The views held by the Indian courts on Hindu traditions seem to match those held by Swami Vivekananda, Dr Radhakrishnan, and V.D. Savarkar.
Recently we saw the news of Adivasi ritual “made snana” facing a possible court ban as the Central government requested to put an end to the ritual— a move seen as an attack on a voluntary practice. This decision, along with decisions regarding Shani-Shingnapur, Sabarimala, Jallikattu and Dahi Handi makes it look like the nation’s courts are focussed on obstructing centuries-old Hindu customs, with the support of some some civil society groups.
Many have accused the Supreme Court of ignoring the nuances attached to these traditions, instead choosing to interpret them from the “Abrahamic point of view”. The problem with this line of thought is that it will narrow down the boundaries of Hinduism by crossing one ritual after the other.
The opponents of the court’s interference are of the view that the halls of justice have been aping their Western counterparts where religious institutions are more or less Unitarian (read Judeo-Christian) as opposed to the diverse ones seen in India. They also accuse the seemingly “Hindu-Nationalist” government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of being a silent spectator instead of standing up for “dharmic traditions”.
However, interestingly, certain case studies show that the BJP and, by extension, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), are more or less doing the right thing since the thoughts behind the court’s decisions are very similar to the ones held by the thought leaders of “Hindu nationalism”.
The most notable example of this is the case between Shri A.S. Narayana Deekshitulu and the State Of Andhra Pradesh. The petitioner was a chief priest (archaka) of Thirumala Tirupathi who insisted that the Andhra Pradesh Charitable and Hindu Religious Institutions and Endowments Act of 1987— by abolishing hereditary succession among archakas, prescribing regulations for the appointment of archakas, and taking away their right to a share of offerings made to the deity—infringed his religious rights.
The Court dismissed the petition and upheld the Act, even adding some qualifications. In the course of the judgement, Justice V. Ramaswami gave an elaborate argument on religion in the Indian context. He proposed:
The importance of rituals in religious life is relevant for evocation of mystic and symbolic beginnings of the journey but on them the truth of a religious experience cannot stand. The truth of a religious experience is far more direct, perceptible and important to human existence. It is the fullness of religious experience which must be assured by temples, where the images of the Lord in resplendent glory is housed ... It is essential that the value of law must be tested by its certainty in reiterating the Core of Religious Experience and if a law seeks to separate the non-essential from the essential so that the essential can have a greater focus of attention in those who believe in such an experience, the object of such a law cannot be described as unlawful.... In secularising the matters of religion which are not essentially and integral parts of religion, secularism, therefore, consciously denounces all forms of super-naturalism or superstitious beliefs or actions and acts which are not essentially or integrally matters of religion or religious belief or faith or religious practices.
If the court’s judgement sounds quite “westernised”, one can just match the statement of Justice Ramaswami with the idea of “dharma” as expressed by Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, the primary ideologue of the BJP:
Nowadays, the word ‘secular state’ is being used as opposed to theocratic state. The adoption of this word is mere imitation of the western thought pattern. We had no need to import it . . .There is some misunderstanding arising out of this. Religion was equated with Dharma and then secular state was meant not be a state without Dharma. Some said ours is a state (without Dharma), whereas others trying to find a better sounding word called Dharmanikshepa (indifferent to Dharma state). But all these words are fundamentally erroneous. For a state can neither be without Dharma nor can it be indifferent [to] dharma….
One of the primary arguments raised by the courts on certain Hindu customs are those of essential practices. It is peculiar that courts in secular constitutional polities play the role of interpreter of religious doctrine but in the Indian context, this role has been enabled due to the lack of a unitary church in Hinduism. The soundness of this view was defended by Babasaheb Ambedkar argument in the Constituent Assembly during debates on Hindu Code Bills:
The religious conceptions in this country are so vast that they cover every aspect of life from birth to death...There is nothing extraordinary in saying that we ought to strive hereafter to limit the definition of religion in such a manner that we shall not extend it beyond beliefs and such rituals as may be connected with ceremonials which are essentially religious…Constituent Assembly Debates VII, 781.
Some critics would counter Babasaheb’s view with the following claim: due to certain inescapable hardships, he became an outspoken critic of traditional Hinduism. Hence, the argument can be made that the first Law Minister was not a huge admirer of innate customs related to temples and communities. But, in some of these areas, Babasaheb is not alone. The citations made by the Court regarding Hindu practices are also based on pronouncements made by the likes of Swami Vivekananda and Dr Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan. Both these notable figures of what can be called “Reformed Hinduism” have, on many occasion, displayed displeasure for popular Hindu practices.
The fact is that we have many superstitions, many bad spots and sores on our body – these have to excised, cut off, and destroyed – but these do not destroy our religion, our national life, our spirituality. Every principle of religion is safe, and the sooner these black spots are purged away, the better the principles will shine, the more gloriously.Swami Vivekananda, Collected Works III, 279
At the moment, however, temples present an air of dull acquiescence and tedious routine. To attempt to abolish temples, which are so passionately loved and affectionately revered, is vain. But we must improve the tone and the atmosphere. Worship in temples must be of the purest form.Dr Radhakrishnan, Religion and Society, 125
Even V.D. Savarkar, the founder of the “Hindutva” school of thought, was in favour of changing customs and practices when needed, in his words:
All institution is meant for the society, not the society or its ideal for an institution.Essentials of Hindutva
But he did not elucidate the intricacies of changing the said institutions in Hindu society. Most scholars have pointed out that Savarkar was heavily inspired by the thoughts of Swami Vivekananda and the Arya Samaj.
These exalted figures decided to cleanse whatever they perceived as pollutants in the Hindu religion. They also worked bravely for the reconversion of non-Hindus, the abolition of caste discrimination and the acceptance of widow remarriage, in order to rid Hindu society of its lacunas.
In the process they also clashed with the Abrahamic fundamentalists of their days. Regrettably, in its opposition to Abrahamic fundamentalism, the reformers interiorised some of their beliefs and attitudes.
As mentioned earlier, many of our judges are inspired by an idea of “Reformed Hinduism” purged of its alleged “irrational” rituals and practices. The debate, hence, is not between “Secular” and “Hindu” but between “Reforms” and “Traditions”. The Hindu society would do well in assessing the situation from this perspective.
This article has taken inputs from ‘The Indian Supreme Court and the quest for a ‘rational’ Hinduism’ by Ronojoy Sen.