Mohan Guruswamy | On secularism, conversion and the nature of religion

The acceptance of democracy as a way of life implies that we accept that we hold certain rights to be inalienable

Update: 2022-02-22 21:06 GMT

Modern religions are akin to great commercial enterprises like Coke and Pepsi, constantly seeking greater market share while retaining the allegiance of existing customers. This has progressed into ostentatious theme park promotions like the Swaminarayan chain of temples in Ahmedabad, Delhi and London, the new Ramanujacharya statue at Muchintala outside Hyderabad and the new Ram temple at Ayodhya, where contemplation is sought to be replaced with awe and gawking.

It is the consequent faith, mostly induced and sustained by these exertions, which sustain the huge uniformed bureaucracies and extravagantly titled organisations that are the edifices of our major religions. But all the great Hindu, Muslim and Christian institutions are beyond the grasp of even their most faithful. It is indeed unfortunate that debates on religion and faith are no longer about goodness and decency or even present-day social concerns.

The acceptance of democracy as a way of life implies that we accept that we hold certain rights to be inalienable. The Constitution of India therefore guarantees justice, liberty and equality. The rights emanating from these are considered fundamental to our being a free and democratic society. These fundamental rights, therefore, are inviolable in the sense that no law, ordinance, custom, usage or administrative order can ever abridge or take away any of them. The Preamble elaborates liberty to be that of “thought, expression, belief, faith and worship”, leaving little room for ambiguity. Like Hinduism’s eternal truths, these are eternal rights. Without these rights we will be no different than a Saudi Arabia or a North Korea!

This very simply means that people are free to believe whatever they may want to, convert others to this belief and perform whatever rituals or ceremonies that are required by one’s faith.

In even more simple words, people are free to be Christians or Muslims or Hindus or whatever, free to preach and convert. Or for that matter even Marxism, which now is no different than any faith with its own depleted philosophy and impossible mythology. So, what is there to debate about conversion? This right is inviolable and is guaranteed by the Constitution and so there is nothing to debate.

It is another matter that religions as we know them to be practised are usually premised on irrational and primitive ideas. We are magical beings in a scientific age.

Notwithstanding all the remarkable achievements of our species in terms of understanding and harnessing nature, we are born to magical thoughts and not to reason. Now this relative absence of reason in religion very clearly gives us cause for a debate. Very clearly, the liberty of thought and conscience and the right to profess and practice one’s religion is not the issue. What can be the issue is our reticence to criticise religions, and subject their basic premises to scrutiny.

But this is not on our agenda and will not appear on it as long as we have the present dubious consensus on what has come to be called secularism. To be truly secular is to be a sceptic and therefore rational and reasonable. Merely to be silent on the unreason wrapped in ritual and ceremony that passes off as religion, or even to be fearful of criticising these lest we provoke irrational rage and violence, is not secularism. It is the silence of the truly secular and rational that has allowed the religious fanatics of all hues to seize the high ground from which the battle for our minds is being directed. This distorted notion on what is secularism makes even the maddest mullah cry stridently for it. To start with, to be a mullah or even a shankaracharya or a bishop is proof of one’s lack of secularism.

To be secular is to consider organised religion little more than humbug.
The criticism against Christian and Muslim missionaries is that they dupe poor people into converting by giving them money. If Hindus want to keep their flock, the answer is staring them in the face. Put some money where your mouth is and the flock will not deplete? To be true, there is more than cash that goes with this. More often it is housing, clothes, education and the care and respect that comes with acceptance that are the inducements. Ordinary people can be very practical when it comes to matters pertaining to their well-being.

Both the State and our predominantly Hindu society have failed to provide to the majority of this country the elementary essentials of living and quite often even the elementary decencies due to all human beings. Added to this, our society has systematically discriminated against the weak and the oppressed. Why do they exist mostly below the poverty line?

Why do more of them die younger? Now here are subjects worthy of a debate. The call for a debate on conversion lends itself to expansion to include these. Just as it lends itself to a discussion as to why people are so easily willing to give up their traditional faiths.

Clearly, the systematic exclusion of a majority from their rightful role in the community and the continuing discrimination against them is a great subject for a debate. If the Hindu upper castes were to be civilised in their treatment of the lower castes, would they now seek to escape from the social tyranny of the so-called Hindu society?

Such an expanded debate could possibly shed light on why for most of the about to conclude millennium we were a conquered nation. It is over a thousand years since Mohammed bin Kasim conquered Sindh, thus paving the way for a succession of Arabs, Persians, Turks, Uzbeks, Mongols, Portuguese, French and English to invade and rule parts, if not all, of this country.

In the process, we even became the only nation to be conquered by a private commercial enterprise -- the East India Company. How much lower than that can you get? Our thousand years of shame quite clearly calls for a debate that we have never really had.

Such a debate will almost certainly focus on the failures of the Hindu elites to defend the nation, to unite the country and harness its great resources. It is not very different even now.

The lessons of history are yet to be learnt. And so, we will want to debate what we shouldn’t be, and not debate what we should be.

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