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Secularity in Indian History

Par Sudipta Kaviraj : Political scientist - Columbia University (Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies)
Publié par Clifford Armion le 12/01/2015

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A peculiar feature of the modern world is the asymmetry in the knowledge of the other between the West and the non-West. Nonwestern societies know a great deal more about Western history than Western societies know about theirs. Religious principles clearly possess a peculiar quality: because they are held with particular reverence by religious individuals who see them as principles created, or at least sanctioned by God rather than men.

Sudipta Kaviraj. All rights reserved.

Sudipta Kaviraj (India), political scientist and specialist of South Asian politics, is Head of the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University. His research centers on 19th- and 20th-century political thought in India, on modern Indian culture and literature, and on an historical sociology of the Indian state.

Boundaries of Toleration (dir. A.Stepan et C. Taylor) (University Press Group Ltd, 2014)

The Trajectories of the Indian State: Politics and Ideas (Permanent Black, 2012)


Here we shall extend the usual conversation about secularity and tolerance in two ways – extending it from the history of the West to the history of the East; and from the present to the long past. This is partly dependent on what we mean by secularity. There is a narrow, but well-established tradition of thinking which asserts that religious toleration is an essentially modern practice. After European societies faced disastrous religious civil wars, these societies directed their collective historical intelligence towards finding a solution to the problem of intense intolerance arising out of religious plurality. Modern Europe devised two powerful responses to this question: first, a political order based on primarily monoreligious states, and second, a decline in the significance of religion in the society’s everyday culture through a process of disenchantment. Highly significant matters of social life were slowly made subject to the legislative process, rather than religious law. This view would see a strong connection between tolerance and secularization, and at times it goes with a casual impression that other societies that have religious diversity must therefore look at the cultural processes of European modernity and traditions of secualrisation for a solution of religious conflicts. Though widespread, this view is parochial and erroneous: in fact, its error is not easily realized because discussions of the past are often parochial. A peculiar feature of the modern world is the asymmetry in the knowledge of the other between the West and the non-West. Nonwestern societies know a great deal more about Western history than Western societies know about theirs.

Religious principles clearly possess a peculiar quality: because they are held with particular reverence by religious individuals who see them as principles created, or at least sanctioned by God rather than men. Their denial by others consequently can cause unusually intense offense. Not observing a principle of a particular religion is considered by strict adherents of that religion as sacrilege. This is why conflict of religious principles gives rise to conflict of particular intensity and severity: it can also give rise to spectacular cruelty, because the object of one’s attack are entirely dehumanized, and considered enemies not of man or king or nation but of God himself.

Religious diversity is not a peculiar feature of modern history. With the spread of Christianity, Europe was for a long time unified by a single religion. Intense religious conflict began after the Reformation, and after devastating religious wars, European societies devised a resolution to this problem through mono-religious nation states. In India, by contrast, intense religious rivalry emerged very early – with the rise of Buddhism several centuries before Christ. The ancient religion of the Vedas – ritualistic, hierarchical and conservative – was challenged by the rise of Buddhism. In subsequent centuries, Hindu religion developed many competing, occasionally conflicting strands – presenting political authority with a challenge to deal with religious diversity.

In principle, such diversity could be tackled by political power in two ways – first, by aligning political power with one religious group and forcing others to convert or leave; a second response was making political power itself neutral and unaligned. Both strategies were tried in ancient India, but it appears that by the 2/3 century BC the second strategy was favored by a large number of political domains, starting with emperor Asoka. There were two versions of the second response. Initially, kings would declare that they had a personal religious path , but they regarded themselves as protectors of subjects following all faiths. Later, in inscriptions kings often describe themselves as worshippers of all the deities of their subjects. By the 10th century however Buddhism slowly declined in India eventually disappearing entirely. Contending sects of Hindus generally followed a policy of segmentation; but there are striking attempts at accommodation among the different sects.

Arrival of Islam after the 8th century created a new kind of challenge of religious conflict. After te 13th century, Islamic power conquered much of Northern India – creating a situation where there was  an opposition between the religion of the rulers and of their subjects. Over the centuries, Islamic authorities developed two different responses to Hindu religion. The first was one of political pragmatism. Against the ulema’s demand that Islamic law should be imposed on their Hindu subjects, Islamic emperors often maintained that their numbers were too small – Muslims were ‘like salt in food’. If and when they became a larger section of society, application of Islamic law might become possible. In the language of sociology, this meant that imposing the religion of a ruling minority on a much larger mass of unwilling subjects was not viable. Islamic empires in North India followed this policy for half a millennium. But alongside this policy, religious thinkers of the Islamic Sufi traditions and Hindu bhakti sects slowly developed forms of worship that showed curiosity about other religious forms and eventually produced innovative combinations drawing on religious traditions that the orthodox on both sides would have considered entirely illegitimate. Despite the difference in the religious beliefs of the rulers and the major part of their subjects, pre-modern India had developed forms of toleration that spread from narrow religious doctrine to the ordinary life of people, and its arts and architecture – into different registers of intellectual and artistic production – making the subcontinent an interesting case of religious diversity and toleration.

This pre-modern equilibrium was upset by the development of modern state practices under colonial rule – which introduced several unprecedented factors into the scene of religious life. Missionary preaching against Hindu and Islamic beliefs created anxiety in both communities – among intellectuals and priestly groups. More significantly, the entry of the ideas of the modern state and modern nation from Europe destabilized the earlier ways of thinking about what religious communities were and what their relations could be in a modern world. It was slowly realized that the modern sovereign state had vastly superior powers of control and discipline compared to pre-modern empires – which generally tolerated diversity. Modern conditions of politics also created a demand for a new kind of affective relation between the people, their country and the state that was unprecedented. This sense of nationalism and popular sovereignty made the states more instrumentally powerful. But this also presupposed a conception of a single people-nation which was hard to apply to the map of diversity in South Asia. The political history of modern South Asia – especially in the twentieth century has continually grappled with this problem – offering several possible responses. Broadly, there are two entirely opposed lines of reasoning: one advocates the creation of states based on the model of the European nation-state; the other suggests that imposition of that model on the sociology of deep diversity will be disastrous; and state-making in South Asia must conform to its logic of social diversity. Some of these ideas are fundamentally different from the conception underlying European nation-states. As Europe now faces the challenge of much harder religious diversity, it would be interesting for Europeans to look more closely at these arguments in Indian political thought.

We should pay attention to two dimensions of these processes. First, toleration proceeds in many different registers. It is only partially that toleration is made possible by intellectual work by philosophers, theorists, writers. Active practice of toleration also occurs in other registers – like music, literature, art and in the Indian case an innovative spirit in architecture. Secondly, in the field of theoretical discussion, we should pay attention to finer distinctions inside what we generally regard as toleration. At least two forms of the idea of toleration can be distinguished in the Indian case: first toleration for something that an individual or a group consider repugnant – like exuberant religious music which Muslims might find offensive to the principles of their religion, or, equally, the exuberant culture of image-making that is so typical of Hindus. We should not underestimate either the difficulty or the historical value of this form of toleration in Indian or Western history. But clearly, this notion of toleration is different from another that often grows out of this conception – which learns to treat diversity itself as richness. Religious people at times point to the fact that human cognition is finite, and out of their finitude one religion develops a particular way of worship of God; while other religious faiths devise other forms. In some cases, religious devotees come to view this diversity of paths as enriching, rather than threatening. In Indian religious history, several strands – Hindu, Muslim and Christian – show this line of thinking. Again, it is important to point out that such celebration of diversity is not a peculiarly modern achievement. Development of religious thought in medieval India went powerfully in this direction. Historical analysis will then encourage us to do more work on theory. We should not treat religious diversity as a peculiarly modern problem; and toleration as a modern solution. Bringing the historical experience of non-European societies into the analysis of religion and secularism will demand serious revisions of received theories through which the history of religious life and the modern secularization processes have been seen.

Cette ressource est publiée dans le cadre de la quatrième saison du festival "Mode d'Emploi", organisé par la Villa Gillet.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Sudipta Kaviraj, "Secularity in Indian History", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), janvier 2015. Consulté le 14/07/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/commonwealth/secularity-in-indian-history

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