Conceptions of Church and State: A Hindu Framework for Socio-Political Revolutions

Written by Kathryn Trenbeath

From a Western perspective, it is sometimes difficult to understand how social and political movements can succeed in countries with a system of government heavily tied to religion. As a conglomeration of ‘rational’ societies born out of the Enlightenment, societies in the West contend that a governing system with foundations in religious texts, concepts, practices, and beliefs will only obscure the democratic will of the people. Political leaders with transcendental justification for their actions can all too easily manipulate and mistreat their subjects. A ruler may quote a religious justification to dismantle opposition, and it is difficult to ensure protections of religious minorities, a central tenet of Western-style democracy. However, a brief exploration of the history of the separation of religion and politics reveals how simplistic and misguided this assumption is. This paper will examine one important example of a society that has managed to base a vibrant democracy on a religious foundation. Indian Hindus have developed an economic system relying on a wide distribution of wealth, and have incorporated a religiosity that continuously reinterprets  ancient Hindu texts and philosophical concepts in a democratic framework. This system can serve as a model for reconciling religious commitments with democratic government in countries experiencing socio-political revolutions throughout the world.

The presuppositions inherent within a traditional Western discourse regarding the relationship between religion and politics reveal how little is actually known about the ways Western and Eastern civilizations evolved parallel to one another, interacting while struggling with external and internal situations particular to geographical location, social development, and governmental structure. All too often, the histories of other, non-Western civilizations are inappropriately juxtaposed against an autobiographical history of the West. Not only does this ‘history’ explain an entire planet’s worth of inhabitants through the lens of a specific society, in a specific geographical location, and subjected to specific historical events, it also splits the world’s civilizations into two basic and grossly simplified categories saturated with implicit judgments: ‘first-world’ and ‘not-first-world.’

One of the major identifiers of a first-world country is a style of governmental rule that separates church and state. In A Letter Concerning Toleration, John Locke, an influential seventeenth-century political philosopher, explains that religion and politics are two separate yet legitimate spheres of human endeavor. However, the former primarily concerns individual belief and personal conviction, the latter civil law and public action. In other words, “the business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of the commonwealth and of every particular man’s goods and person” (Locke). This mindset is a reflection of the belief held by many Western civilians: the capability to universally separate politics from religion is a natural consequence of a more developed sense of rationality and, thus, reveals the superiority of the West over societies with religiously affiliated or influenced polities.

The religio-political values Locke describes are part of a narrative about one portion of the world, understood by that portion of the world. In order to fully understand the impact of the decision to separate religion from politics made by Euro-American civilization, one must understand the socio-political context surrounding this divide. Of course, “the very idea of separating the terms politics and religion is itself a fairly recent invention, since these are both in a sense ‘imagined’ categories that are largely the product of the European Enlightenment and the rise of modern Western nations” (Urban 7248). However, exploring the idea that a fundamental distinction exists between religious and political conventions was a necessary political and social endeavor for the European intellectuals of the seventeenth century. Developing a progressive political theory, which rejected the stronghold of tradition in favor of rationality and nationalism, was a way to reject “the religious hegemony of the Catholic church and [recoil] from the wars of religion that tore Europe apart after the Protestant Reformation” (Urban 7248). By requiring that the separation of religious belief and political power  be preconditions for a just and ordered society, the European world could begin to leave behind the religio-political justifications that allowed for the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the series of religious wars following the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.

These wars not only decimated European and Middle Eastern populations, but they left societies in ruin. Large sums of capital, physical labor, and material goods are squandered during war, which consequently means they are not invested in the state itself. It is no wonder that after centuries of religiously fueled wars that satisfied state interests of expansion, but did not greatly improve the lives of citizens, a socio-political backlash founded in a renewed sense of civic duty and values would occur. So, reduced to its most basic tenants, the separation of church and state was undeniably a political act in and of itself -- one quite specific to the religiously devastated countries of the seventeenth-century West.

Despite the history of English colonial rule in India, the religious wars that led to the Enlightenment did not occur in India or to Indian citizens. It is both inappropriate and detrimental to superimpose Western ideals on a country and civilization that did not undertake the same religio-political battles as the West. Nonetheless, the West has used -- and continues to use -- this artificial demarcation between religion, politics, and culture in order to hold itself up as the definition of modernity. An intentional disparity was thus created between the ‘civilized’ Europeans and the ‘primitive’ and religiously barbaric East, which provided justification for colonization and, even after India gained its independence in 1947, a degree of exploitation that has continued on until the present day. The rich history of political uprisings born from a religiously affiliated polity such as India can provide a powerful alternative to the traditional Western concepts of freedom and social progression.

Separating religion and politics is a practical tool for understanding how power structures works in specific cultures, and is also a useful method with which to reflect upon the efficacy of both structures. The most common way to accomplish this is by “[identifying] religion and politics, respectively, with the sacred and profane aspects of human experience” (Urban 7249). Doing so also pinpoints an appeal to two different types of authority: the human and the divine. Human authority is fallible, temporal, and material, whereas divine authority is infinite, eternally true, and transcendent. According to a study published in December of 2012 by the Pew Research Center, roughly 84% of the global population associates itself with a religious tradition, and thus has “the intuition that moral obligations have a law-like character” set forth by a divine being, spirit, or presence, which transcends man-made, politically based laws (Werpehowski 58). These divinely dictated moral obligations provide an objective verdict on behavior, a degree of accountability, and they encourage moral reflection as well as moral action. In other words, “God’s will or command establishes moral objectivity; that right relation with God is the highest good establishes both why moral reasons are overriding and what grounds our motivation to act rightly” (Werpehowski 59).

Although these concepts are general and can be applied to any civilization, specific examples can be found in Hinduism. The existence of Brahman and Atman structure a framework of deities, material substance, and immaterial substance that make up the entire cosmos. Brahman is the universal soul, that which cannot be defined but exists before all else. The relationship between Brahman and Atman changes slightly among different schools of thought, but generally speaking Atman is the extension of Brahman which resides in the individual; it is the manifestation of Brahman found within every animate object. A common analogy to describe that which cannot be fully described, Brahman is the tiny seed from which grows the tree of life. These two substances -- or perhaps, just one -- shape and supply everything that exists and in turn, impart a structure of relationships between individual creations, creations in general, and the universe, all of which are inherently good and necessary.

Brahman is considered to be the source of all material and immaterial qualities, with intentionality sitting at the heart of this idea. It is therefore understood by Hindus that each creature was brought into being with intention so that it may live an intentional life. Such forces bring about concepts like dharma (civic and social duties), yoga (right action), and karma (a moral accounting system of actions and intentions), which are not concepts specific to Indian society. In fact, sounding quite Eastern for a Christian Western theologian, Stephen Ethans suggests that “the purpose of [divinely commanded] duties is to help us become transformed into the kinds of people who no longer require the notion of duty at all” (Werpehowski 89).

Religious discourse, then, represents “the ultimate motivator, that is, the most persuasive force used to mobilize individual and collective action” (Urban 7249). This can be, and of course has been, manipulated and exploited by powerful political figures to aid in or justify behavior with destructive consequences. It is not uncommon for religious institutions to rely upon the patronage, power, and physical protection of political institutions and, in turn, to provide “the ultimate legitimation to temporal political power” (Urban 7249). In earlier times, this was accomplished by collapsing religious and political authority: the monarchs of powerful empires, from Roman to Ottoman times, would often claim to have a sacred lineage that traced their earthly power back to the divine authority of a god or goddess. In present times, however, this monopolization and manipulation of power occurs when concepts, traditions, and values are reinterpreted to err on the side of civic dharma that satisfy the interests of the political elite, rather than the moral dharma which develop society as a whole.

The most poignant example of this type of religio-political structure is varnashrama-dharma, or duties in accord with caste (varna) and stage of life (ashrama), found within India’s caste system. In ancient times, the brahmin caste held exclusive access to religious and ritual material, and many scholars would argue that they still do. Although they were often committed to a life of poverty and a disassociation with the material world themselves, Hindu priests were financially supported by the rajanya (ruling) caste and laypeople alike, and were treated with the utmost respect. At the same time, the shudras (servant class), who were thought to have been born from the feet of Purusha (the cosmic being which supplied material for earthly creations, as referred to in the BhagavadGita) and the dalits (Untouchables excluded entirely from the creation story of Purusha) were necessities for the prosperity of Indian society. Both were servile classes, the latter more so than the former, and both suffered incredible social indignity and political exploitation. Of course, since they were not of the brahmin caste, these two communities did not have access to the religious texts that justified the establishment of a religiously founded social hierarchy, such as the BhagavidGita, which contains the following dictations from Lord Krishna: “I created mankind in four classes / different in their qualities and actions” (53). Members of the shudra and dalit castes were unable to discover for themselves exactly how and in what context these scriptures were written, and were consequently denied the right to reinterpret these texts and find religious justification for the overthrow of a system under which they were among the foundational classes.

However, religious affiliation does not occur in a vacuum and it is not the sole source of one’s identity. When combined with the part of one’s conception of self that is rooted in a specific geographical location, a nationalist identity is created -- one which exists outside of the political sphere. This opens up a space for “the supra-human authority of religious discourse [to be] invoked to critique, challenge, or subvert the dominant political order” (Urban 7249). It is in this way that religion can and has most often been used to encourage social justice movements or act as a stimulus for political overhaul. A more extensive essay would analyze the precise ways in which this is accomplished -- largely through specific Hindu concepts, reinterpretations of ancient texts, and new accounts of human rights that are unpacked and removed from their old connotations and have new life breathed into them by political revolutionaries. Countless scholarly, biographical, fiction, and nonfiction accounts narrate exactly how particular Hindu concepts have been utilized to invoke this type of critique at various points throughout India’s history. This essay, however, will focus specifically on the way Indian social and religious life structures the potential for revolutionary political change.

The ability to develop the type of nationalist identity that employs religion to bolster a revolutionary movement has its roots in the distribution of wealth that occurs in Indian society. The general population of India funds both religious and political institutions, and in turn have created powerful, local institutions that exist outside of complete governmental control. Although the two are often intertwined in times of social dissatisfaction and upheaval, the money and time put into temples and monasteries --and consequently, not put into strictly political institutions-- make them powerful allies to socio-political revolutionaries.

Before diving fully into the revolutionary aspect of this phenomenon, it is worth quickly noting that this quality, integral to India’s social fabric, likely plays a role in why India is not yet considered a First World country. Many Western economists and political scientists, such as Winston Davis and William Werpehowski, believe religiosity to be one of the principal causes of economic underdevelopment. In an article entitled ‘Wealth,’ Davis backs this statement by citing rural Burma as an example, where more than 30% of the regional income is redistributed to monks, monasteries, and religious festivals (Urban). India is cited specifically by the Encyclopedia of Religion’s section on wealth, where the author explains that “belief in karman (the sum of one’s actions in successive states of existence), dharma (duties defined by the religious caste system), and samsara (a cyclical sense of time and rebirth) has been widely criticized as a major cause of poverty” (Urban 9707). The modern and secular West has determined that, due to its own history regarding the interplay of religion and politics, the only beneficial relationship between religion and wealth is for “religion to step out of the way of economic development” (Urban 9707). Due to the globally pervasive nature of Western discourse, it has become quite commonplace to claim that religiosity is detrimental to the ability of a country to produce as high a Gross Domestic Product as possible, as religious conviction cannot necessarily, easily, or consistently be capitalized. In fact, “modern social roles [in the West] make the ethics of brotherhood and the spirit of ‘hierarchical complementarity’ seem unrealistic” (Urban 9708). In India, many still venerate and practice the teachings of religious texts that discourage the types of values and practices that liberal capitalism requires, and these taboos surely impede the Western economic system in India.

On a more micro level, evidence for the observant Hindu’s dharma to financially support local religious institutions can be found in the social implications of the four stages of Hindu life: student, householder, retiree, and ascetic. The householder is the only stage of Hindu life that encourages the generation of wealth, even to an excess, because this money is, in turn, invested into the livelihood of the other three stages of life. The student, retiree, and ascetic are dependent upon the financial support of the householder. This arrangement funnels money directly into religious institutions in two distinct though interrelated ways. First, pujas, or alms, sacrifices, and prayers, are routinely made to a variety of gods and goddesses to ensure the well-being of the household. Ishta-devatas (personal gods or goddesses), kula-devatas (family gods or goddesses), and village deities are routinely called upon to provide protection, bounty, and overall happiness to both the family and the community at large, which opens up a section of the local marketplace for the sales and upkeep of religious statues, icons, temples, and devotional trinkets such as prayer beads or incense. This village-specific economic input is undertaken almost exclusively by householders, as students, retirees, and ascetics are not only inherently less financially stable than householders but are encouraged by Hindu philosophies and concepts such as maya (the illusion of the material world), samsara, and karma to denounce material life and the temporary selfish happiness that wealth provides.

Consistent investments in local religious institutions are not significant enough to contribute much to the overall wealth of India as a whole, which is arguably the main reason why India is not considered to be ‘modern,’ ‘rational,’ or ‘economically forward-thinking.’ However, that may not be the point. Local religious institutions play a very important role in developing interpersonal relationships by using religious belief and a shared religious space as the stage for communal gathering. The social relationships that are fostered in religious environments, built and maintained by a shared act of patronizing religious institutions, ensures a safe place for unhappy civilians to start a socio-political revolution, as commonality on a human level has already been established. Religion cannot be reduced to its sacred buildings and texts; rather, a religion only exists because followers are willing to live according to its dictates and breathe life into its text’s inanimate words. These relationships, usually made and maintained on a local level, exist outside of political control just as much as the local temples themselves, and they perpetuate a certain degree of religious, social, and geographical solidarity in overall diverse populations, both in rural and urban environments.

All too often, history is forgotten in the name of progress toward a modern world that is promised to all of mankind, as long as established societies willingly give up old traditions that threaten to curb unregulated economic development. This leads to a particular and potentially destructive cultural blindness, making it difficult for a normative and ‘modern’ society to relate to a different, ‘deviant’ society -- let alone foster an environment where both can truly understand, learn from, and work cooperatively with one another. Much more can and has been said on the subject of political and social movements founded or influenced by religious ideology, and perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to state that more should be said on this topic. In fact, it is likely that over the course of time, scholars and political revolutionaries alike will look back to older models of wealth distribution and investment in non-politically associated institutions in order to enact desired change in the political and social spheres of today. India’s religiously based model of political organization stands as a clear model for polities struggling with revolutionary urges in a modern, democratic world.


Works Cited

The Bhagavad Gita. Trans. Juan Mascaró. London: Penguin Books, 1962. Print. 27 Nov. 2013.

Evans, Stephen. God and Moral Obligation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Online. 1 Dec. 2013.

Locke, John. A Letter Concerning Tolerance. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983. Online. 1 Dec. 2013.

“The Global Religious Landscape.” PewForum. Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project. 18 December 2012. Web. 24 February 2014.

Urban, Hugh B. "Politics and Religion: An Overview." Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 11. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 7248-7260. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.

Werpehowski, William. "Divine Authority." First Things: A Monthly Journal Of Religion & Public Life 237 (2013): 58-60.Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.