Secularism and Spirituality


(Interactive session on 18.04.2014)

Keynote address by Mr. Amitava Tripathi

(Devotional song by Ms. Sikha Majumdar, Ratna Chatterjee, Sharmila Bhawal)

(Other speakers: Mr. Ramesh C. Chanda, Mr. Sujit Chatterjee, Mr. Sumit Dutt Majumder, Mr. A.K. Sengupta, Dr.Kalyan Chakravarty, Mr. Gautam Kanjilal, Ms. Sikha Majumdar, Ms. Sharmila Bhawal, Mr. S. R. Das & Ms. Manimala Das)

[Anchor, Introduction & Conclusive Remarks: Asish K.Raha]



No single English word has perhaps created more controversy over its meaning, interpretation and application, particularly in Indian context, than the term ‘secular’. No less enigmatic is the oft used term ‘spiritual’.

First used by the British writer George Jacob Holyoake in 1851, the word ‘secularism’ connoted in the beginning a social order separate from religion. In course of time, secularism in Europe suggested a movement toward separation of religion and government or, in other words, separation of state from the church. A logical sequel to that was replacement of scriptural laws with civil laws and elimination of discrimination based on religion. Automatically, it ensured protection of religious minorities.

In Indian context, ‘secularism’, instead of suggesting ‘Dharma-nirapekshata’ (neutrality toward all religions) is interpreted to imply ‘Sarva-Dharma-Samabhava’ or equal feeling (respect) toward all religions. By the 42nd amendment of the Constitution passed in 1976, the word ‘secular’ had been added to the Preamble. Prior to that, the word ‘secular’ was used in the Constitution only once in reference to secular activities of groups as opposed to religious or ecclesiastical activities. No definition of the said term has been provided in Indian Constitution. In the absence of any clear definition or delimitation of the term ‘secular’ the concept of ‘samabhava’ or equal feeling (or respect) to all religions has become the bone of contention in all spheres of life, religious, political, administrative and social, so much so that Hon’ble Delhi High Court in a recent Public Interest Petition seeking withdrawal of commemorative coins of the denomination of Rs. 5 and Rs. 10 with the image of Vaishno Devi on the ground of being un-secular has directed the State to submit what in its opinion is secular in next hearing on April 23, 2014. Similarly, continuation of Shariat laws for Muslims in contrast to uniform civil code for all other religions is often questioned on the ground of being un-secular, on the touchstone of ‘Samabhava’. The term pseudo-secular has come into currency in political arena in recent time.

The English word ‘spirituality’ meaning thought concerning spirit or the vital essence in living beings, originated from Latin ‘spiritualis’. In 5th century A.D its use was restricted to Biblical sense of being animated by God, driven by Holy Spirit. In 11th century the term was used to signify mental aspect as opposed to material and sensual aspects of life. In 13th century, it acquired social and psychological dimensions in the sense of identifying the clergy for the social and the realm of inner life for the psychological. In 17th and 18 centuries the term came to be associated with mysticism or occult power.

Viewed in traditional Indian context, as opposed to Abrahamic tradition, spirituality means the process of self-realization which culminates in the identification of not only self, but all souls as God (Tat Tvam Asi or Thou art That) as the Ultimate Truth, and elimination of all distinctive identities as unreal.

Now the questions are: can we synergize secularism with spirituality in our mundane lives? Is there any symbiotic relationship between the two? Are these two concepts antagonistic? Is it possible at all to integrate spirituality and secularism in India? If so, what are the pre-requisites?

Before we deal with those posers, let us dwell upon the above two concepts at a reasonable length.


SECULARISM – as Western concept

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the Latin origin of the word “secularism” is “secularis” meaning not religious or spiritual. According to Roget’s Thesaurus the synonyms for secularism are lay, temporal, worldly, earthly, banal etc.

The term “secularism” was first used by the British writer George Jacob Holyoake in 1851 An agnostic himself, Holyoake argued that “Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth.

Holyoake‘s 1896 publication English Secularism defines secularism as a code of duty pertaining to this life, founded on considerations purely human, and intended mainly for those who find theology to be unreliable or unbelievable. Its three essential principles are : (1)  improvement of human life is possible through purely material means; (2) science is the right path to seek  the answers  of human condition and (3) that it is good to do good,i.e. doing good is its own reward and there should be no further expectations from such acts.

Holyoake held that secularism and secular ethics should take no interest at all in religious questions (as they were unprovable and hence irrelevant), and were thus to be distinguished from free thought and atheism. In this he disagreed with Charles Bradlaugh, and the disagreement divided the secularist movement between those who argued that anti-religious movements and activism were necessary or desirable and those who argued that such measures were not required.

Barry Kosmin of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture classified modern secularism into two types: hard and soft secularism. According to Kosmin, “the hard secularist considers religious propositions to be epistemologically illegitimate, warranted by neither reason nor experience.” However, in the view of soft secularism, “the attainment of absolute truth was impossible and therefore scepticism and tolerance should be the principle and overriding values in the discussion of science and religion.”[7]


WESTERN SECULARISM – Separation of State and Church 

Secularism is essentially the principle of the separation of government institutions and persons representing the State from religious institutions and personalities. One manifestation of secularism is asserting the right to be free from religious rule and teachings or, in a State declared to be neutral on matters of belief, from the imposition by the government of religion or religious practices upon its people.  Another manifestation of secularism is the view that public activities and decisions, especially political ones, should be uninfluenced by religious beliefs and/or practices.

In the first decade of the sixteenth century, the doctrines and rituals of the Roman Catholic Church came under severe attack from Reformists like Martin Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. Around this period, another Catholic cleric, Erasmus of Rotterdam, became the chief spokesman of a system of thought known as humanism which held that people were capable of using their intelligence to lead their lives rather than relying on religious belief. Although Erasmus himself refused to espouse the Lutheran cause against the established Catholic Church, his humanist beliefs have increasingly come to inform public thinking in most modern democratic states.

Secularism is often associated with the Age of Enlightenment in Europe and has ever since played a major role in Western society. Due in part to the belief in the separation of church and state, secularists tend to prefer that politicians make decisions for secular rather than religious reasons.  In this respect, policy decisions pertaining to topics like abortioncontraceptionembryonic stem cell research, same-sex marriage, and sex education are prominently focused upon by western, especially American, secularist organizations.

Most major religions accept the primacy of the rules of secular, democratic society but may still seek to influence political decisions or achieve specific privileges or influence through church-state agreements such as a concordat. However, some Christian fundamentalists (notably in the United States) oppose secularism, viewing it as a threat to “Christian rights” and even national security. The most significant forces of religious fundamentalism in the contemporary world are Fundamentalist Christianity and Fundamentalist Islam. At the same time, one significant stream of secularism has come from religious minorities who see governmental and political secularism as integral to preserving equal rights. 



Secularism in India claims equal treatment of all religions by the state. Unlike the Western concept of secularism which envisions a separation of religion and state, the concept of secularism in India envisions acceptance of religious laws as binding on the state, and equal participation of state in different religions.

With the 42nd Amendment of the Constitution of India enacted in 1976, the Preamble to the Constitution asserted that India is a secular nation. However, neither India’s constitution nor its laws define the relationship between religion and state. The laws implicitly require the state and its institutions to recognize and accept all religions, enforce religious laws instead of parliamentary laws, and respect pluralism. India does not have an official state religion. The people of India have freedom of religion, and the state treats all individuals as equal citizens regardless of their religion. In matters of law in modern India, however, the applicable code of law is unequal, and India’s personal laws – on matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, alimony – varies with an individual’s religion. Muslim Indians have Sharia-based Muslim Personal Law, while Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and other non-Muslim Indians live under common law.

Secularism as practiced in India, with its marked differences with Western practice of secularism, is a controversial topic in India. Supporters of the Indian concept of secularism claim it respects Muslim men’s religious rights and recognizes that they are culturally different from Indians of other religions. Supporters of this form of secularism claim that any attempt to introduce a uniform civil code, that is equal laws for every citizen irrespective of his or her religion, would impose majoritarian Hindu sensibilities and ideals, something that is unacceptable to Muslim Indians. Opponents argue that India’s acceptance of Sharia and religious laws violates the principle of equal human rights, discriminates against Muslim women, allows unelected religious personalities to interpret religious laws, and creates plurality of unequal citizenship; they suggest India should move towards separating religion and state.

In the first half of 20th century, the British Raj faced a rising tide of social activism for self-rule by a disparate groups such as those led by the Indian National Congress and the Indian Muslim League; the colonial administration, under pressure, enacted a number of laws before India’s independence in 1947, that continue to be the laws of India in 2013. One such law enacted during the colonial era was the 1937 Indian Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, which instead of separating state and religion for Western secularism, did the reverse.

This law along with additional laws such as Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act of 1939 that followed established the principle that religious laws of Indian Muslims can be their personal laws. It also set the precedent that religious law, such as Sharia, can overlap and supersede common and civil laws.

The 7th schedule of Indian constitution places religious institutions, charities and trusts into Concurrent List, which means that both the central government of India and various state governments in India can make their own laws about religious institutions, charities and trusts. If there is a conflict between central government law and state government law, then the central government law prevails. This principle of overlap, rather than separation of religion and state in India was further recognized in a series of constitutional amendments starting with Article 290 in 1956, to the addition of word ‘secular’ to the Preamble of Indian Constitution in 1976.

The overlap of religion and state, through Concurrent List structure, has given various religions in India, state support to religious schools and personal laws. This state intervention while resonant with the dictates of each religion, are unequal and conflicting. For example, a 1951 Religious and Charitable Endowment Indian law allows state governments to forcibly take over, own and operate Hindu temples, and collect revenue from offerings and redistribute that revenue to any non-temple purposes including maintenance of religious institutions opposed to the temple;[ Indian law also allows Islamic religious schools to receive partial financial support from state and central government of India, to offer religious indoctrination, if the school agrees that the student has an option to opt out from religious indoctrination if he or she so asks, and that the school will not discriminate any student based on religion, race or other grounds. Educational institutions wholly owned and operated by government may not impart religious indoctrination, but religious sects and endowments may open their own school, impart religious indoctrination and have a right to partial state financial assistance.

Secularism in India, thus, does not mean separation of religion from state. Instead, secularism in India means a state that is neutral to all religious groups. Religious laws in personal domain, particularly for Muslim Indians, supersede parliamentary laws in India; and currently, in some situations such as religious indoctrination schools the state partially finances certain religious schools. These differences have led a number of scholars to declare that India is not a secular state, as the word secularism is widely understood in the West and elsewhere; rather it is a strategy for political goals in a nation with a complex history, and one that achieves the opposite of its stated intent.

In the West, the word secular implies three things: freedom of religion, equal citizenship to each citizen regardless of his or her religion, and the separation of religion and state. One of the core principles in the constitution of Western democracies has been this separation, with the state asserting its political authority in matters of law, while accepting every individual’s right to pursue his or her own religion and the right of religion to shape its own concepts of spirituality. Everyone is equal under law, and subject to the same laws irrespective or his or her religion, in the West.

In contrast, in India, the word secular does not imply separation of religion and state. It means equal treatment of all religions. Religion in India continues to assert its political authority in matters of personal law. The applicable personal law differ if an individual’s religion is Islam, Christianity, or Hindu. For example, the minimum age of marriage for girls is 18 for Hindu and Christian Indians, while the personal law according to Sharia allows Muslim Indians to marry a girl less than 12 years old. In Western secular countries, age of consent and age of marriage are derived from secular laws, not religious laws.

The term secularism in India also differs from the French concept for secularity, namely laïcité. While the French concept demands absence of governmental institutions in religion, as well as absence of religion in governmental institutions and schools; the Indian concept, in contrast, provides financial support to religious schools and accepts religious law over governmental institutions. The Indian structure has created incentives for various religious denominations to start and maintain schools, impart religious education, and receive partial but significant financial support from the Indian government. Similarly, Indian government financially supports, regulates and administers the Wakf Council (Islam), historic Hindu temples, Buddhist monasteries, and certain Christian religious institutions; this direct Indian government involvement in various religions is markedly different from Western secularism.



The disgraceful surrender of the Indian government to retrogressive pressure in the infamous Shah Bano case is a permanent blot on India’s secular credentials. The controversy is not limited to Hindu versus Muslim populations in India. Islamic feminists movement in India, for example claim, that the issue with Muslim Personal Law in India is a historic and ongoing misinterpretation of Quran. The feminists claim Quran grants Muslim women rights that in practice are routinely denied to them by male Muslim Ulema in India. The ‘patriarchal’ interpretations of the Quran on the illiterate Muslim Indian masses are abusive, and they demand that they have a right to read the Quran for themselves and interpret it in a woman-friendly way. India has no legal mechanism to accept or enforce the demands of these Islamic feminists over religious law.

Writing in the Wall Street JournalSadanand Dhume criticised Indian “Secularism” as a fraud and a failure, since it isn’t really “secularism” as it is understood in the western world (as separation of religion and state) but more along the lines of religious appeasement. He writes that the flawed understanding of secularism among India’s left wing intelligentsia has led Indian politicians to pander to religious leaders and preachers, and has led India to take a soft stand against Islamic terrorism, religious militancy and communal disharmony in general.

Others, particularly historian Ronald Inden, have also observed that the Indian government is not really “secular”, but one that selectively discriminates against Hindu communities while superficially appeasing Muslim leaders (without actually providing any community or theological benefits to regular Muslims in India). In fact, left-leaning governments in India (such as in the Indian states of UP, Bihar, West Bengal, etc.) covertly support Madrassa curricula for Muslims, helping traditional Islamic scholarship and teaching fundamentalist beliefs. 


Spirituality – as Western concept

‘Spirituality’ like secularism has no universal or uniform definition. In Abrahamic tradition ‘spirituality’ was understood in the beginning as the search for the sacred – ‘a transcendent dimension within human experience’.

According to Waaijman, traditionally spirituality meant a process of re-formation which aimed “to recover the original shape of man, the image of God,” (one may recall the revelation in Old Testament that God created man in His own image). In course of time, the meaning of the term kept on changing, from internal experience of the individual to “Hasidism, contemplation, kabbala, asceticism, mysticism, perfection, devotion and piety”.

Etymologically, the English word ‘spirituality’ is a derivative of the word ‘spirit’ which means “animating or vital principle in man and animals”. The term ‘spiritual’ means “concerning the spirit”, which is derived from Latin spiritualis, which comes from “spiritus” or “spirit”.

The word ‘spirituality’ came to be commonly used toward the end of the Middle Ages. By that time, the earlier Biblical meaning i.e. recovery of the original shape of man, no longer sounded convincing.  Spirituality was meant to imply the mental aspect of life, as opposed to the material and sensual aspects. In Social context, spirituality denoted the domain of the clergy while Psychologically, it denoted the realm of the inner life. In the 17th and 18th century a distinction was made between higher and lower forms of spirituality (a spiritual man was taken to represent higher form of Christianity).

In early 19th-century, intuitive and experiential approach of religion rooted in Protestant movement, brought about a significant change in the concept of spirituality with endorsement of universalist and Unitarianist ideas suggesting that loving God shall redeem all living beings, not just Christians, and that there must be truth in other religions as well.


Vedantic Spirituality

Vedantic universalism lies at the core of Hindu spirituality from the hoary past down to present time. According to this spiritual tradition, entire cosmos including all matters and spirits are nothing but God or Brahman in evolved form. In the state of dissolution all that are evolved get involved into Brahman. This ongoing cycle is the axiomatic Truth in Vedanta. Spirituality, according to this tradition, is the process of realization of this axiomatic Truth. The obvious corollary is that one who has realized this Truth does not make any distinction between the man and any sub-human species and also does not discriminate one man from another, given the fact that God is at the core of every evolved form including human. At the height of spiritual realization one experiences identity with God (Sohaham or I am He) and at the summit of spiritual experience the Ultimate Truth reveals itself as ‘all that exists is God’ (Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma) or ‘Thou art That’ (Tat Tvam Asi).

It is this rich spiritual tradition of non-discrimination handed down to posterity by great spiritual leaders, prophets, sages and saints, great secular emperors and ministers, belonging to different ages and faiths,  that forms the core of Indian secularism,  notwithstanding the deviation like hereditary and highly discriminatory caste system, untouchablity, discriminatory evangelical preaching and forcible conversion from one faith to another. The spirit of Sarva-dharma-samabhava imbibed by Indian Constitution owes its origin to this non-discriminatory spiritual tradition.


Secular spirituality

Secular spirituality is a recent phenomenon, though well known in olden days. It suggests adherence to spiritual ideals and tenets such as love, compassion, acceptance, tolerance, forgiveness, harmony, non-violence and concern for others outside religious framework. Some of the ancient religions like Buddhism, Jainism etc. did not dwell upon God or even mention It. Even Samkhya philosophy, arguably the oldest Indian philosophy, did not mention God. In content and substance, these philosophies can be held as secular. Yet there is no denying that for reason of its supreme emphasis on the spiritual growth of all adherents through meditation, and noble deeds and thoughts, thrust of all those religions has been essentially spiritual.

Secular spirituality of recent time is, however, distinctive from traditional religions and philosophies including even those that did not mention God. The emphasis of Secular spirituality is on secular practices such as Yoga or psychotherapy for mental cure through past life regression.

As for Yoga that essentially belonged to Hindu tradition is not relatable to any religion in particular and has been universalized since last century, world over. Although it has been adopted internationally as a secular exercise to integrate the mind and the body rendering them uni-directional to achieve higher goal in life, the said higher goal so targeted can be termed as spiritual in essence.

The other example of regression therapy to cure patients is essentially a secular procedure, having no bearing whatsoever on spiritual realization. However, with past life regression popularized by psychiatrists like Dr. Brian Weiss, emphasis has shifted entirely to developing spiritual qualities such as love, compassion, forgiveness, non-violence, concern for others etc. in order to get over mental fixation or baggage from past lives that are at the root of present life sufferings.

The above two examples of secular spirituality are merely illustrative and not exhaustive. 



Every civilization or culture, according to Swami Vivekananda, has a particular life-centre, and the life-centre of Indian culture is spirituality.  Indian spirituality is deeply rooted in philosophy. Philosophical enquiries in ancient India were carried out in the inner world and not in the external world like it were done by contemporary Greek philosophers. The emphasis of Vivekananda, the great Vedantist, was, however, more on man-making than on God-realization. In his series of lecture on Practical Vedanta, the Swami summed up his views on faith as follows:The old religions said that he was an atheist who did not believe in God. The new religion says that he is the atheist who does not believe in himself”. This practical approach made the Swami known as neo-Vedantist of the present era, whose views showed perfect blend of spirituality and secularism.


Let us now revert to our first poser in the Introduction, i.e. can we synergize secularism with spirituality in our mundane lives. If we care to study the messages of all spiritual leaders irrespective of their nationality, tradition or faith, their emphasis has always been on service to the poor, apart from faith in God. As for India, in Vivekananda’s words: “the national ideals of India are RENUNCIATION and SERVICE”. The underlying motivation for both is essentially spiritual, though the action toward fulfilment of above two ideals par se is secular. Likewise, Buddha’s concept of Nirvana is spiritual but his prescription of eight-fold path to prepare one for Nirvana is secular. Sage Vashishtha’s lessons to Rama, compiled in Yoga-Vashishtha were apparently secular with a clear undertone of spirituality. Our answer to above poser, therefore, is that synergy between secularism and spirituality in our mundane lives is quite possible.


As to our second poser whether there is any symbiotic relationship between secularism and spirituality, we have come to the conclusion that since a spiritual person does not believe in discrimination between any two persons based on religion, he/she is essentially secular. But the contrary proposition that all secular persons are essentially spiritual is not true, even though some secular persons may also be spiritual. Therefore, we have no reason to conclude that secularism and spirituality have symbiotic relationship.


As regards our third poser whether the above two concepts are antagonistic, we have already concluded that there is no apparent conflict or contradiction between secularism and spirituality and that all spiritual persons are necessarily secular going by the fact that spiritually presupposes non-discrimination.


Let us now come to our last two posers, viz. whether it is possible to integrate spirituality and secularism in India? If so, what are the pre-requisites? The answer is clearly in the affirmative for the former, while for the latter the only pre-requisite that comes to mind is self-less service without discrimination going by our national cum spiritual ideals, delineated by Swami Vivekananda.

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1 Response to Secularism and Spirituality

  1. RKGupta says:

    An excellent and exhaustive coverage of the subject with deep insight. Thanks to the main speaker and all others, who have enriched the discussions, including Mr. Raha for introducing the subject and drawing conclusions.
    My comments are very superficial: For me secularism is often used in the context of discrimination between followers of different religions, In this context, I feel that religion generally has to be seen in the context of ‘duty’ or ‘dharma’. In simple words activities that contribute towards the general good of the society (Punya). All other actions, which create troubles or hurt others are ‘adharma (Paap)’. That being so the dharma for different societies or people may be different, depending upon the needs of the society, its circumstances i.e. social, economical and geographical considerations. What may be good for one society may not be good for the others. A very simple example is eating habits, which depend upon the type of food available. The problem comes when such rituals and customs are carried through and are tried to be practiced against the sentiments and conditionality of the host-society. In other words rigidity and not understanding the importance of adapting to changed circumstances is what creates disharmony. People often in the name of religion want to force upon others such disciplines, which are not suited to the indigenous populace. In fact this happens because people do not understand the real purport of the religion.
    Again being crude and with due apology, in today’s context it cannot be suggested that the evidence of two learned and knowledgeable women should be equated to that of one illiterate and ignorant man. Such dictates would have to be seen in the right context, according to the conditions then prevailing and so on. Similar is the reference in the Ramcharitmanas-‘Dhor, gawar, Shudra, Pashu, Nari, Yeh sab tadan ke adhikari’. Out of context, it is meaningless.
    Spirituality in my humble opinion is plain and simple seeking the Truth. That, which is Eternal and unwavering, the inner-most core of all that exists. Rising above all that is relative, dwelling in and getting firmly rooted in the Truth is spirituality.

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