Atal Bihari Vajpayee on the Indian Concept of Secularism

January 1, 1992

Indian political ideology has accepted the supremacy of the political system but they have never supported autocratic dictatorship. There is a need to put some check on the political authority. This check is that of law. Even during the Vedic period, the importance of law was recognized. The cycle of seasons, as conceived during the Vedic period, was based on the concept of law which regulates the entire world. It is said in the Rigveda that the earth remains firm in its position because of the law (Niyam), the same law keeps the sun in its position in the sky. Similarly, the State has no function according to the law or ‘niyam’. These laws provide the foundation for the concept of Dharma. The moral and material well-being of the people can be ensured by the State by acting according to Dharma.

We find that Dharma is used in the Indian thought in a much broader sense and in different contexts than the word ‘religion’, though often Dharma and religion are used as synonyms. The word Dharma has been derived from ‘Dhri/dhatu , which means something ‘to hold.’ Thus we can say that anything that helps to keep something in its original form is its Dharma. The natural tendency of any object (or an individual) and its qualities denote its Dharma. Dharma is also used in the sense of duty. Therefore, in the social context, Dharma is important. [...] Dharma allows freedom of thought and faith but as long as you are following your Dharma or act according to your Dharma, you are on the right track.

We must realize the difference between Dharma and religion. Religion is related to certain definite beliefs. As long as one shares those beliefs, he remains a member of that faith, religion or ‘mahzab.’ No sooner does one give up those beliefs than he ceases to be a member of that religion. Dharma is not entirely dependent upon beliefs. A person may not have any religious faith but still he could be called ‘Dharmik’. That means he has good qualities. Essentially, Dharma is a way of life. It is something more than just living according to certain beliefs. When Dharma gets associated with a particular community, it becomes a religion. It also becomes a religion when it is institutionalised.

[…] An analysis and comparative study of the Western and Indian concept of secularism leads us to the conclusion that the European secularism is something of this world and is independent of the Dharma or religion. On the other hand, a common man in India talks of life beyond this life and takes the belief as a matter of course.

[…] Mahatma Gandhi describes the correct attitude towards religion as ‘Sarva Dharma Sambhava’, equal respect to all religions. The concept of ‘Sarva Dharma Sambhava’ is somewhat different from the European secularism, which is independent of religion. In fact by propounding the theory of Sarva Dharma Sambhava, Gandhiji continued the age old Indian tradition which can be traced to the ancient saying of ‘Ekam Sadavipra Bahudha Vadanti.’ We may say that the Indian concept of secularism is Sarva Dharma Sambhava.

[…] Sarva Dharma Sambhava is not against any religion. It treats all religions with equal respect. And, therefore, it can be said that the Indian concept of secularism is more positive. It is especially suited to India as followers of different faiths had been living in India since time immemorial, long before the advent of Christianity and Islam... We should not ignore the fact that the Indian society is basically oriented to Dharma and has faith in it.

[…] The correct interpretation of the Secular State would be that all dharmas or religious faiths are treated with equal respect.

[…] In principle, it was accepted that the Indian concept of secularism would draw its inspiration from the Sarva Dharma Sambhava—equal respect for all religions. It would not be anti-religion. Still the Government followed such policies and implemented them in such a manner that gave rise to the apprehension that the State wanted to keep away from religion and treated it as a hurdle in the way of progress. The equality of all religions and also of their followers was not put into practice.

[…] In the absence of the correct understanding of the secular concept, some elements adopt a negative approach on some emotive issues placing a question mark on the concept itself. Practices like lighting a lamp at the inauguration of State functions or breaking a coconut at the time of launching a new ship are not connected with the rituals of any religion but are a part of Indian culture and tradition. ‘From darkness to light’—Tamso Ma Jyotir Gamaya’ is the guiding spirit of mans’ progress. Right from ancient times, man has challenged the forces of darkness by lighting a small lamp. Lighting of a lamp at public functions is thus symbolic. Similarly, I would pose a question to those who oppose chanting of Vedic hymns on such occasions. Could there be any objection to any mantra which exhorts to walk hand in hand and to speak and think with a feeling of oneness?

[…] We have to differentiate between the religious practices and rituals which have gotten associated with festivals and their social aspects to facilitate their transformation into national festivals.