Secularism in Its Place


This article was published in The Journal of Asian Studies in November 1987. (The journal is published by Cambridge University Press for the Association for Asian Studies, headquartered in Michigan, USA.) The article contains the transcript of a lecture delivered by Prof. T. N. Madan at the annual conference of the Association of Asian Studies in Boston in 1987.

T. N. Madan is Honorary Professor at the Institute of Economic Growth, University of Delhi, and an Honorary Fellow at the Royal Anthropological Institute, London.

In this article, he writes that “…secularism in South Asia as a generally shared credo of life is impossible, as a basis for state action impracticable, and as a blueprint for the foreseeable future impotent.” This is because the majority of South Asians are ‘active adherents’ of some religious faith and it is difficult for States in the region to maintain ‘religious neutrality or equidistance’.

Citing Peter Berger, Prof. Madan says ‘secularisation’ is the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols. (Berger was an Austrian sociologist and theologist; this definition is from his book The Social Reality of Religion, published in 1973).

Secularism as an ideology emerged from the interplay of modern science and Protestantism in 16th century Europe, not just from a repudiation of religion and the rise of rationalism. However, in South Asia, contends the author, secularism cannot counter religious fundamentalism and fanaticism:  “…the transferability of the idea of secularism to the countries of South Asia is beset with many difficulties and should not be taken for granted. Secularism must be put in its place: which is not a question of rejecting it but of finding the proper means for its expression.”

This article also discusses the relationship between the categories of ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism – South Asia's major religious traditions, and secularism in the ‘Nehruvian State’.


  1. The term ‘secularism’ 'was coined in 1851 by George Jacob Holyoake – an English newspaper editor and political activist born in 1817.

  2. Prof. Madan notes that the general secularisation of life in 16th century Europe was significantly the consequence of a religious idea. Scholars and theorists such as Max Weber, Peter Berger and Louis Dumont have pointed to linkages between Protestantism, individualism and secularisation. In The Social Reality of Religion (1973), Peter Berger wrote that “Protestantism cut the umbilical cord between heaven and earth.” 

  3. However, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism – South Asia's four major religious traditions – are all ‘totalising’ in character. These faiths claim the follower’s entire life, such that religion is constitutive of society. Societies in this region “seethe with expressions of vibrant religiosity.”

  4. For the majority of people in South Asia, ‘secularism’ is “a vacuous work, a phantom concept.” Prof. Madan says that it is arrogance and political folly for the ‘secularist minority’ to consider the majority of South Asians as ‘primordially oriented’.

  5. Despite deliberate attempts (by social scientists and others) in the years after Independence to promote secularism, writes Prof. Madan, it has failed to make headway as a widely shared worldview in India.

  6. In Prof. Madan's opinion, secularism in India is an inadequately defined attitude of goodwill towards all religions, and in a narrower formulation, it is a policy of religious neutrality. Both of these formulations ‘trivialise’ religious differences and fail to provide guidance for political action.

  7. The ‘communal problem’ does not arise from religious differences, but the exploitation of such differences by politicians to achieve secular ends.

  8. Prof. Madan quotes Jawaharlal Nehru from historian Sarvepalli Gopal’s book Jawaharlal Nehru: An Anthology (1980). In 1961, Nehru wrote that "Our constitution lays down that we are a secular state, but it must be admitted that this is not wholly reflected in our mass living and thinking. In a country like England, the state is...allied to one particular religion. Nevertheless, the state and the people there function in a largely secular way. Society, therefore, in England is more advanced in this respect than in India, even though our constitution may be, in this matter more advanced.”

  9. Transferring the idea of secularism to South Asian countries is a difficult task. “In multi-religious societies, such as those of South Asia, it should be realised that secularism may not be restricted to rationalism, that it is compatible with faith, and that rationalism (as understood in the West) is not the sole motive force of a modern state” – explains Prof. Madan.

    Focus and Factoids by Shrushti Bhosale.


T. N. Madan


The Journal of Asian Studies


Nov, 1987