“Spiritual Democracy” in India – Diversity or Hindu Nationalism?

By Antje Stiebitz

“Spiritual democracy” is supposed to guarantee a peaceful coexistence of all religions in India. In fact, there are always conflicts, including in the city of Varanasi – here a local Hindu ritual. (picture alliance / NurPhoto)

India is considered to be the largest democracy in the world. For the peaceful coexistence of the many different ethnic groups, masterminds developed the concept of “spiritual democracy”. But lately it has been taken over by nationalists.

“It is difficult to identify a single author who coined this term. But apart from that, the term is in vogue and has been used very often recently,” says Sharad Deshpande of the term “spiritual democracy”. The professor emeritus taught philosophy at the university in the Indian city of Pune.

The 19th century American poet Walt Whitman used the expression “spiritual democracy”, Deshpande said, when he wrote about God, nature, social equality and nationalism. The Indian independence fighter Mahatma Gandhi also used the term because he called for a “spiritualization” of democracy. Using ethical principles such as truth and non-violence.

Separation of religion and state

According to Deshpande, democracy is also understood in India in the sense of ancient Greece: “The idea is that all citizens participate and are allowed to have a say in the government.”

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The separation of religion and state is also anchored in the constitution through the designation of India as a secular republic. But in addition to political life, there is also the religious life of various communities that are oriented towards God or certain ethical values.

Questions arose: “When people who belong to different religions come together, which religion then applies? Do they all apply? Or is there a hierarchy between the religions?”

In order for the different religions to coexist peacefully, the philosopher continues, a superordinate principle is necessary – that of synthesis: “I call this principle of synthesis the spiritual principle.”

This spiritual synthesis connects the spiritual with the worldly. In the secular framework of the state, the spiritual principle of synthesis involves contradicting opinions. Such an overarching synthesis does not exclude any vote and is thus the basis of “spiritual democracy”.

Appropriation by nationalists

The theory of “spiritual democracy” is open and inclusive. But what happens when philosophy meets political reality? For example, BJP Vice President Vinay Sahasrabuddhe said in an interview with Outlook magazine: “Let me make it clear that spiritual democracy is at the heart of the Hindutva philosophy.”

The Hindutva movement relies on a Hinduism that demonstrates its own superiority. According to this concept, other faiths and social castes are allowed to live in India, but on the terms of the Hindu nationalist movement.

An example: Varanasi, the holy city of Shiva. A devotional will take place in the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. The video of the Facebook group “Friends of Varanasi” shows how priests worship the god Shiva by giving sandalwood paste and flowers.

The Kashi Vishwanath Temple was destroyed and rebuilt several times during the Muslim period of India. Last by the ruler Aurangzeb in 1664. Aurangzeb built the Gyanvapi mosque on the ruins. In 1780 the temple was rebuilt in the direct vicinity of the mosque.

Disputes over religious places of worship

On April 8 this year, India Today TV reported: “After Ayodhya and the Ram Temple, the confrontation has shifted to Varanasi. Significantly, the Varanasi District Court has allowed the State Archaeological Institute to investigate of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple / Gyanvapi Mosque complex. “

The court ruling encourages those who want to make the land of the mosque accessible to Hindus and recalls the years of bloody dispute in Ayodhya in northern India, where a mosque finally had to give way to a Hindu temple. There the archaeological facts were unclear.

In the case of the Gyanvapi Mosque, the history of the temple’s destruction is widely recognized. But Indian law stipulates that all religious places of worship will be preserved as they were at the time of independence in 1947. Because if the legal existence of a place of worship is doubted, the communal unrest ignites. But the ruling party does not shy away from that.

Legal action against Muslims

Since his re-election in 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been taking constitutional steps against the Muslim minority. For example, the abolition of the special status of Kashmir, the abolition of the “immediate divorce law” in Islam, the citizenship laws and the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.

Does “spiritual democracy” with its overriding principle of synthesis also have the potential for constriction? After all, synthesis means something like combining several elements into a new unit.

Journalist and columnist Jug Suraiya believes: “The BJP intends to turn India into a mirror image of the Islamic state of Pakistan.”

Will India Remain a “Working Anarchy”?

Suraiya has been writing against this policy for years. The journalist interprets “spiritual democracy” as the complete freedom of choice of one’s own spiritual convictions – free from institutionalized religions. He is convinced that plurality is so deeply rooted in Indian thought that a policy of homogenization will fail.

India, according to the journalist, is often referred to as a “functioning anarchy”: “Try turning this functioning anarchy into a state-controlled machine. That is almost impossible.”

Democracy as the “heart of Hinduism”

Many believers also see the diversity in Hinduism. Nalini Girdhar, elementary school teacher from New Delhi, has been concerned with spirituality for many years. The 56-year-old explains: “Democracy is at the heart of Hinduism. So spiritual democracy means that we are free to follow any image of God. There are very many gods. We are free to follow any god so that we can follow the Achieve the highest truth of God. It can be very contradicting and confusing, but that’s Hinduism. “

So Hinduism definitely has grassroots elements. Whether the religions of India really help the country to a spiritual democracy and how egalitarian this can and should be, remains a matter of opinion.

Janelle B. Smith

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