Transcendental Commentary on the Issues of the Day
THE PILGRIMAGE TOWN of Ayodhya, about 345 miles southeast of New Delhi, has become the focus of a conflict that threatens the stability of the Indian secular state.
The present town of Ayodhya is named after the capital of Rama, an incarnation of the Supreme Lord who appeared in India long ago. Rama demonstrated the character and behavior of a perfect king. Familiar to all Indians, the history of Lord Rama is told in the Sanskrit epic Ramayana, which through the centuries has inspired classic works of art, drama, dance, and song.
The exact history of Rama Janmasthana, the birthplace of Lord Rama, is in dispute. According to some accounts, the Islamic emperor Babar built a mosque there in the sixteenth century. A temple dedicated to Lord Rama is said to have previously existed at the same spot.
Following a court decision in 1986, a Deity of Lord Rama was installed in the Babri mosque, which had not been used as a Muslim place of worship for many years. Recently, a number of Hindu organizations and parties have intensified their campaign to build a temple to Lord Rama on the land now occupied by the mosque, inspiring opposition from Muslims and others.
Over the past two years, three successive Indian governments (headed by Rajiv Gandhi, V. P. Singh, and Chandra Shekar) have sought to defuse the crisis, without much success. Indeed, the fall of the last government, that of V. P. Singh, was directly related to the Rama temple dispute. Prime Minister Singh, after defeating Rajiv Gandhi's Congress Party in the 1989 elections, headed an unusual coalition that included his own Janata Dal Party, Communists, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which some have labeled a fundamentalist Hindu party. The BJP supported the Hindu organizations, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, seeking to erect the Rama temple on the site occupied by the Babri mosque. Late last year, L. K. Advani, head of the BJP, was arrested as he proceeded through northern India in a motorized chariot toward Ayodhya.
In November 1990, government troops and police turned back crowds of protesters who had come from all parts of India to begin construction of the Rama temple. Press reports said twenty-four persons were killed in Ayodhya, and hundreds more died throughout India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh in incidents related to the dispute.
After the arrest of Advani, the Bharatiya Janata Party withdrew from the ruling coalition, precipitating the resignation of Prime Minister Singh. Chandra Shekar, head of a socialist faction of the Janata Dal Party, was chosen as the new prime minister. With only a small minority of seats in parliament, Chandra Shekar had to form a coalition in order to rule. Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress (I) Party pledged support to Chandra Shekar, thus allowing him to head the government.
Under the parliamentary system, the prime minister must command a majority, and as soon as he loses a vote of confidence, he must either form a new government or call national elections.
Some political commentators believe that Rajiv Gandhi agreed to support Chandra Shekar in order to postpone national elections until India has had time to recover from the recent wave of Hindu-Muslim violence.
The Chandra Shekar government would like to see the Indian Supreme Court decide the controversy about the history of the Ayodhya site and work out an acceptable solution regarding the future of the present mosque and the proposed temple.
Meanwhile, the disturbances arising out of the Rama temple dispute have sparked an intense debate about India's future as a secular state. Since its founding in 1949, the Indian government, following Western models, has been avowedly secular. But in practice political leaders have often attempted to win points by playing up to the religious sentiments of the Hindu majority and the influential Muslim minority. And this, some say, violates the principle of secularism.
Some observers have suggested that the only way to achieve social peace and harmony is to craft a national government that is free from any connection with God and religion.
A recent signed editorial in the Times of India criticized government leaders for participating in religious ceremonies. The author complained that when leaders do this they "send the unmistakable message that the public expression of religious belief is not only not frowned upon by the state but is actually encouraged by it."
"A genuinely secular state," said the author, "does not have to be aggressively antagonistic to religion. But it must insist on … the exclusion of religious observances in the public domain. And while not systematically campaigning against religion, … it must vigorously propagate the ideology of scientific rationalism."
Scientific rationalism, in the mind of the editorial's author, is an ideology that is fundamentally atheistic and materialistic. This ideology, he says, should be the official doctrine of the secular state.
Persons attracted to such views should carefully consider what is happening in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, where the world's most truly secular governments have collapsed, or are collapsing, and religion is thriving anew.
Of course, it is natural that some might be discouraged when confronted with violence growing out of religious differences. But abandoning religion in favor of pure secularism is not going to help. Stalin was a truly secular person, a great admirer of scientific rationalism, but he killed millions of his countrymen.
Just because there is counterfeit money circulating does not mean that a government should abandon currency. Rather, efforts should be made to identify counterfeit bills and withdraw them. The same is true in matters of religion. Sectarian religious views that promote communal antagonism and violence are antithetical to genuine religion. They should be discouraged by governments.
But beyond this, what position should a government take regarding religion? One possibility, which has been given too little attention, is that a government can involve itself in promoting nonsectarian religious principles.
That such a policy can be beneficial for a state has been suggested by President Gorbachev of the Soviet Union, who said during a visit to Italy in December 1989 that "the moral values which religion generated and embodied for centuries can help in the work of renewal in our country. … We need spiritual values."
Can religious principles really be nonsectarian? Srila Prabhupada once said, "God is neither Christian nor Hindu nor Muslim." And the individual soul, being part of God, the Supreme Soul, is also neither Christian nor Hindu nor Muslim.
Christian, Hindu, Jew, and Muslim are simply designations of the body, and they can change. A Christian can become a Muslim, and a Hindu can become a Christian. But the soul's eternal loving relation to God can never change.
Many people speak about love of God without knowing who God is or how exactly to love Him. But to truly love God, one must know both His personality and how to please Him directly. That knowledge, hinted at in various scriptures, is fully explained in the Vedic literature.
Properly understood, the Vedic literature is not the sole property of India or Hinduism. The Sanskrit word veda simply means knowledge, and the knowledge of God and the soul in the Vedas can be applied in all times, in all places, by all people. Vedic knowledge unifies rather than divides.
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness has been organized to educate people everywhere about the Vedic spiritual values, which transcend the narrow bounds of competing sectarian religions.
According to books of Vedic knowledge such as the Srimad-Bhagavatam, governments should actively assist in the all-important work of promoting genuine spiritual values. In this connection, Srila Prabhupada observed, "The principles of religion, namely austerity, cleanliness, mercy, and truthfulness, … may be followed by the follower of any faith. There is no need to turn from Hindu to Mohammedan to Christian or some other faith. … The Bhagavatam religion urges following the principles of religion. The principles of religion are not the dogmas or regulative principles of a certain faith."
If the government does not help promote the nonsectarian principles of religion, then, says the Bhagavatam, "irreligious principles like greed, falsehood, robbery, incivility, treachery, misfortune, cheating, quarrel, and vanity will abound."
Unfortunately, too many people in government, under the influence of "scientific rationalism," have become convinced that there is no God or soul or that communicating knowledge of God and the soul is not the business of government. But despite the claims of scientific rationalism, the soul and God are real, and communicating nonsectarian spiritual values based on knowledge of God and the soul is a proper function of the state.
If people neglect spiritual progress, they will suffer in this life and the next. But if the citizens of any state adopt genuine nonsectarian spiritual values, they become free from the miseries of birth, death, old age, and disease and will eventually achieve the highest good, pure love of God. Any state truly interested in the ultimate welfare of its citizens should welcome this.
And how should governments relate to the existing sectarian religions? In 1973, the Indian ambassador to Sweden discussed this sensitive topic with Srila Prabhupada in Stockholm. The ambassador suggested, "As a government we should not take too strong a policy about any particular religion, even though it is the religion of the majority of the people."
Srila Prabhupada replied, "Secular state means neutral to any kind of religion. But it is the duty of government to see that people are religious. Not that, 'Because government is secular, let the people go to hell.'"
"No, that's true," said the ambassador.
"Yes," continued Srila Prabhupada, "if you are a Muslim, it is my duty as government to see that you are actually acting as a Muslim. If you are a Hindu, it is the government's duty to see that you are acting as a Hindu. If you are a Christian, it is the government's duty to see that you are living up to the Christian standards. You cannot give up religion. Dharmena hinah pasubhih samanah. If people become irreligious in the name of secularism, then they are simply animals. So it is the government's duty to see that the citizens are not becoming animals. He may profess any type of religion. That doesn't matter. But he must be religious. That is the secular state. Not that secular state means the government is callous: 'Let the people become cats and dogs, without religion. The government doesn't care.'"
So what should be done in India? Perhaps it is time for the Indian people to urge their government to re-evaluate its commitment to the Western-style secular state and begin actively promoting India's greatest natural resource—the science of universal spiritual values contained in the timeless Vedic literature. Let the followers of all faiths be measured against the standard of genuinely universal religious principles. If they are truly advancing on the path of love of God and love of all God's creatures, none of them will have anything to fear, from the state or from each other.
Drutakarma Dasa is an associate editor of Back to Godhead, an associate editor of ISKCON World Review, and a science writer for the Bhaktivedanta Institute in San Diego. Portions of this article appeared in ISKCON World Review(December 1990).