Does secularism mean we dont need any religions?

The current context…

The debates and issues related to secularism are gaining big momentum as of today in India. I will not overplay it since I believe that there is still a pretty good working relationship amongst multiple communities. People do not react until something directly affects them. There are such situations occurring once in a while but those, I believe usually are local issues which probably get sorted out in some time without any major issue being made out of it. Those in positions of power or those wanting attention though, seem to be provoking trouble in the name of picking up issues and the news media faithfully amplifies these issues leading individual citizens to think whether there really is such a problem.

Some of the issues being debated today are

  • Teaching of Bhagavat Gita in schools
  • Fatwa against Surya Namaskar
  • Quota for minorities within quota

As you can see, none of these are issues that have cropped up from the ground level scenario. The first was a decision by a govt., the second a fatwa issue by a cleric, the third a statement made by a central minister. These are ones that media picks up and blows up… while I as a citizen do not have any issues of such magnitude with those of other religions and communities working with me or living near me..

Do we need religions?

Quite clearly, unless one wants to be blind and take extreme views, we as humans do need religions. Every community across space and time has come up with some vision of a supreme power and who they call god. It could have been the communities which regarded nature and it’s powers as supreme and accorded them godly positions or the major religions that came up. Broadly speaking, religions are a means for society to feel secure and control itself rather than allow each to go one way and thereby de-stabilise the society. After all, each of us individuals are unique. Religions brought those living together under one umbrella of faith to ensure some cohesiveness. Morality and thereby law and order were intrinsically linked with religions. Primarily, religions apart from having a theory on how and why humanity came about, who or what created it etc, also imposes a moral code which all are expected to follow. The first is only a theoretical aspect. The second is the one we face day in and day out. Each religion also had a blasphemy concept whether mild or severe to ensure that almost everyone conforms to the rules and does not jeapordise the system. They valued the system more than the individual beliefs. This certainly was necessary to some extent since each of us may start thinking wildly, not take any lessons from the past and come up with crazy rules to live. This will of course, kill the communal harmony, even within a single small community living isolated from most others. So, even tribes have some form of religion if not one with great theoretical standing and big volumes of written sacred texts.

The major point we see is that religions were born to bring together individuals and to them, give a sense of security and establish a moral code of conduct. It was a uniting and stabilising force.

When did problems start?

As we can easily imagine, when each group living in isolation evolves it’s own religion and runs the society there and then, there are no issues. Problems occur though when people of various faiths come together or else, two or more religions are born in the same place and time. All religions have a commonality in purpose. There is no dispute there. The dispute is in the way it has to be practiced and the rules. Differences are hardly even on ‘WHAT’ but most often on ‘HOW’ .

If religions had been used only for their main purposes as illustrated earlier, there would not have been issues. Trouble started brewing though when it became a tool for oppression and power struggle. Religions never had this purpose. ‘Power’ has always been a great attraction for humans across time and is..  Some religious heads, who already wielded some power craved for more and tried to bring some other communities under their fold. Some believed that theirs was the best religion and that others need to be saved by bringing them into their fold, irrespective of whether they already had one. So, religions which were meant to stabilise society and define a common way of life became reasons to fight and die for.

What is our scenario now?

Coming to today’s scenario in India, being a large country and one which has faced multiple imperalistic attacks across time has many religions and faiths being practiced. When we got Independence, we already had the many religions amongst us. So, in time, our constitution also got the word ‘Secular’ into it’s preamble itself. (If I remember right, through the 42nd amendment in 1976).

We had Hinduism from many centuries. We had also many tribes who had non-codified religions of their own. We got Islam when invaders came in. We got Christianity when the Europeans came in to do business and then decided they were the best to rule the place. We had others come in like the Zoroastrians who come to seek shelter when persecuted. We saw the birth of Buddhism and Jainism here. So, we today have many many religions and even within each, have many schools of thought and thereby sects.

There are also others who have long contended that humanity needs no religion. The atheists in their various forms, whether influenced by Karl Marx or others have stood on the other side, although highly outnumbered.

Hence, we obviously are a highly pluralistic society and today, no more live in isolated pockets. We are thoroughly mixed up and each state or district has a population with most of these religions. This clearly means that we need a way to live together without fighting. Once we start fighting on these lines, we can not live comfortably.

What we would do by living amicably is a different question. Essentially, a peaceful existence is the platform for evolution. Some may consider discovering planets and stars as evolution, some finding new ragas in music as evolution, some others in genetically engineering humans and yet others in seeking the goal of life in various philosophies. Those are irrelevant here. The common base though is that to do any of these, a peaceful co-existence is essential. I will stop at that.

So, is it better to be secular?

Given the fact that we are highly pluralistic and thoroughly mixed up, interactions among people of various religions are a day to day issue now. Since our constitution also says we are a ‘secular’ country, all political parties which today fight to govern the country have to declare that they are secular. They do so. Just that, each one has a different definition.

Yes. It is better to be secular. We do not have a choice. We cannot become a ‘hindu’ nation or an ‘Islamic republic’ or something else. We need to evolve a good definition of secularism.

My view on what secularism should mean…

What choices do we have?

  • Take the atheist definition and remove all religions
  • Try to make all religious communities equally powerful
  • Each keeps their religion but we evolve a good working relationship

As we have seen, the first option is out of questions. Humans need religions and they will not let go of it. Even the atheistic view still serves the purpose of religion by defining a social code of conduct. Just that they do not recognise any god existing above the clouds. The communist parties who have advocated this and still do remain a minority. There have been attempts in other places. I am given to understand that ‘basavanna’ in Karnataka attempted the same to remove caste differences but we still live with it. So, I rule out option-1.

Can we make all religions equally powerful? Not really. The numbers count. We are supposed to have about 80% hindus, 13% muslims, 6% Christians and so on. I am not too sure that 80% are hindus in the sense that they follow hindu books and traditions. I understand that many tribes who do not have a codified religion but follow practices similar to hindus are classified under hinduism. In fact, the ‘dalit’ community as it is called has become the bone of contention with each wanting them to belong to their religion and each political party wanting their votes as they really are a huge number.

However we look at it, we can never have all religions wielding the same amount of power.

The final option. I call it final. Some others may come with others though.

Religion, social structure & conduct, governance and thereby politics have always been closely linked and will remain so.

This really is why much of our political fights are to do with religion and caste centered fights. It is a power struggle. The one with power governs. To gain power, you need the backing of people. The largest scale of grouping people is on the basis of religions. I do not want to delve much in the political games. I am only interested in a peaceful social structure which can form the platform for development, whether it is capitalistic or philosophic or artistic or whatever.

What we can clearly see from above arguments is that while religions were meant to unite people to give a stable society, power struggles have hijacked them and have made them into a divisive power. Those looking for power (politicians mainly) are playing with religions to gain or retain power. Each has their definition of secularism. What is important though is what we as citizens of India want to choose as the definition of secularism. Can we have a sane understanding and one which works to our benefit rather than drag us down? The final purpose is clear, to have a peaceful society allowing all persons equal opportunity to evolve and live comfortably. To do this, there is no choice but to let each person practice his/her religion but to learn to live together amicably. We cannot get swayed by what politicians choose for us. We as citizens should choose what we want.

Who am I?

I am a Hindu and happy to be one. I consciously choose to say ‘happy’ to be one rather than ‘proud’ to be one. Not that I do not have pride in being a hindu but that is not what is important. Pride is always associated with a sense of superiority. Hinduism in itself does not preach that. Hinduism clearly brings out the fact that our enemies live within ourselves and ‘ego’ amongst all is the toughest to defeat. The great Vishwamithra had to finally bow down to gain the accredition from the even greater sage Vasishta. I am very happy to be a hindu since that has provided me the opportunity to learn the many good things from the various philosophies associated with including those from the Bhagavat gita.

I have read the Bhagavat gita more than once and revere it as a great text, full of insight on how, we as humans should conquer our enemies within. It illustrates clearly the many paths one can take to achieve the goal of reaching the supreme. It does not in one place deride any other religion or belief system. It is not so much a part of religion as it is a part of philosophy. We cannot easily separate religion and philosophy in their existence but can easily separate the content. Yoga is defined within the bhagavat gita and it goes beyond the physical exercises which form part of ‘hatha yoga’. It is thus a text which helps us find a good way of life and go beyond it too. When we are trying to go beyond life, it would be crazy to believe that we can go there with a sense of superiority. So, obviously, the Bhagavat Gita itself teaches one to kill pride and ego. So, it would be self-defeating if anybody who understands the Bhagavat gita claims superiority. All religious communities have humans of similar mix of knowledge and ignorance. Our common goal is to kill ignorance and ego; not others and their beliefs.

Philosophy is not a common man’s game. It is way too complex. So, let us leave that out. ‘Hatha yoga’ though is something to do with health which all of us wish and need. I realised one thing recently. When I was trying to do ‘Vajra Asana’, I realised that this is the same pose which a muslim uses when doing namaz. So, each community has evolved ways of life and some common aspects are bound to exist. We certainly have uniting factors across religions too.

I am also a child rights activist.I also see the role of social science in education as a very key component, more so than natural sciences. I am very interested in what children learn at school and what we as a society teach them. We certainly build the platform for a good society at the schools. So, we need to very careful about what we teach at schools.

How do we live out ‘the most helpful form of secularism’?

I will not define a ‘true secularism’ as this ‘true’ version will always have contenders. I am interested in the utilitarian aspect of how it can be helpful for us to achieve a peaceful co-existing society. Thus must ‘most helpful’ definition of secularism.

I have to now come back to the current issues I highlighted; that of teaching bhagavat gita in schools, or the fatwa against surya namaskar or quota within quota. These clashes are bound to arise. They are are power struggles. They will not be an issue between two individuals belonging to different religions. It is always a fight between leaders who wish to amass people and power on their side. Media will go behind the powerful. So, such issues will crop up. We as a society should learn to live with it.

Solutions? Let me try…. (I cannot claim to solve it sitting in front of a PC in the comfort of my room)

Teaching Bhagavat Gita in schools: I am in favour of it but at the same time, I would go beyond it. If we teach the bhagavat gita alone and tell students that this is the only and best theory of life, then we would be doing a dis-service to our society and our children. We should teach ‘Religions, social structures and social conduct’ as a subject. In that, the Bhagavat gita will certainly be a part but this subject should be taught in a non-judgmental manner. The facts that we have so many religions, the reason they were born, their nature and how they hope to build a society with stability and peace, how they give strength and courage to humans, how it works against crime is to be taught. Certainly, the Bible and the Quran will also find a place as will the teachings of Buddha. but in all that, we should not be judgmental to say that one is better than the other. This is where we will build unity amongst our children and respect for each other’s faith. Are we as a society mature enough to do this? I doubt. We are still swayed by what the politicians and others in power say and what the media echoes. I hope we get the maturity to do this.

Fatwa against Surya Namaskar: I think this was unnecessary. I do not practice surya namaskar but that does not make me a non-hindu. It is my choice or laziness that leads to me not doing it. If a muslim likes it as a good form of exercise, then why not do it, even if he wants to call it by another name? I,  as a hindu do not want to claim credit and superiority because some muslim people adopted surya namaskar. That would not be appropriate and it cannot be blasphemic for a muslim to do surya namaskar.

Quota within quota: Reservation is a major issue. It had a purpose when it was built but certainly has been hijacked by politicians. Now, they want to use it as a carrot to get votes. No more. I do realise that many communities may need some extra help and that minorities including muslims may need additional support to claim their due representation in every field but that can happen by universalising good education and making govt. schools better. I am fine if we have time limited quotas for communities. If we want to see ourselves as Indians having quota systems 100 years down the line, it worries me. Can all of us not come to an equal level even in 100 years? 100 years is 3 generations; more than enough to equalise any imbalances that exist.

In conclusion, I would say that secularism needs to be defined in a utilitarian manner that helps us and not kills us. We can certainly live together harmoniously and ask our politicians to focus on development issues rather than keep playing religious and casteist cards.Each of us can practice our religions and still remain respectful of others. Most of us do that on the ground. Just that those greedy of power are trying to split us and media follows and blows up what they say and do.

All religions have a common purpose,  just like the many languages we speak. May we mature as a society to start seeing religions as uniting factors rather than divisive factors.

Jai Hind !!!

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