Issues, Ideas and Interventions!

IS SECULARISM THREATENING PLURALISM AND POLYTHEISM? - Col. Anil Athale.

Right at the outset let it be clear that I do not support the banning of books, even the shoddiest ones. The best way to counter irrational and un-scholarly work is to write your own version. But one must also admit that when one is faced with an institutionalised Western bias and total apathy/hostility in one's own country, taking recourse to legal remedy is a civilised way of fighting prejudice.

The recent controversy about a book on Hinduism that has been withdrawn by Penguin due to opposition by Hindu groups in US has again brought to fore the familiar peril of Hindu bashing. Almost a century ago one Catharine Mayo, another American, had indulged in similar exercise and Gandhiji's comments on it are worth quoting since they apply equally to the present Avatar of Ms Mayo. Commenting on the book Gandhiji wrote, 'This book is cleverly and powerfully written. The carefully chosen quotations give it the false appearance of a truthful book. But the impression it leaves on my mind is that it is the report of a drain inspector sent out with the one purpose of opening and examining the drains of the country to be reported upon, or to give a graphic description of the stench exuded by the opened drains. If Miss Mayo had confessed that she had come to India merely to open out and examine the drains of India, there would perhaps be little to complain about her compilation. But she declared her abominable and patently wrong conclusion with a certain amount of triumph: 'the drains are India'.

Why is the majority religion in India frequently under attack? There are three distinct aspects of this, one is the political, second intellectual and third institutional.

There is terrible intellectual confusion on exact nature of the Indian subcontinent polity. Indians by and large are described as tolerant, secular and non violent.

As the 2014 elections approach, a shrill debate has begun on the by now familiar theme of 'secularism' vs 'communalism', with many from Imperial Delhi talking darkly about rise of majority 'fascism' and Hitler like dictator. It is ironic that in a country where the de-facto-ruler (who decides every single important appointment), the Prime Minister, vice President, defence minister, foreign minister, Intelligence chief, an air force chief (till recently) and many others belong to so-called minorities, a scare is raised about 'majoritarianism' and the threat it poses to democracy. Under the garb of 'secularism' a determined attack is being launched on Indian 'polytheism' by organised groups of the right and all powerful left. It is this and not majoritarism that poses a threat to Indian democracy.

As the General Elections of 2014 loom large on the horizon, politicians have begun to air the thought that 'idea of India' was under threat. If one chooses to remember the two decade old debate of 'India versus Bharat', one should be celebrating the demise of 'India' and rise of 'Bharat'. At that time though, this Bharat vs India confrontation was couched more in economic terms or village vs city or agricultural vs industrial. The last 10 years or so have seen relentless assault on the philosophy, history and culture of Bharat-varsha by the 'Indiawallah's. A sample of this was when the government of the day 'officially' denied our ancient history and dubbed our epics as 'work of fiction'. This has been driven by vote bank politics that has graduated from appeasement of minorities to demonization of majority, once it was realised that mere sops for minorities were not working any more. But the intriguing part of last decade is why a large section of Westernised Indian elite joined in this destruction?

The struggle between Indian cultural moorings of pluralism (that rest on the solid foundation of polytheism) and monotheism has entered a decisive phase as the demographic balance appears to have shifted towards so called minorities becoming the single largest ethno-religious grouping. Nothing else explains the current govt. refusing to make public the 2011 census data on religious composition of Indian population and the race by all political parties for 'minority' votes.

India is not a 'secular' country in the accepted Western definition of the term. Countries like France and the US as well as many European countries have strict separation of religion and state and do not permit any religious symbols or teachings in public space. Indian approach is best exemplified by the Indian armed forces, possibly the finest example of Indian brand of 'secularism'. In the armed forces it is very common to find the drivers of military vehicles having a little picture of their favourite God/Guru or Islamic calligraphy (in case of Muslims) on the vehicle dashboard. Visit any forward post in mountains and en-route at the mountain pass you will find an all-religious shrine where all the possible Gods happily share one roof. Religion is not just permitted but promoted in the armed forces with a clear catholicity wherein participation in each other's religious functions is a norm and not an exception. It is this concept of 'polytheism', unique to India that was threatened some years ago when the Sachar committee wanted to divide the armed forces and have a separate head count for minorities. Many including this author successfully fought that nefarious design.

Much of the confusion in India is caused due to inadequate understanding of history of secularism. Monotheism is inherently anti democratic as organised religion brooks no deviation from one book, one God and one path, an exact anti-thesis of democratic principle of individual freedom and choice. In Europe the concept of Secularism had to battle the monotheism and domination of church. Europe became democratic in opposition to monotheist Christianity. This came about only when during the 16th and 17th century Renaissance, Europe went back to its Greek and Roman roots, both in essence Polytheist civilisations. According to Bhagvat Gita, chapter 15, God is said to reside in all living beings ( I am the active principle in trees, I dwell within all living beings in the entire universe). This philosophy of omnipresence of divine principle is much beyond Polytheism. The word Polytheism is used wrongly, the correct description would be multi-theism. In India mode of worship was never an issue as Indians never had a unified church, a single book or dominant monotheism. Essence of Indian civilisation has been that while there is essential unity of God, it is manifested in many ways and all paths are equally valid and like many rivers lead to ocean, lead to same destination. Indians accept all Prophets as true. Acceptance of multiplicity of or many facets of truth has led to democracy being easily accepted and pluralism of faiths is seen as natural.

India along with the Middle East and China is a civilisational node. Interestingly, in case of China as well as the Middle East, over thousands of years a single language dominates the population. On the other hand in India, while Sanskrit was the link language, more than 17 major languages flourish. Linguistic diversity has been a function of polytheism. It needs reiteration that language is far more powerful a tool for nation formation than even religion. Example of Bangladesh is a recent one, but a look at Europe will show the power of language as a factor in nation building. Polytheism led to this diversity and also made political unity impossible. As a military historian one can vouch that repeated Indian battlefield defeats were due to this single biggest factor. Even today while the concept of pluralism and polytheism is under attack, political unity eludes majority of Indians.

Another proof and effect of this Indian polytheism is that majority of visitors to holy shrines of Islam (Ajmer durgah for instance), St. Xavier's church in Goa or Golden temple in Amritsar, are polytheist Hindus. If one observes a common man passing a church or Gurudwara or a durgah of Muslim saint, instinctively bows his head. It is this prevalence of polytheism that has ensured that monotheists and minorities flourish in India. This may sound preposterous in wake of the recent communal clashes in Muzzafarnagar. But it must be understood that in a county of over 1 billion people this is at worst an aberration. If a person belonging to 'minority' is to take an un-jaundiced look at the Arab world or our neighbourhood, he will find daily massacres in Syria, killings in Egypt and drone attacks and use of fighter aircraft against own people by Pakistan. Unless the Islamic world finds an answer to the challenge of monotheism, democracy will remain a far cry in those countries. As a side effect, sectarian killings where the monotheists are in majority is completely absent in polytheist India. It is irony that in spite of this reality, there are many who regard this, their motherland, as dar-ul Harab or enemy territory!

Another reason for continued tension in India between religious communities has been the constant propaganda of 'victimhood' that is dinned into Indian ears. So a 1992 demolition of a non-descript mosque is cause to spawn terrorist attacks, two attacks on Raghunath temple, Akshardham temple, hundreds of bomb blasts and terror attacks have been forgotten. Ask an average Indian about these events and chance is one will get a blank look! Offhand, people will not be even able to recall the year in which these took place, but on the other hand date of 6 December 1992 is firmly etched in public mind. This is despite the fact that in cultural, sports and economic field, there is no majority-minority distinction! Bolywood is dominated by minorities, we have sporting heroes from all communities and in economic field three of the biggest pharmacy companies (Wolkhardt, Cipla and Himalayan drugs) are owned by minorities. At micro level, the hardware business is dominated by Bohri community and most of the butcher shops are run by minorities (and sell only halal meat).

It is only in field of politics that minorities have studiously been kept as a captive vote bank. Nehru, India's first Prime Minister is often invoked by the practitioners of vote bank politics. But it must be remembered that Nehru was keen to shield the minorities from backlash of partition. He did not need minority vote banks to win elections- he would have won them any way!

The worst effect of all this is that minority separatism is assiduously cultivated creating rift between nonexistent majority and organised minority. If Indian polytheism were to succumb to an organised group of minority, the first victims will be the minority itself. The havoc brought about by monotheism in our western neighbourhood will be repeated in India. The million dollar question is, will the polytheists display political unity in defence of pluralism? India's future may well depend on it.

Even more than the political reactions or reaction by the leftists, the most fascinating was the usually neutral intellectuals to the whole controversy.

Apart from politics, there is a terrible price Indians are paying for long period of political domination that has enslaved Indian mind. One of the finest philosophical expose of this is to be found in Prof K C Bhattacharya's seminal essay, 'Swaraj in Ideas.' It is such an important document that the author wishes to quote it in abridged form.

"We speak today of Swaraj1 or self-determination in politics. Man's domination over man is felt in the most tangible form in the political sphere. There is however a subtler domination exercised in the sphere of ideas by one culture on another, a domination all the more serious in the consequence, because it is not ordinarily felt."

"Cultural subjection is ordinarily of an unconscious character and it implies slavery from the very start. When I speak of cultural subjection, I do not mean the assimilation of an alien culture. That assimilation need not be an evil; it may be positively necessary for healthy progress and in any case it does not mean a lapse of freedom. There is cultural subjection only when one's traditional cast of ideas and sentiments is superseded without comparison or competition by a new cast representing an alien culture which possesses one like a ghost. This subjection is slavery of the spirit: when a person can shake himself free from it, he feels as though the scales fell from his eyes. He experiences a rebirth and that is what I call Swaraj in Ideas."

(Lecture by Krishna Chandra Bhattacharya (1875-1949) in October 1931 under Sir Asutosh Memorial Lectures series, at Chandernagore Visvabharati Quarterly No. 20, pages 103-114 1954)

Apart from the slavery of mind, it is scarcely understood by the West that Hinduism is at best a federation of faiths, with acceptance of pluralism as its foundation. Since it is not a religion of book but a living tradition, there are thousands of variations. It is classic case of five blind men and an Elephant. As Prof Bhattacharya puts it,

"There is so much, kind or unkind, written about us and preached to us by others that raises the legitimate question if they have a sufficient perception of the inwardness of our life. Prima facie it is very difficult for a foreigner to understand the mind of a people from whom he is widely removed by tradition and history unless he has intimately participated in their life for a long time."

A classic case is the racist attack on a Buddhist temple near Phoenix in Arizona on 10th August 1991 because of the Swastika symbol. Many Americans think that the Buddhists or Hindus borrowed it from Hitler! But why is there no counter to this distortion of Indian faith? The answer to this intriguing question is found in the way Indian educational structures have denied any space for our own religion and philosophy. A report in the Hindu on July 13, 2013 narrates the quest of a student to do a PhD in Hinduism in India.

Subadra Muthuswami, who has a master's degree in public health from Columbia University, hoped to pursue her interest in Hinduism when she returned to India. She discovered that the University of Madras has programmes in vaishnavism and Indian philosophy. She enquired with universities such as Madurai Kamaraj, Annamalai and Sastra, but without success. Finally, she went to Madras Sanskrit College in Mylapore, where she was informed that she could register as an independent research candidate or seek help from the University of Madras.

"While you may study Indian philosophy in the philosophy department or vaishnavism or saiva siddhanta, which is in Tamil medium only, you cannot study the religion in all its constituent parts in India," she said. She learnt that even Banaras Hindu University has a department in philosophy and religion but nothing specific to Hinduism.

Senior professors say universities are secular places where Hinduism as a religion cannot be taught. Sources in the University said when the department wanted to offer a paper in yoga (which is also a shastra) last year, the move was opposed on the grounds that it was endorsed by a political party.

The University has separate departments for Christian and Islamic studies.

The lack of departments of Hindu studies in India, while there are many chairs in several Western universities has meant 'out sourcing' of research to foreigners. With no possibility of jobs, studies in Hinduism have entered a terminal decline in India. Since even Yoga is 'communal' by this definition, we have lost our edge in this fast growing field as well. Is it any wonder that some enterprising Americans are even attempting to 'patent' Yoga. So Hath Yoga is changed to Hot Yoga!

Secularism of peculiar Indian variety poses a danger to our ancient heritage as well as peace in the sub continent.

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