By Tahir Mahmood
March 23, 2018
Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Brahmin, Dalit, Sunni, Shia, and so on and so forth — has not religion already divided humans enough? Has not this sickening segregation between man and man led to enough inhumanities? Why, then, boost claims for further polarisation? This is what I felt on reading what some others had to say on the Lingayats’ claim to “separate religion” status. A religion can have any number of theological divisions; indeed all of them have. Our Constitution takes cognisance of and accommodates this ground reality when it speaks of “every religious denomination or any section thereof” in Article 26 and of “any section of citizens” in Article 29. But does it also sanction widening of this disgusting schism? Not, as per my reading.
Pluralism within the broad Hindu religion is basically different from sectarian diversity in dogmatic religions like Islam and Christianity. Various sects of those faiths look down upon each other as a deviation from or distortion of true faith, but this is not the case with Hinduism. There is no tradition of takfir (verdict of heresy) in Hinduism, which is an exceptionally inclusive belief system. The Supreme Court had once observed that “we find it difficult if not impossible to define Hindu religion or even adequately describe it. Unlike other religions, the Hindu religion does not claim any one prophet; it does not worship any one God; it does not subscribe to any one dogma; it does not believe in any one philosophical concept; it does not follow any one set of religious rites and performance; in fact, it does not appear to satisfy the narrow traditional features of any religion or creed.” (Yagnapurushadji, 1966)
Continuing the argument, the court echoed a historical truth: “Development of Hindu religion shows that from time to time saints and reformers attempted to remove from Hindu thought and practices elements of corruption and superstition and revolted against dominance of rituals and power of priestly class; and that led to formation of different sects. In the teachings of these saints and reformers is noticeable a certain amount of divergence, but under that divergence lie broad concepts which can be treated as basic and there is a kind of subtle indescribable unity which keeps them within the sweep of broad Hindu religion.”
Pursuing this logic, several distinct religious sects have been declared by the court as internal divisions within Hindu religion — followers of Anand Marg, Swaminarayana Satsang, Madhavacharya, Ramanuja, Sri Aurobindo and Ramakrishna Mission among them (Lakshmindra 1954, Chinnama 1964, Yagnapurushadji 1966, SP Mittal 1983, Jagdishwaranand 1984). The Lingayats and Veerashaivas — members of a reformist cult founded in South India by the 12th century religious philosopher Basavanna — cannot stand on a different footing. All the four Hindu law Acts of 1955-56 do list them as “forms and developments” of Hindu religion.
The case of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism is different: Their identity as independent religions is well established in the society, and in law. The impression that under the Constitution and codified Hindu law, followers of these “Indic religions are considered as Hindus” emanates from a gross misreading of both these sources. Resulting from a faulty and unmindful drafting of both, it cannot be seen as true intention of legislature.
The Constitution empowers the state to remove caste-based restrictions on entry into Hindu temples, suffixing a clarification that this power shall extend also to Buddhist, Jain and Sikh shrines — Article 25 (2) & Explanation II. By no dint of imagination can this provision be interpreted to mean that these three religious groups are part of the Hindu community. The four Hindu-law Acts of 1955-56 do not include them among the “forms and developments” of Hinduism and mention them separately, besides Hinduism. They apply to four religious communities — the word “Hindu” has been used in their titles and provisions for the sake of precision, since Hindus are the largest group among the communities governed by these laws.
Treating Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism as variations of Hinduism is historically wrong and legally untenable, but so is advocacy of a “separate religion” tag for Lingayats. The Constitution concedes autonomy to all sections within every religious denomination but not the right to claim standalone status. If smaller sects in other religions — Theravada Buddhists, Terapanthi Jains, Namdhari Sikhs, Ismaili Bohra Muslims, Presbyterian Christians, to name a few — cannot lay claim to the status of independent religions detached from their roots, nor can the Lingayats and Veerashaivas. Obnoxious sectarianism is already at its height in all religions; let us not give it a fillip.
Tahir Mahmood is a former chair of the National Minorities Commission