The concept of secularism was vibrant in the Indic region with the realisation not only of one God but of the essential oneness of all existence: “Ekam sat bipra bahudha badanti.” Ultimate reality is singular as time or space is, but appears to be many due to apparent divisions. The Rig Veda proclaims that diverse ways of worship reach the same destination as different rivers reach the same ocean. The Gita confirms that every form of worship is a valid way to reach the supreme Self. But the truth is shrouded with the mist of religious ritualism.
An Ashokan inscription advises, “Honour another’s religion, for doing so strengthens both one’s own and that of the other.” Emperor Akbar would hold meetings with Hindus, Christians and other faiths for comparative study of contrast and parallelism. He was enthusiastic about matrimonial alliances wherein bride and groom follow different faiths, and significantly, encouraged the said brides to follow their own religious paths —there was no insistence on conversion. It would be oversimplification to dismiss this as nothing more than political expediency.
In recent times, with a vision of universal religion, Swami Vivekananda proclaimed, “We want to lead mankind to the place where there is neither the vedas, Bible nor Quran; yet this has to be done by harmonising all the holy books of all religions. Religions are but varied expressions of Oneness, so that each may choose the path that suits him best,”
Paramahansa Yogananda spread the message of yoga in the West predominantly to Christians who accepted the eternal message of yoga for Self-realisation. Indic spirituality being essentially secular has overwhelmed the seekers of truth all over the globe. M K Gandhi’s daily prayer included readings and hymns from all major religions.
Down the ages India has developed a rich tradition of secularism based on mutual respect and assimilation. Modern India has adopted a secular constitution and we are proud of the same. But its recent interpretations reveal a narrow concept of religious toleration with an inherent sense of superiority complex instead of mutual respect. If secularism is kept confined within political limits it is bound to lose its meaning.
The western concept of secularism is significantly different being antagonistic to religions. It springs from a negative attitude to religions and is motivated by a concern for justice — whereas, in India, secularism implies a profound respect for all religions and an inclusive and impartial attitude to nonbelievers as well.
In this context S Radhakrishnan explained, “When India is said to be a secular state, it does not mean that we reject the reality of an unseen spirit or the relevance of religion to life or that we exalt irreligion. It does not mean that secularism itself becomes a positive religion or that the state assumes divine prerogatives…. We hold that not one religion should be given preferential status… This view of religious impartiality or comprehension and forbearance has a prophetic role to play within the national and international life.”
Religion is just the outer garment of spirituality. It has to end in spirituality. ‘Atmanam biddhi’ or ‘Know Thyself’ was the motto adopted by this country. The rituals, practices and discipline of religion should give us divine realisation of the oneness of the spirit.
In this age of science secularism has to be based on science of religions from which social, political, and ethical value system should spontaneously flow in every sphere of life leading to peaceful and harmonious co-existence for mutual benefit.
– M N Kundu