Secularism

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Part Five

The one country in the world that has been traditionally hospitable to the followers of all religions has now to learn lessons in secularism in its new form. Secularism that is cherished by our press is the noble concept that denies the majority community even the normal democratic rights of protest. If Hindus protest against a film like “WATER” and agitate to get it banned for the reason that it offends the Hindu psyche by citing certain quotes from the Shastras and giving them denigrating meaning not supported by the Shastras, this protest is seen to be non-secular because it goes against somebody’s freedom to denigrate Hinduism, goes against the freedom of the press. But the same press doesn’t object to the banning of a book by Salman Rushdie because it offends the sentiments of the minority community. Ideally, no book or film should be banned for such reasons but there should be avenues for protest for the minority community as well as for the majority community. The legitimate interests of no community should be trampled upon.

Any talk of an Indian cultural nationalism or of working towards a Uniform Civil Code is branded as communal while openly religious and caste-based parties that create religious and social divisions are certified as secular. The Government is applauded for its secularism when it diverts Hindu temple funds for its own uses, but any questioning of the accountability of overseas funding to the mosques and churches is fiercely attacked as communal and non-secular. When the supreme court passes a verdict not palatable to a minority community, the secularist Government overturns it by a legislative fiat as seen in the Shah Bano case. The plight of 400,000 Kashmir Hindus rendered refugees in their own country does not disturb our national conscience but any call for a review of the temporary Article 370 is not tolerated.

Pope Paul II chooses India to announce that a “great harvest of faith will be reaped” in Asia in the Third Millennium. Conversions on a large scale go on even today because India is still comparatively a poor country, and there is a liberal flow of funds into the country to support this proselytising activity. One could just go on listing these provocations. But if you are a Hindu, pluralism comes naturally to you, and you cannot hate enough to be a fundamentalist, except when you are caught up in a mass frenzy. Otherwise in a country where dozens of innocent people are killed through bomb explosions every other day by Islamic fundamentalists, the reaction from the Hindu majority community has been so far very mild — a bandh at the most on most occasions. I would be the last person to suggest we emulate Israel in this respect. I am only trying to show how the majority community in our country feels attacked from all sides and is yet doing its best not to get provoked into taking retaliatory action.

There are of course fringe groups among Hindus who have been clamoring for strong measures of retaliation. In this connection the upheaval in Gujarat comes to mind. No Hindu in his right mind would approve of what happened after the Godhra carnage but I would like to leave with you some words of K.D. Sethna. He was a political analyst with Sri Aurobindo as his mentor, and often commented on national and international events in the years immediately after February 1949. These words have a relevance even today, more than fifty years after they were written:

People who call themselves progressive look upon all revivalist tendencies as if they were the plague; they understand these tendencies to be pure and unadulterated communalism. Intolerant Hindu sectarianism on the rampage is their notion of whoever seems to be a revivalist. It must be admitted that there is a good number of Hindu bigots and we cannot sufficiently emphasize their harmfulness. But two things must be kept in mind when we condemn them. Most of these bigots are a reaction to the fanaticism that was the father of the Muslim League and therefore the progenitor of Pakistan. They are the unnatural consequences of a most unnatural phenomenon and to a large extent a sort of defense mechanism against a menace that has kept on growing. To discourage them is indeed our duty but if our stand is not equally strong against the root cause of their upsurgence we fail to be realists. To expect that no section of the Hindu community would indulge in reprisals for acts of injustice and brutality committed against the Hindus in Pakistan (and in Godhra in recent times even in our own country) is simply to be ignorant of human nature: the way to avoid retaliations is not merely to preach Gandhism to the masses or to punish those who take the law in their own hands but to add to all genuinely preventive or deterrent measures an attempt to stop the occasions for the provocation.

It can’t be denied that among people in general in the majority Hindu community, a certain religiosity is on the rise. People are becoming more “traditional”, they have become more pilgrimage-minded and perform ritualistic worship with greater fervor and at a greater cost than did people of my generation. The pomp and show with which certain festivals are observed, such as Ganesh Chaturthi and Diwali, is another instance of this. Jagarans are held in which playback singers and prominent people from the world of entertainment are invited to participate. Consider how many TV channels are now dedicated to this religionism. The music market is flooded with renderings of popular devotional songs, chantings of the Gayatri, Mrityunjaya jaap and other mantras. Luxury liners are chartered for holding the recitation of the Ramayan Katha and the Bhagavat Puran on the high seas. The protests launched against beauty contests, fashion shows, against the observance of Valentine’s Day etc. by certain Hindu groups show the fundamentalist facet of this revival.

These are revivalists who seek to revive old forms of Hinduism that we should really be getting rid of in haste. Very often there is a tendency to lose sight of the spiritual significance of things and take things literally. Take cow protection, for example. The Vedas give a most honorable place to the cow but then the popular cow-protection movement has very little to do with the Vedas. The Vedic cow is not the four-legged animal which we keep ill-treating all the time. If there are sound arguments in favor of sparing every cow, let us begin with bullocks and spare them the cruelty of yoking them to carts. Why be partial to cows? Why not extend the same protection to dogs and other domestic animals? The Vedas revere and worship cows, but then in the Vedas the cow “gou” is the symbol of illumination in the human mind. The two fruits of the Vedic sacrifice are the wealth of cows and the wealth of horses, symbolizing mental illumination and vital energy respectively. It is not enough to be passionate about reviving Hinduism, we must know what part of Hinduism is worth reviving.

Consider how a genuine impulse to go back to the foundations of our traditions peters out as a revivalist gesture. A revealing instance of this is the University Grant Commission’s move to introduce Vedic Astrology as a subject of study in Indian universities and the loud protests raised against this move by the country’s guardians of rationality. Whether Astrology is an academic discipline or not is a question I do not wish to discuss now. I merely wish to point out that the UGC should have recommended and strongly supported the study of what may be called the Traditional Systems of Knowledge which includes astrology because there is so much in diverse fields of traditional knowledge that we need to understand. In civil engineering, metal technologies, textiles, shipping and ship building, water harvesting systems, forest management, farming techniques, traditional medicinal systems — in each one of these subjects India has a fund of traditional knowledge which for long has been dismissed as mere folklore and superstition.

We can see from the planning of complex towns of the Saraswati-Sindhu civilisation to Delhi’s Qutab Minar that India’s indigenous technologies were very sophisticated in design, planning, water supply, traffic flow, natural air-conditioning, complex stone work, and construction engineering. Indian textile exports were legendary. Roman archives contain official complaints about massive cash drainage because of imports of fine Indian muslin. Our navigation system was famous throughout the world because India had a thriving ocean trade system for centuries before the Europeans arrived on the scene. You will be surprised to know that Vasco da Gama’s ships, which discovered the trade route to India, were captained by a Gujarati sailor.

The argument in favour of taking up seriously the study of our Traditional Knowledge Systems is not patriotism or false pride in being Indian. It is that these systems are eco-friendly, and allow sustainable growth. The Western life style, as is well-known by now, not only destroys local cultures but gives rise to unachievable expectations. People everywhere want to live like Americans. But it is not realized that the capital required to enable billions of poor humans to live like Americans does not simply exist in the world. Americans can live the way they do because to them ‘cheap labour’ is available somewhere else, and they can buy natural resources cheap from somewhere else. When Gandhi was asked whether he would like India to develop a lifestyle similar to that of England, he said in reply something to this effect: The British had to plunder the Earth to achieve their lifestyle. Given India’s much larger population, it would require the plunder of many planets to achieve the same.

To return to our main point, the argument for returning to the traditional Indic systems of knowledge is not any emotional attachment to our past or any kind of chauvinism but a study of these systems is what we need, what the world needs for the economic betterment of the world in a holistic manner.

Thus it is unfortunate that on the whole the current Hindu resurgence has not brought about any revival of interest in the great achievements of the Hindu civilization. The sophisticated and sublime philosophy of the Upanishads, the mathematics of Pingala or of Brahmagupta, the sophisticated pluralism of Vedanta, the literary achievements of Kalidasa or Sudraka — all these like our traditional knowledge systems have failed to excite us. It has been recognized that ours is a civilization that invented games like the chess and produced classics not only on Moksha and Dharma but also on Artha and Kama – political economy and sex-education. The adoration of Rama and of Hanuman and the exploitation of the spell of these legends on the mass mind for grass-root political work may have something to be said for it. But the entire thrust of the Hindu resurgence must not end with ‘temple-politics’; it should not end up with it being identified with groups of unquestioning idolaters and delirious devotees.

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