Secularism in Vedic Philosophy
Secularism arose during the era of Enlightenment in Europe with the aim to relegate religion to the private realm and determine the public sphere by reason and experience. Europe wasn’t arguing for the equality of all religions in the eyes of the government. It was arguing for the rejection of the only religion that existed in their society. The modern claim that secularism is the equality of all religions in the eyes of the government tries to hide what lies in plain sight: it is the rejection of all religion. The equality of all religions in the eyes of the government was practiced in Vedic times, but it was an actively religious society that enabled the free choice of religion coupled with an active debate about which form of religion is superior. This post tries to demystify the conundrums of secularism, from the viewpoint of Vedic philosophy.
Table of Contents
Reason versus Faith
It is important to address the issue of reason versus faith at the outset. I have described this issue previously by distinguishing between two uses of reason and experience—discovery versus verification. Reemploying my example, suppose a person is trying to login into a computer using a password. He has two options. First, he can try to guess the password and use the guesses to check if they unlock the computer. Second, he can ask for the password from someone who knows it, and then check if it unlocks the computer. In the former case, reason and experience are employed in discovery (guessing the password) as well as verification (checking if the password unlocks the computer). In the latter case, they are used only for verification.
You don’t have to believe the truth of a password without verification. And you don’t have to assume that a locked computer can only be hacked by guesswork. You can rather obtain the password from someone you trust, and then verify it by reason and experience.
The contradiction between reason and faith is contrived; it applies to those ideas that can never be rationally understood or empirically verified. Such things should not exist; ideally, not even in the private domain. However, faith pending verification can exist privately or publicly. Such faith exists even in modern science where speculative theories are entertained until falsification. A scientist cannot do science until he or she believes that their propositions are potentially true. Therefore, even the scientist entertains faith, although as a stepping stone toward verification.
Is Religion Based on Faith?
Yes, religion is based on faith, in the second sense of the term noted above. That is, religion can be accepted as a working hypothesis until it leads to verification. That doesn’t mean every working hypothesis will turn out true; every faith is not necessarily religion.
I am treating religion pretty much as we treat science—i.e. a theory of everything. The theory may be true or false; only verification can tell us. Until it has been verified, the theory can be accepted based on faith. Once verified, the theory becomes confirmed truth. In so far as false theories are not considered ‘science’, similarly, false faiths need not be considered ‘religion’. I would therefore propose that we separate the idea of faith from that of religion. By this definition, there are potentially infinite faiths, but there is only one true religion.
I’m making these distinctions because the secularist argument that religion must be a private issue because it is based on faith rather than reason and experience is false. Religion is also a rational and empirical activity, although it goes beyond sense experience. Lots of things in science go beyond sense experience. All of mathematics, for example, is beyond sense experience: e.g. we cannot perceive numbers, but we believe in their existence. Nobody has seen a set, but it is the mental construction of a boundary. These ideas are useful, and the extent of that usefulness makes them true (we will shortly draw a distinction between absolute and relative truths). At the very least, their non-empirical nature doesn’t make them private.
The Tree of Religions
Now that the conventional argument for secularism is unsustainable, I will provide a new one, which is that truth is not just binary (i.e. true and false). It is also progressive, in the sense that there are local and universal truths; we progress from local to universal truth. A local truth that is not universally true is permissible because it is locally true, although it is not perfect.
In many traditions across the world, including the Vedic one, the world is described as an inverted tree that diversifies from a singular root into many trunks, branches, and leaves. The root is universally true, but the trunks, branches, and leaves are contextually true. These universal and contextual truths are respectively called Absolute and relative truths in Vedic philosophy. Clearly, the universal truth is superior, and the contextual truth is inferior. However, in the limited context where the contextual truth is applicable, there can be debates about the superiority of the two truths which cannot be settled locally. One must transcend the context to determine the superiority: Does a truth apply to everything or only to some things?
Based on the tree of diversification, the Vedic system constructs many relatively true religions, called dharma. The term dharma has many connotations, which all assert to the fact that these are relatively true. For example, dharma means ‘duties’ which are relative to the time, place, person, and situation involved in that duty. Similarly, dharma means ‘nature’ or the ‘natural way things behave’, which is contingent on something’s nature that is not universal.
For example, it is the dharma of air to be dry, and the dharma of water to be cold. This is how things are supposed to be naturally. You could, of course, infuse air with moisture or heat the water. That would only mean that these things are no longer in their natural state. I can elaborate this further through an example. The natural state of a Hydrogen atom is that it has one electron and one proton. But you can remove the electron and create an ion H+, which is an unnatural state. In this context, the Hydrogen atom is the higher truth, and the Hydrogen ion is the lower truth obtained by modifying it. The higher truth is decided by the fact that it is more stable, that it exists longer, and it is more pervasive than the lower truth. To confirm that pervasiveness, stability, and longevity, we must look beyond a context.
The Absolute Truth is defined as the fullness of everything, and relative truths as those obtained by removing something from Absolute Truth to create partial truths. The partial truths can only be defined in relation to the Absolute Truth. The Absolute Truth is self-sufficient.
In the context of religions, this means that every contextual dharma depends on the Absolute Truth and must be defined by removing something from that Truth. The process of defining the relative truth entails that, definitionally, the Absolute Truth is present even in the relative truth, but it is not fully visible. I have elsewhere called this definitional existence as a semantic existence. It is not that the Absolute Truth is physically contained ‘within’ the relative truth, because that physical containment would mean it is absent from other relative truths. To allow for the Absolute Truth to exist across many relative truths, we need a new kind of existence—namely, semantic or definitional existence. Just like the idea ‘car’ exists in all cars, and yet the idea would exist even if the cars did not, similarly, the Absolute Truth exists in all partial truths, but even if the partial truths disappeared, the Absolute Truth would still exist. So, the Absolute Truth is both inside and outside everything; it is an idea. If one knows the Absolute Truth, then he can see how the relative truth has manifested from the Absolute Truth by hiding some part of the whole truth. To such a person, the myriad relative truths are diverse manifestations of the same Absolute Truth. However, those who lack the understanding of the Absolute Truth, see the relative truths as being opposed to each other, rather than seeing the unity underlying them.
Religion is One and Many
The Vedic system is notorious for describing many systems of religious practice. For instance, even within a single text of Bhagavad-Gita, four dominant systems of religious practice are described—karma-yoga, jnana-yoga, dhyāna-yoga, and bhakti-yoga. Krishna doesn’t hesitate in describing (BG Chapter 12 verses 8 to 12) a hierarchy among these systems: jnana-yoga is lowest, followed by dhyāna-yoga, followed by karma-yoga, and finally bhakti-yoga.
If we expand our focus to other Vedic texts, we can find more religious systems. For example, each of the above systems are practiced in Vaishnava, Shaiva, and Shakta traditions. There are philosophical treaties on each of these systems, separate from the treatises on the practice by which the truth in these systems is confirmed. We can view them as the theory and the experiment. Even restricting ourselves to the Vaishnava system, and further limiting the focus to the practice of bhakti-yoga, there are many schools which describe different forms of Vaishnavism. Each system correspondingly has its different texts, practices, and rules.
To the casual onlooker, the Vedic system isn’t a single religion, and that is largely true. What the causal onlooker misses, however, is the fact that these are trunks, branches, and leaves of a tree, produced by removing something from the seed from which the tree has grown. If that seed is understood, then all the parts of the tree are simply partial manifestations of the seed. If the seed is not understood, then the Vedic system is an incoherent amalgamation of diversity.
Thus, a distinction between dharma and sanātana-dharma is sometimes made. There are infinite contextual, relative truth, dharma. There is only one universal, absolute, sanātana-dharma. The diversity can be organized in a tree, leading up to the seed of its manifestation.
The Practice of Religion
The Vedic system lays no claim to the completeness in describing the tree of religious diversity. In fact, there is open acceptance of the fact that the diversities are so large that they cannot be understood by anyone. In other words, there is no claim that the religious systems described in the Vedic texts are the only possible religious systems. Nor is the Vedic system prescriptive about the choice of any system. It is understood that there are innumerable systems, suited for different levels of understanding the Absolute Truth. You can begin with the leaves of the tree, progress into the branches, then onto the trunks, until you understand the seed.
Sri Veda Vyas converted the Vedic knowledge from an oral to a written tradition, and he describes all systems prevalent at the time of writing—i.e. about 5,000 years ago. The choice of which system one chooses was left to the individual, although guidance was provided about the results of these different systems—i.e. how far they take an aspirant in the pursuit of the Absolute Truth. Not everyone is necessarily interested in the Absolute Truth; some would like a better relative truth, or a better relative truth before they understand the Absolute Truth.
Secularism in the Vedic System
Given the wide variety of religious systems and the choice available to an aspirant, there was an effective secularism in the Vedic system. Teachers of different schools were not in conflict with each other although they did compete. Note that in the tree hierarchy, there is no conflict—everyone recognizes that there is a progression; therefore, no religious system is patently false (if they are at least contextually true), although some may be truer than others. The conflict (i.e. whether something is true or false) is replaced by a competition—truer than others.
This secularism is different than the one in Europe for many reasons. First, it did not distinguish between faith versus rationality for the reasons noted above. In fact, six systems of philosophy were developed to debate Vedic ideas. So, there was no dearth of philosophical argument, or alternative ‘apostles’ who developed new systems of philosophy. Second, it did not aim to relegate the faith-based revealed knowledge into the private sphere; in fact, it encouraged open debate between the systems to find out the truer system. Thus, debate about religious matters was a fact of society without leading to modern conflictual wars, strife, and destruction. The debaters had only one rule—if they lost the debate they would accept the winner as their guru. Indeed, such debates were often held in the courts of kings, and if the debater supported by the king lost the debate, even the king would willingly accept the winner as his guru.
The acceptance of a system of religion by a king was by no means an enforcement of the system across his kingdom. It was a personal choice of the king, and it did not preclude other’s choices. By the active quest for the superiority of religious ideologies in the public sphere (e.g. the king’s court), and the advocation of the ideology that wins the debate, the ruler wasn’t secular in the modern sense (where he doesn’t advocate any religious ideology). For example, after the Kalinga war, Ashoka became an active proponent of Buddhism, but he did not try to destroy the Vedic system. By permitting the free practice of alternative religions, the ruler remained secular.
Secularism is thus not a new idea in a Vedic system, if it means the freedom to choose one’s religion unimpeded by the religious choice of the state. The Vedic secularism, however, takes this idea a step further—a public debate about the superiority of religions.
The Flaws in Modern Secularism
This background is important to understand the merits and demerits of the modern notion of secularism where it is understood in the Western rather than the Indian sense. The secularist, for example, aims to prevent the ruler from advocating a religion, thereby denying them their free choice of practicing and propagating their chosen religion. Their claim that religion lies in the private sphere is a consequence of Western rather than Indian secularism. Conversely, the rulers who profess and propagate a chosen religion publicly also try to curtail or suppress the practice of other religions besides their own, thus denying the free choice of religion to others. Their argument claiming a central ethos for India misses that fact that the Vedic system is not a single religion; it is the description of many paths, which are collectively not exhaustive.
Thus, both sides of the argument—whether in support or denial of secularism—are flawed. It takes some understanding of Vedic secularism to demystify the flaws in their arguments. The flaws can be summarized as follows. The practice and propagation of religion is available to everyone—including the rulers—so, religion is not a private affair, and denying the ruler their right to practice and propagate religion is against the fundamental rights of mankind. Similarly, just because the ruler prefers a religion, enforcing that ideology on others too is against the fundamental rights of others who have chosen to practice a different religion.
Everyone must have the freedom to practice and preach their religion, and even compete (which is part of the process of preaching). However, since the competition occurs in the public space, there must be ground rules about its conduct. Debates about the truth of a religion are valid forms of competition. Personal attacks on the followers of a religion—mental or physical—are unacceptable. Love of God cannot be forced; in fact, no form of love can be forced. Secularism is simply the restatement of the fact that whether and how the soul loves God remains its free will. Even the rejection of God is the soul’s free will. Therefore, coercion on a religious path can never be an answer. On the contrary, we must encourage competition in a free market of alternative options. Sometimes we recognize the value in a good product only after using the bad alternatives. Therefore, we cannot be afraid of competition; we must embrace it.
The Modern Dialogue on Religion
Many religions have been driven by the sword rather than by the power of reason, the use of dialogue, and convincing argument. The pursuit of power was supposed to be the means to an end—the propagation of a religious ideology. But it became the end. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Given the absolutist nature of religion, its quest for power corrupted it absolutely. The result was an unholy, cynical, vile, reckless, and cruel nexus between religion and politics that exists to this day. People forgot that religion involves free will. Their use of coercion led to inexcusable excesses being justified as God’s holy work. People the world over have been cheated by such false ‘religions’. They are now becoming atheists.
But we must remind ourselves of the origin of these perversions—the use of power to propagate religion. The religious revivalist needs the pen rather than the sword. In the battle between the pen and the sword, the pen is mightier than the sword. Religion cannot be advanced by the sword. It can be advanced by logical argument and debate, compassion and conviction. This doesn’t mean that the sword is not required. It is required for defending religion rather than advancing it. The sword can be used for protecting religion, but it cannot be used for propagating religion. Its use for propagation is the root of today’s perversities.
The path to religious revival is the resurrection of the erstwhile Vedic system of openness, dialogue, debate, with the use of reason and experience. The quality of this presentation—and the demeanor with which the debate is carried out—will decide the winners of this battle. Those who try to win the debate by wielding their swords will eventually be sore losers. We must acknowledge that free will is an inalienable property of the soul. Coercion, intimidation, and the use of violence means that we don’t understand the nature of the soul. What good can religion produce if we haven’t acknowledged that everyone has inalienable free will?