Special Reports

Lecture on India and secularism

Mumbai: Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer Memorial public lecture was organized by the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS) and delivered by eminent historian Romila Thapar on 26th October 2015 at KC College Auditorium here. The topic was "Indian Society and the Secular".

The topic of the lecture was chosen in the backdrop of the attacks on secular writers, murder of M.M Kalburgi, Pansare and Dabholkar and intellectuals and other voices of dissent. The unconstitutional acts like lynching of innocent over personal choices like food or marriage, hate speeches which aim at spreading hatred and myths against particular religious communities and caste atrocities have culminated in an atmosphere of fear and suppression.

Prof. Romila Thapar stated that a secular society and polity did not mean abandoning religion. It meant that the religious identity of the Indian had to give way to the primary secular identity of an Indian citizen. She further said that the State would have to ensure social justice, provide and protect human rights that came with the secular identity of the Indian citizen. Such an identity would be governed by a secular code of laws applicable to all.

Prof. Thapar further stated that secularism involved questioning the control that religious organizations had over social institutions. Secularism in her view did not deny the presence of religion in society but the social institutions over which religion could or could not exercise control had to be demarcated. Some people opposed Secularism, Prof. Thapar said, on the ground that it was a western concept. But then, she said, nationhood and democracy too were new to post-colonial India, and the neoliberal market economy was a far stronger imprint of the west.

Quoting Eric Hobsbawm, Prof Thapar said that history was to nationalisms what poppy was to the opium addict - the source. Though the anti-colonial nationalism tried to be broad based and inclusive, bringing in a range of opinions and drawing from shared history, it did not question the idea of the monolithic religious communities. Instead, she said, it focused more on denying their antagonisms, preferred to project just their co-existence. Prof. Thapar said that in pre-Islamic times there were no references to any monolithic type of Hinduism. There were two broad categories of sects that propagated their distinctive ideas; these were referred to as the Brahmanic and the Shramanic.  Brahmana referred to Brahmanic belief and rituals. The early phase in Vedic Bhramanism focused on the ritual of sacrifice, the yajana, invoking many deities and especially Indra and Agni and performed by upper castes. While Shramana referred to shramanas or Buddhists, Jainas, monks of other heterodox orders, the nastika / non-believers and their followers and many others such as the Charvaka and Ajivika. The Shramana sects rejected the Vedas, divine sanctions, the concept of the soul and were associated with more rational explanations of the universe and human society. There was a range of distinct sects in both these broad categories.

 Prof. Thapar further said that throughout the second millennium AD, the period described by religious extremists and politicians as the age when 'we were slaves', there were scholarly Sanskrit commentaries being composed on Brahmanical religious texts from the Vedas onwards from Kashmir to Kerala. Such scholarship was not without patronage. The exegesis on these texts illustrated high levels of scholarship being widely practiced and exchanged in many centres of that time. Sayana's explanation of the Rig Veda and Kulluka's extensive commentary on the Manu Dharmashastra are examples of such learned scholarship.

 Prof. Thapar said that the cultural interaction between what we today call Hinduism and Islam took the form of mutual borrowing of various facets of cultural expressions. Where does one place the poetry of Sayyed Mohammed Jayasi's Padmavat or the dohas of the devotee of Krishna, Sayyed Ibrahim Ras Khan, she asked. Brahmana scholars who wrote in Sanskrit had close scholarly relations with the Mughals. Classical Hindustani and Carnatic music was patronised by courts of Maharajas, Sultans and Mughals. The Sarvadarshana-samgraha of Madhavacharya written in 14th century provided a summary of ongoing debates on schools of philosophy. The bhajans of Mira and Surdas and of Tyagaraja and the bandishes of the Dhrupad ragas were not compositions of an enslaved people, she opined.

In conclusion, Prof. Thapar said that the process of secularizing society would have to address both religion and caste. She said, a beginning could be made by ensuring that education and civil laws were secular. Secular education meant to her, availability of all branches of knowledge to all without discrimination and training young people to use and understand what was meant by critical inquiry.   

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 December 2015 on page no. 13

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