Many people, in India and elsewhere, regard India as a paradigm for religious pluralism: its dominant Hindu majority lives in close symbiosis with a substantial Muslim population (the third largest in the world) and a number of other religious minorities. Moreover, the basic character of Hinduism throughout its history has encouraged interaction and coexistence with other religions, an attitude that many Hindus today still maintain. Yet some advocates for Hindutva have argued that India is—or always was, or should be, or all of the above—a country for Hindus alone, or at the very least for Hindus to rule alone. This present political conflict between attitudes to the religions of India is muddied from the start by a basic lexical confusion about the meaning of the word ‘secular’.
‘Secular’ originally denoted attitudes or activities that have no religious or spiritual basis, hence ‘non-religious’, ‘non-sacred’, ‘profane’, a meaning that still prevails in Anglophone usage outside of India. In politics, ‘secularism’ originally referred to the separation of religion (‘the church’, as it was called in the Christo-centric days of the term’s first application to government) and the state. This is the meaning that the word had when, under the Raj, the British made ‘secularising’ reforms in India, and it is the same meaning that the word originally had for Jawaharlal Nehru, who tried at first to keep religion out of the government of India, to make India a ‘secular’ country in the Western sense. Gandhi, too, used the word ‘secularism’ in the sense of a government that did not concern itself with religion, but he did not want that kind of government. Gandhi disagreed with Nehru about secularism because he felt that India’s tradition of religious pluralism was so strong that it was not necessary to separate the “secular” and the “religious” into public and private spheres.
The History of Pluralism in India The India that Gandhi had in mind, the civilisation that had endured for over three thousand years, was indeed pluralist; it acknowledged the right that several different religions had to live in India, and it acknowledged the truth of their belief systems—for adherents of those religions and sometimes also for others. But here it becomes useful to distinguish between two significantly different sorts of pluralism, social and intellectual. Social pluralism is a phenomenon that may be approached on two levels, both the fact of the existence of many religions and a positive attitude to that fact. In this latter sense, pluralism is a conscious attempt to harmonise different religious beliefs in a spirit of tolerance and mutual appreciation, in the hope of reducing the kinds of fanaticism that lead to everything from bigotry to holy wars. Social pluralism is a way in which people come to terms with Otherness and come to treat Others. Social pluralism is not a useful word until difference is a problem.
Intellectual religious pluralism, by contrast, flourishes within a single social group that regards a number of different ideas about the gods, some of which might seem contradictory, as valid—though not necessarily equally valid. We might subsume under intellectual pluralism the category of internal or individual pluralism, a more emotional kind of personal dissonance or eclecticism: one person holds a tool-box of different beliefs more or less simultaneously, drawing upon one on one occasion, another on another. Internal pluralism is a mediating category between the purely mental constructs of intellectual pluralism and the physical reality of social pluralism incarnate in real, flesh-and-blood people. It is these real people who make social pluralism so much harder to live with than intellectual pluralism.
Hinduism has historically been more tolerant intellectually than socially: it was always ‘orthoprax’, not ‘orthodox’.
A polytheistic religion, acknowledging the existence of many gods (Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesha, Shitala, Durga, not to mention the thousands of local village gods), might be expected to be more pluralist both intellectually and socially, more tolerant of the worship of other gods both in theory and in practice, than a monotheistic religion would be, and ancient Hindu pluralism supports this argument, by and large. Hindus, Buddhists and Jains in the early period shared ideas so freely that it is impossible to say whether some of the central tenets of each faith—such as karma—came from one or the other. Much later, the great 15th century poet and saint Kabir, who rejected both Hinduism and Islam, nevertheless built his own religious world out of vibrant parts of both traditions, as did many of the great Sufi saints and Hindu Bhakti sants.
But Hinduism traditionally was (and largely still is) more tolerant intellectually than socially, and more orthoprax than orthodox. That is, it did not insist on doctrine (doxis) as long as ritual and social behaviour (praxis) satisfied the standards of the particular group (usually a small caste group). It was intellectually pluralistic in that each sect acknowledged the existence of gods other than their god(s), suitable for others to worship, but did not necessarily care to worship them themselves. In theory, it saw the world of social behaviour as cumulatively pluralistic, exemplifying a desirable plenitude: everything that exists and that happens, even suffering and injustice, is necessary to make the universe perfect in the sense of having everything possible in it. In practice, this view gave the individual no choice at all in his or her social role, no pluralism of action, though the hierarchy of values assigned to different roles might well have inspired the wish to make such choices. For, though all social roles were equal (in the eyes of God), some were more equal than others (in the eyes of men and women).
On the other hand, renunciant sects (including Buddhism and Jainism) were more orthodox than orthoprax, both socially and intellectually; that is, they were far less doctrinaire about the behaviour of the layperson (though certainly not about the behaviour of the monk, which was in many ways far more important to them) than orthoprax Hinduism was; but they believed that there was only one correct belief. Thus, unlike orthoprax Hindus, these sects proselytised—that is, they went around telling people that they were right and everyone else was wrong. At the same time, some of these sects, as well as some parts of the so-called Bengal Renaissance, generated another sort of pluralism: they argued that all religions were one, that Muslims and Christians really worshipped the same god that Hindus worshipped, but just called him Allah or Christ.
Hindus also expressed ideas of pluralism and tolerance metaphorically in many of their texts. Krishna, for instance, in the Bhagavata Purana, does not destroy the cobra Kaliya, even when Kaliya is killing Krishna’s friends, but subdues him and removes him to another place; evil is tolerable as long as you can domesticate it or protect yourself from it. The Other has a right to live, but not to kill us. Similarly, Hindus believe that violent goddesses, such as Shitala, are often needed to deal with violent diseases, such as smallpox, and that they must be nervously tolerated—placated with worship, but then asked to go away.
These are just a few examples of both intellectual and social pluralism in the history of Hinduism. Of course there were also episodes of inter-religious violence, but there were far more instances where different beliefs and practices were simply not regarded as constituting different religions at all, or as posing any kind of problem. And where there were acknowledged religious differences, those who reacted to them with intolerance were, and still are, greatly outnumbered by the many Hindus who engaged in various forms of both intellectual and social pluralism.
Pluralism and Secularism in 20th Century India It was this history of pluralism in Hinduism that encouraged Gandhi to believe that there was no need to keep religion out of government in India, that there was no need to establish a ‘secular’ (ie non-religious) state. But by the time India won its independence and drafted its Constitution, ‘secularism’ had reversed its meaning. Instead of connoting the removal of religion from public life, Indian secularism was designed to ensure the state’s equal support for and acceptance of all religions, and enforcing religious laws. In other words, ‘secularism’ in India became synonymous with ‘pluralism’. Astonishingly, the word ‘secular’ was stood on its head, so that ‘no religion’ is magically transformed into ‘all religions’. Why? How?
Astonishingly, after Gandhi’s ideas, the word ‘secular’ was stood on its head. ‘No religion’ magically became ‘all religions’.
There are many complex reasons for this transformation, but one factor may well have been the realisation that, after the bloodbath of Partition, religious pluralism in India could no longer be trusted to maintain, through its own powers of persuasion and custom, a balance of power, let alone peace, as it had in the past; now there was a newly perceived need for legal protection for minority religions, particularly Islam. (Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism were there too, of course, as well as a number of other religious movements, but these—with the occasional exception of Christianity—were seldom perceived to be as problematic as Islam.) Ancient Sanskrit texts explain the origin of coercive government with a Hobbesian myth that sheds light, I think, on the change from non-religious secularism to pluralist secularism: In the beginning there was anarchy, the ‘law of the fish’ (matsya-nyaya), in which the big fish gobbled up the smaller fish, and so the gods invented kingship to protect the smaller fish. For ‘smaller fish’ nowadays, read ‘minority religions’.
Though pluralism existed in India long before the legislation that requires the state to protect pluralism, there are historical precedents for a government that encourages pluralism. Historians have argued that, under the Raj, Christians, particularly Protestant missionaries and their converts, though a small minority, generated widespread debates about the state’s role in religious matters. But even before this, the Mughals maintained court policies of inter-religious conversations that could certainly be called ‘secular’ in the modern Indian sense. Emperor Akbar (1556-1605), for instance, was a true pluralist; born a Muslim but with a Hindu wife, he entertained a veritable circus of holy men at his multireligious salons. He sponsored religious debates between different Muslim groups (Sunni, Shia, Ismaili, as well as Sufis), Parsis, Hindus (devotees of Shiva and of Vishnu), Sikhs, Jains, Jews, Jesuits and Materialists, but was particularly partial to Sufism. The Jesuits misunderstood his pluralism and thought they had converted him; they sent joyous messages back to Rome: the emperor of India has become a Christian! But then, alas, they saw him going into a mosque. Horrified, they asked him, was he not a Christian? Of course, he said; but I’m also a Muslim. He could encompass them, but they could not encompass him.
Secularism Now Since the 1980s, secularism in India has been hotly contested. A new backlash term, ‘pseudo-secularism’, was coined, claiming that soi-disant ‘secularism’ privileges Muslim and Christian minorities against the interests of the Hindu majority, that ‘secularism’ amounts to ‘minority appeasement’ and is actually anti-Hindu. Hindu nationalist politicians accused of being ‘communal’ use ‘pseudo-secularism’ as a counter-accusation. Yet Indian secularism, in the sense of pluralism, is both an ancient custom and a newly enforced modern necessity. The deep roots of pluralism in the history of Hinduism are its best hope of prevailing in India today.