Sarva dharma sama bhava

Q – Dr. Gunvant Shah, what is your viewpoint on Indian secularism? Is it an article of faith or irrational rhetoric?

A – In response to your provocative question, I would like to ask two questions. 1. Was Moghul king Akbar a secular person? 2. Was Mahatma Gandhi a secular saint? It seems to me that the answer to both these questions is an emphatic ‘yes’. Please remember that both of them were highly religious persons.

Akbar was a Muslim ruler but with a difference. He had respect for other religions. He did not try to convert Hindus and nor did he impose the religious tax ‘jiziya‘ on Hindus. Gandhi called himself a ‘sanatani‘ Hindu, but he had respect for all other religions. In his last days, Gandhi used to address prayer meetings in the evening at Birla House. People of all religions joined these prayers.

Gandhi was not ready to forgo his Hindu identity. And he never wanted a Muslim or a Christian to lose their identities either. Now if you sum up the mind set of both these great persons you will get one usage ‘sarva dharma samabhava‘.

I must admit that this is the essence of my secularism. I am a Hindu. That is my identity. But my identity is not at war with a person who has a Muslim identity. Or a Christian identity. I firmly believe that 99.5% population of India is theist. An ordinary Indian, irrespective of his religion has great faith in God. Whenever some tragedy takes place, an Indian, whether he is Hindu, Muslim or Christian involuntarily utters: “Oh Lord, let your wish prevail” (Hey Malik, jaisi teri marzi).

Atheism has its own value. But in a democracy, the freedom to follow the religion of one’s choice cannot be wished away. Such freedom should not be criticized by some secular fundamentalists in the name of activism and atheism. The Nehruvian model of secularism has been followed for years in India. And yet, we are nowhere near secular peace. This is precisely because the term ‘secularism’ seems to be alien to Indian ethos. Such a non-religious secularism perhaps does not suit the Indian soil. Gandhi knew this better than anybody else. And I find myself in perfect agreement with Akbar and Gandhi.

Indian secularism cannot be concieved as non-religious secularism. MJ Akbar in his article (TOI, 19 Oct 2008) observes that in Jharkhand, Muslims, although feeling disquiet are not ready to actively join the Naxalite movement there, because the Muslims cannot stomach atheism. This is a very important observation.

Our Constitution was already secular when it was framed by Dr. Ambedkar and others. Mrs. Indira Gandhi added the word ‘secular’ later on keeping in mind vote-bank politics.

It is for this reason that I propose replacing the word ‘secularism’ by ‘sarva dharma samabhava‘. I honestly believe that the Congress Party has followed pseudo-secularism during the last 6 decades. At the same time, I don’t consider the Hindutva of BJP, RSS, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal as real Hindutva. If Congress has gone for pseudo-secularism, the BJP has gone for pseudo-Hindutva.

We must remember that secularism in India did not start with the commencement of the Constitution. If I mention a message from the Rig Veda I will be able to drive home my point better. ‘Aa no bhadraha kratavo yantu, Vishwa taha‘. The mantra tells us, “Let good thoughts come to us from all directions.”

You know that the Rig Veda is considered to be the first book of humanity. It may be as old as 5000 years. This mantra gives me secular space in abundance. A good thought may come to me from Mecca or Medina, from Bethlehem or Jerusalem, from Varanasi or Kapilavastu. So long as it is a good thought it is acceptable to me no matter where it comes from. A good thought may come to me from Ram, Krishna, Buddha, Mahavir, Socrates, Jesus, Mohammed or Gandhi. The openness with which I receive good thoughts from all directions is my secularism.

The Western model of secularism does not suit the Indian psyche. It has created many problems and these problems are there for all of us to see.

Secularism in its Western connotation creates the problems of politics of identity. Samuel P. Huntington in his book ‘Who are we?’ writes:

“Historically the substance of American identity has involved four key components: race, ethnicity, culture (most notably language and religion), and ideology. The racial and ethnic Americans are no more. Cultured America is under siege. And as the Soviet experience illustrates, ideology is a weak belief to hold together people otherwise lacking racial, ethnic and cultural sources of community. Reasons could exist, as Robert Kaplan observed why, ‘America, more than any other nation, may have been born to die’.”

If we wish to avoid what can be called identity crisis, the term ‘secularism’ has to be replaced by ‘sarva dharma sama-bhava‘. I honestly believe that multi-culturalism has to depend upon cultural identity. And one cannot wish away various religious ethos.

– Transcribed by Batul Mukhtiar, 27 Oct 2008