The Caustic Reformer: How Savarkar Became Unpopular Among A Section Of Hindus
In this extract from Vaibhav Purandare’s biography of Savarkar, the author describes how his subject’s utterances for the sake of Hindu reform often rubbed Hindus themselves the wrong way.
Savarkar, The True Story of the Father of Hindutva. Vaibhav Purandare. Juggernaut Books. 360 pages. Rs 599.
Some others were not so queasy. One enthusiastic participant at these dinners was the singer and stage artiste Dinanath Mangeshkar. The impresario had recently developed a friendship with Savarkar, and he visited the internee off and on with his family in tow. Savarkar in particular looked forward to the scrumptious vegetarian pulao that Dinanath’s wife, Shevanti, better known as ‘Mai’, brought for him every time.
On one such visit, Dinanath decided to take his five-year-old daughter Lata along for one of Savarkar’s inter-caste dinners. Her regard and affection for Savarkar notwithstanding, Mai was reluctant to send the girl along, Lata Mangeshkar said.
‘She’s so small. Why take her there?’ the concerned mother asked. First, those dinners were mostly male affairs; second, children who had barely started school were hardly ever made part of the proceedings; and third, partaking of the food there was likely to make anyone unpopular, as most Hindus were still firmly in the grip of orthodoxy. ‘Baba [father] would not hear of it. He told my mother, “She needs to know right now what Savarkar is doing and why it’s so necessary,”’ Lata said, recollecting how she ended up becoming perhaps the youngest member of the Savarkar squad at the time.
Savarkar’s sphere of influence in the matter of caste stood severely restricted by the geographical limits the Raj had set for him. Two other Indian leaders, Ambedkar and Gandhi, engaged in a similar anti-caste fight at the same time, had enormous arenas to work in. Their political star, too, was in the ascendant, while Savarkar’s had declined considerably. Perhaps he hoped that his star would also rise once he was freed. Naturally the other two exerted a wider and far more powerful influence on societal currents.
All three leaders had different approaches to ending untouchability. Gandhi wished to raise all castes to the same level but was hesitant to demolish varnashrama (the system of four broad castes); for some years he would not even endorse inter-caste dining. Savarkar favoured a wipe-out of the caste order as it was iniquitous and, equally key for him, precluded unity among the Hindus. As for the Vedas, Puranas and Upanishads, he was of the opinion that the Hindus needed to ‘respectfully’ place these sacred texts in their closets and pick up science books instead.
The approach appeared contradictory, for at the same time he distributed Hindu religious texts to the lower castes and made the opening up of temples a significant feature of his movement, but that was more to make them feel Hindu so they would be part of the Hindu nation as he had envisaged it.
Ambedkar initially promoted both temple entry and inter-caste dining but, having suffered caste discrimination himself, unlike Savarkar he gradually realized these steps were inadequate and concluded that only a rejection of the Shastras would bring about the annihilation of caste. He had no interest in forging some kind of cohesive Hindu front either, though he was as sternly critical of Islam as he was of Hinduism.
Yet Ambedkar and Savarkar did think similarly on at least two issues. Both considered Gandhi’s piety as showmanship rather than sincerity and, as admirers of western education, were thoroughly impatient with his viewpoint on science, surgery, technology and urban life being essentially negative forces. Both showed a genuine appreciation for each other’s work despite obvious differences.
It was Ambedkar, a leader who had triggered controversy by the torching of the Manusmriti on 25 December 1927 at Mahad, whom Savarkar had originally invited to preside over the opening of the Patit Pavan mandir in 1931. Ambedkar, based in Mumbai, said he would not be able to make it because of an earlier commitment but wrote to Savarkar that ‘I however wish to take this opportunity of conveying to you my appreciation of the work you are doing in the field of social reform. If the untouchables are to be part and parcel of Hindu society, then it is not enough to remove untouchability; for that matter you must destroy Chaturvarnya. I am glad that you are one of the very few who have realised this.’
When Ambedkar declared in 1935 that he was born a Hindu but would not die as one, Savarkar told him conversion would be of no help as neither Christianity nor Islam would provide equality to the Depressed Classes. As proof of his assertion, he pointed to the violence that had just broken out between ‘touchable’ and ‘untouchable’ Christians in Travancore. He was sure that untouchability was on its way out. He suggested that Ambedkar should ‘fight out valiantly for equality by the side of the progressive Hindus’.
For someone who envisioned a Hindu ‘sangathan’, though, Savarkar did not endear himself to the majority with his attempts at reform from within. There weren’t too many progressive Hindus around and the rest, including those willing to embrace piecemeal change, were increasingly finding his relentless assault on ritual and time-honoured practices hard to digest.
In April 1929 a group of furious orthodox Hindus tried to break up a meeting called by him in Ratnagiri’s Vithoba temple, dedicated to Lord Vithal of Pandharpur. Afterwards, Savarkar’s act of garlanding and touching the feet of a Mahar and his wife after they had recited kirtans in the temple – until then only Brahmans could sing kirtans and expect obeisance – sent shock waves among higher-caste groups. They sent to the provincial governor a plea saying Savarkar be barred from carrying out ‘anti-Hindu acts’ and be asked to leave their district.
Savarkar’s essay on cow worship, and above all his suggestion that Hindus need not shy away from cow slaughter if their survival was at stake, caused much heartburn, as did his other writings and pronouncements.
For instance, he was openly scornful of a sadhu who, in the early 1930s, declared he had covered the distance between two of Hinduism’s holiest sites, Prayag and Hardwar, by prostrating himself and crawling slowly along on his belly. The sadhu touted this as an act of sacrifice for the gods, but Savarkar saw this as bizarre. He sarcastically asked who had indeed been closer to God, considering almost all religions said that God was in the heavens above – someone who was attempting to build an airplane or fly in it or someone desperate to turn himself into a maggot.
In another instance, he mocked Lehri Maharaj, again a self-styled saint based in Nasik. The oddly named godman – Lehri means eccentric – announced, in the wake of the 1934 Bihar earthquake, that to rid humanity of such disasters, he would soon release 11 lakh carefully made balls of flour, with a chit containing Ram’s name embedded in each of them, into the waters of the Ganga.
Wondering how all that flour was going to reach God, Savarkar said the mouths of the fishes and frogs who would ultimately consume it were not post offices from where to dispatch letters to the Lord and advised the godman to distribute 11 lakh quinine tablets instead to ‘farmers, children and others’ afflicted with malaria.
His distancing from the general populace proceeded apace as his attacks, including the busting of long-held myths, signaled to many that Savarkar was galloping towards atheism – and that he was not good-naturedly trying to cleanse the Hindu faith of its more obscurantist elements.
Another example of this drift from the general Hindu populace can be seen from the following story. The thirteenth century saint Dnyaneshwar or Dnyandeo looms large over western India’s religious and cultural landscape as a pioneer of the Bhakti movement and child prodigy who breathed vitality into the Marathi language.
He is at the heart of the annual pilgrimage to Vithal or Vithoba of Pandharpur, undertaken by half a million people annually to this day in much the same way Sabarimala draws great crowds in southern India and Puri in Odisha every year. Stories of how Dnyandeo miraculously moved a wall after being challenged by a tiger-riding yogi and got a buffalo to recite the Vedas have been narrated in most homes in the Marathi-speaking regions for centuries.
They are metaphorical – the speaking buffalo indicated that the Vedas were no one’s monopoly and that all life was divine, and the second shows faith can move mountains. Savarkar was dismissive of the tales. If Dnyandeo had moved walls and got a buffalo to recite sacred texts, why hadn’t he erected a gigantic wall to block the path of Allauddin Khilji who invaded in the same period and ensured the buffalo sent out timely warnings about the invasion instead, Savarkar asked.
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