Secularism in India, a historical perspective
When the word ‘Secular’ was borrowed from the west and placed into the preamble of our constitution by the founding members of modern India, the message they wanted to send out to the world and the value system they wanted to instill among Indians in a nutshell was that India will have no state religion, all the people in this ancient country are equal in the eyes of the government and the law thus shall live in peace and harmony.
But what our modern leaders did was nothing unique or exemplary by adding secularism to India’s constitution but rather made the concept of secularism redundant and betrayed the basic knowledge and essence that constituted India’s ethos since time immemorial. India always followed the great tradition of ‘Sarva dharma sambhava’ i.e. all religions are harmonious with each other and lead to God and thus one can follow the path he or she chooses. Tolerance and harmony is a weave through Indian philosophy, culture and society since ages.
Born out of the great Hindu Vedic Dharmic tradition, between 200 BC and 300 CE, Buddhism swept through the length and breadth of the Indian sub continent catching the imagination of the rulers and the people alike. India from a 100% Hindu nation became a Buddhist majority nation and remained so for nearly 500 years. Many Emperors and Kings converted to Buddhism and so did vast majority of the subjects but never did the converted rulers or their subjects persecute followers of the old faith i.e. Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism, as we know it popularly.
The Gupta’s, who were Hindu’s, reined greater part of India from 320 CE to 550 CE. They not only ushered in India’s golden age but also presided over a golden Hindu renaissance. Being staunch Hindus they gave impetus to Vedic Hinduism but also continued to patronize Buddhism by donating and supporting various Buddhist monasteries and universities. The state supported and promoted all denomination of faiths with an even hand.
Even during the period of Islamic invasion and occupation starting earnestly in 1200 CE many Hindu kings during these very disturbing times continued to maintain Dharmic equanimity and promoted religious tolerance and equality.
The Vijaynagar Empire (1336 CE to 1565 CE) the bulwark of Hindu resistance to Islamic onslaught in the Deccan and Peninsular India had a sizeable Muslim population residing within the city wall as well as in various parts of the empire but never during the interminable strife with the Bahamani Muslim sultans were these minorities mistreated. In fact, the rulers of Vijaynagar provided them patronage and privileges during their festivals and daily life. Whereas all the while neighbouring Bahamani Sultans persecuted and mistreated their Hindu subjects.
Here I digress to highlight a little known fact about Ala-ud-din Bahaman Shah also known as Zafar Khan or Hasan Gangu who founded the Bahamani sultanate and took the name ‘Bahaman’ in honour of his Brahmin patron. Ala-ud-din was a Tajik-Persian slave, Brahmin Gangadhar Shastri Wabale saved Ala-ud-din’s life as a young boy and took him into his service. The boy Ala-ud-din was given good education and station in life while all the time the good Brahmin never interfered in his religious beliefs. This I think is one outstanding example of true secularism in medieval India.
Parsees, the fire worshipping Mazdians of Persia arrived in India around the 10 century escaping Muslim persecution in Iran. Parsees were welcomed and integrated into India society with local Raja’s patronizing their fire temples and have gone on to contribute to India inversely proportional to their small numbers. Similar is the case with the Jews who were one of the first foreign religions to have arrived in India and found the only place in the world where they were never prosecuted for their religious beliefs (except in Goa where Portuguese prosecuted Jews on their arrival). In fact on the founding day of Israel, the Israeli parliament thanked the great people of India for being respectful, tolerant, supportive of their people and for providing them a safe haven.
Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj (1642 to 1680) the epitome of a Vedic era Raja in medieval times exemplified tolerance and respect of all religions during a time when he was engaged in Dharma Yudh with one of the most tyrannical ruler of India, Emperor Alamgir better known as Aurangzeb the Mughal. Raja Shivaji not only forbade his troops from destroying places of worship of Muslims but also ensured that women and children were never molested. Offenders were severely dealt with, which was mostly a penalty of death. Once during a raid on Kalyan, a town in Thane district in Maharashtra, Maratha troops captured the wife of the local governor known for her extraordinary beauty but when she was presented to him as a war trophy, he raged at the generals and troops for their Adharmic conduct and immediately restored the women to her husband.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780 to 1839) the Khalsa established a Sikh Kingdom born out of the misery of the people of the Punjab, a land ploughed by the ravages of war for more than a 1000 years. In this war torn land he brought economic prosperity, tolerance and harmony among people who were at each other throats since anyone could remember. With his capital at Lahore Ranjit Singh administered an empire which consisted of approximately 45% Muslims 35% Hindus and 20% Sikhs. He employed in his administration and army Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and even Christian mostly European officers. Holi, Dipawali, Id, Christmas and birthdays of Sikhs Gurus were celebrated with great fervor and festivity with equal support and patronage by the royal Khalsa durbar. Raja Ranjit Singh’s closest confidant and Hakeem (doctor) was a Muslim and his trusted generals and ministers were Hindu Rajputs, Jats and Muslims.
With these few illustrations I wanted to highlight that by adding an imported alien word like ‘Secularism’ meant for different land and people troubled by different problems is like showing the path to a people who have already reached their destination. Indian ethos has always been of tolerance and harmony and respect for peoples of different faiths. India with a 17% Muslim (second largest Muslim population in the world) and 3 % Christian minority population, has endured and grown with peace and harmony not because of the word secularism in the law books but because people truly believe in mutual respect for each other’s belief system. What we need is true understanding of our cultural roots and use it as a beacon to guide us forward and not look somewhere else for guidance.
This is a guest post by Shankara, a friend of CRI. He can be followed at @Sshankara
Image from here.