“If beings in heaven are gratified by our offering the sraddha here, then why not give the food down below to those who are standing on the housetop?” – Sarva-darsana-samgraha
As the cliché goes, Southasia is home to all religions. A few have escaped our net, but not many. Christianity and Judaism came here before they went to Europe. There are more Muslims here than elsewhere in the world. Buddhism was dispatched from here for its adventures in the rest of Asia, and now in the Atlantic countries. And of course we had the people of the Vedas, out of which, centuries later, came the Hinduism that is familiar today. But alongside and inside these religious traditions grew a sharp acknowledgement of the harshness of life that lay outside the delights promised to humans if they obeyed their religious laws. It was from this realisation that we got the following doha by Kabir:
Aasha jive jag marey, log marey mar jayee
Soyee sube dhan sanchte, so ubrey jey khayee.
Hope lives in a vanishing world, people die and die once more
Cease to hoard wealth. Gain your liberation by giving.
For a very long time, religion in Southasia has had a complex relationship with social hierarchy, sometimes being its bedfellow and other times its enemy. The classical saints of our Sufi-Bhakti era mortified their bodies for the sake of the masses; today’s ‘saints’ mortify the bodies of the masses for the sake of the gain of the upwardly mobile. Our traditions seem no longer able to fully carry forward their own self-professed commitments to humanity. Attacks on religious minorities in each of our countries are far too commonplace. One does not see the established religious leaders take much interest in the grotesque suffering of the population. Indeed, it is a mark of shame that our religious traditions – all of our religious traditions – have paid so little interest to the mounting suffering of the people, whether the farmers who resort to suicide or the migrants who must leave their homes to work with little dignity in our burgeoning cities. There is no Kabir today, no Bulleh Shah, no Buddha. What we have, rather, is religion baring its fangs, not its heart.
The harshness of advanced capitalism has eroded the long tradition of tolerance that has helped ordinary people fight off the more stringent obligations of religious doctrine. People have lived together for centuries, fought occasionally, but mostly lived in harmony amidst the demands of everyday life. It is this tradition that must form the basis for any institutional policy of secularism. A secular state cannot sit well if it is not rooted in the beliefs and habits of society. It cannot claim to be better than the people, nor should it see itself as transplanted from elsewhere. Southasian secularism must evolve out of our history, one that has at its core the anti-colonial and anti-hierarchical struggles that made us into modern states.
Our civilisation does not come from abstract principles. Rather, it comes to us from those very struggles in which ordinary people sacrificed much to ensure that the modern states hold fast to the best of human morality – equality, justice and other critical issues. Secularism is the product of these struggles. Much that the anti-colonial, anti-hierarchical struggles wanted has not, of course, come to pass; these struggles are ongoing.
During the 1980s, as the various governments in our region began to withdraw from the dirigisme that allowed the state to intervene in society, social groups given over to much less generous interpretations of religion emerged as if reborn. The chauvinisms of Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism emerged in this era, pushing against the modest secularism of the modern states. Most of these new political blocs have had no interest in the condition of starvation, but were keen to proclaim the need for national, if religious, pride. Die hungry, they seem to cry, but die with your religious values intact.
Secularism in Southasia cannot be said to be in peril, because it was never well-established enough to be dethroned. Rather, the worst of religious chauvinism has appeared to mask the very harshness of the turn against the people, which is the hallmark of neo-liberalism. The battle is joined. The problem is to re-orient our societies on a path that takes us past horrendous poverty and into something that comes closer to equality. A cloudbank right before us is the belief that religious chauvinism is a reasonable substitute for a good meal. It must be pushed aside. Other hopes need the sunlight to grow.