Given the mistranslation of dharma as religion, the Western idea of no religion in the public square has been interpreted by many Indians as no dharma in the public square. Secularized Indians have failed to appreciate that a dharma-nirapeksha society – or a society lacking dharma (as secularism has often been translated) – would be dangerously ambivalent toward ethical conduct. Nirad Chaudhuri warned against India’s adopting secularism of even the highest European type, because without dharma’s moral and spiritual qualities, society would become immoral and culturally debased. Being irreligious still allows for ethical behaviour, but being un-dharmic equates with things like corruption and abuse. The result of importing secularism into a dharmic society has thus been disastrous in many ways. (extract from the book Being Different)
Indian Pseudo-secularism – by Rajiv Malhotra
Another version of secularism as a way to cope with religious violence comes from Western-educated (and often Western-sponsored) Indian elites. These intellectuals denounce the dharmic point of view without adequately understanding it. They are ready to catalogue the abuses of traditional Indian society and culture (and there are, of course, legitimate concerns here) and often to collude with views that India has nothing positive to offer the world. For them, the recommended way forward for Indians is to mimic Western values and practices.
India’s secularism was imported from the West, where religions are exclusivist and heavily institutionalized, but the history and circumstances of Indian society are vastly different. In India, secularism is set up to counteract communalism, whereas in Europe secularism was meant to counteract the institutional establishment of the Church.
Gandhi advocated invigorating the traditional dharmic society after India’s independence. Nehru disagreed and wanted India to follow in the footsteps of the West. In this struggle for India’s soul, Nehru prevailed. There occurred a shift away from Gandhi’s vision of a decentralized traditional society in favour of a Nehruvian socialism that modelled itself after England and the Soviet Union.
In 1977, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi introduced an amendment to the Constitution of India whereby the word ‘secular’ was formally enshrined into the Preamble. The late L.M. Singhvi, who served as a consultant, refused to sign the Hindi version of the draft that translated ‘secular’ as ‘dharma-nirapeksha’ (literally meaning indifferent on dharma). Since dharma is a foundation of society, he said, the correct Hindi translation of ‘secular’ should be ‘pantha-nirapeksha’ (i.e., neutral or indifferent with reference to organized sect). Indira Gandhi agreed and (according to one anecdote) handed her pen to him, whereupon Singhvi made the correction on the final draft which is now deposited in the Rashtrapati Bhavan. This means that the government shall be neutral and even indifferent to organized religions. Indian academics, intellectuals, media personnel and politicians dismissed the fine and correct distinction on which Singhvi had insisted.
The two Sanskrit words with opposing meanings, nirapeksha and sapeksha, are non-translatable and important for understanding the dharmic approach to pluralism. They are introduced below:
· Nirapeksha relates to passivity and immobility where there is no effort, wish, expectation or any turn to action; it means indifference. Using pantha as the equivalent of organized religion, secularism could be stated as pantha-nirapekshata. It is the government’s attitude of indifference and neutrality towards all religions and the attitude of tolerance among the various religions.
· Sapeksha literally means ‘with expectation of reciprocity and mutual respect’.It facilitates the principle of bandhuta (discussed in Chapter 3) in the sense of inter-subjectivity, solidarity and fraternity across paths and identities. It means unity in diversity to the extent of mutual cooperation and even mutual dependency. It is the ethos of what might be called ‘positive secularism’ rather than tolerance and indifference from a position of implied superiority.
Dharma itself is much more general than any sampradaya or organized religion, though it may underlie them. Among other things, it does not require membership or a particular creedal affirmation in the Christian sense; nor does it threaten freedom of thought, scientific inquiry, or the beliefs and traditions of those who do not share its understanding. I have explored its fluidity and contextual quality in Chapter 4. It is impossible to uncouple dharma from the ethics of the body, family, community, animals, nature and the cosmos at large. As we shall see, to remove dharma from the public sphere, in the Indian context, means removing its rich seedbed of cultural and spiritual resources as well.
Given the mistranslation of dharma as religion (explained in Chapter 5), the Western idea of no religion in the public square has been interpreted by many Indians as no dharma in the public square. Secularized Indians have failed to appreciate that a dharma-nirapeksha society – or a society lacking dharma (as secularism has often been translated) – would be dangerously ambivalent toward ethical conduct. Nirad Chaudhuri warned against India’s adopting secularism of even the highest European type, because without dharma’s moral and spiritual qualities, society would become immoral and culturally debased. Being irreligious still allows for ethical behaviour, but being un-dharmic equates with things like corruption and abuse. The result of importing secularism into a dharmic society has thus been disastrous in many ways.
The Western model has also been entirely misconceived by most Indian elites and political leaders. Take, for instance, the idea of separation of church and state in the United States Constitution. The Founding Fathers who drafted this document did not envision a society without religion, whether in public or private, but rather one in which many different kinds of religious expression would flourish. They would do so without state intervention or direct support, yes, but also without state regulation or suppression. The personal views of these leaders ranged from conservative to liberal. (Thomas Jefferson was deeply suspicious of Christian exclusivism and espoused a kind of perennial philosophy.) They were agreed, however, that a good society had a profoundly spiritual basis and that creed and conscience in some form were vital to the life of a democracy.
India’s copycat secularism differs from American secularism in critical ways. Many American Jews and Christians publicly assert their faiths as part of what it means to be American and do not see this assertion as contradicting secularism. Indian secularism has attempted to dilute differences, seeing them as a source of tension and problems, but these interventions have sometimes had the opposite effect and made some religious identities more assertive in order to preserve their distinctiveness and thus prevent getting digested.
(Rajiv Malhotra, Being Different, pp. 328-31)