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Hinduism Is Intrinsically Secular



By Ram Jethmalani

December 29, 2013

The Hinduism of India, unlike Judaism, Christianity or Islam, is not a religion, but a somewhat complex culture and civilisation of ancient origin. No one knows when it was born, but it certainly predates the birth of the western Abrahamic religions by several centuries. The awesome, mind boggling discoveries of Mohenjodaro and Harappa testify to a highly developed society, existing about 5,000 years ago in the area of Balochistan, modern Sind and the Punjab, in the broad plains and valleys of the lower Indus river. The likes of these have not yet been discovered in any other part of this planet.

The archaeological evidence of the Mohenjodaro and Harappan civilisations points towards a highly sophisticated degree of organisation and standardisation, implying a strong administrative structure and centralised mechanisms for controlling production and distribution, and probably a highly efficient system of taxation. The twin capital cities were laid out to a common ground plan and were roughly contemporary, although a transfer of the seat of government from one to the other is a distinct possibility. The extremely advanced stage of standardisation indicates the existence of a universally accepted commercial code and uniform techniques of production controlling even the sizes of bricks, and the dimensions of streets and houses. Agricultural output was under municipal control, and huge granaries similar to those of the contemporary Egyptian civilisation dotted the landscape. For centuries, street frontage regulations were strictly observed.

There appears to be evidence of two main racial strains: the first, and probably the socially dominant one, belonged to the long-headed "Mediterranean" type, which spread from Spain to India. The second belonged to the "Australoid" group with thicker features, probably the original natives of the land. The cities were centres of religious and administrative life on a grand scale, with countless shops and residential houses. The large houses of the wealthy had doormen, elaborate bathrooms, even large pools of water, for religious or recreational purposes, and rubbish chutes running through the outside walls into bins probably cleared by the municipal authorities. A complex drainage system under the streets was connected with house drains. There seems to be no doubt that the general standard of health and sanitation were remarkably high. Women's jewellery and garments were of high standards of artistry and aesthetics, capable of withstanding the high fashion test of the contemporary world.

History teaches us that all civilisations, as they mature into a nobler society, start placing high value on human life and common good, which requires peaceful coexistence. At some point they reach a stage when they cannot visualise the destructive power of the barbarian, and hence weaken themselves to defeat it. Civilisation espouses law and order, human happiness, progress, prosperity, and peace. And a long stretch of these enjoyed by any society renders it ill-equipped to annihilate barbarians, who have no such individual or collective values. Though there are several theories regarding how the Indus Valley civilisation ended, the timing suggests that it suffered the same fate that overtook the Greek and Roman civilisations, getting conquered by the sturdier barbarians from the north. In this case, the northern barbarians were the Aryans.

Though they are presumed to be pastoral, illiterate and nomadic groups descending from the north, the Aryans, after they made our land their home, came to be possessed with phenomenal intellectual skills. They produced the Vedas, the Puranas and the Upanishads, immortalised after the Indo-Anglian encounter, by philosophers, writers, historians, political thinkers, Indologists, researchers, scientists and poets from the world over. The intellectual and spiritual achievements of the early inhabitants of our land are unparalleled. Even today in the contemporary world, their philosophic grandeur and completely secular discourse articulated almost 5,000 years ago, on humanity, on the universe, and the divine, inspires awe and wonder. Every modern Indian should be proud of his great heritage, and rest assured, being proud of it will in no way qualify you as "communal", try as some political parties might, to psyche or intimidate you.

Let me refer my readers to the most profound Sanskrit invocation from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which tells us what the Hindu sought from the God to whom he prayed. He did not seek power or wealth, nor hatred or enslavement or slaughter of those who had different beliefs, but only spiritual light and peace on earth for all its inhabitants. This is the prayer: "Asato m sadgamaya, Tamasom jyotir gamaya, Mrityorm amritam gamaya, O h nti h nti hnti", and its English translation: "Lead me from ignorance to truth. Lead me from darkness to light. Lead me from death to immortality. May there be peace, peace and eternal peace."

Our forefathers of millennia gone by do us proud. Can anyone question the intrinsic secularism of their mind and intellect ...? Hindu scriptures clearly preach "Eko Sat Vipra Bahudi Vedanti", meaning that though there is one Truth, it is interpreted differently by different intellectuals. Differences in interpretation do not brand anyone as an infidel or heretic or guilty of blasphemy. Ancient historians present no evidence of religious conflicts or wars, minor or major, in our part of the world.

I have earlier written two pieces on this very page under the headlines, To Be Hindu Is Not Communal (17 November) and Hindutva is a secular way of life (30 June). I request my readers to revisit them, though what is presented is a small capsule of what I believe is a very significant and relevant thesis.

This ancient Hindu civilisation met Islam during the lifetime of the Prophet Mohammad himself. There was an old established sea route for maritime trade from Middle Eastern areas to India, even before the birth of Islam. Trade between Rome, the Levant and South India is recorded in history, centuries before the birth of Mohammed. Gold poured into India in exchange of its spices and silks and textiles. There are numerous archaeological finds of Roman coins in Pudukottai and Arikamedu in South India. India was known the world over for its wealth and highly developed society.

Islam did not enter India by jihad or by violent invasion, but through trade and peace. The first mosque, Cheraman Juma Masjid, in Kodungallur taluk, Kerala was established by the Arabs in 612 AD, while the Prophet was still alive, on land gifted by the Hindus. Even before Islam had been established in Arabia, trade with the Malabar region flourished. After the advent of Islam, Arab merchants became propagators of the new religion, and numerous people living in the coastal areas of Kerala accepted the principles of the new religion and converted to Islam. Islam was welcomed, as was Judaism and Christianity before it, and so was the construction of the mosque.