We should all aspire for a Dharma rāṣṭra, a rāṣṭra that is in sync with Dharma.
Pritam Choudhury is from Agartala, Tripura. He studied electrical engineering at IIT Roorkee, after which, he graduated in Computer Science from the University of Cambridge. Currently, he is pursuing doctoral studies in programming languages at the University of Pennsylvania. He is deeply interested in Dharmic studies and exploring the wisdom of ancient India.
Secularism, in its myriad hues, has been deified in the modern Indic discourse. There is legal secularism, there is political secularism, there is social secularism, there is individual secularism and then presiding above all, there’s the opportunist secularism, the trump card in front of which everything must surrender. Because once you are pronounced to be non-secular, a barrage of adjectives awaits your adoration. Your arguments then have little or no value. In some sense, you have ceased the right to speak, and by extension, the right to be.
In the chaos of independence and partition, the Constituent Assembly juxtaposed Western ideas on top of Indic values and produced the Indian Constitution. Though the word ‘secular’ was added later to the constitution, it fits well in the Western liberal landscape of the preamble. I think that the constitution addressed the challenges of those times well. The aim was to take a country, divided along so many lines, faced with so many challenges, forward. To rejuvenate the roots of the civilisation was not the primary aim. So the idea of Indic identity was morphed in a loose garb of Western liberal values. To seek our unique place in the league of nations, firmly based on our cultural ethos, was therefore not under consideration.
Time went by and gradually the nation came out of abject poverty. Now we are doing well. With the economy and the polity functioning reasonably well, we have the latitude to consider the deeper and more important questions. What is the road that we want to take? What do we want to achieve for us and for the world at large? What is the legacy that we want to leave and why? These questions are not operational in nature; they don’t deserve answers like ‘5 trillion dollar economy’, ‘Mars mission’, etc. Rather, these are philosophical questions that demand answers from the very spirit of the nation.
Right now, looking at the social discourse, the answer seems to be secularism. The opposition states it clearly, the ruling party states it in a veil. The reasons behind this, as already stated, are not difficult to understand. But for a moment, let us ponder, what really is the Western idea of secularism? Put simply, it is the separation of the Church and the State. In the Indian parlance, it can be extended to mean separation of religion and the State. In Hindi, ‘secularism’ is translated as ‘dharma nirapekṣa’. This translation itself is a metaphor for the grand misunderstanding of dharma.
The word ‘dharma’ comes from the Saṃskṛta root ‘dhṛ’, which means ‘to hold, to bear’; meaning ‘dharma’ is that which holds or bears things. It is poles apart from ‘religion’, which is defined by the Oxford dictionary as ‘the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods’. In simple terms, ‘dharma’ means governing principles, the principles on the basis of which everything functions, the principles which hold together all of existence. In this sense, dharma is closer to science than to religion in the Western context. In the West, science and religion have been almost antithetical to one another and as such, this gross mistranslation only sings paeans of our ignorance and slavish mindset.
Amidst the colonial subjugation and confusion, we tried to understand Dharma through the lens of the West and this has landed us into this position today. We have almost forgotten the essence of Dharma. To add to this, we have drawn many stupid equivalences, which have obstructed or completely subverted the original meanings of many related words. To give an example, we have understood ‘deva’ as our version of Western god, some ‘superhuman controlling power’ while ‘deva’ is more like a principle guiding a process, like the principle of gravity guiding the attraction between astronomical objects. But a critic may ask, why then do we have human or other forms for deva? I tried to motivate this in an earlier work here.
It is high time that we understand the world our way, not through a borrowed Western lens, unless we wish to continue to remain in intellectual slavery. The Western interpretation of technical Indic words has detached them from their true meaning and in some cases, has imposed antagonistic connotations on them. The situation has come to such a position that even some Bhāratīya gurus are using Western interpretations. And then, the lay dhārmika has to defend Dharma against all sorts of insinuations.
But Dharma has been the backbone of this nation since time immemorial. All the great ācāryagaṇa of this land, from Ādi Śaṅkarācārya to Śākyamuni, from Mahāvīra to GuruNānaka, have expounded the Dharma, as they saw it. They explained the principles at work in the lives of men and the existence in general. Since they grasped these principles, they understood how best to live in line with them. They taught the ways, giving birth to Pantha. Like guides, they provided routes to navigate through saṃsāra.
What separates Western religion from Dharma is that the latter has no dogmatic aspect. Dharma is there for anyone and everyone to explore. As such, the teachings of the ācāryagaṇa can be challenged without being labelled as a heretic. This is why ancient Bhārat had a rich tradition of śāstrārtha. The aim was to understand the essence of Dharma and to explain it to the general public. Both the sides put their positions forward, challenged each other, gave arguments and counter-arguments, and in the end, accepted victory or defeat as per the rules of śāstrārtha. In this process, everyone was benefitted, for all moved a step forward in their understanding of Dharma. I shall not even try to compare this with our modern day debates on such matters.
But why is Dharma so important? To explain this, I shall ask you another question, why is science so important? It is because both of them shine a light on the principles governing existence. Science does that solely on the material level. Dharma does so both on the material and the spiritual levels. So, it is not surprising to find that Bhāratīya kalā and vijñāna developed as branches of exposition of the Dharma. But it did not stop within the material boundary. Once the material needs were satisfied, the spiritual questions were raised. Perhaps only in this land, the eternal questions of the human spirit found such a profound expression. Perhaps only in this land, the wealthy princes and kings gave up everything and went deep into the mountains and the forests in search of answers to these questions. And they did find answers and also showed others the way. Their answers reflected deep wisdom on the nature of human life and the existence. Their lives and teachings showed us how to blossom and how to live to the fullest.
It is not at all necessary that we carry the burden of Western intellectual colonialism on our minds. The idea of secularism makes sense in a Western context where dogmatic religion is at loggerheads with empirical science, making the segregation of the two necessary for the smooth functioning of society. But here we don’t have this problem and we don’t need to create this problem for the sake of solving it through secularism. The time is ripe that we consider our society from our own perspective and do away with this notion of secularism.
Then what should the identity of our rāṣṭra be? What should we all aspire for? The answer is, Dharma. We should all aspire for a Dharma rāṣṭra, a rāṣṭra that is in sync with the Dharma. When the rāṣṭra is aligned with Dharma, it ensures peace and prosperity for all prajā. Then, not only are people happy materially but they are aslo happy spiritually. Today, even the wealthiest countries on the globe cannot boast of spiritual happiness. Material comforts have not translated to the happiness of the mind and spirit; in some cases, it has resulted in deterioration. So let us take a holistic view of life, with all its facets, and align ourselves with the underlying principles governing life and existence. Let us work towards building our Bhārata as Dharma rāṣṭra. Let us never forget, धर्म एव हतो हन्ति, धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः ॥