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Putting secularism into perspective


By Maria Wirth

Like before the last election in 2014, this time again, there are voices by so-called intellectuals that “secularism is in danger” if BJP comes to power again. Though Indians are generally highly intelligent, when it comes to secularism, most intellectuals, media and politicians get the concept wrong.
Since secularism is a western ‘invention’, I would like to put it into perspective:
Contrary to the general perception in India, secular is not the opposite of communal. Communal as such is not objectionable, either. It means ‘pertaining to a community’. In Germany, elections to local bodies are called “communal elections” (Kommunalwahlen).
Secular means worldly and is opposite to ‘religious’. Now ‘religious’ in this context refers to Christianity, i.e. to a well-organised, dogmatic religion that claims that it is the sole keeper of the Truth, which God himself has revealed to his Church.
And what is this revealed truth? In short: the human being is born in sin, which dates back to Adam and Eve. But fortunately, some 2000 years ago, God had mercy on humanity and sent his only son Jesus Christ to earth to redeem us by dying for our sins on the cross, then rising from the dead and going back to his father up in heaven. However, to be able to get the benefit of Jesus’ sacrifice, one must be baptised and become a member of the Church, otherwise one will be singled out for eternal hell on Judgment Day.
Understandably, such claims did not appeal to those who used their brains, but for many centuries they had to keep quiet or risk their lives. The reason was that for long the Church was intertwined with the state, and harsh laws made sure that people did not question the ‘revealed truth’. Heresy was punished with torture and death. Even in faraway Goa, after Francis Xavier called the Inquisition to this colony, unspeakable brutality was committed against Indians. In many Muslim countries till today, leaving Islam is punishable by death.
Significantly, those centuries, when Church and State were intertwined, when the clergy prospered and the faithful sheep suffered are called the Dark Ages. And the time when the Church was forced to loosen its grip, is called the Age of Enlightenment, which started only some 350 years ago. Scientific progress, which greatly fostered by Indian knowledge reaching Europe, played a crucial role in curbing the influence of the Church.
Slowly, the idea that reason, and not blind belief in a ‘revealed truth’, should guide society, took root in Europe and this led to the demand for separation between State and Church. Such separation is called secularism. It is a recent phenomenon in the west.
Today, most western democracies are ‘secular’, i.e. the Church cannot push her agenda through state power, though most western democracies still grant Christianity preferential treatment. For example in Germany, the Constitution guarantees that the Christian doctrine is taught in government schools, or that Church tax is collected by the state. Nevertheless, the present situation is a huge improvement over the dark ages.
In India, however, the situation was different. Here, the dominant faith of the Indian people never had a power centre that dictated unreasonable dogmas and needed to be propped up by the state. Their faith was based on insights of the Rishis and on reason, intuition and direct experience. It expressed itself in a multitude of ways. Their faith was about trust and reverence for the One Source of all life. It was about doing the right thing at the right time according to one’s conscience. It was about The Golden Rule: not to do to others what one does not want to be done to oneself. It was about having noble thoughts. It was about how to live life in an ideal way. It was about Satya and Dharma.
However, this open atmosphere changed when Islam and Christianity entered India. Indians, who good naturedly considered the whole world as family, were despised, ridiculed and even killed in big numbers only because they were ‘Hindus’ (which is basically a geographical term). Indians did not realise that dogmatic religions were very different from their own, ancient Dharma. For the first time they were confronted with merciless killing in the name of God. Voltaire, who fought the stranglehold of the Church in Europe, had accurately observed, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities”.
During Muslim rule Hindus had to lie low for fear of their lives, and during British rule they were ridiculed by missionaries, and cut off from their tradition with the help of ‘education’ policies. Naturally, this took a toll on their self-esteem. In fact, till today, this low self-esteem especially in many members of the English educated class is evident to outsiders, though it may not be so to the persons concerned. Swami Vivekananda’s efforts to give Hindus back their spine did not impact this class of people. Nevertheless, it is a great achievement that Hindu Dharma survived for so many centuries, whereas the west succumbed completely to Christianity and over 50 countries to Islam in a short span of time.
Coming back to secularism. Though Hindu Dharma survived and never dictated terms to the state, ‘secular’ was added to the Constitution of India in 1976. There might have been a reason, as since Independence, several non-secular decisions had been taken. For example, Muslim and Christian representatives had pushed for special civil laws and other benefits and got them.
However, after adding ‘secular’, the situation did not improve. In fact the government seemed almost eager to benefit specifically the dogmatic religions (which secularism is meant to counter) and occasionally had to be restrained in its eagerness by the courts.
This is inexplicable. Why would ‘secular’ be added and then not acted upon? And the strangest thing: ‘secular’ got a new, specific Indian meaning. It means today: fostering those two big religions which have no respect for Hindus and whose dogmas condemn all of them to eternal hell – a fact that most Hindus simply laugh off or don’t even know.
It is a sad irony. Can you imagine the Jews honouring the Germans with preferential treatment instead of seeking compensation for the millions of Jews killed? Yet Islam and Christianity that have gravely harmed Indians over centuries got preferential treatment by the Indian state, and their own beneficial dharma that has no other home except the Indian subcontinent, is egged out. And to top it, this is called ‘secular’!
Obviously Indians have not learnt from the European experience. Hindus have not yet realised the intention of the dogmatic religions, though they say it openly: “We alone have the full truth. All must accept this.”
Media and politicians did their best to muddy the water. They called parties that represent a religious group, ‘secular’, instead of ‘religious’. When the state gave in to demands made by Christianity and Islam, it was (falsely of course) called ‘secular’. WHY did the government do this? Did it want to give its citizens a firsthand experience of what the dark ages were like? In the interest of all Indians it surely is wise for the state to ignore the powerful, dogmatic religions and focus on all citizens equally. This means being ‘secular’ in the western sense.
Yet, this advice is valid only regarding dogmatic religions which demand blind belief in unverifiable and even divisive dogmas. It does not apply to Dharma.
It would be a disaster if the state would also ignore Dharma and become adharmic. Every citizen needs to do what is right under the given circumstances, including politicians. This shows that Hindu Dharma or Hinduism, as India’s tradition is called, is in a completely different category from religion. There must never be a separation between State and Dharma. On the contrary, only when all politicians follow dharma, follow their innate knowledge about what is the right thing to do, India has the best chance to truly shine again and become the famed golden bird.