The secular-saffron squeeze: and its challenge to Indic Revival

{xtypo_dropcap}A{/xtypo_dropcap}s we look at India at the dawn of the 21st century, we find it confronted by some confounding challenges, as it tries to break out of its colonial shackles and assert its own – organic and modernized – entity on the global stage. The crux of this challenge lies in forcing ‘dharmic’ Indian culture and society to try and fit in to a ‘Christo-Western’ societal separation that divides the world neatly between ‘things religious’ and ‘things secular’.

Before we try to understand the issues involved, let me try to define two terms that will be very pertinent to this article. Using these two terms, as the foundation, we can then build the intellectual edifice required to understand the issues confronting Indic traditions today.

A)Mystic: A person who has achieved – at least temporary if not a permanent state of – unity with the Cosmic Absolute, or the underlying universal consciousness-essence. (Mystical union)
B)Spiritual Practices: Physical, mental, societal or esoteric practices carried out by individuals with the goal to help themselves achieve a state of mystical union.

A fundamental point to be understood is this: all of the world’s major religions have as their source – of legitimacy as well as inspiration – the ‘revealed’ truths of mystics (prophets). In their purer and more essentialized forms, these mystics’ messages could be grouped in to one of two categories.

  1. The mystic’s description of his/her experiences and understandings of transcendental truths attained during the periods of mystical union, and
  2. An explanation and description of spiritual practices that would help his/her followers to attain the spiritual goals as defined by the mystic.

Christianity and Secularism

Christianity clearly is a religion that developed around the preaching of one such mystic – Jesus[i]. However, two interesting developments occurred in the process of its growth in to a world religion.

Firstly, Christianity, early in it’s life, developed a ‘conclusive’ scriptural text – The Bible. This scripture, being canonical in nature, and immutable in terms of its content and authorship allowed for a clear delineation between ‘things religious’ versus ‘things secular’. To put it simply, any activity getting it’s impetus or legitimacy from the Bible could be considered to do with ‘God’s Will’ and therefore in the religious realm. All the other ‘activities of man’ goings about in society would be considered secular. Hence, when Christian Europe moved out of the Medieval era in to the ‘age of reason’ during the 14th and 15th centuries (encompassing what we now call the European Rennaisance as well as Reformation) it had the structural tools to divide societal life relatively cleanly between things religious versus things secular[ii].

Secondly, as a proselytizing faith, it over-ran and subsumed a large number of ‘pagan’ cultures as it spread rapidly, blanketing large geographical areas. While a lot of indigenous knowledge, culture and practices were probably irrevocably lost in the process, what was retained, clearly could not be considered a part of the biblical scriptures. Hence, by definition, all of these would definitely never have qualified as ‘things religious’ all through post-Christian history.

Of particular interest to us is the vast literature and knowledge that today is defined under the rubric of ‘The Greek Classics’. Not only did Greek philosophy, logic, literature, mathematics and science play a pivotal role in the European Renaissance; equally importantly, it became an important part of the West’s academic syllabus in its institutions of higher learning. This is a big source of the West’s civilizational grounding , its sense of continuity and pride. More importantly, it continues to provide the essential bulwark to sustain the West’s mythology of being the cradle of world – modern – civilization and thus its inherent superiority vis-à-vis other world civilization centers.

As Rajiv Malhotra succinctly explains[iii]:

The justification given for the study of Greek Classics in the West is not that they are considered 100% “true” today (whatever that might mean), or that better thought has not superceded them. Rather, the purpose is to understand the history of the Western mind, so that students may lay a sound and strong foundation for their thinking in order to move this civilization further into the future. The Western Classics provide the Western intellectual with the resources to be a serious thinker for today.

It is also about the identity of Westerners and their culture. Great emphasis is placed on the integrity of an old “Western Civilization” traced back to Greece (although the massive inputs received from non-Western sources are carefully suppressed – see Part 3). This (re)construction of Western Civilization is an ongoing project, and is considered very critical for the survival and prosperity of what is known as the “West”.

Hinduism and Secularism

Like Christianity, Hinduism – Santana Dharma[iv] – too has as its core teaching mystical revelations. However, beyond that, it takes on a very different trajectory from Christianity.

For one, Hinduism throughout its history has affirmed the universality of the ‘ultimate mystical experience’. This is something – potentially – available in equal proportion to every human being and was never the exclusive preserve of any special person, with some temporal, geographical or racial constraints. The implication of this is huge. There is no room for a ‘definitive’ or ‘final’ scripture, prophet or text. Different people, with different philosophies, thoughts, practices, world-views and experiences could legitimately claim to be the ‘latest, greatest, best’ mystic and begin their own ‘lineage’. Within Hindu tradition, such competing lineages are free to argue and challenge one another. However, there is no exclusionary principle that would allow any lineage to ‘excommunicate’ its competitor from being considered a part of Hinduism.
{xtypo_quote_left}The logical conclusion coming out of this plurality is that, clearly one is unable to neatly delineate what should qualify as things, thoughts or works ‘religious’. That in turn makes it impossible to define ‘the remaining’ as ‘things secular’! In other words, it is Hinduism’s very plurality and openness which makes it virtually impossible to extricate any strands from the culture and clearly define those particular strands as being of a secular variety. {/xtypo_quote_left}

The logical conclusion coming out of this plurality is that, clearly one is unable to neatly delineate what should qualify as things, thoughts or works ‘religious’. That in turn makes it impossible to define ‘the remaining’ as ‘things secular’! In other words, it is Hinduism’s very plurality and openness which makes it virtually impossible to extricate any strands from the culture and clearly define those particular strands as being of a secular variety.

To make things more complicated spiritual Hinduism has more or less maintained the ‘ultimate mystical experience’ as being the pinnacle for all its adherents to strive for. The key word here is a focus on experience. Not knowledge, not conjecture, not intellectualization – but true personal experience. This focus on ‘things mystical’ thus pervaded virtually every aspect of traditional Indic culture and civilization: its literature, philosophy, astronomy, astrology, art, sculpture, yoga mathematics, science, ittihas, etc.

One telling example of Hinduism’s pervasiveness throughout Indic culture comes from looking at the Nyaya Sutras[v]. In its essential form, this very rationalist philosophical school, which had virtually no role for any God to play in building up its theories is still considered a part of Hindu philosophy.

Lastly, though Hinduism’s[vi] metaphysics and philosophy spread over large swaths of Asia, it never subsumed ‘pagan’ cultures. Being essentially experiential – and therefore scientific – and pluralistic at its core, it provided theories, world-views, practices and goals to its new adherents, none of which required them to turn their backs to their own cultural heritages. Hence, the concept of ‘non-religious’ (pagan) cultures cannot really arise. Hence, that avenue too of finding ‘secular cultural traits’ within the civilization is not afforded Hinduism.

For all of the reasons above, it is clear, therefore, that unlike in the case of Christianity, breaking out Indic (and therefore now, Indian) culture into religious and secular categories becomes an impossible and – from a civilizational perspective – an inappropriate task.

We just cannot talk about secularism meaningfully within the Indic civilizational context. Secularism is a foreign – square – civilizational construct that simply cannot be fitted on top of – the round hole that is – Indian society.

The secular-saffron pincer

Despite the serious problems associated with trying to fit Indic culture into a neat religious/secular divide, that is exactly what the Indian political elite decided to do at the time of independence. This desire to create a ‘civlized society’ (read: Westernized) was strongest amongst people like a Nehru or an Indira Gandhi, who had absorbed a lot of their ideas and world views while studying or living in the West. The pressure of partition further exacerbated the need to create a ‘truly secular’ India.

Today, the inheritors of the secular mantle, the post-colonial, ‘liberal’[vii]-left, continue to attack any perspective that looks at resurrecting or acknowledging Indic civilization’s contributions to mankind in general and India in particular – no matter in what field. Blind followers these; they will encourage the study of Aristotle to our intelligentsia, but to suggest the Nyaya Sutras as a legitimate philosophical focus would lead to one being branded as a Hindu chauvinist. A Hegel, a Marx or a Nietzsche would qualify as deep philosophy, but a Patanjali would be considered peddling Hindu chauvinism. For these intellectuals, even the study of Sanskrit is considered problematic, and a part of the ‘Brahminical Conspiracy’.

With their faulty perspective, and a desire to get their intellectual cues from the West, these social elites will fight any attempt to study, learn from, or inculcate the lessons of the Indian Classics in to our society today. Their knee-jerk reaction being that this would be an attack on India’s secular fabric.

At the other end of the spectrum, we see the emergence of the ‘saffron-wallahs’ as the official mouthpiece and representators of Hinduism. Over the years, the secularists with their vicious attacks and disparaging labeling of every Hindu demand for recognition of their cultural and dharmic heritage – legitimate as well as not – have bullied the more sensitive, pluralistic Hindu to quietly exit from the public space of societal discourse. This has left a vacuum in the arena, which has been eagerly filled by other Hindus who can only be categorized as more chauvinistic, insular – and some extremist even – to the detriment of India’s social and cultural fabric.

These saffronites, in their bid to fight back the onslaught they perceive as being waged on Hinduism from multiple sides have developed a siege mentality with interesting – and intellectually muddled – side effects. Two of these concern us here:

1.The conflation of Hinduism, with its focus on dharma, with Nationalism, a recent Western construct. Hence, the attempt to change ‘Bharat-rashtriya’ to ‘Hindu-rashtriya’. Or to automatically question a Muslim’s loyalty to the country. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, this conflation creates the intellectual underpinnings for stratifying ‘national belonging, or Indianess’ along religious lines.
2.The attempt to create the concept of a monolithic pan-hindu organization within the country. In their attempt to fight the proselytizing monolithic faiths of Christianity and Islam, these saffronites attempt to create their mirror image, down to a hierarchical, top-down, rule-based ‘organization of Hindus’. This just flies in the face of Hinduism’s avowed allegiance to the philosophical approach of bottoms-up, individualistic, pluralistic focus on discovering one’s own dharma in life. Thus we have the saffronites’ obvious dilemma when talking about ‘us Hindus’ but not quite clear who or what to include. While focusing on the ‘high hinduism’ of the Vedas and Upanishads, what should he make of the animal sacrificing Tantric sects? Or the tribal belief systems of the Adivasis and many others? Or the avowed atheists, who none-the-less would be considered part of the Hindu fold in its more traditionally pluralistic incarnation? In other words, is the very attempt to define who or what is Hindu from top down an intellectually valid exercise?

Both these issues have a very negative impact on those of us that would like to see a revival in the study and focus on Indic civilization, culture and classics in Indian society today. The first, because it helps breed a sense of insecurity amongst the minority religions, and thus provides strong ammunition to them as well as the secularists to challenge any infusion of Indic studies as a further attack on India’s secularism. The second, because the attempt is to take Sanatana Dharma and make it a religion that looks and acts more like its adversaries, without however completing the task by then defining which texts, practices and groups are ‘Hindu’ versus what are ‘not-Hindu’. In this way, ALL of Indic civilization gets labeled as ‘religious’ whereas a clean dilineation of what is ‘in Hinduism’ would leave the rest free to be taught within the ambit of secularism.

The need for studying the Indic Classics

A question that has not been adequately addressed is why study the Indian Classics at all? Are we not growing up as competent human beings without it? I think the short answer is ‘no’.

The study of our rich cultural, philosophical and scientific heritage would normally be a great source of pride for our intellectual elite. And this statement applies not just to Hindus, but to Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs and all the other denominations we have represented in India. After all, we all are the descendents of the creators of that heritage. Very few of us can trace– any meaningful percentage of – our roots to ‘non-Indic’ family trees. For the vast majority of Indians, the study of Indian Classics is in fact the study of their own cultural heritage, no matter of what religious persuasion.

The proper study of her heritage would provide India’s elite with a sense of who they are and where they come from. Equally important, it would provide them with a better lens to understand themselves, their society and the culture they live in. After all, the Indian culture is a living one, and where it is today has a lot to do with how it evolved from its past and its historical roots. When we are cut off from an understanding of our past, we are forced to understand our present using other people’s viewpoints and experiences. A simple example such as secularism shows just how debilitating this can be on our civilizational resurgence and growth.

{xtypo_quote_right}At a simpler, more tangible and individual level, when our elite study Shakespeare over Kalidas, Plato over Patanjali or Pythogoras over Aryabhata; when they think of ‘higher’ civilizations, they will not look at things Indic, but at things Western. Hence, their need to identify and to try to be like an ‘American’ while looking down with disdain at a ‘desi’ in a dhoti. In other words, Lord Macaulay’s perfect prodigy!{/xtypo_quote_right}

At a simpler, more tangible and individual level, when our elite study Shakespeare over Kalidas, Plato over Patanjali or Pythogoras over Aryabhata; when they think of ‘higher’ civilizations, they will not look at things Indic, but at things Western. Hence, their need to identify and to try to be like an ‘American’ while looking down with disdain at a ‘desi’ in a dhoti. In other words, Lord Macaulay’s perfect prodigy!

This creates two long-term problems. At the individual level, such an Indian elite will feel disconnected from his own roots, while carrying an inexplicable sense of disadvantage when interacting with the ‘real’ Westerner. At a societal level, these individuals, with their sub-conscious desire to identify themselves as Western – or Arabic in the case of the madrassah trained – are easily swayed by outside interests at the expense of Indian society’s cohesion and unity.

Rather than continuing, let me use a quote from a different culture, focusing on a different set of classics. Here is how an American university explains the enormous value the study of Western Classics has on its culture and civilization TODAY[viii]:

“From the Constitution of the United States, to the framework of modern law, to the vocabulary and ideas of everyday speech and writing, the classics exert a pervasive influence. The power of Greece and Rome extends into virtually every aspect of our modern lives. Western traditions of philosophy, science, religion, art, and, above all, literature draw their origins from the intellectual curiosity and colorful imagination of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Department of Classics provides a window into the life, times, and ideas of the founders of western society. Students of Greek learn the language of Homer and the idioms of Aristotle and Plato, while Latin classes learn to argue in the words of Cicero and Julius Caesar. The debt we owe to the Greeks and Romans is so large and multi-faceted that the study of classics is interdisciplinary by nature…”

Change the country and the Classics; all the rest would apply just as truly to our situation. Yet, we find ourselves straight-jacketed into a ‘secularized’ world that disallows us this gift to ourselves.

What we need to do

Clearly, if we wish to help in the resurgence of the ‘Indian’ civilization, we must bring back the study of the Indic Classics in to our educational curriculum. To a large extent, this is a classical chicken-or-egg problem. To generate the political and social will to inject the study of Indian Classics in to the educational curriculum, we must have a critical mass of our elite identifying with and having a sense of pride in our civilization. However, to generate this critical mass, the malleable young minds of our children must be shielded from an education that denigrates its own roots and past.

This article is meant to be analytical rather than prescriptive. Hence, let me just end with a few bullet points:

  • The first step is for pluralistic Hindus to reoccupy the space of public discourse they have abandoned to the saffronites. Hinduism must remain a pluralistic and inclusive dharmic tradition.
  • The second is to expose the intellectual vacuity of the Indian secular. Living off foreign definitions that are inapplicable to the Indian context, they need to be challenged on their intellectual merits or demerits and reduced to their appropriate stature. It is time they are put on the defensive. We must recognize the reality that spirituality – whatever that means – of some form or the other imbibes every facet of our culture.
  • If Hindus truly begin to think and behave pluralistically, then we must also challenge – through intellectual debates and dialogs – the exclusivity exhibited by Christianity and Islam. For Hinduism to maintain its penchant for plurality, it must feel accepted. My own prediction is that if these religions were to ‘accept’ Hinduism as a legitimate path of spirituality, it would not take long for Hindus to add their prophets and angels to the pantheon of Hindu Gods and Devas. Who then would the ‘objecting other’ be to decry the study of Indian Classicsix as being a disguised form of religious studies?
  • We must work to elevate Indian heritage to the point where even the minorities would be eager to claim that heritage as their own – in addition to their religious heritage – since in fact the Indian heritage is part of the heritage of their ancestors as well. Like the Kerela Christians, we have to educate our Muslim and Christian brothers and sisters in other parts of the country that their cultural cradle was never rocking in Rome or Mecca, but in the sub-continent, no less than for any Hindu.
  • Indian luminaries, from various fields, should announce publicly, if in fact they have a spiritual or religious bent. We need more people like Abdul Kalam, who talks about his reading of Indian scriptures as a source of inspiration.
  • To ease society in to accepting the study of the Indian Classics[xi], the initial focus should be on non-controversial arenas; yoga, literature, mathematics, the hard sciences should be introduced first. Philosophy and/or spiritual classics should be delayed until people get more comfortable with what it is we as a culture are trying to achieve.

If we can keep our goals clear and execute well, the value to India’s society and civilization could truly be staggering. Hence, each one of us owes it to our children – if not to ourselves – to do the best we can in this area.


i Though not directly relevant to this article, I hypothesize that, due to Jesus’ untimely death on the cross, he was unable to fully communicate either his transcendental experiences or the spiritual practices to his followers in a coherent, logical way. Hence, his ‘incompletely trained’ followers, left with a large number of tantalizing potentialities, as enumerated to them by their leader, but without the experiential knowledge that would have made it all sensible, ended up taking literally – and thus, mistakenly – expressions such as “ ‘I’ am the son of God” all of which then got ‘frozen’ in to their scriptures as “God’s Word”. Mystical truths thus got encrusted in to fantastical, tales of ‘unique’ events, people, times and geography.

ii This article is not attempting to explain why or how secularism took hold in Europe, which is a complex and valuable discussion that could provide Indians with some penetrating insights as we struggle to understand some of the forces acting on our society today.

iii“The Axis of Neocolonialism”, by Rajiv Malhotra, Sulekha,

iv The word ‘dharma’ is probably a better representation of Hinduism, than is the word ‘religion’. As explained by Professor Rita Sherma, “religion has the following features closely associated with it: ‘conclusive’ (it is the final religion) ‘exclusionary’ (those who do not belong to it are excluded salvation) and ‘separative’ (one who belongs to it separates oneself from allegiance to other religions). Hinduism on the other hand is non-conclusive, non-exclusionary and non-separative”.

v The Nyaya Sutras have been compared by many to the Organon by Aristotle, and is considered to have a very logical and ‘materially relevant’ epistemology (i.e. approach to understanding how humans gain knowledge about the world we live in).

vi Though I use the term Hinduism, I am also including Buddhism (and Jainism) as part of the dharmic metaphysics that spread outside of India.

vii The term ‘liberal’ as used in the popular Indian media to describe the socialists or Marxists is actually a misnomer. The fact is that most of these ‘leftist’ parties in India are extremely ideological, unwilling to brook any criticism, or accept any other world-view but their own. A better commonality (than ‘liberal’) to be found running between the secularists, the leftists, the Marxists and the Socialists is that they look to non-indigenous, Westernized theories and notions to build their world-view on.

viii “The Axis of Neocolonialism”, by Rajiv Malhotra, Sulekha,

ix This must be intellectually honest. Which means that one is by no means suggesting that only ‘pre-Muslim’ should be considered Indic.

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