We have before us a transcript of X’s address on the threats to secular India. The document we have received is not an authoritative and authenticated version, and errors of typography as well as transcription are discernible. Further, the context, the forum and the audience are not given. But we shall understand this to be a statement, though not verbatim, yet representative of the given point of view. I seek to respond to this wider position rather than to the immediate details of the address. X is an eminent scholar of economic thought, and is acclaimed for a deep analysis of social well-being. Indeed, the address presents us with a comprehensive and multifaceted understanding of the recent tumultuous events in India, and a factoring of their possible causes. In any such endeavour, not every minutest detail is adduced and accounted for, such may well be an impossible task when entire histories of civilisations are involved, but a shared context and sympathy underlies the discourse wherein the main forces thrusting the situation are identified and their frontier and bourne limned. The shared context of the discourse is that of an ardent and idealistic intellectual quest for an imperative harmony for a modern India, and such is the sympathetic understanding I shall extend in my presentation. Issue can be taken with the choice of underpinning details that reveal the assumptions in the address of the history of Indian civilisation. This I shall not do except in one or two instances. Identifying the forces at work, though a difficult task, can be accomplished with fair objectivity. But outlining their direction can only be done relative to some preferred frame of reference for possible trajectories of social evolution. We shall attempt, first, to understand the possibilities and the limits of any intellectual approach, next, to identify this preferred position from which India’s social evolution is regarded in the address, thirdly, to place in context the given motive forces in the situation, and finally to comment on certain details of India’s history given in the address.
The Rational Approach
A rational approach to face all the myriad challenges of existence was promoted in Europe of the 19th century. Reason, it was held, shall solve all problems besetting man, and its wonderful and incisive light shall banish the supernatural and lay bare the spirit. The rational age itself emerged in a period of European renaissance—breaking the shackles of feudalism and Christian theocracy, and proclaiming liberty, equality and fraternity for all humankind. It is without doubt to the credit of reason that the modern age has been ushered into the world.
But the rationalistic programme is inherently limited. This was shown in the domain of philosophy by Gödel, of science by Heisenberg and of social organisation by Arrow. Gödel demonstrated that in any rational system that can represent all the integers, there exist true statements that cannot be proved. Thus, the philosophy of the rational programme was refuted by the incompleteness attending it. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that there is a fundamental limit on the precision of simultaneous measurements of certain physical quantities irrespective of the quality of the measuring equipment used. Thus, the hope that science shall apprehend and control a deterministic reality was demolished. Finally, in the social realm, Arrow demonstrated the impossibility of a rational constitution that guarantees maximum social welfare while at once resolving all conflicts of individual choice without resorting to dictatorship. If we understand liberty to mean that each individual has full freedom to choose any preference for possible states of the world, and equality to mean that no single individual’s choice is forced on everyone, then there may be no resolution of the crisis of rationalism for society unless the suprarational principle of fraternity is invoked. Gödel impels us to belief without proof, Heisenberg (through Bell) to non-local transcendence of space-time, and Arrow to a certain likeness amongst individuals—essentially fraternity. In any case, the rational programme has been roundly curtailed on the philosophical, scientific and social fronts by its own methodology. It is a deep insight that without faith, such as this irrational entity may be, there can be no resolution of this fundamental crisis of rationalism.
Secular humanism emerged in Europe as a pragmatic compromise between Rationalism and Christianity. Under the rational influence it proclaims that matter and spirit are irreconcilable, and under the Christian influence it proclaims the ideal of humanism. Through rational practices of science, economics and statecraft it enhances the material well-being of society, and through moral practices of humanism it upholds the lofty ideals of liberty and equality, and a vision of human rights and dignity inalienable by the state. It is a compromise between rationalism and Christianity in the sense that reason has at all admitted spirit, though decoupled from matter, and has adopted humanism to give itself purpose, and in the sense that, on the other hand, Christianity has abandoned claims to exclusive ecclesiastical power over society. Such perhaps is the only compromise possible between rationalism on the one hand and semitic faiths on the other, which have as a tenet God’s transcendence of this world but not God’s immanence in it. Secular humanism faces the same crisis, for it has no fraternal principle that binds humankind. Secular humanism renders unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but cannot render unto God what is God’s. Secular humanism accommodates the individual’s spirituality, but it denies the spiritual basis of collective existence. Yet the spirit is deep-rooted and cannot be axiomatised away.
The Spiritual Approach
A different, integrated approach can be taken if we accept not just the transcendence of God but also God’s immanence in the world, both at the cosmic level and at the individual level. What was a confrontation and a compromise between this-worldly reason and other-worldly faith in the Occident can become an integration of reason into the seamless and all-inclusive synthesis of reason and faith, which we shall call a spiritual humanism.
Any approach that seeks to be an alternative to secular humanism should be no worse than it, and it is faith, not unreasoning but exceeding reason, that opens the way. The social principles of liberty, equality and fraternity discovered in Europe have as underlying spiritual principles, freedom, unity and godhood: freedom of the soul from the bond of existence and action and its effects; unity of the individual souls throughout manifestation; godhood of the soul’s identification with the Supreme in and above manifestation. In the end, the spiritual principle is the only fraternal and harmonising principle in this world. Spiritual humanism is no credal dogma or narrow philosophy or dry ideology. It is a broad stream encompassing the spirit of all diverse existence, with all faiths and rationalities as its tributaries, merging into the ocean of All-spirit. The political state is one amongst many modes of collective existence. Whereas secular humanism manifests only in the political mode, spiritual humanism manifests in all modes of collective existence: spiritual humanism embraces and exceeds secular humanism.
The development of civilisation in India has been a dynamic process with fluid mobility and collision between cultures. No single culture in India grew in isolation, but by action of political, economic and social forces each influenced and was influenced by others. India also strongly influenced the spiritual, cultural and scientific development of all nations of the world, and in turn she assimilated into herself their ideologies and progress. Underlying India’s development, there was always a quest for a unifying, integrating basis as a philosophy of existence and life and society, and this constituted a broad and nondogmatic mainstream, the very fabric of Indian civilisation. By its nature, it incorporated the extant diversity into itself—a river of many tributaries—and also by its nature, it was constantly modified into diverse forms to meet the needs of society. All cultures have to a greater or lesser extent irrigated themselves from this stream and draped in this fabric. However, all other world cultures have either suffered major dislocations in their evolution or have made a break with their roots. But India has preserved a continuous stream of spiritual development that can be traced back to its genesis. Certain consolidations of this mainstream are more significant—the period of the Vedas, the period of the Upanishads, Buddhism, the independence movement. However, the process of mainstreaming was and is continuous. It does not matter what name is given to this mainstream, whether Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism or Vedic philosophy or Dravidian culture or Spiritual Humanism. In measure as this mainstream got encrusted in its forms, society lost its life-force. The caste system, the feudal system, rituals whose significances were lost, fatalism, are such limiting forms. These are an unfortunate effect of an inert and hardened society whose innate dynamism and seeking got diminished. We must work to eradicate these limitations through our personal and social action so once more a dynamic and forward-looking society, not a revisionist, anachronistic and medieval one, shall emerge in India. The process of revival and mainstreaming continues and shall victoriously break through these limitations and compel the world, for it is this spiritual synthesis of reason and faith on which world union can rest.
In the given address of X, the path of secular humanism is the preferred frame of reference to analyse the direction of social forces in India. In as much as the state thus far espoused secular humanism, despite its questionable implementation, one may have drawn comfort. Intellectual honesty demands that the state’s deviation from the path of secular humanism should have inspired protest. But this was mild, perhaps because the overall direction adopted by the state was aligned to the ideals of the rational programme. Now, as it inevitably must, a spiritual possibility has arisen once more for modern India. In this possibility, secular humanism must be endorsed for the state—uniform civil law, modern economic policies, scientific approach and realism in statesmanship, for we cannot choose by blind faith what reason can better—but it must not deny India’s cultural and spiritual heritage. Its rational approach for the state shall bring material well-being to Indian society while its spiritual foundation shall bring fraternal harmony. Further, all of us participating in India’s progress have to ensure that India’s spiritual renaissance is not lead into narrow straits—such is the demand not just of intellectual honesty, but more pressing yet, of fidelity to the spirit.
The transition to spiritual humanism is fraught with difficulty on three fronts. On one side is the opposition by rationalists, on the second, the activism of the revisionists, and on the third is the zeal of the converted. The rationalist opposition seeks to deny India’s spiritual renaissance, and to rely solely on rationalism. The rationalists wish India’s mainstream to dry up and end, and a new model with an exclusively rational basis be taken up. A radical alteration of the mainstream philosophy and basis of society has happened under three circumstances so far in the world—one, when the social traditions could not integrate modern science into themselves, two, under imperialism, and three, under ideological domination. The first can be seen in Europe, the second in Japan and the third in China. The first does not seem to be the case in India, but mild variants of the second and third persist. The rational quest, if intellectually honest, should at least counter inconsistencies of implementation; but it seems incapable of this. Any reasonable rationalist opposition must be engaged through urbane and constructive debate and absorbed into the mainstream, while all unreasonable rationalist opposition can be left to dwindle in its own contradictions. The revisionist programme seeks to reconstruct an India of the past, righting historical wrongs and restoring lost glory (whether Hindu or Muslim or any other). This can only lead to isolation of India into some anachronistic and factional fiefdom. But harmony and world union are our compelling destiny and India’s mission is to show the path to it through a new fraternity. For this, irrespective of India’s history, revisionism must go. Finally, the zeal and the energies of India’s renaissance must be channeled into creative efforts through each individual’s personal realisation and through forward-looking and visionary leadership, to build an enduring foundation for emergent India. The process of mainstreaming is by necessity slow, and cannot be speeded up without introducing dogmatism. If done, the mainstream will be weak. This renaissance is the motive energy to counter revisionism and exclusive rationalism, thereby to hew a new path for India which the world can hark to. But the possibility of these forces degenerating into confrontation is by no means marginal and we have to be vigilant to guard against it. In particular, the full apparatus of the society and state must be brought to bear against anarchic and criminal acts, whether sporadic or organised, and whether internal or external. These seek to narrow the scope of the renaissance or derail it or divert its message. However, the essential dichotomy between secular humanism and spiritual humanism cannot be denied. India stands today before these paths and, if she is true to her nature, she shall choose spiritual humanism. It is this synthesis of rational and spiritual pursuits that alone can bring about a compelling model for future society, and however maladroitly, this is being worked out in India.
The Way Forward
These three components—revisionism, exclusive rationalism, spiritual humanism—describe India’s current social modes. In the address X identifies communal fascism, sectarian nationalism, and militant obscurantism as threats to secular humanism in India. These constitute the submodes of revisionism. Worse threats to India are the ideals of secular humanism themselves espoused in a spirit alien and incompatible to the spirit of India, and an inconsistent implementation of these ideals by mediocre statesmen, conniving politicians and an apathetic bureaucracy. Foreign ideals cannot be transplanted into a native soil without adaptation of both, and if done shall lead to death of the ideal and depletion of the soil. This has happened. I suggest that the three causes identified above by X arise from this single unfortunate experiment foisted inexactly on the Indian populace. In as much as no organic form was given to secular humanism, and no adaptation of the Indian spirit was made to this ideal, it is a failure of the Indian intellectual. Spiritual humanism is for India the organic cognate of secular humanism, and it shall not only harmonise India but also lay the foundation for world union. India once had pioneered the path of individual liberation; India now shall hew the path of collective liberation and take the world past its current stasis. Education and prosperity are recommended in the address as the cure for India’s ills, and indeed such they are. However, with education and prosperity we see India choosing not just rational ideals alone, but spiritual ones too. There is a fundamental shift away from an exclusive rational programme, not in an obscurantist manner but rather in an open and inspired one. The way forward to India’s future and the world’s is an integral synthesis of reason and faith through spiritual humanism. Let us work to make this future enlightened and vast as well.
Seeking to attest to the benign and enlightened nature of the Mughal period in India, X quotes Sri Aurobindo, whom he identifies as a Hindu religious leader,
The Mussalman domination ceased very rapidly to be a foreign rule.
I suggest that Sri Aurobindo, who is recognised as a spiritual leader of all humanity, holds the durable foundation of spirituality on which our civilisation is based to be responsible for this process. It is always a hazard to abridge an exact writer, as done above, and yet I shall attempt to do the same by quoting him from Indian Culture and External Influence,
… India can only survive by confronting this raw, new, aggressive, powerful world with fresh diviner creations of her own spirit, cast in the mould of her own spiritual ideals. She must meet it by solving its greater problems … in her own way, through solutions arising out of her own being and from her own deepest and largest knowledge …
I suggest that the crisis of rationalism is the “greater problem” faced by the world, and India shall solve it “in her own way … from her deepest and largest knowledge” through spiritual humanism. It would be a travesty of Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual message to invoke his support for an exclusive rationalism. His passionate appeal of Bandemataram, his ceaseless work for a free and united India and her culture and history and nationalism and spirituality, and India’s place and role in the comity of nations, and his towering and many-sided vision of a spiritual basis for world union vastly exceed the rational programme.
X quotes from the 11th century account of Al Beruni, who accompanied Mahmud of Gazni, to attest that Hindu philosophy is not idolatrous,
… idols are erected only for uneducated low-class people of little understanding; … the Hindus never made an idol of any supernatural being, much less of God …
What the motivations of Al Beruni were in accounting thus the Hindu position, and what the motivations are in reproducing that account, one need not surmise. But this one should know with the Isha Upanishad, that
All this is for habitation by the Lord
and that in every bosom dwells the immanent Deity. For even spiritual humanism itself is only a bridge to something beyond, the human form and society only a laboratory of Nature, and her experiment of terrestrial evolution presses onward to superhuman goals. Without spiritual humanism we shall be her transient obstacles; with it, her conscious collaborators in the unfolding mystery of manifestation.