At a recent paper-reading by, and discussion with, Perry Anderson at the Seagull Resource Centre, the subjects attended to were multiculturalism; its relationship with religion; the role of the Left; and multiculturalism in three relatively 'new' nations ' India, Israel, and Ireland ' all three having been carved out on the basis of religion. There was an involved debate, for quite some time, on religion and secularism in India. Anderson wanted to know, for instance, why Marxism had taken root in Bengal and Kerala, and not elsewhere; was it because the thrust of the mainstream religion, Hinduism, was tempered here by Islam and Christianity' An interesting question, not fully answered; the other reason for the tempering of Hinduism in Bengal ' the Brahmo Samaj, the so-called Bengal Renaissance ' was touched upon by a well-known historian, but not dwelt on; it was a point of view popular in the Sixties, he said, but never pursued with 'proper sociological rigour'. The same historian, reflecting on religion, said its public and even bellicose aspects, which Anderson had referred to in his talk, should be distinguished from religion as a more private, 'spiritual' practice.
To me, what was missing from a lively debate on the nature of the 'secular', with politics and religion occupying the two poles of reference, was a notion of the role of culture. It took me back to the fact that, in our country, the debate around the secular is largely constructed around the discourses of politics and religion; that, if culture is introduced into the debate, it's done so in its guise as political and religious culture, and rarely as 'culture' in the secular and modern sense. 'Sociological rigour' or not, this leaves a very large gap, or silence.
The history of the secularization of the West can't be written without taking into account the separation, at a certain point in history, of religion and culture, so that they came to occupy two distinct, umbilically related, but oppositional spaces; and the emergence of the secular is concomitant with the rise of the notion of culture as a space separate from religion. Something similar happened in India, and in Bengal, in the 19th century, but let me stay with Europe for a moment.
The discussants had distinguished between religion in the sphere of politics and community, and religion as a 'spiritual' practice; but, in the West, a second site of the 'spiritual', outside religion, came into existence with secularization: that site was culture. The forms of culture in secular Western society that embodied and interrogated the 'spiritual' were, of course, the arts: music, painting, literature. These were activities that existed in the secular domain, that were sceptical of orthodox religiosity, but had a deep investment in the sense of the sacred, the transformative. I'm using the word 'culture' here, of course, not as an anthropologist might, to denote the sum-total of the life-practices of a community, but in the problematic but influential Arnoldian sense; and the Arnoldian sense of culture, as a non-religious but nobly creative domain, permeated the construction of the secular not only in post-industrial England, but also, surely, in Bengal in the time of colonialism, more deeply perhaps than we can acknowledge and understand. It was Matthew Arnold who became chief propagandist for the idea of culture, specifically literature, as a space both transcendental and secular; who argued for poetry as a 'substitute' for religion in an age in which faith had become a 'melancholy, long, withdrawing roar'; who argued for the Bible to be read not as 'dogma', but as 'literature'. Some of these extraordinary inversions of values and meanings will be familiar to us from the unfolding of the narrative of the secular and the modern in India and in Bengal.
The most influential poet-critic in English after Arnold, T.S. Eliot, was particularly impatient with the grand claims Arnold made on behalf of poetry. At first reading, Eliot's wry but outraged objection to Arnold's substitution of religion with poetry seems to suggest that he's arguing for a view of poetry at once more complex and pragmatic than the one Arnold had. But one must remember that Eliot was an orthodox believer who finally 'came out'; that perhaps he's pleading not so much on behalf of poetry as of religion; nothing, for Eliot, is a substitute for religion. For all that, it's worth recalling that we don't read the poems Eliot wrote long after it was public knowledge he'd become Anglo-Catholic ' for instance, The Four Quartets ' as if they were expressions of religious faith; we read them, and they ask to be read, according to the conventions of a secular 'work of art': Four Quartets belongs, that is, not to the domain of religion, but to the domain of culture. This paradox itself redirects us to the ways in which, in the West, we inhabit the secular space of culture, and that space inhabits us.
Much of the secular 'imaginary' of Western art and literature derives from, as we well know, an aspect of religion that Anderson didn't mention in his talk: mythology. To many of the great Romantics and Modernists in the post-industrial West, and to those on the cusp of Romanticism and Modernism, like Rilke, mythology became a great secular cultural inheritance. Protestant Christianity had no mythology to speak of; the icons of antique religions ' from Greece, Rome, even India ' became part of the creative hoard of the Western secular imagination.
I've revisited all this because something comparable happens in India, in Bengal, in the 19th century; at a certain point of time, religion and culture come to occupy related but oppositional spaces; the composition of the Meghnadbadh Kabya might be said to constitute an important moment, a moment when a poem with an overtly religious subject was transplanted from the domain of religion into the domain of culture; in looking back at the space in which that poem was written and read, we become witness to the outline of a secular, modern space that is also 'spiritual' and mythopoeic. But there's a difference between this and what had happened earlier, and would continue to happen, in Europe; Hindu mythology, unlike the Greek, was a living continuum; in what way, then, was it 'recovered' I think the moment of Orientalist scholarship is significant here; it was William Jones, among others, who transferred Indian mythology and religion to the domain of 'culture' in the modern, secular, Arnoldian sense. Others, more gifted than he, brought to that domain, in various Indian languages, a spiritual, existential, and artistic richness and complexity.
The legacy of those transactions, the complex experience of that richness, are fundamental to the Indian secular: they return to us, for instance, when we listen to a puja song by Tagore, and the act of listening becomes not a religious but a cultural act. Similarly, the Tagore kirtan, which belongs not to the temple but to the drawing room: the latter, then, becomes the secular, Arnoldian space in which art accommodates spirituality, but not religious belief. The traditional classical and devotional arts were also reconstituted in the time of modernity; that's why I can listen to a Meera bhajan sung by Paluskar and admire its artistry, and also be moved by its spiritual immediacy, without necessarily believing in the existence of Krishna; the Paluskar bhajan, for me, exists in the domain of Arnoldian 'culture' rather than religion.
The secular, in India, is identified as a national space in which multiple religions are tolerated; in this political sense, as Sanjay Subrahmanyam and many others have pointed out, 'secularism' is an Indian word that has no exact Western equivalent, a post-Independence, constitutional construct. But the 'secular', in modern India, has also surely, especially in its incarnation as culture, been an alternative site, as it is in the West, for the spiritual, the existential, the experiential; in its aspect of 'culture', the 'secular' in India shares with Europe the complex spiritual inheritance of modernity. This inheritance has been exhaustively investigated in the West, but very little in comparison in India, where the discussion of the 'secular' (to the cost of our understanding, I think) remains an exclusively political one. The trajectory of culture I've been speaking of is certainly not equally valid for everyone, and in every place, in the modern world. On Brooklyn Bridge, I recall a Sudanese taxi driver playing a haunting tape of a muezzin with a particularly lovely and melodious voice. 'This music is beautiful,' I said. He corrected me angrily: 'This is not music. This is the Quran!' 'But it is beautiful,' I insisted.
The iconography of secular culture in India is predominantly, even hegemonically, Hindu; but we should pause before we rush to conflate it with Hindutva, as many commentators do these days. Firstly, we shouldn't confuse a cultural hegemony with a religious one; the predominance of Hindu imagery in the construction of the secular Indian imagination also delinked those images from their original parameters to all moderns, both Hindus and non-Hindus, just as the cultural hegemony of secular Europe made itself available even to those on its margins, like Joyce in Dublin and Dutt in Calcutta; Christianity itself, for the colonized middle class, could never achieve the unexpected multiplicity of register, and the reach, of European modernity.
The construction of secular universals is a double-edged sword; it both injures and empowers. Thus, the universal 'human' in Europe was covertly European, but it didn't remain the property of Europe alone; similarly, the secular 'Indian' is secretly Hindu, but is every Indian's property: so, Husain can paint Saraswati and Qurratulain Hyder write about Sita ' the domain of culture, unlike the domain of religion, belongs to the modern in a way that doesn't presume or demand allegiance or belief. Surely the principal project of Hindutva is to destroy this domain of culture that was created in modernity, to subsume it under an all-encompassing interpretation of religion; to command Husain to abjure the modern painter's, rather than a believer's, adoration of Saraswati.