Editorials by Sangharakshita


Buddha Jayanti and Secular State

This editorial first appeared in The Maha Bodhi, July 1956

In several places in the Scriptures we are told that the Wheel of Dharma set rolling by the Buddha can be turned back neither by sramana nor brahmana, nor yet by Mara together with Brahma. Whether the last two personages have ever seriously attempted to obstruct the progress of the Wheel of Dharma we have no intelligence; but sramanas and brahmanas alike, both in ancient and in modern India, have at times made every effort to do so. Dialectical criticism, persecution, social ostracism, and a particularly subtle policy of destruction by assimilation, have in various historical periods all been resorted to. At present the small group of die-hards who continue to cherish their traditional bitter hostility towards Buddhism on the whole favour indirect rather than direct methods of attack. Their latest cry is that by spending public money on the celebration of Buddha Jayanti the Government of India has violated that article of the Constitution which makes provision for a secular State. The whole question really revolves about what we mean by the term 'secular'. This problem has been discussed in an exchange of correspondence between the Vice-President of India, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, and a person known as Srimad Acharya Swami Neminath Maharaj. Ignoring Dr. Naga Raja Sharma's hysterical outburst - inspired, it seems, by hatred of Buddhism and antipathy towards Dr. Radhakrishnan of the most virulent type - in his Foreword to this publication, and leaving aside the question of the mutual relations between Buddhist and Hindu thought, we shall confine ourselves to elucidating the meaning which Dr. Radhakrishnan and his colleagues in the Government of India attach to the word 'secular'.

Among the literal meanings of the term given by Chamber's Twentieth Century Dictionary the one which most concerns us here is 'pertaining to the present world, or to things not spiritual'. But since things sacred

cannot be rigidly separated from things profane, least of all in a land like India, the question that therefore arises is that granting that the peculiar concern of the State is with the present world, what attitude is it to take up towards the things of the spirit? Besides open hostility, which is out of the question, there are two attitudes only which it is possible for the State to adopt with reference to the various religions and religious organisations of the country: it can be either equally indifferent to or equally appreciative of all of them. People like Acharya Neminath are so horrified by the prospect of the Buddha Jayanti being celebrated under Government auspices (in an unguarded moment he admits that to hear national leaders praising Buddhism as the best of religions causes him 'heart-burnings') that he is willing to insist on the negative definition of the word 'secular', thus depriving Hinduism too of all Government support, rather than allow a particle of patronage to reach the hated Buddhists. 'Let the Government', he declares, 'solidly stand on the pedestal of a secular state and keep themselves absolutely away from all religious functions' (p.18). This is cutting off one's own nose to spite somebody else's face with a vengeance!

Dr. Radhakrishnan, however, having no such predjudice against Buddhism, not unnaturally adopts the more reasonable alternative. 'When we call ourselves a secular State', he writes in a vain attempt to make the Swami see reason, 'we do not mean by it that we are worshippers of comfort, security and worldly goods. We mean by it respect and appreciation of all faiths which have found a home in this country' (p.4). Even the most orthodox Hindu cannot avoid paying lip tribute to the ideals of religious toleration and universalism, and Swami Neminath is therefore constrained to remark 'Buddhism is one of the religions and rather in my view, a Branch of Hinduism, and as such needs praise to the extent it deserves' (p.2), and further, 'I am not in the least against Buddhism or Buddha and we even claim him as an avatar of Vishnu (on pp. f, k and l he strenuously denies that the Buddha is an avatar of Vishnu!!), and as such we hold him in respect as a good son of this land'.

'To the extent that it deserves' - in these words, perhaps, lies the key to the whole difficulty. To Dr. Radhakrishnan and his colleagues the Buddha is the greatest of the sons of India and Buddhism the central and most significant fact in the whole long history of Indian thought and culture. That Sankara, Ramanuja, and Madhava 'criticized' Buddhism - a point on which the Swami lays great emphasis, though he also declares that in the Buddha's preachings 'there is nothing new or novel except what is found common to all other religions' - is rightly dismissed by Dr. Radhakrishnan as 'neither here nor there': every scholar knows that in order to criticize Buddhism Sankara first grossly misrepresented it. In the eyes of Swami Neminath and others of his ilk Buddhism is so dangerous that its importance is to be minimised at all costs. Hence all the bitterness and self-confessed heart-burnings over the Buddha Jayanti celebrations and the strained interpretation of the word 'secular'. Unfortunately Swami Neminath and his party find themselves uncomfortably lodged on the horns of a dilemma: either Buddhism and Hinduism are the same, in which case they would have to give the same support to both religions; or they are different, in which case a choice between them has to be made and all pretence of universalism abandoned. To insist that Buddhism and Hinduism are in essence identical yet at the same time to fight Buddhism tooth and nail - an attitude very common in certain quarters - is both dishonest and illogical. We may not always fully agree with the views expressed by Dr. Radhakrishnan concerning the mutual relations between the two great traditions but his attitude is at least consistent. That Buddha Jayanti should have been celebrated on such a grand scale and with so much popular enthusiasm all over India shows that the majority of Indians feel, with Dr. Radhakrishnan, that India is a secular State in a positive rather than in a negative sense and that in spending money on the Jayanti the Government did no more than show a becoming sense of the position occupied by Buddhism in the history of Indian culture. The fact that the expenses for the purely religious celebrations were borne almost in their entirety by the non-Buddhist Indian public - the Government, as Dr. Radhakrishnan points out, helping to finance only the cultural programmes - should give the Swami food for thought. Let him and his fellows heed the Prime Minister's noble and inspiring words to the Bombay Buddha Jayanti meeting and learn 'to get out of the clutches of blind superstitious faith, spurious worship, religious hatred and the evil of casteism'.