For Hindus, how relevant is a division of the world into “secular” and “religious”?

“īśāvāsyaṃ idaṃ sarvaṃ yatkiñca jagatyāṃ jagat”
“The Divine pervades this entire universe, including all its constituent elements”

 – Ishavasya Upanishad

One of the recurring points of discussion and debate in Bharat in the last 70 years or so is the idea of secularism. According to this idea, there are two spheres in which the world ought to operate: the “secular” and the “religious”. The practical implication is that the state should operate purely in the secular sphere and should stay completely out of religion or at least treat all religions equally.

Although some western countries are monarchies with state religions, like the United Kingdom, this aspect is only nominal and holds little power. In practice, most western countries are secular, liberal democracies. However, a form of Christian Abrahamic supremacism has continued to be their implicit ideology. As a result, they have tried to impose the Christian idea of secularism on the rest of the world.

To get an idea of how secularism developed, it is useful to go over a brief history of Christianity in the West. Following the medieval era, the interference of the Church in political matters was widely debated and rejected. Many countries adopted secularism which resulted in the separation of Church and State.

In comparison to the monocultural, monochromatic Abrahamic religions, the Hindu perspective on religion and the world is very nuanced and contextual. It needs to be examined whether a Christian idea like the division of the world into a binary “secular” and “religious” is in any way relevant for Hindus.

How the West came out of the Dark Ages

To understand how Christianity was imposed upon West, the dramatic occurrences of the late Roman Empire must be studied.

Roman Emperor Theodosius became baptised into Christianity and issued the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 C.E. As a result, paganism was banned on the pain of death. All pagans were brutally persecuted, temples destroyed and almost all the knowledge and the values of the pre-Christian era was condemned.

Then, the West entered the period known as the Dark Ages. During this period, Christian kings fought innumerable bloody wars with each other, and the great achievements of the Roman civilisation were forgotten for nearly a thousand years.

In the 14th century, a few Greeks of the Byzantine Empire began to rediscover the forgotten heritage of the ancient pagans. Chief among these was Georgios Gemistus Plethon. He was a versatile polymath who extensively studied Plato and the classics. He taught and wrote on astronomy, geography, history etc. He also completely rejected Christianity and advocated the revival of the ancient polytheistic pagan religion of the Greeks.

The period when the West rediscovered the lost pagan heritage following the footsteps of Plethon is known as the Renaissance. However, even as scientific progress was achieved, Plethon’s call for the West to reject Christianity and revive the pagan religion was left by the wayside. The totalitarianism of Christianity prevailed.

A Christian solution to a Christian problem

Around the same time as the Renaissance, Christianity also gave rise to fanatic and puritanical movements like the Protestant Reformation which sought to impose a fundamentalist version of Christianity.

The leader of the Protestants, Martin Luther, came out with the “Two Kingdoms doctrine”, according to which God rules the world as two kingdoms: the kingdom of man and the kingdom of the spirit. Martin Luther was vehemently opposed to the excessive power wielded by the Catholic church and wanted the Church to stay out of all worldly affairs.

In response, the Catholic church launched the Counter-reformation. Many wars were also fought over these matters. However, the ruling classes had come to a compromise that ensured that the state and the Church operated in their own, separate domains. The idea was justified based on a Biblical statement:

“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” – Bible. Matthew 22:21

The context for this Biblical statement was that that the Jews and the early Christians were living inside the Roman empire – a pagan empire – at the time. They were being exhorted to pay tribute to the mighty Roman emperor while also securely holding on to their Abrahamic religious beliefs.

Eventually, the West became militarily strong because of all the scientific progress which was achieved after the Renaissance. As scientific knowledge continued to rise, Christianity, with its primitive monotheist worldview could not intellectually withstand many of the scientific discoveries. Thus, the Church continued to become more irrelevant in the intellectual sphere.

By the 19th century, Darwin’s explanation of the natural world via the theory of evolution sounded the death knell to many fundamental Christian beliefs. Despite all this, the political power, will and ambitions of Christianity could not be defeated.

Secularism imposed on the Hindu nation

During the early 20th century, thanks to the powerful status of western countries, western ideas, culture, and norms began to be imposed on the rest of the world. In India, the reigns of the Congress party were held by Mahatma Gandhi after the 1920s. Gandhi ran the Congress as a virtual dictatorship with little room for dissent. His handpicked successor was the British-educated Nehru, who considered himself to be “a Hindu by accident”.

Nehru had imbibed the western supremacist attitude which sought to impose the beliefs of Christian origin, including secularism, on everyone. Nehru, after inheriting the leadership of the Hindu nation from Gandhi, showed a brute contempt for the values of the same nation.

In the secular, Marxist-inspired paradise which Nehru was creating, all Hindu culture and values needed to be exterminated or confined only to the museums.

The consequences of imposing the Nehruvian secularism on Hindus have been widely debated since the last 70 years. In summary, it can be stated that the brand of secularism practised in Bharat has treated Hindus as second-class citizens.

Articles 25-30 of the Indian constitution have been interpreted in such a way that so-called minority institutions get immense government benefits. At the same time, Hindu institutions are put into a sorry plight.

With no consent of the citizens, the secular state has looted the wealth of Hindu temples. Facing such disadvantages, Hindus face an existential threat.

What relevance does secularism hold for Hindus?

The Indian subcontinent holds a unique position in the world because of the Hindu culture and civilisation which has continuously existed since thousands of years. Although this culture has undoubtedly changed and evolved over the millennia, certain core characteristics have been well-preserved.

Historically, there was little to no conflict between the kings of the Bharatiya kingdoms and the Hindu religion. Throughout history, Hindu rulers mostly treated all religions like the Vedic, Jain, or Buddhist traditions equally. At the same time, the religious teachers of Bharat were mainly focused on attaining spiritual well-being and in teaching spiritual knowledge to their adherents. Unlike the Abrahamic religions, the idea of conquest and conversion is not a part of any Bharatiya indigenous religious tradition.

Also, Hindu dharma teaches that the sacred is prevalent everywhere. The divine is both immanent and transcendent. This is opposed to the Abrahamic dogma that God exists separately from the world. Hindus recognise the importance of revering the divine in all aspects of life. So, certain ritual practices are followed by Hindus during every significant activity, be it the birth of a child or the planting of a tree or the inauguration of an industrial facility.

From a Hindu viewpoint, life is always very dynamic. The “secular” aspects of life for an individual or a community are never separate from the “religious”. Thus, there never arose any need for a forced separation between the Hindu ruling class and the Hindu dharma.

The role of dharma

The word dharma does not mean “religion” and has no equivalent in the English language. Depending on the context, dharma can mean the righteous law, the moral duty, or the nature of an entity, among other things. Even the Supreme Court of the secular Republic of India has the motto: yato dharmastato jayaḥ (where there is dharma, there is victory).

The Hindu civilisation is, in essence, a duty-based civilisation. The duties of each individual and each community is of paramount importance. Also, Hindu society is, by nature, a communal society, as opposed to the individualistic nature of the West.

As much as the average Hindu is duty-bound to follow a certain individual and community dharma, a Hindu ruler has the duty of acting in accordance with raja dharma (the dharma of the ruler). Raja dharma requires the ruler to ensure that the populace, including the weakest sections, is well-taken care of, and the ecology of the land is well-protected. These issues and more aspects of political life are elaborated in the Arthashastra, the ancient Hindu political treatise of Kautilya.

“The king’s happiness and welfare lie in the happiness and welfare of his subjects. He shall only take what pleases his subjects as good. Hence, the king shall ever be active and discharge his duties.” Arthashastra of Kautilya

The Arthashastra emphasises that a strong ruler and a law-giver is most important for any nation. The role of such a strong ruler is mainly to prevent the society from degenerating into anarchy. A society is said to be anarchic when matsyanyaya (Law of the big fish) – where the strong prey upon the weak – prevails.

Conclusion

The Abrahamic religions follow one Book and have an implicit supremacist worldview. The followers of Abrahamic religions – the Christendom of Christianity and the Ummah of Islam – are viewed as the “chosen people” who are superior to non-believers who are destined to damnation.

In contrast, the Hindu idea of religion is relatively dynamic and cultural. The Hindu religion itself is an amalgamation of numerous indigenous sub-communities following numerous sub-traditions and practices. Certain core tenets and practices like dharma, yajna, worship of the gods, karma etc. unite all Hindus.

Thus, the Hindu and the Abrahamic ideas of religion are very different. To properly govern a society like Bharat and to achieve long-term peace and welfare for all, a state must protect and promote all the Bharatiya religious traditions. Also, protecting the overall Hindu civilisational identity must be a top priority.

Finally, in their practical day-to-day lives, Hindus hardly recognise any distinction between the religious and the secular. The Hindu notion of the Divine is always recognised and respected everywhere, including in nature. Thus, from a Hindu perspective, a Christian idea like secularism appears as a completely bogus and irrelevant concept.

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About the Author

Jayant Charan
Jayant Charan is an avid reader and his main interests include fiction, society and culture. He likes to write mainly about contemporary politics.