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Is a dewdrop sacred or is it secular?

For a person with a spiritual outlook there is no line, either conceptual or experiential, that definitively demarcates the sacred from the secular. There is, as yet, no place in the current debate for such a perspective, says LATA MANI.

PAUL MASON

FROM a spiritual standpoint, every particle in the phenomenal world is of inherent value. Not only that, every particle is as sacred as every other. Whatever systems of meaning might be elaborated to make sense of infinity in any of its myriad dimensions, these two axioms remain constant: the inherent worth and equality of all aspects of the material world. It is in this sense that a unity is said to underlie the seeming diversity of the universe.

Both the unity and the diversity are, however, equally important. Spiritual teachings often stress that our perception of diversity distracts us from the underlying unity. This may be so. But the opposite can be just as problematic. The emphasis on the underlying unity can lead us to treat as incidental, and of no particular relevance, the diversity of life forms and human expression on this planet. In doing so, we overlook the dazzling variety of creation, which is testimony to the extraordinary creative consciousness that has begotten it all.

Any framework that seeks to interpret the phenomenal world from a spiritual perspective must take account of these three principles: the inherent and equal value of all aspects of infinity, and the importance of both the unity and the diversity of life forms. In our day, botanists and ecologists have done much to raise our awareness of the importance of biodiversity. They have demonstrated what is portended if we seek to undermine the exquisitely dynamic equilibrium of nature.

Unity and diversity. Fragility and the capacity to endure. Extraordinary fecundity. Everything equally endowed with awareness. Any explanatory system that departs from these premises in seeking to make sense of the natural or social world runs the risk of flattening the intricate complexity of the principles that undergird the universe and its functioning.

This is as true of religious frameworks as it is of secular ones. Religion as a social system corrals infinity in order to produce a grid by means of which to address existential questions and everyday practices. Secular philosophies similarly posit their own frameworks, each with their premises, in order to make sense of some of the very phenomena for which religion claims to offer answers. But the vast and untamable character of infinity means that, whatever their claims, neither religious nor secular philosophies can offer us a total or exhaustive interpretation. Thus it is that, although religions claim universality, much of what is claimed to be universal is discovered to bear the impress of culture, society and history. Similarly, despite the endeavour of secular philosophies to fully account for social phenomena, there is much that, as it were, slips through the conceptual net. The point here is that, given the nature of that which is sought to be explained, any attempt (whether religious or secular) to achieve analytic omnipotence, is doomed from the very start. All philosophies have identifiable points of emergence and work with specific assumptions to address particular phenomena.

With these cautionary statements in mind, we can consider whether from a spiritual point of view, it is possible to argue for a distinction between the sacred and secular realms of life. Three positions have emerged in the debate on secularism that has been unfolding in the past decade or so. First, there are secularists who argue for the importance of keeping religion out of the political arena. This separation is seen to be crucial to ensuring democracy. Then there are the Hindutva ideologues. They have insisted on the centrality of religious identity as they define it and have deployed it to advance the cause of Hindu majoritarianism. Religion, in their view, distinguishes one set of citizen adherents from another and anyone not of the majority Hindu religion is deemed to be other, lesser, and less deserving. They are even seen to be outside the protection of the law. Muslims and Christians are singled out for hate and the former are especially held responsible for the imagined ills of the majority. A third perspective has taken issue with the secularist position. Its proponents have argued that the separation of the religious and the secular runs counter to the organic nature of Indian society. Although critical of the Sangh Parivar, this view expresses particular concern with the secularist position for holding to a perspective that is believed to flout the socio-cultural realities of the subcontinent. Where does someone who begins with the premises laid out at the beginning of this essay fit into this scenario?

One morning in meditation a thought arose in my consciousness: "Is a dewdrop sacred, or is it secular?" The source of the inquiry was mysterious, for the mind was unusually silent at the time. The force with which the question presented itself shook me. In my journey of opening to the Divine, I have found my perception undergoing a subtle transformation. Living as I do in a cool climate, I often awaken to find my windows moist with dew. As the sun rises in the sky, its warmth dries the dew and restores the view of the oleander and honeysuckle bordering my bedroom. In my secular days I paid no attention to the precipitation on my window. I mostly ignored it.

In recent years, however, I have become deeply appreciative of morning dew. It serves as a tangible and daily reminder of the cycles of nature, of the fact of interdependency. I often wonder which body of water had contributed atmospheric moisture, which cloud blown by which breeze, cooled by which clime, had deposited dew upon my window pane, only so that it may give itself up into the warm embrace of the rising sun. Dew now represents surrender, selflessness, an egoless abandon to the rhythms of nature, and the realities of manifestation, death and resurrection. Each morning, the dew inspires in me the desire to become even less resistant to the laws of the universe. To me the dew is sacred. It prompts me toward truth.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me clarify that I do not wish to set up a society for the protection of dew or pass laws penalising those who simply wipe off the moisture on the windshields of their autorickshaws or cars without a second thought. Nor do I wish to find scriptural references as to its sacred significance. My point is a simple one. It is that, for one with a spiritual outlook there is no line, either conceptual or experiential, that definitively demarcates the sacred from the secular. There is, as yet, no place in the current debate for such a perspective.

Several challenges confront one who seeks to elaborate this point of view. For one thing, it is not possible to simply defend religion, whether as a supposedly timeless and inviolable inheritance, or as an irrefutable socio-cultural reality. Religion is a social institution and, as such, is characterised by all of the conflicts that have marked the history of our society. Much of what passes for religion itself violates the principles of unity, diversity and the radical equality and inherent worth of all aspects of infinity. There is no question, then, of taking shelter in something unproblematic called religion. Likewise the notion of sanathana dharma or immemorial tradition, for this stream is not discontinuous from institutionalised religion. The same reasons make it impossible to hold up particular texts as infallible repositories of truth. At the same time, much of what I have been persuaded by, and much of what my consciousness has been healed by, is to be found in that contentious tradition which today bears the name, Hinduism. Some of what I say is also to be found in the equally contentious traditions of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. In each religion we discover the interweaving of the sublime and the ridiculous, the liberatory and the oppressive, the radical and the conventional. The extrication of truth from error is a vital part of the journey toward greater discernment. My own learning has taken place at the fertile conjunction of Hinduism and Buddhism, although my deistic inclination firmly locates me in the former tradition. The universality of which I feel confident, however, is the essential oneness that underlies the diversity of life forms, and the equality and inherent worth of all dimensions of infinity. To my mind, if these principles are violated by any philosophy, whether religious or secular, then that framework is untenable, and, I would argue, infringes the essence both of democracy and of all wisdom traditions.

One can see, then, that there need not be a conflict between a spiritual perspective so defined, and a genuinely democratic one. In principle at least, democracy is committed to the equality of all individuals. Given its coming of age in the 19th Century, this tradition has tended to elevate humans over nature and accorded an exalted place to human consciousness. However, this view has increasingly come under pressure from ecology, animal rights and Fourth World movements. As a result, the notion of the common good has been gradually expanded to include non-human parts of the natural world. The idea of according consciousness to all things may, for now, seem to many like a foreign idea. But it is likely that as we understand more and more about the interdependence of all aspects of the phenomenal world, this too will become increasingly acceptable, and, as scientific evidence mounts, part of secular common sense.

It seems to me that there is no necessary reason why we need to excise the sacred from the socio-political realm in order to safeguard life, ensure justice and stand on the side of radical oneness and equality. Properly understood, the unitive principle can be in a dynamic and fruitful dialogue with those concerns that animate the hearts and minds of so many secular minded individuals intent on healing the social, political and economic divisions that threaten our peaceful coexistence.

The problem with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and Bajrang Dal is not that they are religious. The problem with these organisations is that they are fascist. Religion is no more inherently conservative or fascist than secular philosophy is, by definition, liberatory. Many contemporary forms of organised violence and discrimination have a secular basis.

If we wish to move forward our discussions of secularism or religion, we might consider allowing ourselves to entertain new questions, or reconsider those that we may have pushed to the margins. An aggressive minority should not be permitted to narrow the discursive and political space or constrain our vision. "Is a dew drop sacred, or is it secular?"

Charged times require calm contemplation. The greater the din made by the forces of hate, the deeper the need for poetry, song, philosophy, for pursuing those questions that disturb the assumptions to which we cleave. The outpouring on the internet and in the media post-Gujarat, is the uprising of precisely such a desire to think, rethink, speak out again and again, in the name of our humanity or, to draw on spiritual vernacular, our Divine potential.

Death can and must provoke us to see clearly and live fully. Even in the deadliest hour truth can reveal itself. Let us remember the words of an older Muslim woman in a refugee camp who, shocked at the inhumane violence meted to her fellow beings, exclaimed the sublime truth, "I am humanity!" Let us honour her. Let us honour the dew. Let us honour all the questions that are seeking our collective and patient attention.

The writer is a historian and cultural critic and is the author of Interleaves: Ruminations on Illness and Spiritual Life.

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