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One of the fundamental questions many scholars of 19th and 20th century Europe and Empire ponder about is if the nature of modernity might have been different without the ascent of European imperialism. Not just the structure but even the vocabulary of modernity compromises the scope of inquiry by privileging and normatising forms of experiential knowledge peculiar to the European history. Measured against a European norm, other regions of the globe often appear to be lacking, incomplete, or failed, further propagating the idea of “first in the West, then the Rest.”

In Europe, modernity has meant a transition from a period of feudalism, “divine right of kings,” and the central role of religion in public life to an era of capitalism, the nation-state, and rationality. In essence, it has meant the spread of doubt made easy by improvements in communication; first came the printing press and the birth of newspapers, then the telegraph, and finally the internet. The sureties of religion were steadily eroded via the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the Age of Physics. The authority of the Church in royal succession, law, inter-state relations, education, and of course, spirituality, was challenged by old ideas resurfacing during the Renaissance and new ideas on the administration of the faith itself during the Reformation. An investigative spirit, combined with material advancement that could advance curiosity and scepticism, moved society out of the grasp of the Church and its traditions.

Despite its claims to universalism, the recession of the sacred in public life is a historical particularity of medieval Europe. Unlike Europe, large parts of the Orient escaped domination by exclusivist, monotheistic cults. In Japan, Shintoism held sway and India saw the flowering of dharmic faiths like Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism despite invasions and aggressive missionary activity from foreign lands. Though, from a modern perspective, Asian non-exclusive belief systems did have their own grotesque social problems, they did not claim a monopoly on interpretation of the world and the battles between theology and science were largely avoided; for example, Ramanujan’s belief in astrology or CV Raman’s fear of the occult powers of a solar eclipse did not interfere in their practice of the rational sciences.

The lack of a central authority in dharmic religions gave an institutional guarantee against widespread zealotry. As a result, an official profession of faith by a state did not give rise to inter-state strife; in India, the notion of advaitins going to war against dvaitins, or Shaivites against Vaishnavites, over theological differences would seem absurd.

The parochialism of modernity is not necessarily a function of geography but of time; Asia has a few examples of societies that did not need secularisation to modernise but examples exist closer to home too; this is not a tale of East vs. West.  The Ancient Greeks and the Roman Empire exhibited a similar pluralism of faith and tolerance to doubt as Shintoism or the dharmic faiths of India did. The ruins of several Roman temples to the gods of their conquered subjects stand testimony around the Mediterranean. The Kızıl Avlu in Bergama, for example, was built by Emperor Hadrian in the early 2nd century in honour of the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Graeco-Egyptian god Serapis. The very creation of Serapis in the 3rd century BCE by Ptolemy I also speaks to the relative religious harmony in ancient Europe.

The link between modernity and secularism is, outside a defined bubble of time and space, tenuous at best. Yet the vehemence with which secularism is peddled in societies it is alien to leads one to wonder whether the formal process and the content have been conflated with Europe standing in as the universal. Secularism was a solution to Europe’s problem with missionary zeal and the lack of freedom of inquiry; outside these parameters, its usefulness as a feature of modernity is questionable.

One defence of secularism might be to cite the social problems in religious societies, particularly the subjugation of women and the control over sexual functions and orientation. In a theocratic state, who will lend voice to the subaltern? Strictly speaking, this is not a problem of secularism but of orthodox customs that have accreted in communities over time. Such dilemma exist even in a liberal state that allows freedom of religion; for example, would a secular, liberal state remain neutral and allow girls that have attained puberty to be married off as per religious customs or would it insist that a “modern morality” prohibits marriage before attaining adulthood?

These problems cannot be escaped by professing faith in a legal abstraction like secularism. What is necessary is an ability to reflect upon custom critically and maintain, modify, or abandon them. This is not easy in systems that are based upon revelation but more open systems of inquiry are not affronted at the mention of reform. As Adi Shankaracharya argues, if experience differs from shruti, then the shruti must be discarded. In fact, Hinduism views dharma as a function of kaala, desha and paristhiti – this is the true content of secularism and not the legalistic, contractual understanding citizens have with the modern state.

Unfortunately, the Raj seeded the idea of a consolidated Hinduism akin to the Abrahamic faiths. The rationalisation and ordering of knowledge – another modern phenomenon – could not grasp the plurality of Indic religions and customs within an Abrahamic template. Yet the projected similarity has falsified many analyses of religion and politics in society when comparing Europe with other societies.

One might argue that a principle that does not fit with India’s past may be well suited to its present reality – the country today harbours not just Indic faiths but Abrahamic ones too. However, India remains a nation-state with an undisputedly Indic identity. To acknowledge this would only be as sectarian as Christmas being a national holiday in several Western states – secular or otherwise, Europe and the western hemisphere have strong Judaeo-Christian roots that cannot be denied any more than India’s links to its past.

To argue that rejecting secularism would transform India into a Hindu theocracy again makes the mistake of grafting a concept foreign to the Indian experience onto its landscape. The decentralised nature of the religion, not to mention the diversity of the faith itself, makes it virtually impossible to develop a strong and centralised theocracy. Furthermore, the role of Hindu priests was never as overarching as that of a Pope or Caliph; even though Hinduism put the priestly class at the top of the social order, actual political and financial power rested with other groups.

Even when implemented with textbook perfection, secularism remains an unwise idea for several Asian societies. In a secular state, the relationship between faiths that practice proselytism and those that do not would be the same as that of a fox on the jury at a goose’s trial. Both sides assert the same right of religious freedom albeit expressed in a manner antithetical to the other and any position the state takes will advantage one over the other.

The question is if a non-secular – in the formal sense – modernity can give us meaning and a humane existence without losing freedom or truth. Can modernity escape becoming, as David Kolb describes it in The Critique of Pure Modernity, a dilemma of rootless freedom versus oppressive tradition? Is there place for tradition and rational inquiry in the same pantheon? Ramanujan and Raman certainly thought so.

This post appeared on FirstPost on May 27, 2014.