Religion, Modernity and Politics – Some Reflections on ‘Secularism’

I am grateful to Ravi Sinha for his post responding to the question of religion and politics that arises out of the brief exchange between Subhash Gatade and myself on Subhash’s post some time ago. Much has happened since the first draft of this response was written and with the advent of Narendra Modi as prime minister, ‘secularism’ too is back in public debate with renewed vigour.

Meanwhile, with Shiv Visvanathan entering the debate, flogging the long dead secularist horse, sections of the liberal and left intelligentsia seem to have gone into a tizzy. Shiv’s argument merely restates in 2014 what political analysts like Ashis Nandy had been saying at least since the mid-1980s and it does so without its nuance. The long and short of this argument is that secularism is the creed of a deracinated English-speaking, West-oriented elite which cares little about the beliefs and ways of thinking and being of the majority of their compatriots. (See also Visvanathan’s piece in Economic and Political Weekly, May 31, 2014, on ‘Narendra Modi’s Symbolic War’)

Somewhere between the two poles of the fast-dwindling tribe of the Leftist gung-ho secularist and the breast-beating liberal, the possibility of a serious debate dies a quiet death. The 1980s-1990s debate on secularism had raised all the important questions about secularism and its problematic practice that Shiv Visvanathan’s piece raises but which, it seems bypassed a whole generation of Leftists who either still seem to find it scandalous to relate to religion or are suddenly discovering their alienation or worse, the virtues of religiosity. Needless to say, such a rediscovery, in the face of political adversity is not likely to be anything more than instrumental use of religion.

The issues in 2014 invite us to revisit and indeed, go beyond what the earlier debate allowed for.

In what follows, I wish to respond to some of the issues that emerge in the debate, taking for the sake of convenience, Ravi’s response as representative of the first position (those who find any suggestion of taking religion seriously, scandalous). I will however not respond each proposition separately.

The Secularism Debate

There are two major difficulties one confronts in responding to Ravi Sinha’s article. The first, that it purports to avoid all reference to the actual history of secularism or the long debate around it in India itself (for about three decades now). The cavalier fashion in which he dismisses that entire body of thinking since the early days of the Ayodhya movement, seems to be certainly symptomatic of the dominant Leftist/ Marxist tendency to stay within its comfort zone and avoid all ideas that can make it uncomfortable. Here is what he has to say by way of dismissing it:

Many of the axioms of such a debate – e.g. church-state separation was specific to the west and even there it hasn’t worked; religion can never be separated from politics; such a separation, if it were to happen, would exclude the believers from the polity; in a multi-religious society only the maxim of “Sarva Dharma Samabhav” can be the desirable policy of the state; etc – do not appear obvious or acceptable to me. [Emphasis added]

His rendering of each one of these propositions (which for some reasons he chooses to call ‘axioms’), constitutes a misrepresentation, based largely on hearsay. The question of whether these propositions are acceptable or not, is a matter that has to be argued. They cannot simply be dismissed by saying that they “do not seem obvious” – which they certainly are not. And the reason why they are not obvious is because these propositions emerge from a re-examination of the received history of the secular ideal itself. Ravi, by refusing to enter into a debate on the critical issues involved here, prefers to stay with the supposed ‘obviousness’ of received history, or what Althusser had more damningly called the ‘obviousness of the given’, of so-called ‘common sense’.

The second difficulty in responding to him has to do with his refusal to engage with the actual practice of the Left movement in this country itself. One would imagine that if one refuses to engage in any debate with those who are derisively called ‘academics’ or ‘intellectuals’, then at the very least, a Leftist should be able to discuss how, in the actual history of the Left movement in this country, this issue has played itself out and why the Left has been unable to find an adequate response to the religion question. When I say ‘adequate response’, I mean evolving an approach that is able to deal with a key question that should be part of any serious Left agenda – that of social and cultural transformation. A position that affords one the comfort of purity but takes the Left away from the very ‘people’ or the ‘working class’ in whose name it exists (to the extent that it does), puts the activist in pretty much the same position as the much-berated ‘intellectual’. To my mind, we can proceed with the debate only if we take the theoretical/ academic debates and the practical empirical ground of Left politics as our point of reference. Without that the debate is bound to be reduced to a mere assertion of positions, which is anything but productive.

Let us start with what Ravi refers to as the second ‘axiom’ (of the protagonists in the academic debate) in the first quote above, namely, that “religion can never be separated from politics; such a separation, if it were to happen, would exclude the believers from the polity”. This, strictly speaking, was not the position of any of the protagonists in the first debate (1980s and 1990s), except TN Madan who ascribed this feature to the roots of secularism in Protestant Christianity and therefore thought the experience could not be replicated in other cultures. There is something to be said in favour of this position as well but the key issues that had a more immediate political relevance were different. Most others, especially critics like Ashis Nandy underlined the role of the modern nation-state in forcing the more inchoate, everyday lived religions to speak in one voice that could be recognized by the state. Theirs was not a critique about separation. It was about how, to use Nandy’s own words, ‘religion-as-faith’ (lived, everyday religion) was forced to give way by the modern nation-state to ‘religion-as-ideology’. In Nandy’s rendering, this ‘religion-as-ideology’ was already a secular formation, already reconstituted by the ideology of the modern state. It was this version of transformed Hinduism that Hindutva represented. To him, the resources of toleration were to be found in the inchoate forms of lived religion and religion-as-ideology merely mirrored the logic of the state and the violence of homogenization inherent in it.

This is a far cry from Visvanathan’s panegyric to Modi. Nandy will always make a distinction between the political machine that makes a Narendra Modi and the ordinary Hindu voter who might vote for him. In Nandy’s rendering, Modi and his ilk are not really believers – in stark opposition to Visvanathan’s claim that

Modi was soaking himself in civilisation. Varanasi was the oldest living city on the planet. It was a cosmos of its own, precious to Hinduism. Modi was not merely touching a cosmic pulse, he was creating a vibrant Hinduism as metaphor. (EPW, May 31 2014)

It does not matter in this panegyric that two of the Shankaracharyas and many other lesser priests actually came out openly in opposition to Modi, in the name of Hinduism. Visvanathan’s reduction of the Modi phenomenon to Hindu religiosity is seriously problematic – and ironically, mirrors the position of Leftist/ secularist he criticizes. However, the crucial point that needs to be made here – something that Nandy would always be careful to do – is that not everyone who votes for the BJP votes for ‘Hinduism’, however you want to understand it. In the first place, when more than 66 percent voters have voted against BJP/Modi, there is no ground to claim that the majority of Hindus have voted for it and spin a yarn of the kind that Visvanathan does. Usually, as CSDS surveys have routinely demonstrated, only a small fraction of BJP voters vote for it on grounds of religion. That was true even at the height of the Ayodhya movement when the appeal was explicitly grounded on Hindu identity and Hindu civilizational hurt. This time round, Hindu-identity was making a disguised appearance throughout the campaign. So, essentially, we need to get this false argument out of the way. Yes, a certain polarization was inevitable with Modi tipped to be the prime minister – and this polarization is anything but ‘religious’. It concerns the rights of minorities in our polity and not how they pray or what religious rites they observe.

I have argued elsewhere that the BJP/ Hindutva claim that the minorities should live without special privileges, as ordinary citizens under the same laws, is actually premised on the idea of formal equality. It is based on the rejection of anything like community rights or cultural rights, the individual citizen being the sole bearer or rights. This argument has great seduction for the modern mind. Yes, this logic preserves the dominant position of the Hindu majority but once again, as scholars like Sudipta Kaviraj or Nandy would argue, the pursuit of a majority is the concern of a modern enumerated community, whose quasi-state elite is out in search of power. This is another point at which Visvanathan cedes ground to some vague notion of religiosity. For the real point is this: strictly speaking the Hindutva argument of formal equality is a secular argument. Secularism as an ideal is incompatible with community and religious or cultural rights. To want to have secularism and community rights together is like eating your cake and wanting to have it too.

The point about formal equality should be understood clearly. It is in the nature of modern universalisms that the dominant culture ‘norms’ the code of Law. That is why the Christian Sabbath can be universalized and Sunday can become the universal day of rest, even in the most secular of states like France. It matters little that the Jewish Sabbath is Saturday or its Muslim equivalent on Friday. Once a formally secular law is in place, it is easy to demand that all individual citizens should submit to it equally, without regard to religion, caste, gender etc. This is the ideal that Hindutva strives towards – of a law that is framed according to the norms of the dominant culture which is presented as the repository of tolerance and progress. But what it does for the secularist is to throw her into a situation where she is reduced to demanding cultural rights of religious communities – the right, in other words, to be different. Gurpreet Mahajan has recently pointed out, correctly, that this insistence on community rights is more a part of the multiculturalist imperative rather than a secularist one. For, the multiculturalist position emphasizes what we could call substantive equality, that is, the need to offset historical disadvantage with some kind of special provisions in law. It is precisely for this reason that in the course of the debate in the mid-1990s, Partha Chatterjee, in his intervention ‘Secularism and Toleration’ had similarly argued that it is well-nigh impossible to meet the challenge of the Hindu Right on the secularism turf.

This is perhaps where my disagreement with Ravi will also become clear. We will come to the more complicated question of ‘separation’ in a moment but for now, it should be clear that the battle really lies elsewhere, not in the domain that he imagines it to be. The real battle is in the sphere of modern politics and how the question of community rights is dealt with. The culture war between communities is not – at least not in the arena of public discourse in India – between modes and forms of religious piety and worship.

This is also where I want to pose my larger question to Ravi Sinha and the Left, more generally. If the battle for democratizing the community is already being fought within the community (as the case of believing Hindus arrayed against Hindutva shows), where does the Left position itself vis-a-vis this internal struggle (and the same argument can be made equally for the Muslims)? This battle is fought on an altogether different logic and does not need the Left’s endorsement. The problem is for the Left to think through. Does it, in the long run, want all Hindus to be captive to the Hindu Right? If not, and given the fact that no Leftist worth his or her salt has any dialogue, or even the credibility for conducting a dialogue with the believers, what should its stance be? So, if someone like Arvind Kejriwal, as a believer takes a dip in the Ganga before taking on Narendra Modi, should that be the butt of Leftist ridicule?

I am not arguing that this is the only strategy or that Leftists should start becoming religious. My point, rather, is that Leftists are irrelevant as far as the two major internal challenges to Hindutva are concerned: one, the challenge from Dalit (and to some extent OBC politics) which rejects the Hinduism peddled by Modi-soaking-in-civilization; and two, the challenge from the believers within, say, broadly upper caste Hindus. Let us not forget that even in this election of the so-called ‘Modi Tsunami’ the combined vote of the BSP and SP, in 34 of the 71 seats in UP where BJP won, was larger than that of the BJP – the combined voting percentage of the two ranging from 44 percent to almost 57 and 58 percent in many seats.[1]  The form of the two challenges is different. While the former (dalit and OBC) is politically organized and has a formidable electoral presence, the latter is more inchoate but no less powerful for that. This second challenge is where a proto-Gandhian approach of the kind espoused by Arvind Kejriwal can be effective in finding channels for the political expression of that kind of challenge to the Hindu Right.

There is an additional question that is of relevance for the Left. For all its rhetoric of mass politics, there has been little engagement with the high degree of religiosity in all popular mass movements – in India as well as in other parts of the world. The Left has only celebrated the great peasant and adivasi uprisings of the past – from the Kol and Santhal uprisings and the Wahabi and Faraizi movements of the 19th century to the Mappila revolt and the 20th century movements led by Baba Ram Chandra and Swami Sahajanand Saraswati – as instances of the rebellious traditions of the Indian peasantry, virtually passing over the powerful, indeed framing, presence of religiosity in them, in embarrassed silence. The point is that the Left has not come to terms with its own history or the history to which it instrumentally lays claim.

The Question of Separation

For Ravi Sinha, the question of separation is quite ‘obvious’ – for he only seems to accept what is obvious as valid. As he puts it, it is a hallmark of “differentiated societies” [i.e. modern] that religion comes to occupy a negligible place – if at all – in the political domain, and becomes confined to what he calls the ‘lifeworld’. This kind of ‘obviousness’ is misleading for it is based on a virtual ignorance of societies across the world how they define the relationship of political power with religion.

Now, between the writings of Jose Casanova and Charles Taylor, the idea of separation even in the West itself has become so textured that the ‘Church-State relationship’ no longer lends itself to such easy rendering as Ravi believes it to be. In the writings of Taylor and Casanova we see a re-examination of the history and theory of ‘secularity’ in the modern West, from where our own idea was drawn. It is something that we would, therefore, do well to examine at some length if we are serious about our politics.

The idea of ‘separation’ is problematic, not because it is impossible; it is problematic because it draws from a very specific history but masquerades as universal history. Its operation therefore produces the effect of a distorting mirror. It makes us see ourselves in a mirror that seems to look like us – but not quite. And the question of the relation between religion and politics can be posed in this way (as separation) only from within that history.

For the question of separation made sense only within the universe of ‘Latin Christendom’  where there was a complete fusion of ecclesiastical and temporal power. In large parts of the world, even those ancient societies like Kautilya’s India, this was hardly the case. Kautilya’s Arthashastra, for example, actually lists the Vedas as only one of the four sources of law – and even a cursory reading of texts like it show that statecraft in ancient India was hardly a religious affair. In fact, Kautilya’s Arthashastra comes at the end of a whole tradition of Arthashastras which did not recognize the Vedas as a source of law at all. We also know that right through the Sultanate and the Mughal period, Sharia law was not the basis of statecraft in India – despite the Fatawa-i-Jehandari by Ziauddin Barani. The work of Muzaffar Alam and others shows that the Sultanate rulers kept the likes of Barani at an arms length and evolved their own arguments as to why Sharia law could not be the basis of their rule over India.

This history of political power in China is also a completely different ball game. In the context of Confucianism and Taoism, Jose Casanova observes that the category of secularization can hardly apply to such ‘religions’, which are neither characterized by ‘high tension’ with the world nor have a model of transcendence that can be called ‘religious’ in any strict sense, not to mention the absence therein of any ecclesiastical organization. “Religions that have always been ‘worldly’ or ‘lay’”, he argues, “do not need to undergo a process of secularization.” (Joe Casanova ‘Rethinking Secularization: A Comparative Global Perspective”, The Hedgehog Review, Spring and Summer 2006: 12, 2006)

In the 9th to 12th centuries, long before the Renaissance in Europe, Arab philosophers were debating issues of secular power. In this period of the golden age of Arab science, we also see the great line of philosophers like Al-Farabi, Ibn-Sina and Ibn Rushd  posing the very questions that later animated Western societies. Thus, says Patricia Crone,

In the ninth century they began to enquire into their own presuppositions. Why do humans live social lives? Must their societies be based on religious law brought by a prophet or might man-made law and morality suffice? Could one manage without a monarch? Must government be monarchic, or indeed autocratic, or could alternative forms of political organization be envisaged? (Patricia Crone, Medieval Islamic Political Thought, Edinburgh University Press: 249, 2004)

Philosophers like Al-Farabi in the 9th century, were arguing that philosophy was prior to religion and it was philosophy alone that could help people choose between a genuine revelation and a false one. Theirs was a battle with an orthodoxy that was still in formation but which was to become powerful only over the next few centuries. And even after that Islam, neither in the Arab world nor in Persia, ever acquired the fusion of spiritual and political power that we see in European Christendom. It is well known the both Moorish Spain (Al-Andalus), and the Ottoman empire exhibited far greater levels of religious tolerance than any other European regime, and that Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed in Al-Andalus for over seven centuries.

That is why a lot of revisionist historiography has begun looking afresh at the story of modernity that the West has told us so far. In that story, the world was all darkness till the light of Enlightenment fell on the godforsaken ones. The story it now appears, is much more complicated. Many of the European pioneers who drew from the wellsprings of knowledge in the Arab world, the innovators, referred to themselves as the moderni – which itself should raise for us the question of what ‘modern’ or ‘modernity’ might have meant to them. It was under the impact of these moderni that universities became the new centres of learning by the 13th century.

“At Oxford, Paris or Bologna, for example, it became as common to study Avicenna (Ibn Sina) or Averroes (Ibn Rushd) as it was to study Augustine. Indeed, entire schools of Latin Avicennism and Averroism took root at different universities during the 13th century and became an integral part of the incipient tendency of questioning Church authority.”(Peter O’Brien, ‘Islamic Civilization and (Western) Modernity’, Comparative Civilizations Review, Number 65, Fall 2011, pp. 18-32, 2011)

So the story about Western societies being more advanced because they are based on secular separation has to be questioned. The idea of separation itself, I have indicated through the instances above, derives from a specific historical context. Different societies conceptualize the relation between the ‘religious’ and the ‘political’ in different ways, and many have little sense of any idea of transcendence. ‘This-worldliness’ is part of their sense of religion/ spirituality/ sacredness.

Dharma-Nirpekshata or Indian ‘Secularism’

This brings me to the last question that I want to raise here. Ravi presents the opponent’s argument in this respect, thus: “in a multi-religious society only the maxim of ‘Sarva Dharma Samabhav’ can be the desirable policy of the state.” Now it is nobody’s argument that ‘sarva dharma samabhaava’ is an ideal suited to all multi-religious societies. What I have argued in my comment to Subhash’s post is that far from being a corruption of an ideal model (Western secularism), sarvadharma samabhaava was a creative development of the ideal of co-living in our times. It was an ideal that was worked out in the context of a multi-religious society such as ours but it would be ridiculous to claim that it can therefore be applicable to all multi-religious societies. Let us remember that there have been various ways in which the ideal of co-living has been practiced in India – the emperor Asoka’s reign being one instance; the attempt in Dara Shikoh’s Majma-ul-Bahrain and Akbar’s Din-e-Ilahi being another.

Dara Shikoh’s was a breath-taking initiative. It was an initiative that sought to read the Upanishads (Upanikhat in his Persian rendering) in synergy with the Quran. And for the benefit of our Islamophobes of the Hindu Right, I cannot avoid the temptation of citing Dara himself, paraphrased by his translator Mahfuz-ul-Haq. The author, say Haq, claimed

that he had examined the religious works of the Hindus, “who do not negate monotheism”, and found that the monotheistic verses contained in the four Vedas have been collected and elucidated in the Upanikhat, which is an ocean of monotheism. So he undertook a literal and correct translation of the work with the help of the Pandits and the Sanyasis of Benaras and accomplished the work in 1067 A.H. (1657 CE)

To believe therefore, that we had to wait for the Enlightenment in Europe to deliver us from the darkness of religious strife; and that our proper lives had not begun until we were handed the ideal of ‘secularism’ is to swallow the official story of the origin myth of modernity hook, line and sinker.

The ideal of sarvadharma samabhaava was not a simple translation of secularism. It was an attempt to draw from our own history (call it tradition if you will) an ideal that could be refashioned for modern times. I will, in fact, go much further and say that unlike ‘secularism’, which was predicated on the erasure of all markers of difference and on the institution of the unmarked universal citizen (which was always a violent process), the sarvadharma samabhaava ideal was an attempt, creative but by no means perfect, to spell out an idea of co-living where the state’s role was understood as one that may involve intervention in or abstention from the matters of religious communities, depending upon the need of the moment. It was because the value of difference was understood by the thinkers and political leaders who were shaping the modern in India, that in contra-distinction to secularism, they spelt out a vision of ‘unity-in-diversity’. To my mind, this phrase itself is a ‘secularized’ version of an ideal that is found in both Hinduism and Sufi Islam. The Advaita idea of the unity of brahman on the one hand and the idea of wahdat-ul-vajood on the other are both neatly re-presented as the ideal of ‘unity-in-diversity’.  Yes, there were pressures upon thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to stand up to the standards set by the West and to an extent, with the paraphernalia of the knowledge-apparatus that they inherited from colonialism. So they too began participating in the game of showing that they too ‘were modern’ in precisely the terms set by the West.

Thankfully, that moment has now passed.


1. This point has been made by Dishil Shrimankar on the basis of Election Commission data, in an unpublished article. Dishil is currently interning with Lokniti, CSDS

18 thoughts on “Religion, Modernity and Politics – Some Reflections on ‘Secularism’”

  1. ‘Sarvadharma samabhaava’ and ‘unity-in-diversity’ are very worthwhile societal touchstones but ‘secularism’ or ‘separation’ is a constitutional or legal wall between government and faith. A modern society would subscribe to both secularism and ‘sarvadharma samabhava’. The aphorism of ‘sarvadharma samabhaava’ never envisaged intrusions by religion into governments or governmental subservience to or control over religion, hence a constitutional wall between the two should not be so controversial.


  2. Mr. Nigam, I wish I could add something useful in this intellectual, and of practical implication, debate between you and Ravi Sinha, but I know I am not at the level of you two. I have some liking for Sinha’s ways of presenting his point of view, because he is precise, and to the point, as most Physicists are trained to be. However, I have one experience that may be useful, if the objective is not just to debate, but to reach a certain conclusion. Many years ago, in Moscow, I saw a splendid Church, well kept, but only a few attendees on a Sunday. I was surprised and asked my scientist acquaintance (a Party member and may be KGB too), how come a Communist government is taking such good care of a religious place? The response that I got was this. ‘ Just after Bolshevik revolution, Lenin was asked by his close associates if religious practices should be banned, and Churches converted for the use for other public activities. Lenin had responded that a Communist has no faith in religion, but our working class people who support us have. And for their sake, we need not disturb religious centers’. It essentially means non–interference on such personal choices by the State or the Party, as it has little to do with the revolution’s objectives. Whether such an event happened or nor is a mute point, The ideal of ‘Sarva Dharma Samabhav’ sounds consistent with the presumed Lenin’s opinion, if the government itself is not involved in Sambhav.


  3. I thank Aditya for taking me as an interlocutor in his considerations on an immensely important subject. I am keen to get back to this theme, but may take some time due to travels and other engagements during this month. Apologies in advance for a delayed response from my side.


  4. A very important subject of social and nation-building importance, but one which also rankles the body politic (as it should).

    Referring to the stated ” BJP/ Hindutva claim that the minorities should live without special privileges” and the mild criticism of that, however doesn’t seem justified. If each individual, irrespective of faith, has the same rights then why should any one have special privileges? It does not make sense to argue that there should be special privileges. The emphasis should be on equal rights and avenues of enforcement of those rights, rather than special privileges.

    (I also see this failing in most Indian “systems”. You have gated communities and lax security outside; you have broken electricity distribution and generators for your home. This is a kind of band-aid fix Indians have become accustomed to because most public services have failed. Big government customarily takes on all the “jobs” there are to be done, delivers poorly on each).


  5. Great ! I think it is worthwhile adding to Ashoka/Akbar/Dara Shukoh, many other Bhakti movement anti-brahminical preceptors as movers and shakers in the evolution of secular and egalitarian concepts.Beginning with Jain rejection of brahminism 3000 years ago, Ramanuja, Madhwa, Basava and so on. An interesting aspect is the evolution of Hindu law. Manu and Yagnavalkya had prescribed religious rites to qualify for inheritance . Vigyaneshvara in the Chalukya Court at Badami in the 10th century wrote Mitakshara , supposedly a summary of pre-existing laws , including Yagnavalkya mainly. But he completely inverted it by delinking religion and the sons became coparceners merely by their birth, a secu;lar happening. Vigyaneshvara had no precedent to justify this. He nevertheless incorporated it.The alternate Dayabhaga system evolved in Eastern India , continued to have religiouut s requirements for inheritance. Mitakshara was adopted all over, including the north. Yes, the gender bias towards sons has been corrected only in 2005 with the Hindu succession (Amendment ) act, but let us understand what a leap was made by Vigyanesvara a thousand years ago ! I suspect that there was a caste struggle involved. The religious requirements would empower the brahmins, who alone held the office of conducting the rites. The birth-based criterion would possibly empower the kayasthas and pillais in the south as they it was who maintained those records. Markandey Katju gave an excellent address at Gulbarga university in 2004 on the subject of Vigyanesvara’s secular approach.Even today, the Dikshitars at the Nataraja templke in Chidambaram have won Supreme Court sanction for their holding on to temple control and temple properties subject to their not collecting public money in the hundi.But, if I am not mistaken, a Dikshitar gets to vote in the Dikshitar sabha only if he has performed upanayanam. It does not arise from birth,. Incidentally, the Dikshitar sabha”allocates” even houses around the temple to “members” and so on. A joyous celebrant of this relic of brahmin dominance is Subramanyam Swamy.. People in Chidambaram who are not brahmins find their blood boiling at all this.


  6. This is a wonderful debate and very uniquely timed for the current day India which struggles with its own faith and modern aspirations. I find myself inadequately equipped to articulate my own thoughts amidst the wonderfully erudite posts, so hopefully my unpolished ideas would be tolerated.

    As important as it is to understand the history of the relationship between religious beliefs and the political structures, I believe it is necessary to acknowledge their context and relative heft when it comes to how much they influence today’s world. The twentieth century primarily, although one might argue even the nineteenth century, changed the nature of the debate completely on its head. No longer is it a case trying to combine the best of all faiths and ideas. Modern enlightenment coupled with the scientific revolution has decisively answered most questions and one might effectively argue that the Atheist is only person with correct beliefs. As long as religions change, adapt and effectively recede to only social and moral guidelines they should be respected. There’s no room for ‘crazy’ under the pretext of ‘Sarvadharma Samaabhava’. Let’s call a spade a spade. We might cherish the Advaita saints and Sufis but we only have the Bajrang Dal and the Sunni right. So a strict separation of Religion and State is a twentieth and twenty-first century idea where there is no room for ban on contraception, gay marriage, abortions, cow slaughter, female education and inheritance etc.

    Secondly, historical evidences of “modern thought” as exhibited by different religions are, honestly, not pertinent here. Arthashastra might have been entirely secular but it and Khajuraho temples may favor open sexuality but they barely reflect any similarity to contemporary Hindu beliefs. Dara Shikoh may have potentially been a path breaking monarch, but we only have Aurangazeb to contend with and in any case Dara’s philosophy might not have been widely accepted. In the same vein, let’s not slip into ad hominem attacks on past of Christendom and the West as arguments to debunk ‘Secularism’, as defined in this post. The sins of medieval Europe and the tolerance of the Ottomans are irrelevant to our argument as we have to construct the debate in the modern world where Europe is more open and Turkey is moving closer to more conservative beliefs.


  7. I think the basic problem has arisen due to the false notion of equating Sanatan Dharma with the individual created Middle Eastern faiths. It is this debate that actually ‘created’ a Hindu identity where none existed, there were Shaivas, Vaishnavas or Sakyas, but no Hindus as such.
    Another problem has been created by fake historiography, so anything ancient Indian is ‘religious’ or Hindu, be it Yoga, Ayurveda et al and rejected by the ‘minorities’ when the ancient Indian history that predates Christianity or Islam by 2000 years belongs to all Indians.
    You want to see this concept in operation, go to Muslim majority Java and find Ramayan is a living tradition and Hindu and Budhist temples well looked after…………..the Indonesian Muslims acknowledge their past roots in Hinduism and Buddhism. But for the recent foray by Wahabi’s, Indonesia remains an Oasis of peace amongst the Muslim majority states.


    1. Indonesia i the largest Muslim country in the world and it is fairly secular. These Gorachamda scoundrels in the west wont let you know that. On the contrary, Denmark of cartoon controversy fame is not very secular. Lutheran priests are paid salaries by the govt on Denmark !


  8. Aditya nigam says, “I will, in fact, go much further and say that unlike ‘secularism’ […] the sarvadharma samabhaava ideal was an attempt, creative but by no means perfect, to spell out an idea of co-living where the state’s role was understood as one that may involve intervention in or abstention from the matters of religious communities, depending upon the need of the moment.”

    Casting my mind back on instances of state intervention in matters of religion – from the Shan Bano case to trivialities like sending a clandestine police team to light the “hallowed celestial light visible from Sabarimala” during pilgrimage season – I wonder whose need of the moment was fulfilled in these instances.

    Despite Aditya’s reservations, one could make a perfectly valid case that it was the Enlightenment that delivered us (or will eventually deliver us, as it is a work in progress), “from the darkness of religious strife”. The various ways in which the ideal of co-living has been practiced in India – until Enlightenment, secularism and modernity reached these shores – were tenuous at best and laughable as far as dilettantish efforts like the Majma-ul-Bahrain and Din-e-Ilahi are concerned.

    Beyond a fairly dubious attempt to equate Islamic monotheism with Vedantic non-dualism, Dara Shikoh’s efforts to find common ground between Islamic and Vedic thought, while admirable in intent, remains little more than a laundry list of some of the more bizarre notions held by the medieval mind. And these commonly held beliefs didn’t come from the higher reaches of eschatology and universal theology, but from the long and substantial traffic of ideas between India and Arabia that predates the Common Era.

    One might add that the Scientific Revolution in Europe, which dates back to mid-16th century and the discoveries of Copernicus and Vesalius, predates the Majma-ul-Bahrain by a hundred years. Poland and Belgium were arguably the backwaters of Europe; the Mughal Empire was, if not at the height of its power, certainly close enough to the zenith. Yet the Majama-ul-Bahrain is full of absurd ‘scientific’ propositions, derived from a close study of Islamic and Hindu texts and by revelation, rather than by observation. It is books like these that provoked Macaulay’s rant against Indian “astronomy which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school […] and geography made of seas of treacle and seas of butter.”

    (Apropos of which, please refer to Kismat-i-Zamin (‘Discourse on the divisions of the Earth’, Majma-ul-Bahrain) and descriptions therein of the seven seas of traditional Indian geography, which include unchch ras samundar, sea of sugar-candy and ghirat samundar, sea of ghee).

    Shikoh would have found more in common among mankind had he, like Copernicus, observed the night sky or, like Vesalius, the entrails of his fellow men (which, as military commander in a particularly turbulent age, Shikoh no doubt had plenty of opportunities to study).

    In any case, it’s not Dara Shikoh’s dilettantish syncretism and ideal of sarvadharma sambhava that prevailed, but his brother’s austere interpretation of Islam.

    Akbar’s Din-e-Ilahi apparently had no more than twenty adherents during the Emperor’s life-time, and certainly none after it. In the absence of scriptures and followers, it is difficult to make sense of what was, in essence, little more than a personality cult. Like Dara Shikoh’s opus, Din-e-Ilahi never travelled beyond the confines of the court, was condemned as heretical in its time and ignored subsequently. Apart from pious bromides on the “virtues of piety, prudence, abstinence, and kindness” – indeed, I have seldom come across a religion that enjoins impiety, extravagance, indulgence and cruelty – it’s mostly government memoranda on dress codes, prohibition, marriage regulations and the permissibility of boar meat.

    And that, of course, is the fatal flaw of all attempts at religious syncretism. The narrative elements of religion consist of little more than bronze age fairy tales. One is compelled to find commonality in the most universal and pedestrian of moral codes – Akbar fell back on the Ten Commandments – and in seeking to regulate clothing, food habits and sex.

    Religions find common ground not in their highest thought and expression, but in the lowest common denominators of prejudice and prissiness.

    Hence, my particular concern with bonhomie among religions as expressed in the public sphere are precisely to do with their commonalities than with their contradictions. There’s nothing that brings men of faith together quicker than, say, a bit of gay bashing. Or misogyny. Or a marked tendency to see indecency and obscenity where secular misfits might see Art and, at a stretch, Beauty.

    The misty eyed embrace of sarvadharma sambhava has unpleasant consequences for people on the margins. The only time one can reliably find Catholic Cardinals, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Ulema sharing a stage is when the State proposes to decriminalize IPC 377. Or impose prohibition, an enthusiasm for which finds rare unanimity among all men of god. (Of the four states and one UT where prohibition is in force, two at least are Christian dominated, and only one is Muslim).

    Nothing unites the faithful like the framing and enforcement of sumptuary laws, and a general tendency to intrude into our bedrooms in the name of virtue.

    That the dominant culture ‘norms’ the code of Law is a fact of life everywhere and but nowhere does religion permeate culture as persistently and perniciously as in India. Western classical music has not been Christian music for a long time now, and one seldom comes across Christian maths. Yet Vedic mathematics lurks on the sidelines of Indian academia; our classical music continues to be pointlessly religious, and religion regulates our dress codes, our speech and writing, our mating habits and our meat and drink to an unhealthy degree. Systems of medicine innocent of any knowledge of the microbe theory of disease flourish in India with religious sanction (as do, one might add, microbes. There is a connection).

    As to the question of engaging with a believer in the language of secularism, Ravi Sinha turns the question around and asks whether we can engage with non-believers in the language of a religious-communitarian polity. Among non-believers I would include not just garden variety atheists but tribal people, the LGBT community, the avant-garde, the demi-monde, and a thousand religious side-streams that – from a tremendous distance, as from Civil Lines, Delhi – give the false impression of a mainstream.

    I have the liveliest apprehensions about the language of sarvadharma sambhava being abused by the faithful to exclude all but the genteel, the banal and the anodyne, the lowest common expressions of sarva dharma. In Sinha’s words, there is no need to make a virtue out of this scourge.


  9. The reason this debate is so necessary is because it is happening not only on Kafila or the op-ed pages of The Hindu. This is a conversation happening in galis and mohallas all over the country – certainly North India – and it is being staged there by the Hindutvavadis in the local vernaculars. So the fact that notion of secularism translates to “”dharm nir-pekshata”, an artificial construct if there was any – means that Hindutva has won the most important round.

    On the other hand, spend any time with ordinary devout practitioners – HIndu, Sikh, Muslim, Jain, Christian – or you will find they already have a vernacular for difference, one that affirms pluralism, independent of of Hindutva or liberal teaching.

    More importantly, as Doniger reminds us, resistance to hierarchies has as almost as long a lineage in our traditions as caste or patriarchy. So does atheism, for that matter — witness Jainism and Buddhism

    Unfortunately, our unwillingness to grapple with working class religiosities has meant that we have ceded this entire discourse to the Hindutvavadis. Is it any surprise that the secular are perceived as anti-religion? We’ve let ideological battles for secularization cloud the very real relevance of pluralism.

    So it’s high time we thought through more clearly what we mean by believer and non-believer. Maybe instead of obsessing about putting walls between religion and politics – a project that has failed in India almost from its very inception – we can think about how to resurrect and rescue these existing conversations.

    If the idea is to keep hectoring believers, the Hindutvavadis are doing a great job of it. What might take them by surprise is if the conversation went both ways. A liberalism that actually engages with and learns from vernacular practices would be that much harder to defeat.


  10. Thanks Sajan. I suppose, we all choose what we wish to from the supermarket of ideas. There is no necessary reason why your preference tor Colgate should be better than mine for Neem or some such. You talk about the scientific revolution in Europe pre-dating Majma-ul-Bahrain by about a century but pass over in complete silence the point that the high point of Arab science and philosophy – when Al-Farabi, for instance was writing pre-dates this revolution by close to 7 centuries. You also choose to completely pass over in silence the point about A-Andalus and the Ottoman Empire.
    When I refer to these instances or to the Din-i-ilahi or Majma-ul-Bahrian, please notice, that it is not to affirm all or any of them but to simply make the point that the world was not waiting to be told how to handle co-living before the white man came and gave us his enlightenment and his secularism. It is not important therefore that Akbar’s Din had twenty adherents to twenty-thousand. For it is under its inspiration that a major initiative at religious synthesis and translation of Hindu texts into Persian takes place. Dilettantish or not, let there be not mistake – there have been more communal riots and violence in India, precisely in this period when secularism and modernity reached its shores. The point therefore, is to take a fresh look at the whole gamut of questions related to this constellation rather than simply go on repeating what we have already known and have come to believe as obvious since our childhood.
    I find it symptomatic that like most secularists, you are actually more interested in suppressing any interrogation of what has been our common ‘faith’. You therefore, do not respond to anything that might pose uncomfortable questions.
    The long and short of what I am saying is that the misty eyed longing for the Enlightenment and the secularism bequeathed by it is no less problematic. They are both drenched in blood. States that became secular did so once they had eliminated or silenced the religious other.
    I am really not interested in Ravi Sinha’s (and yours – since you cite this with approval) poser about what a Muslim Brotherhood regime would do in terms of engaging with the non-believer. I am a non-believer and I am posing questions to you and Ravi, my friend. Don’t evade the question by that sinister theological method of dubbing your adversary an apostate. I am not answerable for what a theological regime does, but I am for what I and my friends like you do – whether I like it or not.


    1. As I wrote earlier, I hope to get back to this debate at a later time. But let me put in a few words here and now as I am kind of surprised by Aditya’s aggressive insistence that his question about how secularism would deal with a believer be answered. I think I answered it in my earlier write up. Just to repeat, secularism defined as the ideal of separating the state from religion has no problem in dealing with the believer – such a state would deal with her/him as with any other citizen. Religious belief is irrelevant for a secular state. The situation is very different for a non-secular state – that is why I turned Aditya’s poser around, and not because I have a sinister theological method up my sleeve.
      I know that in the real world – in any corner of the real world – we are far away from an ideal secular state. Ideals are often asymptotic – we keep moving towards them even if we do not exactly arrive at them. And, all said and done, humanity has moved towards the secular ideal in the last half a millennium. I reckon it would keep moving towards it for the centuries to come.


    2. Dear Aditya,

      I just wanted to raise one small point in this lively debate. I agree with you when you say that the western concept of Enlightenment and secularism are “drenched in blood”, and that “the states that became secular did so once they had eliminated or silenced the religious other”. But I cannot agree with your conclusion.

      Consider the works of Rabindranath Tagore. One of the reasons, you would say, why he could afford to write about such lofty humanist principles is that he had the privilege of being born into a zamindar family. And to my mind this will be an accurate assessment. But does that take anything away from the message of his songs?

      Similarly, it is true that the savage British imperialism allowed a Newton or a Darwin the luxury of doing science. But does that undermine the achievements of modern science and the philosophy (in the broadest sense) that accompanies it?



  11. Sayan,
    I am a product of modernity and I value many things that have come with it – including the ideal of individual autonomy and my atheism. So let me get one false issue out of the way. Most modern rationalists are so intolerant of even the slightest criticism that they will force you to take an either/ or stance. This is for instance evident in the comments of my friends Sajan and Ravi Sinha – both self-proclaimed defenders of the Enlightenment. Ravi has accused me of being Gandhian-postmodernist-communitarian-postcolonial (in his original post) and Sajan of “misty-eyed embrace of sarvadharma samabhava”, even insinuating that I should be therefore defending the theological state and attacks on minorities. My problem is with this attitude, not with the point you make. In other words, I am opposed to the idea that if I am a modern, I should be unquestioningly so!

    Ravi, I am a bit surprised at your use of the term ‘aggressive’ here. I am sure you will agree that your ‘turning around the question’ and asking me what the place of the non-believer will be in a theocratic state, assumed that in some fashion I am answerable for what such states do. Now, if I insist that that is not my business but what secularists do is my business, it is supposed to be aggressive? What, after all, does the expression “Aditya’s aggressive insistence” mean here, precisely?

    While I am at it, let me also say that the ideal of secularism cannot be contrasted with the practice of sarvadharma samabahva. If we are discussing the latter as an ideal, let us not get carried away by the ways in which its practice in the world of realpolitik has messed up things. That is an altogether different issue. Moreover, this ideal was spelt out during the course of the anticolonial struggle – that does not mean that it must stay in that form forever. Its practice over the last six-seven decades must force us to revisit that concept as well.


    1. Dear Aditya,

      I did not intend to get into the issue of tones, accusations and etiquette, and I am sorry if I ended up contributing to it unknowingly. My concern is only with the issue at stake – viz. relationship between politics and religion. I was taken aback by the phrase “sinister theological method” in your post, which appeared “aggressive” to me. My apologies if it is not so.
      Also, I did not “accuse” you of being “Gandhian-postmodernist-communitarian-postcolonial”. This term is a descriptive one for me summarizing a conglomerate of positions. You may or may not fit into that description. I hold that it is a well-articulated and intellectually legitimate approach for someone to have. Equally legitimately I and many others have serious issues with that approach. I intend to return to it in my longer article at a future date.
      Rationalists-modernists are a very large and diverse set. I am sure there are many among them who are intolerant, sectarian and abusive. But I do not believe modernity and rationality can be blamed for their follies. I am not convinced of the position that Reason and Modernity have held sway only by brutally suppressing their ‘Others’. I am saying this in the full knowledge that horrible things, including colonialism and world wars, have taken place under the watch of modernity. Some other day we might discuss how to apportion the blame between capitalism and modernity.
      Standing by the right of the opponent (intellectual or otherwise) to subscribe to views opposed to one’s own is a modern value. I subscribe to this value. Also, I can assure you that temperamentally I am not disposed to arguing by accusing anyone, let alone friends. I am sorry if I appeared aggressive or accusatory.



      1. Dear Ravi,
        No problem at all. My apologies too if I have overstepped the limit. Look forward to your longer post. ‘Sinister theological method’ was actually directed at Sajan who is well-known to Kafila readers for his perverse sense of humour – and of the absurd!


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