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Images of the World: Essays on Religion, Secularism and Culture

Imaging India Martha Nussbaum This rich collection of essays by T N Madam, one of India

Imaging India

Martha Nussbaum

his rich collection of essays by T N Madam, one of India’s most distinguished social scientists, is a welcome contribution. It brings together pieces written between 1987 and the present and published, often, in learned journals, in India or abroad. Almost all the essays, however, are accessible to nonspecialists, and they deserve a wide audience. Madan, moreover, has done far more work to produce a unified book out of the essays than many compilers of their own papers are willing to do. He has written not only a useful preface and succinct overview introductions to each of the book’s sections, but also two completely new essays, one on secularism and one on the history of sociological approaches to India. The former usefully clarifies and updates his views; the latter provides a valuable overview of the ways in which great scholars have pursued the project of writing a sociology of India.

The book contains four sections. ‘Religion and Secularism’ includes essays on freedom of religion as well as Madan’s controversial writings on secularism (and his recent updating). ‘Religious and Secular Identities’ represents a different strand of Madan’s work: the detailed regional studies, focused particularly on Kashmir, which are a primary source of his towering reputation. ‘Religious Traditions and Values’ shows Madan explaining Hindu traditions to an international audience – a daunting task, given the temporal, regional and linguistic heterogeneity of his subject matter, but one that he fulfils with grace and eloquence. This section also contains a fascinating article called ‘Dying with Dignity’ in which Madan protests against some excesses of modern medicine. Finally, ‘Cultural Traditions and Conceptual Categories’ investigates debates about cross-cultural analysis of large general concepts, such as “holism”, “individualism”, the “private” and the “public”.

book review

Images of the World: Essays on Religion, Secularism and Culture by T N Madan; Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2006; pp xii + 396, Rs 595.

Madan has never tried to avoid controversy, and one of the pleasures of this book is arguing with him. He evidently relishes the role of provocateur, sometimes first stating a position starkly, only, later, to moderate it. Thus, ‘Death with Dignity’ – a piece presenting the contrast between Hindu tradition and western medicine for a western audience – begins by denouncing modern western medical technology for robbing people of dignity and agency through its attempts to prolong life in invasive and, often, dignity-compromising ways. Claiming that ancient societies, both Hindu and western, were not characterised by an agonising fear of death, Madan urges us to find in the current ascendancy of western medicine a total “collapse of values”. By contrast, we should consider the ancient Hindu idea that death is simply not a problem, but a “normal happening”, one that completes and illuminates life.

At this point, I found myself full of objections. Madan’s conception of ancient Greece and Rome as lacking an urgent fear of death seems so wrong-headed as to make one wonder whether he knows the surviving Greek tragedies, in which fear and extreme grief over death generate poetry of searing intensity; or the works of Epicurus and Lucretius, who argued, to great acclaim, that the fear of death was the dominant problem afflicting their societies (causing, they said, no end of bad behaviour, from military conquest to human sacrifice); or the history of Greco-Roman Stoicism, which proposed, as an utterly radical and counter-cultural proposal, that people should take charge of their own deaths, ending their lives before prolonged living produced a loss of dignity. (As often, Madan’s generalisations about western traditions strike me as thin and hasty.)

I also found myself wondering just which medical interventions Madan objected to: surely not those that make

average life expectancy double what it was in 1900? Surely not diagnostic invasions that prolong life? Undignified and invasive though a colonoscopy undoubtedly seems to many people, most would definitely rather have one than not have one, given that they would rather live longer rather than die sooner. And really, is not a colonoscopy undignified only to those who have a rather unrealistic picture of their own bodily integrity, who have a stake in seeing themselves as non-penetrable, with unassailable boundaries, and without any disgusting waste products? Many males, especially, do think this way, and therefore, they absolutely hate having a colonoscopy. I would say, however, that this is their problem (a problem that I would connect with much misogyny and homophobia), not that of western medicine.

By the time I found myself utterly exercised by such disputes with Madan, I reached the end of his essay, only to find its mild conclusion denying that we should simply return to ancient traditions; instead, we should simply realise that modern attitudes “can have their excesses corrected by a recognition of alternative perspectives, whether traditional or themselves modern”. One could have no quarrel with this modest formulation, and one must then reinterpret the earlier parts of the essay as dialectical provocations.

Views on Secularism

So, too, I believe we ought to read Madan’s highly controversial writings on secularism. Again, some highly inflammatory formulations, which usefully provoke debate, lead, ultimately, to a modest and reasonable conclusion. I would summarise Madan’s (ultimate, moderate) view as follows (trying hard to avoid the word “secular”, whose polysemous nature confuses the issue, unless it is defined at each use): Nehru and post-Nehruvian Indian intellectuals have been wrong to hold religion in contempt. They are wrong empirically (if they think religion will just wither

DECemBer 8, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly


away), because religion is not likely to wither away, in India or anywhere else; it is likely to remain a powerful force in the lives of most of India’s people. They are wrong normatively (if they think that religion is always primitive, or communalistic, or in other ways bad) because religion is capable, as Gandhi knew, of sustaining and inspiring high human endeavours; even when it does not do that, it sustains community life, helps people meet their deaths, and performs a whole host of other valuable functions. Because the Nehruvians made these errors, they failed to adopt the most effective policies to stem the tide of communalism. Such policies (many of them proposed by Gandhi) would have included fostering an inter-religious amity, pointing to the common links among the religious, and proposing resonant religionlike public symbols that would summon people to lives of cooperation and service.

It seems to me that in all of these contentions Madan is utterly correct. Gandhi’s radical inter-religionism offered a great deal to India that has by now been more or less completely lost. Nehru, with his confidence that an economic uplift was the main thing poor people needed, proved unable to construct a public culture that would bring people together across religious lines through a skilful use of symbolism. (I myself think that the example of Tagore is central in thinking about what should be done in this regard, at least as central as that of Gandhi, and I felt at that point a large absence in Madan’s narrative.)

On Religious Matters

None of Madan’s plausible contentions, however, implies that the idea of a state that is neutral in religious matters, refusing to identify itself with one religion over others or with religion in general over non-religion, was or is a bad idea. Both Gandhi and Nehru, by Madan’s own account, repeatedly expressed the thought that the Indian state must have this neutral character for reasons of respect: any taking-sides by the state in religious matters create in-groups and out-groups, failing to respect all citizens equally. There is nothing about this view of the state that fails to respect religion: indeed, it is because religion is so important to so many people, going right to the heart of

Economic & Political Weekly DECemBer 8, 2007

their identity, that one should take such care to make sure that the state is neutral with respect to it, denigrating nobody and favouring nobody. (There is no similar reason, for example, why the state should be neutral in matters of sartorial taste or gardening or even cricket, although no doubt this last lies close to many citizens’ hearts.)

One problem in Madan’s analysis, I think, is that he fails to distinguish carefully between these leaders’ views about the Indian state and their personal creeds (a distinction that they themselves, no doubt, did not always make sufficiently clear). Gandhi, of course insisted on the central role of his own religion in every decision of his life; and yet, he sought a state that had no particular religious character, not even a generalised religious character, because he understood that no other sort of state would be fully respectful of all its citizens as equals. Nehru thought that religion was a primitive business that would ultimately wither away: and yet, he agreed with Gandhi in seeking a state that gave religions the most careful protection.

Sometimes Madan seems to argue, provocatively, that the secular Indian state, where “secular” means a state that has no specific religious character out of a commitment to equal respect, is bound to be a failure. I do not think that this is his considered position, and I think he often constructs provocative utterances through a game of bait-and-switch with the meanings of secular – saying, for example, that for Gandhi, secular meant “respectful of all religions on a basis of neutrality”, but then, a paragraph later, saying that because Gandhi believed religion a very important force in human life, “Gandhi was no secularist” – where secular has its other meaning, very common in Madan, of “disdainful of religion, denying the importance of religion”. But of course, one might believe religion extremely important and also think that it is absolutely crucial that the state should not take sides in religious matters – if one sees that any nation contains a plurality of religions and that citizens belonging to different religions (and, too, those who profess no religion) cannot all be treated as full equals if the state assumes a religious character.

On Western Philosophy

Here Madan’s deficiencies as an interpreter of western philosophical traditions generate difficulty: for he argues that the Nehruvians attempted to import a western idea, that of “separation of church and state” (a phrase he borrows from a single letter by Thomas Jefferson, a rather anticlerical individual; neither Jefferson nor his phrase played any role in the American

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constitutional founding). This idea, Madan says, and the closely related idea of a state that protects religious liberty, were both closely linked to enlightenment anticlericalism and denigration of religion. Therefore, these ideas could not be successfully imported to India, which had very different traditions.

This historical analysis, however, is unpersuasive. The two leading architects of the ideas of religious liberty that shaped the US constitution, Roger Williams and John Locke, were both intensely religious individuals who lived long before the enlightenment, and for both, the key insight came from the experience of simply living with religious difference and the conflicts it inspired. For Locke, religious toleration was based on human equality and the equality of our natural rights (which he thought god-given); the experience of the civil wars had shown everyone, he thought, that respect for natural rights requires the state to protect religious liberty. Williams, writing 40 years earlier, in the mid-17th century, drew on his personal experience as a religiously persecuted person, and also his experience in living with the Narragansett Indians and studying their language, to argue that the colony he founded, Rhode Island, should give full and absolute and impartial toleration to all types of Christians, but also to Jews, Muslims, “pagans” (the Indians), and “antichristians” (atheists, whom Locke wished to exclude). His argument was based on the idea that all human beings have a dignity grounded in their possession of a capacity for seeking and choice that he called “conscience”; that this faculty, and its expression, deserved fully equal protection for all, whether one agreed with people’s religious choices or not.

In short, Williams’ state is to be “secular” in Gandhi’s sense, and it has a moral character on which all, he thinks, can agree, grounded in this idea of equal respect for conscience. We can share that commitment, he holds, while differing about ultimate religious commitments. It was this view of conscience that the architects of the US constitution, most prominently James Madison, put into practice, and of course, that view involved no denigration of religions or religious people. (Madison, like Locke


and Williams and unlike Jefferson, was a devout individual.)

Had Madan consulted this western history in greater detail, he might have seen, then, that its conceptions are not irrelevant to India’s situation, and that the adoption of similar ideas by Nehru and Gandhi (probably as independent discoveries, rather than as borrowings) involved not repudiation of religion, but rather a wise policy of equal respect. That Nehru often spoke contemptuously of religion was, I think, quite unfortunate, since one should not speak insultingly of one’s fellow citizens, particular if one is a revered leader. Nonetheless, this failing is not a failing in the basic idea of the state that he and Gandhi shared. I do not believe that Madan really wants to get rid of the state that is secular in the sense of “neutral, equally respectful”. He does, however, fail to understand how such a state might be not simply a modus vivendi in difficult times, but, instead, an expression of the high moral principle of respect for humanity.


DECemBer 8, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly

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