Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Hindus can be both very religious and secular

Author: Ajit Adhopia
Publication: The Star

In the recent parliamentary elections in India, the stunning victory of the Congress Party over its archrival, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), and the refusal of its leader, Sonia Gandhi, to accept the reins of the largest democracy on Earth, were not the only surprises.

More interesting is that India now has a Muslim president and a turbaned Sikh prime minister, Manmohan Singh, both from minority religions. Hindus form the majority - 80 per cent - of the Indian population, Muslims account for 12 per cent and Sikhs are a tiny minority of 2.5 per cent. Media pundits are calling it the victory of secularism over Hindutva or Hindu nationalism.

As a Hindu, however, I find this debate of secularism versus Hindutva meaningless.

What is secularism, anyway? The Oxford Dictionary defines it as a "doctrine that the basis of morality should be non-religious."

According to the Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, secularism is indifference to, exclusion of or rejection of religious considerations." To the average person, it means that no single religion should be promoted or supported by the government.

To most Hindus, secularism invariably means "religious tolerance." To me, secularism is an attitude toward religion, the attitude of inclusiveness, acceptance of pluralism, tolerance and respect for all religions; no desire to dominate the people of other religions through conversion by enticement, coercion or force, and no claim on finality or Hindu superiority of any particular prophet or scriptures. These elements of secularism are inherent in the core character of an average Hindu. Secularism is more than just a theory or concept in Hinduism. It has a long history of religious tolerance, acceptance of diversity of spiritual paths, reasoning and discussion and the right to think, express and dissent. That is why concepts like blasphemy, evangelism, proselytism and crusade or jihad are alien to Hindus.

According to Hindu scriptures,

"Varied are the tastes, many are the paths to a goal.
Some are righteous,
some are crooked,
Yet all aim to reach the goal,
Just like all the
rivers lead to the ocean.
Similarly, man traverses to Thee."

Hinduism itself is a collation of many faiths, sects, deities, and a variety of spiritual traditions and reform movements. It gave birth to three other Indian religions: Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. These first emerged as Hindu reform movements and later evolved as independent religions, rejecting the Vedas, the primary Hindu scriptures, without significant opposition. In fact, Hindus declared the founders of these new religions as avatars or divine incarnations. Without respect and tolerance of varied, opposing viewpoints and assimilative tendencies, Hinduism would not have survived the past 5,000 years, despite many external pressures, including aggressive Islamic movements and proselytizing Christian missionaries. Both of these foreign religions flourished in India with complete freedom. In his first news conference after becoming prime minister, Manmohan Singh commented that India was an ancient civilization and the essence of Hinduism was tolerance.

Hinduism is not really a "religion." It is called Hindu dharma. In the English language, there is no single word to describe the true and complete meaning of the word dharma. It is generally translated as "religion" due to the lack of an appropriate synonym in English. "Dharma" is derived from the Sanskrit word dhr, which literally means "to hold" or "to sustain." Hindus translate it as "righteousness," "duty" or "moral obligation." Therefore, virtues, values, beliefs, ethical laws, codes of behaviour, moral duties, traditions and righteous actions that sustain human life in peace and harmony, are all aspects of dharma. It is noteworthy that there is no reference to religion or divinity. What concept can be more secular than dharma?

For a Hindu, it is possible to be very religious and secular at the same time. There is no contradiction; one does not have to choose between secularism and religiousness or Hindutva.

To a Hindu, religion is a very private affair; it's a love affair between him and his "isht devata," his personal deity representing any aspect of God. A perfect example would be Mahatma Gandhi, a devout Hindu who promoted and practised secularism.

Ajit Adhopia is a freelance author who writes about Hinduism.


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