Monday, 18 June 2012

Letter to a 'secular' friend

Dear 'secular' friend

I have been debating about religion most intensely with a variety of people recently including you. Casteist and Religious Hindus, Secular Muslims, Religious Islamists, Agnostic Hindus, Believing Christians, Agnostic Buddhists, Atheists, Spiritualists have all had something interesting to say and I have learnt a lot. I am not sure where I can categorise you. You are an atheist always preaching to me the harmful effects of Hinduism and the benevolence of Buddhism. Does that make you a Buddhist-atheist or atheist-Buddhist? You know best. I finally had time today to give words to my overwhelming feelings of despair whenever we have argued. I am not hoping to ‘convert’ you to my ideas. Merely hoping that you will see reason in my anxiety and that you will spend some time thinking about your own positions. I do that very often. I am never ashamed to admit that I could be wrong and unlike you I am not fixated on an ‘ism’ (in your case secular-ism) that only fences the terrain of thought than opening up spaces for critical enquiry. For me nothing is so sacred that it cannot be critiqued. For you, your secularism seems to be.

As you are aware, I visit the Helensburgh Hindu Temple in Sydney sometimes and also visited the Buddhist Nan Tien Temple in Wollongong recently. In India, have found myself fascinated by the Sufi dargahs and was lucky enough to visit Ajmer Sharif once. Hazrat Nizamuddin's shrine was a regular place of visit in Delhi. Have paid obeisance at the Golden temple in Amritsar, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, at the Sai darbar in Shirdi, at various historical Churches in Europe/Australia etc. I went to a Catholic school and my first academic job was in Catholic Ireland. I have admired the Yogoda teachings of Paramhansa Yoganand and his prayer to 'saints of all religions'. I have tried (unsuccessfully so far) to understand the vision of Swami Vivekananda and the divine consciousness of his Guru, Shri Ramakrishna. Meerabai and Kabir mess up my understanding of the world and what it offers. Guru Gobind Singh’s letter to God (mitre piyare nu), move me to tears as does Allama Iqbal’s shiqwa, jawab-e-shiqwa. However, my own relationship (or not) with the divine is not what I want to write about today but about the notion of 'secularism' that some people, including you, espouse that must actually privilege one religious belief over the other and must necessarily involve ridiculing one faith over others.

Let me start with the assumption that as a feminist, there is no doubt in my mind that ALL religions are rooted in patriarchal traditions and the deities, prophets, holy books, scriptures, rituals are deeply gendered. But this assumption alone cannot wish away the debate about religion and its importance in people’s lives. By religion, let me clarify, I mean its manifestation in popular culture and in ‘everyday’ life. In South Asia, it doesn't matter if you are a Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, you cannot be secular without also being religious and might I add, you cannot be truly religious, without being secular. Very often religious traditions, loosely defined, decide something as intimate as your diet, your expressions of grief or celebration. You have always taken pains to explain to me that Hinduism was the root of all problems in India, as caste was an issue that came with it. Perhaps. But it is also not irrelevant that I know many religious Hindus who do not believe in their caste, whose families have a long tradition of inter-caste/inter religious marriages and who are simply not obsessed with the idea of their surnames and the privileges (or not) it brings. I also know of Hindus who have struggled at a personal level to fight the inhumanity of caste practices. They may or may not choose to call themselves Hindus and that is not so relevant. That caste is not a Hindu idea of racial superiority alone, was also easily demonstrated in an encounter with a very well-known public figure in Kashmir whose first remark to me, when we met, was that he was a true "Qureshi". Not to mention that many Churches in India have had issues with allowing ‘dalit’ Christians from entering their premises. I am happy to elaborate further if you think it necessary. Your intelligent mind knows what I am talking about here. Exclusions are part of every society and the struggle for equality and dignity cannot be the struggle against Hinduism, I am afraid.

So back to what you, dear ‘secular’ friend have to say about Hinduism. You always argue in the end that conversion out of Hinduism is essential to end caste based discrimination. Really, is it that simple? I was born into a Hindu family and do not think I have fully understood even a miniscule percentage of the paradoxes of one of the world's oldest religion. I have questioned many patriarchal practices of this religion, even at the cost of some valuable relationships. Critique has come very naturally perhaps in a polytheistic faith where there have been multiple gods and goddesses and a variety of traditions often contradictory in nature. Hence accepting any one version of Hinduism, including that which suggests that caste violence is its ONLY reality is out of the question. (Please do not jump to conclusion that I am suggesting that caste violence is not rooted in Hindu traditions. Far from it. Hinduism is as patriarchal, feudal and exclusive as any other faith in this world). But if the right wing version of Hinduism and its dominant narrative of Ram janambhoomi was/is unacceptable to me, your narrative I reject.) Ram was not the presiding deity in my grandmother’s little temple and in Mithila, we pay attention to Sita’s story anyways. I grew up in a strong ‘Shakt’ tradition where the Goddesses were invoked and worshipped, but in a highly patriarchal social system that had otherwise little value for girls or women. That is how complicated ones relationship with religion and popular culture can be.

The inspiration for several art forms, music, dance, literature, paintings….Hinduism has evolved into a melting pot of culture, traditions (good and harmful). Surely a lot of this cannot be serving a communal agenda alone? Did you know that all great non Hindu artists (and I actually believe that artists are not rooted in any one religious tradition but since you insist on using labels freely) invoke Goddess Saraswati in their music? Did you also know that Pandit Jasraj invokes "meherban Allah" like no Mullah I have ever heard? Does your conversion logic also include doing away with every Hindu cultural symbolism anywhere? What does conversion mean anyway? Worshipping a different external God, believing in a different prophet, practising a different set of rituals, saying different set of prayers perhaps in a different language? I doubt you need to be reminded that this can never solve the problem of discriminatory practices that have evolved over a period of time. You want to make me believe one set of gods and prophets are better than the others. I say, they are all the same. Every religion can either be that benign source of inspiration and creativity or can destroy people and peace equally.

Dear 'secular' friend, just as all Islam is NOT fundamentalism/terrorism, all Hinduism is NOT communalism and Buddhism is NOT all equality, as you keep reminding me every time we have a conversation. This is weird because you are an atheist and any organised religion should be a problem for you. Might I remind you that Buddha himself was a patriarchal figure who had to be convinced to allow women into the sangha but not without several conditions that he imposed. Do I need to remind you of the consequences of political Buddhism in Sri Lanka? I often invoke this example in my classroom to make students think beyond ‘political Islam’ (which is a favourite topic everywhere these days!) As my wise mother whose long time wish has been to visit Bodh Gaya, once sagaciously remarked, "I don't understand this saint called Buddha. If I had the option to leave my family and become enlightened, I would have certainly been a success....but your father wouldn't have it that way." I laughed but my mother still wants to visit Bodh Gaya, to pay homage to the spirituality within her than to Buddha himself. She is not deluded into thinking that Buddha will solve all her problems. Your secularism, on the contrary, makes you delusional on many fronts.

Dear 'secular' friend, I love to hear MS Subbalakshmi singing praises of Lord Vishnu (yes a patriarchal God who has his consort at his feet!). I love Rafi sa'ab's divine voice calling out for "Hari darshan" or asking Krishna to fulfil his promise in the Gita when he sings “badi der bhayi Nandlala”, or reminding with all serenity, “sukh ke sab saathi, dukh mein na koi”. I feel emotional hearing Yesudas sing praises of Krishna as Lord Ayyapan (did you know that the temple in Kerala that plays his devotional songs would not still in 2012, allow him to enter the premises because he is a non Hindu?). I feel much moved everytime I play Mukesh's rendition of the Ramcharitmanas or Pandit Chhannulal Mishra narrating "Kevat Samvad" from Tulsidas' masterpiece where the boat rower (kevat) reminds Lord Ram that they belong to the same caste and hence he can't charge the Lord any fee for taking him across. He takes people across the earthly waters, and his Lord Ram across the cosmic waters and he wants the Lord to be true to a caste friend and not make him pay at the shores of the vast cosmic ocean which he must cross in his spiritual journey.

Dear 'secular' friend, I am very tired of your fanatic secularism, which has a very narrow understanding of religion. What bothers me is that you hail my knowledge of Sufi songs, my understanding of ‘other’ religions (as you see it) but make it a point to remind me every time that anything remotely 'Hindu' just uncritically becomes communal, casteist, gendered, feudal, homophobic and everything else you want it to be. As an Indian yourself (I assume you do not want to be reminded of the significance of your Hindu name?) I am amazed at your understanding and level of discourse. Please allow some self-reflection, some real tolerance to prevail and your prejudices to dissolve. It can be really liberating.

This is not meant to be a 'defence of Hinduism' article. No one knows my relationship with Hinduism's patriarchal legacy better than yourself and the prices I have paid for it. Religion is a very complex matter, my friend and in this techno-material age easy categories are not helpful. Easy labels are alienating people, breeding intolerance. Islamophobia is a reality as you and I truly believe in and we have seen the pernicious politics behind it. You are contributing to what I call 'Hinduphobia'. Why not instead, promote better understanding of faiths and practices than continuously churn out half informed ideas in the name of secularism? Fear mongering about religions in these deeply troubled times is not progressive politics of tolerance and critique. Let me conclude with a note of caution. You and your cohorts are empowering the Hindu right wing fanatics whose main argument has always been that those who malign Hinduism have never tried to understand it.


  1. Religious fundamentalism and also secularism is not preserve of any specific denomination. Well keep the discussion on.

  2. Thank you for writing. What is secular really? I don't define myself this way but would be curious as to why others might assume I am. Isn't religious faith and spirituality intensely private? How can we define for others that they are secular?

  3. Good points Megan. I agree, but this article is specifically aimed at those who call themselves 'secular' and is written in a particular context in the light of recent debates in India. :)