Recently I was taking a workshop on secularism and communal harmony in Calicut, Kerala. The participants were mostly college and university students and discussion started on religion and its role in the society. Many of them were not comfortable with the very idea of religion. I have experienced this in many similar workshops. Those who are secularists are generally not favourable to religion. A majority of them think secularism and religion cannot go together. Ironically the orthodox practitioners of religion too think secularism is anathema to religion. Thus both on opposite poles feel secularism and religion are mismatch.

This happens when secularism and religion are treated as ideologies and two ideologies generally have exclusive claims and do not want to co-habit with the other. For secularists the best model is European model where secularism emerged in ideological struggled against the church and hence acquired strong anti-religious hue and secularism which emerged as triumphant vis-a-vis the church became very anti-thesis of religion. The leftists in Europe also adopted anti-religious stance for various reasons although Marx’s attitude towards religion was much more complex.

In India the philosophy of secularism or concept of secularism emerged in an entirely different context. In India there is no established church in Hinduism or Islam and Christian church does not play any political or even dominant role. Thus here secularism acquired a different role i.e. that of religious pluralism. Thus the concept of secularism was derived more from Indian tradition of servadharma sambhava (i.e. equal respect for all religions.

In India role of religion cannot be ignored at all. It plays very important role. It is an integral part of our life and culture. Of course there are some people who are averse to very idea of religion and our Constitution accepts right of atheists also to believe in atheism. It also has to be emphasized that while religion plays very important socio-cultural as well as personal role it has no place in matters of state. Thus state if India cannot associate itself with any religion though of late in BJP ruled states Hinduism and Hindu rituals are being associated with state. It strikes a blow to our secularism.

Now the important question is what is religion? What is its role in our composite society? And what place it should have in our personal lives? These are important questions and we have to deal with these questions both on philosophical, ideological and practical levels. Ignoring these questions will only result in more and more confusion. The youngsters I generally deal with in my workshops are generally confused and have no clarity on these questions.

Before we deal with these questions it is important to note that human mind cannot remain bereft of beliefs. Of course nature of belief may vary and may even be antagonistic to each other or non-conforming to each other. But nevertheless human mind cannot be comfortable without certain beliefs. In this sense secularism or even atheism acquires form of belief and is defended as vehemently as religious belief.

Atheism thus cannot be described as state of non-belief. A religious person who believes in God may describe it as non-belief but it is non-belief in God, not non- belief per se. It is certainly a form of belief. A secularist may be either atheist or agnostic or may even accept existence of God though not as part of some formal religious belief but as some kind of super power or even as creator.

It is also important to note that as human mid cannot be bereft of belief, human life cannot be without purpose or meaning. Either human person lives with received or inherited purpose or meaning or discovers some meaning herself/himself. One who lives according to received or inherited meaning lives mechanically but one who discovers it herself or himself lives much more passionately.

Now let us answer the question what is religion? The most fundamental answer would be it is a set of beliefs. Generally these beliefs include belief in God but examples of Buddhism and Jainism, among organized religions, show that belief in God is not necessary condition for being religious. Buddhist beliefs are agnostic in nature and Jain ones atheistic. Yet both are counted among world religions. Thus belief in God is not essential condition for belief in religion.

And belief in religion is of course much more that belief in God or even in one God. Belief in one God is essential part of monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All these religions belong to one family, family of monotheistic religions and belief in Prophets. For these three religions belief in prophets is also necessary as, according to these religions God sends prophets with a message and it is this message which becomes religion for its followers.

It is also to be noted that non-semitic religions like Hinduism or Confucianism are less organized or not organized and also may or may not have belief in one God like monotheistic religions. Also, as many Hindu scholars point out Hinduism is not religion with fixed set of beliefs like monotheistic religions but dharma which emphasize duties rather than beliefs. It is more a way of life than set of beliefs.

Well it is more idealistic than realistic view of Hinduism. In practice, as we all know Hinduism is also a set of rigid beliefs and expresses itself through these beliefs. As for way of life all religions stake this claim and thus cannot be ascribed to Hinduism alone. Muslims also repeatedly stress that Islam is a way of life but it is true that unlike Islam Hinduism is not set of rigid beliefs but it varies from place to place and time to time. It neither came into existence at one period of time nor originated in one geographical location.

It is generally believed that religion is rigid and claims immutability and hence cannot keep pace with the changing world or changing times. It is nothing but set of immutable beliefs and hence a great obstacle in change and progress. Also, it is exclusivistic and rejects truth claims of other beliefs. This is only partially true because a section of followers of religion, not all reject truth claims of other religions.

For example the Sufis of wahdat al-wujud school believe in what is called doctrine of sulh-i-kul (peace with all) and they accept the truth claims of other religions, even of Hinduism which in practice believes in idol worship. They maintain traces of idol worship are found in all religions and even Muslims who worship k’aba, is a form of idol worship. Some Sufis like Mazhar Jan-i-Janan goes to the extent of describing Hindus as monotheists as according to their shashtras (Holy Books) Ishwar (God) is nirgun (without attributes) and nirakar (without form) which, according to him, is the highest form of monotheism.

One should note that tolerance and intolerance are psychological categories, not religious one i.e. one follower could be more tolerant than the other. Thus of the two followers of the same religion one could be more tolerant than the other. Had it been religious category all followers would have been equally tolerant or intolerant. That is not the case. We have great saints like Mu’inuddin Chishti, Nizamuddin Awliya, Kabir, Ravidas and others who were highly tolerant and readily accepted truth claims of other religions.

Also, there are different trends in the same religion. In Hinduism there is Bhakti movement (devotional trend). Their whole emphasis is on love of God and they believe in annihilating themselves in God as a lover likes to annihilate himself/herself in the existence of beloved. Sufis of wahdat al-wujud school also put whole emphasis on love of God, not on fear of God as theologians do.

Sufis believe in fana’ fi’ Allah (i.e. annihilating in Allah) who is described by them as beloved. Entire Sufi love poetry is devoted to love of God and their beloved (ma’shuq) is Allah. They also call it ‘ishq-i-haqiqi (real love). Since death is annihilation in Allah Sufis call it wisal i.e. meeting with Allah. Thus Sufis use entire terminology of love for their birth, life and death.

Thus their birth and earthly life is described as hijr (separation) from beloved. Thus for Sufis earthly life is nothing but a period of separation from beloved and they celebrate their death as a day of joy when they would meet their beloved. And since all have been created by Allah, there is no question of discrimination between one and the other be they Muslims or Hindus or Christians or of any other religion. All walls of separation are demolished.

Even in Sufism there are different schools and all schools are not as open and tolerant as wahdat al-wujud school. Sheikh Sirhindi of 17th century (Jehangir’s contemporary) was quite puritan and was against the philosophy of wahdat al-wujud and came into conflict with them. He developed instead a concept of what he called wahdat al-shuhud i.e. unity of witnessing and emphasized truth of Islam as against other religions. Many people came under his influence and some scholars even maintain that his philosophy led to political separation in India and resulted in partition. However, this needs to be carefully examined.

In Hinduism too there are different trends from peaceful to extremely violent. Vedantas and Upanishads are highest expression of Hindu philosophy which is quite liberal and catholic. It is ethical and moral. But we also have Hindutva trend which is basically political and extremely violent and intolerant. It is Hindutva ideology which is responsible for several communal riots and Gujarat genocide in 2002.

It is therefore obvious that not religion but its political misuse which is mainly responsible for intolerance and violence which at popular level is taken to be on account of religion. In politics in general and in democratic politics in particular, more than religion and its teachings, political identity becomes a problem. In countries like India, as we have shown in one of our articles on identity, religious, caste and linguistic identities play a key role in all elections. But it should be noted that it is not only religious but also caste and linguistic identities also play such role.

In developing countries due to backwardness and illiteracy religion has firm grip over the minds of people and politicians are tempted to use and misuse religion and religious identities for gathering people’s support. From our experience in India we also know that these politicians do not allow even textbooks to be changed and thus education, instead of part of solution, becomes a part of the problem. Education is being used as a powerful instrument by politicians to perpetuate narrow orthodoxy and for reinforcing religious, caste and linguistic identities.

Our education system, as the noted revolutionary American philosopher Herbert Marcuse pointed out produces one dimensional man who thinks that the given system is the best system and needs to be preserved. The media also becomes a powerful instrument, like education system, to perpetuate religious orthodoxy and narrow caste and regional outlook. In every caste, communal and ethnic riots we see that media plays very negative role and because of media provocations, violence gets greatly intensified.

Also, religious festivals are occasions of outbreak of communal violence. Most of the riots take place on these festivals not because these festivals carry any germs of violence but because politicians exploit these occasions to make Hindus and Muslims fight by insisting on particular route which passes through certain locality where the other community lives and the leaders of other community opposing and also raising provocative slogans against a particular community. Earlier these processions used to pass through peacefully and people of all religions participating in them as a religio-cultural event.

Now in this era of globalization, multinational companies have begun to sponsor these religious festivals which are now being celebrated on much grander scale. It has nothing to do with the real purpose of these festivals and religio-cultural motive behind them but for these companies it is mere business and to promote their business they do lot of social and political damage by reinforcing religious orthodoxy.

Today these festivals are not only being observed on grand scale but also have become occasions of making huge amounts of money. Even criminal gangs are using these festivals for establishing their leadership in a particular area. They also put up huge Ganesh Pandals in many cities and through it promote their own activities. The media also gives full publicity to miracle mongering Babas who use various tricks to dupe gullible people.

The important question is why these fake Babas and Godmen and Godwomen (though few in number but are nevertheless there) there. The modern urban life is full of tensions and uncertainties and even educated people suffer from these problems and these people look for quick remedies which these Babas claim to provide. Some agents are also employed by these Babas to promote their miracles among the people who go around and claim that thanks to the Baba their problems were solved. Thus more people flock around them.

Once a Godman becomes successful and gathers large following politicians also begin to visit them and seek their support for their political purposes. This further reinforces their public image. Politicians of the level of prime minister indulge in such tactics for votes. Here I am not naming the names but several such examples can be given. Naturally many rationalists become averse to religion.

We should add to this list the orthodoxy of our ulama, theologians and priests who acquire vested interest in perpetuating orthodoxy. In countries like India, Pakistan, Bangla Desh and several other countries they are product of poor masses and in turn, after qualifying as theologians control these backward masses, perpetuate orthodoxy and display extreme rigidity in the name of religion.

This rigidity and orthodoxy, as pointed out above, not inherent in religion but reflects the kind of education they receive in madrasas and theological institutions in a backward environment and continue to preach the same. It thus becomes a viscous circle. I had long debate with the mufti of city of Saharanpur on the question of triple divorce. He admitted it is wrong but said I cannot take public position like you as my rivals will exploit it. Some of these compulsions also become great obstacles for change.

In an attempt to codify Muslim personal law in India we met many ulama who fully agreed with us on necessary changes and laying rules and bye rules to minimize misuse of certain shari’ah provisions but refused to take public position for similar reason. I know some ulama and theologians who are bold enough to take even public position. The poor and illiterate masses and in many cases even educated ones, accept everything uncritically in the name of religion.

There is need to develop critical thinking in order to make religion serve its real purpose. Perpetuating what was developed by Ulama centuries ago does not, in any case serve useful purpose. In earlier phases of Islamic history the ulama could develop quite advanced Islamic legal system because they critically examined issues and publicly debated them. But once legal schools were formalized, the process of thinking and reflecting came to full stop and all gates of ijtihad (creative and critical thinking) were closed and no one dares open them.

Thus instead of rejecting religion as a part of the problem we have to critique those who exploit it or try to perpetuate orthodoxy. And those rationalists who criticize religion do not criticize the whole social environment and the system in which rigidity and orthodoxy flourishes. It is like criticizing poverty instead of the system which creates poverty. We should also remember that religion is not changeable.

It is for us to understand what is changeable and what is not. We should also understand religion is not borne in vacuum, it is born in a culture, in a social milieu with its own customs and traditions. They are not integral part of religion but they appear to be so and eventually they do become part of religion. The Ulama and priests begin defending all this as divine and hence immutable. In Islam many practices are nothing but Arab customs and traditions which became part of Islamic shari’ah and is being treated as divine injunctions.

All this needs to be critiqued and their relevance and irrelevance determined and if they become part of the problem, need to be changed. We inherit religion with all these customs and traditions as integral part of our culture. Instead of treating it divine as a whole we must separate what is cultural from what is transcendent and universal and change what is changeable. Religion is what we make of it.

The most essential part of religion which is imperishable and permanent is higher values. These are seven values which are almost common in all religions: Truth, equality, human dignity, love, compassion, justice and non-violence. The differences between religions are not in core teachings constituted by these values but in socio-cultural practices through which a religion is practiced. To pray to God is essential but how to pray is cultural.

Truth of very central importance but how many those who claim to be religious practice truth? Truth is the first casualty among almost all followers of religion, whatever their religion. But how many of us make truth as the ultimate criteria of religion. Religion has been reduced to be a bundle of formal rituals. Instead of judging religiosity by truth value of followers’ conduct, we judge it by ritual he or she performs or does not perform. Even a liar who faithfully performs certain rituals passes as ‘religious’

Thus it is necessary to change the whole criteria for judging ones religiosity and it was always in this sense that Sufis and saints criticized ulama and priests. If Allah is truth (haq or satya) then one who compromises truth is most irreligious person and not one who misses certain rituals. Truth, justice and love are the most essential characteristics of religion and there can be no religion or religious behavior without these characteristics. In Qur’an Allah’s name is haq (truth) and justice is essential part of taqwa (piety) and love of Allah and all that He has created is integral part of Islam that is Allah’s message brought by his Messenger Muhamad (PBUH). Shorn of this everything else is hypocrisy.

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