By Kancha Ilaiah
Whether the concept “spiritual democracy” is tenable and has the potential to reform the spiritual systems that are locked up in caste cultures is being debated in certain intellectual circles in India of late. In my view this debate has global implications as well.
The concept of democracy came into play with the notion that power relations cannot be stagnant and hereditary. Though the concept of republic has its roots in the tribal socio-spiritual and political set-up, it had something to do with the notion of creating collective consent around the hereditary spiritual, social and political power of tribal heads. Democracy and republicanism, though, are interrelated: one relates to the question of power rotations and the other basically relates to the process of electing the power wielder.
Once the spiritual system transformed from the totemic worship stage and moved on to become a largely organised priesthood in the spiritual realm and monarchy in the political realm, what laid the foundation for authoritarianism in the entire socio-spiritual and political domain was spiritual dynasticism, casteism and authoritarianism. The masses, for the most part of human history, feared spiritual authority more than political authority. Spiritual authority always invoked the power of a supernatural entity in one form or the other. It is that which made people unnaturally obedient.
For a long time in the history of human power relations, spiritual power controlled political power and social power. The debate on the centralised, hegemonic Roman Catholic papacy is all too well known. The stranglehold of that most powerful papacy was shattered by Martin Luther King’s spiritual reformation revolt.. Earlier, Machiavelli’s secular-theoretical revolt and Henry VIII’s rebellion had led to separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church.
Buddhist spiritual thought held sway from the days of King Ashoka to Pusyamitra Sunga’s (the first Brahmin ruler, 185-151 BCE) violent overthrow of the Buddhist Mauryan dynasty. The real Kautilyan state, with Manu dharma as its legal code, came into existence during Pusyamitra Sunga’s regime.
In this period, the Vedic spiritual agency was kept above the king. As Kautilya himself suggested, in every Hindu (at that time, Brahminic) state, the priest should be above the king. Neither Indian Buddhism nor Hinduism could produce a secular revolutionary of the stature of Machiavelli or Henry VIII in the political realm at any time.
In the pre-Christian era, one could notice a major difference between the European and Indian processes of power relations. In the Greco-Roman systems there does not appear to be any firmly established spiritual power structure and hence the state operated on its own. But in India, since the days of Vedic authority, spiritual authoritarianism established a very hegemonic control over the political authority. Buddhism tried to weaken the Vedic hegemony, leading to constant conflicts between Vedism and Buddhism. But that conflict never unsettled the caste hierarchy.
After 900 years of Muslim and British rule, a modern Indian, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, became the first ruler playing a very modern Machiavellian role and created an Indian secular state within the Hindu spiritual system. This was done in many nuanced ways, and that is what has moulded Indian democracy into a semi-secular system.
In the Islamic world also, the spiritual power controlled the political power, and that continues even now. Hence, separation of the mosque from the state through the subordination of religious power to state power remains an unresolved problem. All the Muslim nations that encountered the Arab Spring are in a philosophical crisis of separating spiritual power and political power. It’s difficult to say what kind of secularism will come into operation in these nations.
The modern Buddhist world — of course, India now is outside of it — hangs between Marxist democracies (China, Vietnam and North Korea) and monarchical democracies (Japan and South Korea). The state in those countries controls religion more than in any other political system.
Political systems where the spiritual system faced ideological upheavals transformed along with the spiritual system. Christian spiritual societies in the West have shown this inter-relationship, where spiritual reformation and political revolutions went hand in hand. The Islamic world is now undergoing spiritual and political transformation. In India, now that democracy combines in itself the power shift from colonial authority to the common citizen, that too through elections, the spiritual system will have to transform in a commensurate manner.
The Brahminic intelligentsia is facing that challenge seriously. Hindu religion and Catholic Christianity in India have not yet become individually mobile or caste-wise transformative. If the Hindu spiritual hierarchy is in the firm grip of Brahmins, the Catholic hierarchy is in the grip of Brahmin-Sudra upper castes. While the Hindu temple system is under the government endowments department, the Catholic diocese are run by autonomous bodies.
The only way to democratise caste-controlled spiritual institutions is to introduce reservations into these structures to break the monopoly of castes, and train spiritual personnel through an open, transparent admission into theological schools and colleges. One definite condition that should be followed when one seeks admission into such schools is that candidates should belong to that religion. In this case religion should be treated like nationality.
History shows us that unless religion gets de-casteised, the caste system does not go. Western Christianity got democratised by creating structures of mobility of classes within the spiritual system. It helped, of course, that there was no caste system. But in India, caste and class are so intertwined that we need to strike at the base of caste immobility.
The introduction of measures for mobility of caste in political, educational and employment spheres is not changing the social value of caste because its spiritual value has not been changed. Even in Indian Islam there is influence of caste culture. Christianity and Indian Buddhism (the Navayana Buddhism is essentially Dalit Buddhism now) also suffer from it though this is not as visible as it is in Hinduism. Such mobility of castes and individuals within the spiritual system, in my view, is part of spiritual democracy.
Spiritual democracy would change the basic relation between God on the one head and caste and individual on the other. It would address frozen modes of dress codes, food culture and man-woman relations. It would address, more fundamentally, the notions of purity and pollution. The role of the Indian democratic state in this sphere is critical.
One significant thing that happened during colonial and post-colonial political reform was that religion was institutionally subordinated to the state. This is a great change that took place in India. The credit for putting that course firmly on track goes to B.R. Ambedkar and Nehru. But from here on, we need to push democratic mobility into institutionalised spiritual structures. This is not an impossible task.
The writer is director, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad
This article appeared at The Asian Age and is reprinted with permission.