Secularism, Enlightenment and India

A colleague sent me this link to an article in The Hindu and asked for my thoughts. From the article

For a long time it was held that a close link existed between the modernisation of society and the secularisation of the population. Consequently, it was argued that the influence of religion declined in post-enlightenment society. This assumption, Professor Habermas suggests, was based on three considerations. First, the progress in science and technology made causal explanation possible and more importantly, for a scientifically enlightened mind it was difficult to reconcile with theocentric and metaphysical worldviews. Secondly, the churches and other religious organisations lost their control over law, politics, public welfare, education and science. Finally, the economic transformation led to higher levels of welfare and greater social security. The impact of these developments, it is argued, has led to the decline of the relevance and influence of religion.
…the view that “the secularist certainty that religion will disappear worldwide in the course of modernisation is losing ground.” It is not only that this expectation has not been realised, religion has emerged as a powerful influence in the public sphere all over the world. This is particularly so in India.

The existence of the public sphere [in Europe] was contingent upon the access of all citizens to, and protection of individual rights by, the rule of law. In essence, the character of the public sphere as it evolved in Europe in the 18th century was secular and democratic.

Unlike in Europe the public sphere in India was not the product of a free bourgeois society; it took shape within the political, social and economic parameters set by the colonial government.
(Emphasis mine)

The article concludes with

Retrieving the secular character of the public sphere is therefore imperative; otherwise its religious character is likely to impinge upon the functions of the state.

The article with its implied positive evaluation of enlightenment ideas and recognition of their relevance to the issue of secularism is very much welcome in an age where enlightenment ideas have almost been forgotten. But it itself suffers from an incomplete understanding of all the implications of these ideas. Protection of individual rights by the rule of law is not compatible with democracy (atleast as we might understand it from concrete examples today). Democracy is about placing the control of human affairs in the public sphere. Individual rights are about limiting the control of human affairs to the actual individuals involved, primarily by the recognition of private property. (This might seem unrelated to the issue of secularism and the influence of religion, but bear with me for a while.) This uneasy relationship between democracy and individual rights (note the difference in character between the French revolution which was essentially democratic and the American revolution which instituted a government for the purpose of protecting individual rights) persists to this day and has been the apparant cause of the failure of enlightenment ideas to have as large and lasting an influence as might have been expected. But that is not all. It is worth noting that pre-enlightenment Europe was neither democratic nor did it have any conception of individual rights. How did both ideas emerge out of the same intellectual change?

I am no historian – or even a good student of history – but it seems to me that the enlightenment thinkers never really rejected religion in all its implications. Religion offers more than an explanation of the world. It offers moral principles. The progress in science that made causal explanations possible led people to abandon the role of religion in understanding the world. Note that this progress has been lasting. Even the church today accepts that religion is not a guide to understanding the world. But there was no equivalent progress in moral theory that would lead people to abandon the role of religion in evaluating the world and guiding human action. The enlightenment brought about political, scientific and industrial revolutions. It did not result in any moral revolution. The moral base of religion – altruism – was not challenged at all. On the contrary, it led some intellectuals to believe that morality is mostly irrelevant to progress. For example, the character of Enjolras in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables – the leader of an uprising, and in my reading, a mirror to Hugo’s own ideas – believed (if memory serves me right) that progress would be automatic and inevitable provided that people had access to (scientific) education. This was naive. Morality is indispensable to human existence.

It seems to me that enlightenment ideas split into two distinct streams. One stream could be characterized by the French revolution, militantly anti-religious and with an emphasis on democracy, equality and social justice. This stream secularized altruism without changing any of its fundamentals. It substituted God by society and the church and the king by the state. The other stream could be characterized by the American revolution, ambivalent to religion and with an emphasis on liberty and self-evident inalienable individual rights endowed by a creator. But a complex concept like individual rights cannot be self-evident. By not grounding individual rights in reason, this stream was left without a moral foundation independent of religion. The overtly-secular, altruist, democratic stream failed. It took Europe through several dictatorships, wars and misery. The liberal, pro individual rights but more religious stream succeeded. It allowed America to enjoy more than a century of uinterrupted peace and prosperity (except for the civil war that abolished slavery). But, over time, through lack of an explicit moral foundation, the American stream itself split into the modern secular Europe inspired liberals (an insult to the original classical sense of the term) and the religious conservatives seeking to conserve the political system of liberty with an incompatible base of altruist Christianity.

Note that no stream ever rejected altruism and it was the secular democratic, left-leaning intellectuals who upheld it most consistently. Now the case of India. Indian political leaders educated in Europe brought back the European ideas and attempted to foist them upon a servile, religious people. Worse, in attempting to fight colonialism, they absorbed Marxist ideas from Russia. Needless to say, they failed miserably, discrediting secularism in the process. As Gurcharan Das’s wrote in the article that I criticized in my last post, “Part of the reason that the sensible idea of secularism is having so much difficulty finding a home in India is that the most vocal and intellectual advocates of secularism were once Marxists”. Marxism – the most consistent political implication of altruism, is only for educated idiots. The uneducated “masses” – that Marx had such a disdain for – never have and never will accept it. But the association of secularism with Marxism does indeed make the spread of secularism difficult.

Anyone concerned with the increasing role of religion in public affairs in general and political affairs in particular should be looking to discover/establish a morality based on reason. Until such a morality becomes culturally dominant, it will be impossible to eliminate the role of religion. But that is not something the secularists in India understand. For a concrete example, consider the expose of the Khap Panchayat system in Today’s Times. Read it here, here, here and here. From the last link,

Daryal Singh, one of Tikait’s retainers, adds that “shameless people (lovers) deserve to die.’’ He gives graphic accounts of lovers being “hanged, tortured or nailed to death”. But Singh stands alone in providing the only real explanation for what sustains this medieval system: bad governance. “The government has failed to provide basic necessities. It’s impossible for people to survive without the samaj. They can’t challenge it,’’ he says.

It would be difficult to mis-diagnose the problem worse. Even the villagers are more intelligent than that. They know that they are following a moral code. Providing basic necessities is not going to change their moral code. And what basic necessities anyway? From another article in the links

There are pucca houses, cobbled streets, wellfed cattle, neat schools and sprawling green fields. It’s easy to be impressed by the colleges and professional institutes that dot the area. But Sanghi, like most villages in this prosperous belt, has dark secrets to keep. Here, rape is casual, murder-by-pesticide of teenage daughters acceptable and it is routine to dispose of their bodies by burning them in cattlecarts.

Defeat the morality and religion – with all its mindless rituals and superstitions – will go away. But without challenging the morality and in the lack of any alternative (socialist ideology is not an alternative), religion will continue to grow in influence.

A spiritual experience

Today, I went to a meeting in a certain company to promote a product. And I was treated to about 40 minutes of a talk on “spirituality” by the representative of the company. This person has been visiting some camp for about a month every year for the past five years. The goal of the camp (as stated by him) is to help people like him understand that they are not limited human beings but infinite unlimited manifestations of the oneness of the cosmos. The way to understand this is to listen to talks on some scriptures (the same sciptures every year) by some “masters” who already have this understanding. What is required to reach this understanding is not any active analysis or committed efforts to understand the scriptures but repeated “exposure” to the scriptures. This ultimate knowledge will “happen” automatically, just as one sees a book when one opens one eyes automatically, that is without the exercise of free will. The fact that he has not reached this ultimate knowledge yet (although his clarity on the subject has improved with time) is proof of the fact that his mind is limited. He will have to abandon his ways of thinking and all the “notions” (a very large number of them) that he has developed to free himself. He cannot but give the benefit of doubt (stated with a lot of emphasis) to someone who tells him that his true nature is infinite. What has he got to lose? If he makes a mistake, he will be reduced to the finite. If he comes to the understanding he seeks, however, he will have achieved all that he has been seeking – not security, but the knowledge that he is not insecure in the first place, that there is nothing to be insecure about. He will transcend dharma (righteousness), kama (work), artha (wealth) and reach moksha (liberation) – the understanding that liberation consists of transcending the desires for kama and artha. Moreover, he will reach this without any hard work, he just needs patient exposure to the scriptures. Isn’t this what all of us have been yearning for all our lives and perhaps for many lives? How does he know that the “masters” have this understanding? Are they different in some way? He can sense it. It is difficult to explain but their confidence and the way they carry themselves indicates it. They have compassion for everyone in the cosmos, not just humans but also animals, birds, trees etc. After all, these are all just different forms of the same oneness. Just as one sees a lot of different kinds of images when one visits a house of mirrors in some entertainment park, these are all manifestations of the single infinite. People who have not reached this understanding are like a child who has just dropped his ice-cream or burst a balloon and is wailing thinking that the world is coming to an end. But the masters are like adults who know that nothing has been lost, that one can always get other ice-creams or balloons. And their attitude towards the unenlightened is similar. They have a lot of patience. They want the unenlightened to realize that what they are suffering from is unimportant. Also the masters do not have any ill-will towards anybody. How can they? They realize the oneness of the infinite. Does one get angry with ones teeth when one accidentally bites one’s tongue? No. Similarly the masters only have compassion for everybody. Reaching this understanding is as simple and as effortless as dropping a heavy load that one has been carrying. What can be easier than that? But one should know that the load can be dropped.

That is about as much as I can remember. After 40 minutes of this, he was back to work and was discussing mundane things about business. Amazing how people can compartmentalize and lead a double existence.

I can’t say that his talk had no effect on me however. I did felt very sleepy by the end of it. And I had a good nap after I got home.

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