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Religion & Spirituality Secularism: Eastern and Western Concepts  
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By secularism, we generally mean the principle in which people belonging to one religion do not oppress people belonging to other religions. This concept has had different interpretations in the East and the West. The Eastern concept was of a broad principle consisting of tolerance, love, peaceful coexistence, and harmony among people belonging to different religions and ideologies: it can be called positive secularism. In the West, secularism has always had a narrow connotation. It mainly meant that the state does not follow any religion. In other words, the separation of church and state has been the main emphasis by Western secularism: we can call this negative secularism.
The concept of Eastern secularism arose in the Indian subcontinent. There was a parallel growth of the Indian schools of philosophy and harmony existed among them. Even though they criticized each other, yet they influenced each other and there was a unity of moral and spiritual outlook among these different schools of philosophy. The Bhakti (devotional) movement represents the highest development of the ideas of tolerance, love, and peaceful coexistence. The Sikh religion can be considered the peak of the Bhakti movement. Therefore, Guru Nanak preached the principles of dialogue, tolerance and acceptance of diversity, and the ultimate unity of mankind. Guru Nanak said that there is only one source of creation, therefore, in spite of the differences among us there is the manifestation of the same creator in each one of us. This idea forms the basis of Eastern secularism. Guru Nanak did not believe in attempting to convert others to his faith, but instead thought that it should be purely voluntary. Bhai Mardana, his closest associate, remained a Muslim. Bhai Mardana’s family even today follows the Muslim faith in Pakistan.

The Western concept of secularism developed in the last two centuries. This was the period of Capitalism and was started with the goal of removing any obstacle in the way of the growth of Capitalism. Religion and spirituality were considered impediments towards the unbridled growth of Capitalism because they promoted the values of moderation, austerity, humility, and restraint. These qualities prevent people from becoming good consumers. Capitalism needs the exact opposite values to be successful: extravagance, arrogance, selfishness, and greed in order to make people better consumers. Therefore from its inception, Capitalism has tried to attack religion and spirituality under the pretext of promoting secularism. Capitalism used hypocrisy and double standards towards religion. In the Capitalist countries, Capitalism cut the power of the Church by insisting on the separation between the state and the church. However in the colonial countries it lined up with Christianity to colonize other countries. The colonialists conquered other countries with a sword in one hand and a bible in the other.

Western philosophers, under Capitalism, saw different schools of thought coming into existence successively. Each school dominated until another replaced it. This represents the tendency of Capitalism to exert its monopoly. I have seen the same tendency in medicine. One drug or one form of treatment becomes very popular, then another drug or form of treatment comes and replaces it. There is no tolerance towards alternative forms of treatment. In spite of the fact that more than forty percent of the American population uses alternative healthcare, yet the dominant (allopathic) medicine does not fully recognize and accept this.

Western secularism pits science against religion and spirituality. Eastern secularism, on the other hand, sees no contradiction between these. Science is limited perceptive knowledge. Whereas spiritual knowledge has no such limits. God begins where perceptive knowledge ends. Scientific knowledge will always have limits while God is infinite.

Globalization, which is the highest developed form of the Capitalist mode of production, tries the ultimate in assimilation and uniformity. It strives to convert the whole world into one large market and attempts to dissolve all different identities, whether they are national, religious, or cultural. This is the concept of converting the whole world into one large melting pot. This is the final stage of Western secularism.

The Western secular concept, instead of integrating the world, has achieved the exact opposite. It has divided people along racial, religious, national, and cultural lines. Look what happened to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. In the Indian subcontinent Western secularism led to the division of the subcontinent. If Western secularism is not replaced by Eastern secularism, then the Indian subcontinent may end up becoming balkanized.

The Sikh concept of secularism, which can be considered the highest developed form of Eastern secularism, leads to the unity and integration of people. Guru Nanak was revered by both Hindus and Muslims, and the teachings of many Hindu saints and Muslim Sufis were integrated into Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs.

Why have the Western and Eastern concepts of secularism played different roles? The reason is that in the fields of spirituality and overall human development, the East has an edge on the West. The main reason for this is the relatively mild climate of the Indian subcontinent which was conducive for the development of cultivational spirituality, which is more refined than prescriptive spirituality.

The Eastern concept of secularism is very relevant in solving the major problems of the contemporary world. The two major problems are (first) that we have evolved into a global community because of the growth and development of the means of transportation and communication, yet we still lack a global perspective. The other major problem is that for all practical purposes, the Western society has abandoned spirituality and a spiritual vacuum exists. Both these problems can be solved by promoting the concepts of Eastern secularism. Guru Nanak preached that the ultimate goal of spiritual growth is to realize that we all belong to the One, who is our creator, sustainer, and destroyer. Creation, sustenance, and destruction are not three separate entities, but are all part of the continuous phenomenon which is eternal. Therefore we are parts of the whole. The otherness, the feeling of “them against us,” of seeing the self separate from others, is only the result of the ignorance and non-realization of our true identity.

Once we realize our true identity, we can then gain cosmic awareness and become aware of universal brotherhood.


Dr. Sawraj Singh is Chairman of Washington State Network for Human Rights, and Chairman of Central Washington Coalition for Social Justice

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