Secularization and Academic Study of Religion: Suggestions for a Typology

August 1, 2010

Secularization, ushered in by the Renaissance, has now become a global phenomenon.[i] This short note is designed to provide a typology within which the responses from the academic community to this secularization process can be meaningfully studied.

One basically encounters four types of academic responses to the secularization process vis-à-vis religion: These may be referred to as Type One through Four responses – the first two approbative in nature, the last two not so.

Type one response consists in pointing out that a particular religion is essentially secular anyway. An excellent illustration of this genre of response is provided by Harvey Cox’s “The Secular City”[ii] which celebrates the progressive secularization of the world as the logical outcome of Biblical religion: there could as well be, conceivably, Judaic, Islamic, Buddhistic, Hindu and other acclamations as well.

Type two response consists of pulling the rug from under the secular feet by arguing that secularism is itself a religion! Perhaps the best example here is Robert N. Bellah’s thesis of a civic religion.[iii]

Type three response consists in identifying one particular religious tradition as best suited to combat the menace of secularism. The work of R.C. Zaehner[iv] is worth mentioning here, who regards Christianity primarily and Judaism secondarily as best fitted for the task. As for Islam “the time of testing is yet to come”[v], while the Oriental religions may well be written off! On the other hand, even primitive religions may have something to offer a la Mircea Eliade.[vi]

Type four response consists of maintaining that the menace of secularism must be combated collectively by the religions of the world as a whole.[vii] This has been long argued by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan. There is also the suggestion that the “mystic tradition of the different religions” are least suited for this task.[viii]


[i] See however John Esposito, Darrel J. Fasching and Todd Lewis, eds., Religions and Globalization (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) pp. 541-544.

[ii] Harvey Cox, The Secular City, (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1971) Also see Daniel Callahan, The Secular City Debate, (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1967).

[iii] Robert Neelly Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 96 (1): 1 -21.

[iv] R.C. Zaehner, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1959) Conclusion p. 413-417.

[v] Ibid., p. 417.

[vi] See Huston Smith, The World’s Religions (San Francisco: Harper, 1991) p. 366

[vii] Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Fellowship of the Spirit (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961) p. 39.

[viii] S. Radhakrishnan, Eastern Religions and Western Though (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939) p. viii.

Scripture in World Religions: Some Reflections

June 17, 2010

(1) Apparently, the field of world religions has its own “publish or perish” principle. Here it takes the form of having a scripture. Those religions which publish – that is, produce a scripture – have a better chance of surviving. Moreover, the spread of Islam gave further impetus to this principle because of the protection offered to ahl-al-kitāb, or People with a Book, so it might not be out of place to pursue this idea of ‘people with a book’ further.

One point to note is that the book need not be a bound book, what one needs is a text. The Qur’ān was first revealed and then written down. It was and is essentially a sonoral revelation. In what is traditionally regarded as the first revelation received by the Prophet, he was asked to recite it. If the Hindus are to be understood as a people with a book on account of possessing the Vedas, then the Vedas too are meant to be orally recited. In fact, they have been transmitted orally over the centuries. The Guru Granth Sahib is also meant to be sung – it is set to music. We tend to take a book to mean a printed book, as we live in an age after the publishing revolution which accompanied modernity. We may thus need to recover the original sense of the book here. This will have a major implication for our understanding of the presence of scripture in the primal religions, which are set apart from the so-called historical religions on account of their focus on orality. But if a ‘book’ means a text, rather than a scripted text, then they may not be quite without a ‘book’, an assumption to which the conflation of a book with a ‘printed book’ might make us prone.

The other point is that the idea of “people with a book” raises the question of the bifocal nature of scripture. In whose eyes must a text have the status of a scripture to be so considered – 1) In the eyes of the followers of the religion who claim to possess one, 2) or in the eyes of the followers of other religions, 3) or both?

The Islamic concept, to a certain extent, elides these distinctions because it accepts as scriptures those which are accepted as such by the believers themselves in the instances cited in the Qur’ān – the Tawrat (Torah), the Zabur (Psalms), the Injil (Gospel) and the Qur’ān itself. But suppose such coincidence did not occur and the “insider” claimed a text to be a scripture but the “outsider” denied it. What then?

The issue is not purely conjectural or theoretical. The Qur’ān mentions some scriptures specifically but it also adds that its listing is not exhaustive. So we may find ourselves in a situation in which, if their scripture is not mentioned in the Qur’ān, we may not be able to claim that they are absolutely a People with a Book, but we may also not be able to absolutely deny that they are a People with a Book, because the revealed books are not exhaustively listed in the Qur’ān! This could become a matter of life and death in certain circumstances for a people.

(2) Another point to consider is the uses we make of each other’s scriptures. Christianity provides a case where one tradition uses the scripture of another tradition as its own, but in the process demotes it as preparatory of its own unique revelation. Thus what to begin with seems a generous appropriation becomes a matter of acute contention from the point of view of those whose scripture is appropriated. On the question of the Christian Bible and the Hebrew Bible as a prelude to it, a witty Jewish friend remarked that, so far as he was concerned, the New Testament was a merely Greek appendix to the Hebrew Bible, and that too in bad Greek, reversing the Christian perspective.

Islam also aligns itself with prior revelations. In fact that Qur’ān mentions Moses by name more often than Muhammad, according to Professor Mahmoud Ayoub. But curiously this has little actual bearing upon how the Qur’ān is interpreted because of the doctrine of tahrīf – or the view that the texts of the prior revelations had become so hopelessly corrupted as to be virtually useless in their present state. The history of religions is full of such surprising turns.

Going back now to the case of the Hebrew Bible and its alleged demotion in the Christian Bible, the relationship which was established within the Hindu tradition within the Sanskrit and Tamil scriptures discloses an opposite possibility. It is said that when the Vedic and Tamil hymns are chanted in the procession, the Tamil hymnists lead the procession on account of the Śrī Vaiṣṇava understanding that the Vedas are seeking God but the Tamil texts have found him!

One might also examine the role “holy envy” has in such a situation – a phrase coined by Professor Krister Stendahl. Others might have something in their religious tradition – which we wish we had in our own. And sometimes it could be scripture. Louis Renou has argued that the fact that Buddhist texts commence with “Thus have I heard” evokes the idea of the Vedic śruti.

(3) The relationship of scripture to salvation in the tradition is also a point which obviously merits attention. Both Buddhism and Sikhism accord the status of the Guru – the ultimate spiritual guide – to the scripture. The attitude they have towards it however merits comparison. The Buddha did not appoint a successor and indicated that his words will play the role hereafter. But the ultimate goal of Buddhism being the achievement of nirvāṇa, even the scriptures were subordinated to it, which might explain why in certain Zen circles they are stacked loose to the lavatory, as Edward Lonze tells us. Mahāyāna Buddhism could reverse Asoka’s maxim: “what is Buddha said is well said” to “what is well said is Buddha said” – thereby explaining in part the proliferation of scriptures in Mahāyāna Buddhism. But this spirit is found in the Theravāda texts itself.

“Do you agree, monks, that any given organism is a living being?” “Yes, sir.”

“Do you agree that it is produced by food?” “Yes, sir.”

“And that when the food is cut off the living being is cut off and dies?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And that doubt on any of these points will lead to perplexity?” “Yes, sir.”

“And that Right Recognition is knowledge of the true facts as they really are?” “Yes, sir.”

“Now, if you cling to this pure and unvitiated view, if you cherish it, treasure it, and make it your own, will you be able to develop a state of consciousness with which you can cross the stream of transmigration as on a raft, which you use but do not keep?” “No, sir.”

“But only if you maintain this pure view, but don’t cling to it or cherish it…only if you use it but are ready to give it up?” “Yes, sir.”

Buddhism is a practical system, with the single aim of freeing living beings from suffering. This passage apparently implies that even the most fundamental doctrines of Buddhism are only means to that end and must not be maintained dogmatically for their own sake. It suggests also that there may be higher truths, which can only be realized as Nirvāna is approached.

One wonders if Sikhism could permit that much of a latitude. One could argue that in principle it could because it has the concept of the jīvanmukta or one who becomes liberated in this life. It is important to refer to this fact because both Advaita Vedānta and Buddhism – though Buddhism more than Advaita Vedānta – tend to place scripture a cut below actual spiritual experience and one explanation which has been offered to explain this is the suggestion that this is so because both these systems believe in pre-mortem liberation or jīvanmukti, and this scripture can be made to take a backseat in their soteriologies in relation to experience. I wonder whether this is not the case with Sikhism because it is ultimately a theistic religion, while both Advaita Vedānta and Buddhism are not ultimately so, with Advaita Vedānta being transtheistic and Buddhism non-theistic in nature. The fact that the theistic Viśiṣṭādvaita School of Hinduism is also self-consciously less casual in its approach to scripture compared to the Advaita School may be an interesting and relevant fact to consider in this context.

Why Do the Sikhs Have Unshorn Hair?

February 14, 2010

A Sikh can be readily identified in any gathering as a Sikh by virtue of his turbaned appearance. But the turban is really there to hold the unshorn hair in place, so the question naturally arises: Why do the Sikhs keep their hair unshorn? The fact that they were supposed to do so when the khalsa was constituted is merely a statement of fact and does not amount to an explanation.

No less than five explanations have been offered. According to one explanation the reason they were asked to keep their hair unshorn was in order to make them readily identifiable. In a crisis people tend to conceal their identity and the Khalsa was founded in critical times. For instance, when the Romans came looking for Jesus even his famous disciple Peter thought it wise to feign ignorance. If, however, one’s identity cannot be readily concealed, then it is difficult to cop out. Some have therefore argued that in the troubled times in which Sikhism arose, people would often conceal their identity to avoid having to face up to the responsibility which came from being a Sikh. The idea then was to make the Sikh so readily identifiable that it would not be possible for him to disown his identity. Once he could not disown his identity he would be compelled to take a stand. In other words, it was a way of inculcating bravery.

A second explanation has something to do with this as well. It is said that Punjab in the eighteenth century was subject to a number of invasions from the north-west. These invaders used to have an unruly appearance and their flowing hair struck terror in the heart of their opponents. The idea then was to get the would-be fighters used to the long hair of the tribesmen who would invade India, by calling upon the fighters to keep it themselves. A third explanation is connected to this one in that it is also martial in nature. The mass of hair protects the head delivered to it.

The argument used most often to explain the practice of keeping the hair unshorn is the perception that the Sikh was a soldier-saint. Religious men in India have the habit of keeping their hair unshorn and by maintaining this practice the Sikh signaled that he was a soldier but not a mercenary, and that his vocation was connected with the vindication of justice. This also would encapsulate the fact that the Sikhs originally were a pacific religious group which had transformed themselves into a martial community to fight for justice. Such a transformation did not involve any contradiction for the Sikh, who had become a soldier imbued with the religious spirit of saints.

Another argument in the same spirit would identify the unshorn hair as a symbol of dedication. It is a common feature of Indic spirituality to affirm a moral resolution with a physical accompaniment. This may reflect the more general working of the human psyche. Even in modern times we have the example of a person who refused to have his hair cut until a particular country acquired a communist government. Photographs of him being shaved appeared in numerous papers when his ambition was realized.

Yet another argument would connect keeping the hair unshorn with concepts of group solidarity. This Sikhs could then be looked upon as affirming their collective identity by pursuing this resolve jointly

A recent writer offers yet another reason for the practice. According to William Owen Cole the maintaining of uncut hair or kasha by the Sikhs symbolizes the belief that a Sikh should not interfere with natural God-given form. Circumcision, for instance, is rejected on the same ground.

It is thus possible to offer psychological, martial, spiritual, social and natural explanations of the practice of keeping unshorn hair. Our impulse on being confronted with this battery of explanation might well be to ask: Which of these is true? This natural query however has become somewhat suspect in the study of religion which has come to recognize that a religious symbol need not be univalent, that is, have only one reference-point. All of these explanations could be part of the interpretation of why Keshadhari Sikhs keep the hair unshorn. The important point to note is that when what initially appeared to us as a puzzle is recognized as a symbol, then it ceases to be a puzzle.

12.) Religious Freedom

August 25, 2009

I would like to use article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the starting point of my presentation on religious freedom as a universal human right. Many of us are already familiar with it; allow me however to spell it out nevertheless. This is what it says:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes the freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance[1].

I would like to advance three propositions, using article 18 just read out as the tee off point. The three propositions then may be stated as follows:

  1. That the concept of religious freedom articulated in this article presupposes a certain concept of religion, a concept associated with Western religion and culture;
  2. That a different concept of religion, associated with Eastern religion and culture, leads to a different concept of religious freedom; and
  3. That unless human rights discourse is able to harmonize these two concepts of religious freedom, ironically but not surprisingly, the clash of the two concepts might ultimately result in the abridgment of religious freedom in actual practice.

I


The concept of religious freedom as embedded in the article cited earlier is based on a particular concept of religion. It presupposes that an individual can only belong to or profess one religion at a time. Were this not the case the idea underlying the article that religious freedom implies the right to change one’s religion would not make much sense. Freedom then boils down to the freedom to change.

It is important to note that the idea—that one may belong to only one religion at a time—is shared by both the religious as well as the secular traditions of the West. Some have argued—notably W.C. Smith—that whether a religion is a reified entity is a modern Enlightenment idea. But the idea that one can belong to only one religion is part and parcel of both the religious legacy of the West—through the Abrahamic religions—and its secular legacy—through Enlightenment.

If one believes that one can only belong to one religion at a time, then it stands to reason that religious freedom would essentially consist of one’s freedom to change such affiliation by the voluntary exercise of choice.

II

In parts of the East, however, one encounters a somewhat different notion of religion. Many Chinese colleagues have told me that typically the well-read and well-bred Chinese did not look upon himself as being either a Confucian, or a Daoist or a Buddhist exclusively in pre-communist China. The question whether he belonged to one or the other had a certain artificiality about it. He or she was typically steeped in all three to varying degrees and he or she may have his or her preference—but, and this is the important point—preference did not imply exclusion. The contemporary reality of China is of course different. But the point gains in force when considered in the light of the contemporary reality of Japan. According to the 1991 census, 95% of the population of Japan declared itself as followers of Shinto and 76% of the same population also declared itself as Buddhists.

If we talk of China and Japan, India cannot be far behind. It is well-known that most modern Hindus do not regard the various religions of Indian origin—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism—as mutually exclusive religions. If the Indian census-takers did not insist that one can only belong to one religion—significantly a British legacy—I would not at all be surprised if the Indian religious statistical reality began to resemble the Japanese.

What would the concept of religious freedom possibly mean in the context of such a concept of religion? I would like to propose that it would now imply the idea of multiple religious participation rather than the idea of religious conversion. Mahatma Gandhi was once asked: What if a Hindu comes to feel that he can only be saved by Jesus Christ? Gandhi’s reply may be paraphrased thus: Good for him, but why should he cease to be a Hindu? Thus in the Eastern cultural context, freedom of religion means that the person is left free to explore his or her religious life without being challenged to change his or her religion. Such exploration need not be confined to any one religion, and may freely embrace the entire religious and philosophical heritage of humanity. Thus conversion is banned in Nepal and the rationale for such a policy is also couched in the rhetoric of religious freedom—that religious freedom means each religion being left to grow and develop on its own, without interference from other religions. Interestingly, even Islamic Indonesia subscribes to such a concept of religious freedom, where conversion from any one of the five religions so acknowledged—Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, and Christianity (Protestantism)—to the other is forbidden. This model has its positive side in terms of preserving pluralism. It however assumes a Western concept of religion and should be distinguished from the Eastern model which questions an exclusive concept of religion itself. It will perhaps be a point of interest for students of religion that in the Indonesian perspective Catholicism and Protestant Christianity are two distinct religions. But I digress.

III

I can now advance to, and advance, the third proposition. According to one concept of religion—herein dubbed Western—freedom of religion consists of freedom to change one’s religion when faced with a religious option. According to another concept of religion—herein dubbed Eastern—freedom of religion consists of not having the need to do so when faced with such an option.

Recent events in India indicate that the simultaneous operation of these two concepts can lead to religious volatility. India’s religious culture is heavily imbued with the Eastern concept of religion, India’s political culture relies heavily on the Western concept of it. I would now like to conclude by saying that the tensions now building up in India lend a certain urgency to our deliberations of this third proposition: because its forebodings are being borne out. A number of states in India have introduced Freedom of Religious Bills. One is not certain whether it is sheer naiveté or a highly developed sense of irony which accounts for this nomenclature, for the proponents of both Western and Eastern concepts of religion have begun to allege that such legislations restrict religious freedom. These legislations require prior clearance from the government authorities before a conversion can be carried out. Hindus are resentful because conversion is thereby still allowed; Christians are resentful because conversion is thereby impeded!

[1] Tad Stahnke and J. Paul Martin, eds., Religion and Human Rights: Basic Documents. (Columbia University: Centre for the Study of Human Rights, 1998) p.59.

11.) Do the Great Religions Stand for Small Families?

July 17, 2009

In dealing with a religious tradition one should realize that the truth does not always lie in front of us. Religious traditions are not monolithic, and the very fact that we are looking at one thing can mean that we may be overlooking something else. Religious traditions are not static, they are changing even as we are looking at them, just like a top which seemed stable when spinning but is really in constant motion. Moreover, a religious tradition always possesses a quality over and above its contents, a fact one is likely to overlook if one looks only at the existing contents.

These remarks create the mental space for the recognition that religions can be a positive factor in matters of population and development, contrary to their popular image. Take the question of family size for example. Almost all the influential figures in the world’s religions had small families. Rāma, the popular God of Hinduism, had two sons; the Buddha had one son; Mahāvīra, the last prophet of Jainism, had one daughter (if that); Guru Nānak, the founder of Sikhism, was survived by two sons; Confucious had one son; Lao-Tzu, the founder of Taoism, none. Abraham had two sons and two daughters; Moses had two sons; Jesus none, and Prophet Muhammad was survived by a daughter.

Thus while we may have some reservations about the composition of the families in terms of gender equality, there can be no denying the fact that the example of all these major figures could work more powerfully to vindicate the norm of a small-sized family than all the posters in the world.

10.) Is “Human” Dialogue Possible

March 30, 2009

Scholars have distinguished among several forms of dialogue.[1] Eric J. Sharpe, for instance, distinguished between four types of dialogue,[2] which may also overlap:

(1) Discursive Dialogue: a candid exchange of opinions and ideas through discussion among participants of different religions;

(2) Human Dialogue: a “meeting in which persons are to meet as persons rather than as believers in a particular religious tradition; it is a meeting at the level of common humanity;”[3]

(3) Secular Dialogue: where secular concerns such as economic development overrule the religious differences of the participants;

(4) Interior Dialogue: which consists of a sharing of religious experience.

In respect to this classification the suggestion has been made by Robert A. Stephens that, out of these four categories, human dialogue as a category of its own right ought to be deleted. He adduces the following reasons for taking such a step:

(1) If we are dealing with dialogue in a religious context, then to “focus merely on common ground of shared humanity may not be religious in any sense of the word; it is the necessarily common ground between believers and non-believers.”[4]

(2) If indeed such a dialogue were to occur, “if there is a meeting on this common ground, what does one meet about—common humanity or aspects thereof? It could then be categorized as secular dialogue.”[5]

(3) Stephens argues, citing Sharpe in support that “it is somewhat unrealistic to prescind from religious conviction, one’s own or another’s. Is the other really treated as a fully human person, as a fully other, if we prescind from his fundamental convictions?”[6]

From these arguments Stephens concludes that human aspect of dialogue is so basic to any form of dialogue that it is virtually meaningless to treat it as a form of dialogue. He writes:

I would therefore see consciousness of common humanity (with the mutual respect that it should entail) as that which ought to be the presumed common ground in dialogue of any type…. human dialogue could hardly exist in its own right. If the term is used to refer to the “dialogue” of simply sharing in everyday living, then the word is being used in a very broad sense indeed. In an Indian village, Hindus, Muslims and Christians may live in harmony and respect each other, but this co-existence does not necessarily indicate the presence of any type of dialogue.[7]

II

In the rest of this paper I shall argue that the category of Human Dialogue be retained as a form of dialogue, because the arguments adduced by Stephens against it are capable of being rebutted and because fresh arguments in support of the category can be advanced.

(1) It is doubtless true that human dialogue need not be religious in the usually accepted sense of the term, but the crucial point to be considered here is the meaning of the word religion. If we restrict the meaning of the term religion to the usually accepted religious traditions of mankind[8] then his point has considerable force but if we take into account some “modern manifestations of religious instinct” such as Jungian “depth” psychology and Marxian Communism,[9] for instance, then the position may have to be revised. Next, if we could take the idea of Humanism[10] itself seriously or worked with “open definitions” of religion, then the point will have to be again re-assessed.[11] Moreover, a Christian-Marxist dialogue could possibly fall in this category if the common humanity of ideologically differing human beliefs is emphasized.

(2) One should not be too dismissive of common humanity as the meeting ground of dialogue because, to the extent that one particularizes oneself as a follower of a religious tradition, to that extent one does compromise one’s common humanity. One has only to recognize that Buddha did not preach to Buddhists but to human beings and likewise Christ, to recognize the force of this argument. It may, therefore, be not altogether out of place, even in a dialogue among traditional religions, to draw attention to the common humanity of the participants, which may be lost sight of in the particularity of one’s commitment to one’s own tradition.

(3) It might be an interesting point to consider what is left in common if everyone’s religious convictions are either rescinded or retained. For this would impart an interesting dimension to the dialogue. The Gandhian experiment in basic education under the so-called Wardha scheme is of interest here. In our modern terminology Gandhi would probably be considered strong on dialogue, and one disposed to encourage it. Yet in the Wardha Scheme: “Sectarian religious instruction was deliberately omitted from the plan, for which Gandhi was roundly criticized. Although he too was deeply convinced personally that all religions are true, he did not propose the teaching of a syncretistic universal religion but only basic morality. Gandhi wrote: ‘Fundamental principles of ethics are common to all religions. These should be regarded as adequate religious instruction so far as the schools under the Wardha scheme are concerned.’”[12]

(4) The concept of natural theology can also be related to that of human dialogue. Natural theology is usually contrasted with revealed theology[13] but if is taken in the sense of religious or moral consciousness in man as such, rather than as manifested in a particular religious tradition, then it becomes potentially relevant to human dialogue. Thus the Education Commission of 1882 in British India recommended “that an attempt be made to prepare a moral text-book, based upon the fundamental principles of national religion, such as may be taught in all Government and non-Government Colleges.”[14] The proposal was not accepted[15] but it is clear that the votaries of different religions relating to one another through such a book are probably best seen as parties to a human dialogue.

III

It is clear, therefore, that given the current religious situation of the world, the trends in the definition of religion and in the dialogue of world religions, the category of Human Dialogue serves a useful purpose.


[1] This aspect of dialogue has not been covered in Arvind Sharma, “Meaning and Goals of Interreligious Dialogue,” Journal of Dharma VIII (3) (July-Sept., 1983), pp. 225-247.

[2] See E.J. Sharpe, “Dialogue and Faith,” Religion 3(2) (Autumn, 1973), pp. 89-105; “The goals of Inter-religious Dialogue” in John Hick, ed., Truth and Dialogue (London: Sheldon Press, 1974), pp. 77-95.

[3] Robert A. Stephens, Religious Experience as a Meeting-Point in Interreligious Dialogue (unpublished Master’s thesis: University of Sydney, 1984), p. 5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 10.

[7] Ibid., p. 10.

[8] John B. Noss, Man’s Religions (New York: Macmillan Co., 1956).

[9] R.C. Zaehner, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959), p. 402.

[10] See Wm. Theodore de Bary, ed., Sources of Indian Tradition Vol. II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 362-363.

[11] W. Richard Comstock, “Toward Open Definitions of Religion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion L11 (3) (September 1984), pp. 499-517.

[12] Donald Eugene Smith, India as a Secular State (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1963

[13] John Hick, Philosophy of Religion (third edition) (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1983), pp. 61-62.

[14] Arabinda Biswas and Suren Agrawal, eds., Indian Educational Documents Since Independence (New Delhi: The Academic Publishers [India]), p. 439.

[15] Donald Eugene Smith, op. cit., p. 344.

9.) An Earthquake Shakes the Rational and Moral Foundations of the World

February 26, 2009

An earthquake does more than shake up the world, it shakes up our worldview. It forces us to ask that most difficult question of all: Why? And not just why me but why us? If it is just I, perhaps it is the retribution of some secret vice of mine catching up with me but if there are so many, a change in quantity does amount to a change in quality (pace Marx). In an earthquake the scale creates the phenomena, and similarly, philosophically and theologically, the scale creates the issue: it can no longer be buried.

Why should a natural disaster such as an earthquake occur at all—claiming so many innocent lives.

What causes an earthquake?

There are three distinct although interrelated ways of answering this question: through science, through God and through karma.

The principle of causation involved is a natural one from the point of view of science. Earthquakes occur on account of subterranean fault lines. They are the result of tectonic activity and if we happen to be at the wrong place then this is a random happening. We live in a world of scientific causation in which our fate is determined by statistical contingency. Just because we happened to suffer as a result, we search for a “deeper meaning” in our suffering. But perhaps we should have the courage to stop at the surface and resist the temptation to be unduly profound. Science deals with causes, not purpose. What purpose does a volcano have in blowing up? It is a wrong question to ask—for purpose presupposes a conscious principle at work and if no such principle exists then one is helpless! But would one not rather feel guilty than helpless?

One strand in religious thinking, as opposed to the secular thinking described above, identifies God as this supreme conscious principle. Once we do that the whole line of questioning takes a different turn. When causation becomes conscious, it acquires a moral dimension. Now one can speak of the will of God at work. One is compelled to ask, like Yesica del Carmen Berrius, the coffee picker, who reacted to the killer earthquake that struck El Salvador, by asking: “What have we done that God has punished us like this?” (Time, January 29, 2001, p. 5). The natural fault-lines of science turn into moral fault-lines in theology. We run into the problem of Job and come out with the conventional response from theism—that the will of God is inscrutable. The gulf fixed between us creatures and the creator is so vast that we cannot comprehend God’s actions no matter how hard we try, no more than a dog can comprehend his master’s. Some religious scholars, like Rabbi Kushner, have proposed a less forbidding response, also echoed in process theology, that God is doing his best to manage the world but sometimes he slips up too. In that sense to err is not just human. But to err is human too and the tragedy could in some way be a punishment for our sins.

This is what the moralist Mahatma Gandhi precisely claims that the earthquake which devastated Bihar in India in 1934 was: God’s punishment for the sin of untouchability practiced by the Hindus. At this the humanist but also rationalist Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore joined the issue with him, for promoting irrational and even superstitious thinking.

The principle of Karma plays a key role in the Hindu moral universe, a principle which can operate on its own, like any natural law, such as that of gravitation. Many victims of the recent earthquake in India would then tend to account for the suffering inflicted by the earthquake in terms of past karma. But just as there were two views regarding the extent God might be complicit, there are two views on how Karma might be involved. Suffering would be the present outcome of the past misdeeds of the victims experienced collectively, according to the more fatalistic version of Karma. According to a more Buddhist version, however, only a Buddha’s insight could determine whether the actual earthquake was a purely natural event, or in the nature of a moral event, involving punishment for bad Karma. And if bad Karma, whose bad Karma? Is the Chinese occupation of Tibet the outcome of past bad Karma of the Tibetans, or simply the perpetration of bad present Karma by the Chinese?

Note that all these lines of explanation involve a profound ambiguity. First, science. The universe as it hangs out there is existentially ambiguous—one could offer a purely scientific account of it and one could offer an equally convincing theistic or karmic account of it. Second, God. Even if we accept the theistic view we face an ambiguity—is it the outcome of our failing or God’s failing? Third, Karma. If we decide to go past God and rely on Karma, we still face an ambiguity as to whether the earthquake was a karmic or a natural event.

So our suffering is clear but our responses—whichever route we take—lead us into an ambiguity. But should we then give way to despair?

I don’t think so. For ambiguity contains within it the possibility of choice. In fact ambiguity makes our choice genuine. If we knew for certain that the earthquake was the outcome of only natural causes or divine causes or Karmic causes, would we be free human beings? For if with ambiguity comes choice, then with choice comes freedom.

After all, no matter to which chain of causation one is bound, one is entirely free to come to the help of the victims. In such altruism then, at another level, one may find the glorious resolution of ambiguity.

One person who perished in the devastating earthquake in Bhuj in Gurarat, India, was a school teacher who used to ask his students “What remains when everything is lost?”

As he is no longer with us to provide the answer, I must: “The future.”

8.) Indic and Western Concepts of Religion

December 1, 2008

During the period of the heavy interaction between India and the West during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the West did not succeed in converting Indians to Christianity on an appreciable scale. This fact has obscured what it did achieve—it converted its intelligentsia not to Christianity but to the Christian concept of religion—not to the West’s religion but to the West’s concept of religion. This concept of religion was employed by this intelligentsia both during the period of British Raj and after, to describe the Indian “religious” reality, which does not quite conform to it. Hence its use to describe this reality, in the process of reflecting it, also reshaped it. According to this Western concept of religion one can only belong to one religion at a time, while the Indic concept of religion permits multiple religious affiliation. This was doubly unfortunate: It was unfortunate for the West failed to benefit by not taking the Indic concept of religion into account in its conceptualization of religion, a failure apparent in human rights documents available in the West, abetting the charge that human rights discourse is Western, and it was unfortunate for India: By forcing Indian religious reality into a Western conceptual constraints it thereby distorted it and exported to India the problems the Western concept of religion had created in the West.

The reformulation of intellectual discourse in a way in which it takes the Indic concept of religion as seriously as the Western might help solve both the problems.

7.) The Universality of Reason

November 18, 2008

I was coming out of the staff club when I ran into a colleague going into it. I changed direction and went in with him. It was a pleasant dinner and by the time we all worked our way to its conclusion someone managed to say: “But surely reason is universal.”

“Is it?”

“Well, if you have scientists from U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. and France and Britain and Japan at a conference, they are able to arrive at conclusions in common.”

“True but you also have controversy in science, with scientists differing among themselves.”

“But they can always appeal to empirical verification to establish whose reasoning is correct through experiment, or through observation as in the case of astronomy.”

“But to the extent that a line of reasoning is verifiable it is extra-subjective and the way to really settle an issue is to make it extra-subjective. Reason, however, is intra-subjective, and it remains in the realm of reason only to the extent that it is debatable.”

“No. Your approach draws a fundamental distinction between science and other forums of reasoning but the scientific method is only one form of reasoning. As a matter of fact there is no such thing as the scientific method.”

“There isn’t?”

“No. A lot of work has been done on this point by philosophers of religion.”

“But if reason is so universal in its operation and the scientific method, so to say, also falls in the domain of reason, then why do scholars agree that the earth is spherical (pace the Flat Earth Society) but do not agree whether God exists or not?”

“Because in the latter case there are good reasons for and against and because science, so to say, is a special case of reason.”

“It is so special that its conclusions command an acceptance denied to reason in its other applications?”

“But in its other applications too reason should command the same acceptance,” said the colleague. He was by now on his cup of coffee and I on my cup of tea.

“Then why do scholars differ so sharply in other realms of reason?”

“Because the correct reasoning has not yet been established.”

“But what constitutes correct reason. Or better still, what is reason anyway?”

“It cannot be defined but surely what is reasonable is clear enough.”

“Perhaps to reasonable people,” I said.

“We are talking of reasonable people.” My friend would not let my obiter dictum slip by.

“Then why do even reasonable people differ?”

“Because reason has not yet fully worked out the issue.”

“That sounds reasonable,” I said. “But could not what is considered reasonable be culture-bound?”

“Give an example.”

“Well. It was considered reasonable in medieval times in the Christian West that biblical authority should be accepted in matters related to the physical universe. This was not considered reasonable in Hindu thought for instance, wherein the scope of scriptural authority was limited to matters of morality and salvation, so there is a difference of opinion here regarding the field in which reason can be applied.”

“But these matters as to the field in which reason could be applied can be settled by recourse to reason itself,” the colleague said.

“If it were,” I said, “why would even some scientists arrive at correct conclusions, verified by experiments, for the wrong reasons. I have been told that this has happened in the history of science. But then what is reason?”

“It’s a mystery,” the colleague said.

And we left it as such.

6.) Secularism, Communalism and Pluralism

October 29, 2008

Modern Indian intellectuals never weary of directly or indirectly advocating secularism and of playing St. George against its great adversary communalism. The extent to which this antipodality has come to serve as a frame of reference in discussions in present-day India hardly needs any documentation. If it does, it is supplied by such books as Communalism and the Writing of Indian History (New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1969), and so on.

The purpose of this note is to demonstrate that a lot of the supposed attack on communalism is really tilting at windmills and the applauding of secularism blind adulation of the West. The use of the word communalism distorts the existing reality and the use of the word secularism projects a false idealism.

The realization which corrects both of these errors is the realization that the Indian religious scene has always been distinguished by religious pluralism—and that both the concepts of communalism and secularism involve a negation of this historical and contemporary reality. By interpreting history exclusively in terms of a single community or from the viewpoint of a single community, one distorts it. (It should be noticed that the Marxists are as capable of being communalists in this sense—if they interpret history exclusively from the point of view of one “community,” e.g. the working class. In this context the statement that the only ism Hinduism is really opposed to is fanaticism takes on a new significance.)

Similarly, by overlooking this pluralism or turning a blind eye to it in the name of secularism, one tries to obscure the fact of pluralism through a form of modern idealism. This is as dangerous as communalism, if not more, for while communalism distorts but does not totally ignore the fact of pluralism, secularism advocates an attitude which could easily lead to sweeping pluralism under the red carpet rolled out to greet the forces of modernism.

It would appear that both of these courses must ultimately be self-defeating, the first by trying to demolish pluralism through the dominance of one community and thereby encouraging a contrastive combative communalism and the latter by allowing these forces to continue unabated by pretending that the right kinds of textbooks, speeches and announcements on T.V. and radio are enough.

What is preventing the emergence of the solution is the wrong labeling of the situation—a wrong labeling of the problem as communalism and the solution as secularism.

The situation should be referred to as one of religious pluralism—the answer is the cultivation of interreligious communication. Indian society has always been pluralistic, and, although, occasionally this has led to conflict, by and large the issues have been faced through debate and the evolution of certain latitudinarianism in thought, combined with the acceptance of certain common ethical norms and a certain commonness of spiritual aspiration.

Thus the Government of India should consider seriously the implementation of the following recommendations of the University Education Committee of 1948-1949 which had Dr. S. Radhakrishnan as its Chairman:

(1) That all educational institutions start work with a few minutes for silent meditation;

(2) That in the first year of the Degree course lives of the great religious leaders like Gautama the Buddha, Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, Jesus, Sankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, Mohammad, Kabir, Nanak, Gandhi, be taught;

(3) That in the second year some selections of a universalist character from the scriptures of the world be studied.

(4) That in the third year, the central problems of the philosophy of religion be considered.


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