'The Religious, the Spiritual and the Secular' by Robert Minor

Reviewed by Debashish Banerji

In this slim paperback, Robert Minor sets out with a double intention: (a) to tell the legal story of the power struggle between the Sri Aurobindo Society and Auroville, leading to the involvement and eventual control by the Indian government of the township; and (b) an exploration of the legal and cultural epistemological ambiguities surrounding the terms "religion", "spirituality" and "secularism" and their shaping of the discourse of modern political contestation in India, as exemplified in the story of Auroville.

The text is sectioned into nine chapters, which can be divided thematically into five major foci: nationalistic constructions of a modern Indian identity and the part played by religion in this; what Minor calls Sri Aurobindo's Weltanschauung and its implications for socio-religious pluralism; the Mother's adherence to this Weltanschauung and the "nationally" and "internationally" supported emergence of Auroville as one of its results; the tussle for power over the shaping of Auroville between the community and the Sri Aurobindo Society, culminating in state intervention; and the parliamentary debates and court decisions resulting in government control of Auroville. Framing the story of Auroville prior to its inception in the spiritual philosophy of Sri Aurobindo and consequent to the court cases upholding the state decision to take over the governance of the township, Minor lays out and conducts his broader theoretical discussion on the practical ambiguities of interpreting terms such as "religious", "secular" and "spiritual", the ideological agendas invested in these interpretations and the implications for community, nation and world of such agendas.

The book begins with a chapter exploring the notion of "secularism" as it has developed in modern Indian understanding. This part of the discussion is a continuation of a wider recent discourse on "Neo-Hinduism" and its complicit relationship with Indian nationalism. Common to this discourse is the view that the formation of an Indian nationhood in the late 19th, early 20th centuries, has proceeded through a reification of an universalistic Hinduism as the ahistorical essence of Indian identity. A term has been coined by the German thinker Paul Hacker to describe such universalism as a form of national identity. This is "inclusivism" (see my review of "India and Europe"). Whereas the usual and more predictable danger of nationalism has been the opposite - i.e. exclusivism, the dangers of inclusivism are no less real, say the scholars who hold this view. For inclusivism is a hegemonic obliteration of "difference" under the guise of an uniting Truth. The implications of this discourse are far-reaching and powerful, and we will have occasion to explore further its application to modern society and particularly, to the social theory and practice of Sri Aurobindo and his followers. However, in this early section of the book, Minor is mainly concerned with the identification of "secularism" as it emerges in the Indian national context. Tracing the roots of modern Indian inclusivism to Vivekananda, Minor tries to show how this semblance of a tolerant universalism is a cover for a hegemonic Neo-Advaitism, which acknowledges the existence of soteriological viewpoints other than its own as partial and entirely assimilable to its goals. Thus, the neo-Advaitic stand views the sectarian differences of other Indian religious/spiritual traditions, such as Vaishnavism, Tantra, etc. as subordinate to its experience of the Reality as an undifferentiated formless Infinity, in which all manifestation ceases. The "others" then become steps towards its goal, necessary for some due to the human limitations of attachment to Name, Form and Relation, but unnecessary after a point. This stand towards other Indian traditions is then extended to non-Indian ones, such as Islam, Christianity, etc. as well. Minor shows the politicization of such a Neo-Advaitic inclusivism through India's scholar-President, S. Radhakrishnan. He also references Gandhi as practicing a form of religious inclusivism, though Gandhi could hardly be called Neo-Advaitic. According to Minor, figures like Gandhi and more explicitly, Radhakrishnan have been responsible for a modern Indian definition of "secularism", which equates the term with religious inclusivism. Thus, unlike the accepted western understanding of the term with its own historical investments, "secularism" in modern India elides the distinction between Church and State. Minor points also to an alternate understanding of "secularism" in India, closer to the western one - that upheld by Nehru, who viewed the religious concerns of Gandhi and Radhakrishnan with distrust and extended only conditional approval to them. Nehru's, of course, is the defining model of the Indian state as a socialist democracy and the segregation of social domains into "religious" and "secular" as necessary to a rationally governable pluralistic modern state based on a western model is the context within which Nehru understood "secularism." Two competing but unclearly differentiated understandings of the word "secularism" thus co-exist in the modern Indian public arena, setting the stage for a confused tussle and exploitation of its ambiguities.

Side by side with the haziness resulting from the coexistence of competing epistemes in the understanding of the term "secular" has arisen a similar confusion surrounding the word "religion" in the modern Indian mind. The "religious", assumed to be the natural opposite to the "secular" in the western genealogy of the term, finds itself in a far more complex and contested terrain in India. Minor points out how a related, but in his view, unclearly defined term has gained currency in modern Indian discourse on "religion", to differentiate Indian understandings of the transcendental domain. This is the word "spiritual." Though the term itself is of western origin, Minor's inability to gather the locus of the term in an Indian context is symptomatic of its indistinctness in the western mind. Minor points to the emergence of this term in modern Indian discourse as being closely related to the formation of a national identity as Neo-Vedantic/Advaitic. Thus figures like Vivekananda and later Radhakrishnan, are shown to be heavily invested in the drawing of a distinction between the "religious" and the "spiritual." Roughly, the "religious", to these thinkers corresponds to the realm of social regulation and sectarian ritual, to be distinguished from yogic practice leading to the experience of Truth. What Minor finds questionable here is the assumption on the part of the Neo-Advaitins that there is one Truth, the one which they experience. Behind the nationalistic construction of such an unitary spirituality, Minor points to the subordination through inclusion of other experiences of Reality, staking their alternate claims to Truth. In this understanding, the "spiritual" becomes paradoxically equated with the "secular" in the constitution of the Neo-Vedantic nation, obliterating the distinction between material and spiritual domains. Moreover, an understanding of the "religious" is not so easily localizable to credal adherence and ritual, bereft of any ontological transformation as in the case of the "spirtitual", according to Minor. "Religion" in the western understanding has tended to be conflated with the "spiritual", and thus has assumed connotations much wider than the merely credal or ritualistic. These ambiguities also co-exist in modern Indian understandings of the "religious", adding to the jurisdictional uncertainty already noted in the case of the "secular." However, though I tend to agree with this conclusion of Minor's, I also believe that the distinction drawn between the "religious" and the "spiritual" in the modern Indian context is a dialogically important and necessary one in a post-colonial Indian discourse, quite apart from any nationalistic or Neo-Advaitic intention, since it articulates an important ontological component of Indian existence, not recognized adequately in the west. The primacy of yogic experience in Indian life may be debated, but its active presence, historically exerting its influence from the periphery of social life and making available forms of uncommon experience and ontic possibility is undeniable.

Minor follows his discussion of basic ambiguities in the terms "secular", "religious" and "spiritual" in the modern Indian national context with a study of Sri Aurobindo's views on reality and society. He first situates  Sri Aurobindo's early nationalistic activity in the context of Neo-Vedanta as discussed above. Here, he shows that Sri Aurobindo equates nationalism with Sanatana Dharma as "the religion" defining Indian identity. Minor points to the prominence of the term Sanatana Dharma, construed as "eternal religion", as a major polemic device in Neo-Vedantic nationalist thought, utilized by the principal thinkers of this persuasion, such as Vivekananda and Radhakrishnan. In this, he follows other contemporary western scholars of Neo-Vedanta in modern India. Particularly, Wilhelm Halbfass deals at length with the modern origins of the term "Sanatana Dharma" in his India and Europe (see review). Minor does not go into these details, except to note that the term has overt Advaitic connotations, but is used by Indian nationalists of a Neo-Vedantic slant to club all Indic religious traditions under its rubric and thereby to substantiate the claim for the existence of a single monolithic ahistorical religion in India, "Hinduism." This religion is also, by this polemical strategy, cast as the one which is, therefore, the true religion or simply, the Truth. It must be noted that technically speaking, in claiming a predominantly Advaitic origin for the term "Sanatana Dharma", Minor is mistaken. He does not provide any reference for his view, and there does not exist any. Though a case could be made (and has been made by Halbfass) for a new nationalist understanding of "Sanatana Dhrama", certainly the term does not derive from an exclusively Advaitic history. As for Sri Aurobindo's use of the term "religion" here, Sri Aurobindo rarely uses English words in a legalistic sense, contextually establishing the connotational density of his terms. He is not averse to using the term "religion", and sometimes "true religion" in a way synonymous with his use of "spirituality." As far as the monolithic construction of "Hinduism" as an inclusivistic Neo-Advaita is concerned, unlike Vivekananda or Radhakrishnan, Sri Aurobindo does not subscribe to a traditional Advaitic Vedanta as being the apex of all spiritual realization, necessarily subsuming all others. As Minor himself points out elsewhere in this chapter, Sri Aurobindo clearly distinguishes between the soteriological goals of different Indian spiritual traditions, not prioritizing any. Sri Aurobindo's use of the term "Sanatana Dharma" similarly does not translate an Advaitic hierarchical doxography, but points to the vast and complex field of Indian experiential "truth-seeking", seen as a cluster of closely related traditions that reference one another in an ongoing and historically expanding discourse.

Minor's concern (as that of most other contemporary western academic scholars of modern Indian "religion"), underlying his discussion of Indian nationalism, Sri Aurobindo, the Mother or Auroville, is ultimately with the constitution of the public domain in India and more broadly, in the modern world. Such a domain is one of contestation, and the rational ethics of plurality dictate that if any power can prevent such a clash of relativities from tearing the world apart, it must be tolerance. Exclusive claims for Truth pose a real danger here, as, in a pluralistic field, they can have no recourse to self-justification other than the conversion or erasure of all dissident "others." This is the basis of fanaticism. However, the Neo-Vedantic strategy of inclusivism, though seemingly tolerant of othernerss, leads to the same effective obliteration of difference, according to Minor. In his words, it "does not consider the viewpoint of the believer as objector as significant. Though the believer may say otherwise, it eliminates the viewpoint... as a significant other." [12] Speaking of Radhakrishnan, it goes on: "Radhakrishnan's position does not consider that other a significant viewpoint and does not consider that the other understands his or her position accurately. In fact it destroys the sense that there can be a significant other. The other is dissolved into the inclusivistic viewpoint, understood only in terms of the inclusivist's view." [Ibid.] Of course, what is not explicitly acknowledged by Minor is that the domain of spirituality bases itself on the assumption that there is an absolute Truth and that the human is capable to knowing it. Thus, to expect religions to accept their relativity is an alien rational imposition that the religious and spiritual domains do not acknowledge. Minor understands this when he tries to interpret a desirable religious tolerance as being the standpoint of "a person who considers the alternative viewpoint of another seriously, believes that the other does understand his or her own position though it may be wrong, and then agrees to tolerate that person in a civil and humane manner." [Ibid] Here, it needs to be stated that (a) inclusivistic religious/spiritual traditions are not a modern fabrication in India; and (b) these traditions have developed their own indigenous devices to uphold tolerance, which is what accounts historically for the comparative lack of serious conflict among Indic spiritual traditions. Indeed, Paul Hacker holds the view that inclusivism has been the innate response of Indian religious traditions to account for difference through the years, though this view has been contested by Halbfass and others. Sectarian traditions in India have largely resorted to the construction of doxographies inclusive of other co-existing and recognized traditions, affording them a respected, though subordinate position in their hierarchies. One of the principal devices that has been used traditionally to promote tolerance under these circumstances is the notion of "adhikaravada." Adhikara or spiritual capacity determines the affinity and scope of an individual's spiritual realization, according to this view. At times when this idea is kept in mind, tolerance is not so difficult to achieve.

Undoubtedly, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother believe that their teaching leads to the Truth, but they do not expect all human beings to believe this, nor do they encourage their disciples to convince others of it. Without being overt, Minor directs some rational skepticism at Sri Aurobindo's Truth-claim as being based on no authority other than personal experience and the disciples' consequent need to accept his word for it. Though Sri Aurobindo's Truth-claim does proceed on the basis of his personal experience, it also justifies itself through a hermeneutic analysis based on Veda, Vedanta and Bhagavad Gita. This again, is nothing new in the Indian spiritual context, Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhavacharya, Chaitanya and numerous others establishing their claims for Truth based on these same double foundations of experience and textual interpretation. As for Sri Aurobindo's inclusivism, it does not obliterate its "others", but as Minor himself notes, is not averse to criticize what it considers their failings and limitations as seen from its own standpoint. Thus, they are not erased in his realization, and are free to hold their self-identifying differences. At the same time, Sri Aurobindo does show how these alternate traditions may be extrapolated into his own integral Truth, not losing themselves or being pre-empted in the process as in Advaita. The absolutism of Sri Aurobindo's philosophy, encompassing Being and Becoming and all the historical approaches to a realization of Reality can undoubtedly be called a grand form of inclusivism. Contemporary western thinking, operating in the wake of Hitler and Stalin and under the shadow of the Enlightenment's self-fulfilling prophecy of capitalistic globalization, is particularly fearful of and averse to grand narratives, equating intellectual totalism with political or capitalistic totalitarianism. But if the seeking for a total rational description of Reality characterizes the trajectory of western metaphysics, it is no less present in Indian philosophical systems either, with the difference, that the Indian systems rely not merely on the mind's plausible speculations on the nature of Reality, but on the power of a spiritual or supramental experience and its reproducibility. This is a critical distinction for two reasons: (1) The Truth-claim of a mental model is not experientially fulfilling and is much more likely to seek its fulfillment in the "outside world" through a conversion or erasure of otherness, particularly if there is a teleology attached to it; while a "spiritual" or "supramental" Truth-claim directs its fulfillment "within", through individual practices aimed at reproducing universal subjective experiences. (2) Whereas a mental rationality is constrained to view logical opposites as irreconcilable, a "supramental rationality" is under no compulsion to do so, appealing to an experience that transcends mind. Thus, in a quotation of Minor from Sri Aurobindo, "... the Absolute, obviously, finds no difficulty in world-manifestation and no difficulty either in a simultaneous transcendence of world-manifestation; the difficulty exists only for our mental limitations which prevent us from grasping the supramental rationality of the co-existence of the infinite and finite or seizing the nodus of the unconditioned with the conditioned. For our intellectual rationality these are opposites; for the absolute reason they are interrelated and not essentially conflicting expressions of one and the same reality." [Minor, 26 quote from SABCL XVIII, 377] Thus, Sri Aurobindo's "thought" and practice need to be located in an Indian philosophical tradition, whose epistemological bases are different from those of the West. It is a failure to recognize this or to give adequate credence to it that is the source of Minor's fear and skepticism and results in a perpetuation of a form of intellectual neo-colonialism.

Minor's consideration of the Mother and her founding of Auroville follows the same argument as that in the case of Neo-Advaita and Sri Aurobindo's claim for Truth. Minor points to the Mother's more trenchant distinction between "religion" and "spirituality" and her explicit disavowal of "religion" from Auroville. He goes on to document the formation of the township of Auroville, under the Mother's guidance and authority in 1968, and the important part played by the Sri Aurobindo Society in the fund-raising, organization and obtainment of Indian government and UNESCO support for the city. Throughout this documentation, Minor brings to light the ambiguities relating to the categories of "religious", "spiritual" and "secular" that encircle all discussions relating to the city. He makes note of the Mother's claim for the basis of the township being "the Truth", by which she means the vision of Reality taught by Sri Aurobindo and herself. He explores the presentation of the idea to the Indian government and UNESCO and their resultant understandings. Here, he shows the strategic presentation of the project to the Government by the Sri Aurobindo Society, underplaying the specifics of Sri Aurobindo's and the Mother's world-view and the location of Auroville within its teleology and amplifying the "secular" aspects of world harmony and environmental awareness. It also played on the "cultural hero" status of Sri Aurobindo in the "national" consciousness. The Indian state, on its part, supported it for these reasons. It also satisfied its national agenda of playing an important role in UNESCO as a promoter of international understanding and cultural harmony, and hence, the government sought and obtained UNESCO support for the project. Minor points out that the Mother was well aware of the fact that the support of the Indian government and UNESCO had been given for the wrong reasons, promoting "tolerance", not "integration" [Minor, 107]. He quotes the Mother's message to UNESCO on February 1, 1972, as aimed at correcting this shortcoming by making a direct reference to the supramental:

"Auroville is meant to hasten the advent of the supramental Reality upon earth. The help of all those who find the world not as it ought to be is welcome. Each one must know if he wants to associate with an old world ready for death, or to work for a new and better world preparing to be born." [Minor, 107 quoting from the Mother, Collected Works XIII, 221]

Minor's chapter on the power struggle in Auroville following the Mother's passing, puts much of this grey area in perspective. The tussle between the Sri Aurobindo Society (backed by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram) and the residents of Auroville leading finally to the intervention of the Indian government is detailed concisely but with clarity. The parliamentary debates that follow on whether the government should take over Auroville form the most carefully detailed documentation and serve to bring out the confusions of understanding stemming from the connotational ambiguities of the terms "secular", "religious" and "spiritual." According to the Indian constitution, India is a "secular" nation and legally speaking, the government is not justified in interference in the actions of religious institutions, except through an Act of Internal Security, when national interests are seriously jeopardized. The Parliamentary debates on the advisability of the government take-over of Auroville revolved around three possible scenarios: (1) Auroville is a "religious" organization, and the government should not interfere in its operations; (2) Auroville is a "non-religious" ("secular" or "spiritual") organization, dedicated to the memory of the "cultural hero" Aurobindo and the governmemt should take it over to safeguard his vision of international harmony; and (c) It does not matter whether Auroville is a "religious" or "secular" organization, it is a shame to the nation and to the memory of the "cultural hero" Aurobindo and the government should dissolve it. Of course, as known, the decision was that Auroville is not a "religious" organization, based on the Mother's and the residents' statements, and the government did step in to administer the township, at first temporarily. The Sri Aurobindo Society did not however, let this go uncontested, and took the matter to the Supreme Court, making the claim that Auroville was a "religious" organization and that the Indian Governmemt had no right to takeover its administration. Minor details the arguments of the ensuing court case and shows that both the majority and minority judgmental opinions of the Court upheld the government's decision to take-over the administration of Auroville, though they each construed the question of whether Auroville was a "secualr" or "religious" organization differently. Thus, according to the majority opinion, Auroville, based on the teaching of Sri Aurobindo, was not a "religion" and the government was justified in its administration. The minority opinion, by one Justice Reddy, on its part, held that Auroville was a "religious" organization, but that the government was justified in taking over the administration of the "secular" aspects of this organization.

Minor concludes from this that the understanding of the terms "secular" and "religious" are highly ambiguous in the modern Indian context, creating serious difficulties in the rational constitution of a public domain. In this, he feels that the present key to the understanding of these terms lies with their Neo-Advaitic connotations, as developed by Radhakrishnan et al. As against this, he himself, quite obviously, leans more favorably towards Nehru's rational and western definitions of the terms. These definitions, though clearly unambiguous from a mental standpoint, are a product of western liberal humanism, with its roots in the western Enlightenment and its faith in a rational humanity. Such a morally normative and idealistic faith, whatever its (highly questionable) utility in western socio-politics, finds little resonance in the Indian historical context, where the division between Church and State lacks much reality. Moreover, as far as Sri Aurobindo's and the Mother's vision of a future society is concerned, this division into clear "secular" and "religious" domains is, in the long run, an impractical impossibility, alien to the transformed epistemological and ontological basis of an integral evolution of humanity. Thus all in all, the book is an interesting one, exposing some of the real difficulties pertaining to governance in modern India, without being able to provide any credible analytical insights or solutions to the problem.