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Secularism at large: Hinduism's open-ended philosophy

A timely book that roots secularism in Indian tradition and reminds us of Hinduism's open-ended philosophy.

books Updated: Jan 25, 2015 11:19 IST
Barun Das Gupta
Barun Das Gupta
Hindustan Times
Secularism in Hinduism: It's part of the script

The publication of the book could not have been more timely. The author has done extensive study of Indian scriptures to establish that the ideal of secularism is an integral part of the Indian tradition.

At the very beginning, he quotes a shloka from the Rigveda which 'expresses a secular doubt in God' and declares that 'the universe is God'. To drive home his point, he recalls what sage Dirghatama had said in the Rigveda: 'Truth is one, the sages call it by various names.' He points out that unlike Christianity or Islam, Hinduism is not an organised religion based on a single scripture, but an open-ended philosophy. Hindu atheism has 'historicaly been a sub-branch of Hinduism'.

It is all the more necessary now to keep this in mind when eminent persons, occupying constitutional positions after swearing to uphold our secular Constitution are demanding that the Gita be officially declared as a 'national scripture' or Rashtriya Granth. How can a multi-religious country committed to building a secular democracy make a particular scripture of the Hindu religion a 'national' scripture?

Two of the six principal schools of Indian philosophy, namely Sankhya and Vaisheshika, are atheistic and recognise neither God nor any scripture as the sole source of knowledge.

Book: Secularism in Hinduism

Author: Rudra Prasad Matilal; Levant Book; Rs 595, PP 304

In fact, the Vaisheshika philosophy comes close to modern science because it conceives the universe as made up of atoms or paramanus. Mimamsa is another principal school of Hindu philosophy, divided into two branches, Uttar Mimamsa and Purva Mimamsa. The latter also repudiates the existence of God.

Through his study the author has come to the conclusion that 'Vedic philosophy may be regarded as secular in nature because it deals mainly with nature and not any religion.' The atheistic schools of Indian philosophy cannot be disowned by the votaries of the idea of a Hindu nationhood.

Secularism 'asserts a division between private life, where secularists consider religion properly belongs, and the public arena, where religion does not play any pivotal role.' In fact, secularism is the 'movement away from traditional religion towards modernity, science and rationalism.' Secularism connotes 'freedom from governmental imposition of religion upon the people.'

The author traces the history of Indian secularism to 800 BC to 200 BC, the Axial Age. This age saw progressive thinkers being born not only in India but also in ancient Greece, Iran and the Near East. It was the age of doubt and scepticism. Both Buddhism and Jainism arose during this period. Both rejected the authority of the Vedas and belief in a single deity or Supreme Being.

In fact, secularism is not treating all religions as equally venerable or equally true, but a world outlook that opposes superstition, welcomes the ever-widening horizons of human knowledge and seeks to build an enlightened society freed from the fetters of fossilised thinking and the false idea of a particular religion being superior to all others. He believes that Vedanta philosophy is a viable alternative to religion for secularists. It may be recalled that Swami Vivekananda himself preached the Advaita Vedanta philosophy.

The author is a lawyer by profession but the present work has shown his deep knowledge about the Indian scriptures and schools of philosophy as well. But there is a desideratum. The reader acutely feels the absence of an index at the end of the book.

The author is a veteran journalist.

First Published: Jan 24, 2015 08:57 IST