Can a country with so many religions be truly secular or for that matter can a religious person ever be secular?
Here my definition of religion as I have understood it over the years – faith (often blind) in one and only one particular way of reaching out to God or a supreme being. The ‘ism’ in that faith makes a person do a whole lot of rituals or ceremonies, sometimes without ever questioning them or even trying to understand the meaning behind them. There are a lot of people who do understand and believe in the rituals etc, but then they end feeling that their chosen path is supreme and the rest are not really up there yet.
Secularism for me means keeping all those ‘ism’s aside and looking at a fellow human being as a human being first and not let his/her ‘ism’ get in the way.
My father is an atheist and my mother religious. We recently went to Shirdi at my mother’s request. Being a pilgrimage town, there was a feeling of piety and a vague sense that all of us were there for the same reason. But what disturbed me was an underlying sense of madness, of religious fervour. Sai Baba disregarded religious orthodoxy and rituals putting more emphasis on self realisation, charity and being a good human being. I am not too sure I saw any of this there. People did exactly what they were not supposed to do ... follow rituals. Offering garlands worth Rs.500 or 1000 is not really charity. Not maintaining roads within the city limits even when so much money is pouring in is not really being good.
For some reason which I can’t fathom (I do want to blame media to an extent), I feel that people across faiths are getting more and more ritualistic. The Diwali, Navratra, Id or Karwa Chauth celebrations, all are getting more elaborate and showy.
In my experience, the moment you take the path of self-realisation, all the rituals and celebrations cease to matter. When I was a kid, my father had sat me down and told me that there is a rationale behind everything, that I should question things including God and never to follow anything blindly (exactly what Pi’s father told him in the book Life of Pi). My mother’s belief in her God helped me keep my faith in a powerful being. But it was my inherent Hindu-ness (not the ‘ism’ but the philosophy) which led me to experiment with almost all faiths and various other esoteric ways in order to find myself. Finding myself did not mean that I became a good human being without faults but that it helped me see the goodness in others and try and accept them as they are.
So I question people or a nation (ours) who term themselves secular. The notion on paper sounds good. But if not implemented in practice makes you question as to why the word is there in the first place. The first step towards self realisation is to acknowledge and accept your current state of being. So it is time that we as a nation acknowledge the fact that we are not really secular, that we are more a nation of multiple ‘ism’s co-existing.
It took me more than three decades of search to get my answer. So for all of us as a society to collectively reach a state where we can truly call ourselves secular, will probably take an era. But starting now is imperative.