Indian Secularism in Historical Perspective

‘Secularism’ which has its origins in the Western world is rooted in the the separation of the church and the state. To apply this meaning of secularism in India becomes problematic because there is no one Church and numerous religious traditions upon which no one authority can claim control. This is an attempt to simplify what the Indian secularism means.

Separation between Church and State
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The Christian Latin origin of the word ‘secular’ which is ‘secularis’ had a negative connotation in Roman Times because it pertained to the people living outside the regulations of the church. But in the the Western world itself the term underwent significant changes. The modern western connotation of the word secularism was the result of the age of reason or the age of enlightenment. The first attempt to define secularism in a positive sense was done by George Jacob Holyoake of England in 1851. Various intellectual traditions like those of Spencer-Saint Simon, Comte-Durkheim and Marx-Weber contributed to the development of secularism as a doctrine. The famous quote of Marx “religion is the opium of the masses” says enough about his convictions of the evils of religion as a populist vehicle pushing the society forward but in the wrong direction.

Since the meaning of secularism as the separation between the worldly and the religious originated in the Christian world scholars like Peter Berger have suggested that secularism is the gift of Christianity to the mankind. Gradually the negative connotation of the word gradually gave way for a positive one. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War 1 many states with religious and cultural diversity tend to make their states secular as in separating the public sphere from the private practice of religious beliefs.


Having briefly taken the account of the evolution of secularism as a concept in Europe now we take a look at its export to India. A common Indian or a novice reader of Indian history and polity not well versed with western political thought gets confused when she or he watches blatant use of religious jargons in the prevalent Indian political rhetoric and the politicians attending religious ceremonies in their official capacity. This needs to be seen in the proper historical perspective rather than the vaguely understood philosophical concepts of Sarvadharm Sambhava and Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. This is not to under emphasize these Sanskrit phrases which have been used to underline the tolerance and universalism which is exemplified in the Indian society. Thomas (1991) has suggested that the concept of secularism emerged during the Indian National movement. But its evolution in the pre-modern and the colonial phases of Indian history is too significant to ignore.

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In the ancient days of Brahminical domination the Sanskritic-Puranic culture spread throughout India through assimilation of local tradition and cults. According to the numerical strength of the followers or due to the political importance of a particular cult the local deities were assimilated in the Puranic pantheon. The granting of Agrahara and Brahmadeya village grants the brahmins became the the apostles of Vedic-Puranic Sanskrit culture and with them came the knowledge of agriculture and lifestyle which made some tribal or nomadic people settle and have social mobility in the eyes of the Brahminical dispensation. This happened due to the lack of clash between the tribal mindset and the brahminical ideology. So in this process of assimilation the question of discrimination on the basis of faith didn’t occur. This historical assimilation process stands for the philosophy of Sarvdharm Sambhava. But the inherent ritualisation and the discrimination on the basis of varna and caste cast aspersion on the tolerant ethic of the Indian society. Nevertheless, the freedom of religious expression and the liberal space of debate and discussion in the Brahminical days is evident by the fact that the protesting religious ideologies of Buddhism and Jainism were born and prospered in the cradle of Civilization in this piece of land which was called Jambudweep.

A Brahmin in pursuit of knowledge.
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The freedom of religious expression and the ability to incorporate new ideas continued into the early medieval period when the first time traders from the Arab world brought the message of Islam to the shores of India. We get mentions of Arab traders since the Rashtrakuta dynasty of the Deccan. The legend of Haji Baba Ratan sometimes questions the fact that Islam came to North India under the shadow of the Sultan’s sword through the preachings of the Sufi saints. This Saint of Bhatinda is said to have converted when he saw the moon splitting miracle of prophet Muhammad when the latter was nine years old. On the other hand the political rhetoric which was prevalent in the ruling Muslim classes and the ulemas which distinguished between the Muslim and the non-Muslim was quite a novel ideology hitherto unknown to the subcontinent because the differentiation of the society on the basis of personal beliefs was largely unheard of in the Hindu society. The ruling classes however followed a policy of “condescending tolerance” towards the Hindu subjects due to the numerical weakness of the Muslim population in India; the need of labouring and administrative classes and the pragmatic policy of appeasement of the religious scholars.

Arab traders arriving on the Malabar Shores
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This somewhat uncomfortable coexistence of religious communities or as the hindu nationalist historians say “survival of Hindus” continued throughout the sultanate Period into the Mughal period untill conscious efforts were made by Akbar to settle the ideological differences among the different religious traditions and follow a political policy of assimilation of Hindu high castes into the the ruling Elite. This philosophy of Tawheed-i-Ilahi is a landmark but remains unused in the socio-political discourse of modern India. The discomfort of coexistence is clear in the prevailing circumstances against which Kabir and Guru Nanak protested and sought socio-religious reform. But these towering figures of Bhakti movement which took deep roots in Indian society made sure that different communities intermingle on the ground of religious ideas and follow the inherent Indian spirit of tolerance and compassion for the humanity.

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In the modern period in the wake of colonial bondage spiritual leaders and social reformers like Dayanand Saraswati, Ramkrishna Paramhansa, Swami Shraddhanand, Swami Vivekananda reiterated the Indian concept of universalism. But the British policy of governance which did not separate state and religion but separated adjacent religious communities according to their personal laws had a a deep impact on the nationalist conception of of Indian secularism.

In the modern sense Indian secularism is sometimes considered non-discriminatory rejection of all religions. This translates to the hindi version of the word which is Dharmanirpeksha. However this attitude becomes impractical in our nation where religion plays such an important role in everybody’s life making it a subject of public discourse. Gandhi said that the people who talked about the separation of religion and politics do not know what religion is. Maulana Azad sad that if we separate religion from politics then we have nothing left. This is why it becomes bewildering that secularism as the separation of Church and state should be applied to the Indian society. This is why Prof. Makarand Paranjape of JNU calls India Dharmasapeksha (equidistant to every religion) instead of Dharmanirpeksha. This is why scholars like Thapar has pointed out that secularism has been imposed as an ideology without having organically evolved. Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan has attempted to define the Indian version of secularism. He doesn’t equate it with western style secularism or atheism, but stresses on the fellowship of believers and the harmony between different traditions. He is a beleiver of ‘unity in diversity’. He traces Indian secularism to the ancient religious traditions of India. The partition of the subcontinent and the ensuing violence remains a dark legacy of colonialism and questions the basis of nationalist basis of secularism.

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Dr. B.R. Ambedkar while talking about the Hindu Code Bill (1951) in he parliament said, ‘It (secular state) doesn’t mean that we shall not take into consideration the religious sentiments of the people’. As the Indian constitution doesn’t build a wall between state and religion it often leads to confusion. This also leads to two contradictory roles of the Indian state that of intervention and that of non-intervention. The intervention is contemplated in the terms of redefining the scope of religion and non intervention in terms of autonomous religious organisations. This contradiction often leads to political leaders harnessing the sectarian differences for political gain. This debate of secularism is ongoing but but the values of mutual coexistence tolerance and universalism still remain the core of the the Indian society and body politic.

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