Circular reasoning

Print edition : January 01, 2010

Meera Nandas writing occupies a distinctive intellectual niche in the academic and media discourse on the nature and practice of secularism in India. In a major book, Prophets Facing Backward, and in a number of academic papers, essays and media articles (and two short collections of essays), she has brought to bear a perspective on this question that distinguishes her work from a wide variety of other writers and scholars engaged with this theme.

Her work so far has been marked by the special attention she has paid to the relationship between science and secularism in the Indian context. Going beyond the limitations of the arguments over the Nehruvian vision of the link between secularism and scientific temper, she has drawn attention to the much larger role of science in the debate between secularists on the one hand and Hindu communalism on the other. In Meera Nandas account, the ideological machinery of Hindu communalism in the 20th century has drawn sustenance from a more pervasive and widespread neo-Hinduism, central to whose world view is the idea that Hinduism provides a uniquely scientific perspective in the spiritual quest. While all fundamentalisms have some form of exceptionalism as part of their ideological foundations, Hindutvas particular brand arises from this allegedly unique scientific nature of Hinduism as compared with all other religions.

Meera Nanda has argued convincingly that it is the widespread acceptance, overtly or otherwise, of this brand of Hindu exceptionalism, even by those who were in many other respects in the secular camp, that rendered Indian secularism vulnerable to attack even before a full-scale attack was mounted on it by a resurgent Hindutva in the late 1980s. Meera Nanda has argued, again convincingly, that all modern trends in Hinduism, given their tendency for an uncritical acceptance of this notion of Hindu exceptionalism, render themselves vulnerable to being co-opted into the ranks of Hindutva. She has provided an engaging account in Prophets Facing Backward of the different stratagems that neo-Hinduism adopts in the pursuit of the scientificity of Hinduism, often on the basis of loose pseudo-scientific analogies between the language of science and the vocabulary of Hinduism. The contemporary brand of Indian pseudo-science that is actively championed by Hindutva, an Indian parallel as it were to the well-known link between evangelical Christianity and the American brand of pseudo-science, is in Meera Nandas view rooted in this aspect of neo-Hinduism. In her short book titled The Ecological Wrongs of the Religious Right, she has explored the particular case of the neo-Hindu and Hindutva version of religion-inspired pseudo-science in the realms of biology and ecology.

In her latest work, The God Market, Meera Nanda turns to explore a somewhat different aspect of this link between contemporary Hinduism, the professed secular nature of the Indian state, and Hindutva. The focus here, in her own words, is on the changing trends in popular Hinduism, and the overall aim is to describe how modern Hindus are taking their gods with them into the brave new world and how Hindu institutions are making use of the new opportunities opened up by neoliberalism and globalisation.

The crux of the argument in the book is that there is a causal connection between economic reforms and the rise of popular Hindu religiosity. Meera Nanda argues that economic reform, while encouraging a neoliberal market economy [sic], is also boosting the demand and supply for religious services in Indias God market, and the progressively greater embedding of a new Hindu religiosity in everyday life, in both public and private spheres, is aided by the new political economy. With the withdrawal of the Nehruvian state from the social sector, a new state-temple-corporate complex is emerging to fill the space as a consequence of the state actively seeking partnership with the private sector and the Hindu establishment. The rising tide of popular religiosity among the Hindu middle classes in the era of liberalisation is a consequence of this religiosity being deliberately cultivated by an emerging state-temple-corporate complex that is replacing the more secular public institutions of the Nehruvian era. This rising tide of popular Hindu religiosity continues to feed the forces of Hindutva, assisting among other things in the routine conflation of the domain of the national with the domain of Hinduism.

The idea that globalisation is in some way intimately connected with, or is even perhaps one of the drivers of, the many fundamentalisms that we see in the world today is an idea that has respectable patronage, including, among others, the eminent historian Romila Thapar. In the Indian context, it has been widely noted that the challenge to the Nehruvian vision of secularism and scientific temper has risen in the same era as the era of economic reform and the right-ward shift in Indian foreign policy, away from the vision of India as the leader of the non-aligned world towards a vision of India as a global player aligned strategically with the United States and the developed world. In opposition to the view that the Sangh Parivar is somehow anti-globalisation and that self-reliance is somehow equally a Parivar slogan (a view aided by the activities and attitudes of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, a Parivar outfit), commentators on the Left have argued that Hindutva is no less pro-economic reform and that it is equally at home with liberalisation and globalisation. Nevertheless, few have argued for a causal nexus between globalisation and the rise of popular Hindu religiosity as closely as Meera Nanda, or shown the two to be as directly knit as she portrays in this new book.

Much of the book appears to be actually devoted to arguing the much weaker proposition that contemporary Hindu institutions are actively utilising the opportunities provided by the modern world to further their cause. One may argue that this is a somewhat obvious proposition with a wealth of examples, which can be picked even from casual observation, to back it up. Religious preaching or fundamentalist propaganda can reach out much further in the era of instant communication. Cable or satellite television broadcasts provide many opportunities that are utilised by all manner of religious or fundamentalist organisations. A wide variety of Hindu institutions and neo-Hindu cults, ranging from the religious trust and administration associated with the temples at Tirupati and Tirumala to the organisations associated with religious personalities such as Sai Baba or Mata Amritanandamayi, run educational institutions and even modern, officially recognised universities. Hindu organisations and cults administer a range of charities and organisations dealing with health and medicine. Hindu organisations have proliferated around the world and have struck especially strong roots where there is a numerically significant and well-heeled Indian diaspora. The diaspora followers of Hindu organisations are also an important source of funds, as well as prestige and visibility, for Hindu and Hindutva organisations. After all, what credibility or oomph would a guru or swamiji possess without at least a small retinue of non-resident Indians and preferably foreigners?

Meera Nanda covers much of this kind of ground with many apt illustrations in the second, third and fourth chapters of her book. One may certainly agree with her in the characterisation that she offers of the three significant dimensions of contemporary popular Hindu religiosity, namely the invention of new rituals, the gentrification of the gods and the booming guru culture. Indeed, much of the characterisation is based on scholarly work available on the subject. The existence of a booming guru culture and its links to Hindutva is of course somewhat obvious.

However, it is arguable whether these examples really lay a basis for her claims of the emergence of a state-temple-corporate complex. It is certainly true that the Indian state has increasingly weakened secular credentials after the rise of Hindutva and the success of Hindutva-related political forces in being elected to govern both at the Centre and in the States. Much has been written, including by Meera Nanda herself, regarding the attempted de-secularisation of government consequent to the electoral victories of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), especially at the Centre. The Sangh Parivar penetration of the government was a major issue in the period of BJP rule, but a timid United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government refused resolutely to detoxify (to use the late Harkishen Singh Surjeets fine phrase) government institutions, especially in the educational sector, which was a prime Parivar target.

It is also true that corporate India, despite some initial misgivings, has learnt to live peaceably with Hindutva. BJP-ruled States have been no less eager to roll out the red carpet for the captains of industry both from home and abroad. Several major corporate houses also have a long record of involvement in charitable work relating to religious institutions. Corporate houses have demonstrated their willingness to put secularism on the back burner and prioritise their short-term economic and financial interests (as with the house of Tatas and the Modi government).

What is unconvincing is the overarching claim that these examples point to the emergence of something that merits the rather grand appellation of a state-temple-corporate complex. Indeed, corporate houses are uncomfortable with a militant Hindutva that disturbs law and order and stable governance and were certainly more than satisfied with the return of the UPA to power. Many institutions of the Indian state are willing to act and do act to protect secular values at critical moments. The critical issue here is to recognise the ambivalence of the state and the corporate sector in relation to secularism and not to one-sidedly use as evidence only their non-secular or anti-secular actions. Regrettably, in the authors take no prisoners style of argument, there is little room to understand or explore this ambivalence. Either the state is secular in full measure in the classical sense of the term or it must necessarily be considered entirely anti-secular.

In the event, the author herself can identify only two areas where this complex [sic] is significant, the first being education and the second, tourism. Even in these two sectors, the claim that the state and the private sector are working together to promote Hinduism seems less than credible. It is certainly true that the increasing privatisation of education is also utilised by Hindutva-related organisations to set up their own institutions, like numerous others. However, Meera Nandas claim that what the BJP government could not establish by way of Hindu-centrism of education is being accomplished by privatisation requires more evidence than is presented in the book.

Many would agree with Meera Nandas view that secular education is a public good that the state ought to provide to all its citizens without throwing them at the mercy of faith-based or cult-based institutions. But to proceed from the relative absence of state-run educational institutions and the ideological space that this affords Hindutva to the claim that economic globalisation and neoliberal reforms have created the material and ideological conditions in which a popular and ritualistic Hindu religiosity is growing is a leap that seems unwarranted.

Birla Mandir in New Delhi, illuminated on the occasion of Janmashtami on August 14.-SANDEEP SAXENA

The argument is even thinner in the case of tourism, where the authors argument is based on the states, and occasionally corporate houses, support for religious tourism. Even this reviewer, who is no votary of religious pilgrimages, is constrained to point out that tourism in India, untouched by the religious inclination, is a modern construct. For the newly rich as well as those of the poor and middle classes who have small disposable surpluses, religious pilgrimage is likely to be the first form of tourism. In another direction, occasions for the mass display of popular religiosity such as the Kumbh Mela certainly call for the intervention of the government in the interest of common safety and security. To take all instances of government regulation of religious tourism uncritically together and to read into it the emergence of a state-temple-corporate complex does not seem to aid a critical understanding of the link between popular religiosity and secularism. It is of course true that religious pilgrimage sites are happy hunting grounds for Hindutva groups to further their ideological campaign, and specific issues relating to some popular pilgrimage sites such as the Amarnath caves can certainly provide grist to the Hindutva mill.

Popular religiosity is a complex phenomenon, especially in the presence of many ideological forces and undercurrents in a society in a state of transition, even if not rapid transformation. It is a phenomenon that has many layers to it, as activists and scholars on the issue of communalism have come to recognise across the country. The book unfortunately displays little inclination to engage carefully with this literature. Perhaps in the authors perception such theories do not belong to the class of the most cutting-edge social theories about globalisation and the resurgence of religion that she promises the reader in the introductory chapter.

Given the thinness of the authors evidence relative to the weight of the theoretical conclusions that she wishes to draw, it is unsurprising that the theoretical considerations in the book are among its weakest and most unconvincing sections. The first chapter on globalisation covers ground that would be quite familiar to most of the authors likely audience in India. It is a chapter that leaves one with the impression that the book is really meant for a non-Indian audience. But it is in the last chapter that the insufficiency of the theoretical perspective that Meera Nanda brings to bear on the problem is most evident as the author showers a series of cutting-edge social theories on an unwary reader.

In substance, the author is in sympathy with the perspective, most notably espoused by the sociologist Peter L. Berger in his later work, that the secular project has essentially failed. Berger famously recanted in 1999 his earlier vision of the inevitable decline of religion, arguing that the supernatural has not lost its plausibility in the modern world. While Meera Nanda believes that this is applicable to India, she disagrees with Bergers argument that this persistence of religion lies in the economic fact of the undermining of lifes certainties for the majority of the population and the appropriation of secular values by the rich. She, quite correctly, points to the fact that contrary to what Berger suggests, popular religiosity in India has also significantly risen among those who have benefited enormously from economic reform and that popular religiosity grips both the well-to-do and the poor.

Of course, in transposing Bergers argument to India, Meera Nanda (along with Berger) loses sight of the possibility that this resurgence of religion could well be a short-lived phenomenon and that the decline of religion is indeed the long-term trend in modern industrial societies.

For the subsequent part of her argument the author moves on, approvingly, to what she calls the neoliberal perspective on religion, the next in her shopping list of theories. This is indeed curious because while she has always been dismissive of the Marxist view of religion, labelling it as reductionist, she turns now to a view that fully merits the label. In this demand-supply view of religion, espoused by Rodney Stark and his academic collaborators, there is indeed no room for the notion of secularisation. Religion always exists, so the argument runs, because there is a need, or a demand, for it. Whether it will be satisfied or not is a question of the supply of appropriate religions that are efficacious in responding to it. In this view, secularisation is an illusion created by the lack of appropriate supply to meet the demand for religion over brief historical periods. Social facts such as the fall of church attendance and overt religious observance do not mean the progress of secularisation as the persistence of personal belief points to a potential demand that is not being met by existing religious institutions.

It is from this perspective that the author formulates the proposition mentioned at the outset of this article, namely, that it is the neoliberal market economy following globalisation that is boosting the demand and supply for religious services in Indias God market. The rationale for this proposition is completely unclear as she appears to conflate the application of a demand-supply or market perspective on religion with the nature of religiosity in an era where economic policy is dominated by the market perspective.

But what is even stranger about the turn that her argument takes is that, in this demand-supply perspective, the weakly secular character of the Indian state is indeed a virtue that has led to greater religious plurality, as evidenced by the wide variety of cults and sects and religions in India. How then does the author square the circle, reconciling her use of the neoliberal perspective on religion after having railed against Hindutva and upbraided the Indian state for having forsaken secularism? There is indeed no direct answer that the author provides. All she can offer the curious reader is the somewhat feeble response that indeed a pure market for religion would not be problematic, but it is the unfortunate extension of sacrality to the realm of non-sacral entitites like the nation that is the source of the problem. The circularity of her reasoning and argument appears entirely to escape the notice of the author.

The book ends with an appeal for the creation in India of meaningful secular spaces, where people may interact with each other without reference to religious identities. Praiseworthy as this statement undoubtedly is, it is small consolation for the interested reader who, having followed the author into the blind alley of the demise of secularisation and its abolition in the neoliberal perspective, is left wondering where Indian society would find the resources for such a transformation.

Meera Nandas work, as we have remarked earlier, is marked by a strong tendency to ignore the multi-sided and often contradictory character of social phenomena. While her perspective has helped shed light on the social, intellectual and cultural resources that Hindutva can mobilise, she has rarely been able to throw similar light on the impulses for secularism in Indian society. One reason for this, undoubtedly, lies in her resolute unwillingness to consider atheism as an ally of secularism. She has always been insistent that movements that are atheist miss the point about the need of the masses for meaning in their lives, which can be met only by religion. That this meaning could also be provided by the advance of a secular imagination and the retreat of religion is not a prospect that she is willing to consider.

Another reason lies in her view of ideological transformation purely as an act of the mind without reference to any social and economic preconditions for such a transformation. More fundamentally, Meera Nanda has never reckoned with the possibility that any understanding of religion in contemporary India needs to grasp the reality of the incomplete modernisation of Indian society, rooted in the development of capitalism in an era when it has essentially lost its critical ideological impulse.

Meera Nandas passion for secularism will undoubtedly be shared by many readers in India and elsewhere, and the many observations that she has provided on various aspects of the Hindutva communal project in Indian society are useful and important. Yet, regrettably, she has little to offer in terms of a way forward from the current scenario towards a more secular social order except rhetorical calls for a meaningful, limited secularisation of society.

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