Book Summary: Europe, India, and the Limits of Secularism by Jakob de Roover- I

Book Summary: Europe, India, and the Limits of Secularism by Jakob de Roover- I

There has been a great fascination for India and Hinduism in the form of Indological studies. Starting from the English, French and Germans in the colonial times to present-day Americans, this passion for India seems very flattering for us. However, they have indulged in the deepest possible distortion of India over centuries which we successfully internalized. Our educated English-speaking Indians simply took forward the discourses, sometimes more aggressively, which further damaged our own identity. If it was idolatry of the past, then today we have narratives of blind superstitions, exploitative ‘caste system’ or the ‘limp phallus of Ganesha.’

In such a scenario, a small country Belgium takes a completely radical viewpoint, which turns all the received wisdom of past centuries over its head. Inspired by a great personality, Dr SN Balagangadhara, at the University of Ghent, a group of dedicated and wonderful academicians in Belgium and across the world, including India, take alternative views which are stronger, better, and perhaps more liberating. One such is Professor Jakob De Roover at the University of Ghent itself, who has written an immensely thought-provoking book on secularism, an oft-repeated solution to handle pluralism. Along with ‘The Heathen in His Blindness’ (or its compact version-‘Do All Roads Lead to Jerusalem’) and ‘Western Foundations of Caste System’, this present book should form essential reading for every English knowing person to understand religion, caste, and secularism in a better framework, miles ahead of all the previous ones.

The basic thesis of this book is that secularism worked for the European Christian world. India handled pluralism far better over centuries than Europe, and we should study our own mechanisms instead of dangerously and inappropriately importing Western solutions. There are no religions in India which are purely deluded constructions of the European world. There are Indian traditions only and our culture has a completely different configuration of learning. The West described us using their own framework, and we need first to look at ourselves through our own lenses. This first step is essential to detoxify ourselves. Cultures should meet today for solutions on an equal footing for a tomorrow’s better world.

These articles are a long summary of the wonderful book by Jakob De Roover. The enterprise is only to stimulate the interested readers to go for the whole book. I believe this is one of the most important books for reading in the present troubled times where the mantra of secularism is all around, but the meaning remains obscure at best. Many sentences are straight from the book itself, and I have taken the kind permission of the author himself to do this summary.


Our coping with religious and cultural diversity has seen little progress in the last century. Liberal secularism is a model which the west adopted with some success. Secularism works in the public sphere which believes that the state’s policies and legal systems should be neutral, and not based on religious doctrine. Liberalism works in the private sphere which insists that all its citizens have the right to religious freedom; and all should respect and tolerate each other’s form of religious belief or unbelief.

There is a strong belief that all civilized countries ought to be liberal secular democracies abiding by the norms of neutrality, toleration, religious freedom, and the separation of politics from religion. This worked well in the non-plural Western societies for some time, but problems arose when applied uniformly to all societies. First, liberal secularism could not deliver its goods in non-Western societies like India. Second, the influx of Islam into Europe has shown cracks in this model. The third problem is that certain conceptual problems plague the liberal model. What counts as religion? No state or court possesses an impartial scientific conception of religion; there are no shared secular criteria that enable one to identify and delimit the sphere of religion in a manner neutral to all religions.


Different cultures have different solutions to their problems; and it is only fair in a multi-cultural world, solutions need discussion as equals. Western conceptions of Asian cultures tend to transform the latter into deficient variants of Western culture. The dominant cultural framework becomes the reference point to describe the non-dominant cultures. Thus, at a macro-level, the Western form of life is an alternative to all non-Western forms of life. The latter is rarely an alternative to the former.

Asian communities accommodated a variety of religious, ethnic, and cultural groups much greater than Europe at any point of history. For over a millennium, India had presence of Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and Sikh traditions living with Zoroastrian Parsis, Muslims, Jews, and Christians of various denominations in mostly peace. Indian society never disintegrated despite the diversity; hence it must have known successful practices and mechanisms of coexistence.

However, Indian descriptions of ‘Hindu religion’ and ‘the caste system’ fixed deeply in the same framework of liberal secularism. These came as severe obstacles in looking at India to develop a better model. An asymmetry of cultures led to the West never looking at India to deal with its problems; but successfully injected its own model into Indian society where the most inappropriate discussions now take place.


There is no single model of liberal secularism in different countries. From a postmodern perspective, there are multiple forms of secularism prescribing the relationship between the state and religion. There is an inherent clash between the equality practised by the state to view all religions as equal and the freedom given to its citizens to practice their individual faiths.

France gives individual liberty, but militantly bans against any religious show in the public sphere. In UK, the Church of England has an official place. The monarch is the head of the state and the church. Some bishops have reserved Parliament seats as Lords Spiritual. In India, secularism has far reaching interventions, such as state management of temples, reform of the Hindu law, certain constitutional rights to minorities, and so on.

The differences among secular states is a result of interplay between two distinct tendencies. The first is the concern to restrict expressions of religion from public sphere, politics, and education. The second concern is the conviction that the state should never interfere in religion unless public order is at stake. The main puzzle is to distinguish between the public political sphere and the private sphere of religion.


Liberal political theory postulates the existence of two spheres in social life; a public political sphere governed by the state, and a private sphere where citizens are free to live with their own religious beliefs and ideals. A major criterion to delimit the sphere of state coercion from that of individual freedom is the Harm Principle. Only practices that do not cause harm to others need toleration. Individual freedom end when harm to others begin and then the state steps in. This principle to save democratic society from the tyranny of majority has a hitch. For its basic functioning, determining which actions become harmful to others is vital.

Beyond physical harm, there is ambiguity in determining harm, especially in the psychological sphere. We possess no clear and cogent theory of psychological harm and harmful conduct. On a case to case basis, the state can coerce, like if a family is refusing vaccination for its child on religious basis; but a generalised theoretical standard of defining the spheres of individual freedom or state coercion is extremely difficult.

The defining of the boundary becomes more slippery. Redefining a boundary for something like a country does not change the state of what is inside. We are clear of what constitutes the inside of the sphere. However, in the case of liberal secularism, the boundary is even more unclear in the sense we do not even know what constitutes those spheres!


The state needs to be clear which modes of dress, jewellery, and objects count as religious symbols before deciding to remove something in the name of secularism. In the debates surrounding the headscarf (hijab), beard in Muslim men, or the depiction of the cross in Italian schools, it becomes amply clear that what is symbol to one is not so to another. If symbolism depends on individual points of view, how could a neutral state ever accept that the headscarf is a religious symbol, and needs banning in public institutions?

It is impossible for states to determine from a neutral perspective when some object is a religious symbol. This, because there are no secular criteria to decide on the religiosity of symbols. Ironically, in such debates, secular courts of law participate in theological debates about the true message of religion. In the pagan times, the Christian Church similarly decided what constituted pagan practices requiring a ban; and what the truly secular, which could continue.


Importantly, if we do not allow some interpretation by some authority, it may lead to the tyranny of majority. Homogenous traditions may successfully implement this way of interpretation on the nature of religious symbols as seen in the West. But there is a serious problem when applied to pluralistic traditions like India. Reaching a consensus on the scope of religion is very difficult. Several of the traditions do not even have the conception of God. On the other hand, if left to the judges themselves to become theologians, a highly disturbing trend ensues.

If religious freedom becomes superior to the law of the land, then the courts would permit every person to become a law unto himself. Courts and law suffer from this inherent confusion in the interpretation of religion, where individual attitudes come into full play. Even in America, many intellectuals argue that the criteria used by courts to define the scope of religion has been ad hoc, incoherent, and biased in favour of the majority religion. Hence, there are fundamental difficulties to the interpretations of liberal principles of secularism and religious freedom.


India has a trouble with secularism since independence. The fear of secularists is that the country will disintegrate if politics does not separate from religion. But a definition of secularism in the Indian context leads to only confusion. Secularism is an enigma to the intelligentsia despite being the commonest mantra of post-independent India.

There are multiple interpretations of secularism and it certainly means different things to different groups of people. In a supreme court judgement of 1994, each of the seven judges gave separate versions of secularism! Hence, it appears to be a very elastic term in the Indian context. According to intellectuals, Indian secularism is distinct from the Western counterpart for it needed transformation to address problems like caste discrimination and extreme religious diversity. Thus, if Indian secularism means something different, then the problem it needs to solve may be different too.


The constituent assembly debates between 1946 to 1949 set the basis for the Indian secular state producing the standard formulations of religious freedom and the secular state. Muslim representatives rejected the uniform civil code in the belief that the Shariah of the Muslims is the work of God and no human agency can interfere. For the Muslims, it was clear that the secular state cannot interfere with the Muslim personal law. Dr Ambedkar repeated the European cliché of Indian Hindu religion seeing everything from life to death as religious and hence, there was a need to limit the definition of religion in the sense that it should not extend beyond beliefs, rituals, and ceremonials which are essentially religious. It was a circular reasoning since Ambedkar’s definition of religion included the term needing a definition.


The ‘majority religion’ in India is Hinduism, but there is a deficient definition of Hinduism; whether it is proper to even call it a religion; and whether it exists or not. Hinduism is amorphous, many-sided and means many things at many levels of rituals, myths, philosophies. When there is a basic problem with defining the scope of Hinduism, at what point does it become religious and becomes opposite to secular? Citing Rama as an ideal king? Or when a lamp lights in an official function? Or when a politician consults an astrologer? Secularism in the context of India becomes a chaotic interpretation, especially with the judges.

What is the doctrinal core of Hinduism? No one knows. There are multiple texts, multiple philosophies, multiple teachers, and no single base scripture. So, how does one decide the scriptural purity or essence of religion? In this matter, our courts have taken the role of past Christian churches assessing pagan rituals. The missionaries, colonials, and illustrious people like William Jones, Max Mueller, Raja Rammohan Roy and Swami Dayanand Saraswati tried to weed out the ‘truly religious from the ‘superstitious or the secular elements.’ The essentials and non-essentials of Hindu religion now goes in the hands of a few judges interpreting as per their own training, beliefs, and attitudes. The judges have thus acquired greater power than the traditional authorities to interpret Hinduism.

In India, anything that allows people to live together has the term ‘secularism’, and this has become a state of collective minds in the country. Instead of examining and theorizing on the ways in which different religions, castes, sects, creeds lived together peacefully for many hundreds of years in India, one takes recourse to the obscure language of secularism. This discourse of secular liberalism prevents one from understanding the pluralism in India, instead of helping to solve them.

The distinction between the two spheres is unclear, yet our political theorists and jurists take it as a given- a priori assumption, requiring no explanation. The secular model originated in the West, but that is not a reason to reject that. The concept of secularism applied to the homogenous world of the west, and hence was suitable in a certain time and place. Transferring it to the plural world of India is a recipe for disaster, as our present secularism shows. Despite including ‘secular’ in the constitutional preamble in 1976, our country is, in fact, facing more religious friction.


The West has seen few violent religious conflicts during the last seven decades. On the other hand, Anti-Semitism was a destructive force in the first half of the 20th century and is on the rise again. Protestants and Catholics fought in Northern Ireland till the 1990s. In West Germany, communist and other ‘radicals’ could not teach and be in the bureaucracy until 1985. And presently, the influx of Islam into Europe is causing a severe strain in the secular model. We need to make sense of the liberal secular model of Europe, which is a model of toleration, and yet is not.

The dominant Western view over centuries when looking at the relationship between cultures was in terms of an evolution of religion. Enlightenment characterized the history of religion as a growth process progressing from a savage state to venerating powers of nature; and then through polytheism (multiple gods) to monotheism (single God). Finally, it reached the climax of Western modernity which either gave religion a rational form or outgrew religion altogether. This scheme of Western understanding ended up by saying that the modern West was the apex of human development, the end aimed to by other cultures, which count as equivalents to earlier stages of Western culture’s historical growth.

Unfortunately, history does not progress like that. The ways of progress are ‘crooked and perverse’, ‘twisting and turning’, as a scholar argued. The interpretations of a uniform progress of religious liberty depends on cherry-picking hundreds of quotations torn from their context and robbed of their relevance to a specific historical conjecture.

These kinds of narratives cannot ignore the anomalies and still hope to retain credibility of the narrative of ‘the rise of the modern west.’ There is repeated questioning of Europe to accommodate genuine diversity; it produced extreme violence and inhumanity during the colonial period and the world wars; and there is increasing unhappiness and anxiety among its citizens.


The model that transforms other cultures into earlier stages in the growth of the Western culture remains alive today. John Rawls in Political Liberalism (1996) wrote, ‘social unity and concord requires agreement on a general and comprehensive religious, philosophical, or moral doctrine.’ Rawls ignores the history of many Asian traditions, especially India where pluralism did not lead to any systematic persecution and oppression based on comprehensive doctrines.

The presupposition stays in most thinkers that all plural societies face a conflict of comprehensive doctrines. Societies thus should consist of a variety of religious communities with its own set of comprehensive doctrines striving for a general dominance. Modern Westerners presume that non-Western cultures are alike in that they justify the legitimacy of political institutions in terms of divine authority and revelation. The Westerners have reached the other shore with a clear separation between politics and religion.

This separation has not yet occurred in the non-Western cultures who are in the earlier stages of Western politics still stuck in divine revelation. Unfortunately, this characterization of political theology is way off the mark, as it is still based on the Western understanding of its own history and setting it as a benchmark for all other histories too.


Many authors continue to trace the origins of secular modernity to Christianity. But more important is to consider a relation of dependency between today’s secularism and Christian religious doctrine. A series of thinkers from Augustine to Marx reproduced concepts of modern philosophy from Christian ideas. But there was disposal of the theological substance. The whole moral, intellectual, political, and social history of the West is to some extent Christian, yet it dissolves Christianity by the application of Christian principles to secular matters.

Other philosophers feel that the continuity between modernity and Christianity is not in the form of secularization, but rather modern thinking has inherited a set of puzzles originally solved by theology. There was disposal of the answers of theology, but not the original questions. This concept of modernity is acceptable for scientific questions like the origin of gravity or Newton’s laws, but do they make sense for other concepts like sovereignty, rights, toleration, or religious freedom?


The secularization of Christianity happened in a specific framework of its own culture. For Western thinkers, secularity has different connotations: it means the retreat of religion from public space; or it means the decline of religious belief and practice; or it meant God as one of the options in individual belief. The definitions of Western secularization include a split between transcendent and immanent God, which is a self-description of Christendom.

There are two options regarding religion: one, that it is present in all societies; and second, many phenomena which we refer to as religion are different phenomena. In the first option, we can reasonably and logically talk about a secular age in contrast to a religious age and how the society shifted from one to the other in the process of secularization. In the second option, we should talk of this immanent-transcendent distinction as specific to the Latin Christendom as these do not make sense in other traditions and cultures.

The narratives of the western world go on the same theme of the split between the ‘immanent’ factual world and the ‘transcendental’ normative world; between what is and what ought to be, to all religions of the world. But Asian traditions do not hold the same narratives or descriptions of concepts like the Western world. The entire description of secularization is a Western-Christian self-description and it only helps to transform other cultures into inferior variants of the West.

Other theorists suggest that secular modernity is the residual kernel that remains after discarding the impact of religion. The common secular core of human existence is the same in all cultures and there is an added religious element. The removal of this superfluous layer of religion gets back to the secular core of human existence untouched by religion. This does not explain the problem of asymmetry of the cultures. Each culture is held firmly in place by foundation of laws and governed by political authorities. This asymmetry presumes one to be superior to the other. The author and his group believe that religion is never an add-on, but an important component in moulding the cultural form of a society.


Secularism is the answer to the question of dealing with multiple religions. Here comes the most significant claim of SN Balagangadhara and his group that there are no religions in India, and hence the question is itself invalid for the solution to apply. It does not make sense to ask a Belgian priest whether he is a Brahmin. India has traditions. Over centuries, European scholars, academics, missionaries, and colonials combined with Indian counterparts to convert traditions into religions.

The word ‘Religion’ gets a secular tone by using the word ‘world-view’, which in fact means the same thing when looking at different cultures. Do all cultures have a world-view? Do all cultures need a world-view? Could we describe a community and its boundaries by describing the outlines of their world-view? In the framework of these questions, SN Balagangadhara makes his strongest point that there simply cannot be a religion in India.

The two important properties of religion are: first, it must make a claim about the origin and purpose of the world (the how and why of the Cosmos); and secondly, this message must be true This is the ‘metaphysical’ position of any religion.

Based on the metaphysical conditions, Indian traditions are not possibly religions. They do not properly raise the issue of origin of the Cosmos. Vedas, Upanishads, Brahmanas, Puranas, Itihaasas have multiple stories of creation and purposes of Cosmos. The ideas in the multiple stories say just about everything and everything. Depending on the context, an individual in the multiple narratives may call the question of Cosmos origin illegitimate; or consider it pure speculation lacking any truth value; or say that all claims are true; or even suggest that Cosmos has no origin and is always present. The Buddhists and the Jains have no conception of a God in the first place! Strangely, in Indian tradition and culture, a person can equally believe all the stories and may equally reject all of them. Finally, it looks almost as if the ‘origin’ question and the place of God are irrelevant.

Religion is thus impossible in a culture where the questions of origins can be an illegitimate one. The Western world is always in a grip of historicity trying to find the truth value of its scriptures. The Biblical history is right in the center of investigation with advocates and opponents on either side of the battle line trying to prove or disprove. This attitude hardly excites or disturbs their counterparts in India. It is the attitude of a culture towards the holy books that generates questions or fails to do so. Literature investigating the truth claims made by ‘religious texts’ is absent in India. To ask whether they are true or false is to exhibit a profound ignorance of the culture whose stories they are.

As another component, there must be certain sociological conditions absolutely required for guaranteeing the identity of religions. These are:

  • a world-view codified in a textual source called a ‘holy-book’ and must be widely known
  •  a standard world-view with clear boundaries and which cannot undergo changes across generations
  • an authority to settle disputes in transmission and interpretation of stories and legends (thus having a hierarchy of texts)
  • a source of excommunication when two interpretations collide (say Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Buddhism)
  • an organization to transmit and propagate its world-views.

These five sociological conditions are necessary to allow the transmission of the world-views across space and time so that they may preserve their identity over generations. None of these conditions fulfil in India with respect to Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism, and so on. Hence, in metaphysical and sociological terms, it is an impossibility that Indian culture knows of religions or its secularized version-a world view.


Learning is the way an organism makes its environmental habitable. This crucial process of socialization consists of transmitting knowledge from the reservoir of the group. The reservoir consists of customs, myths, traditions; and the mechanisms of transmission are child rearing practices, schooling patterns, and so on. There are multiple frameworks for this learning process and socialization in human beings. Thus, differences between cultures has to do with differences in social environments and different ways of going about in the world.

The dominant configuration of learning in the West is religion. Religion brings a configuration of learning which brings about ‘learning about’ things. The ‘why’ question becomes the dominant order of learning process. Religion generates an attitude and an orientation; it puts constraints on the intellectual and practical energies of the culture; it generates a feeling of relevance and importance. In this background, it is not surprising to note the rising of secular sciences in the western culture, the resistance of religion to the sciences, and the efforts to convert or colonize.

The gradual emergence of religion as the root model of order is what made the West into a culture. Seeking ‘knowledge about’ as the dominant learning process generates theoretical knowledge. The natural sciences- a species of knowledge- grew out of a religious culture. Religion as a root model structures the experience of the world so that, in the absence of deeper underlying laws, the phenomenal world seems chaotic.

Religion hence was a necessary condition for the development of scientific thinking. Religion related phenomena to each other; it provided an explanation for these unconnected phenomena by appealing to an invisible ordering force; and required a search for the underlying explanation. So, what we call a scientific attitude is contiguous with a religious attitude.

Religions draws up its limits of knowledge, science does not. When the secularization of religion by way of the sciences starts threatening the religious doctrines, there is an obvious antipathy. The hostility of the Church to scientific theories is a consequence of this clash. Christianity ended up treating the scientific theories as rivals. The increasing knowledge of the slices of the world finally leads to a condition where the individual or community is indifferent to religious knowledge. This is again a consequence of religion being the root model of learning.


There can be alternate culture-specific configuration of learning where performative knowledge (or a ‘how to’ ability) dominates. In a society where performative knowledge dominates, there can be amazing social stability, cohesion, structuring, and ordering of society. Being the dominant mode of learning, such a culture would even raise theoretical speculations in form of performative actions.

Rituals are such an entity of a culture like India where they may have taken a dominant mode of learning. It generates a configuration of learning; whose dominant learning process builds societies. In contrast, religion generates another configuration of learning whose subordinate learning processes build societies. Religious thinking from the West looked down on the rituals of the heathens and pagans; but it is an uncontested fact of history that religion has divided communities and humans, but rituals have united communities.

Rituals and religions do not build societies on their own finally; but they generate configurations of learning whose learning processes build societies. A mode of dominant learning in one culture works as a subordinate mode in other cultures. The relationships between the dominant and subordinate processes of learning give shape to a culture. In this sense, religion or world-view is absent in Indian or Asian culture. This does not imply that religious elements are completely absent. They are indeed present, only they structure differently.

The Western culture has a mode of learning which says that every culture has a religion or a world-view. The West sees the differences in cultures only in its terms, i.e., as having another or different world-view. It cannot conceptualize them in any other way. That is why they will keep questioning or trying to understand karma, atman, or reincarnation. The pagan or the Indian culture understand and acknowledge that other cultures may have a religion or a world-view, but that it is not their way of going about in the world. This essential difference in thinking made the Semitic religions intolerant and Asian traditions tolerant and accepting. Secularism is an inherent requirement for the former and inappropriate for the latter. The West obsesses with order and chaos and hence produced philosophers, theologians, and scientists trying to make theories breaking away from practical life and neglecting an experiential order. The other type of culture (Indian or Asian) had in contrast invested its intellectual energies in creating, sustaining, and continuously modifying a social or practical order. Practical actions, like rituals, became sophisticated patterns of interaction. Theoretical discussions about some imagined order was neither essential nor encouraged. The two cultures met in an unfortunate set of circumstances. The Asians were willing to learn and the West thought it could only teach.

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Dr Pingali Gopal

Dr Pingali Gopal is a Paediatric and Neonatal Surgeon practising in Warangal, Telangana. He has a keen interest in Indian culture and does his little bit to correct the many wrong narratives which hurt India at many levels. Opening his eyes rather late to the wonder called India, it is now a continuous journey for him to sip bits from the oceanic nectar of Indic Knowledge Systems.