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India the Secular State (The Right Interpretation and the Wrong)

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(This article first appeared in Mother India (1949-1950) after being approved by Sri Aurobindo)

India has been declared a Secular State and the advanced elements in the country are proud of this declaration – but in a rather vague way. Nobody seems to know what are the exact implications of secularity. And quite a number of people even doubt if, except in name, India is any more secular than Pakistan who has declared herself a Muslim State with the name of Allah an integral part of the constitution. The doubt is occasioned by the fact that most of our leaders and ministers openly encourage belief in a religious order of the world.

Even Nehru, socialist though his tendencies are, honoured with his presence the occasion of the return of sacred Buddhist relics to India from abroad. Not only that, but he actually made a most humble namaskar to the relics, joining his palms together and bowing his head over them – a gesture almost of worship. He also affirmed recently that true religion is very precious and that its absence in what is conventionally termed religious is to be regretted. As for Sardar Patel and Rajagopalachariar and most of the Congress notables, they make no secret in public of their reverence for the teachings of the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Gita. All of them and Nehru himself never tire of pronouncing Gandhiji’s ideals and principles to be true, and everybody knows that Gandhiji’s entire attitude to life was dictated by a firm faith in God, especially God as incarnated in the traditional Hindu figure Rama. If those who stand as symbols of the Government are avowedly in favour not only of a religious world-view but also of the Hindu religion, how, it is asked, can India be considered a Secular State?

Secularity Has Many Meanings

The question does not go to the root of the matter. Secularity has many meanings. In its extreme form it is defined as total indifference to and discouragement of religious concepts and practices. The Soviet State is the outstanding example of anti-religious secularity. But there can be a less positive and more non-committal form. France and the U.S.A. are not pledged in their constitutions to any religion, but they have no hostility towards religious beliefs and bodies; they regard religion as the individual’s private business and let no religious partiality mould their political conduct. Great Britain, inasmuch as the King is entitled the Defender of the Faith, implies reference not only to God but also to a particular brand of religion, and yet in actual working she is without any political bias prompted by the Established Protestant Church.

If by secularity we mean all omission of the idea of God, Great Britain is a theocratic State. If we mean lack of religious favouritism, then she is certainly secular. India is at present secular like France and the U.S.A. rather than like Great Britain. But she is very far indeed from being secular in the Soviet sense. And even as compared to France and the U.S.A., she is more secular in principle than practice, for, while there is a strong irreligious strain among the individuals who compose France and a considerable amount of scepticism among the American people, the majority of Indians are free from the agnostic attitude no less than the atheistic. Rank atheism is rare in India; agnosticism is confined to only a part of the literate population which is itself a small part of the humanity surging within our sub-continent. This is not to deny that, with a great many of our literati, religion is just a hazy background and what governs their thought and behaviour is a too-worldly utilitarianism and hedonism à la the modern West. But our finest minds are alive to the importance of the religious consciousness and the large multitude of Indians are believers. It would be more in conformity with our turn of mind as a nation if we had a constitution framed less according to the temper of the French or the American State than to that of the British. In other words, if the name “God” has a place in our constitution, we should be truer to the psychological condition of the country.

The Indian Secular Concept

The first point to be settled is: can India avow belief in God, and yet be secular? The second point is: can that belief be Hindu-coloured without vitiating secularity? India called herself secular for only one purpose: she wanted to make it clear that Muslims, Christians, Parsis, Jews and Jains living within her borders would suffer no discrimination or penalty or suppression on account of their not being Hindus and not partaking in the Hindu conventions of worship. India wished to stress political liberty and communal equality irrespective of different religious conventions: that is why she chose the designation of “secular”. She never had the intention of favouring atheism and agnosticism, or of hiding the fact that on the whole her fundamental beliefs are those which constitute the core and kernel of Hinduism as distinguished from its shell and superficies. Sometimes the inner and outer Hinduisms are joined together: in that case, the leaders and ministers who symbolise the Government have to see, before they lend their personal support to religious occasions, that the inner is a living force and not stifled by rigid rule and uninspired ceremony. But there is nothing basically inconsistent in their reverence for religious values – even those which are closely connected with the Hindu religion as distinguished from any other. Read in its proper context, understood in its root motive, India’s secular constitution does not run counter to a belief in God by the majority of the nation who are religious and whose voice is echoed in the Government. Nor does it run counter to the Government’s being Hindu in essential religion, for if the majority of India follow the Hindu religion what else should we expect a representative Government to do?

In consideration of the fact that minorities subscribe to non-Hindu religions, the Hinduism of the Government must strip itself of all sectarianism, bigotry and orthodoxy and be the pure quintessence of the Hindu faith. The quintessence consists simply in the doctrine that there is an Infinite, Eternal, Perfect Being who is one yet capable of a myriad forms of manifestation, a Being whose divinity lives like a secret fire in all things and creatures and can guide and enlighten the human to unite with the divine, a Being who down the ages manifests also in a special sovereign form of spirituality which is the Avatar, the direct divine Incarnation. The Vedas, the Upanishads and the Gita are all here in a seed-significance to which, under one aspect or another and with this or that qualification, the living substance of all religions held in India today can be virtually reduced.

When it comes to making this seed-significance a dynamic for man’s growth out of his ignorance and incapacity into a greater poise of consciousness, Hinduism cannot help being stressed more than the other religions, for it is universally acknowledged by all who have seriously looked into the matter to have the best psychological methods of God-realisation. The Government could not be criticised for any such stress: if the minorities are ignorant of those methods they should be illuminated and if they refuse illumination they have nobody save themselves to blame for feeling slighted. To assure them of safety from sectarianism the Government can be said to have done their best so long as the constitution guarantees freedom from Hinduism’s outer husk.

Let us avoid all confusion about the Indian secular concept. There can be envisaged in it neither a conflict between the secular and the religious nor the absence of religion by virtue of the absence of God’s name nor the absence of Hinduism’s inner meaning. The term “secular” and the omission of God’s name must be taken merely to be expedients to avoid bringing up philosophical subtleties and to give no chance to the minorities to fear political and communal oppression. When the present period of inter-communal unsettlement is over, we should not be afraid of having the word “theocracy” hurled at us, provided we take care to be different from orthodox semi-obscurantist theocracies like Spain and Eire and Pakistan.

Secularity and the Presence of Ideals

A final point to remember is that an India which sets up the ideals of liberty and quality is bound to answer why these ideals are selected. No answer short of saying that they are the true principles of life will satisfy. And once we start speaking of “truth” we are in the realm of what are termed “values” and confront the enigma of the “ought”. Why ought we to cherish liberty and equality? If we reply that they conduce to the welfare and happiness of a country, the question arises: why ought we to conduce to a country’s welfare and happiness? The “ought” is a riddle we can never read except by going beyond the world of passing facts. If there is no Law eternal behind the codes and statutes of men, a Law which men strive to embody according to their best lights, then nothing fundamentally bars the right of cunning and selfish opportunism to have full play and the only commandment is – “Thou shalt not be found out.” If honesty and other virtues are held to be the best policy in the long run, it is only because some eternal Law is on their side and the sense of it in human breasts works ultimately on their behalf. Our morals and ideals may not always image the divine depths of the eternal Law; but there can be nothing like morality and idealism without an effort or aspiration to image the depths that are divine of a Law that is eternal.

This is plain logic. And every State must either accept this logic or else forfeit all claims to attempting an ideal government worthy of allegiance. Not only the ideals of liberty and equality but all ideals whatever must imply a divine sanction when they are offered us as true. The sense of unconditional imperativeness and inherent validity, without which no “ought” exists, leads ever to a theocracy of the universe. And if India or any State wishes to escape the charge of being a monstrous monument of cynical opportunism it must be overtly or covertly theocratic. A Secular State which is indifferent to religion and yet tries to be based on true ideals is a contradiction in terms!

Secularity in the Most Appropriate and Vital Sense

If words like “theocratic” and “religious” smack of an outward credal formality, let us choose a word like “spiritual” which has a freshness and wideness and inwardness of suggestion. But let us clearly perceive the right significance of secularity. Especially a country like India cannot keep indulging in a misinterpretation of it, for predominantly spiritual is the Indian genius. And until this character of the Indian genius is fully recognised – nay, felt in the heart and all along the blood – we shall never rise to the golden top of our bent and we shall waste the magnificent possibilities that seers like Sri Aurobindo bring us today of initiating a new world-order inspired and illumined by the divinity hidden within man.

Mention of Sri Aurobindo lays here a further shade of the right significance we should attach to secularity. One meaning of “secular” is: “concerned with the affairs of this world”; it is opposed to “other-worldly”. Spirituality in India has had two orientations: an earth-renouncing orientation and an earth-embracing one. The Aurobindonian spirituality is averse to all escapism, however sublime, and is emphatic about the need of transmuting and fulfilling earth’s life with the light of the Eternal, the Infinite, the Perfect. It can therefore be described as secular spirituality, and it is the dynamic modern Zeitgeist, the active temper of our time, in the finest and deepest form. As such, it illustrates the most appropriate and vital sense in which India can be faithful to her spiritual genius without either failing to be abreast of modernism or ceasing to be a Secular State.

– K.D. Sethna

(K.D.Sethna (Amal Kiran) is a well-known poet and the editor of the monthly Mother India. He has written a large number of books and articles on a wide range of topics. He came to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram when he was 23 and breathed his last at the age of 106 in 2011).