindu Communalism" are essentially a form of name calling with no room for any critical thinking to analyze these terms.
What is communalism? It is not a bad word after all. People who formed the communes in the West like the Quakers and the Mormons and others who practiced collective agriculture and shared community life have used the term "communism." This word communism in this context was offensive to the orthodox leaders of these communes who associated the term with atheism as implied in Marxian parlance and hence preferred the term "communalism."
How did we get this term in India with the currently distorted usage? We have to hold the original protagonists of this term responsible for this perverted use, and others have been only blind imitators. If we want to use this term strictly, for example, it applies to Tamils in Bombay who live together and have their own linguistic groups, Bengali groups in Bihar and Assam, and Andhra Maha Sabha in Delhi or in Chennai, etc. These are aptly described as communal organizations. There is nothing wrong in socializing with a group that shares ones language and culture.
Is there anything like Hindu Communalists? Hindus are several communities or a conglomeration with different linguistic and caste divisions, as well as sub-cultures and, therefore, it is absurd to use the word Hindu Communalists.
This label or phrase of "Hindu Communalism" was framed by Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, mischievously to denigrate anyone that would advocate Hindu welfare exclusively or organize Hindus exclusively without the consent, cooperation or addition of Muslims - no body cared for Christians as a politically significant group at that time any way. The emphasis then and even now was to include Muslims at every turn in public life to fully integrate them into a homogeneous society. The ideal propagated then was that of "Hindu-Muslim Bhai-Bhai." It is a wonderful Utopian concept (hoping for the brotherhood of Hindus and Muslims,) but inherently an oxymoron considering the fundamentalism of Islam as universally and historically refractory to any change.
The attempt to unify Hindus and Muslims then in the early Independent Nehruvian India utterly failed because of the rejection of this thrust by Muslims themselves. This was amply demonstrated by Muslims when they responded to the call for Direct Action by Jinnah with their atrocious widespread violence towards the Hindus. Riots broke out throughout the country from Kashmir to Kanya Kumari, giving a foretaste of what was to come at the time of the partition of India. In any case the phrase "Hindu Communalism" gained popularity as a pejorative term to malign anyone whose philosophy was to advocate welfare and protection of Hindus exclusively even in the face of such extreme violence directed exclusively at the Hindus by the Muslims or others. As a great skilled sloganeer Nehru managed to successfully convey in one innocuous sounding term, many subcomponents of pejorative meanings including Hindu orthodoxy, narrow-mindedness, alleged hatred of all other religions, especially Muslims!
Communists chose to translate the term as "Mata tatva vadins"- "advocates of religion or religious theories."- Hindu Nationalism is not of a religious identity, it is a cultural identity of a people, albeit belonging to religions of their native land, but as one people, of one origin, one culture, one shared history, and tradition. Cultural Nationalism invokes unity of all Hindus as "Vishva Hindu" no matter where the Hindus live in the world, whether in Sri Lanka, South Africa, UK or USA; Hindu nationalism means they are "our people" and most Hindus are broad-minded to include others who have adopted Hindu culture, who use indigenous Indian languages of the Hindus, and also attires and customs of the Hindus as "our people" regardless of their religions if they would be open minded to mingle freely with them and freely associate in a harmonious manner, as exemplified in many "India Associations" in foreign countries.
The overarching concern of Hindu Nationalist is to make the public and political life of India "Hindu-centric." From the above discussion it should be clear that Hnidu-centric society and government is not antithetical to Secularism. This is not as un-modern as some seem to think. We can see examples of similar lines of thinking and social processes elsewhere outside India demonstrated by the governments that are secular in a true sense more than the current Indian Government. With diverse immigrants entering the U.S, the leftists, anarchists and libertarians argue against sanctifying any traditions. Intellectuals like Patrick Buchanan and George Will in contrast have taken a position that America is and should be Judeo-Christian centric.
Multiculturalism may be allowed so far and no further, lest the other cultures may wipe out the soul of the Nation represented by its History, tradition, and faiths. This realization also came to France recently with the influx of large number of Muslim immigrants into that country demanding special treatment to distinguishing themselves as Muslims. President Sarkosy has stamped down on this trend. Similar message was given to the Muslim immigrants by the Prime Minister of Australia. In Denmark, the traditional free press was attacked by Muslims for hurting their sentiment by printing a picture of Mohamed. The Europeans are waking up to this intrusion or overbearing attitude of the Muslims in their countries. Germany has already made the laws to certify incoming religions and restricting proselytizing. They banned the church headed by Rev. Moon and did not allow Moon to enter into Germany. Likewise, Russia instituted certification of non-Russian, non-orthodox, churches. In UK where there is relatively liberal attitude, Muslims are demanding enforcement of Sharia Law for their people with an ambition to apply it to all people in their adopted country. The British are waking up and resenting this intrusion and threats of death directed at them in the absurd "peace march" by Jihadi Muslims. People who argue against Hindu Nationalism (not communalism) should pause and think which way Indian liberalization goes. Such liberalism as is practiced under the name of secularism calling names like communalism to Hindu Nationalism will be a disaster in India if it already is not.
The Nation of Israel is based on Zionism which should be respected by anyone entering that country. Milk in coffee is not served in McDonald restaurants, for it offends Kosher. Countries like Saudi Arabia which is so vocal of protecting the rights of Muslims would not allow any non-Muslim religious symbols or scriptures into their country. As an atheistic Communist country, China was fighting Falun Gong and Unification Church of Rev. Moon. But, they do retain the ancient Chinese culture; therefore, initially supported Falun Gong which was native to their culture until political considerations caused the reversal of the policy.
From all this, there should be no surprise that Hindu Nationalists advocate the preservation of Hindu centric polity and civil society that honors the great traditions and languages of India that is Bharat. People have the freedom to celebrate Valentine day as long as they don't scoff at Vasant Panchami which is more meaningful to the Hindus. They may celebrate demons and goblins of Halloween without demeaning Diwali or Holi. When it comes to the question of opening a male or female strip joint, offending Hindu sensibility and sentiments the line has to be drawn. Anarchistic individualism is not a right, it is a concession gifted by the society in which the majority shows a generosity, for no individual can survive without organized society which should have control on the limits of individual freedom. Hindus will draw that line of limits pursuant to their tradition. That is the essence of Hindu Centric society which is not to be called "communalism."
Such efforts to maintain decency in accord with the sentiments of the majority including ban of the cow slaughter is not "communalism." This right of the majority of the community is respected in all nations and all societies. The people in the United States will not permit slaughter of dogs because this species is viewed as pets although in some Eastern countries dog-meat is routinely considered for table food.
The majority in all countries enjoy this privilege without stepping on the fundamental rights to liberty, life and pursuit of happiness of any individual belonging to any religions.
If Proselytization is a demographic assault on the majority, then the right to practice religion must not be expanded to include right to convert others, alienate and cleave them from the native traditional culture, especially the members of the majority community.
This is the contemporary crisis in present day Africa where competing Christian and Muslim proselytizing outfits have brought unending treacherous civil wars. The Pope has nothing to comment on this tragedy, while he is quite ready to condemn Evangelists who convert Catholics in Latin America; Evangelists don't believe Catholics are true Christians!
Such views of opposition to religious conversions are not "communalistic" and not even nationalistic. They are common sense mores in a live and let live type of harmonious living of groups belonging to different religions that need to learn to co-exist peacefully.
Religious freedom is not freedom to attack and convert others; nor is religious tolerance religious acceptance.
Other thought-provoking articles by the author can be read at
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