Archive for November, 2015

Religion and Society in India

The Centre for the Study of Social Systems at JNU (New Delhi) organized a panel on “Religion and Society in India” on November 3, 2015. The panellists included Prof. T.N. Madan, Prof. T.K. Oommen, and Prof. Shail Mayaram.

Prof. Madan began his talk by discussing the idea of Kantian “Enlightenment” and argued that the idea of an “individual” is a Christian idea. According to him, there is a tension between ideology and practice, and religion and politics in India today. Prof. Madan discussed how this tension is explained in the works of classical sociologists such as Marx, Weber and Durkheim.


For Marx, religion is the ideological superstructure. As you change the material foundations of society, the nature of superstructure will change. While Weber spoke about the dis-enchantment of the world, Durkheim saw religion as moral foundation of society. Despite this, Marx, Weber and Durkheim subscribed to the inevitable decline of religion in society.

Prof. Madan also argued that secularization is internal to all religions of the world. There is tolerance and compassion in all of them. Citing His Holiness Dalai Lama, Prof. Madan noted, “If Buddha were born in today’s context, he would not teach Buddhism, he would teach secularism”.

In his talk, Prof. Oommen asked, what is the real issue that confronts us in India today? According to him, the real issue is the mismatch between the “Hindu Society” and the “Secular State”. Prof. Oommen argued that while the Indian Constitution mentioned the term “secular” only once, Ambedkar argued that terms like “secular” and “socialism” are very value-loaded. It was only in 1976 during the 42nd Amendment that Indira Gandhi introduced the term “secular” into Indian Constitution.


Prof. Oommen argued that secularism in India may to refer to: (1) equal respect for all religions; and (2) the state keeps equal distance from all religions. Equal distance from all religions refers to separation between religion and state (non-intervention) or equal intervention in all religions. However, instead of accepting all religions as equals or “religious pluralism”, we started appeasing all religions.

According to Prof. Oommen, “unity in diversity” is the Indian collective conscience. The term was coined by British historian Vincent Smith in the 1920s and Nehru adopted it. However, in practice, it has been not unity in diversity but the dominance of majoritarianism. Finally, Prof. Oommen spoke about the notion of “composite culture” – the centrality of which is mutual respect, not one culture dissolving into another.

The last speaker of the Panel, Prof. Mayaram, began her talk with a discussion of the binaries such as religious and secular, sacred and profane, transcendent and immanent, and ratio (reason) and religio. She also talked how the beginning of the Axial age occurred with the Abrahamic religions.


Prof. Mayaram then spoke about some theses on religion and society: (1) the idea of Axiality does not apply to the Hindu-Buddhist religions; (2) India as we know should be understood as inter-connected network of diverse communities; (3) before the coming of modernity, we had multiple ways of belonging; (4) modernity is thought as an assemblage of capitalism and industrialism – however, we must think of multiple modernities and multiple temporalities; (5) two genealogies of nationalism in India – inclusive nationalism of Gandhi and Ambedkar and exclusive nationalism of Savarkar; (6) from inter-connected “religious pluralism” we have moved to “bounded nationalism” in India; and (7) we must revisit dis-enchantment and distinguish between religion as sect/belief and religion as ideology.


All three pictures were taken from google images.