The religious another

Secularism’s place should be taken in future by pluralism.

Published: October 11, 2013 5:09 am

Secularism’s place should be taken in future by pluralism.

All Indian political parties subscribe to secularism. Used without reflection,the word has come to mean many things. In any event,it does not reflect either our tradition,or what we need. We should subscribe to pluralism.

In order to assess the significance of this claim,one needs to be clear about the distinction between the two. To appreciate that distinction one must begin by realising a common feature shared by both. Both secularism and pluralism wish to prevent any one religion from dominating the public sphere through that religion becoming associated with the state,and hence both support the separation of religion (or “church”) and state. Both would like to safeguard the public square from it being dominated by a majority religion by disallowing any connection between “church” and state. But although they might support the same position,they do so on different grounds. Pluralism is the idea that all religions are equally valid; secularism arose in a society pervaded by the idea that only one religion is valid. So,from a secular perspective the state should be kept away from religion because that one religion may no longer be valid in the sense it was considered valid earlier,or because religion itself is no longer considered a valid way of looking at life any more the way it used to be. From a pluralist perspective,however,the state must be kept away from any one religion because all religions are valid. Thus,while secularists and pluralists agree on the proposition that state and religion should be kept apart,they are doing so for different reasons,and that makes all the difference. Even though the Indian National Congress accepted the idea of the separation of church and state,Nehru and Gandhi accepted it for different reasons. For Nehru,no religion was true,hence the state should avoid it; for Gandhi,all religions were true,hence the state could not espouse any one religion.

In order to recognise the distinction between secularism and pluralism more fully,another example might help. For instance,a holiday on Sunday can be supported on both secular and pluralist grounds. Recreational grounds for having a holiday on Sunday,in keeping with the weekly rhythm of the global workplace,would be secular in nature. However,arguing for a holiday on Sunday so that Christians could go to church would be pluralist in nature (which would involve recognising Sabbath for the Jews and Friday for the Muslims in the same spirit).

This distinction between secularism and pluralism is not as theoretical and far-fetched as it might appear at first sight. It is clear from the fact that it is reflected in the different understandings of the secular state between Nehru and Gandhi,and is also reflected in the two terms coined in India in the context of secularism. The first term is dharma-nirapeksa. This reflects Nehru’s understanding of it,for whom religion belonged to the past and the future belonged to science alone. So the state should have nothing to do with religion because it was something backward,the opium of the masses. This concept of secularism implies a negative assessment of religion. The other term used to represent the word secularism in Indian languages is sarva-dharma-sama-bha-va. That is to say,looking upon all religions as the same,not in the sense that they are all the same and there is no difference among them,but in the sense that all are equally entitled to our respect and consideration. This reflects Gandhi’s understanding of the term,who identified religion with morality and respected all religions. For Gandhi,unlike Nehru,religion was not something to be avoided but to be inculcated,but without giving preference to any one religion.

It was the Nehruvian understanding of secularism that became paradigmatic in Indian political discourse after Gandhi passed away in 1948. The concept was embodied in the Constitution adopted in 1950,and the word “secular” was inserted into the Constitution in 1976. While it might be true that the word secularism admits many shades of meaning,we use it here to mean Nehruvian secularism as articulated and practised by the Congress. And as pluralism might also admit many shades of meaning,especially in a neo-Hindu context,it might be useful to specify that we use it here to mean Gandhian pluralism.

Why should we subscribe to pluralism rather than secularism? For two reasons,historical and futuristic.

Not only is secularism a Western word foisted upon India,it is also a word increasingly losing its relevance in the broader sense,although its focus on the separation of the church and state remains relevant. The word secularism in general is as ambiguous as it is popular. Nevertheless,it could reasonably be maintained that,in its European context,it embodied three ideas: One,that the role of religion will continue to decline in public life,with the attendant hope that its place will be taken over by rational and scientific thinking; two,that as a corollary,religion will become an increasingly private affair; and three,that the state will have no formal religion of its own — that is to say,it will not support any religion,and certainly not at the expense of other religions.

Parties or people that use the word secularism subscribe to these views in different degrees. Parties with a socialist bent accept all three propositions,the communists even hoping that religion will not only play less of a role in public affairs,but ideally disappear altogether,representing,as it does,“false consciousness”. Western liberal thought tends to be more accommodating of religion,inasmuch as it allows it to retreat into the private sphere,and some political parties may share this view. However,the aspect of secularism on which all parties agree is its central plank of the separation of church (or religion) and state.

The Congress accepted all three meanings of secularism in line with Nehru,but two of them have been called into serious question by historical developments since then. The role of religion in public life continues to decline in Europe,but this was supposed to happen all over the world. Europe’s past was supposed to be the world’s future,but it hasn’t turned out that way. The profile of religion in public life has also been rising in many parts of the world,including the US,instead of it being reduced to a merely private affair. So two legs of the tripod mentioned above have become shaky. It still stands on the last and crucial one,as much because,according to Hinduism,all paths are valid,although according to secularism of the deepest dye,none might be. Both these seemingly opposite positions conspire to keep it firmly in place.

Thus secularism in its broadest sense is passé,and in its narrowest sense overlaps with pluralism. Its place should be taken in the future by pluralism for both international and national reasons.

In order to understand the international need to promote pluralism,one should realise that secularism,both in Europe and America,arose in an inter-sectarian context. Various Christian sects had taken to fighting one another,especially during and after the Reformation,and so it was decided to keep the state unaligned with any sect. But all these sects were Christian. So there was this umbrella religion over all the sects and the state,even as they steered clear of each other. So secular tolerance arose in a context of a plurality of Christian sects,rather than many religions. Unlike secularism,which arose in an inter-sectarian context,pluralism arose in an inter-religious context. The inter-religious context is going to become increasingly important as the world continues to globalise,rendering the concept of pluralism more relevant to contemporary life.

The national reason is that India,as a nation,had a long tradition of dealing with religious plurality by embracing religious pluralism rather than secularism. One can trace this line right from Gandhi,through Akbar and Ashoka,back to the Atharvaveda,wherein the seer marvels in the Prithvi- Sukta (XII.1.45) that the earth supports people following different dharmas (na-na-dharma),and even to the Rigveda (VII. 93.13),wherein the seer marvels at the fact that cows of different hues all produce milk of the same color. From the Indian point of view,pluralism means that there is no religious other,only another.

The writer is Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University,Canada

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