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Letters — Supporting the Secular State

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Regarding the article “Actions Speak Louder Than Birth,” by Vasu Ghosa Dasa (BTG Vol. 17 No. 4), I’m afraid I must protest your statement that “India proclaims itself a secular state, and in a secular state public schools cannot teach religion. Therefore, few schools are teaching the Vedic knowledge, let alone the Vedic mantras necessary to perform brahminical duties. Modern children are taught right from first grade that there is no God and that India has to deny its own religious traditions so that it can enter the modern technological world. The result of all this atheistic propaganda is the mess we find our youngsters in today.” I don’t know for sure if children there are being taught the things you claim they are being taught; my own school-age cousins haven’t learned any such nonsense—only that the Indian government guarantees religious freedom.

I certainly don’t agree with your attitude that there is something “atheistic” about a secular state. Religious freedom is very important, since people have the right to believe in whatever they wish, and such freedom exists only in countries which uphold the ideal of separation of church and state. A government has no right to teach religion to its people, any more than it has the right to teach them atheism (as is currently being done in most communist nations). For religious freedom to exist, the government must allow people to believe what they want and not try to change their faith by teaching them something else. Seen in this light, secularism is beneficial for non-Hindus. And in a land as religiously diverse as India, this is important. A government should treat all its citizens equally and not discriminate on the grounds of race, religion, sex, or even sexual preference.

I speak from experience. Having grown up in this country, I know what it feels like to be constantly reminded (through common expressions, remarks made on TV, sayings such as “you only live once,” as well as Christian bigots telling me I’ll “burn in hell” for not believing in their faith) that I’m part of a religious minority here, and therefore “inferior.” The last thing on earth I’d want would be the U.S. government forcing mandatory Bible readings upon me each day before class begins (which were actually practiced until the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional 20 years ago).

Speaking as someone who hopes to become fully self-realized some day, I must tell you quite strongly that secularism has helped me keep my faith; it did not destroy it. I realize you will never print this letter, since it’s much too critical, but I would like to see a retraction regarding your attack on the ideal of separation of church and state, or at least an explanation as to why you would stand by it. Hare Krsna!

Srinivas S. Murty
Livermore, CA

OUR REPLY: Thank you for your well-argued letter. Let’s consider your points.

First, you say that the secularism of the Indian government merely insures religious freedom and does not nurture atheism.

We wish this were so.

Unfortunately, the “secular ideal” tends almost inevitably to war against spirituality.

When we take a secular approach to a problem, what we do, in effect, is say “This problem lies beyond the domain of religion or spirituality.” So the more secularism expands, the more religion shrinks.

To give an example, the Indian government actively encourages artificial methods of birth control, and secularists urge that every pregnant woman has “the right to choose” to abort the life of her unborn child. Under this approach, birth control is seen as a social necessity, and religious objections are “traditionally held values” that must be “overcome by education.”

Since everyone has a right to his own beliefs, if you believe abortion is murder it’s murder—and if you believe it isn’t murder, it isn’t. Spiritual objections are “one’s own religious viewpoints” that one shouldn’t be allowed to “impose upon others.”

Yet within the urge for secularism we do see something worth holding on to, and that is freedom from bigotry and narrow-minded sectarianism. As you point out, a government has no business forcing the beliefs and rituals of one faith on the people of another. And we’ll do our best to keep sectarianism from creeping into our pages.

But must we choose only between secularism and sectarianism, between a godless state and a State God?

We say no.

You write that you hope to become a fully self-realized person. And why should the leaders of the state not also be fully self-realized persons? After all, the alternative to self-realization is self-ignorance. And why should someone ignorant run the show?

Self-realization is the greatest need of every human being—and what kind of government is it that disregards the citizen’s greatest need?

The self-realized person can’t ignore God or banish Him from ordinary mundane affairs of state, nor can he press God into service as the standard bearer for some narrowly conceived state religion.

When a person truly becomes self-realized, he goes beyond limited sectarian dualities, beyond petty disputes between one religious faith and another. The self-realized person sees that God is one, even though people may worship Him in different ways.

The basic principles of religion are universal. Truthfulness, cleanliness, austerity, mercy—these values transcend the barriers between man’s religious faiths. And these are values the state and its leaders must uphold.

You say that a government has no right to teach religion to its people. But without religion, irreligion takes over—and brings with it corruption, injustice, violence, and decay.

Therefore government has not only the right but the duty to teach religion. But while doing so it must honor and protect religious diversity by staying above sectarian bias.

On the material platform, religious faiths are at odds with one another. But on the spiritual platform, when we go beyond externals, we come to the real essence of religion, which is love of God. And with that love for God comes love for all other living beings, regardless of distinctions between one religion and another, one race or sex and another, one nation and another, and even one species of life and another.

Therefore real peace and freedom are guaranteed not by the state that is materialistic and secular but by the state whose leaders and their followers pursue this highest ideal of self-realization and universal God consciousness.

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