(Paper Presented at a Conference at the university of Chicago 'India : Implementing Plularism and Democracy' on November 11 - 13, 2005. Forthcoming in a volume edited by Martha Naussbaum & Wendy Doniger)
My Fear of the Loss of Tradition
A few months ago the confident and handsome friend of our son's gave a telling reply to a visiting Englishwoman in Khan Market in Delhi. “I am a Hindu, but”, he said, and he went into a winding reply about his beliefs. He hastily added that he was an Indian first. It was a perfectly honest answer, and any other person might have given a similar one about Islam or Christianity. But I sensed an unhappy defensiveness“ the 'but' betrayed that he might be ashamed of being Hindu.
This happened two weeks after I got a call from one of Delhi's best private schools, asking me to speak to its students. “Oh good!” I replied on the phone. “I have been reading the Mahabharata, and in that case I shall speak about dharma and the moral dilemmas in the epic.”
The principal's horrified reaction was, “Oh don't, please! There are important secularists on our governing board, and I don't want controversy about teaching religion.”
“But surely the Mahabharata is a literary epic”, I protested, “And dharma is about right and wrong”. But my remonstration was to no avail. She was adamant and scared.
As I think about these two incidents, I ask myself, why should these two highly successful, young professionals be embarrassed of their heritage? Something seems to have clearly gone wrong. My fear is that modern, liberal Indians, and especially those at the helm of our private and public enterprises, may not have any use for their past, and they will abdicate our wonderful traditions to the narrow, closed minds of fanatical Hindu nationalists. In part, this is due to ignorance. Our children do not grow up reading our ancient classics in school or college with a critical mind as works of literature and philosophy as young Americans, for example, read the Western classics in their first year of college as a part of their “core curriculum”. Some are lucky to acquire some acquaintance with them from their grandmothers or an older relative, who tell them stories from the epics and the Puranas. They might read the tales in Amar Chitra Katha comics or watch them in second-rate serials on Sunday morning television. Meanwhile, the Sangh Parivar steps into the vacuum with its shrunken, defensive, and inaccurate version of our history and happily appropriates the empty space. And the richness of tradition is lost to this generation.
If Italian children can proudly read Dante's Divine Comedy in school, or English children can read Milton, and Greek children can read the Iliad, why should “secularist” Indians be ambivalent about the Mahabharata? Indeed, English children also read the King James Bible as a text in school “text” is the operative word, for they are encouraged to read it and interrogate it. So, why then should our epic be “untouchable” for a sensitive, modern and liberal school principal? It is true that theMahabharata has lots of gods in it, and in particular that elusive divinity, Krishna, who is up to all manner of devious activity. But so are Dante, Milton, and Homer filled with God or gods, and if the Italians, the English and the Greeks can read the texts of their heritage, why can't Indians?
With the rise in religious fundamentalism, it seems to me that it is increasingly difficult to talk about one's deepest beliefs. Liberal Hindus are reluctant to admit being Hindu for fear they will be automatically linked to the RSS. They are not alone in this. Liberal Christians and liberal Muslims, I am sure, have experienced the same misgivings. One can easily imagine hearing: “I am Christian, but” or “I am Muslim, but” In India, I blame Hindutva nationalists who have appropriated our culture and tradition and made it a political agenda. But equally, I blame many of our secularists who behave no better than fundamentalists in their callous antipathy to tradition.
We ought to view Hindutva's rise in the context of religious revivalism with a political bent around the world. Laurie Goodstein wrote in the New York Times on January 15, 2005: “Almost anywhere you look around the world religion is now a rising force. Former communist countries are crowded with mosque builders, Christian missionaries and freelance spiritual entrepreneurs of every persuasion ” Philip Jenkins' insightful book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, describes this in the America of George W. Bush. This growth in fundamentalism around the globe makes one wonder if the secular agenda is threatened everywhere. And is it the project of modernity, as some think, that has contributed to this vicious, political religiosity?
No one reads Edmund Burke these days, but he exercised considerable influence on 18th century minds. He is relevant, I think, to some of our discontents with secularism today. His critique of the French revolution was based primarily on his fear of the loss of tradition “killing off the church and the aristocracy, he felt, would cut off links with the past. He spoke about “custom, community and natural feeling”, and he felt that continuity with the past was necessary to realize our full human potential. The challenge before modern, decent Indians today, it seems to me, is essentially the same. It is the one that Ram Mohan Roy faced in the early 19th century and Mahatma Gandhi in the early 20th century: how to grow up mentally healthy, integrated Indians? How do we combine our liberal modernity with our traditions in order to fully realize our potential?
As a liberal and secular Hindu, I oppose the entry of religion into the public domain, and its mingling with government or public school education. I deeply appreciate the “wall” which both the U.S. and our own founding fathers built. For this reason, I admire France and Turkey who seem to have the strongest “walls”. But what does one do when the great literary classics of one's country are "religious" or "semi-religious"? Dante practically "created" the Italian language with his masterpiece, but his great poem is also a deeply religious work--possibly the most religious in all Christianity. I don't know how Italians handle Dante in their schools, and I wonder what the Italian Left feels about it, say in a Leftish city like Bologna.
In India, we do have a problem and I don't think there are easy answers. Many Indians regard our great Sanskrit classics as religious texts. To the extent that they are religious, we are committed by our “wall” to keep them out of our schools. Hence, I do sympathize with the principal of the school in Delhi. At the same time, unless our children are exposed to the Sanskrit classics and unless these are "discussed" in a secular environment our children will grow up impoverished in the way Edmund Burke worried about. Clearly, something has gone terribly wrong with contemporary Indian education when our most influential schools churn out deracinated products, who know little about their own culture but a great deal about the West.
There are some in India who think that the answer lies in providing compulsory knowledge of all religions, and this will engender, what Emperor Ashoka called, a “respect for all creeds”. But this too is a dangerous path. For how do you teach religion without worrying about some teacher somewhere who will wittingly or unwittingly denigrate or hurt the sensitivities of the some follower of the religion being taught? And before you realize it, you will have a riot on your hands. So, we do have a genuine moral dilemma here, a dharmasamkata or dharma-vikalpa, the kind of thing that the Mahabharata delights in.
I was born a Hindu
I was born a Hindu, had a normal Hindu upbringing, and like many in the middle class I went to an English medium school that gave me a "modern education". Both my grandfathers belonged to the Arya Samaj, a reformist sect of Hinduism that came up in 19th century Punjab. It advocated a return to the Vedas, a diminished role for Brahmins and vigorous social reform of the caste system among other social evils. My father, however, decided to take a different path. When he was studying to be an engineer, he was drawn to a kindly Guru, who taught him the power and glory of direct union with God through meditation. The Guru would quote from Kabir, Nanak, Rumi, and Mirabai, and was a Radhasoami sant in the syncretic, bhakti tradition.
The striking thing about growing up Hindu was a chaotic atmosphere of tolerance in our home in Lyallpur. My grandmother would visit the Sikh gurdwara on Mondays and Wednesdays and a Hindu temple on Tuesdays and Thursdays; she saved Saturdays and Sundays for discourses of holy men, including Muslim pirs, who were forever visiting our town. In between she made time for lots of Arya Samaj ceremonies when anyone was born, married, or died. My grandfather used to jest that she would also have also called in at the Muslim mosque in her busy schedule had they allowed her in, but my more practical uncle thought that she was merely taking out enough insurance, in the manner of Pascal, and someone up there might hear her.
Despite this religious background, I grew up agnostic, which is a luxury of being Hindu. I have a liberal attitude that is a mixture of skepticism and sympathy towards my tradition. I have also come to believe that our most cherished ends in life are not political. Religion is one of these and it gets demeaned when it enters public life. Hence, religion and the state must be kept separate, and to believe this is be secular. I have a mild distaste for the sort of nationalism that can so quickly become chauvinism. Hence, I do not vote for the BJP. At the same time I feel Indian and I value my “Indian-ness”, whatever that may be. This means that I value my past and I wish to cultivate it, and like Edmund Burke, I feel my past is important to me for living a flourishing life. This is a past that contains the influence of Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Sikhism, and even Christianity.
I think it must have been difficult for my Hindu ancestors in the Punjab, who did not have the living memory of a political heritage of their own. Having lived under non-Hindu rulers since the 13th century, they must have thought of political life as filled with deprivation and fear. After Muslims had come the Sikh kingdom of Ranjit Singh. With its collapse around 1850 came the powerful British, with Christian missionaries in tow. Hence, three powerful, professedly egalitarian and proselytizing religions surrounded them—Islam, Sikhism and Christianity. No wonder, they were eager to receive Dayananda Saraswati when he came to the Punjab in 1877. And not surprisingly, he succeeded beyond his dreams in establishing the Arya Samaj in the Punjab.
“Every writer needs an address”, wrote Isaac Bashevis Singer. That is a fine way of expressing what I have been trying to. All human beings need local roots, an identity, and a link with a unique identifiable past. A writer needs it even more, I think, because a writer aspires to speak universally about life.
“You haven't turned Hindutva, have you?”In the spring of 2002 I decided to take an academic holiday. My wife thought it a strange resolve. She was familiar with our usual holidays, when we armed ourselves with hats, and blue and green guides, and trudged up and down over piles of temple stones in places like Khajuraho or Ankor Wat. But she was puzzled by an 'academic holiday'. I explained to her that in college I had read Aristotle, Euripides, Dante, Marx and other classics of western civilization, but I had always yearned to read the Indian classics and had never had the chance. The closest I had come was Professor Ingalls' difficult Sanskrit class at Harvard when I was an undergraduate. So, now forty years later I wished to read the texts of classical India, if not in the original, at least with a scholar of Sanskrit. It was my Proustian search for lost time in order to reclaim my tradition, appropriately in the vanaprastha ashrama of my life.
My wife gave me a skeptical look, and after a pause she said, “It's a little late in the day for a mid-life crisis, isn't it? Let's go instead on a cruise of the Greek islands”.
Somewhat to my annoyance, my “academic holiday” became the subject of animated discussion at a dinner party in Delhi the following week. Our hostess was a snob. She was famous in Delhi's society for cultivating the famous and the powerful. She had ignored us for years but this had changed in the past two, and we had become regulars at her brilliant dinners. I thought her friendly but my wife reminded me that her warmth was in direct proportion to my recent success as a columnist and writer. She always introduced me as 'an old friend', but I don't think she had a clue about what the word meant.
“So, what is this I hear about you wanting to go away to read Sanskrit texts?” she suddenly turned to me accusingly. “Don't tell me you are going to turn religious on us?”
Two women in exquisite silk sarees, one from Kanchipuram and another from Benares, now came in and joined us. One had a string of pearls around her neck and the other lovely diamonds on her neck and her wrists. Both had heavily mascaraed eyelashes, painted lips, and rouged cheeks, and it was apparent how much their lives consisted in a desperate struggle to keep their faded charms. They began to speak in loud, metallic voices without a moment's pause, as though they were afraid that if they stopped they might not be able to start again. They were accompanied by a diplomat, who had once been Indira Gandhi's favorite.
“But tell us, what books you are planning to read?” asked the diplomat casually, as though he were referring to the latest features in a Korean dishwasher in Khan Market.
I admitted somewhat reluctantly that I had been thinking of texts like the Mahabharata, the Manusmriti, the Kathopanishad.
“Good lord, man!” he exclaimed. “You haven't turned Hindutva, have you?”
I think his remark was made in jest, but it upset me. I asked myself, what sort of secularism have we created in our country that has appropriated my claim to my intellectual heritage? I found it disturbing that I had to fear the intolerance of my 'secular friends', who seemed to identify any association with Hinduism or its culture as a political act. The pain did not go away easily, even though I realized that it was a pain shared by others. I was reminded of a casual remark by a Westernized woman in Chennai during the launch of my book, The Elephant Paradigm. She mentioned that she had always visited the Shiva temple near her home, but lately she had begun to hide this from those among her friends who proclaimed that they were 'secular'. She feared they might pounce on her, quick to brand her extremist or superstitious.
Does the conservative temper offer an answer?
When I was growing up in post-Independence India in the 1950s and 1960s, the word 'conservative' was as a term of abuse in the vocabulary of most Indian intellectuals (and many English and American ones, I suppose). We passionately believed in Nehru's dream of a modern and just India. We likened his midnight speech at Independence about our 'Tryst with destiny' to Wordsworth's famous lines on the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”. I have tried to capture this mood at some length in my book, India Unbound. We laughed at Rajaji and Masani, who founded the conservative Swatantra Party in the late 1950s, and even dismissed Sardar Patel, who was the second most powerful man in India at Independence, after Nehru. Charles James Fox had laughed at Edmund Burke in the same way. Like many Englishmen of his day, Fox thought the revolution in France was an immensely liberating step forward, saying that it was the greatest event that ever happened in the world. In denouncing the French revolution, Burke was not expressing an opinion popular among thinking Englishmen; he was going against the tide.
To be a conservative in Nehru's India was the same. It meant that one was on the side of age against youth, the past against the future, authority against innovation, and spontaneity against life. But how times have changed! Now, more that fifty years later, it is the old progressives who have become 'old', who look back nostalgically to a socialist past. They are the ones who oppose the reforms and continue to have a touching faith in rent-seeking statism, even when it has been discredited as “Licence Raj”. They condemn too hastily the young of today, painting them uniformly in the colors of greed.
Even after we get over the easy polarities of the mind, “conservative” is an unhappy word for what I am seeking. It conjures up in too many minds the image of what the British mathematician, G.H Hardy, called a “wide bottomed member of the Anglican Church establishment”. But there is more to the problem. The difficulty arises from the nature of the thing. What I am advocating is a reverence for the past, and that is less a political doctrine than a habit of mind, a way of living and feeling. Like Burke, I think society is not a collection of loosely related individuals, nor a mechanism with interchangeable parts, but a living organism, and anything that affects the well being of one affects the whole. It is for this reason that Burke had cautioned against pulling down edifices which had met society's needs for generations.
We have had too much ideology in the 20th century and are frankly tired of it. We have had too much of what Burke called variously “speculation,” or “metaphysics,” or “theoretical reasoning” as applied to social and political questions. Some of my ambivalence about India's Leftist secularists is not unlike Burke's fear of the revolutionaries in France who seriously believed that they would construct the world from scratch by the application of general and abstract principles, and who even wanted to introduce a new calendar to mark the beginning of that new world. Part of the reason that the sensible idea of secularism is having so much difficulty in finding a home in India, I think, is that the most vocal and intellectual advocates of secularism were once Marxists. Not only do they not believe in God, they actually hate God. They literally follow Marx's dictum that “Criticism of religion is the prelude to all criticism”. As rationalists they can only see the dark side of religion--intolerance, murderous wars and nationalism, and do not empathize with the everyday life of the common Indian to whom religion gives meaning to every moment of life and has done so since civilization's dawn. Because secularists speak a language alien to the vast majority, they are only able to condemn communal violence but not to stop it, as Mahatma Gandhi could, in East Bengal in 1947.
Over the past fifty years we have realized in India that political activity is infinitely complex and difficult. Our caste system is unpredictable, intractable, and incomprehensible. There are many things at work, and the ways they relate to each other is complex. Politicians, unlike academics, have to act in concrete, discrete situations, not in general or abstract terms. Burke also cautioned about this complexity. So, when we address religion's place in the Indian polity Burke would have us take account of the infinite circumstances of one billion believers and not insist always on the rational, secular principle of consistency. There are also unintended consequences because of the interconnectedness of things. Hence, when initiating change we ought to heed Burke's caution about the “lamentable consequences of plausible schemes”. We have learned this lesson painfully over the past fifty years as we lived through Jawaharlal Nehru's well-intended socialism which ended in becoming an ugly statism of the “License Raj”.
In thinking about our secularism project in India, Burke would have us be humble in recognizing the complexity of society and to be careful of radical and rapid change. He would ask us to be skeptical about the role of reason in human affairs. Like many contemporary post-modernists, he had reservations about the Enlightenment's view of man as a predominantly rational, logical and calculating person. His rational side exists, he felt, but it is a small part of his total make-up. He would have us rely more on practical knowledge that is gained through experience rather than through abstract reasoning. He would have us pay attention to people's habits, instincts, customs, and their prejudices. A generation earlier, David Hume, the illustrious Scottish philosopher, had also emphasized the importance of habit and custom.
Another of Burke's lessons, useful especially in a rapidly globalizing world, is to pay attention to the local and the particular. We speak too often about India's diversity, but we act as though only New Delhi matters. Burke would have us think of the Rights of Man, not in the abstract but of existing rights that people actually possess and enjoy, which they have inherited in the context of their particular situations. However, I disagree with Burke in his conception of the state that has to implement these rights. He was an orthodox Christian and he thought of society as the handiwork of God, a “Divine tactick”, he called it. He regarded the state as “inherently and inalienably sacred”, and although I share his passion for good government, I would worry about his "consecrated" state according “to one Divine plan”. I regard the spiritual and the temporal as two distinct orders, and I find his conception too readily lends itself to the dangerous idea that some particular human will or wills should direct the course of social life. This would not only be oppressive, but fatal to human liberty.
Burke's life teaches that to be conservative is not to become an apologist for the current order. He defended the American Revolution; he raised his voice for the emancipation of Catholics and for removal of trade barriers with Ireland; he spoke loudly for abolishing slavery and the trade in slaves; and even louder against the privileges and excesses of the rule of the East India Company. Many of us in India remember him not only for instigating the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the governor general, but for drafting the East India Bill, which led to the reform of the East India Company. Although Hastings was acquitted, Burke's speeches created new awareness in England of the responsibilities of empire and the injustices perpetrated in India.
Overall, I think, Burke would have approved of the gradual flow of India's contemporary history. Unlike the French Revolution (which he condemned because it was a sharp break with the past) and unlike the violent histories of China, Russia and so many countries in the 20th century, India won its freedom from Britain peacefully. This is why Andre Malraux was moved to say that India was created by saints and this happened in the shadows of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Not only did we escape the World Wars, but we became free without shedding much blood, thanks to Mahatma Gandhi. Yes, half a million died in the Partition riots, but it was not state sponsored violence. After Independence, Nehru built our polity based on many institutions of colonial rule, and this represented a Burkeian continuity. Our addiction to peace might be one of the reasons why we created so easily the world's largest democracy.
Nehru's socialism, followed by Indira Gandhi's “dark decades”, did slow us down for almost forty years, but it did not wipe out our private economy with its invaluable institutions of banks, corporate laws, and the stock market. So, when we broke free from our socialist shackles in 1991, we had this advantage over China. Many Indians (and I include myself in this) are impressed with China's dramatic progress today, and feel impatient and even depressed at the slow pace of our economic reforms. We feel frustrated by the missed opportunities from a higher growth rate. But Burke would have consoled us, telling us that even slow reforms add up. He would say that it is better to grow prosperous with continuity and democracy, albeit more slowly.
Gandhi too would have understood this dilemma
Burke expressed his understanding of society famously as a partnership between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are yet to be born. That is to say, the present is not the property of the living, to make of it whatever they will. It is an estate held in trust. Those who hold it have a responsibility to pass it on in good condition. The French revolutionaries were in the process of wounding this trust, and we in India are guilty of this as well. Mahatma Gandhi understood this and cautioned the Congress leaders about overturning in the name of reason, liberty, and equality the many historical continuities and institutions of the past. For this reason his secularism also resonated with the people. It was grounded in the belief that the ordinary Indian was religious and traditional. He thus showed respect for “other”. This is not true, alas, for many of today's champions of secularism, and this is why no one listens to them. This, combined with the way our political class has exploited the word in a naked quest for power, is why the sensible idea of secularism has acquired a bad odor in today's India.
Gandhi, like Burke, has frequently been dubbed a reactionary. Burke did not defend an exclusive aristocratic or monarchic order--he approved of the mixed system that existed in the Britain of his day, which was a combination of aristocratic, commercial, oligarchic, and democratic elements. Just as Burke preferred prudent and incremental reform, so did Gandhi. Hence, Ambedkar called him reactionary and too tolerant of the caste system. However, Gandhi was a realist. Much as he abhorred untouchability and caste, he did not think one could merely legislate them away. And in the end, Gandhi probably did more than any human being to make Indians aware of caste's iniquity. What Ambedkar did not appreciate is that Gandhi's respect for the historical process did not mean that he evaded the responsibility to criticize the past. In fact, he criticized it relentlessly. But he also respected community and continuity. Hence, he would have taught us that secularism will only succeed in India if it does not undermine tradition, but reinforces our “custom, community and natural feeling” in Burke's language.
I suspect Gandhi would have immediately understood the dilemma about teaching the Mahabharata in our schools and he would have agonized over the lack of easy answers. He instinctively grasped the place of the epic in Indian lives, and he would have approved of what V.S. Sukhtankar, the editor of the Poona Critical Edition of the epic, wrote: “The Mahabharatais the content of our collective unconscious .... We must therefore grasp this great book with both hands and face it squarely. Then we shall recognize that it is our past which has prolonged itself into the present. We are it." If we are it, surely it is important to teach it to the young so that they may understand and value who we are--this would have been Gandhi's response, I believe.
The debate on teaching the Mahabharata in our schools is relevant for another reason, which I found upon reading Michael Oakeshott. It is the idea that there are things to be enjoyed, but that enjoyment is almost heightened by one's awareness that what one is enjoying is in danger of being lost. It is the combination of enjoyment and fear that stimulates conservative thoughts. The epic has given me so much enjoyment in the past three years, that I have become a Mahabharata addict. I feel deeply sad that many young boys and girls in India are growing up rootless, and they will never have access to these forbidden fruits of pleasure. This dilemma has a personal dimension, you see, and it has led me to tread conservative paths. It seems to me conservatism is unlike other ideologies for it does not offer the vision of an ideal society, as Samuel Huntington wrote in an article called 'Conservatism as an Ideology,” published in 1957. There is no conservative Utopia because it is concerned, not with content but with process, with stability, with continuity and prudence. It is the opposite of radicalism, which expresses enthusiasm over the boldness in embracing change. My fears of the loss of tradition may appear exaggerated. Perhaps, they are. Certainly in the villages of India, where the vast majority of Indians live, the Mahabharata is well and alive in the oral traditions. But the future of India does not lie in the villages of India but in the cities. It is there, especially with the powerful onslaught of the global culture, we have to be concerned to preserve continuity with the past.
Let me close with a true story, which I think goes to the heart of the secular temper. A few years ago, I visited the Madras Museum in Egmore. While I was admiring a Chola bronze, a middle aged South Indian woman came behind me, and without self-consciousness, placed a vermilion mark on the Shiva Nataraja. I was appalled. Slowly however, I realized, that we lived in two different worlds. Mine was secular; hers was sacred. Both of us stood before the bronze statue with very different expectations. For me, it was a nine hundred year old object of beauty; for her, it was God. Mine was an aesthetic pleasure; hers was divine darshana.
She did not see what I saw, a brilliant work in bronze by an early Chola artist. I admired the weightless joy of the dancer, so skillfully captured by the sculptor. I moved along, passing by other bronzes, and I got irritated that the bronzes were dusty, ill lit, poorly spaced and badly presented. Suddenly, I felt embarrassed by my petty, niggling concerns. I turned around to look for her. She was still there, absorbed by her light-footed, tireless dancing god, whose dance actually brings the universe into being, and without missing a beat, and in the fullness of time, dances it out of existence. I was struck by the contrast of our lives--the fecund richness of her sacred world versus the poverty of my weary, feeble, skeptical and secular existence.
I felt drawn to her and to her god. For someone who is carrying out such a momentous mission in this universe, I find that her god looks cool, athletic and even debonair. This is where our empty secularism has gone awry. Modern, liberal, English educated Indians are fast losing the holy dimension in their lives. They will never know the depth and opulence of her life. They are quick to brand her superstitious, illiterate, and casteist. She is, in fact, probably far more tolerant and accepting of diversity because she is capable of seeing God everywhere. It is in her rich world that the BJP and our Hindu nationalists ought to learn the true significance of Hindutva and the Congress Party and our secularists ought to learn the real meaning of secularism.
In my world of museums, concert halls, and bookstores, there is plenty of search for beauty, but there is no place for the holy. We are lost in a desacralized world of petty, middle-class concerns. Our secularism has robbed us of Kant's “moral condition”. Partly, it is the fault of traditional religion, which has overlaid and trivialized the original inspiration. The fundamentalists of the VHP and Islam have alienated us further. The answer for an authentic life, I think, lies with the woman in Madras in whose attitude lies the possibility of a fullness and wholeness of being. Thanks to millions like her, India will take a long time to become a sanitized American suburb.
I return to the main Shiva Nataraja at the entrance. He still looks unperturbed and absorbed in the serious task of creating and destroying the universe. But there is something new. Under his raised left leg, there is a marigold flower! So, the next time the world gets too much for you, do what I do—go visit the Madras museum, and if you do not experience eternity, you might learn a modest lesson in implementing pluralism in a democracy, the theme of this wonderful conference. It is not only her attitude, but it is the outlook of the narrator, which is one of respect for the “other”, for her alien, sacred worldview. Secularism will only find a comfortable home in India if one respects the sensibilities of a deeply traditional and religious people.
As we think about sowing the seeds of secularism in India, we have to go beyond the easy polarities of the mind. The question is of the “how” and not of the “what”. You cannot just divide Indians between communalists and secularists. That would be too easy. The average person is decent and is caught in the middle. John Rawls, I think, may have offered a way out when he distinguished between “public reason” and “secular reason”. Public reason limits itself to political and civic principles while secular reason is broader and concerns itself with a secular person's first philosophy. In the same vein, Martha Nussbaum distinguished between political and comprehensive liberalism. Advocates of secularism must not forget this distinction and they must refrain from introducing “comprehensive liberalism” and “secular reason” into public debate. In a recent lecture in Poland, 'Religion in the Public Sphere', Habermas spoke about the commendable idea of toleration, which is the foundation of modern democratic culture. He called it a two-way street. Not only must believers tolerate each others' beliefs, but also the atheism of nonbelievers. Disbelieving secularists, similarly, must value the convictions of religious citizens. And amongst religions, only those that can suspend the temptation of narcissism--the conviction that my religion alone provides the path to salvation--are truly welcome in our rapidly world.
As this is not an academic paper, I have deliberately not cluttered it with footnotes. However, those who wish to read some more of Edmund Burke, I would recommend the following books, which have given me such pleasure in preparing for this paper:
1. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. J. G. A. Pocock, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987, 181.
2. Edmund Burke, Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs in The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke, 7th ed., Vol. IV (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1881), 143.
3. Peter J. Stanlis, "Edmund Burke in the Twentieth Century," in Peter J. Stanlis, ed. The Relevance of Edmund Burke, New York: P. J. Kennedy & Sons, 1964.