Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Tilak, Gandhi, Savarkar, Ambedkar. Part II of our series on Hindutva, from ancient times to April 2015.

The “Hinduness” or the Hindu awareness as something more than a geographical phenomenon is attested clearly in the 14th century inscriptions which appear in South India. Indologist David Lorenzen, in his book Who Invented Hinduism? Essays on Religion in History, concedes:

“One interesting earlier reference comes from Andhra Pradesh. Cynthia Talbot has analyzed how the military expansion of Muslim dynasties into the Andhra region in AD 1323 led to a sharper sense of regional, political and religious identity among the Hindu population in the region. She notes that the title ‘Sultan among Hindu kings (Hindu-Raya-Suratrana)’, perhaps the earliest use of the term in Indian language, ‘begins to figure in Andhra inscriptions from CE 1352 onward’.
Talbot suggests that these references to Hindu kings possibly implied more a geographical than a religious identity. Negating this is the fact that Muslim dynasties had already been in control of most of the Ganges valley since the end of the 12th century, for about 150 years before the first appearance of the phrase “Sultan among the Hindu kings” in the Andhra inscriptions. In such circumstances how could the Andhra kings consider their Muslim opponents to be non-Hindu in a merely geographical sense, i.e. non-Indians?”

Lorenzen also refers to an earlier Hindu source Prithviraj Rasa, a historical romance attributed to a Canda Baradai. Traditionally thought to be written not long after the 1192 CE defeat of Prithviraj Chauhan by invader Muhammad Ghori, scholars consider that all, or all but one of the versions of the text are more recent, but they have not reached a consensus about which was written when. Here too in all versions, “Hindus” and Turks are mentioned, and in one version the religious nature of the term Hindu is well defined.

From the inscription of the Persian emperor Darius in the 4th century BCE to the Andhra inscription of 14th century CE, the term Hindu has had a consistent inner meaning of a cultural, spiritual and geographical nature. It has defined the one constant defining genome sequence in the ever-evolving national organism of the Hindu nation.

The term “Hinduness” or “Hindutva” defines this ongoing process more appropriately rather than the term “Hinduism”. Within the next two centuries during the Maratha ascendancy, the term “Hindavi Swaraj” was used by the legendary Shivaji (1630-1680) in a letter written in 1645, to Dadaji Naras Prabhu. By this term, Shivaji meant “Hindu religious autonomy” for entire India. The fact that, the modern Indian nation-state owes its conception to this stream of “Hinduness” was explicitly acknowledged by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) in his essay Shivaji O Guru Govind:

“The first and great leader of Maratha history had formed in his mind a clear concept of the establishment of a Hindu kingdom before launching a movement in the historical state for the rise of Maratha power. Whatever he did, conquest of territories, annihilation of the enemy, expansion of the kingdom, all this was a part of his All India project.”

Bankimchandra Chatterjee (1838-1894), the man who composed Vande Mataram, considers the Sikh Khalsa as the next Indic attempt at the second nation-state formation after Shivaji, in his essay Bharat-Kalanka: Bharatbarsha Paradhin Keno (India’s Shame: Why India is not Independent). In both the cases, it was not religion in the narrow sense or ethnicity or language which formed the basis of this nationhood but the Hinduness.

So by the end of 17th century, the term “Hindu” had come to mean the national character of India, more identified with its core historical process of Hinduness than any specific set of religious beliefs. After centuries of unrelenting fight, it had tired the Islamic invaders and rulers, and had made them accept the Indic cultural and spiritual superiority.

Under Colonialism

With the arrival of European colonialism, the dynamics of Hindutva entered a new phase.

Even the word “Hinduism”, which is often claimed to have been created by the British was actually coined by a Hindu—the Brahmo social reformer Raja Rammohan Roy in 1816-17. Lorenzen comments that the fact that it was an Indian-born Hindu who coined the very term Hinduism embarrasses the proponents of the British construction of Hinduism.

It is interesting to note here that Roy was speaking of the Unity of God as true Hinduism in 1817. In 1821, he claimed: “No people on earth are more tolerant than the Hindoos, who believe all men to be equally within the reach of Divine beneficence, which embraces the good of every religious sect and denomination.”

Rammohan Roy was against the evangelical attack on Hinduism. Missionaries who first eagerly promoted him as a possible leading intellectual Hindu convert to Christianity, later even refused to publish his articles. Roy on his part created a Hindu framework for an encounter with Christianity. Even while accepting Jesus as an ethical—even divine—personality, he rejected as gross absurdity the central theme of evangelical Christianity—Jesus dying on the cross as the substitutionary death for the sins of humanity.

Hindutva or Hinduness manifested throughout the beginning of the colonial missionary onslaught in the form of resistance to proselytizing and emphasizing the unity of humanity at the fundamental level.

By the 19th century, in the southernmost part of India, at the princely state of Travancore, then under the protection of the British East India Company, both the forces of social stagnation and proselytizing were working complementarily to affect a complete destruction of native faith system.

The Ayya Vazhi movement by Ayya Vaikundar (1810-1851) countered this situation in the most organized form. Though Ayya Vaikundar did not use the word “Hindu”, the movement manifested every feature that would characterize it as a Hindutva movement. Opposition to Christian and Islamic proselytizing, integration of Shaiva-Vaishnava streams, the avatar concept, use of Puranic metaphors for empowerment, visualizing a united India, uniting society under the saffron flag—are some of the salient features of this movement which effectively halted the proselytizing while simultaneously empowering a depressed section of society into a vibrant community.

Dr Siva Vivekanandan who has researched this movement concludes that it was Ayya Vazhi movement which saved Hinduism in South Travancore from being annihilated by the missionary crusade. During this early period of British colonial stranglehold over South India, the seer-reformer Ramalinga Vallalar (!823-1874) used the term “Hindu” in 1872 and defined Hindu scriptures as providing inner traditions for immortal gnosis which he says are either absent or approximations of Hindu scripture.

Meanwhile, the colonial-missionary enterprise was to define “who are Hindus and who are not” from the point of view of a superior ruling race. It used racial and other pseudo-historical frameworks towards this end. The Hindutva response was to redefine the term delving into the deeper unity from which the Indic culture draws its sustenance.

As the nation moved into the modern age under colonial rule, Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) provided the next important definition of the term “Hindu”, in his Paper on Hinduism (1893). He emphasized on the authority of the Vedas as the basis of Hinduism:

“Now this word ‘Hindu’ as applied to the inhabitants of the other side of the Indus, whatever might have been its meaning in ancient times has lost all its force in modern times; for all the people that live on this side of the Indus no longer belong to one religion. There are the Hindus proper, the Mohammedans, the Parsees, the Christians, the Buddhists, and Jains. The word ‘Hindu’ in its literal sense ought to include all these; but as signifying the religion, it would not be proper to call all these Hindus. It is very hard, therefore, to find any common name for our religion, seeing that this religion is a collection, so to speak, of various religions, of various ideas, of various ceremonials and forms, all gathered together almost without a name, and without a church, and without an organisation. The only point where, perhaps, all our sects agree is that we all believe in the scriptures—the Vedas. This perhaps is certain that no man can have a right to be called a Hindu who does not admit the supreme authority of the Vedas.”

Though Swami Vivekananda emphasizes on the “supreme authority of the Vedas”, he concedes the possibility of the inclusion of the heterodox Indic streams of Jainism and Buddhism within the Hindu family: “Perhaps we may even take in parts of Buddhism, and of Jainism too, if they would come in—for our hearts are sufficiently large.”

Vivekananda consistently distinguishes the meaning of the term “Vedas” from the usual meaning of a specific scripture: “The Hindus have received their religion through revelation, the Vedas…But by the Vedas no books are meant. They mean the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times.”

Thus, despite the apparent narrowing down of the definition to the Vedic authority, Swami Vivekananda keeps the definition open-ended for further evolution. According to Anantanand Rambachan, an academician on Hinduism, Vivekananda crucially differs from Adi Sankara (8th century CE) as he places personal experience above the scriptural authority (Sruti) whereas, Sankara considers scripture as the authoritative way to obtain the true knowledge of Brahman.

Rambachan considers this as a response to the 19th century challenge of science but there is a tradition in Indic religions—particularly in Shakthic (Goddess) tradition—which consider the scriptures subordinate to the Divine experience which is presented by the imagery of the essence of the scriptures being the dust at the feet of the Goddess or the platform on which the Divine Feminine stands (Sri Lalita Sahasranama—Thousand Names of the Divine Feminine). Hence, despite Vivekananda making the authority of Vedas central to the definition of a Hindu, the definition contains far more flexibility and openness than it seems at first glance.

The next important definition of the word “Hindu” was given by the Indian freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920). Given in the form of a Sanskrit verse, the definition provides three criteria to call oneself a Hindu. They are: 1. Belief in the authority of the Vedas, 2. Variety of means (of approaching God), 3. No insistence on one deity.

Here again, one finds that the two out of the three criteria emphasize theo-diversity and flexibility. Another important aspect that has to be noted is that despite the charges of Tilak being an orthodox supporter of caste, (which he was to some extent, but he was also to some extent a radical social reformer), he did not bring in the caste system as one of the defining feature of the term “Hindu”.

Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), the revolutionary-politician turned mystic-poet in his now famous Uttarpara speech delivered on May 30 1909, gave the following definition of “Hinduism”:

“But what is the Hindu religion?…That which we call the Hindu religion is really the eternal religion, because it is the universal religion which embraces all others…This is the one religion that can triumph over materialism by including and anticipating the discoveries of science and the speculations of philosophy. It is the one religion which impresses on mankind the closeness of God to us and embraces in its compass all the possible means by which man can approach God. It is the one religion which insists every moment on the truth which all religions acknowledge that he is in all men and all things and that in him we move and have our being. It is the one religion which enables us not only to understand and believe this truth but to realise it with every part of our being. It is the one religion which shows the world what the world is, that it is the Lila of Vasudeva. It is the one religion which shows us how we can best play our part in that Lila, its subtlest laws and its noblest rules. It is the one religion which does not separate life in any smallest detail from religion, which knows what immortality is and has utterly removed from us the reality of death.”

In this definition, Sri Aurobindo explicitly states that Hinduism is so-called because of the geographical locality in which it was preserved and nurtured, in “the Hindu nation…in this peninsula it grew up in the seclusion of the sea and the Himalayas, because in this sacred and ancient land it was given as a charge to the Aryan race to preserve through the ages.” Here it is to be noted that the use of the term “Aryan race” is not the same as the term was used in the European context where it means a biological race.

In fact Sri Aurobindo was one of the earliest critics of the race concept as a pseudo-scientific category. A decade after his Uttarpara speech, in Indian Spirituality and Life-I, Sri Aurobindo again defined Hinduism:

“And if we are asked…what is Hinduism…we can answer that Indian religion is founded upon three basic ideas or rather three fundamentals….First comes the idea of the One Existence of the Veda to whom sages give different names, the one without a second of the Upanishads who is all that is and beyond all that is, the Permanent of the Buddhists, the Absolute of the Illusionists, the supreme God or Purusha of the Theists who holds in his power the soul and nature, in a word the Eternal, the Infinite. This is the first common foundation…For its second basic idea is the manifold way of man’s approach to the Eternal and Infinite…The third idea…is that while the Supreme or the Divine can be approached through a universal consciousness and by piercing through all inner and outer Nature, That or He can be met by each individual soul in itself, in its own spiritual part, because there is something in it that is intimately one or at least intimately related with the one divine Existence.”

This definition has a strong connect with Tilak. In both, pluralism and flexibility are emphasized. It should be noted that the definition of Sri Aurobindo elaborates on the affirmative criterion of Tilak, namely the acceptance of Vedas as the Vedic “Idea of One Existence”, and associates with it the Buddhist concept, though Buddhism rejects the scriptural authority of Vedas. Once again here, the simplistic reading of the term “Vedas” as similar to an Abrahamic scriptural authority is rejected in favour of a deeper and larger understanding of the term.

Cultural Nationalism

In 1921, when Mahatma Gandhi was questioned by Hindu traditionalists as to how a Hindu could oppose caste system, Gandhi gave his own definition, in his magazine Young India:

“I call myself a sanatani Hindu, because, 1. I believe in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas and all that goes by the name of Hindu scriptures, and therefore in avatars and rebirth, 2. I believe in the varnashrama dharma in a sense in my opinion strictly Vedic but not in its present popular and crude sense, 3. I believe in the protection of the cow in its much larger sense than the popular, 4. I do not disbelieve in idol worship…The reader will note that I have purposely refrained from using the word divine origin in reference to the Vedas or any other scriptures…My belief in the Hindu scriptures does not require me to accept every word and every verse as divinely inspired…But that which distinguishes Hinduism from every other religion is its cow protection, more than its varnashrama”

By making cow protection (“much larger sense than the popular”) as the distinguishing feature of Hinduness, Gandhi perhaps gave the first ecologically relevant definition of Hinduism, though,  it was already implicit in the Vedanta as expounded by Vivekananda and in the writings of Aurobindo. In his book Hind Swaraj (1909), Gandhi also put forth an important view which would later play a major role in shaping the Hindutva concept of cultural nationalism which was taken to the central stage of polity in the 1990s by L.K. Advani—the idea of the cultural unity of India:

“(Our ancestors) saw that India was one undivided land so made by nature. They, therefore, argued that it must be one nation. Arguing thus, they established holy places in various parts of India, and fired the people with an idea of nationality in a manner unknown in other parts of the world. And we Indians are one as no two Englishmen are.”

Aurobindo had stated in his Uttarpara lecture that the Hindu “religion” had been nurtured by the Hindu nation geographically and historically. Now Gandhi considers the very nationhood of India coming out as part of the Hinduness.

Aurobindo Aurobindo

The Savarkar-Ambedkar Definition

When in 1923, Vinayak Damodar (“Veer”) Savarkar was writing his concise treatise (Hindutva, also Essentials of Hindutva), he was in an unenviable position. On the one hand, the traditionalists as well as anti-Hindus, were trying to insist that the caste system was the distinguishing feature of Hinduness. This view also had tactful British support.

The Congress leadership was fast gravitating from cultural nationalism towards territorial nationalism with appeasement of pan-Islamic forces through the Khilafat movement. The idea that Hindus are merely another religious community like the Abrahamic religions was gaining currency. Even those who recognized the unique nature of Hinduness paid lip service to it in the form of ethereal utopian dreams but seldom realized the dangers Hindus faced on the ground.

Religion as a category predominantly meant Abrahamic religions. The term “nation” was construed mainly as nation-state as Europe understood it. Above all, there was the idea of race as a biological entity. In fact, at that time the Aryan invasion theory was axiomatic and was accepted as factual. (Only Swami Vivekananda, Dr B.R. Ambedkar and Sri Aurobindo had questioned the validity of this theory.) It was in such a circumstance that Savarkar set out to define Hindutva as a means to salvage the holistic and unique legacy of Hindus and make them aware of their place in the world community.

Savarkar rejected the Aryan race as the basis of Hinduness. He strongly rejected the idea of pure races. He rejected the orthodox stand of the Vedas as the basis of Hinduness. He also rejected varna or caste system as the common basis of Hinduness:

“All institution is meant for the society, not the society or its ideal for an institution. The system of four varnas may disappear when it has served its end or ceases to serve it, but will that make our land a Mlechchadesha—a land of foreigners? The sanyasis, the Arya Samajis, the Sikhs and many others do not recognize the system of the four castes and yet are they foreigners? God forbid! They are ours by blood, by race, by country, by God. ‘Its name is Bharat and the people are Bharati’ is a definition 10 times better because truer than that. We, Hindus, are all one and a nation, because chiefly of our common blood—Bharati Santati.”

Ultimately, his definition is predicated by the allegiance to the sacred geography of India. This definition was given by Savarkar in 1939 based on his 1923 work. In this he states:

“Every person is a Hindu who regards and owns this Bharat Bhumi, this land from the Indus to the Seas, as his Fatherland as well as his Holyland; i.e. the land of the origin of his religion, the cradle of his Faith. The followers therefore of Vaidicism, Sanatanism, Jainism, Buddhism, Lingaitism, Sikhism, the Arya Samaji, the Brahmasamaj, the Devasamaj, the Prarthana Samaji and such other religions of Indian origin are Hindus and constitute Hindudom, the Hindu people as a whole.

Consequently the so-called aboriginal or hill tribes also are Hindus: because India is their Fatherland as well as their Holyland of whatever form of religion or worship they follow. This definition, therefore, should be recognized by the Government and made the test of Hindutva in enumerating the population of Hindus in the Government census to come.”

Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar who would later become the chief architect of the Indian Constitution, in his book Thoughts on Pakistan, where he critically examined the alternative Savarkar proposes for Pakistan, was very much impressed by Savarkar’s definition:

“This definition of the term Hindu has been framed with great care and caution. It is designed to serve two purposes which Mr Savarkar has in view, Firstly, to exclude from it Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Jews by producing the recognition of India as a holy land in the qualifications required for being a Hindu. Secondly to include Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, etc by not insisting upon belief in the sanctity of the Vedas as an element in the qualifications.”

Perhaps it was this influence which later made Dr Ambedkar adopt a similar legal definition of the term “Hindu” in his celebrated and controversial Hindu Code Bill: “…to all persons professing the Hindu religion in any of its forms or developments, including Virashaivas or Lingayatas and members of the Brahmo, the Prarthana or the Arya Samaj; (b) to any person who is a Buddhist, Jaina or Sikh by religion.”

The definition is both Indic-centred and accommodative of pluralism with an inherent check towards creation of monocultures. The definitions eschew the traditionalist emphasis on the Vedas as authoritative scriptures and on birth-based caste system. Yet, the Marxist-Nehruvian school of thought which has had a State-sponsored stranglehold on the social science discourse in the post-independence India has an inbuilt aversion for anything Indic. It continues the British colonialist legacy which aimed to associate Hinduism either with caste—particularly the so-called “upper caste”—and race (usually the Aryan race) or with British “construction of India” or with both.

Syndicated Brahmanism?

In this context, during the Hindu revival of late 1980s and early 1990s, the article by Prof Romila Thapar sets the major tone for what can be called the “colonial-upper-caste-construction of Hinduism” school.

Prof Thapar, a Marxist historian promoted by the Nehruvian school, argues that modern Hinduism is essentially a colonial upper caste construct of a bygone period,  which ought to become extinct, having outlived whatsoever purpose for which it was created. The article contains passages which seem to project “pre-modern Hinduism” as more pluralistic than the so-called “syndicated Hinduism”, but the author demonizes the former too as discriminatory (Syndicated Hinduism a Dangerous New Fundamentalism, Frontline, September 24, 1993):

“Dharma now became the key concept.. But, the significance of dharma was that it demarcated sharply between the upper castes—the dvija or twice born—for whom it was the core of the religion and the rest of society who were regarded as neither requiring nor practicing any dharma; they were adharma in every sense of the word…The attempt today in trying to redefine Hinduism is the implicit attempt to hold up dharma of the Dharmashastras as essential to…even those traditionally regarded as adharma.”

After stating that “Hindu” was “a term of administrative convenience when the rulers of Arab, Turkish, Afghan and Mughal origin—all Muslims, had to differentiate between ‘the believers’ and the rest”. She traces the evolution of the term and related phenomenon thus:

“The European adoption of the term ‘Hindu’ gave it further currency as also the attempts of Catholic and Protestant Christian missionaries to convert the Hindu/Gentoo to Christianity…Added to this was the contribution of Orientalist scholars who interpreted the religious texts from their own viewpoint which furthered the notion of ‘Hinduism’…The ‘Hindu’ institutions…came largely to cater to the upper castes and legislated (on the occasions when they did) were not concerned with the beliefs, rituals and practices of such castes so long as they  remained in a subordinate status…Of the social groups most closely associated with power the upper caste were the genitors of the new middle class and among them, initially, Brahmans were significant. Inevitably, the Brahminical base of what was seen as the new Hinduism was no unavoidable. But merged into it were various bits and pieces from upper caste belief and ritual with one eye on the Christian and Islamic models. Its close links with certain nationalist opinion gave to many of these neo-Hindu movements a political edge which remains recognizable even today.

It is this development which was the parent to the present-day Syndicated Hinduism which is being pushed forward as the sole claimant to the inheritance of indigenous Indian religions…Social and economic inequality was a given fundamental of Brahmanism and whether one approves or disapproves of it. It was an established point of view…Whatever political justification there might have been for this development, as a form of nationalist assertion under British rule, no longer exists.”

Apart from the empirically wrong assertion that the so-called non-“upper caste” populations in India were categorized as adharma, the author obsessively identifies “Hindu” with “upper caste” ethos and axiomatic inequality of society supposedly at the core of the phenomenon of Hinduism, both “syndicated” and “pre-modern”, an ambiguous distinction with blurred edges invented by the author herself.

While both ancient and medieval India had many communities outside the varna system, the Indic scriptures show a consistency towards respect for these communities and recognize the inherent values of their spiritual traditions. Not that there were no Smriti or the Dharmashastra-based injunctions against those outside the varna system.
But counteracting such Smriti injunctions were equally strong egalitarian movements which can be seen well placed within the corpus of the scriptures of Hinduism, usually with their roots in the Upanishads.

And whether it was Vivekananda or Sri Aurobindo or Vallalar, they appealed not to the socially stagnant Smritis but to the socially emancipating injunctions of the Upanishads and their legacy that can be traced throughout.

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