Europe, India, and the Limits of Secularism

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Jakob de Roover
Religion and Democracy
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What is common between the Protestant Reformation movement in 16th century Europe and the rise of Hindutva politics in contemporary India? In his book Europe, India, and the Limits of Secularism, Jakob De Roover argues that the contemporary liberal model of secularism, which traces its roots in the European Middle-Ages Christian division of spiritual and political spheres, influences the critique for and against secularism across the world, including India. 

De Roover takes us through the fascinating history of the transformation of the biblical idea of the division between the “eternal spiritual world” and the “temporal material world” to the contemporary liberal secular thought. The Enlightenment has been long seen as a period that witnessed the break between Christian theology and the values of toleration and freedom of conscience that launched the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe. De Roover disagrees. He convincingly shows that Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire and Denis Diderot sought to explain the normative call for division between religion and politics from a theological standpoint, and not outside of it. Moving outside of the theological standpoint meant that the division between the two spheres became pre-theoretical, and any questions about “why divide?” could no longer be answered coherently (150).

Why should we care about the Christian traces in contemporary liberal thought? While secularism does trace its origins in Christianity, it is not this origin story that is problematic for De Roover. Rather, it is that the liberal model of secularism maintains a relation of dependency with Christian political theology and is not comprehensible without it (chapter 5). For De Roover, any contemporary analysis of secularism is tainted by its theological roots, which developed in a medieval and post-medieval European context. Given this link, secularism might no longer be a viable normative option to accommodate contemporary pluralism in nation-states around the world. In order to demonstrate this, he traces the application of and debates surrounding secularism in India, starting with the arrival of British colonizers.

The British colonial rulers of India studied Hinduism and framed laws that, in the perception of the British, allowed their subjects to live their religious lives. De Roover asks—why did religious tolerance of what was seen as “idolatry” and “heresy” become a “moral obligation for the colonial state” (169-72)? For De Roover, this can be answered only by looking at the importance of the values of tolerance within Christianity as practiced by the English (chapter 6). The British sought to find the “true religion” within Hinduism that was based on scripture like the Manusmrti, devoid of influences by priests. This normative framework had an effect on Hinduism itself since it “compelled Hindu traditions to internalize the Christian division between the religious, the secular, and the falsely religious” (190). Both Hindu reformists, like Raja Rammohun Roy, and their counterparts, such as Swami Dayanand Saraswati and V.D. Savarkar (who developed the core of Hindutva ideas), adopted these conceptual tools to debate about the essence of “true” Hinduism through varied interpretations of Hindu texts. For De Roover, these Indian political thinkers “reproduced the orientalist version of Indian religious history” that was prevalent in the European understanding of India (195).

The contemporary secularists, according to De Roover, continue to “presuppose that there are only two options for India: either secularism or political religion” in light of the “problem of cultural asymmetry” created between the West and India (205). According to De Roover, this asymmetry means that influential political actors like Jawaharlal Nehru and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar “simply accepted the orientalist discourse about Indian culture” (214-15), including the conceptualization and criticism of caste (chapter 7). One wonders, though, whether political actors in India “simply” accepted the Western discourse without any agency. Does any criticism of caste mean adopting the “orientalist discourse”? De Roover’s analysis struggles through what Rochelle Terman calls a “double bind”—calling out the orientalist histories of terms like “caste” and “religion,” while at the same time giving sufficient recognition to the social stratification caused by religion and caste (Islamophobia, Feminism, and the Politics of CritiqueTheology, Culture & Society, 2015). For De Roover, all conversations on religion and caste in India are infused with “orientalist discourse,” and all other potential meanings, and their deployment by contemporary Indian scholars, are to be rejected. Yet, the “Western” concepts of caste and religion give a language to social hierarchies that have significantly influenced the lives of Indians, including before colonization (Ananya Chakravarti, Caste Wasn't a British Construct – and Anyone Who Studies History Should Know ThatThe Wire, 2019).

Overall, beyond interesting anecdotes—like the European Court of Human Rights Lautsi v. Italy case or the British struggling to understand the practice of satiin India—this book is certainly of interest for political theorists and historians curious about the genealogy of the secular thought, the debates it incited during the colonial rule of the British in India, and the contemporary effects of that conversation in India. However, Europe, India, and the Limits of Secularism does not offer an alternative reading of pluralism, limiting itself, albeit in a compelling way, to breaking “the spell of colonial consciousness and its asymmetry of cultures” (242), showing that the liberal model of secularism is not as neutral as it presents itself to be.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shreya Parikh is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
July 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jakob de Roover is Assistant Professor, Department of Comparative Science of Cultures, Ghent University, Belgium.


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