Religious studies can keep secularism alive in India

  • Mark Tully
  • Updated: Apr 24, 2016 11:21 IST
Madarsa education can be upgraded to include various branches of Islamic theology (HT)

Recently Oxford University’s Faculty of Theology and Religion caused something of a sensation when it was reported that its undergraduate students would not have to study Christianity. As often happens in this sort of situation, on reading the small print, it transpired that students would have to study Christianity in their first year but not thereafter. Nevertheless, this decision demonstrates how far religious teaching at Oxford is prepared to stray from its roots in the Church of England in order to keep up with the times. A member of the faculty said, “We want to offer to potential students what is interesting for them and that has changed a lot in the last 30 years.”

In India there is no point in asking whether religious studies are keeping up to date because there are virtually no opportunities to study religion at the university level. Only Jamia Millia Islamia, as far as I know, has comparatively recently had the courage to establish a Centre for the Study of Comparative Religions and Civilizations. I say ‘courage’ because the failure to establish religious studies surely springs from secularist nervousness about religion, and the failure to understand that secularism needs to find a place for religion. Writing of the time when the Constitution was being debated, the Sanskrit scholar Madhu Khanna, who was the first head of the Jamia Department, has said “the proponents of secularism in India sharply criticised and rejected the very idea of including religious studies as a part of our educational policy”. Since then religious studies have fallen between two stools. Secularists have continued to show no interest in the objective and critical study of religion. The advocates of nationalist Hinduism have not shown any interest presumably because the studies would go beyond the narrow confines of their religious beliefs.

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Why does this lack of religious studies matter? It matters for a variety of important reasons. Take the vexed question of secularism. The study of religion would help to reach a definition of secularism that finds a place for religion in public life and education without favouring any one religion. Prime Minister Narendra Modi says that harmony is essential for development. How can there be harmony in a multi-faith country so nervous about religion that it’s afraid to allow its young people to study the subject?

In the absence of authentic religious scholars and scholarship, the claims of those who have a vested difference in promoting religious disputes go unchallenged. Television anchors allow sectarian spokespersons to claim that they speak on behalf of all Hindus or all Muslims without challenging them. Phrases like “Hindus are offended” or “this offends Muslims” are bandied around freely. Demands for books to be banned are accepted without any serious attempt to refute the allegations made, and in spite of the damage the bans cause to India’s international reputation.

Now 130 people of varied occupations have signed a petition to Rohan Murty, demanding that he remove the renowned Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock of Columbia University from the editorship of the Classical Library of India he has financed. The signatories are clearly motivated as much by political as by religious concerns. They demand that the library should be in Indian hands. The petition also has strong nationalist overtones. For instance, it calls for scholars who are “imbued with a sense of respect and empathy for the greatness of Indian civilization” to undertake the project. But to which Indian university could Murti have entrusted the editing of the library? One of the petitioners, Makarand Paranjpe from JNU’s Centre for English Studies, has implied there isn’t one.

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At this time of religious conflicts, there is an urgent need throughout the globe for a greater understanding of the phenomenon we call religion. There is perhaps no country where this is more important than India, with its unique multi-faith population, and no country is capable of making a more significant contribution to this understanding because of its multi-faith past. So it’s not just India but the world that loses because of this lack of institutions for the study of religion.

The views expressed are personal

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