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Confronting violence: Bridging the sacred-secular divide

Violence, by definition, signals the loss, lapse and negation of a spiritual way of being. This is because a spiritual stance requires us to pose every question in relation to ourselves. Looking at whether there are aspects of our selves of which we are ashamed, and toward which we are, in small and not-so-small ways, violent, LATA MANI hopes that the horror of the present times in India will impel us to bridge the sacred-secular divide, for challenging the mirage of otherness that threatens to undermine our commonality and shared destiny.


VIOLENCE is any diminishment or violation of isness. Isness names the quality of beingness that is intrinsic to all that is alive. Isness embraces form as well as essence, surface as well as depth, matter as well as spirit. All living things whether deemed animate, like humans and animals, or regarded as inanimate, like stones or rocks, manifest their own isness. Violence, by definition, signals the loss, lapse and negation of a spiritual way of being.

We live in a time when no definition can be taken for granted. Given all the adharmic actions and philosophies that have sought and received religious sanction, we need to clarify at the outset what we mean when we speak of a spiritual way of knowing and being. This problem does not confront the spiritual aspirant alone. The mixed legacies of democracy, Gandhianism, Marxism and feminism also require us to clarify what we mean when we invoke those traditions. So I begin by clarifying some of the grounding premises of what I understand to constitute a spiritual epistemology or way of knowing.

Three key ideas may be said to be at the core of all mystical traditions. Although my language reflects a Hinduism cross-fertilised by Buddhism, these ideas are also in accord with Sufism, mystical Christianity and nature based religions. The first a priori or premise is that every aspect of the universe is infinitely alive and endowed with Divine consciousness. The second premise is that all aspects of the universe are equal to one another, with each aspect as sacred as the rest. The third a priori is that all aspects of the universe and all beings within it are intricately interdependent. Every thought, action, feeling or experience reverberates through the universe and, in doing so, sets in motion effects that give birth to causes, that give birth to effects, that give birth to causes etcetera. This process is one that existing models of causation are poorly equipped to comprehend and explain.

Any thought, word or deed that infringes the three principles just mentioned violates, by definition, the essence of true spirituality. Thus, one hardly needs to argue that Hindutva from the beginning, and in every way, stands opposed to all spiritual ideals. One may also note that, by this definition, almost all insitutionalised religions will be found, at least in part, to be in serious breach of fundamental spiritual principles. I say, "in part" because each tradition has also bequeathed to us its radical dimensions.

The contradictory legacy of religion or spirituality should not surprise us. Religion is a social institution. As such, it is shaped by the conflicts and particularities of the history, politics and culture of its emergence and subsequent development. It is up to us to cultivate discernment, and distinguish between that which is essential, and that which is simply the contingent effect of social and cultural mores. Regardless of what many claim, spiritual traditions do not come down to us in some pure form, untouched by history, politics or human interpretation. Spiritual practice thus involves an inescapably interpretive aspect. It requires us to embark on an unfolding and ongoing process of contemplation, interpretation and application. In sum, spiritual philosophy is neither beyond space and time, nor above human interpretation. Truth may be universal, but human understanding of it is inevitably particular.

The collective Hindu response to the abuse of religious name and form by the right wing has not, however, adequately confronted this point. On the one side, in keeping with its beliefs, the secular intelligentsia has repeatedly called for a strict separation of the religious from the secular. On the other side there has been a passive to conservative to retrograde Hindu religious establishment. This has either kept aloof, or dubbed Hindutva as political not religious, and spoken of compassion and tolerance as central Hindu tenets, ignoring thereby the problematic history of Hinduism. This position shares with the secularist view the assumption that religion can and should be kept apart from something called politics.

Thirdly, there are those in the religious establishment who have joined in the mayhem of the Sangh Parivar, either as its foot soldiers or else as brokers volunteering to effect a compromise between the Parivar and its adversaries.

Finally, there has been a small faith-based progressive Hindu voice within and outside of the religious establishment, which has sought to challenge the credibility and authenticity of Hindutva. Its strategy has been to unravel the lies of Hindutva, while stressing the essential teachings of love, peace, unity and dharmic living that are inherent in Hinduism, as in all other wisdom traditions. In trying to address religion and politics simultaneously, this last position has refused both their conflation and their division. In doing the former it diverges from the right wing, for which religion is politics by other means. The progressive religious perspective also departs from the secular position, which insists on the separation of religion and politics for fear that their intermingling in the public sphere will undermine the cause of social justice.

Understandable though it may be, there is a problem with the secular insistence that religion be kept out of civic life. It is simply not practical. Religious philosophy addresses existential questions, seeking to offer a guide to living. As such, for better and for worse, it is threaded into the consciousness of its practitioners and is integral to our/their life practices. It cannot be wished away, legislated out of existence or easily contained in something called the private sphere. Those of us who have been active in work for social change know only too well how the private and the public spheres continually shape and mould each other. How could it be otherwise in the case of religion or spirituality?


Like other cultural practices, religion must be met and challenged in the very places in which it is lived, in the realm of the everyday. The right wing understands this well and is re-articulating religion to regressive ends. Progressive forces need to do the same. We need to contemplate religion with equanimity. It merits neither a special awe nor a unique horror. The latter is nothing more than the former in another guise. The voices of people of faith in support of peace and social justice have not been prominent in shaping the current debate. We need to stand up, speak out and be counted. There is work to be done in bridging the seeming gulf between the secular and non-secular sections of our society. Without a coalition of secular and faith-based forces, the challenge to Hindutva will likely remain partial and without a popular base.

A coalition of spiritual and secular forces would necessarily have to open out the language of opposition to Hindutva. Secularism could no longer act as the definitive sign of an anti-fascist, anti-fundamentalist commitment. Rather, peace, justice, harmony and inclusivity would be the shared platform around which such a movement could be mobilised. Such a coalition would take patience, work, and everyone's willingness to forsake philosophical or ideological one-upmanship. But coming together is crucial if we are to broaden and deepen the interventions we hope to make in our increasingly divided and explosive society. Although distressing times call for greater openness and dialogue, one often witnesses a narrowing of debate. Issues that are not necessarily linked become conflated with one another. To offer one example, acknowledging the place of the sacred in one's life is assumed to mean support for personal law based on religion. This does not necessarily follow. Part of the work of a peace and justice coalition would be to clarify and recast the issues in relation to its own inclusive platform and vision.

The question of violence cannot, however, be deemed as merely other people's problem. A spiritual stance requires us to pose every question in relation to ourselves. What areas of distaste, prejudice and hate lie unexamined within our own consciousness? Even as we reject Hindu majoritarianism, do we wish that certain of our fellow beings simply did not exist? Are there aspects of our own selves of which we are ashamed, and toward which we are, in small and not so small ways, violent? Do we honour the isness of all that is?

It is often thought that this form of self-inquiry is an indulgent luxury and a diversion from the struggle. But if we accept the three premises laid out at the start of this presentation — namely, the sacredness, radical equality and interdependence of all aspects of the universe and of all beings within it — then we are led on a journey in which we discover that the division between inner and outer, self and other is impossible to maintain. Even something apparently as individual and personal as a thought travels through the universe and, if negative, does so as disturbance.

Although we may not be aware of it we deeply affect, and are in turn affected by, everything each of us thinks, says or does, whether or not we are in the same room or even in the same country. We need not take this on faith, for we have all had occasion to experience it. For example, when a thousand women from across Gujarat met in Ahmedabad a few days before the December 2002 Assembly elections and wept for each other's suffering, they were experiencing palpably the indivisibility, in the ultimate analysis, of one being from another. Whenever we feel deeply the unaddressed grievances of our fellow beings, we too are experiencing the fact that we are all threads in a single tapestry.

Spiritual philosophy has the potential to inspire one to move beyond fear to the wellspring of courage and wisdom. These latter qualities are often smothered by social convention and cultural prejudice which converge to constrain us from realising our full potential. Whether secular or spiritual in persuasion, peace-loving individuals share much in common. It is hoped that the horror of the present times will impel us to bridge the sacred-secular divide, in challenging the mirage of otherness that threatens to undermine our commonality and shared destiny.

Presented at panel on "Violence and Spiritual: Workshop on Ending Atrocities", Hyderabad, January 7, 2003.

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