Secularism is the Soul of Hinduism
Hindutva is a term that has generated considerable debate and controversy, often associated with the promotion of Hindu nationalism. However, beneath the political narratives, it has become expedient to explore the secular dimensions of ‘Hindutva’ rooted in the ancient teachings of the Vedas, the Bhagavad Geeta (Geeta), Upanishads and other ‘Aarsh Granths’ (literature composed by rishis and sages). A study through the timeless archaic literature, reveals principles that embrace inclusivity, diversity and harmony – elements that are consistent with the essence of Secularism.
Universality of the Vedic Wisdom
The four Vedas which are universally acknowledged as the oldest sacred documents of human civilisation, advocate the concept of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, which translates to “Earth is one family.” This profound doctrine underscores the idea of universal compassion and goodwill towards all living beings and emphasizes the unity and universality of humankind. Archaeological research has found plenty of evidence in relics, fossils and paleographic studies from excavations across continents that lend support to the Vedic Philosophy shaping human civilisations from pre-historic times earlier than 3000 BCE. The Vedic teachings promote respect for all living creatures, not merely humans, making it inherently all-inclusive and secular in its outlook. Sample this: ‘Atmavat sarvabhootaani veekshante dharma buddhayah’ (Those whose minds are pure view all other living beings as a manifestation of themselves!).
It is primarily due to this Hindu Philosophy that a multitude of different doctrines, scientific discoveries and innovations in varied fields like astronomy, mathematics, physics, medical sciences, cults and religions have flourished on this subcontinent that has evolved from its early name ‘Aryavartta’ to Bharat Varsha to India. While the ‘isms’ like Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism are necessarily offshoots of Hindutva and have flourished in harmony with the original Sanatana (Hindu) Dharma on this land, India also attracted multitudes of travellers, seekers of knowledge, traders and even invaders who brought along new philosophies like Islam and Christianity. What is particularly remarkable in the spread of newer thoughts, cults and religions in India through medieval and recent times is the spiritual capacity and societal compassion of the predominantly Hindu population that welcomed all to prosper here without discrimination. The Vedic philosophy has been the main guiding force behind this multifarious growth of so many religions here.
The Hindu Idea of Pluralism and ‘Ahimsa’
The Geeta, a significant philosophical scripture of Hindus, lays great emphasis on the concept of Dharma, which translates to righteousness or duty. It emphasizes that individuals should adhere to Dharma which is the path of truth and righteousness. This principle highlights the importance of embracing pluralism and coexistence with all without prejudice, fostering a secular, co-existential ethos based on mutual understanding, compassion and tolerance. The doctrine of Ahimsa (Compassion and Non-Violence) is far from submission to violence as often mistaken by some preachers -“if someone slaps on the cheek, do not retaliate; let him slap on the other cheek too!” That is pure cowardice, of course! Far from this defeatist notion, Lord Krishna infuses fresh courage and determination in Arjuna who had given in to a similarly mistaken notion of Ahimsa on the battlefield in Mahabharata. Lord Krishna enlightens him as follows:
हतो वा प्राप्स्यसि स्वर्गं जित्वा वा भोक्ष्यसे महीम्।
तस्मादुत्तिष्ठ कौन्तेय युद्धाय कृतनिश्चयः।। (The Geeta, Ch 2, Verse 37)
Translation: If you rise and fight this battle, think of how it shall benefit you. If you are killed in the battle, you will attain martyrdom and eternal bliss in Heaven. If you emerge victorious, you will be the Ruler of this Kingdom. Therefore, O ARJUNA! Stand up, take courage, and fight with determination!
Thus, it flows from the Hindu concept of Ahimsa: while cruelty and injustice in mind, speech or action are unjust and sinful, tolerating cruelty and injustice against self and others is also equally unjust and sinful. Himsa (Violence) or injustice must be opposed in all its forms for only then will Ahimsa survive and flourish. The larger message in the Bhagavad Geeta calls for selfless action, compassion and justice towards all living beings. It resonates with the essence of Secularism, as it promotes a sense of responsibility and empathy towards others, regardless of their religious or cultural background or social status.
Freedom of Belief and Individuality
The Vedic teachings also advocate for the well-being of society as a whole. The concept of “Rita” (ऋतं) in the Vedas emphasizes the cosmic order and metaphysical principles governing the Universe evenly without discrimination. Applying this concept to governance implies that rulers should govern justly like Nature’s principle of equity for all, and promote the welfare of their subjects, regardless of their religious affiliations, enforcing the secular essence in governance, ensuring fair and equitable dispensation of justice and welfare – social, spiritual, economic and political.
‘Hindutva,’ in its purest form, celebrates the diversity of spiritual paths and encourages individuals to seek their own paths in their quest for Truth and Self-realization. This inherent respect for individual beliefs also aligns with the principles of Secularism, where not only each person’s right to practice his/her faith is protected and respected, but it also provides an inherent safeguard for all against any form of persecution.
The broad spectrum of Dharma encompasses nearly all the virtuous tenets and practices professed in most religions across the world. While some people and groups may be practising their Dharma in different ways, this is how Dharma has been defined in Manusmriti:
धृतिः क्षमा दमोऽस्तेयं शौचं इन्द्रियनिग्रहः।
धीर्विद्या सत्यं अक्रोधो दशकं धर्मलक्षणम् ।| (Ch 6, Verse 12)
Translation: Patience, forgiveness (the capacity to take honour, disrespect, loss-gain, with equivalence); control of the mind; non-stealing (abstinence from stealing, extortion, deceiving, appropriating someone else’s assets without owner’s permission); hygiene and sanitation (cleaning up self and one’s surroundings); restraint on desires; developing intellect (by acquiring knowledge through reading, associating with the learned people, introspection, meditation etc); enhancing wisdom through education and research; Truthfulness (in mind, speech and action); and freeing oneself from anger are the ten attributes of ‘Dharma’.
All ancient Vedic texts emphasize principles of unity, inclusivity, tolerance, compassion, and social welfare, which resonate with the essence of Secularism – the idea of harmonious coexistence of diverse beliefs and values. If we keep the focus on these secular credentials, there shall be opportunities aplenty to promote a more inclusive, harmonious and progressive society that fosters the idea of a cohesive multiplicity of Faiths as inspired by India’s rich cultural and religious heritage.