Modernity, Religion, Secularism: Why Accepting India’s Hindu Fundamentals Will Help The Secular Project

Modernity, Religion, Secularism: Why Accepting India’s Hindu Fundamentals Will Help The Secular ProjectJawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi
  • Why it is perfectly possible to draw the narrative of a liberal state from Hindu political philosophy and religious tradition

As I am fond of stating to friends and colleagues of all political hues, in a democratic setup, making a political argument is only one part of the story – the easy part of the story. Arguments don’t just have to be made. They also have to be made acceptable, they have to be made in ways that generate consensus and they have to be made to have traction amongst voters. If the argument is not achieving traction and failing to generate public enough public sympathy, then it will remain an esoteric academic debate, largely irrelevant to wider public discourse. This is precisely the point at which the secular project is unravelling.

Secularism has both historical and contemporary associations. Historically, it has its roots in the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism, and the Enlightenment and the age of reason. By denying the intercession of the clergy, the Reformation made the individual responsible for his own relationship with God and reduced the power of the Church. Enlightenment thought, encapsulated prominently in the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, Rene Descartes, David Hume, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, Immanuel Kant, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and others heralded the triumph of reason over belief, rational thinking over faith, separation of church and state, individual liberty, separation of powers and even market economics.

In the contemporary world, and more so, in India, it is associated most closely with ideas of modernity, rationality and progress. As a normative ideal, modernity referred to a broad social process that included the rejection of tradition, individualisation, technical progress, formal equality, industrialisation, urbanisation and bureaucratisation. As the political psychologist Ashis Nandy once wrote, secularism comes as part of a larger package, the acceptance of which implies the acceptance of the ideologies of progress and modernity as new justifications of domination. The ideology of secularism and the ideology of modernity are thus intertwined, and in the political domain, both doctrines go hand in hand.

The secular project seeks to modernise India, and the modernisation project seeks to secularise India. And to a large extent, both projects are failing. Seventy years of secular nation building, and exhortations to build a ‘scientific temper’ has led neither to the demise of religion from public life (as it did in Europe), nor to an increase in religious tolerance (as it was supposed to in India). If anything, modern India, secular India, late nineteenth century onwards, has seen communal conflict on a vast scale. To paraphrase Nandy again, it is not modern India that has tolerated all faiths for thousands of years, it is traditional India that has done so. Zealotry is not a regression to tradition – it is the pathology of modernity.

The problem with modernity as an ideology is this. It disparages the faithful and the religious for their faith and their beliefs – for their drawing of morality from tradition and scripture. Yet it provides no alternative conception of an ethical framework for society – no guide to conduct oneself in society except for the logic of one’s own rationality. What it does is create a hierarchy, from the primitive believer to modern secularist, a linear path of technical and social progress. By doing so, it inflicts a sense of epistemic and structural violence on the believer – subjecting him to objectification, calling him primitive and denying him the respect that comes with a capacity for rationality.

Lacking any other conception of morality apart from one’s own reasoned conception of ethics, politics based on this vision of modernity also suffers from lack of restraints on political behaviour. Of course, a shared liberal conception of ethics could have provided an alternative framework of morality if the leaders of India’s secular project had articulated such a framework, and demonstrated their commitment to it. But from Jawaharlal Nehru dismissing the first communist government in Kerala down to the corruption scandals that engulfed United Progressive Alliance (UPA) II, they did precisely the opposite – they demonstrated that politics existed in a moral vacuum.

This phenomenon is neither peculiar to politics nor particular to India. The inverse relationship between modernity and morality has been a recurring theme in sociological and philosophical literature, from Freidrich Nietzsche to Zygmunt Baumann, and from Michael Sandel to Richard Sennet. For an accessible introduction to this line of thought, Sennet’s book ‘The Corrosion of Character’ is highly recommended. But what such amorality, or rather moral neutrality of the public realm allowed Indian leaders to do was to approach politics using the lens of rationality, and utilise religious violence for political ends. Those perceived or accused of instigating and legitimising religious violence are rarely accused of purely religious motives, but of using such violence in their amoral pursuit of power.

In a nutshell then, the argument is this. Modernity puts traditional society on the defensive. It does so by attacking the conceptual foundations of this society. Its rejection of tradition attacks received modes of behaviour. Its focus on individualisations threatens traditional social institutions such as family, clan and caste. Its focus on formal equality upends traditional hierarchies of class, caste and gender. It effectively seeks to destroy a moral and conceptual framework drawn from religion, scripture and tradition that had provided that society with a set of values and ideals to guide their lives. Of course, one may criticise those values and ideals, or the principles to which they gave rise. But they were there. They have been replaced by nothing.

What we are witnessing, therefore, is not a revolt against secularism per se, but against its spiritual parent – the social processes unleashed by modernity. Again, while local variations occur, iterations of this revolt are being seen globally, from Trump to Brexit. In India, it is a revolt being led by a plethora of leaders at different levels. From soap operas centred on traditional joint families to khap panchayats, from the spate of books on mythology to the International Day of Yoga, from Patanjali products to cow vigilantes, from ostentatiously celebrated festivals to internet trolls – the battle has been joined across the board. The battle rages not only to halt the processes of modernity, but to reverse them. It is apparent which side is winning at the hustings right now.

Secularism is losing the political battle by virtue of its association with modernity. And the ideology of modernity no longer has the capacity to rouse public sympathy once its failings have been exacerbated by its success. As the acclaimed sociologist Zygmunt Baumann points out in his seminal work ‘Liquid Modernity’, modernity is now an open-ended condition. Unlike in the past, where there was a ‘modern condition’, a condition that the social processes of modernity led up to – whether it was libertarian capitalism or communist utopia. Today the processes of modernity, what Baumann calls ‘liquefying the solids’, does not lead to a defined modern condition. There is no utopia at the end of the process, no ontological ideal to provide a moral and ethical framework against which social action may be judged – only an unending cycle of promoting ‘rationality’, a constant changing of social mores, relations and institutions.

In the absence of a moral and ethical ideal to be achieved in the future, that could provide a conception of ethical life and behaviour that provided meaning to lived lives, people necessarily turn towards the past – towards tradition and towards religion. A future ideal drawn from a conception of the past, a historical utopia that will exist in the future, a state that Baumann described as a ‘Retrotopia’. From Donald Trump’s goal of making America great again to the allure of Hindutva, from the millenarian madness of ISIS to hipster cults around paleo diets and ecological living, the turn towards the past to provide new normative foundations for public life is inescapable.

In India, the hazy contours of this Retrotopia are visible in the ubiquity of mythology, in cartoons based on mythological heroes to the books of Amish Tripathi and Devdutt Patnaik. It can be tasted in the products being promoted by Patanjali Yogpeeth, experienced via the discourses of television friendly gurus and symbolised by the worship of the cow. All invoke a future informed by a vision of India’s glorious past.

The question as to why such a vision should be informed by the ancient past, and not for instance, the Mughal period is easy to answer. The answer lies in the fact that the secular-modern project appropriated that period in order to claim a lineage and historical tradition that it didn’t have. Unknowingly, perhaps unwittingly, it dangerously painted a syncretic period in Indian history as the source of this project of secular modernity. In a country which is overwhelmingly Hindu, and profoundly religious, this was an extremely dangerous thing to do.

The revolt against the modern condition then isn’t simply to call a halt to the processes of modernity, it aims to roll it back – to replace its moral and ethical neutrality, or amorality, with a new moral and ethical framework grounded in a re-imagining of the past. It is in this revolt that the genesis of the crisis of the secular project lies. To be able to recapture public support, the secular project will have to come to terms with the revolt against modernity. It can start by detaching itself from the social processes of modernity.

To do so, the leaders of the secular project should look at Gandhi. Gandhi was a critic of modernity, in fact, he rejected it almost in its totality. Yet Gandhi was secular, and profoundly tolerant. His tolerance was religious, tolerance not merely of other religions but a tolerance borne out his religiousness. It was a tolerance borne out of his quixotic appeal to tradition and religiosity, to traditional ways of life that had over centuries learned tolerance and developed principles of accommodation. Such principles in Gandhi’s world were religious, located in the framework of tradition. He never claimed to be modern, he was a practising Hindu who mixed politics and religion. Yet, it was as a practising Hindu, as a believer in sanatan dharma that he could claim that religion gives a sense of meaning to life, regardless of what religion that was. His religiosity was the base for his tolerance, it was as a practising Hindu that he could simultaneously claim to be Muslim and Christian.

Gandhi’s example is important for a reason. The reason is that in a society that is overwhelmingly Hindu and extremely religious, where religious belief is a powerful element in determining personal identity and social relations, a public realm cannot be built on an avoidance of religion. By denying religion – which by virtue of numbers happens to be largely Hinduism – a legitimate place in the social life of the polity, one only provokes a counter-reaction. Gandhi’s example is relevant also for showing that political expression of religion can also result in interreligious understanding. But most importantly, it is relevant for showing how secularism can coexist with religion, and does not need to draw ideological sustenance only from the project of modernity.

To regain political space and battle the counter-currents of modernity, the leaders of the secular project should seek to detach secularism from modernity, and trace it through India’s civilisational heritage, through its history, tradition and religions. While they wait for the awaited triumph of reason over faith, they could explore the possibilities for inter-religious understanding based on the centrality of religious belief to life in India, and the centrality of Hindu religious belief in such a scheme of things. This doesn’t imply a Hindu state – but it should be perfectly possible to also draw the narrative of a liberal state from Hindu political philosophy and religious tradition. By doing so, they might accept one of the core tenets of the Hindutva argument. But they might also gain the ability to challenge its ontological basis.

An ideology of secularism drawn from modernity, without regard to the religious traditions of India is failing to work without the historical experience that gave the idea its meaning. As the sociologist T N Madan once wrote, the transferability of the idea of secularism to the countries of South Asia is beset with many difficulties and should not be taken for granted. Secularism must be put in its place: which is not a question of rejecting it, but of finding the proper means for its expression. Perhaps by detaching secularism from the pursuit of modernity, accepting the centrality of Hinduism to the lives of a vast majority of India’s people, and using that niche to articulate secular principles located in the grid of tradition will allow the secular project to regain political space.


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