Both fanaticism and secularism are two defective and dangerous approaches to religion
Secularism is the principle of the separation of government and persons mandated to represent the state from religious institutions. A secular state is one that is declared to be neutral on matters of religion or religious practices upon its people. Some also, at least theoretically, define secularism as acceptance of religious laws as binding on the state, and equal participation of state in different religions. However, in practice, modern states have either turned into hotbeds of fanatics or atheistic in the name of secularism due to failure to properly grasp the pristine religious principles.
In a modern secular state, the government maintains that it ensures equality between all beliefs. But the way it attempts to ensure this equality is by directly or indirectly professing atheism, or an active disbelief of God. In other words, the state conveniently forgets that atheism is also a belief! Modern children are indoctrinated with this idea right from first grade. In the name of scientific education, for instance, an unproven theory of more than two centuries like the Darwin’s theory is taught as part of science courses, thereby inadvertently and in most cases advertently cultivating atheism. It is chiseled into the kid’s thought process that, for instance, a country like India has to disown its own religious traditions so that it can enter the modern technological world. The result of all this atheistic propaganda is the mess we find our youngsters in today. Recent studies relate to atheism being a causal factor for suicide and violence in large number of youngsters. Proper insight of religious values is the need of the hour.
Universality of Religion
The basic principles of religion are universal. Truthfulness, cleanliness, austerity, mercy — these values transcend the barriers of religious faiths. The state must uphold these values. Without religion, irreligion takes over and brings with it corruption, injustice, and violence. Therefore government has the duty to teach religion. But while doing so it must protect religious diversity by staying above sectarian bias. On the material platform, religious faiths are at odds with one another. But on the spiritual platform, going beyond externals, one comes to the essence of religion — love of God. With love for God comes love for all living beings, regardless of distinctions between religions, races and nations. Real peace and freedom are guaranteed not by the materialistic and secular state but by the state whose leaders and followers pursue this highest ideal of self-realization and God consciousness.
Religion, says Srila Prabhupada, means to obey the laws of God. And one who does not obey these laws is no better than an animal. All scriptures and religious principles are meant to elevate one from the animal to the human platform. The primary responsibility of a government or a king is to ensure that the religious principles are upheld. One may protest, “Isn’t the primary responsibility of the state to provide food, clothing, shelter etc?” A state could provide all that and still if the citizens are devoid of the principles of dharma, then despite all possessions, one begets frustrations and there is suicide for instance. On the contrary, when the principles of dharma are established in a state, one knows for instance that “Everything animate or inanimate that is within the universe is controlled and owned by the Lord” (Isopanisad 1), and so one naturally doesn’t encroach upon others’ rights. Naturally, such intrinsic awareness in the citizens is useful for the administrators of the state and a state that encourages spiritual progress is more likely to be able to inculcate such basic principles in its subjects.
Srimad-Bhagavatam (4.14.18) delineates the role of the state. Yasya rastre pure caiva bhagavan yajna-purusah / ijyate svena dharmena janair varnasramanvitaih: “The state should be such that the general populace strictly observes the system of social orders of varna and asrama, and where all citizens engage in worshiping the Supreme Personality of Godhead by their particular occupations.”The state must not absolve duty simply by declaring itself a secular one and be cavalier about whether or not the people advance in varëasrama-dharma (the system of social and spiritual orders referred in the Vedic scriptures) without which no one be really happy. Yet while doing so, the state cannot force its subjects into observance of a particular religious faith.
Secularism in the form of the modern governments does not merely insure religious freedom so as to maintain peace but actually nurtures atheism. The “secular ideal” tends inevitably to war against spirituality. According to such an approach, problems lie beyond the domain of religion or spirituality. The more secularism expands, the more religion shrinks. To give an example, the government encourages artificial methods of birth control, and secularists urge that every pregnant woman has “the right to choose” to abort the life of her unborn child. Under this approach, birth control is seen as a social necessity, and religious objections are “traditionally held values” that must be “overcome by education.” Since everyone has a right to his own beliefs, if one believes abortion is murder then its murder; otherwise it isn’t. In this way, in the name of freedom of choice, the right to life of the child in the womb is neglected.
However, within the urge for secularism there is a worthwhile expectation, and that is absence of bigotry and fanaticism. Fanaticism is more or less present in most religious traditions. It is a domain of immature followers, whose enthusiasm turn into a unhealthy form. Followers of most traditions, especially when they achieved power, tended to persecute followers of other traditions. From the history of Vaisnavism, however, we do not know of such cases.
A fanatic cannot bring one to God but can turn one away, discrediting religion as such. A fanatic sometimes even sacrifices his life for an idea, often in hope of future reward (e.g. sense enjoyment in paradise). Sacrifice itself is not negative because for example to lay down one's life for one's nation in a war is eulogized as a heroic deed. One needs to judge the quality of that idea (according to three modes of material nature) and to see if it is worthy of life (or any other) sacrifice.
The idea that one who does not take up a certain religious practice should either be killed or consigned to eternal perdition reflects a complete misunderstanding of the Supreme Lord’s supremely merciful disposition. A government has no business forcing the practices of one faith on the people of another or forcing people of certain faiths to either not practice it or do so clandestinely that it is very difficult to practice it.
A close friend of mine who is favorably disposed to Krishna consciousness and trotters the globe on official purposes described this interesting and in some sense sad story: “When I first visited this Islamic country, a friend of mine working for an Indian company took me to a vegetarian restaurant that serves Indian food. I enjoyed the meal and complimented the restaurant’s owner, who is a highly placed scientist in a university. That in itself was odd. How many scientists are restaurant owners? My friend then requested the owner if he could show me “the special place in his restaurant.” The owner led us to the basement, and then to an underground room with narrow steps and concealed entrance. The room was filled with the aroma of agarbatti (incense sticks), sandalwood paste and flowers, offered to Radha- Krishna Deities. The music system played the rhythmic chant of Hare Krishna maha-mantra at a barely audible volume. The owner told me that he and a small group of devotees of Lord Krishna use the place as a temple for daily prayers. I didn't ask him why they prayed at a clandestine temple. It was stupid to ask such questions.” It is not uncommon to find religious minorities put under extreme difficulties in countries practicing religious intolerance.
But must we choose only between secularism and sectarianism, between a godless state and a state-enforced God? We need not! Why should the leaders of the state not also be fully self-realized persons? After all, the alternative to selfrealization is self-ignorance. And why should an ignorant run the show? Self-realization is an urgent need of everyone. What kind of government is it that disregards this most compelling need? The self-realized can't ignore God or banish Him from ordinary state affairs, nor can he press God into service as the office bearer for narrowly conceived state religion. A truly self-realized person goes beyond limited sectarian dualities, beyond petty disputes between one religious faith and another. He sees that God is one, even though people may worship Him in different ways.
Just as one who does not know swimming will get drowned when left to himself in water, however proficient he may be in the various arts and sciences, so no amount of secular education can enable us to cross the ocean of worldly existence, which is full of misery. It is therefore futile to pride on these. The goal of human life is to learn that art and acquire that proficiency which can enable us to cross the unfortunate ocean of metempsychosis and to secure everlasting freedom from the pinching bonds of sins and afflictions, grief and doubt, disease and death. By the process of devotional service alone can one fully realize the Supreme absolute truth and secure immunity from afflictions.
Unfortunately, at the present moment every state and every society are trying to forget God. Some publicly say that there is no God; others say that if there is a God, He is dead; and so on. A socalled advanced civilization is proclaimed but they forget that all advancement is dependent on Krishna . This is a very precarious condition. If people become irreligious in the name of secularism, then they are simply animals. A secular state should imply freedom of choice of mode of worship leading to God realization and not be a fertile ground for atheism.
The Solution: State as a Facilitator
One needs to denounce both the ubiquitous belief that the secular scientific method heralds progress for the human race, and the associated pimping of the mundane scientific outlook spawned of the urge to explain phenomena without recourse to God. Srila Prabhupada often said that religion without philosophy is fanaticism and philosophy without religion is mental speculation. Both sentiment and fanaticism spring from the same defect, which is, lack of philosophical understanding of reality. Similarly, one could add, secularism without provisions for nurturing God consciousness simply nurtures atheism. It is the need of the human society to become Krishna conscious and the state should actively facilitate such practice among the citizens, while ensuring that fanaticism does not interject its ugly head, and all citizens have the same right for such practice.
In order to achieve perfection of life, everyone has to go beyond both secularism and fanaticism and engage in unalloyed devotional service unto the Supreme Lord in association of devotees of the Lord, at least for his own benefit of relief from the ocean of material misery and out of his own free will.
Preferably, one has to engage in an institution that has gone beyond secularism and fanaticism. The activities of a truly spiritual organization are categorically different from the ordinary activities of this world. They are also different from worldly activities that are conducive under the sanction of the scriptures to the attainment of spiritual service. The activities of such an organization are the transcendental function itself to which the worldly functions have to be subordinate for the gradual attainment of the summum bonum.
At present the state is not interested in seeing that the denizens are engaged in the devotional service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Rather, they are more interested in advancing the machinery of sense gratification and people are becoming further implicated in the web of the stringent laws of nature. One should be free from the entanglement of the three modes of material nature, and it is possible only through surrender unto the Supreme Lord. Therefore, the state should facilitate a structure which allows people to work according to their natural tendencies in an organized society so that everyone, regardless of their position, makes spiritual advancement.
Damodar Nityananda Dasa (Dr. Dipankar Deb) is a disciple of Srila Bhakti Vikasa Swami. He holds a PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Virginia. He is the author of an upcoming book, “Muslim Devotees and Admirers of Lord Krishna .”