My friend Reshmi Bhaskaran asked us through her Facebook posting what secularism was? On the face of things, secularism, by its European definition would be the ineffectuality of religion in the affairs of politics and of public life since ideas of the Divine were to remain relegated strictly to the realm of the personal and the private. In India, secularism, which has had far longer a tradition than in Europe, usually meant equidistance from all religions. Parliament of religions which we frequently ascribe to emperor Akbar was, in fact quite the tradition in India.
Religious tolerance, tolerance of every faith and every creed was in fact quite an intrinsic part of a king’s dharma. Indeed, the cult of Jagannath launched by the great Ganga king Indradyumna at Puri is a veritable synthesis of all shades of beliefs, tribal, Vaishnav, shakes, Tibetan, Egyptian and even of Sri Lanka. Religious pluralism has been an essential component of good governance in historic india. IHow was such religious tolerance possible in India and for so long? Why was it necessary that every king worth his name would practice religious tolerance, plurality and equidistance? A possible reply for this is that religion never really mattered in the affairs of the state.
Religion was a cultural capital, cultivated as a matter of social refinement and not to govern the people. For governance, law and jurisprudence, India had its own dharma, a set of laws that were created purely on the basis of ideas of social equilibrium, or even perhaps of social status quo. A study of ancient and medieval law would give one an ample idea that principles of justice held equally for persons of all religion. In fact, it is only now that India does not have a uniform civil code.
The civil code, based on discourses of social equilibrium automatically relegated religion into the private sphere, though it may not have rendered it into a personal affair. Religious conversions often happened against social oppression, never in was close to empires, or to seats of power where the state was active enough to meet out justice to the aggrieved parties precisely on merits of hearing by a jury or even just a single judge. In short, India has always been secular even from the western point of view, because state and society were always separate, God belonged to society and the king to the state. These are my views.