Hinduism v/s Hindutva: A False Dichotomy
Hinduism and Hindutva are distinct, while being complementary.
An important, and politically charged debate is currently playing out across India. It concerns the significance of, and relationship between, two inter-linked concepts: Hinduism and hindutva.
There are those who associate hindutva with Prime Minister Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party and wonder if the Opposition will pick up the gauntlet and champion Hinduism instead.
The de facto leader of the Congress Party juxtaposes “good Hindus” (Hinduism?) against “bad Hindus” (hindutva?). His remarks are facile but, perhaps, well-meaning.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of a columnist in the Indian Express who claimed that aligning “Hinduism with moral values” and hindutva with “the discourse of blood and soil” is myopic and confused.
He thinks “real Hinduism is tolerant” is an easy meme. There are no “good” and “bad” Hindus: they are all, presumably, mostly “bad”! This is insulting and must not remain without challenge.
The debate is no mere intellectual exercise: a lot is at stake, in particular, foundational concepts for “ideas of India”. It is no surprise, therefore, that the discussion generates so much heat and passion. Competing opinions are strongly held and bitterly disputed.
But how the discussion develops will help shape the future of the Indian State and its democratic politics. The implications for the lives of 1.3 billion Indians may likely be far-reaching.
It is imperative, therefore, that the debate proceeds with more clarity than is the case at present about the basic meaning of the two terms in question — Hinduism and hindutva — and is informed by other national experiences that may throw light on the matter.
To start with, it may be worthwhile to define the two inter-related but seemingly opposed terms at issue. Both have one thing in common: they contain the word “Hindu”, which signified anyone from the land the Persians called Hind (from the Sanskrit root “sindhu” or river).
However, the two expressions differ in origin. Hinduism is a word coined by the West to refer to the religion of the Hindus. It is fundamentally misleading in that the faiths and beliefs represented among the people of this land cover a wide spectrum, ranging from theism of different types to agnosticism, atheism and materialism.
Perhaps, for this reason, Hindus themselves prefer to call it sanatana dharma or the Eternal Dharma. Dharma itself is difficult to render into English, denoting, among other things, the nature of reality, the cosmic law of right and wrong, and a way of life.
Faced with this bewildering and hard-to-comprehend diversity of beliefs, the West sought to pack them all into one catch-all expression — Hinduism.
Hindutva, on the other hand, was a native Indian locution formed by attaching the Sanskrit suffix -tva (essence or quality of being) to the word Hindu (person from Hind, or Indian).
Thus, it was understood as Hindu-ness or Indian-ness, the feeling engendered by being from the land called Hind. As with the original meaning of the word Hindu, lower-case hindutva too was not associated with any religious connotation.
It referred, instead, to the sense of national and cultural identity of Indians, of whatever faith. If that culture was grounded principally in the ethos of the predominant majority of Indians, that should surprise no one.
In sum, Hinduism is about spiritual beliefs and hindutva is the emotional bond that Indians have with the land and its culture.
The two are clearly linked but, nonetheless, distinct. It also follows that the two are not opposed. “Hinduism versus Hindutva” — the one good, the other bad — therefore makes no sense.
Rather, it is the case that all Indians feel the pull of hindutva, of belonging to this land and being Indian, while the vast majority of them also subscribe to beliefs captured by the term Hinduism.
Israel presents a somewhat analogous situation. While Judaism is the religion of the Jews, Zionism refers to the attachment of Jews and the Jewish religion to the historical region of Palestine. In view of this attachment, Zionists could not accept a Jewish homeland in any other part of the world.
They felt a connection to the land that was real, not merely a confused “discourse of blood and soil”. But like Hindutva, Zionism too came to be linked to a particular political ideology, one that resulted in the establishment of a Jewish nation in Palestine.
As noted, the culture of India reflects the values of sanatana dharma, and there is nothing unexpected about that. Yet, it is also true that culture and faith are, and can be, distinct.
One need look no further than Indonesia for proof of this. The world’s largest Muslim country remains committed to its pre-Islamic, Hindu culture. The name of its national air carrier — Garuda — is well-known, but many Indians may not be aware of the Arjuna Wijaya chariot statue in central Jakarta.
It depicts a scene from the Mahabharata epic, with Krishna riding a chariot and Arjuna at his side, armed with bow and arrow. Nor, will they know of the larger-than-life statue of Saraswati that stands in front of Indonesia’s embassy in Washington, D.C.
How ironic that Indonesia whole-heartedly embraces its pre-existing Hindu culture, while India worries that her own millennial Hindu culture — anchored in the faith of most of her citizens — will oppress and offend those Indians who, though, feeling thoroughly Indian (the pull of hindutva), may not profess the Hindu faith.
If only India could learn from Indonesia and trust all its citizens. And, yes, proudly erect appropriate statuary in New Delhi’s Central Vista and other locations!
That this seminal debate is taking place at this time is testimony to the watershed that the 2014 Lok Sabha election result — reaffirmed in 2019 — represented.
India’s Constitution was adopted soon after the country had thrown off the foreign yoke, when British influence was still palpable. But now that India recognizes itself much more firmly as a land of Hindus (by culture or faith or both), it may be time to consider convening a second Constituent Assembly to align the Constitution to the new — or rather, the pre-existing — reality.
The Indian Express columnist referred to earlier acknowledged that India is overwhelmingly a Hindu nation. However, he considers this as simply a background fact (and, hence, presumably, of no relevance!). After all, as he notes, the nation also has “Muslims, atheists, communists, liberals, and even Hindutvavadis”.
This is, of course, incontrovertible but it only means that these and other groups know they live in a Hindu nation. And they do so feeling as Indian as their Hindu (by faith) brothers and sisters.
Why is this so hard to grasp?
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