I am glad you asked this basic question on secularism that evening when we happened to
meet and had a chat. Otherwise, I would not have known about your interest in the subject.
Yours was a genuine question whereas all the others were using the panel discussion to
push their point of view. They were not interested in knowing more about secularism.
There could be any number of definitions of secularism. One is the
separation of the church from the state. The second would be the abolition of the church
as was attempted by the communist states led by the Soviet Union. Yet a third one might be
the Indian version; ideally, the equality of all religions before the state. The fourth
would be the English variety whereby the state is the oretically a theocracy; the monarch
is also the head of the Anglican church. Yet, in practice, England is a just and liberal
The expression secularism owes its origin to the Reformation in 16th
century Europe. The Reformation was not against religion or Christianity but against the
Catholic Church which owed extraterritorial loyalty to the Pope. This allegiance to Rome
resulted in the drain of wealth from other countries of Europe to Italy.
There were ad hoc contributions to be sent, for example, to build a new
St Peter's cathedral in Rome. There were also regular levies like the tax on farm produce
and cattle. It was estimated that every year some 300,000 gold coins found their way from
Germany alone to Italy.
'Why should Germans put up with such extortion by Rome' was not an uncommon question.
'Why should not the German clergy establish a national church under the Archbishop of
Mainz' was another popular question. A German priest called Martin Luther planted his
standard of revolt not in religious terms but on the basis of the national spirit.
Wherever nationalism won, the Reformation succeeded and the church became Protestant.
In France, the Reformation took a different turn. With tact and
diplomacy, in 1516, King Francis took over from the Pope the powers to appoint the priests
in his kingdom. It was said that the 'nationalization of Christianity' was achieved in
France without war or rebellion. The same could not be said for England where the exciting
cause of the Reformation was King Henry VIII's desire for a son and male heir.
The story goes that since divorce was unthinkable of a Catholic in
those times, he wanted his marriage to Queen Catherine, who had failed to give him a son,
annulled. The Pope could not oblige as he was a virtual prisoner of Charles V. King of
Spain and nephew of Queen Catherine.
England went to war with Spain but to no avail. Finally, onNovember 3,
1529, King Henry called the parliament which abolishedthe right of Pope to govern the
church in England. The nationalist spiritwas even stronger in England than in Germany. The
priests did not liketo make the king their spiritual head. But they considered the
foreigninfluence of Pope to be a greater evil.
What comes through from the history of the Reformation was the
revulsion against and the rejection of the senior priests due to their extraterritorial
loyalty, their greed and womanising. Doctrinal disputes were few; some in Germany but none
in England and France for example. Even the radical views of Martin Luther were not such
as torequire a complete break with Rome. There was a widespread demand to exclud the
senior priests from interfering in the conduct of government, or at least, to make the
bishops and abbots subordinate to the kings and princes.
In France, this was done by diplomacy and mutual understanding. In England, the monarch
replaced the Pope as the head of the church and to this day Britain is formally a
theocracy. In Germany, the priests owing allegiance to Rome were replaced by those royal
to their own soil. The northern areas of Europe broke jway asProtestants but the southern
ones remained Catholic. There h. notbeen much change in this regard since the 16th
This was the Reformation as a result of which the concept of secularism
or anti-clericalism came to be the political fashion in Europe.It was a rejection of
neither religion nor Christianity. Nor was it a formal or deliberate separation of the
church from the state. As we have seen in England, the church and the state were rolled
into one in the office of the monarch.
Three centuries later, socialism emerged to be a standard of
secularism. Karl Marx had interpreted human history as the epic of class conflict whereby
the powerful enriched themselves by taking away the wealth created by those who toiled.
The toilers thus remained poor and their desire to reject their exploiters was blunted by
the fear of God instilled into them by religion. Which is why Marx said that religion was
the opium of the masses.
T'he communist states have treated this as a commandment. Beginning
with the former Soviet Union and carried on in all such states, there was a systematic
endeavour to abolish worship and the practice of traditional religion, whether
Christianity or Islam or Judaism or Buddhism. Cathedrals, churches, mosques, synagogues
and pagodas were closed down and the buildings converted into museums, libraries or
government offices. If in every city or town one or two places of worship were left alone,
it was for purposes of display or for reasons of diplomacy.
Marxist secularism was therefore not a separation of the church from
the state but the abolition of traditional religion from society. The communist profession
was the denial of God and the enforcement of atheism.
Whether the Marxist or the Christian version, secularism is essentially
a European concept. It would be difficult for any Asian sceneto relate to it.
In India, secularism has meant different things to different people. To anyone who is
reasonable, it means the freedom of worship and the equality of all religious groups
before the law. The state is equi-distantfrom all denominations. For those seeking
political or electoral advantage, it offered scope for manipulation. Secularism has been
used to divide and divert the attention of the Hindus while some political parties
pampered the mullahs and their agents. How was the 1987 Supreme Court judgement in
the Shah Bano cost overturned by the Congress government and the Muslim Women Bill passed?
How in Kerala, from time to time, the Congress as well as the Communist
Party of India (Marxist) have formed coalition governments with the Muslim League? The
pre-Independence League did not admit anyone as a member except a Muslim. It was the cause
of India's partition. Yet, partnership with the League has never been condemned as
anti-secular. There are countless instances of such double standards in the name of
secularism. The word should better be avoided in India where religious tolerance would be
a preferred expression because it has been an integral feature of the Hindu world view.
Every Judaic or western ethos conceptually divides humanity into us and
they. The Jews call the other gentiles, Christians label non-christians as the heathens or
pagans. The Muslim divide the universe into momins and tapirs, whereas in
Marxism the division is between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The Hindu ethos is
not only not divided into us and they, but has instead considered all living beings, be
they human, animal, birds or reptiles, as Tart of one universe. This all inclusiveness is
the foundation of Hindu tolerance.
Its philosophical superstructure is the belief in the transmigration
ofthe souls amongst the various living beings. The soul is permanent, whereas the body is
merely like clothes which are shed at death and new ones are acquired at birth. The
individual souls or jeevatmas move from body to body when reborn. Religion is incidental
to the parents of the child and is not a permanent attribute of the jeevatmas. Hence
conceptually, there is no prejudice. Nor has there been any great inclination for Hindus
to convert embers of other faiths.
The corollary of transmigration is also the fear that the soul of
one's own neat and dear one, who died some time ago, might be resident in any body.
This fear makes the Hindu comparatively reluctant to kill anyone. This is the
conceptual basis whereby the Hindu prefers tolerance even towards animals, which, in turn,
leads to his bias for vegetarian food.
In a tolerant society, is not the talk of secularism irrelevant?