Religion and the Indian constitution

October 1, 2017 by  
Filed under India, newsletter-india

India, October 01, 2017: Checking political tyranny, protecting the basic interests of dissenting minorities, and saving all citizens from taking decisions now that they might regret later are important objectives of all liberal-democratic constitutions. But the Indian Constitution goes further — it attempts a comprehensive social transformation, to effect a social revolution.

Religion appears to be the main target of this attempted transformation. If so, how does this transformative potential of the Constitution impact a society saturated by religion?

To answer this question, I begin with a distinction between individual ethics of self-fulfilment and social norms of everyday conduct. By the first, I mean a framework for meaningful living and dying, say, a full life in this world, swarga (heaven) in another world, or freedom from recurrent births and deaths (moksha or nirvana), or obeying the commands of God.

By social norms of everyday conduct, I mean rituals and ceremonies of social interaction, but primarily norms governing interpersonal relations — with whom one should or should not interact, who one should or should not marry, with whom one should or should not dine, who is to perform which job in society, etc. Ethics of self-fulfilment and norms of social conduct may be so tightly connected that they form one single system. Or the connection between them may be so loose that they are seen to constitute two separate systems.

Ethics and social norms

In the Abrahamic traditions, the connection between ethics and social norms was forged so tightly that they became part of a single deeply connected system. And the term ‘Religion’ was invented to refer to this whole. Thus, if a person chose to be, say, a Latin Christian, he instantly became part of this entire system. Adopting a particular set of Christian beliefs on salvation went hand in hand with taking part in specific Christian rituals and ceremonies, and entering a web of unequal social relations with non-Christians. It would be wrong and impermissible for a person with Christian beliefs to participate in non-Christian social rituals or tolerate pagans.

For this reason, a religion-centred social revolution in Europe meant (a) breaking the monopoly of Christianity, presenting options other than dominant Christian ideas of self-fulfilment — pluralisation of ethics; (b) loosening the connection between ethics and social norms, freeing social norms from Christian ethics, building norms of social equality that transcended religious identities — secularisation; and (c) fighting a church that blocked secularisation and pluralisation.

By contrast, the connection between ethics and social norms remained very loose in the Indian tradition. Because social norms and power hardly ever dictated the choice of ethics, there was greater innovation, and so ethical frameworks proliferated. There were always many ethical frameworks to choose from. People could move freely from one framework to another and sometimes, without any discomfort, participate in several. And yet, precisely because social norms existed independently of ethics, this very ethical flexibility went hand in hand with great rigidity within social norms. This is so because hierarchical and fixed caste relations lay at the core of these norms. Ironically, they even complemented each other; as long as one remained within the caste system, one could choose any ethical framework, any path to self-fulfilment. A person could find fulfilment in a loving relationship with Krishna, in achieving swarga, or in liberation from the cycle of rebirth and at the same time follow common norms governing unequal social relations. A person may quit a this-worldly Vedic ethic in order to lead an ascetic Jain life but all the while continue to belong to the Vaishya caste, and therefore remain enmeshed in hierarchical caste relations. This was true even for those who became Christians or Muslims; they chose a modified Abrahamic ethic but remained entrenched in the caste system.

‘Religion’ in India

Given that the term ‘religion’ was invented to refer to a single system, it was not easily applicable in the subcontinent where ethics and social norms do not cohere into one single whole. Yet, such is the force and sway of the term ‘religion’ that it has been simultaneously used to refer to two relatively distinct and independent systems of ethics and social norms. This has generated many problems and much confusion.

Consider the following simple example from the natural sciences to grasp the absurdity of this profound misnaming. The term ‘water’ refers to a single entity composed of two distinct elements, oxygen and hydrogen. Where the two gases are deeply connected to form a single compound, the term ‘water’ is appropriate but we rightly use two distinct terms ‘hydrogen’ and ‘oxygen’ for each when the two remain disconnected from each other. How utterly erroneous to call them ‘water” when they exist separately! Calling distinct systems of ethics and social norms in India by the common term ‘religion’ is equally insane. But then once a term grips the popular imagination, it is difficult to dislodge.

Some scholars have tried to get out of this hole by using ‘religion’ in two different senses — ethical religion and social religion. Though not entirely satisfactory, we might accept this and say that in India, a profound pluralism of ethical religions exists. Yet, followers of different ethical religions participate in much the same caste-ridden social religion.

How does all this help us understand the relationship of our Constitution to Indian religions? Unlike Europe, where people have to fight for pluralisation of ethics, here: (a) We strive to conserve our immense pluralism of ethical religions, to act against any attempt at religious homogenisation or exclusion. This conservative function the Indian Constitution performs. (b) By preventing a tight connection between social norms and ethical religion, the Indian Constitution also ensures that we do not have ‘Religion’ as originally conceived, something as totalising as Latin Christianity had been or Saudi Islam now is. (c) Finally, its main objective is to destroy what is at the core of India’s dominant social religion — its deeply hierarchical caste system. This last feature alone marks it as an instrument for social revolution.

– the hindu

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