Book Review: Europe, India, and the Limits of Secularism by Jakob De Roover

Jakob De Roover through his book motivates the readers through glaring inconsistencies in judicial interpretations of secularism in Europe and start an exploration towards genesis of the word, Secular.

Europe, India, and the Limits of Secularism (Religion and Democracy), Jakob De Roover, 296 Pages, Oxford University Press (14 September 2015).

Two years ago, on one fine afternoon, I happened to run into a congregation by Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, an Islamic organization, at Kolkata. The volunteers were dressed in a distinctly Muslim attire with the skullcap as their headgear. The temporary bookstall at the congregation offered a few booklets on the precepts of Islam—nothing unexpected. The demands of the assembly were familiar and again expected, which were generally geared towards supporting the Islamic way of life. Oh, I have not deliberately mentioned their principal cause which was prominently printed in the chest-badges of the participants: The demand for more…hold your breath…Secularism!

Ironies are not exactly rare in India but this one takes the cake, isn’t it?  Typically, any discussion on an irony of secularism will end up with the discussants pinning down the responsibility on the poor ethical standards of the Indian politicians. Jakob De Roover tells us through his book why, at least in this case, our politicians are not as blameworthy as we tend to believe. Much more culpable are our scholars and jurists who have used this word in our constitution without comprehending its full implication.

The author motivates the readers through glaring inconsistencies in judicial interpretations of secularism in Europe—albeit the ironies are less stark than what I have described above—and start an exploration towards genesis of the word, Secular. It is a word that is universally characterized by a negation of the ideas that are religious.  Therefore, to understand the word secular, we must have a definite understanding of the word religion.

What precisely is denoted by the word, religion?

The failure of the western scholars is colossal, De Roover illustrates, in defining religion. Their understanding of religion, as has been shown on a case by case basis, is limited to characterizing Christianity and simply assuming that such characteristics would be sufficient for any other phenomena they refer to as a “religion”, such as Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, the Chinese and Japanese “religions”. A part of this failure can be traced to being convinced of the superiority of the present Western culture and belief in a linear history that assumes that all cultures go through the exact same trajectory, and the present age technological superiority of the West connotes to its culture or religion being more advanced than the others. Therefore, Christianity “has to be” the most advanced religion and other religions are its primitive version.

The mode of defining Christianity is wholesome inadequate to define Hinduism—the Indian Constitution is a living testament to this fact. A Hindu, as per the Indian Constitution, is not defined in any affirmative way. Rather, the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 defines a Hindu as:

(a) any person who is a Hindu by religion in any of its forms and developments, including a Virashaiva, a Lingayat or a follower of the Brahmo, Prarthana or Arya Samaj,

(b) any person who is a Buddhist, Jain or Sikh by religion, and

(c) any other person domiciled in the territories to which this Act extends who is not a Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jew by religion

The negationist principal of clause (c)—which incidentally defines the vast majority of the Hindus— demonstrates the problem of categorizing Hinduism as a religion, particularly when we bear in mind that no such problem comes up in defining a Christian, a Muslim or a Jew, the adherents of the Abrahamic religions.

De Roover correctly points out that the conceptual rigidity inherent to the terms Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism or Jainism makes sense only to a Western audience; these terms have no relevance from the point of view of the actual Hindus, Sikhs or Buddhists. No one knows where Hinduism ends and Buddhism begins. Almost all Hindus offer their respect to the Buddha as the ninth Avatar (the most respectable human being) without calling themselves Buddhists. One can easily find Buddhist scriptures that, as Subhash Kak notes, have many more verses on Hindu deities like Shiva and Vishnu than on Buddha.

Such a porous borderline between Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism or Jainism may not be very surprising to most Indians or for that matter to inheritors of the most Asian cultures; an average Japanese may identify himself/ herself with two different “religions”, Shintoism and Buddhism, at the same time, without any trouble. However, when S. N. Balagangadhara, the author’s illustrious mentor, presented his hypothesis to formally recognize this phenomenon, it appeared to be not so incontrovertible to the Western scholars. Balu—as Balagangadhara is popularly known—challenged the presupposed Western Academic notion that all cultures have religion.

The concept of religion, Balu argues, lies in theorizing. European cultures believe in theory; Indian and other ancient Asian cultures believe in “empiricism”. For example, Christianity theorizes itself into a monotheistic religion; on the contrary, nobody knows whether Hinduism is a monotheistic or polytheistic religion on account of lack of theorizing and focus on empiricism. No Japanese feels any contradiction in simultaneously being a Shinto and a Buddhist, but the European scholar finds it peculiar going by his textbook theory. The only religions, as per Balu’s definition, that exist are the Abrahamic ones. The other isms that are popularly known as religion—for example, Hinduism or Shintoism—are not exactly religions, much like the whale is not a type of fish but a mammal living in water.

Balu posits that European cultures are religious whereas Indian cultures are essentially non-religious: a proposition that diametrically violates our mainstream narrative. What about Western secular cultures? Can they ever be called religious? And, this is exactly the essence of De Roover’s core hypothesis. De Roover deconstructs Secularism and demonstrates convincingly that Secularism is—idea wise—akin to Christianity. The genesis of the idea of Secularism is rooted in the Bible in the words of Jesus: Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. (Matthew 22:21). The idea of demarcation of God’s affairs and Government affairs, of separation of the public sphere and the private sphere, all started with Jesus Christ himself and ended up as Secularism.

De Roover further explains: ideas do come from recurrent patterns in a tradition of thought, called “Tropes”, to a social sphere. An idea that takes shape as the popular narrative when the social ground is fertile for the particular idea is called “Topoi”. De Roover’s book traces the topoi of liberal secularism—such as the idea of separation between the public secular sphere and private sphere concerning religion, the idea of toleration, the idea of government being completely separate from the religious leadership—from the tropes of Protestant Christianity. The leading thinkers of secular liberalism simply presented the conclusions derived from Christian theology without explicitly justifying them using Christian theological terminology. The society accepted such a line of thinking on account of their deep-rooted support in the mainstream social narrative dominated by protestant Christianity. Therefore, liberal secularism is not even a break (forget about any radical departure) from the Christian tradition but part of the continuity of that very tradition.

De Roover’s book engenders quite a few iconoclastic positions. Take, for example, John Locke, the proponent of classical liberalism. Contrary to popular perception of Locke’s political thought being divorced from religious ideas, it is found to be “Christian to the core”. Nehru and Ambedkar, two prominent makers of modern India, are credited with espousing two causes of modernity in India, treating India’s lack of “scientific temperament” and undertaking the project of “Annihilation of Caste”, respectively. It turns out that both of these ideas are colonial projects. Christian missionaries rued the lack of scientific reasoning in India for Indian’s general unwillingness to embrace a rational religion (Christianity). Similarly, “Annihilation of Caste” is a colonial project in which the European social model is deemed ideal and the ‘other’ society is, naturally, found to be deficient for its lack of fit with the European model. The deficiency can be removed by means of an annihilation of the social system of the colonized people.

The implications of De Roover’s study are of enormous importance. First and foremost, though Secularism is hailed as the universal plan for pluralistic society, it is shown to be considerably untrue. As a matter of fact, European societies historically faced much more religious conflicts compared to other societies like India, Japan or the Mongol empire, even though the former societies were, religious diversity wise, much more homogeneous. The European nations discovered the road to pluralistic society through secularism which is a continuation of their own Christian culture.

So far, so good. There is, however, absolutely no reason that secularization for other societies will actually be beneficial for them. When Ayaan Hirsi Ali talked about reformation and secularization of Islamic society, she assumed the universal nature of the Secularism principle. Since Secularism is not a universal theme but grew out of European Christian culture, forcing secularism against the cultural matrix of the Islamic nations will not be successful and will provide no lasting solution to radical Islamism. Shah of Persia, Najib of Afghanistan or even Kemal Atatürk of Turkey are glaring examples of failure when a leader attempted to bring modernity to his society by ushering upon secularism in the same society.

Secularism is tantamount to all good things like progress, peace and harmony in the mainstream Indian narrative. The colonized Indian minds typically think that Secularism is the only path to ensure pluralism with Nehru as the Prophet of Secularism who revealed this ‘ism’ to Indians. However, none exactly seems to know how secularism would ensure peace and harmony in India. In Europe, different Christians denomination were vying for being the One True Religion, and secularism meant State’s non-patronage to any one of them to create a level field that was central to peace in society. Protestant Christianity is mostly about faith and has little to do with rituals; possibly that is how the idea of secularism worked there.

The context is radically different In India: here riots are not uncommon and the Hindus may participate in the violence (for example the post-Godhra riot in 2002); nevertheless no Hindu takes part in violence on account of anointing Hinduism as the One True Religion. Then, what is the relevance of divorce of the public sphere and private sphere in the Indian context? And, how exactly does Secularism plan to reduce the recurrent problem of riots in India? This is a question that academicians never attempt to answer.

The only way secularism can ensure more peace for India—as per standard understanding of the secularists—is that if Hindus become less religious, the basis of religious conflict may vanish. Even if (which is incidentally a big IF) this is a viable proposition, the idea is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Here is a real example: During 1999-2000, the question of the appropriateness of Saraswati—the goddess of learning and knowledge—Puja in public schools was raised in West Bengal. Secularism definitely means no “religion” in public sphere and no public school, therefore, should allow Saraswati Puja. But banning Saraswati Puja from the schools is deliberate destruction of culture when most of the Bengali children start their student-hood through rituals associated with Saraswati puja. From this sense, foisting upon secularism in India means imposing European protestant Christian tradition on Indian minds and total denudation of Indian tradition.

Why should India look forward to the same failed Secular model for social harmony? Why should India look forward to Uniform Civil Code for building a more progressive nation? Progress, now, demands a deep study of the Indian and other Asian models for a stable plural social system with decolonised social narrative. It is perhaps time to end the obsession with European models and attempt to build our own indigenous understanding. As an instance, Rajiv Malhotra has offered the example of Indian “Jati” system in his book Being Different, which used to ensure divergent laws across communities in India. In spite of non-existence of any artificial separation of the public sphere and private sphere, this system helped India maintain cultural diversity and pluralism for thousands of years. Instead of debating true secularism, wrong secularism, or pseudo-secularism, we should talk about modes of ascertaining pluralism in society that are beyond secularism.

The article has been republished from Pragyata with permission.

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