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

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

In the previous part, we saw the evolution of secularism in the Christian world but its inapplicability in the Indian context which does not have religions but traditions. An idea which made sense in a specific place and at a specific time of history had an inappropriate import to India. In this part, the author looks at how theology transformed into political theories of liberal secularism; and shows how it created havoc to our traditions in colonial India. Unfortunately, the same narrative continues its stranglehold in post-colonial India.


The two kingdoms of the secular and the religious has its roots in the march of Christianity after its dominance. The Papal reform, followed by Protestant Reformation, followed by the Enlightenment, formed the continuum of theological and political principles, firmly establishing the two kingdoms of the secular and the religious.

The division between the soul and body, between spirit and flesh, between the invisible and visible, structured its conception of faith as a process of conversion to God. This corresponded to a partition of human social life into the spiritual and the temporal. As souls or spirits, humans live in the eternal kingdom of heaven; and as bodies, we live in the temporal kingdom of earth, always subject to sins.

The initial monastic Christianity crafted conversion as the Christian way of life, and conceptualized in terms of turning away from the carnal to the spiritual realm. This process gave spiritual liberty to the monks and later to the priests of the Roman Catholic Church. This progressed to spiritual authority which placed the priests above the common folk. After the Papal Reform of the 12th century, conversion became the foundation to distinguish between the spiritual estate of the clerics and the temporal estate of the laypeople.

Then the Protestant Reformation swept across the European continent. Every Christian underwent the process of conversion and all believers were priests. There was a rejection of the Church priests, often depicted as cruel and insensitive to the laypeople. Reformation took away the power of the priests and insisted that all followers had the precious treasure of Christian liberty.

This had a long-lasting impact on European political thinking. The spiritual kingdom became the sphere of liberty or freedom. True religion demanded freedom of the soul from idolatry of human works and laws. The sinful body in the temporal kingdom, in contrast, remained in a tight grip of human secular authority and coercive laws.

All this has a tremendous structural similarity to the contemporary liberal model of religious toleration and the secular state. Both divide human societies into two spheres; one of politics and another of religion. In the political sphere, human beings are subject to laws of the secular authorities; the second sphere is that of freedom where the individual conscience lives according to its own values and beliefs. This is also a normative model (an ought to model) like the previous models which tell that the religious and political need separation; and everyone must have a freedom of conscience.

By themselves, these structural similarities cannot establish that the present model is a secular translation of the political theology of the two kingdoms. Yet the fundamental problems faced by the liberal model’s division of society into two spheres do indicate a strong connection.

In the Protestant theology of Christian freedom and the two kingdoms, the distinction was clear and coherent. It relied on a cluster of beliefs shared by Christian communities. Different clerics and rulers disagreed about the scope of the two kingdoms, but they all knew what they were referring to while discussing, because of a common framework. The opposition between the secular and the religious is clearly an internal Christian distinction. It made sense in the Christendom and even more sense to talk of a ‘Christian secular government.’

Extracting this notion from the background theological framework and reformulating in secular terms as though it concerned a neutral rational distinction leads to intractable conceptual problems. One can no longer refer now to the shared theological background that lent sense and significance to this discussion. Thus, this division slowly became a pre-theoretical given, never questioned or doubted.


In the Protestant Reformation movement, several churches having different doctrines arose, each with a confession of faith and a formal statement of doctrinal belief intended for public avowal by an individual, a group, a congregation, a synod, or a church. These churches had great dependence on extensive and strict doctrines.

The Church had the responsibility of uniting the factual world of what ‘is’ existing in the world to the normative heavenly world of what ‘ought’ to be. This responsibility of the Churches also led to the continuous evolution of new doctrines and new Churches. Lutherans, Calvinists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Puritans thus arose in this background of a continuous reform of the Reformation itself; which itself primarily rose in anger against the papal tyranny of the Roman Catholic Church.

In a bid to keep its flock together, the individual denominations codified and made stricter doctrines, also encouraging intolerance to the other groups. One author wrote that Calvinists were sliding into the yoke of papal idolatry by putting human laws higher than God. The baptized divided into separate confessional pieces. Each one said, ‘This is God’s Church and nothing else; and here is Christ. One must believe this or fail to achieve salvation and be unworthy of the Lord’s table. Anyone who does not believe is a heretic, freethinker, libertine, unbeliever, and disrupter of spiritual peace.’


The confessional party identified the divine order with a specific confessional system of doctrine and discipline enforced by clerical authorities. In such a background of intolerance arose the anti-confessional movements of Europe which equated God’s will with the universality of toleration and liberty of conscience. This entailed a rejection of all clerical institutions and church laws, supposedly disrupting the fabric of religion.

The anti-confessional thinkers viewed liberty of conscience as a divine gift to humanity. They consistently argued that the duty of a true Christian was to tolerate heresy and idolatry. ‘God’s will’ became the ideal which made toleration into a moral obligation. Thus, Christian liberty became the focus of a never-ending effort to realize God’s will on Earth. The anti-confessional thinkers basically were convinced that certain norms reflected the divine order. Humans had no right to interfere in each other’s forms of worship and ought not to bind others to their own understanding of religion. The civil magistrate should avoid religion thus.

This clash reflected the two dimensions of the Reformation’s monasticization of daily life. Confessionalization stressed the transformation of a community of believers into a secular monastery. The anti-confessional on the other hand emphasized individual faith based on the monastic process of conversion. The individual internalizes the norms of belief and behaviour; and the monitoring is by internal conscience. Hence, there is no role of the external authority in this scheme of things.


Enlightenment thinkers like Locke, Bayle, Willian Jefferson, and Diderot crafted the formulas about religion and politics that remain self-evident to the liberals of our times. They all posited a separation of the public sphere of politics from the private sphere of religion. These principles look as if they are fighting the religious congregations, but clearly, as the author shows, these thinkers never cast off the conceptual baggage inherited from Christianity. That means that they were very much in the framework of theological thinking when formulating the secular rules for a liberal tolerant state.

Protestant advocates of Christian liberty emphasized that all humans were equally fallible in their knowledge of God’s will. God had revealed it so, and hence true. No human institution had the authority to bind others to its understanding of religion. Hence, fallibility was a ground for religious toleration. Enlightenment changed the terminology of using ‘God’; given our knowledge limitations, we can now never be certain about ‘Truth’ and thus should not impose our belief on others.

The argument about the weakness of ‘erring brings’ is a secular translation of a theological justification for toleration. Christian religious ideas constitute the conditions of intelligibility of the Enlightenment philosophy of toleration. Protestant Reformation involved descriptions of Catholicism, Judaism, and confessional Protestantism as negation of the norms of Christian freedom. In secularization, these norms transformed into principles of public order and reason of the modern nation state. However, the distinction between the ‘norm’ and the ‘fact’ remained. Catholics, Jews, and later Islam were negations of the model of liberal toleration.


Enlightenment arguments revolved around a cluster of secularized theological ideas with myriad forms of interpretation. These theological foundations were:

  • religion is a universal domain of all societies
  • human beings have a conscience
  • religion and politics are two distinct spheres of human social existence, and so on.

The problem is that these may not be true for all societies. Religion may not be a universal cultural; traditions and rituals may be a part of public and political life; and the pre-supposition that every individual has a moral conscience guiding his private actions may not be a widespread belief. In such a different background, how can the principles of secularism derived in the European context be universal for the entire world, especially the non-Western countries?

Hence, the liberal model of secularism and toleration works under specific conditions of intelligibility. In the double dynamic of secularization and proselytization of Christianity, these cluster of ideas shifted from explicitly theological settings to common-sense reasoning of Western societies. First the Catholic Church; then the Reformation Protestant movement; then the transition to various confessional and anti-confessional movements in the Protestant framework; and then the spirit of tolerance to diverse Christian denominations. The final leap was a tolerance to all faiths in the continuing process of secularization followed by a strict separation of the public sphere from the private sphere. Varying degrees of private religious sphere had permission for public expression depending on the nation-state.

The principle of secularism emerged from the convergence of two factors: the secularization of anticlerical theology into a general critique of religion, and the concern to break the hold of the Church in society. Amongst the many outcomes, it gave the French model too which strives to ban all manifestations of organized religion from the public sphere. The different secular states of Europe are a result of interplay between concerns of state interference in religion, religious freedom, and toleration on the one hand; and concerns about limiting or banning expressions of religion from the public sphere on the other hand.

In the absence of this theological background, the liberal model faces fundamental problems that threaten its accessibility and intelligibility. These problems arise from trying to provide secular foundations for the model of Christian freedom and its two kingdoms. Without bringing Original Sin and God’s promise to humanity, it is impossible to explain the notion of Christ. Similarly, secular language is impossible without the background of theological understanding. Christian theology provides the basic conditions of intelligibility for normative (‘ought to’) liberal theories of toleration and secularism. This is the repeated and strongest point made by the author.

This bold claim needs testing and should predict new facts and its consequences if proved true. This hypothesis goes for testing now: Does the liberal model indeed bring about unanticipated and intractable problems, when it enters cultural contexts where the background frameworks of intelligibility are missing? Which better place than India to test this?


The moulding of the Indian model of religious toleration in British India was the result of interlinked simple and complex factors. The British consistently believed that Hindu religion and the caste system constituted ‘religious tyranny.’ The ubiquitous and all-powerful Brahmin priests had cloaked human fabrications as divine revelations and manipulated ignorant believers to satisfy their worldly desires. The Orientalists, much to the dismay of the missionaries, believed in toleration of Hindu practices as it was a guiding principle of colonial policy making.

The belief in moral value of toleration generated a problem for the administrators. The rulers were mainly Protestant believers of some kind and most believed the Bible as revelation of God’s will. They agreed that one’s duties as a Christian is to convert others to the true God. Many agreed that Hindu practices violated divine and natural law. But the ambition to remove these practices clashed with the official policy of toleration and hence large-scale conversions could not happen.


Toleration was the official policy and the decision was to preserve the laws of Quran and the ‘shastras’ in civil and religious usages. There are two dominant explanations for this: one, that it reflected the prudential concern that in the absence of such toleration policy, the locals would unite and defeat the British. The second connects to the power-knowledge nexus; the British desired knowledge and protection of Hindu laws and scriptures to secure colonial power. Toleration had two policy results; the exclusion of British settlement of civilians and protection of Indian religions by banning evangelization.

But the author questions why did toleration become an unconditional moral obligation for the colonial state? Scriptural foundations played a normative role in justifying toleration. By appealing to Hindu texts, the British provided a moral justification for the laws they enacted.


Sati was a phenomenon which occupied the British minds quite a bit. The discourse discussed the central question whether it was a civil custom or a Hindu sacred law. They searched the scriptures to find justification of the practices which they abhorred in a deeper quest to show Hinduism as an inferior variant of their religion.

Whether it needs banning or continuation was a topic of intense debate in the clash between the policy of toleration to local religions and the duty of disallowing immoral practices against the tenets of humanity. Regarding another topic of female infanticide and human sacrifice, it was clear that there were no scriptural sanctions, and hence had complete banning. Eventually, in 1829, Lord Bentick abolished Sati.

Why did the British attempt to locate ancient religious texts and to seek justification or condemnation for controversial practices there? The British argued that if certain practices belonged to the religious laws as laid in the scriptures, the colonial state had a moral obligation to tolerate them. To sum up: look at the detestable Hindu practices; try to locate them in scriptures; and if found, tolerate them as a moral obligation of being a superior social and religious community!

The single obsession of early colonial scholars was to find out the specific set of laws the Hindus mistake for Gods revelation. This was in the framework of believing that all human souls have equal access to God, but the devils and priests corrupt this by imposing their fabrications to mislead the believers. William Jones believed that there was an original pure Hindu core related to Christianity. The priests corrupted this later. The search was to find this pure core and, in the process, to cleanse the religion of the superficial monstrosities in the name of practices and rituals.

Both evangelicals and orientalists conceived of paganism as the equivalent of ‘popish idolatry.’ It was religious tyranny that usurped God’s authority. Hence, the colonials were torn between the Christian principles of toleration to idolatry and ‘false religions’; and the task to save the ruled from the yoke of tyranny and grant them Christian spiritual liberty.


According to popular perceptions, the separation of the state and religion were rooted in concerns about preventing a rebellion. However, the conceptual form continued to follow the religious framework of liberal toleration. The official foundation of their policy consisted of a normative model of religious toleration that resulted from the secularization of the political theology of Christian freedom.

The British colonial toleration policy did not leave indigenous traditions untouched. They began to reform and codify the ancient ‘dharmashastras’ looking at them as deficient manuals of law. Many of these scriptures had not been rules of law, but only described customs of different groups and localities; and containing a variety of reflections, sayings, and maxims for settling disputes. But these traditional texts had a transformation to a consistent body of sacred law. The early colonials tried to extract from the treatises one set of rules applicable to all Hindus and appoint Brahmins as priestly interpreters of this body of law. It was unclear what exactly constituted the Hindu law and this created problems.

The toleration policy compelled the officials to determine the exact religious practices for toleration. The division of the religious, secular, and the idolatrous was a Christian distinction and this became a division internal to Hindu religion, when it was not. The Protestant notions of a false religion thus operated implicitly here. In the secularized version of Christian Protestant theology, the division between a pure religion and human additions became a general characteristic of all religions, including Hinduism.

Due to the predicaments of finding a single book containing all the Hindu laws, there were two remedies; either create a new code founded on general principles or create a consistent code from the mass of written laws and the fragments of tradition. The second was the viable option because of the native attachment to the traditional structures and the British did not want to upset that.

The incredible variety and intricacy of customs surfaced in the attempts to collect these from different parts of the country, and yet, the conviction remained that all this derived from the degeneration of an original Hindu code. The British never prohibited false religion or idolatry but did conceive of religion-particularly Hindu- in terms of a Protestant model of set of scriptural rules, reflecting the will of God. Unfortunately, Hindu traditions and scriptures do not behave like that.

This discourse of the truly religious, the secular, and the idolatry or the false components of religions slowly internalized into the Hindus themselves in colonial and post-colonial India. The judges in post-colonial India now talk about the essential practices of the Hindu religion separating it from the non-essential superstitious accretions. These are inherently theological ideas which are now our standard thinking. Now judges in courts have appropriated the authority to decide on the truly religious and the secular/superstitious elements in Hindu religion. The latter could now be a subject of regulation, reformation, or removal by the state and the legal system.


Colonial toleration introduced a coercive mechanism to search for justifications of practices in scriptures and doctrines. The Indian reformers like Raja Rammohun Roy or Dayanand Saraswati in the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj movements respectively did precisely the same. Rammohun Roy went to the original Vedas and Upanishads and banned idolatry of all forms in the quest for a pure Hinduism. The rituals came under severe criticism. When colonials wanted to retain Sati, he produced tracts and tracts of literature showing that there was no scriptural sanction of this practice. Roy thus transmitted the religious model that sought to justify Hindu practices in terms of textual doctrines.

Colonial toleration instigated a restructuring of Hindu traditions, which soon acquired an institutional shape. The Arya Samaj movement of Swami Dayanand Saraswati went a bit further with the aggression. The Hindu traditions had a reformation as per his ideals of the only true religion on the lines of Islam and Christianity. The Vedas and the scriptures became his core of true Hinduism and everything else by way of rituals and traditional practices became false, entailing a rejection. The whole Hindu revival movement ultimately modelled itself on Protestant themes and the rebellion against the ‘popery’ of the priests. Hinduism thus became a monotheistic model taking on the other rival religions of Christianity and Islam.

In response, many traditions formed organisations fighting against these attempts for purification. Scripture quoting by scholars like Pandit Din Dayal tried to justify idol worship as a route to God. The colonial policy of toleration thus triggered transformation of a tradition into a scripture dominated religion.


This finally led to the ‘Hindu fundamentalism’ or ‘Hindu revivalism’ in the quest for a common set of beliefs around which Hindus should unite. This fundamentalism has certain properties. The first principle of this quest is the pursuit of a discrete core that should unite followers of Indian traditions. Secondly, this ‘Hindudom’ also needs a common identity and interests separating them from Muslims and Christians. The third property is more paradoxical. The lack of dogmas shared by Hindus gives rise to the claim that they hold principles of ‘tolerance’ in common. These principles called ‘positive secularism’, ‘Hindu tolerance’, or ‘equality of religions’ traces to Sanskrit aphorisms which became Hindutva teachings. These invocations contrast Hindu identity to the fanatic theocratic nature of Islam and Christianity. Hence, as a principle, Hindu tolerance becomes a ground for intolerance in the demand to other religions to accommodate equality of religions.

Hindu fundamentalism emerged from the intervention of the liberal state. The liberal state operates within a certain normative framework which constructs indigenous Indian traditions as variants of Islam and Christianity. Toleration and neutrality forced traditions to transform to a religious model. They identified scriptural foundations for their practices to survive under the colonial rule. Originally, they turned to Vedas, but the lack of consensus lead to certain core principles of unity, the foremost being the principle of ‘Hindu tolerance.’

Hence, Hindu nationalists sustain and reproduce the transformation of Indian traditions instigated by the liberal state. Hindu identity became a shared set of principles and hence posits against other monotheistic religions. From a liberal perspective, the secular state and its principles of neutrality and toleration are antidotes to religious nationalism and fundamentalism. However, the author by tracing the historical emergence of the liberal secular state and its policy of religious toleration in colonial India shows that liberal secularism and religious fundamentalism are the two faces of the same coin.

They are two mutually reinforcing moments of a mechanism that transforms the indigenous cultural traditions of India into variants of the religions of the Book. By placing Hindu traditions into a normative framework, the liberal secular state coerces communities to take a specific form. It forces the cultural traditions to mould themselves like biblical religion. The growth of the so-called ‘Hindu fundamentalism’ is a product of this straitjacket. Looked at this way, the conclusion throws doubt about the oft repeated conclusion that liberal secularism is the only antidote to fundamentalism. It might be that secularism generates fundamentalism.

The next part looks at how post-colonial India continued the Western discourses on secularism. Nehru and Dr Ambedkar remained trapped in European Enlightenment arguments to argue for a secular India. Secularism might have increased our problems rather than solving them! The time has now come to discover alternative solutions from non-Western cultures like India to deal with pluralism and diversity.

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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.