There is little atheism, or antireligion, in India. The Indian has great respect for religion; and he does almost everything religiously. In his devotions he is wholehearted and unashamed. Hinduism, by far the strongest, numerically, of the religions of India, is a religious-social-economic system, bound together by caste. It provides and rules business, social intercourse, entertainment, and politics.
Early in 1937 this country inaugurated a much more autonomous form of government than had prevailed before, and eighty million of its people have the privilege of voting. They are divided by their own choice into communal political parties, for the election campaign. But the word "communal" has come to mean in India religious communities or groups. Communal voting means voting according to religious affiliations. Though there are political parties in name, such as the Congress party and the Liberal party, yet it is evident that the Hindu, Muslim [Arabic spelling for Moslem], and Christian groups will stand out distinctly in the various legislatures as religio-political parties.
Thus, though church and state are not united in India, religion and politics are; and it is little wonder, since the people find it difficult to divorce religion from their thinking upon any subject. And surely we are not in a position to condemn the carrying of religious principles into statesmanship. The line is to be drawn only when there is a tendency to enforce certain religious beliefs and practices by legislative enactment. And there is not much danger of religious laws here, with the dominance of the Christian British government, the superiority in numbers of the Hindus, and the exceeding aggressiveness of the Muslim minority. On the other hand, because legislators are pledged to constituencies with intensely religious prejudices and clashing ideals in beliefs and customs, religion is sure to enter prominently into the constitution of the new India. It will be a miracle if strife is avoided.
India has never had the degree of political freedom she is about to have. And, since it is unsafe to judge the future of the East by the past of the West, the events of tomorrow are impossible to even guess. However, the arrows point to the slow disintegration of Hinduism, unless unlikely reforms are made.
Mild reform parties within the Hindu fold have arisen in the past; but they have been reabsorbed by this comprehensive religious system that is broad enough to take in any extremes of doctrine, just so caste is maintained. When Hinduism loses adherents, other religions will gain them, because Indians are incurably religious. Islam is making the most open, even spectacular, bid for ex-Hindus.
The Muslims (they resent being called Mohammedans; for they claim that their faith preceded Mohammed), under the quieting influence of the British government, have substituted the pen for the sword in the propagation of their religion. (It is interesting to note in this connection that they vehemently deny that their predecessors ever used force to gain converts.) And the pen (the printing press) is proving mightier, if not swifter, than the sword in advancing the interests of this zealously missionary religion. Their newspapers and nearly everything they print seem to be heavy with Islamic propaganda.
The most remarkable religious trend visible in India, and perhaps in the world, today is the drift of its millions of untouchables away from Hinduism. They are renouncing the ancient faith by scores of thousands every year. That they are moving in great masses from Hinduism is unmistakable; to what many of them are moving is not yet very plain. Called variously "outcastes," "lowcastes," "exterior castes," "Harijans" (the title given them by Mahatma Gandhi, which means sons of God), and "depressed classes," their disabilities and degenerate state are well known the world around. The pitiable condition of India's depressed classes has been the open sore of this country for centuries.
For a long time Mahatma Gandhi championed their cause; but he has refused to renounce caste, and wants them to find their way up by remaining Hindus. They have come to the conclusion in large numbers, however, that their only hope is in leaving Hinduism, and they are unquestionably right in this. This is a rebellion which Hindustan's greatest religion cannot quell or absorb. Feeble counterreforms do not affect it. It moves on with irresistible momentum.
The depressed classes have discovered their most able and unselfish leader among themselves. He is Doctor Ambedkar, now of international fame. As a lowly outcaste, he overcame incredible handicaps and was finally graduated from Princeton University with the Ph.D. degree. He returned to India and cast his lot with his people. With all his culture and intelligence, and the gift of leadership, he is still held in contempt by the Brahman. But he is undaunted as the Lincoln of untouchability.
Doctor Ambedkar does not profess to be a religious leader. He seeks rather to uplift his people socially and economically. But he knows that the religious motive is strongest in the Indian, and that the outcastes are eager to join a religion that will give them equality and a means of better livelihood. There is no doubt that millions of them are waiting for the good doctor to show them by declaration and example what religion to join. He hesitates, for he has their future good at heart, and it is a crushing responsibility. It is almost a slogan here that as Doctor Ambedkar goes, so goes the outcaste. He has promised to make his decision next year, after he studies what the various faiths have to offer. It was reported in the West that he had turned to Sikhism, but there is no proof of it here. At a convention of the representatives of the Sikhs at Lucknow in May, 1936, they voted to leave Hinduism, and expected to meet again in the spring of 1937 and possibly make a choice of faith at that meeting.
Part of his study follows the experimental method of the laboratory. He encourages groups to join different cults, and watches to see how they are treated. It must be said that he seems to be looking for material results chiefly. He feels, not without reason, that his brethren must be placed on their feet socially and economically before they are able to appreciate the higher spiritual things.