|Between saints and secularists|
The Western models of secularism seem to have failed to answer the challenge of revivalism and fundamentalist bigotry in India. The old forms of positivist rationality are in a deep crisis: philosophers of our times, from Sartre to Foucault and Derrida, reflect this crisis in different ways.
From its inception, Marxism too had deep epistemological problems, inherited partly from Hegel and partly from the positivist science that surrounded it. It pitted the sacred against the secular, and idealism against materialism so that it simply failed to develop a language adequate enough to articulate the historic struggles and inner contradictions, the theories and practices of oppression and resistance, within the sacred and the idealist streams of thought and life. The statement that ‘religion is the opium of the people’, even when accompanied by the qualifications that follow it, does not in any way help explain the experience of the mystic or the lay believer, or the great strides towards resistance and liberation that many religious movements have taken in human history. One could as well point to the statecraft of lies, conspiracy, manipulation, madness and murder practised by a Stalin or a Pol Pot and say that Marxism is the opium of the people, without adding anything to our knowledge of the plural traditions of Marxism from Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci and Bloch to Althusser, Adorno, Mandel and Jameson. In the West, secularism has either given some place to religion in public life — as did John Holyoke, who coined the term — or has separated matters of religion completely from matters of state, as did Charles Bradlaugh, who tried to give it a ‘scientific’ definition.
Both these notions of secularism are unsuited to our situation. We need a secularism that is not merely ‘tolerant’ of our pluralist traditions of religion but is inspired and motivated by them and fully takes into account the creative, positive, contributions of different religions to the moulding of our subjectivity as well as to the evolution of our civilisation. By dismissing religiosity and spiritualism as fundamentally flawed, superstitious and illusory, our communist friends have foreclosed any possibility of a dialogue with the majority of our people who have faith in one religion or another. They have also entirely failed to understand the radical significance of spiritual leaders from Buddha and Mahavira to Vivekananda and Gandhi, and of subaltern religious movements like the Bhakti and the Sufi traditions.
Communalism being the worst form of materialism, divorced from everything that is sacred and oriented towards worldly wealth and power, can truly be combated only by a higher form of the sacred that combines the secular ideal of human equality, democratic awareness, identification with the suffering, alleviation of poverty and resistance to oppression with a deep inner inquiry and belief in the holiness of all forms of life. Those who turn religion into a means to attain state power and worldly status are indeed the most irreligious of all, for they profane the most hallowed and usurp even the last refuge of the spirit from a world where ‘the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity’ by joining the ‘ignorant armies’ that ‘clash by night’.
In India, a reductive secularism that equates religiosity itself with communalism and faith with fundamentalism is the best ally of the very forces it condemns. It leaves the majority of our people, and the largest portion of the continent of their unconscious, naked and vulnerable to the exploitation of irreligious, communal hate-mongers. This is not to deny that there is communal potential in the narratives and representations of religion, but then there is an equally dangerous communal potential in secular discourse as well, from electoral rhetoric to popular jokes, from history texts to newspaper features and cartoons, from innocent-looking children’s fiction to the eloquence of a tourist guide to a monument, from discourses of love to a cricket match commentary. Secular spaces of autonomous individual and social activity, freedom, joy and celebration also exist within the frameworks of religious belief, as in a festival at a temple, mosque or church, where the carnivalesque dominates, or in a performance of the Ramayana, where the semiotics of theatre and the enactment of passions enthral spectators across religions and classes.
The secular and the sacred have seldom existed as binaries in Indian thought, literature and practice; all essentialist constructions of the sacred and the secular are ahistorical. The Indian imagination has constantly captured the human condition in its inseparable aspects of the sacred and the secular. The sacred loses its meaning once devoid of every element of real life and the secular not illuminated by the sacred mutilates imagination, ruins its vitality, impoverishes its creativity, collapses its multiplicity, effaces the mystical awareness of reality, promotes anthropocentrism devoid of eco-spirituality and reduces everything to the calculable and the verifiable. The interpenetration of the worldly and the otherworldly, the mundane and the spiritual, the workaday and the worshipful, enrich our folklore as well as our classics. This can be said also of the best works of modern literature, from U.R. Ananthamurthy to O.V. Vijayan, from V. S. Khandekar to Nirmal Verma — though I am tempted to universalise this principle by bringing in my European favourites from Dostoevsky and Kazantzakis to Calvino and Marquez, all of whom derive their magic from the deft interweaving of the real and the mystical.
It is possible, at the risk of some simplification, to characterise the struggle within religions as one between Brahmanas and Sramanas. I am using these words more as oppositional metaphors than as historical categories. Of course, the terms do have historical sanction: there are references to them in Buddhist and Jain literature, Ashoka’s edicts and the travelogues of Megasthenes and Chinese pilgrims. Patanjali records that the two were born rivals "like the cat and the mouse, like the snake and the mongoose". The Arab documents of the second millennium AD also speak of two religious traditions they call Brahmanam (also Brahimam) and Samanyam. The Brahmana stream represents emphasis on ritual, belief in hierarchisation and priesthood and the resulting inequality, the unquestioning faith in the Vedas as repositories of eternal truth, the monopolisation of certain knowledges through a language seldom known to the majority and the linking of those knowledges to power, secrecy, deformation, mystifying representations and divisive practices imposed on people that are later legitimised and rationalised to seem almost natural or divinely created.
In short, it is the religion of hegemony that believes in subjection and domination that splits up community life, forces the individual into himself/herself and ties him/her to his/her own identity in a constraining manner. In this way, it always has had links with state power, even when it does not directly rule, by being more than the rulers, making rules for them, by being advisers in court in the past or as lawyers, managers and bureaucrats in the present, creating and sustaining mechanisms of subjection and determining the forms of subjectivity. Michel Foucault calls this ‘pastoral power’ in the context of the Western State, which has integrated the old power-techniques of the Church in a new political format. Originally, it was a form of power that guaranteed individual salvation in the next world, but it differed from royal power in that it not only commanded but was also prepared to sacrifice itself for the flock. It was a power that looked after not only the whole community but also each individual in particular during his entire life-span, a power that could not be exercised without exploring their ‘souls’, without making them reveal their innermost secrets. The concept of such a form of power applies equally well to the power the Brahmins enjoyed —and to some extent continue to enjoy in Indian society, the growing power of the Papacy and the Church in the Western states and the power of the mullahs in monoreligious Islamic states.
Sramanas by definition are beggars — those who have chosen poverty. They do not approve of the domination of the Brahmanas or accept the authenticity of their texts. Rituals are secondary in their practice: self-realisation and service are primary. They would prefer to speak in popular tongues rather than in Sanskrit or Latin, abhor the idea of hierarchisation through divisive practices like caste, look down upon earthly power and riches and demystify religion by taking it to the people. They interrogate traditional customs, rituals and taboos including, at times, the very idea of temples and idol-worship, not to speak of untouchability and other spatial strategies of distance and differentiation, and believe in basic human equality, or even go beyond it to believe in the equality of all created beings.
While for the Brahmana tradition religion is an instrument of hegemony, for the Sramana tradition, it is an instrument of spiritual enquiry, social justice and revolt against forms of oppressive subjectivisation.
Rustam Bharucha has pointed out how hegemonic religion often works through symbols, by their fusion, integration and repulsion. Symbolic fusion occurs when symbols belonging to different traditions coalesce into one, as happened when the pre-Aryan Shiva was identified with Rudra of the Rig Veda, Krishna and Narayana with Vishnu and several local deities with Shiva or Vishnu.
Students of myth from Heinrich Zimmer to D.D. Kosambi have also given several examples of symbolic integration where independent deities are taken over by the Brahmins only to be invested with a subordinate position in the orthodox pantheon. The cobra, once worshipped in his own right, becomes a mere garland for Siva, a bangle for Ganesa or a bed for Vishnu. Similarly, the bull became Siva’s vehicle and Hanuman, a peasant god, became Rama’s servant. There is also a third process of symbolic repulsion when a myth or ritual represents the exclusion of alien elements. The mythical vanquishing of the Ushas by Indra referred to in the Rig Veda is a case in point. These processes of absorption, suppression and legitimation are also related to the domination of the male in the gendered world and that of the ‘twice–born’ in the caste world, as when Sree, the object of an autonomous cult in the Buddha’s time, becomes Vishnu’s wife, or Parvati, the Hindu goddess who held Siva as her slave, becomes Siva’s reviled wife, or when the various village mother-goddesses get married to various gods in the later pantheon.
K. Satchidanandan is Secretary of the Sahitya Akademi. A major Indian poet
writing in Malayalam, he lives in New Delhi