"Secularism" and "worldview" are both concepts that emerged from
outside of the territorial context of the Vedic faith. The tools of
thought and analysis that we use could be a limiting, sometimes
misguiding, factor especially in the spiritual domain. The tendency to
fit spiritual ideals into secular framework has limitations, not less
than its practical uses.
The Vedic faith was not designed to be secular. It antedates the birth
of secularism. In fact, the Vedic faith would have averted the need for
evolving secularism. Historically, the secular worldview developed in
the heat of the religious wars in Europe. These wars were due in part to
the dogmatic and dominating spirit that Christianity happened to acquire
within the western culture. The conversion of Constantine to
Christianity was the turning point here. A reform spiritual movement
within Judaism got totally transformed into a state religion and got
mixed up with the instruments of power. Christianity, in its western
models, is yet to recover from this spiritual setback. The comparison
between Jesus of Nazareth, who had nowhere to lay down his head, and the
pomp and power of Papacy borders on the grotesque.
In contrast, the Vedic faith -which should not be equated with the sum
total of the popular versions of Hinduism we see today- is by nature a
pluralistic vision that accommodates a variety of spiritual quests and
manifestations. The emphasis here is on spiritual values rather than
religious elaborations and prescriptions. The Vedas do not recognize the
hegemony of the priestly class. Pandits and Pontiffs would seem strange
creatures within its enlightened vision. The Vedas do not see truth and
justice as the monopoly of any class, caste or race. It is
quintessentially a universal vision that sees the whole of the human
species as comprising one family. In that respect it is also in harmony
with the vision in the Bible that sees creation as originating from the
divine source and all humankind, therefore, belonging together in the
plan of God.
In the West, the secular worldview had to be engineered to enable
people to live with and rejoice in the riches of plurality. But in
India, thanks to the Vedic culture, the ability to cope creatively with
religious and cultural plurality has been an integral part of the Indic
Soul from time immemorial. In that sense, it could be argued that the
seminal patterns and principles of secularism lie embedded in the Vedic
vision, to an extent.
But the Vedic faith can never accept the split between State and
Church, or the secular and the spiritual. It cannot countenance the
privatization of spirituality. The spiritual is the overarching
framework within which everything in this world has to cohere. God is
the cause of creation and can never be confined to any part of it.
Therefore, spiritually, politics is as sacred as prayer is. God must be
as central to the political and economic processes in a country as (s)he
is in the sphere of religion. The split between politics and religion
has exiled reforming and redemptive values from public life and turned
politics into a domain of corruption. This cannot but undo the secular
apparatus sooner or later.
The Indian incarnation of secularism as equal respect for all religions
has also not succeeded in delivering the goods. In a democratic
situation, where the majority is omnipotent, this ideal of "equal
distance" or "equal respect" for all religions is more theory than
practice. At any rate, it is time that we questioned this idea of
respecting all "religions", especially in the light of the death-dance
of communalism in our midst. As of today, "equal respect for all
religions" amounts in practice to unequal support for a variety of
communalisms. The secular state is being infected with the virus of
communalism. This must be a cause of great anxiety for all
The time is now for us to work towards a radical shift in focus. For me
dharma should be the meeting point between Hinduism and secularism.
Dharma in the political and economic contexts becomes a commitment to
social justice. It mandates the creation of the conditions necessary to
help all people to develop and attain optimum quality of life. This also
includes the sacred duty to fight against the forces of injustice,
oppression and exploitation. Spirituality is the only source of
empowerment for this sacred mission.
It is an indictment of our secular-socialist political apparatus that
in the last 50 years very little progress has been made towards making
social justice a reality for millions of our citizens. This was largely
because we have been preoccupied with the trapping of religions. As a
result we have become blind and deaf to the demands of true
spirituality. Escapist and ritualistic religious establishments can
close their eyes to the cry of the people; but spirituality, which is a
transforming engagement with the human predicament, cannot do so without
It is not for nothing that Ram is greatly revered in the Hindu
pantheon. He is the embodiment of dharma, of righteousness. In him we
find the self-surrender of the righteous ruler to the demands of dharma
as well as the refusal to compromise with the forces of evil. This sort
of moral activism, even absolutism, is essential for the health of a
secular society. Secularism should never mean the banishment of
spirituality from the affairs of the State or the life of the people. It
should mean, on the other hand, the elimination of religion-based
conflicts and competitions that mar social harmony and dissipate the
energies of a nation. Communalism should be privatized; whereas
spirituality should be affirmed and propagated. The situation at the
moment is quite the reverse, though.
This was indeed the fundamental Vedic position, till it got mixed up
with the class interests of the rising priestly class on the one hand,
and the dogmatism and exclusiveness of other faiths. It was for this
reason that Swami Dayanand Saraswati issued the clarion call: "Back to
Our approach to creating a healthy secular society has been partial and
na´ve. Lack of a sense of history made us blind to the fact that the
secular society could work reasonably well in western societies because
the fundamental values of justice, equality and accountability had been
already well-entrenched in the culture and collective psyche of the
people. Though in theory secularism claimed to privatize religion, in
actual practice the instruments and institutions of secularism continued
to function on the value foundations created by Christian spirituality
(which is different from Church-centered Christianity!).
In the Indian context we are in a superior situation, potentially.
Unlike in the west, India has had a religiously pluralistic heritage.
This sub-continent has been a crucible for different religious
traditions for centuries. Out of this should have emerged a new
spiritual vision to fortify and empower our people. But that did not
happen mainly for two reasons. First, religions themselves were
inundated by the floods of ritualism, obscurantism and communalism.
Second, religious were situated in a model of mutual conflict and
suspicion so that the possibility of their entering into any
constructive cooperation in the service of the people was totally ruled
out. Needless to say, this was the conspiracy of the vested interests
and it has not done any good to our country and her masses.
What needs to engage our attention at the present time is not the
question as how and to what extent each religious tradition separately
and independently corresponds to the prescriptions of secularism. The
need of the hour is for various religious communities to come together
and enunciate a shared spirituality conducive to healing and
transforming our secular culture by imbuing it with a passion for truth
and social justice which are the essence of dharma.