May 2020 Print

India: Is It the Graveyard of the Naturalist Enlightenment and Pluralism?

By John Rao, D.Phil. Oxon.

When I was a child I thought that everyone who reached maturity spoke broken English with an Italian accent. This was not only because my neighborhood was packed full with people of Italian origin, all of whom seemed elderly to a school child, but also because the most important of the adults—the local priests, the majority of whom came from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, founded in Milan in 1850—preached and heard confessions by means of a somewhat crippled English as well. In short, being a grown-up, an Italian-American, and a Catholic evangelist were synonymous in my youthful universe.

An Indian Presence in the City

Sometimes I wonder whether there might be a child or two in New York City today who thinks that anyone who becomes a Catholic priest develops an Indian form of a British accent. I say this because clergy of Indian background seem to be active absolutely everywhere in my hometown, and especially in the many confessionals that my sins have led me to frequent on my spiritual stumble to eternity. Moreover, the advice that I have received from these sons of St. Thomas the Apostle and St. Francis Xavier has generally been very, very good indeed, bringing honor to the twenty-million-member branch of the Church Militant in their country. Formed by a variety of self-sacrificing missionaries they have become missionaries on the sidewalks of New York in their turn.

In any case, playing with this thought, and calling upon the notes from the course on Indian History that I have taught a fair number of times at my university since 1979, it dawned on me that the whole of the native land of these missionaries from the East may have its own unplanned and generally unperceived role to perform in God’s Providence. That role is to serve as the graveyard of the naturalist Enlightenment vision born in a decadent West, and most especially its pluralist manifestation. For India’s history is not one that gives hope to Enlightenment minds thinking that the religious spirit is something that a progressive growth in temporal wisdom will inevitably dispel, or to pluralist prophets of a unified culture emerging from the happy reduction of the remnants of varied spiritual souls to quiet, private “clubhouses” eager to tolerate one another.

India has repeatedly called attention to two basic facts of life: that religion is central to man’s social and political life and dreams, and that what is at stake in this matter is not just any religion, but the particular religion one believes to be true. The first of these trumpet blasts of reality strikes at the western naturalist Enlightenment vision as a whole; the second at its pluralist expression, with both, perhaps, having helped to shape the attitude of the fervent Indian Catholic clerics I encounter at the mercy seat of God, “East Side, West Side, all around the town.”

Colonial History

Recognition of our first fact of Indian life is one that the British masters of the subcontinent gained at significant military cost in the middle of the nineteenth century, through the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. The decades preceding that great rebellion were dominated by the labors of the Governor-Generals of the British East India Company, eager to stem that institution’s steady decline and the total passage of its power into the hands of the British Crown. Governor-Generals, like Lord William Bentick (1774-1839), worked honestly and industriously to restructure and reform India on the basis of the most progressive, naturalist Enlightenment guidelines. These were offered by the great British Utilitarians of the age: Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), James Mill (1773-1836), and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Convinced as he was that hardcore, “positive,” materially useful scientific knowledge was universal in character and applicable to the solution of all problems everywhere, Bentham is reported to have said that he could legislate for the entirety of India without ever leaving his living room in Chelsea. James Mill happily reported to Bentham that Bentick told him at a dinner before taking up his post in India in 1828, that although it was he who was to possess the title of Governor-General, it was actually his Utilitarian masters who were going to be exercising the real authority.

It would be impossible for a Catholic to be upset with some of the grotesque religious practices that Bentick sought vigorously to end, practices such as the sati, the widow’s suicidal leap into her dead husband’s funeral pyre. And it is undeniable that there were a good number of British East India “men on the ground” who were eager to avoid any disregard of Hindu and Moslem religious concerns, especially that regarding aversion to the biting into the grease from forbidden animals on the new standard cartridges, problems with which are said to have been responsible for bringing on the Mutiny in 1857. Still, it was the general spirit of a haughty contempt for local religious beliefs and practices from the know-it-all heights of naturalist utilitarian wisdom—and that of the Liberal Christianity allied with it, which equated science’s work with God’s work—that was perceived in Britain to have been the cause of the great rebellion. Hence, a serious backing away from many efforts to reform Indian religion on the part of the United Kingdom, whose government did at this point relieve the British East India Company of its responsibilities.

Haughty foreign demeanors aside, there were a good number of Indians won over to the naturalist cause who wanted a victory of the secularist viewpoint. This was definitely the case with the mainstream leadership of the Indian National Congress, founded in 1885 with the aid of an English sympathizer; a leadership which eventually included Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) and Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964). It was these two men who guided the movement for full independence after the massacre at Amritsar in 1919 soured them on cooperation with the British. Their goal was a unified India in the tradition of the European Enlightenment nationalist tradition, one in which the socio-political reality took precedence over religion and religious differences, with these reduced to the private sphere alone. Still, the obvious Hindu revival already taking place for quite some time, together with fears for what that resurgence might portend, convinced nationalists of Islamic background to create its own separate Moslem League in 1906. It nevertheless remained allied with the Indian National Congress in the pursuit of the common goal of independence.

Religious Division in India

We have by now moved into the Indian assertion of a second “fact of life”: the continued reality of religious division, despite all naturalist Enlightenment and potential pluralist dreams. Mohammed Ali Jinnah (1876-1948), leader of the Moslem League in the Gandhi-Nehru years, shared the Indian National Congress’ secularist, pluralist vision, at least to begin with, although, over time, he came to disagree with its tactics. Jinnah also grew more and more troubled by fears for the very survival of the Moslem population in an independent India where it would inevitably be a minority. This fear was, once again, impressed upon him by the ever-growing influence of the Hindu revival even within the Indian National Congress, and even against the wishes of Gandhi and Nehru. But it was also fed by the rebirth of the Islamic spirit within his own League, stimulating calls among youth for a separate, independent Moslem India; the future state of Pakistan.

So little could the pluralist-minded secularists of the Indian National Congress do to quell the religiously committed forces in the country that Gandhi was himself murdered at the very moment of his own movement’s victory by Nathuram Vinayak Godse (1910-1949), a Hindu activist. Godse begged the government not to remit his sentence of death, stressing his pride over having mortally chastised an “effeminate” corrupter of the substance of his Hindu Faith. Despite the efforts of Nehru and his daughter Indira (1917-1984) (married to a Gandhi unrelated to the Mahatma),herself assassinated because of another religious-focused incident, the attack on the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar showed that religious differences continued to defy any pluralist-minded attempt to keep spiritual questions in the private sphere.

Driving the nail into the coffin from yet another angle, Indira’s son and successor Rajiv (1944-1994) was also killed, in his case because of anger regarding the lack of respect for India’s substantive ethnic and regional differences. The Indian National Congress was very centralist in its approach to government, while simultaneously flying high the banner of modern liberty. Pluralism, while claiming to allow freedom for all, actually permits only frivolous surface manifestations of liberty. Intellectually and in practice, it has always broken down ethnic and group beliefs and cultures in the promotion of the same, drably unifying individualist hunt for material profit. Essential elements of Punjab and Madras diversity as such would eventually be considered “bad” because unique and therefore “divisive”; only distinctions such as the sale of diverse curries from each of them could be granted the right to the flag of freedom because, while different, they could both tickle the palates of their otherwise culture flattened fellow Indians. In any case, assassination was looked upon in India as a tool to avoid the murder of real cultural diversity.

Regional freedoms aside, it is really from the standpoint of religion that I have been seeking to answer the question posed as the title of this article: “Is India the graveyard of the Naturalist Enlightenment and of Pluralism? Although the victim, by now, of a decades-long obsession with the pursuit by everyone of material prosperity—the central key to unity in the pluralist mind. I am not certain that this is sufficient for keeping the country in the naturalist camp. After all, despite its offer of economic freedom to everyone, it is only a very small elite that has been able to benefit from that liberty in India. And I definitely see nothing on the powerful religious plane to prevent responding to the query in question with a potential “yes.”

For the Hindu Revival has more than prospered, especially through the political victories of the Bharativa Janata Party, founded in 1980. With the historical memory of the violently established Islamic domination of much of India in its mind, including such episodes as the Moslem Mogul Emperor Aurangzeb’s (1618-1707)’s perceived attempts to lead his subjects forcibly away from Hinduism, this “People’s Party” has been very militant in its religious policies. Its program was clarified by the dramatic 1992 march on the city of Ayodha, thought by many Hindus to have been the hometown of Rama, in order to attack and demolish the Babri Mosque built there by one of the Mogul leaders. This militancy has grown so much in the last few years that statues and temples have been raised to “the patriot” Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Gandhi, as well.

Allow me to conclude by insisting that I am in no way praising bloodshed and disunity. Anti-Pluralist Hindu militancy, which regularly involves assaults on Moslem towns and neighborhoods, and is sometimes also answered by retaliation in kind from Islamic militants, is not a happy phenomenon. Such militancy has also been directed against Catholics, who, while only 1% of the population, are nevertheless not hidden from public view. Only a caricature of the Catholic Faith would make rejoicing over such violence and civil discord seem to be a corollary of its insistence on its sole possession of the Truth.

The Problem With Pluralism

My gripe—as regular readers of The Angelus well know—is with the pluralist recipe for dealing with religious division. That recipe, which pluralists insist is the sole recipe for handling diversity, is for every religious group, in practice, to deny its central claims; for each to become a cheerleader for a spiritually flavored naturalism, teaching men and women how to be well-behaved citizens of a purely secular nation producing and consuming as much as they can in their distinctly Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Moslem, and Hindu ways. That robots can achieve this goal is undeniable. That children of the Creator and Redeemer God can do so I must reject. And that the unpleasant realities of religious division in a given land can ever be addressed in a way that is peaceful, human, and pleasing to the One True God without Catholics trying to be Catholics is unthinkable.

The Indian dilemma is the human dilemma. This potential “graveyard of naturalism and pluralism” will not find an answer to its particular problems until it itself becomes Catholic. In the long, long meantime, it teaches us a valuable lesson by demonstrating that the kind of divisions that exist therein cannot be wished away by ideologically formed naturalists and pluralists simply because they are all too real. Indians appear to recognize this fact of life.

Some Catholics must be among their ranks, since there has to be a reason to account for the firmness of the Indian priests that I encounter in the confessional—the heirs of the PIME missionaries from Milan that I knew in my youth—in their efforts to toughen up my response to sin. Weakened as we American Catholics are by a naturalist Enlightenment Pluralism that has worked mightily to suck the substance from our Faith and our grasp of what we are actually truly “free” to do to live it while avoiding the charge of “divisiveness,” we are assuredly not their help. Long may their accents resound over the sidewalks of New York!