Sanatana Dharma is True Secularism, Religious Tolerance is not

In the recent times it is generally mentioned that secularism is declining in India. While I agree that in political terms secularism indeed is going down in India, my biggest fear is that the cause of it is not well understood. The truth is that most Indians do not really understand what true secularism actually is. This is the reason why such a beautiful idea has become such a dirty word. So, in this article I would like to spend some time to help you understand what true secularism is.

Problem with Political Definition of Secularism

Talking in a strictly political terms, secularism is the principle of the separation of government institutions and persons mandated to represent the state from religious institution and religious dignitaries. However, you must understand that religions cannot just be restricted to the God you believe in. In reality Religions are based on ideologies and world view. They have an influence on our way of thinking, that is why we should consider Atheism, Marxism/Maoism and Capitalism as religions also. Since the support of the masses is based on their ideology, governments by nature get associated with an ideology. Whatever ideology or religion a nation’s majority believes in becomes the religion of the government. Look at all the countries around the world and you will notice that this is what actually happens. Unfortunately, those who do not believe in the ideology of the majority lose political power in such a case. As an example, if a liberal government comes into power then conservatives lose political power and vice versa. So, if we broaden the definition of religion to ideology, we notice that reaching the ideal of secularism is not that easy.

Now, if this is the case then how do we attain ideal secularism, whatever it may mean. To understand this let’s digress a little bit. You might have heard a term “Religious Tolerance”, which means that we should be tolerant to the people of other faiths. This idea is generally floated around when a discussion is carried out regarding secularism. But in my opinion this whole idea of Religious Tolerance is flawed and cannot really work if we want to attain true secularism. Let’s look at it from the point of view of current situation in India. In India right now the govt. in power is based on a Hindu ideology. The people who oppose this government call themselves secular. These seculars, in order to oppose the government, take up anti-Hindu stand and try their very best to put Hinduism down. In other words, in the very process of defending secularism in India they go against the idea of secularism. Instead of holding same values for all religions, they end up being intolerant to Hindus.

Religious Tolerance is not True Secularism

The flaw here lies in the very idea of religious tolerance. As Rajiv Malhotra mentions in his book “Being Different” the word tolerate means “accept or endure (someone or something unpleasant or disliked) with forbearance”. A nation is a big family a family where people just tolerate each other is a dysfunctional family. I will never want my family to be like that. In a strong family people love each other, instead of tolerating each other. So instead of looking for religious tolerance in our society what we actually need is religious embrace. It is only when we are able to attain religious embrace that a society will truly become secular.

True Secularism

The true definition of secularism is what Gandhi ji embraced, which is “ Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava “, i.e. Look at all religions with a same eye. Gandhi ji could embrace it because he was a Hindu. I have the good fortune to be been born in a Hindu family, which makes it easy for me to embrace other religions. The holy Vedas say that truth is one but there are many paths to get to it. This means that:

As a Hindu I am allowed to go to a Gurudwara and pray to Ek Omkar

As a Hindu I am allowed to go to a Buddhist stupa and meditate on Shunyata

As a Hindu I am allowed to go to a Jain temple and give offerings to their Teerthankars

As a Hindu I am allowed to go to a Church and pray to God

As a Hindu I am allowed to go to a Masjid and pray to Allah

In other words, I can embrace all these religions and can still be a Hindu. And so, for us the term Religious tolerance by itself translates into respecting and embracing all religions. This is what true secularism actually is. However, there are certain religions in this world who cannot embrace other religions like this. This idea of religious tolerance applies on them.

A Thought Experiment to understand True Secularism

Now let us do a thought experiment to understand true secularism better. Consider two faiths, faith A and faith B. Faith A embraces all the other faiths and considers all faiths to be a valid way to get to the truth, while faith B considers itself to be the only truth and all the other faiths to be false. Let’s think of four societies Alpha, Beta, Gama and delta.

In society Alpha everybody believes in faith A, in society Beta everybody believes in faith B, in society Gama both faith A and B are present with faith B in majority and in society Delta both faith A and B are present with faith A in majority. Now let’s do a thought exercise to see what will happen in these four societies as far as secularism is concerned.

In Society Alpha everybody follows faith A and so everybody respects the faith of others. People might have different faiths within them however since all the faiths consider the faith of others to be a valid path to truth, there is no tension. This society will have true secularism.

Society Beta has all its people follow faith B. All the people in this society believe in only their faith. Since they do not respect other faiths, anybody from other faith will either be forcefully converted to their faith or kicked out of the society or killed. Such a society hence will be a theocracy.

In society Gama and Delta, both faiths A and B exist. People of faith A will believe that all faiths are valid paths to the truth while people of faith B will believe that their path is true while all the paths of A are false. By the very nature of the faiths A and B, they are in conflict with each other. Group A wants to respected all faiths and so wants to respect the faith of group B also, but group B does not respect group A’s path and instead want to impose their path on group A.

In society Gama since faith B is in majority it can enforce its will on the minority and slowly faith A will have to convert to B or leave. Gradually society Gama will become same as society Beta. The only situation in which group A can survive in this society is if group A has political power, however even then their situation will always be precarious.

In society Delta, since group A is in majority, they cannot be easily subjugated by group B’s aggressive approach. However, group A will still face a dilemma, since group A wants to respect all faiths it will feel some reservations in imposing its ideology on group B. However, if group B persists on imposing its ideology on everyone then slowly group A will stop respecting B. Now here you cannot blame group A to be responsible for reducing secularism in the society. The blame here mostly lies on group B.

The Communal Situation of India

This situation portrayed in Delta society matches very well with the current situation in India. The situation now is that Hindus have had enough of it and are getting intolerant of the Muslims. Hinduism is by its very nature secular, but when their very secular faith comes under attack then they have no option but to harden their stance. You can call me an Islamophobe as much as you like I don’t care, but what I am saying is my personal experience. You must understand that I am not saying that all Muslims are terrorists or intolerant and all Hindus are tolerant but statistically speaking these two communities behave this way. Now if you do not believe me then let me quote the epitome of secularism i.e. Mahatma Gandhi on it. In his publication “ Hindu-Muslim Tension: Its Cause and Cure” in Young India published on 24/5/1924 this is what he wrote.

“There is no doubt in my mind that in the majority of quarrels the Hindus come out second best. But my own experience confirms the opinion that the Mussalman as a rule is a bully, and the Hindu as a rule is a coward. I have noticed this in railway trains, on public roads, and in the quarrels which I had the privilege of settling. Need the Hindu blame the Mussalman for his cowardice? Where there are cowards, there will always be bullies. They say that in Saharanpur the Mussalmans looted houses, broke open safes and, in one case, a Hindu woman’s modesty was outraged. Whose fault was this? Mussalmans can offer no defence for the execrable conduct, it is true. But I, as a Hindu, am more ashamed of Hindu cowardice than I am angry at the Mussalman bullying. Why did not the owners of the houses looted die in the attempt to defend their possessions? Where were the relatives of the outraged sister at the time of the outrage? Have they no account to render of themselves? My non-violence does not admit of running away from danger and leaving dear ones unprotected. Between violence and cowardly flight, I can only prefer violence to cowardice.

As Gandhiji said, if you are a coward, you will be bullied. Therefore, the increasing intolerance of Hindus towards Muslims is not really due to inherent intolerance of Hindus, but a reaction of Hindus against Muslim intolerance. All my Muslim brothers do a little self-analysis and understand your faith and other’s faith properly. Before blaming others, think why is it that wherever you go you start to have conflicts with others.

Originally published at on April 18, 2020.



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Rahul Yadav

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