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Indian Secularism: a Theological Response Essay


For many years religion has been a dominant force in all human societies, embracing all aspects of human life. The world was sought to be understood and explained in terms of religion. It was with the path breaking discovers in the world of physical sciences and as well as the social movements like the reformation and the renaissance that broke away the domination of religion in the middle Ages. Thus there was a gradual process by which the church and state began to be separated in the west. The first foundation of secularism began to be laid with this separation. Secularism appeared as an opponent to Christianity but in course of time, it was identified as a way of life and an interpretation of life that did not admit any kind of communal prejudice. But by and by, the secular attitudes became necessary for a modern rational society.

Secularism has been a critically important development in the modern world. In India, secularism attains an added significance because of the fact that Indians have been deeply wedded to religious consideration in the past and is hardly devoid of such consideration even today. It is because of the fact that the India represents a multiplicity of socio-communal groups. Secularism is the spirit which enlightens the constitution of India. But the incorporation of secularism in India and especially into the constitution was itself the culmination of a historical process, which is the key to understand our present day secularism. Therefore one must find out the foundations on which the whole structure of Indian secularism has been raised. My seminar paper is attempt to analyse the historical back ground of the origin Indian secularism, its developments, threats that Indian secularism faces and a theological response to Indian secularism.


The term secularism was created in 1846 by George Jacob Holyoake in order to describe “a form of opinion which concerns itself only with questions, the issues of which can be tested by the experience of this life” . Holyoake was a leader of the English secularist and free thought movements. According to Holyoake government should work for the benefit of the working classes and poor based upon their needs in the here and now rather than any needs they might have for a future life or for their souls. For him secularism would mean that which seeks the development of the physical, moral, and intellectual nature of man to the highest possible point. The concept of secularism was originally developed as a non-religious philosophy focused upon the needs and concerns of humanity in this life, not the possible needs and concerns associated with any possible afterlife. . The word secular means “of this world” in Latin and is the opposite of religious .

As a doctrine, secularism is usually used to describe any philosophy which forms its ethics without reference to religious dogmas and which promotes the development of human art and science. Secularism was also designed as a materialistic philosophy, both in terms of the means by which human life was to be improved and in its understanding of the nature of the universe. The first and perhaps most common understanding of “secular” today stand in opposition to “religious.” According to this usage, something is secular when it can be categorized with the worldly, civil, non-religious sphere of human life. A secondary understanding of “secular” is contrasted with anything that is regarded as holy, sacred, and inviolable. According to this usage something is secular when it is not worshipped, when it is not venerated, and when it is open for critique, judgment, and replacement .

‘In political terms, secularism is a movement towards the separation of religion and government. This can refer to reducing ties between a government and a state religion, replacing laws based on scripture with civil laws, and eliminating discrimination on the basis of religion. This is said to add to democracy by protecting the rights of religious minorities’ . The society which practices secularism is known as secular society or state. The salient features of secular society or state are the following. Secular society is not homogenous, but is pluralistic. It is tolerant. There is a deep respect for individuals and the small groups of which they are a part and equality for all people. Each person should be helped by society to realize their particular excellence. It breaks away the barriers of class and caste. India by its constitution is considered as a secular state . It is in this context I am trying to find the historical back ground of Indian secularism.


Secularism in India has very different meaning and implications. The word secularism has never been used in Indian context in the sense in which it has been used in Western countries. India is a country where religion is very central to the life of people. India’s age-old philosophy as expounded in Hindu scriptures called Upanishad is ‘sarvadharma samabhava’, which means equal respect for all religions . The reason behind this approach is the fact that India has never been a mono-religious country. Even before the Aryan invasion India was not a mono-religious country. There existed numerous tribal cults in Indian even before Aryan invasion and most of whom happened to be Dravidians. The advent of Christianity and Islam also added more religious traditions to existing Indian traditions. Thus it would be correct to say that India is bewilderingly diverse country in every aspect of religious, cultural and caste. Though the idea of secularism in the West was the separation of religion from the State, in India it acquired a different meaning and shape.

It is because Indian secularism was a response to a different and unique historical situation. Religious toleration was a part of Indian historical tradition. It existed before the idea of secularism was introduced to India. It got coupled with Indian secularism and became its base and foundation. Secularism in India was conceived as a system that sustained religious and cultural pluralism. Some researchers believe that the history of Indian secularism begin with the protest movements in the 5th century B.C. The three main protest movements were by the Charvakas (a secularistic and materialistic philosophical movement), Buddhism, and Jainism. All three of them rejected the authority of the Vedas and any importance of belief in a deity . Here I am going to analysis the historical origin of Indian secularism through different stages of Indian history.

3.1 Secularism in the Pre- Colonial Period or in feudal India

Under feudal system there was no competition between different religious traditions as authority resided in kings and generally there were no inter-religious tensions among the people of different religions. They co-existed in peace and harmony though at times inter-religious controversies did arise. There was also tradition of tolerance between religions due to state policies of various kings since time immemorial from Gupta Kings to Ashoka and Akbar. Many religious sects and practices kept away from rigid intolerant forms . The contribution of king Ashoka to the development of secularism or we may say the tolerant existence of all religion is admirable.

His approach was more humanistic. He was very tolerant towards all religion. Ashoka gave great importance to the ideal of tolerance towards different ideologies and religions. According to Romila Thapar, Ashoka’s definition of social ethics is based on a respect for all religious teachers, and on a harmonious relationship between parents and children, teachers and pupils, and employers and employees. Contributions of kings like Ashoka and Akbar gave a solid foundation to Indian secularism . Thus Indian had a very different face of secularism, which based on the tolerance and mutual respect. But by the coming of British rule there was drastic change in understanding secularism.

3.2 Secularism in British India

By the 18th century, British East India Company slowly began to gain total control over India along with it the ideas of secularism began to have impact on the Indian mind. Until then, religion was considered to be inseparable from political and social life. British codified laws pertaining to practices of each religion separately as part of their divide and rule policy. In doing so they laid the foundation for a non-uniform civil code which remains largely unchanged to date. During the British rule, the main challenge was not between religious and secular but it was between secular and communal. In the western world main struggle was between church and sate and church and civil society but in India neither Hinduism nor Islam had any church-like structure, hence there never was any such struggle between secular and religious power structure. The main struggle was between secularism and communalism.

The communal forces from Hindus and Muslims mainly fought for share in power though they used their respective religions for their struggle for power . The contribution of Christian missionaries to Indian society and especially to the growth of secularism is admirable. Evangelism that they followed was based on respected freedom of choice and promoted the ideas of religious freedom. They could develop morality based on humanism which promotion of the ideas of human dignity, worth, and freedom. One of the greatest achievements of British rule was modernization of education by promotion of secular knowledge. Missionary’s social work was the application of the ideas of human dignity, equality, and worth . This gave rise to the emergence of Indian freedom fighters. Their understanding of secularism was different. They intertwined secularism with nationalism.

3.3 Secularism in modern India

After independence and separation a large number of Muslims were left in India and for this reason the leaders like Gandhi and Nehru favored to keep India secular in the sense that Indian state will have no religion however people of India will be free both in individual and corporate sense to follow any religion of their birth or adoption. Thus India remained politically secular but otherwise its people continued to be deeply religious. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India was great champion of secularism and secular politics. Theoretically speaking the Congress Party was also committed to secularism. However the Congress Party consisted of several members and leaders whose secularism was in doubt. Dadabhai Naoroji, Justice Mahadev Govind Ranade, and Surendranath Banerjee were the prominent Indian national congress leaders whose understanding of secularism was moderate. One of the most outstanding moderate leaders was Dadabhai Naoroji who was considered as the founder of secular nationalism in India. His idea of secularism was that religion and politics must be separated.

He went further than this and asserted that religion must be subordinated to politics. He believed in Swaraj, according to him it can be achieved only through the political union of all Indian people belonging to various creeds and classes. For him secular nationalism was a way to mobilize and unite whole people of India belonging to different creeds and classes to fight against British whose rule created disastrous consequences on Indian economy. Since he belonged to a minority community of India, promoted and believed in the idea of religious toleration. His idea of secularization implied and represented nationalism, anti-imperialism and anti-communalism. He urged Indians to subordinate their loyalty to their religion at the alter of their devotion to their nation . Nationalist leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilk, Lala Lajpat Rai were of the position that Indian nationalism was religious nationalism not secular nationalism.

They were known as extremists in Indian national congress. The extremist school mixed religion and politics. They used religion in arousing sentiments of nationalism among the Indian masses. They consciously and deliberately used religion as the basis of their nationalism. For them nationalism was the prime consideration and highest value which should be achieved by all means. They believed that as soon as nationalism gets deeply rooted in India, secularism would inevitably get promoted because nationalism itself is an agent of secularism. They were not in favor of a theocratic state, but they accepted the conception of India remaining a multi-religious community and firmly believed in Hindu-Muslim cooperation. They used religious symbols and terminology to expand and intensity devotion to the mother land. Their strategy was to use religious feeling and sentiments to create great love for mother land among Indians irrespective of religions.

For that they revived the memories of the Vedic past of Hindus and used the neo-vedantic movements and the cult of mother worship. The negative side of this religious nationalism was that it caused for communal violence among Hindus and Muslims . Gandhi viewed secularism from a religious perspective. He believed that religion and the State are inseparable, that ir-religiosity encouraged by the State leads to demoralization of the people and that, therefore, the State’s religious policy should be pluralistic with equal respect to all religions. Mahatma Gandhi believed that all deities were manifestations of the One and all religions led to the same goal. It was this kind of a pluralistic approach to religion that made him to oppose religious conversions . Gandhi said that his opposition to conversions, especially of Christian conversions, originated from his own position that all religions were fundamentally equal and that equal respect, (Sarva-dharma-samabhava) not mutual tolerance, was the need of the hour. He also accused Christian Missions of using social services to net in converts.

He argued that the Harijans had ‘no mind, no intelligence, no sense of difference between God and no-God’ and that they could no more distinguish between the relative merits than could a cow . Thus, the Gandhian pluralistic perspective of secularism disfavors conversions, especially among the Harijans for at least two reasons, firstly since no religion can claim absolute truth and since all religions are fundamentally equal, conversions are out of question and secondly secularism provides freedom of religion to all people alike without considering their intellectual ability and it is unjust. Thus the real spirit of Gandhian understanding of secularism is all inclusiveness, religious pluralism and peaceful co-existence . Jawaharlal Nehru interpreted secularism from an agnostic point of view.

For him religion stands for stand for blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition and exploitation, and preservation and exploitation of vested interests’ . During the Independence Struggle, it was Nehru, Jinnah, and Subhash Chandra Bose who upheld that it was wrong for religion to interfere in politics. According to him ‘all human enterprise should be delivered from religious dominance and should become more apparent’ . As an agnostic, he believed in rationality, secularism, and a scientific approach as the true means of progress in India. He understood that the destruction of religious superstition by secularism was the only means to a peaceful India. He viewed secularism as a great cementing force of the diverse people of India whose mind is divided on the basis of religion.

For him it was the necessity of the time to replace religion with secular values to grow together in unity and fraternity. Nehru represented the Western form of secularism very well. While Gandhi stressed on the equality of all religions and religious pluralism, Nehru was more inclined towards the modernity of the Enlightenment. It was the able leadership of a secular visionary such as Nehru that held India together through out the early unstable years of the country. Nehru’s agnosticism and rationalism had no place for religious dictates in political matters. Therefore, he was able to see religion with a scientific eye and keep religious fundamentalism away from interfering in Indian politics .


The concept of secularism as embodied in the Constitution of India cannot be viewed in the sense in which it is viewed in the West, but in the context of the following provisions of the Constitution: the Constitution guarantees freedom of conscience, freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion and also freedom to establish religious institutions and manage or administer their affairs. It prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion and guarantees legal and social equality to all by providing equality before law and equal protection of laws, prohibiting discrimination with regard to places of public importance and providing for equal opportunity in matters of public employment. The Constitution also guarantees religious minorities the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice and to conserve their script, language and culture. This provision of the Constitution naturally indicates that the Indian secularism is being built upon the freedom, equality and tolerance in the field of religion. The essence of secularism is that the state is neutral in its relationship with religions .

Thus, the distinguishing features of a secular democracy as reflected by our constitution are, firstly that the state will not identify itself with or be controlled by any religion. Secondly while the state guarantees to everyone the right to profess whatever religion one chooses to follow, it will not accord any special treatment to any of them. Thirdly no discrimination will be shown by the state against any person on account of his religion and faith. Fourthly the right of every citizen, subject to any general condition to enter any office under the state will be equal to that of his fellow citizens . The basic outlines of the secularism are enshrined in the different Articles of the Constitution, they are; Preamble says India is democratic, republic, socialist, secular country.

Secondly no State Religion: There shall be no ‘state religion’ in India. The state will neither establish a religion of its own nor confer any special patronage upon any particular religion. So the Indian constitution gives important to no religion but all treated equally. The distinguished characters of this secular aspect of our country can be drown from this. They are; the state will not compel any citizen to pay any tax for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious institution (Article 27). No religious instruction shall be provided in any educational institution wholly run by state funds. Even though religious instruction is imparted in educational institutions recognized by state or receiving aid from the state, no person at lending such institution shall be compelled to receive that religious instruction without the consent of himself or of his guardian. In short, while religious instruction is totally banned in state-owned educational institutions, in other denominational institutions it is not totally prohibited but it must not be imposed upon people of other religions without their consent (Article 28).

Thirdly the freedom of Conscience: every person is guaranteed the freedom of conscience and the freedom to profess, practice and propagate his own religion, subject only. Fourthly, equality before law Article 14 grants equality law and equal protection by the laws to all. Article 15 enlarges the concept of secularism to the widest possible extent prohibiting discrimination on grounds of religions, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Article 16(1) guarantees equality of opportunity to all citizens in matters of public employment and reiterates that there would be no discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, sex, color, place etc. Fifthly and finally the cultural and educational right Under Article 29 and 30 certain cultural and educational rights are guaranteed.

Article 29 guarantees the right of any section of the citizens residing in any part of the country having a distinct language, script or culture of its own and to conserve the same Article 30 provides that all minorities, whether based on religion or language, shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice . Therefore our constitution can be considered as manifesto of Indian secularism. This is sum and substance of Indian understanding of secularism. The main thrust of Indian secularism is not aversion towards religion but religious tolerance and equal respect to all. This is very different from the western understanding of secularism. But communalism, religious fundamentalism or favoritism of politicians towards particular religion create big challenge to Indian secularism. Now I am going to deal with the major threats of Indian secularism.


India has been declared a secular state by its written constitution and it is every Indians duty to stand by and believe in this declaration. And yet recent political and social events have questioned the secular nature of India. Is India a secular country only on paper or does secularism actually exist in India; or is in the form of pseudo- secularism, a term the BJP and its allies seem to repeatedly harp on. One of the salient features of Indian secularism is its religious tolerance or peaceful co-existence of all religion. This is violated due to communalism or fundamentalism. The B.J.P. and its aliens criticize the present day secularism as “pseudo-secularism”, which spoiled the minorities at the expense of the majority and demanded that special rights for minorities be taken away . Communalism among these parties created lot of violence in our country. The attack on the Mosque at Ayodhya led to a rash of violence across the country. The events leading to the demolition of Babri Masjid and their aftermath of communal carnage mark a watershed in the history of free India.

The traumatic events clearly exposed the chasm that had been created between the two communities by communal forces. Today, the biggest challenge to the Indian secularism is Hindutuva.The communal forces are actively propagating the myth that Secularism is a new mask of fundamentalism. They denigrate the secular policies, which are a hindrance to Hindu Right’s unobstructed march to subjugate the oppressed in general and minorities in particular. They are equating fundamentalism with Islam; and the policies of Indian rulers with secularism, and the appeasement of mullahs as being synonymous with secular policies.

Further, Hindutva forces accuse that secularism pampers the Muslims as a vote bank. The Muslims are accused of extra-territorial loyalty because they allegedly cheer for Pakistan whenever India and Pakistan play cricket. Since Muslims are being thought synonymous to fundamentalism; therefore the assertion that the Indian state is appeasing fundamentalists in the name of secularism. It is precisely on this charge that the Father of Indian Nationalism, Mahatma Gandhi, was assassinated by one of the votaries of Hindutva.

The Christians, who are much lesser in number, are accused of being more loyal to the Vatican. Christians are being accused of conversion, which is in way a great threat to Indian secularism. Christians are trying to convert poor Hindus with inducements of education and food. It is against the gospel values of freedom and dignity. Conversion should take place within the heart, which means with right knowledge and freedom. But the violence against Christian on the ground of conversion is not right. Who can forget the brutal burning of Graham Staines and his two minor sons by a member of the Bajrang Dal in the name of religion? Or even the rape of some sisters in Gujarat, their fault being the spreading of the word of their God.

Another important hazard to Indian secularism is the lack of uniform laws for all religions. In Indian each religion has particular laws apart from the common law. It creates lot of problems regarding marriage, adoption etc. Though it is granted by our constitution which was made by British and it was the part of their divide and rule policy. This has to be changed for bringing unity among the Indians. This will help the minority sometimes to take advantage over majority. Some of these particular laws are dehumanizing and against equality that our constitution grantees to all.


Our father of nation, Gandhi once said that “I do not expect India of my dreams to develop one religion, i.e., to be wholly Hindu or wholly Christian or wholly Mussalman, but I want it to be wholly tolerant, with its religions working side by side with one another.” This is the dream of every citizen of India. But what we see in our present day is the big threats to our secularism, especially envisaged by our great leaders and also carved in our constitution. For Indians the concept of secularism means the peaceful, respectful co-existence of all the people in spite of differences. The time has come for each one of us as Indian theologians to discuss and find out the ways for solving or facing the major threats to our secularist existence. We need a country where all people are considered equally, treated with equitable opportunities for his or her own personal development. We need a country where all are respected not on the basis of social status but on the basis on dignity or human value that we all possess. We all are created in the image and likeness of god.

The image or dignity that we all have is the basis of our peaceful or mutual respectful co-existence, which is threatened by the communalism, religious fundamentalism etc. India being a traditional society which contains not one, but many traditions owing their origin, in part to the different religions that exist here, has retained the secular character. Ours is a society where Sufis and Bhakti saints have brought in a cultural acceptance for each other. But due to the wasted interest of some people who have concern for their careers as politicians or leaders rather than welfare of people mess our secular nature of our country. There were successful to create hateredness in the heart of Indian people. There should not be any feeling of otherness as we all have a shared history. What we have to develop is humanistic secularism where all are respected on the basis of each one’s dignity. Our rights and obligations are grounded in the dignity of people and which helps us live in communion with god and in solidarity with others .

The pastoral constitution of second Vatican Council, GS 24 says, ‘God, who has fatherly concern for everyone, has willed that all men should constitute one family and treat on another in a spirit of brotherhood. For having been created in the image of God…all men are called to one and the same goal, namely, God himself… for this reason, love of God and neighbor is the first and greatest commandment…indeed, the lord Jesus, when he prayer to the father, “that all may be one… as we are one”… opened up vistas closed to human reason. For he implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine persons, and in the union of god’s sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on the earth which god willed for it, cannot fully find himself except through sincere gift of himself’. Therefore, as we are having not one history but many history of different religious origin, we need to develop feeling of members of same family with equal dignity and right.

Today what we need is community based on love, toleration, mutual acceptance. For this we need new metaphors of love which will empower us in our enterprise for creating solidarity with social group, building bridges between communities. Jesus gave us the law of love, to love one’s neighbor as oneself. He preached against retaliation, and showed the way of forgiving. We need to create mutual respect for all accepting each other as equals, and members of same family which is prime spirit of Indian secularism.

Being Christian we are accused on conversion, which in fact one of the causes for persecutions against us. But the original theology of church does not tell us that we have to spread the gospel by any means. According to Jesus conversion is from the heart. Real conversion takes place in the heart. It pulls us away from the forceful conversion. By forceful conversion I mean is that conversion without full knowledge and freedom. We make people as members of church by offering food, education but real conversion should happen by means of our selfless service. People of other religions of India respect our selfless service to the humanity. There is truth in every religion. All religion gives the way to god. Therefore conversion doses not look nice in our present day society.

India’s secularism and its constitution articulate the basic assumption of India’s people, namely, that religions are not contradictorily opposed but complementarily related, not withstanding their serious differences. This assumption is in keeping with the ideal of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. The wisdom of secularism India is that it promotes true religiosity, as envisaged in Indian constitution, and as enunciated in the preamble to the constitution: justice, liberty, equality and fraternity . Therefore what we need is that practice of Indian religiosity which is based on justice, liberty, equality and fraternity.


1. Goyal, Raju. Secularism and Indian thought. Ritu Publishers, Delhi, 2000. 2. Kalliath, Antony and Irudaya, Raj., ed. Indian Secularism: A Theological Response. Indian Theological Association,2010. 3. Khan, Kamaluddin. Secularism in India: A Brief Study. Patna University press, 2006. 4. Marbaniang, Domenic. Secularism in India: A Historical Outline, 2005. 5. Tejani, Shabnum. Indian secularism; A Social and Intellectual History. Permanent Black Press, Ranikhet, 2007. 6. Secularism in India accessed on 9 January 2012; available from 7. Secularism accessed on 10 December 2012; available from w.w.w.

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