The preamble of our Constitution proclaims that India is, and shall be, a sovereign socialist “secular” democratic republic. But has simply inscribing the word “secular” into our Constitution helped us as an Indian society at all? Do our societal and governmental institutions really function on ‘the principle of separation of state matters and religion’, as the Oxford dictionary defines secularism?
I aim to ask a more fundamental question: Can secularism ever be a successful experiment for India or do we need something better?
Indeed, every country has its own core identity composed of a group of people and the ethos and values that the founding fathers led their lives with. For the Americans, the people, principles and events associated with the American War of Independence and then the Civil War make up the core values of their nation. Similarly, for the French, it’s the French Revolution and so on.
The case of the Indian society, however, is unique. In my opinion, the defining core of the Indian nation and society has been far more distributed over a very long frame of time. One really cannot limit the Indian core to just any one single two-century episode of its history.
Since we (as Indians) have been around for so long, everything from the mythological and Vedic age to all the events in recorded history (~600 BC up to the Indian freedom struggle) have been adding up in some or the other way to defining our core.
Then can one at all be able to find any common thread that sews together this giant heritage spread out across three or more millenia? Or should one just buy the unconvincing argument that India is a modern post-colonial invention?
This is actually untrue, because there is indeed one common thread — religion.
Spiritualism core idea of India
No, I am not going to present a very RSS-conditioned world view and argue about why the Hindu religion has to be and is the core of our national and collective identity. No, That is not my point.
What I mean by religion, is the basic urge of humans man to explain their relationship with the universe in metaphysical and spiritual terms. And this definition of religion is what I propose has been and is the very core of our Indian-ness.
First, if we analyse the historical figures that we look up to as a society to draw our identity, we will realise that religious saints really decorate our hearts and sanctum sanctorum of our homes. Now populations from different regions, religions, sects and linguistic cultures may have their own curated lists of these saints. But it does not change the broader picture that we as Indians majorly derive our social identity from religious and spiritual preachers from history and mythology — much more than any other nation across the globe.
Second, a major trend I have found is that India as a region and as a society has always served as a healthy platform to discuss all philosophies and world views. We have always welcomed a new idea, studied it together and absorbed and assimilated it into our culture and outlook to embrace everyone.
The Vedic pantheon of gods is no longer worshipped. Some say the God Shiva was adopted from the Indus civilisation. Space was made to accommodate a new radical philosophical world view of Advaita Vedanta at the end of the earliest scriptures of this land, the Vedas. Then Vedanta allowed healthy debate with the rising Buddhist and Jain perspectives. Even Islam and Christianity that came with trade with the Arabs existed peacefully in the Malabar for centuries.
It was only later that the religiously-driven Islamic invasions and atrocities in north India were met with fierce opposition. And therefore, the war heroes who fought to sustain the basic pluralistic spirit of the land also form keystones of our identity.
For example, the common Indian finds Chhatrapati Shivaji and Guru Gobind Singh revered for they fought the tyrannous and fanatic Aurangzeb. However, Akbar and Dara-Shukoh from the same Mughal clan are also viewed respectfully for they protected and enhanced the pluralistic core of this society.
Therefore, if secularism is to mean indifference by the government and the people towards all religions equally, then I feel that such secularism is very un-natural and unhelpful for a society that has derived its identity so strongly from its religious ideas and experiences.
What should replace secularism is pluralism — a positive approach to encourage everyone to study each other’s world view healthily and see deeply how Rumi, Guru Nanak and Adi Shankaracharya are all pointing to the same metaphysical truth of the nature of man to the universe.
And such a religion and pluralism is what I opine to be the real ‘Indutva-core’ Indian-ness.
Animish Nilesh Vaze is a student of Cornell University, US