I was born a Hindu and had a normal middle class upbringing. I went to an English medium school which gave me a modern education. Both my grandfathers belonged to the Arya Samaj, a reformist sect of Hinduism. My father, however, took a different path. While studying to be an engineer, he was drawn to a kindly Guru who told him about the possibility of direct union with God through meditation. The Guru was a Radhasoami sant, who quoted vigorously from Kabir, Nanak, Rumi, Mirabai, Bulleh Shah and other poets from the bhakti and Sufi traditions.

The striking thing about growing up Hindu was the chaotic atmosphere in our house. My grandmother would visit the Sikh gurdwara on Mondays and Wednesdays and a Hindu temple on Tuesdays and Thursdays; she saved Saturdays and Sundays for discourses of holy men, including Muslim pirs, who were forever visiting our town. In between she made time for Arya Samaj ceremonies when anyone was born, married, or died.  Her dressing room was laden with the images of her many gods, prominent among them being Krishna and Rama, and she would say in the same breath that there are millions of gods but only one God. My grandfather would jest that she would also have also called in at the Muslim mosque in her busy schedule had they allowed her in. But my more practical uncle thought that she was, in fact, taking out plenty of insurance to make sure someone up there might hear.

In this atmosphere I grew up with a liberal attitude that is a mixture of scepticism and sympathy for my tradition. I have come to believe that our most cherished ends in life are not political. Religion is one of these and it gets demeaned when it enters public life. Hence, religion and the state must be kept separate, and to believe in this is be secular. I value my Indian past and I feel that my awareness of this past is important to live a flourishing life today. This is a past that contains the influence of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Sikhism, and even Christianity.

Why then do I feel uneasy about being a liberal Hindu? I feel besieged from both ends—from both the Hindu nationalists and the secularists. Something seems to have gone wrong. The nationalists have appropriated my religious past and made it into a political statement called Hindutva. The secularists have contempt for any form of religious belief. They equate the world of a believer with superstition and are cut off from the world of the vast majority of ordinary people. Modern, successful Indians, even those at the helm of our private and public enterprises, do not have any use for the classical that I cling to.
 
A few years back I told my wife that I wanted to read the Mahabharata in its entirety. I explained that I had read the western epics but not the Indian ones. She gave me a sceptical look, and said, “It’s a little late in the day to be having a mid-life crisis, isn’t it?” To my annoyance she told her friends about it and I became the subject of animated discussion at a dinner party.
 
“So, what is this I hear about wanting to go away to read old books”, asked our hostess at a dinner party. “Why don’t you read new ones?” She gave my wife a suitable look of sympathy.
 
“Tell us, what books you plan to read?” asked a retired civil servant. A self-proclaimed “Leftist and secularist”, he had once been a favourite of Indira Gandhi’s. He had the gruff, domineering accent of the old school, but his question was put casually, as though he was referring to the latest features of an LG dishwasher or a Nokia mobile phone. I admitted reluctantly that I had been thinking of reading the Mahabharata.

“Good lord, man!” he exclaimed. “You haven’t turned saffron, have you?”

I think his remark was made in jest, but it upset me. I asked myself, what sort of secularism have we created that has appropriated my claim to my intellectual heritage? I found it disturbing that I had to fear the intolerance of my “secular” friends, who seemed to identify reading the epic as a political act. I was reminded of a casual remark by a Westernized woman in Chennai. She had always visited a Shiva temple near her home, but lately she had begun to hide this from her fierce secular friends, who she feared might paint her in saffron.

With the rise in religious fundamentalism around the world, it is increasingly difficult to talk about one’s deepest beliefs. Liberal Hindus are reluctant to admit being Hindu for fear they will be automatically linked to the RSS. Liberal Christians and liberal Muslims have the same misgivings. Part of the reason that the sensible idea of secularism is having so much difficulty in finding a home in India is that the most vocal and intellectual advocates of secularism were once Marxists. Not only do they not believe in God, they actually hate God. As rationalists they can only see the dark side of religion--intolerance, murderous wars and nationalism, and cannot empathize with the everyday life of the common Indian to whom religion gives meaning to every moment of life. Because secularists speak a language alien to the vast majority, they are only able to condemn communal violence but not to stop it, as Mahatma Gandhi could, in East Bengal in 1947.
 
Part of the problem stems from ignorance.  Our children do not grow up reading our ancient classics in school or college, and certainly not with a critical mind as works of literature and philosophy, in the same way as young Americans, for example, read them in college. Some Indians are lucky to acquire acquaintance with them from their grandmothers. Others read the tales in Amar Chitra Katha comics or watch them in television serials. If we don’t teach our classics in school and college I fear the loss of our tradition, in urban India certainly.

If Italian children can read in school Dante’s Divine Comedy, or English children can read Milton, and Greek children can read the Iliad, why should “secularist” Indians be ambivalent about the Mahabharata? It is true that the Mahabharata has lots of gods and in particular that elusive divinity, Krishna, who is up to all manner of devious activity. But so are Dante, Milton, and Homer filled with God or gods, and if the Italians, the English and the Greeks can read the texts of their heritage, why can’t Indians?
 
I suspect Mahatma Gandhi would have understood my dilemma about teaching the Mahabharata in our schools. He instinctively grasped the place of the epic in an Indian life, and he would have approved of what VS Sukthankar wrote: “The Mahabharata is the content of our collective unconscious .... We must therefore grasp this great book with both hands and face it squarely. Then we shall recognize that it is our past which has prolonged itself into the present. We are it."  The epic has given me great enjoyment in the past six years and I have become a Mahabharata addict. I feel sad that so many boys and girls in India are growing up rootless, and they will never have access to these forbidden fruits of pleasure.
 
As we think about sowing the seeds of secularism in India, we cannot just divide Indians between communalists and secularists. That would be too easy. The average Indian is decent and is caught in the middle. To achieve a secular society, believers must tolerate each others' beliefs and the atheism of nonbelievers; nationalists must resist high-jacking our religious past and turning it into votes; secularists must learn to respect the need of the ordinary Indian for a transcendental life beyond reason. Only then will secularism find a comfortable home in India.