Minute by the Hon’ble T. B. Macaulay, dated the 2nd February 1835.
 As it seems to be the opinion of some of the gentlemen who compose the Committee of Public Instruction that the course which they have hitherto pursued was strictly prescribed by the British Parliament in 1813 and as, if that opinion be correct, a legislative act will be necessary to warrant a change, I have thought it right to refrain from taking any part in the preparation of the adverse statements which are.now before us, and to reserve what I had to say on the subject till it should come before me as a Member of the Council of India.
 It does not appear to me that the Act of Parliament can by any art of contraction be made to bear the meaning which has been assigned to it. It contains nothing about the particular languages or sciences which are to be studied. A sum is set apart “for the revival and promotion of literature, and the encouragement of the learned natives of India, and for the introduction and promotion of a knowledge of the sciences among the inhabitants of the British territories.” It is argued, or rather taken for granted, that by literature the Parliament can have meant only Arabic and Sanscrit literature; that they never would have given the honourable appellation of “a learned native” to a native who was familiar with the poetry of Milton, the metaphysics of Locke, and the physics of Newton; but that they meant to designate by that name only such persons as might have studied in the sacred books of the Hindoos all the uses of cusa-grass, and all the mysteries of absorption into the Deity. This does not appear to be a very satisfactory interpretation. To take a parallel case: Suppose that the Pacha of Egypt, a country once superior in knowledge to the nations of Europe, but now sunk far below them, were to appropriate a sum for the purpose “of reviving and promoting literature, and encouraging learned natives of Egypt,” would any body infer that he meant the youth of his Pachalik to give years to the study of hieroglyphics, to search into all the doctrines disguised under the fable of Osiris, and to ascertain with all possible accuracy the ritual with which cats and onions were anciently adored? Would he be justly charged with inconsistency if, instead of employing his young subjects in deciphering obelisks, he were to order them to be instructed in the English and French languages, and in all the sciences to which those languages are the chief keys?
 The words on which the supporters of the old system rely do not bear them out, and other words follow which seem to be quite decisive on the other side. This lakh of rupees is set apart not only for “reviving literature in India,” the phrase on which their whole interpretation is founded, but also “for the introduction and promotion of a knowledge of the sciences among the inhabitants of the British territories”– words which are alone sufficient to authorize all the changes for which I contend.
 If the Council agree in my construction no legislative act will be necessary. If they differ from me, I will propose a short act rescinding that I clause of the Charter of 1813 from which the difficulty arises.
 The argument which I have been considering affects only the form of proceeding. But the admirers of the oriental system of education have used another argument, which, if we admit it to be valid, is decisive against all change. They conceive that the public faith is pledged to the present system, and that to alter the appropriation of any of the funds which have hitherto been spent in encouraging the study of Arabic and Sanscrit would be downright spoliation. It is not easy to understand by what process of reasoning they can have arrived at this conclusion. The grants which are made from the public purse for the encouragement of literature differ in no respect from the grants which are made from the same purse for other objects of real or supposed utility. We found a sanitarium on a spot which we suppose to be healthy. Do we thereby pledge ourselves to keep a sanitarium there if the result should not answer our expectations? We commence the erection of a pier. Is it a violation of the public faith to stop the works, if we afterwards see reason to believe that the building will be useless? The rights of property are undoubtedly sacred. But nothing endangers those rights so much as the practice, now unhappily too common, of attributing them to things to which they do not belong. Those who would impart to abuses the sanctity of property are in truth imparting to the institution of property the unpopularity and the fragility of abuses. If the Government has given to any person a formal assurance– nay, if the Government has excited in any person’s mind a reasonable expectation– that he shall receive a certain income as a teacher or a learner of Sanscrit or Arabic, I would respect that person’s pecuniary interests. I would rather err on the side of liberality to individuals than suffer the public faith to be called in question. But to talk of a Government pledging itself to teach certain languages and certain sciences, though those languages may become useless, though those sciences may be exploded, seems to me quite unmeaning. There is not a single word in any public instrument from which it can be inferred that the Indian Government ever intended to give any pledge on this subject, or ever considered the destination of these funds as unalterably fixed. But, had it been otherwise, I should have denied the competence of our predecessors to bind us by any pledge on such a subject. Suppose that a Government had in the last century enacted in the most solemn manner that all its subjects should, to the end of time, be inoculated for the small-pox, would that Government be bound to persist in the practice after Jenner’s discovery? These promises of which nobody claims the performance, and from which nobody can grant a release, these vested rights which vest in nobody, this property without proprietors, this robbery which makes nobody poorer, may be comprehended by persons of higher faculties than mine. I consider this plea merely as a set form of words, regularly used both in England and in India, in defence of every abuse for which no other plea can be set up.
 I hold this lakh of rupees to be quite at the disposal of the Governor-General in Council for the purpose of promoting learning in India in any way which may be thought most advisable. I hold his Lordship to be quite as free to direct that it shall no longer be employed in encouraging Arabic and Sanscrit, as he is to direct that the reward for killing tigers in Mysore shall be diminished, or that no more public money shall be expended on the chaunting at the cathedral.
 We now come to the gist of the matter. We have a fund to be employed as Government shall direct for the intellectual improvement of the people of this country. The simple question is, what is the most useful way of employing it?
 All parties seem to be agreed on one point, that the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are moreover so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them. It seems to be admitted on all sides, that the intellectual improvement of those classes of the people who have the means of pursuing higher studies can at present be affected only by means of some language not vernacular amongst them.
 What then shall that language be? One-half of the committee maintain that it should be the English. The other half strongly recommend the Arabic and Sanscrit. The whole question seems to me to be– which language is the best worth knowing?
 I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed, both here and at home, with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education.
 It will hardly be disputed, I suppose, that the department of literature in which the Eastern writers stand highest is poetry. And I certainly never met with any orientalist who ventured to maintain that the Arabic and Sanscrit poetry could be compared to that of the great European nations. But when we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded and general principles investigated, the superiority of the Europeans becomes absolutely immeasurable. It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England. In every branch of physical or moral philosophy, the relative position of the two nations is nearly the same.
 How then stands the case? We have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother-tongue. We must teach them some foreign language. The claims of our own language it is hardly necessary to recapitulate. It stands pre-eminent even among the languages of the West. It abounds with works of imagination not inferior to the noblest which Greece has bequeathed to us, –with models of every species of eloquence, –with historical composition, which, considered merely as narratives, have seldom been surpassed, and which, considered as vehicles of ethical and political instruction, have never been equaled– with just and lively representations of human life and human nature, –with the most profound speculations on metaphysics, morals, government, jurisprudence, trade, –with full and correct information respecting every experimental science which tends to preserve the health, to increase the comfort, or to expand the intellect of man. Whoever knows that language has ready access to all the vast intellectual wealth which all the wisest nations of the earth have created and hoarded in the course of ninety generations. It may safely be said that the literature now extant in that language is of greater value than all the literature which three hundred years ago was extant in all the languages of the world together. Nor is this all. In India, English is the language spoken by the ruling class. It is spoken by the higher class of natives at the seats of Government. It is likely to become the language of commerce throughout the seas of the East. It is the language of two great European communities which are rising, the one in the south of Africa, the other in Australia, –communities which are every year becoming more important and more closely connected with our Indian empire. Whether we look at the intrinsic value of our literature, or at the particular situation of this country, we shall see the strongest reason to think that, of all foreign tongues, the English tongue is that which would be the most useful to our native subjects.
 The question now before us is simply whether, when it is in our power to teach this language, we shall teach languages in which, by universal confession, there are no books on any subject which deserve to be compared to our own, whether, when we can teach European science, we shall teach systems which, by universal confession, wherever they differ from those of Europe differ for the worse, and whether, when we can patronize sound philosophy and true history, we shall countenance, at the public expense, medical doctrines which would disgrace an English farrier, astronomy which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school, history abounding with kings thirty feet high and reigns thirty thousand years long, and geography made of seas of treacle and seas of butter.
 We are not without experience to guide us. History furnishes several analogous cases, and they all teach the same lesson. There are, in modern times, to go no further, two memorable instances of a great impulse given to the mind of a whole society, of prejudices overthrown, of knowledge diffused, of taste purified, of arts and sciences planted in countries which had recently been ignorant and barbarous.
 The first instance to which I refer is the great revival of letters among the Western nations at the close of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century. At that time almost everything that was worth reading was contained in the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Had our ancestors acted as the Committee of Public Instruction has hitherto noted, had they neglected the language of Thucydides and Plato, and the language of Cicero and Tacitus, had they confined their attention to the old dialects of our own island, had they printed nothing and taught nothing at the universities but chronicles in Anglo-Saxon and romances in Norman French, –would England ever have been what she now is? What the Greek and Latin were to the contemporaries of More and Ascham, our tongue is to the people of India. The literature of England is now more valuable than that of classical antiquity. I doubt whether the Sanscrit literature be as valuable as that of our Saxon and Norman progenitors. In some departments– in history for example– I am certain that it is much less so.
 Another instance may be said to be still before our eyes. Within the last hundred and twenty years, a nation which had previously been in a state as barbarous as that in which our ancestors were before the Crusades has gradually emerged from the ignorance in which it was sunk, and has taken its place among civilized communities. I speak of Russia. There is now in that country a large educated class abounding with persons fit to serve the State in the highest functions, and in nowise inferior to the most accomplished men who adorn the best circles of Paris and London. There is reason to hope that this vast empire which, in the time of our grandfathers, was probably behind the Punjab, may in the time of our grandchildren, be pressing close on France and Britain in the career of improvement. And how was this change effected? Not by flattering national prejudices; not by feeding the mind of the young Muscovite with the old women’s stories which his rude fathers had believed; not by filling his head with lying legends about St. Nicholas; not by encouraging him to study the great question, whether the world was or not created on the 13th of September; not by calling him “a learned native” when he had mastered all these points of knowledge; but by teaching him those foreign languages in which the greatest mass of information had been laid up, and thus putting all that information within his reach. The languages of western Europe civilised Russia. I cannot doubt that they will do for the Hindoo what they have done for the Tartar.
 And what are the arguments against that course which seems to be alike recommended by theory and by experience? It is said that we ought to secure the co-operation of the native public, and that we can do this only by teaching Sanscrit and Arabic.
 I can by no means admit that, when a nation of high intellectual attainments undertakes to superintend the education of a nation comparatively ignorant, the learners are absolutely to prescribe the course which is to be taken by the teachers. It is not necessary however to say anything on this subject. For it is proved by unanswerable evidence, that we are not at present securing the co-operation of the natives. It would be bad enough to consult their intellectual taste at the expense of their intellectual health. But we are consulting neither. We are withholding from them the learning which is palatable to them. We are forcing on them the mock learning which they nauseate.
 This is proved by the fact that we are forced to pay our Arabic and Sanscrit students while those who learn English are willing to pay us. All the declamations in the world about the love and reverence of the natives for their sacred dialects will never, in the mind of any impartial person, outweigh this undisputed fact, that we cannot find in all our vast empire a single student who will let us teach him those dialects, unless we will pay him.
 I have now before me the accounts of the Mudrassa for one month, the month of December, 1833. The Arabic students appear to have been seventy-seven in number. All receive stipends from the public. The whole amount paid to them is above 500 rupees a month. On the other side of the account stands the following item:
Deduct amount realized from the out-students of English for the months of May, June, and July last– 103 rupees.
 I have been told that it is merely from want of local experience that I am surprised at these phenomena, and that it is not the fashion for students in India to study at their own charges. This only confirms me in my opinions. Nothing is more certain than that it never can in any part of the world be necessary to pay men for doing what they think pleasant or profitable. India is no exception to this rule. The people of India do not require to be paid for eating rice when they are hungry, or for wearing woollen cloth in the cold season. To come nearer to the case before us: –The children who learn their letters and a little elementary arithmetic from the village schoolmaster are not paid by him. He is paid for teaching them. Why then is it necessary to pay people to learn Sanscrit and Arabic? Evidently because it is universally felt that the Sanscrit and Arabic are languages the knowledge of which does not compensate for the trouble of acquiring them. On all such subjects the state of the market is the detective test.
 Other evidence is not wanting, if other evidence were required. A petition was presented last year to the committee by several ex-students of the Sanscrit College. The petitioners stated that they had studied in the college ten or twelve years, that they had made themselves acquainted with Hindoo literature and science, that they had received certificates of proficiency. And what is the fruit of all this? “Notwithstanding such testimonials,” they say, “we have but little prospect of bettering our condition without the kind assistance of your honourable committee, the indifference with which we are generally looked upon by our countrymen leaving no hope of encouragement and assistance from them.” They therefore beg that they may be recommended to the Governor-General for places under the Government– not places of high dignity or emolument, but such as may just enable them to exist. “We want means,” they say, “for a decent living, and for our progressive improvement, which, however, we cannot obtain without the assistance of Government, by whom we have been educated and maintained from childhood.” They conclude by representing very pathetically that they are sure that it was never the intention of Government, after behaving so liberally to them during their education, to abandon them to destitution and neglect.
 I have been used to see petitions to Government for compensation. All those petitions, even the most unreasonable of them, proceeded on the supposition that some loss had been sustained, that some wrong had been inflicted. These are surely the first petitioners who ever demanded compensation for having been educated gratis, for having been supported by the public during twelve years, and then sent forth into the world well furnished with literature and science. They represent their education as an injury which gives them a claim on the Government for redress, as an injury for which the stipends paid to them during the infliction were a very inadequate compensation. And I doubt not that they are in the right. They have wasted the best years of life in learning what procures for them neither bread nor respect. Surely we might with advantage have saved the cost of making these persons useless and miserable. Surely, men may be brought up to be burdens to the public and objects of contempt to their neighbours at a somewhat smaller charge to the State. But such is our policy. We do not even stand neuter in the contest between truth and falsehood. We are not content to leave the natives to the influence of their own hereditary prejudices. To the natural difficulties which obstruct the progress of sound science in the East, we add great difficulties of our own making. Bounties and premiums, such as ought not to be given even for the propagation of truth, we lavish on false texts and false philosophy.
 By acting thus we create the very evil which we fear. We are making that opposition which we do not find. What we spend on the Arabic and Sanscrit Colleges is not merely a dead loss to the cause of truth. It is bounty-money paid to raise up champions of error. It goes to form a nest not merely of helpless placehunters but of bigots prompted alike by passion and by interest to raise a cry against every useful scheme of education. If there should be any opposition among the natives to the change which I recommend, that opposition will be the effect of our own system. It will be headed by persons supported by our stipends and trained in our colleges. The longer we persevere in our present course, the more formidable will that opposition be. It will be every year reinforced by recruits whom we are paying. From the native society, left to itself, we have no difficulties to apprehend. All the murmuring will come from that oriental interest which we have, by artificial means, called into being and nursed into strength.
 There is yet another fact which is alone sufficient to prove that the feeling of the native public, when left to itself, is not such as the supporters of the old system represent it to be. The committee have thought fit to lay out above a lakh of rupees in printing Arabic and Sanscrit books. Those books find no purchasers. It is very rarely that a single copy is disposed of. Twenty-three thousand volumes, most of them folios and quartos, fill the libraries or rather the lumber-rooms of this body. The committee contrive to get rid of some portion of their vast stock of oriental literature by giving books away. But they cannot give so fast as they print. About twenty thousand rupees a year are spent in adding fresh masses of waste paper to a hoard which, one should think, is already sufficiently ample. During the last three years about sixty thousand rupees have been expended in this manner. The sale of Arabic and Sanscrit books during those three years has not yielded quite one thousand rupees. In the meantime, the School Book Society is selling seven or eight thousand English volumes every year, and not only pays the expenses of printing but realizes a profit of twenty per cent. on its outlay.
 The fact that the Hindoo law is to be learned chiefly from Sanscrit books, and the Mahometan law from Arabic books, has been much insisted on, but seems not to bear at all on the question. We are commanded by Parliament to ascertain and digest the laws of India. The assistance of a Law Commission has been given to us for that purpose. As soon as the Code is promulgated the Shasters and the Hedaya will be useless to a moonsiff or a Sudder Ameen. I hope and trust that, before the boys who are now entering at the Mudrassa and the Sanscrit College have completed their studies, this great work will be finished. It would be manifestly absurd to educate the rising generation with a view to a state of things which we mean to alter before they reach manhood.
 But there is yet another argument which seems even more untenable. It is said that the Sanscrit and the Arabic are the languages in which the sacred books of a hundred millions of people are written, and that they are on that account entitled to peculiar encouragement. Assuredly it is the duty of the British Government in India to be not only tolerant but neutral on all religious questions. But to encourage the study of a literature, admitted to be of small intrinsic value, only because that literature inculcated the most serious errors on the most important subjects, is a course hardly reconcilable with reason, with morality, or even with that very neutrality which ought, as we all agree, to be sacredly preserved. It is confined that a language is barren of useful knowledge. We are to teach it because it is fruitful of monstrous superstitions. We are to teach false history, false astronomy, false medicine, because we find them in company with a false religion. We abstain, and I trust shall always abstain, from giving any public encouragement to those who are engaged in the work of converting the natives to Christianity. And while we act thus, can we reasonably or decently bribe men, out of the revenues of the State, to waste their youth in learning how they are to purify themselves after touching an ass or what texts of the Vedas they are to repeat to expiate the crime of killing a goat?
 It is taken for granted by the advocates of oriental learning that no native of this country can possibly attain more than a mere smattering of English. They do not attempt to prove this. But they perpetually insinuate it. They designate the education which their opponents recommend as a mere spelling-book education. They assume it as undeniable that the question is between a profound knowledge of Hindoo and Arabian literature and science on the one side, and superficial knowledge of the rudiments of English on the other. This is not merely an assumption, but an assumption contrary to all reason and experience. We know that foreigners of all nations do learn our language sufficiently to have access to all the most abstruse knowledge which it contains sufficiently to relish even the more delicate graces of our most idiomatic writers. There are in this very town natives who are quite competent to discuss political or scientific questions with fluency and precision in the English language. I have heard the very question on which I am now writing discussed by native gentlemen with a liberality and an intelligence which would do credit to any member of the Committee of Public Instruction. Indeed it is unusual to find, even in the literary circles of the Continent, any foreigner who can express himself in English with so much facility and correctness as we find in many Hindoos. Nobody, I suppose, will contend that English is so difficult to a Hindoo as Greek to an Englishman. Yet an intelligent English youth, in a much smaller number of years than our unfortunate pupils pass at the Sanscrit College, becomes able to read, to enjoy, and even to imitate not unhappily the compositions of the best Greek authors. Less than half the time which enables an English youth to read Herodotus and Sophocles ought to enable a Hindoo to read Hume and Milton.
 To sum up what I have said. I think it clear that we are not fettered by the Act of Parliament of 1813, that we are not fettered by any pledge expressed or implied, that we are free to employ our funds as we choose, that we ought to employ them in teaching what is best worth knowing, that English is better worth knowing than Sanscrit or Arabic, that the natives are desirous to be taught English, and are not desirous to be taught Sanscrit or Arabic, that neither as the languages of law nor as the languages of religion have the Sanscrit and Arabic any peculiar claim to our encouragement, that it is possible to make natives of this country thoroughly good English scholars, and that to this end our efforts ought to be directed.
 In one point I fully agree with the gentlemen to whose general views I am opposed. I feel with them that it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, –a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.
 I would strictly respect all existing interests. I would deal even generously with all individuals who have had fair reason to expect a pecuniary provision. But I would strike at the root of the bad system which has hitherto been fostered by us. I would at once stop the printing of Arabic and Sanscrit books. I would abolish the Mudrassa and the Sanscrit College at Calcutta. Benares is the great seat of Brahminical learning; Delhi of Arabic learning. If we retain the Sanscrit College at Bonares and the Mahometan College at Delhi we do enough and much more than enough in my opinion, for the Eastern languages. If the Benares and Delhi Colleges should be retained, I would at least recommend that no stipends shall be given to any students who may hereafter repair thither, but that the people shall be left to make their own choice between the rival systems of education without being bribed by us to learn what they have no desire to know. The funds which would thus be placed at our disposal would enable us to give larger encouragement to the Hindoo College at Calcutta, and establish in the principal cities throughout the Presidencies of Fort William and Agra schools in which the English language might be well and thoroughly taught.
 If the decision of His Lordship in Council should be such as I anticipate, I shall enter on the performance of my duties with the greatest zeal and alacrity. If, on the other hand, it be the opinion of the Government that the present system ought to remain unchanged, I beg that I may be permitted to retire from the chair of the Committee. I feel that I could not be of the smallest use there. I feel also that I should be lending my countenance to what I firmly believe to be a mere delusion. I believe that the present system tends not to accelerate the progress of truth but to delay the natural death of expiring errors. I conceive that we have at present no right to the respectable name of a Board of Public Instruction. We are a Board for wasting the public money, for printing books which are of less value than the paper on which they are printed was while it was blank– for giving artificial encouragement to absurd history, absurd metaphysics, absurd physics, absurd theology– for raising up a breed of scholars who find their scholarship an incumbrance and blemish, who live on the public while they are receiving their education, and whose education is so utterly useless to them that, when they have received it, they must either starve or live on the public all the rest of their lives. Entertaining these opinions, I am naturally desirous to decline all share in the responsibility of a body which, unless it alters its whole mode of proceedings, I must consider, not merely as useless, but as positively noxious.
T[homas] B[abington] MACAULAY
2nd February 1835.
I give my entire concurrence to the sentiments expressed in this Minute.
W[illiam] C[avendish] BENTINCK.
From: Bureau of Education. Selections from Educational Records, Part I (1781-1839). Edited by H. Sharp. Calcutta: Superintendent, Government Printing, 1920. Reprint. Delhi: National Archives of India, 1965, 107-117.
In the last few decades, “secularism” has become the subject of caustic debate in the Indian media. The dispute about the value of this idea to contemporary India is no longer confined to the academic circles. Politicians, journalists and others have strong views on the topic. Secularism regularly surfaces in newspaper articles, speeches and public meetings. The critics of the idea, however, are not often taken seriously at the theoretical level. The proponents of secularism dismiss all objections against their pet idea as misguided. Critics are either considered to be naive obscurantists, who dream of a return to a romantic image of Indian traditional society; or they are condemned as Hindu fundamentalists, who resist modern secular values and strive for a Hindu religious state.
Though the secularists are genuinely concerned about the tensions currently disrupting Indian society, their fight for secularism has not been very effective when it comes to putting an end to “the Hindu-Muslim strife.” In fact, the Nehruvian secularism of the first few decades of the independent Indian state appears to have had as its long-term result an upsurge – rather than a decline – of intercommunity conflict. The problem I will address is to account for the stubborn adherence to the value of secularism among the Indian intellectuals, in spite of this spectacular failure. This adherence seems based in dogmatism, rather than in rational, critical or scientific argument. To account for this state of affairs, I will first turn to the history of the idea of secularism and show the deep roots it has in the religious doctrine of the Christian West. Next, I will analyze the role it has played in the colonial domination over the subcontinent and its intellectuals. The idea of secularism has been one of the backbones of the colonial educational project, which approached India as a backward society in need of conversion to modern western values.
These two steps bring me to the conclusion that the Indian secularists are today sustaining the colonial stance towards their own culture and society. They presuppose that the modern value of secularism or toleration is the superior way of organizing a plural society. Given this assumption, they easily come to the conclusion that India should adopt this value like all other modern nation-states. This is not an exhibition of human scientific rationality, but rather an instance of the fallacy of petitio principii. That is, the secularists take as a presupposition what they actually have to prove: the superiority of the modern value of secularism. The consequences are dramatic. Alternatives to secularism – e.g., the “traditional” ways of living together as they have developed on the subcontinent – are not even taken seriously as solutions to the predicament of pluralism in twenty-first-century India. Anyone who dares challenge this supreme value is classified as a naive conservative, a Hindu communalist, or worse. Thus, secularism limits the options of the Indian intellectuals to two equally flawed positions: either one continues the colonialism of the last three centuries through a dogmatic adherence to “modern secular values;” or one fights this stance on its own terms by becoming an “anti-modern”, “anti-western” or even “anti-scientific” fanatic.
Fortunately, there is a way out of this dilemma. It is to be found in the old human pursuit of knowledge. At a time when societies all around the world are becoming more diverse, we have to be ready to re-examine our long-standing ideas about pluralism and tolerance. More than ever, the search for scientific solutions to the problems of humankind should direct itself at the knowledge developed in the non-western world. The ways of living together of several Asian cultures have proven successful at creating a relative stability and harmony in extremely plural societies. Therefore, I argue, we should set up a massive enterprise to examine the nature and the success of these alternative ways of living together.
1. A Modern Christian Value?
A recent exchange in the Indian weekly Outlook revealed some of the damage done by colonialism to the Indian intellectuals and their understanding of secularism. It started with an opinion piece by Kuldip Nayar, who criticised Ashis Nandy’s views on secularism (Outlook, May 31, 2004). Nandy’s reply, “a Billion Gandhis” (June 21, 2004), restated his critique of secularism as “a dry import” from the West unable to find roots in the Indian soil. This in its turn lead to a vitriolic reaction by the historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam (July 5, 2004). The latter accused Nandy of being ignorant of European history. The word “secularism,” Subrahmanyam suggested, has never been all that important in western politics. It has acquired “a deep meaning and significance” in India, which it never had in Europe. Therefore, it is ridiculous to call secularism an imported idea. Nandy, he concluded, keeps on repeating his views only because he is “profoundly ill informed” about the history of concepts. Neither the derogatory language used by Subrahmanyam nor his impressive career in the European academia should blind us to his own lack of understanding of the western history of ideas. Unlike what he thinks, the main problem in the Indian secularism debate does not lie in the fact that a thinker like Nandy has not studied European history. Rather, it is rooted in the way Indian scholars have blindly adopted the self image of the Europeans.
To deny that secularism is an export from the West to India, one cannot simply repeat the old story about the British thinkers who coined the term in the nineteenth century, and the way its meaning changed in India. Secularism is not just a word; it is an idea. As an idea it has a long history going back to medieval times, but it is as alive as ever in the nation-states of the contemporary West. European intellectuals and politicians may prefer to use terms such as “toleration,” “state neutrality”,“laïcité”, “de lekenstaat”, or “Toleranz.” However, like “secularism,” these terms refer to a number of norms and values regarding the way a plural society and its state should be organised. The basic idea is that the state and its laws ought not to mingle with the realm of religion. The state should be secular, that is, its laws cannot be based in one or another religion. Today, this idea is presented as the one rational and democratic ideal for all human societies. Like liberal democracy, the secular humanists believe, this political salvation for the humankind should be exported to India and other plural countries.
Fortunately, we have independent thinkers like Ashis Nandy, who challenge the universal value of this idea. He suggests we would better look into the traditional ways of living together on the subcontinent, before we impose the barren idea of secularism on the cities and villages of India. And a barren idea it is. How and why it is so will not become clear by studying European history through the standard framework developed by the western intellectuals. This might make for Indian academics who share the assumptions, the vocabulary, and the pretences of their colleagues at Oxford or Harvard. But it does not produce significant insights into the encounter between India and the West.
The idea of secularism or toleration has become as barren as it is today, because it has been detached from the religious background that made it significant and fruitful. In order to get a grasp on its history, we first have to understand the Christian theological framework from which it emerged. Early in the history of Christianity, the belief became dominant that the human world is split into two different realms. On the one hand, there is the spiritual realm. Each human individual has a soul, Christian doctrine claimed, and this soul should become as spiritual as possible. That is, it should turn away from “the carnal world” in which we live and towards “the spiritual world” of God. In this eternal spiritual realm, the Holy Spirit operated and it regenerated the human soul so as to convert it to Christ. This realm was opposed to the temporal carnal realm. Each individual also consisted of a body – “the sinful flesh,” as Christian thinkers liked to call it. This sinful body lives here on earth in the temporal carnal realm, which is ruled by Satan – “the lord of this world.” From Augustine to Aquinas, all of the dominant political thought in Christian Europe took this two-fold division of human society as its starting-point.
Then happened the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century – a cultural revolution that shaped the modern western culture. Its reform was also based in the opposition between the spiritual (or religious) world and the temporal (or secular) world. But it changed the relationship between the two worlds dramatically. Whereas the spiritual and the temporal had been equated with the clergy and the laity in the medieval Church, the Protestants claimed there was no such hierarchical division of humanity. There could not be a spiritual estate of priests as opposed to a temporal estate of laymen. All human beings lived in these two worlds at the same time. And all human souls should be left free to be regenerated by the Spirit of God. This gave rise to the entrenched normative belief that the state and its laws ought not to intrude upon religion. The Protestant thinkers asserted that one human being could not compel others as to what to believe and how to worship God, since “God alone was the Lord of our souls.” In theological terms, they said the following: (a) all human beings live in two spheres, the spiritual (or religious) and the temporal (or secular); (b) in the religious sphere, they strive for the salvation of their souls, and this is a purely individual affair over which God alone has authority; (c) in the secular sphere, they are bodies who pursue the preservation of their earthly interests, and here they should always obey the laws of the secular authorities. This was the Protestant theological framework within which thinkers like John Locke and Pierre Bayle elaborated their theories of toleration and liberty of conscience. The same religious motivation brought Thomas Jefferson to the famous claim that there should be “a wall of separation” between church and state. As he wrote in his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, dated January 1, 1802:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
This Protestant doctrine remains the implicit background of the contemporary political theories of liberal toleration in the West. The idea of secularism or toleration is dependent on a number of deep-seated Christian assumptions concerning the nature and the aim of the human life. It takes the conceptual schemes of Christian theology – more specifically, its division of the world into a spiritual religious sphere and a temporal political sphere – as though these correspond to the universal structure of human societies. Moreover, secularism suggests that plural societies will fall apart, if they fail to adopt the Protestant norm of separation of the religious and the political.
Naturally, this does not fit in with the story mainstream scholars like to tell about European history. This is the case, because they have accepted the West’s self-understanding – in which it is supposed to have released itself from Christian religious dogma at the time of the Enlightenment. This story is part of the mythology built by the western culture to claim for itself a grandiose place in human history. Earlier, it was the religion of Christianity that was to grant spiritual salvation to all peoples crowding the earth. Nowadays, it is the “secular” modernity of the West, which should bring political salvation to all cultures and societies. In between, the main change has been the shift from an explicitly religious language to a new “secular” vocabulary, which also claims to be “universal” and “rational” (this point is argued extensively by S.N. Balagangadhara in his “The Heathen in His Blindness …”: Asia, the West, and the Dynamic of Religion (E.J. Brill, 1994); a new edition by Manohar Publishers).
2. Secularism and the Colonial Project
If the history of ideas proves that secularism is a Christian idea, why then have so many Indian intellectuals appropriated it as the norm to be attained by the Indian state and its citizens? This question becomes all the more pertinent once we are aware of the many theoretical shortcomings of the concept of secularism. For instance, as I have argued elsewhere, we do not possess a scientific framework today that allows us to distinguish the religious from the secular or the political. We do not even have a clue as to what makes the Hindu traditions into religion. All we have is vague and useless definitions of the word “religion,” which do not offer us any understanding of the phenomenon of religion. Still, we keep on saying that “the religious” should be separated from “the political” or that the state ought to be “secular” and not “religious” as though it were eminently clear what distinguished these spheres. Without providing any convincing argument, the secularists never cease to preach that “secularism should be revived in India” (see my “The Vacuity of Secularism,” in the Economic and Political Weekly, September 28, 2002, pp. 4047-4053).
The danger is that this critique of secularism is mistaken for a justification of “the Hindu religious state” in India. But this is not at all implied by my argument. Rather, the suggestion is that the conceptual distinction between “the religious” and “the secular” does not help us to understand Indian society and that the norm of secularism does not help us to alleviate the inter-community tensions of this society. Still, a bizarre but often-heard reply suggests that this is equivalent to rooting for a Hindu state. In other words, the secularists assume that any deviation from – or opposition to – secularism amounts to “religious fundamentalism.” To understand where this comes from, we have to reveal the role played by the idea of secularism in the colonial educational project.
During its “golden age” in the nineteenth century, western colonialism presented itself as an educational project, which claimed to bring native societies to the developmental stage of the modern West and its “scientific values.” Colonial education intended to reveal to the colonized how backward they actually were. It either assumed implicitly or claimed explicitly that the practices, stories and traditions of the indigenous cultures had to be replaced by the law and order of western civilization. As S.N. Balagangadhara shows in a forthcoming article (“Colonialism, Colonial Consciousness, and Political Theory”), this stance makes colonialism into an immoral phenomenon. This is the case because of the following reasons: (a) Like all educational projects, colonialism tries to transform the experience of the colonized. It does so by replacing the cultural experience of the colonized with western colonial descriptions of his or her own culture and of the West. (b) But, the latter accounts have never been proven to be cognitively superior to the indigenous accounts. Instead, the colonial descriptions presuppose the superiority of the western culture and from this they conclude that the colonized culture must be inferior to that of the West. (c) The consequence is that fallacious colonial accounts, which beg the question as to the superiority of the West, are imposed on the colonized. As these accounts are not cognitively superior to those of the colonized, the use of violence becomes inevitable in this process of indoctrination. The colonizer does not have cogent arguments, so he is forced to take recourse to other means. Therefore, colonialism cannot be an educational project, though it claims to be that. In reality, it consists of a vicious circle that takes the “modern western values” as the beginning and end of human civilization.
Balagangadhara’s account of the immorality of colonialism is well illustrated by the imposition of secularism on the Indian people. When the British missionaries, travelers and colonial administrators described Indian society, it was self-evident to them that this society was suffused by religion, albeit a false one. The “Hindoo religion” and, to a lesser extent, its “Mahometan” rival were said to determine every sphere of life and action. In India, no distinction was made between the political and the religious, so the colonials asserted: in fact, religion was consistently abused for political ends and the state took the form of a pernicious theocracy. Naturally, this description was implicitly opposed to the modern West. In the European self-image, the Reformation and the Enlightenment had demonstrated that toleration and the separation of church and state were the necessary conditions of civilized coexistence among religious groups. This self-image also shaped the image of India: if the political was not separated from the religious here, destructive conflict would inevitably erupt between the Hindus and the Muslims. Obviously, the Europeans thought, the Indians could not attain this insight by themselves. Colonial schooling had to educate them in the virtues of modern secularism. The Indian elite – created by this educational system – adopted the view of India as a caste-ridden society living under the tyranny of religion. It embraced the colonial description, which was founded on the presupposition of the superiority of the western civilization. The results were a Raja Rammohan Roy in the nineteenth century and a Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in the twentieth.
A few steps can be discerned in the process of intellectual colonization that shaped these “makers of modern India.” Firstly, the Indian elite accepted the terms of description of the western colonials as though these were scientific. This could happen because the colonial educational system put these fallacious descriptions of caste and religion in India at par with the accounts of Newtonian physics and other scientific theories. Thus, the elite began to conceptualize Indian society in terms of the division between “the religious” and “the secular” (or “the political”), even though this conceptual distinction was rooted in Christian dogma. Secondly, the conception of the subcontinent as an inferior civilization brought about the conviction that India should become like Europe. In the present case, this meant that the state ought to steer clear from “the Hindu religion,” just as church and state had been separated in Europe. Politics ought to be based in “modern secular values,” that is, in the norms of nineteenth- and twentieth-century western Christendom. The third step made this normative order into the one viable alternative to inter-community conflict. Without these values, the story went, India would eventually be reduced to chaos and violence. The language of secularism became the only vocabulary in which a stable and harmonious plural society could be imagined. In other words, peace and order in society were conflated with a particular normative description of the way in which “India ought to be secular.” The final step caused a similar change in the identification of the problems and tensions of Indian society. The colonial descriptions of the inferiority of India became the standard textbook stories on this “backward, caste-ridden and fossilized civilization, permeated by irrational religion and blind ritual.” Again, this specific description was equated with the very structure of Indian society and its problems.
The outcome of this process is the dead end we have reached today. The current tensions in the fabric of Indian society can be conceptualized in one way alone, it seems: these are “the predicaments of caste, communalism, and religious conflict.” Thus, a particular description of certain phenomena continues to be conflated with these phenomena themselves (viz., the tensions among different communities in India). The distinction is ignored between a description and the phenomena it describes. When such constraints are put on the identification of a problem, these will also operate on the solutions that are developed. As a consequence, according to this view, the one supreme virtue India needs today is secularism. As Salman Rushdie once put it: “Secularism, for India, is not simply a point of view, it is a question of survival.” This value is seen as the safeguard of peace, order and sanity in society. In the absence of secularism, India is bound to fall apart, so our colonial intuition tells us. Therefore, this point of view transforms any critic of the idea of secularism into a proponent of communalism, fundamentalism, theocracy, caste, inequality, and other evils.
3. Ways of Living Together
The time has come to move beyond the constraints of this colonial stance. India does not need secularism for its survival. Hindus, Muslims, Christians and several other groups were quite successful at living together in relative peace for a long period of time in India. This plural society did not fall apart. Yet, it had never even heard of “secularism” or “toleration.” Therefore, the task ahead is to examine the ways of living together as they have emerged in various regions of India. In what remains, I will briefly consider two strategies that have been dominant in the search for alternatives to the modern western value of secularism. These strategies, I think, have had a harmful impact on this quest.
The first is the anti-modern and anti-scientific stance we find among some Gandhians, including Nandy. Considering what has happened to the world after the rise of industrialism, capitalism and modern technology in the West, this negative attitude towards science and technology is understandable. The problem, however, is that it takes a particular conception of science, its role in society and its value to humanity as though this is the only way to think about science. It confuses science with the western story on “modern scientific values.” However, one does not have to accept the latter story in order to appreciate and adopt the cognitive criteria developed by the natural sciences in the last few centuries. Science has given us the heuristics to attain reliable theoretical knowledge about the world. These heuristics and criteria of scientific knowledge cannot be thrown overboard in the search for alternatives to secularism. Rather, our hypotheses and theories on the traditional ways of living together in Indian society will be most fruitful when they share the characteristic features of any scientific hypothesis: refutable, refinable, coherent, and internally consistent. In the same way as the richest natural-scientific theories we possess today, they should have empirical consequences, strive for clarity of terms and identify the structures and mechanisms behind the phenomena. In this manner, our alternative theories of pluralism and co-existence among various religious and cultural groups will be able to outshine the normative dogmas of secularism.
The second strategy takes recourse to the widespread belief that the Indian traditions have their own doctrine of “Hindu secularism” or “Hindu tolerance,” which surpasses that of western secularism. Both the proponents of Hindutva and many Gandhians claim that the innate belief in the equality of all religions has allowed all kinds of religious traditions to co-exist peacefully in the past, and that it will continue to do so in the future. This claim is easily refuted. The belief that all religions are equal cannot possibly be accepted by Muslim and Christian believers. The very foundation of Islam and Christianity suggests that these religions are the unique revelation of God – the Creator and Sovereign of the universe. Therefore, they have to distinguish between themselves as the true religion and all others as false religions. All religions cannot be equal, according to the religions of Muslims and Christians. Nevertheless, in past centuries, various communities of these two religions were part of the relatively peaceful and harmonious co-existence of Indian society. They lived side by side with Vaishnava, Jaina, Virashaiva, Buddhist and other groups, while they ceased to take part in systematic persecution, religious violence and aggressive proselytization. This cannot be explained in terms of a shared belief in the equality of all religions. Therefore, this story on the doctrine of “Hindu tolerance” does not help us to understand the Indian mode of pluralism.
How, then, could we go about examining the ways of living together of the Indian culture? Let us have a closer look at these phenomenona. On the one hand, we have the “internal” pluralism of the Hindu traditions. Although there were clashes among these traditions, these never developed into the systematic persecution of some particular tradition or the other. Alongside these clashes, there was a tendency in each of these traditions to absorb or adopt elements from the other traditions. On the other hand, we have the interaction among these Hindu traditions and the religions of Islam and Christianity, which reveals the same kind of pattern. Again there were violent clashes, but Muslims and Christians were not assaulted or persecuted because of their religious beliefs or their worship of Allah/God. On the contrary, the Hindu traditions had no qualms about the adoption of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, or the prophet Mohammed as avatars. They would even include these new characters in their puja’s. Hindus joined Muslims in showing reverence at the dargahs of the Sufi pirs, or in the celebration of Muharram. Moreover, the initial intolerance of the Muslim invaders and Christian converts towards the “idolatry” of the Hindus soon disappeared from local Islamic and Christian traditions. Indian Muslims and Christians participated in Hindu festivals and revered some of the Hindu gods. They made contributions to traditions of Hindu literature, music, and painting – often adding Islamic or Christian elements. Importantly, the proselytizing drive of both Islam and Christianity was tempered to a large extent in their local manifestations on the Indian subcontinent.
The current explanations of these phenomena share a basic assumption: there must be a common framework – a shared set of values – which allowed these diverse groups to live together. To grant plausibility to this background assumption, one would have to identify this constitutive set of values shared by the different communities. The single candidate today is the account of Hindu tolerance, which says that these communities were able to live together because they all accepted the equality of religions. We have already confronted one flaw in this account. Another flaw concerns the Hindu traditions themselves: it is often pointed out that one cannot identify any one belief, doctrine, or principle on which they all agree. Still, if one explains the fact that these traditions did not persecute each other or Islam and Christianity in terms of a common principle of Hindu tolerance, one will have to show that they all shared this principle. But there is no proof for the claim that all of these traditions endorsed some orthodox Hindu belief that “all religions are equal” or that “the truth is one but can have plural manifestations,” besides the fact that they did not engage in systematic persecution. It seems that this explanation presupposes that there must be a common principle of tolerance, which has enabled the different traditions to live together. Consequently, one looks for such a principle in the “sacred texts of Hinduism,” and one finds it in the Sanskrit aphorism “Ekam Satya, Viprah Bahudah Vadanti” from the Rig-Veda, which is presented as the basic doctrine of Hindu tolerance.
Could there have been another framework of values that was shared by the various communities – which we are yet to discover? This is unlikely. It would have to be an extremely complex system of values not only to allow co-existence, but also to cause the different communities to absorb elements and attitudes from each other’s traditions, and to participate in each other’s practices. The question then is what has enabled the various Hindu traditions to co-exist with each other, and with others? What explains the peculiar interplay of vigorous clashes and mutual exchanges among these traditions? How come the local Islamic and Christian traditions interacted with the Hindu traditions in a similar way? At the Research Centre Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap at Ghent University, we are currently examining an alternate route to answer these fascinating questions. The route suggests that different communities were able to build a reasonably stable and harmonious society, not because they agreed on a common framework, but because they developed a specific way of going about with each other. This plural Indian society did and does not revolve around a shared belief in some set of values or in the norm of secularism – rather it hinges on a set of practices and attitudes that has allowed the various communities to live together. Our future work will analyse the mechanisms of these ways of going about.
Let me end by paying tribute to the main partisan of anti-secularism in India, Ashis Nandy. As he once pointed out in a pithy metaphor, secularism limits the options of humankind dramatically: it is either Coca-Cola or Ayathollah Khomeini. Though this may be a hyperbole, the image illustrates the constraints the story of “modern secularism” has imposed on our thinking about the problems of pluralism in India. Either secularism or violence. We should heed the insight of Nandy’s anti-secularist manifestos: chaos and violence will not erupt when we leave behind the barren idea of secularism. It is a pity this proposition can still lead to bitter retorts like that of Subrahmanyam. Naturally, as the historian points out, one should practice what one preaches in this matter and truly examine the nature and the history of Indian pluralism. To do so, however, a climate needs to be created that stimulates and sustains such research projects. Rather than singing the mantras of secularism, the academic world should provide a fertile soil for innovative research into the co-existence of communities in India. In more general terms, we are confronting a fundamental question: What direction should the Indian social sciences take today? Should they continue to gather empirical details that merely serve to sustain the intellectual colonialism of the West? Or should they move into exciting new fields where our current understanding of human beings and societies may be turned upside down?
Late Satavahana period (100 BC-AD 250) Ancient Indian Costumes(Roshan Alkazi). Skirt and churidar.
Soldier Gupta Period sketch by Roshan Alkazi in Ancient Indian Costumes. Noel churidar trousers. This is pre Islamic era
Rigveda, Kamasutra, Arthashastra – A rich legacy of abjuring violence against women
Nirbhaya’s rape-murder and the outpouring of protest and anguish that followed invites us to imagine a society in which women are free agents. One which fully accepts that women have the right to make independent decisions – whether in their romantic and sexual lives or in the pursuit of education and work.
A society that discourages violence against women and condemns even marital rape. If violence occurs, society does not stigmatise the woman victim or blame her for somehow having incited the violence but does its best to offer her support and sympathy.
Such a society sounds like a utopian dream – particularly in a country still plagued by khap panchayat judgments ordering gang rape as a punishment for women suspected of “inappropriate relationships” and statements by politicians blaming women for rape. However, we wouldn’t have to travel far in space to find this utopia. We simply need to board a time machine, and jump straight into Rigvedic India.
The Rigveda does mention a rape. The victim is Ushas (Dawn), who flees to a cave, traumatised. She is then befriended by minstrel rishis who track her to her hidden dwelling, and offer praise and support. Singers gather in front of Ushas’s cave praising her radiance and lustre and persuading her to come out, which she eventually does.
In one of the hymns the rapist is punished; an arrow is shot at him. Society did not judge Ushas. It rallied to her aid, boosting her morale and helping her emerge from post-traumatic depression into a happy and normal life.
The society of the scriptures stigmatised neither the rape survivor nor the children born as a result of rape. A father who abandoned such a child was looked down upon, whosoever he might be.
Several Puranic texts chronicle the mighty Brihaspati’s rape of his brother’s wife, Mamata. The child was raised by his maternal grandparents before being adopted by King Bharata. He also became extremely learned. He and his descendants composed the hymns that constitute Book 6 of the Rigveda. While the child prospered, Brihaspati was despised. Mamata was neither stigmatised, nor abandoned by her husband.
In the Ramayana, the Suryavanshi prince, Danda, a serial rapist is exiled by his father to the Dandakaranya forest, where he proceeds to rape his teacher Shukracharya’s daughter Abja. Incensed, Shukracharya curses Danda – he and his entire clan perish.
Meanwhile, the regent discovers that Abja had conceived from the rape. He brings her to the Suryavanshi capital, Ayodhya, with great honour. She becomes queen and her child, Harit, later ascends the throne. Not only did the rape victim and her child flourish; no one questioned their rights to the throne. Illegitimacy carried no stigma.
Besides sexual violence, physical or psychological violence against women is discouraged in the Rigveda, as illustrated by the famous funeral hymn. A woman who lies down, depressed, beside her dead husband is urged to get up and embrace the world of the living – with laughter, good food and song. She is even encouraged to take the hand of a suitor who could be a potential second husband.
Some Vedic women, far from being helpless and victim-like, were very martial. In a famous hymn about Mudgala’s wife, robbers steal his entire stock of cattle. The couple is left with an old bull and a creaky wooden cart with one wheel missing. After Mudgala makes some ad hoc repairs, the couple give chase, his wife holding the reins and driving the cart drawn by the bull. Her skill ensures that they capture all their own cattle as well as some of their raiders’.
Other Vedic hymns mention a woman warrior, Vishpala, who fought at night in the Battle of Khela. Losing a leg in battle did not faze the lady. She got an iron leg made and rejoined the battle.
Leap forward now in time to Vatsyayana and his Kamasutra. Vatsyayana warns husbands (especially in the context of arranged marriages) not to force themselves on their wives: “Women, being of a tender nature, want tender beginnings, and when they are forcibly approached by men with whom they are but slightly acquainted, they sometimes suddenly become haters of sexual connection, and sometimes even haters of the male sex. The man should therefore approach the girl according to her liking.”
Vatsyayana is equally against date rape; he points out that it has similar effects on the woman who is “forcibly enjoyed” by “one who does not understand the hearts of girls”: she begins to hate sex and mankind in general. Again, no disposition to blame women for being raped; the responsibility lies squarely with the rapist.
Nor does marriage give a man an inalienable right to his wife’s person – quite a revolutionary idea when marital rape is not criminalised even in modern society. Both Vatsyayana and Kautilya, the author of the Arthashastra, maintain that wives could resort to divorce (with the option of remarriage) under some circumstances. Thus, women trapped in violent marriages were not without an exit strategy.
It would be ideal if violence against women simply didn’t exist. If this is impossible, the best alternative is a society where a woman’s self-worth and honour are not diminished simply by a crime against her person. Hopefully, we can use our distant ancestors’ social norms for inspiration in moving towards such a society.
The writer is associate professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University
Two young women, Atreyi and Vasanti, meet by chance during a trip and start chatting. Atreyi tells Vasanti that she is travelling to the south in search of better education; though she is a student at an extremely famous university in the north, her professor’s preoccupation with his ongoing novel means he has little time to teach her anything of use. Vasanti agrees that this move makes perfect sense.
These young women are not contemporary urban Indians. They were characters in an 8th century Sanskrit play, Uttararamacharita, penned by the dramatist Bhavabhuti. Atreyi’s original professor was Valmiki, who had recently become immersed in writing the Ramayana, being firmly convinced that he was the adi kavi (first poet). A ‘trip’ to the south meant an arduous walk through hundreds of miles of forested land, braving constant threats from robbers, mysterious illnesses, and wild animals. However, this was a trip that Atreyi was very willing to make, hoping to learn more from southern Vedanta scholars like Agastya.
Though Bhavabhuti’s story is fictional, plays were intended for the masses. The fact that an 8th century dramatist casually introduces female characters who travel far from home, alone, in search of education, suggests that audiences during his time would not be overly surprised or disturbed by such incidents. In another play of his, the Malatimadhava, a Buddhist nun, Kamandaki, is close friends with the fathers of the male and the female protagonists, because all three had been classmates in their youth. If girls wanted to be admitted to gurukulas, there was nothing stopping them from doing so.
Earlier, the Upanishads (written about the 7th century BC) contain accounts of very learned women. No one in scholarly circles seems to have had any trouble accepting Gargi, an eminent woman philosopher, as one of them. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad contains a lengthy account of Gargi’s debate with the leading scholar of the age, Yajnyavalkya. The debate was arranged by King Janaka of Mithila, at whose court Gargi was said to be one of the navaratnas (nine gems).
She asked Yajnyavalkya such penetrating questions that eventually he was unable to answer, and had to resort to telling her that her head might fall off if she kept questioning the unknowable. This, however, seemed to be quite a common threat among Upanishadic debaters; men who disagreed with other men would employ it frequently. So, contrary to first impressions, there was nothing sexist about Yajnyavalkya’s reaction. The fact that Gargi, an unmarried woman, was invited to conferences all over the country without exciting comment, seems to point to a liberal intellectual atmosphere.
Going back even earlier, the composers of the Rig Vedic hymns included a number of women. Each hymn in the Rig Veda is attributed to a particular author, and the lineage of the author is mentioned. More than 20 women number among the authors credited with the composition of these hymns.
The Therigatha, written in 600 BC, is the earliest known collection composed solely of women’s writing. These verses, written by early practitioners of Buddhism, were penned by women from a wide array of backgrounds. The contributors included a mother whose child had died, a former prostitute, a wealthy heiress who had renounced her life of pleasure, and the Buddha’s own stepmother. Though women from royal families had access to informal education in most countries, the Therigatha shows that many ordinary women were also well educated in ancient Indian society.
In contrast to ancient India, the ancient Greeks and Romans had a different attitude towards female education. Though they had excellent public schools and gymnasiums for formal education, these were open only to boys, unlike the ashramas of ancient India where girls and young women could learn along with their male counterparts. Eminent Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates thought poorly of the intellectual capabilities of women. Plato maintained that women had no souls, while the Socratic dialogue ‘The Symposium’ concludes that women were incapable of providing men with intellectual companionship.
In later times, Khana, who is sometimes rumoured to have become a victim of domestic violence, was a noted poetess and astrologer of near legendary abilities. Though details of her life are hazy, she appears to have lived in southern Bengal, where many of her writings are still household sayings.
Much later, in 1150, Bhaskara II, the most renowned Indian mathematician of his age, composed the Lilavati – perhaps the only math book in the world whose problems were mostly addressed to young girls. An example of such a problem: “Beautiful and dear Lilavati, whose eyes are like a fawn’s! Tell me what are the numbers resulting from one hundred and thirty five, taken into twelve? If thou be skilled in multiplication by whole or by parts, whether by subdivision of form or separation of digits, tell me, auspicious woman, what is the quotient of the product divided by the same multiplier?” This was to be the prime math textbook in Indian schools for the next 700 years.
It is interesting that as far as gender discrimination goes, ancient Indian society seemed to be much more egalitarian and balanced than other ancient societies, at least in the field of education. Hopefully, this balance is something that could be sustained and enhanced in modern times.
The writer is Associate Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Today is International Women’s Education Day.