Hindutva As Hinduism’s Survival Guide, An Antidote To Abrahamic Imperialism

Hindutva As Hinduism’s Survival Guide, An Antidote To Abrahamic ImperialismA saffron flag (Vivek Joshi/Wikimedia)
Snapshot
  • As long as predatory and imperialist faiths continue to target Hinduism for surrender, conversion or reduction to vassal status, Hindutva is an essential part of the armoury.

This is the fifth part in the series on Hinduism, Hindutva and Hindu Rashtra. The previous four parts are here, here, here and here.

India’s “secular liberals” have gotten their knickers in a twist over the rise of “Hindutva” ideology. They have a right to fear its rise, for it threatens their ideological hegemony, but their arguments to debunk the idea are completely illogical.

In this part of the series on Hindu Rashtra, we will discuss their arguments, especially the main one that Hindutva is not Hinduism.

We shall also attempt to define Hindutva in a way that is not reductionist, which is what its critics would like to do. They would like the term to be associated only with mob lynching or hate speech.

A third element of this article will be to establish a need for the Hindutva project, and its positive and potentially negative angles. Overall, I would like to emphasise that, warts and all, Hindutva may be more beneficial than diverse and disunited Hinduism with no coherent structure beyond caste.

Congress member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, who wrote not one but two books on Hinduism (Why I am a Hindu, and The Hindu Way), is one of those “liberals” who hopes that Hinduism and Hindutva will be mortal enemies.

I read his first book with great interest to understand how Tharoor discovered his Hindu-ness, but half way through the book you realise that he daubs saffron on his sun shades only to mark out Hindutva as a villain. (For a detailed review of his book, read here). The whole point of the book is to explain what is not Hinduism. He thinks Hindutva is an assault on Hinduism.

A simple way to debunk this nonsense is this: when liberal Hinduism does not reduce religion to one particular set of beliefs – one book, one prophet, one son of god, or one set of fundamentals – to presume that one cannot be a votary of Hindutva while claiming Hindu-ness is logically fallacious. An idea can be antithetical to another only if you define both, and these definitions cannot be arbitrary or reductionist.

More recently, Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar falls into the same trap, and tries to differentiate Hinduism from Hindutva in a column in The Times of India.

Apparently riled by the abuse he got on Twitter for suggesting that the Ayodhya Ram Mandir is of no consequence to Hindus or Hinduism, he followed it up with another piece to make precisely this point. He wrote: “The media has tom-tommed the bhoomi pujan of the Ram temple as a major event for all Hindus. Sorry, but it is an event for Hindutva, not Hinduism.”

In support of this argument he trots out his mother’s beliefs. She apparently spent the last two decades of her life as a sanyasin at the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh, which made her “a devout Hindu”. Aiyar also tells us – she isn’t there to confirm this claim – that she would have decried the destruction of the Babri Masjid as the handiwork of “thugs”, “a disgrace to all that was good and great in Hinduism”.

Let us, for starters, ignore the hypocrisy of someone who thinks of himself as an atheist to extol the virtues of some parts of the faith he left as “good and great”. It’s the lion singing the praises of veganism to cock a snook at vegetarianism.

Then he talks about Vinayak Savarkar’s Hindutva, which was not about religion at all. “Savarkar strongly opposed traditional Hindu beliefs and viewed Hindutva as a politico-cultural rather than religious project. He hated Muslims.

In some speeches he called himself an atheist, though more correctly he rejected the old Sanatan Dharma and sought a major modernisation of Hinduism. He said there was nothing sacred about cows and advised Hindus to give up vegetarianism.

Savarkar’s biographer, Dhananjay Keer, points out that when his wife died, despite entreaties by his followers, he refused to allow any Hindu rituals. I wish the Hindutva trolls would highlight this.”

Again, let us ignore Aiyar’s put-down in referring to his critics as Hindutva “trolls” (after all, can someone who believes in Hindutva be anything but a troll?), and focus on his illogic.

If he can, half-approvingly, bracket himself and Savarkar as atheists, and define Hindutva as a “politico-cultural project rather than religious project”, why should he assume that there is no intersection between the two, the religious and the politico-cultural?

Can a temple-going Hindu not believe in the Hindutva project, too? If he can believe that a Hindu can be secular, surely he should be able to conceive of a Hindu who is politically keen to seek a broader identity under the head Hindutva?

If Hinduism is a broad enough tent to house all kinds of beliefs (and disbeliefs) and ideological inclinations, why should it be seen as inimical to Hindutva, which may be one dimension of Hindu-ness? It may not be shared by all Hindus, but that does not make it any less Hindu in character.

It is as pointless to claim that Hindutva is not Hinduism as it is to suggest that modern Christianity has nothing to do with Jesus. There are good reasons to believe this, since the Catholic church was the creation of St Paul, not Christ. Latter-day versions of Christianity, from Anglo-Saxon Protestantism to Latin American liberation theologists, can hardly claim to be Christians when Jesus offered no clarifications on who can call himself or herself his follower.

The same can be said of Islam or Sikhism or Buddhism. The Prophet could not have imagined that his politico-religious ideology would be explained by his followers through the Hadith and the Sunnah, and that entirely different theologies – Shi-ism, Bahai-ism, and Ahmaddiya-ism – would blaze new trails of their own.

Guru Gobind Singh’s Sikhism is different from Guru Nanak’s, and the Buddha never even intended to establish a new religion – only a different way of dealing with the world, based on enlightenment and acceptance of suffering. But the bust of Buddha is now the world’s most replicated icon after that of Jesus Christ on the Cross and various Hindu gods in various avatars and incarnations.

The question that arises is this: why has it become necessary to demonise Hindutva? Why does Hindutva send shivers down the spines of “secular liberals”?

The answer is Orientalism – the need to deconstruct a land and its peoples into a sum of the parts rather than the whole. The author of the book Orientalism, Edward Said, used the term to define the contemptuous Western attitudes to things Eastern, especially Islam. This attitude now pervades Western Indology, and its allies in India’s “Left-liberal” world.

This obviously makes it easier for expansionist and imperialist faiths like Christianity and Islam to make inroads into Hinduism, which is precisely the result Hindutva would seek to deny them.

Current attempts to deny Hindutva legitimacy have been preceded by wholesale attempts to even deny that there was anything called Hinduism before colonial scholars started dissecting the indigenous faiths and practices of the people they ruled over.

In the Orientalist view, India became a political and social reality only after it was conquered, first by Muslim invaders and later by British colonialists.

This is obviously untrue, but the fear that writing the whole truth about India’s past will somehow strengthen Hindus and Hindu nationalism runs deep among India’s “secular-liberal” intellectuals like Tharoor and Aiyar above and Western Indologists and academicians in general.

Take Harvard’s professor of comparative religion and Indian studies, Diana Eck, who wrote India: A Sacred Geography. The author beautifully defines India as a “land linked not by the power of kings and governments, but by the footsteps of pilgrims.” This is pretty much what the late Radha Kumud Mookerji said in his books, The Fundamental Unity of India, and Nationalism in Hindu Culture. Mookerji saw the unique Hindu institution of the pilgrimage as the invisible thread binding Hindus to one another despite living under different political dispensations.

And yet, in the very first chapter, Eck frets over whether this cultural unity is going to feed Hindu nationalism.

She writes:

This is a book about India, the pilgrim’s India. For a time, I was discouraged about the writing of it, fearing that somehow the image of a sacred geography enlivened by the presence of the gods and interlinked through the circulation of pilgrims would further feed the fervour of an exclusive new Hindu nationalism.

It is appalling that a scholar should be concerned that her truth will help someone she dislikes, instead of merely focusing on telling the story as she sees it. It is a westerner’s attempt to sit in judgement on how Hindus should see themselves, or what they must do (or not do) to preserve their heritage and unity in the face of challenges.

Today’s “secular liberals” are thus playing the same role as sepoys of Western imperialism – both the Indologist and academic writers – who want to limit what Hindutva or Hindu-ness should mean for Hindus.

This brings us to the basic question: what really is Hindutva? How is it different, or not different, from the word Hindu?

Hindutva can be differentiated from the word Hindu only in the sense that it is not about the practice of religious rites and rituals, or how any Hindu should interpret his faith or practices. You can go to temples, perform pujas, sing bhajans, or eat sattvic foods as is your normal practice, and you can still call yourself a votary of Hindutva.

You can be a Hindutva-vadi even if you do none of those things – as was the case with Savarkar, and even today’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS believes in Guru Purnima and rashtra bhakti, but seldom participates in popular Hindu festivals like Diwali or Holi, and many Sangh swayamsevaks do not even think of temple-going as an essential activity for a demonstration of their Hindu identity.

What we are getting at is this: Hindutva can be many things, but it is essentially an attempt to build a unifying identity – social, cultural and political – for all those who call themselves Hindus. It is an attempt to break out of the caste-straitjacket, something that has always left Hindus vulnerable to proselytisation and evisceration from within.

Rajiv Malhotra, who sees himself as an “Intellectual Kshatriya” battling to save Hinduism from being hijacked by Orientalists, Western Indologists and their sepoys in India, sees Hindutva as some kind of “political Hinduism.”

Sankrant Sanu, author of The English Medium Myth, is a researcher, entrepreneur and book publisher who works out of Seattle and Gurgaon. His definition of Hindutva is Hinduism that resists.

Walter Andersen, author of two of most authoritative books on the RSS (his latest, The RSS: A View To The Inside, was co-authored with Shridhar Damle), explains the Hindutva dilemma thus: “Hindutva’s core value is the unity of Hindus. But Hindus’ hierarchical caste system stands in the way of that.”

What Andersen does not spell out, since he too thinks Hinduism may be inimical to Hindutva, is the obvious reality that Hindutva is the only logical way to reduce the impact of caste discrimination and hierarchy.

In that sense, it is an attempt to create a monocultural connect between Hindu groups so that caste does not turn out to be a self-destructive form of diversity that makes Hinduism incapable of defending itself against its enemies and rivals.

At this stage, we need to digress into a discussion on monotheism and how it has been a necessary institution for the spread of imperialism and Western universalism. We need to discuss this because monotheistic ideas are essential for religious and temporal forms of imperialism, and imperialism can only be countered through nationalism and some forms of cultural unity – which is what the Hindutva project is all about.

The link between monotheism and imperialism was first made by the father of Western psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, in his book on Moses and Monotheism.

In an earlier discussion on this topic in another publication (Daily News & Analysis or DNA, read here), I had drawn on Freud’s analysis to explain why empire-builders and imperialists needed monotheism to consolidate power.

I wrote:

All tribal societies were polytheistic. The first attempt to introduce monotheism dates back to 1375 BC, when Amenhotep IV of Egypt declared Aton, the original sun god, as the one and only true god. Amenhotep’s monotheism wasn’t driven purely by theology. His Egyptian empire was growing. Under him were different peoples with different gods. To rule, he needed a universal god.

Freud, in his book on Moses and Monotheism, said: “Imperialism was reflected in religion as universality and monotheism,” adding, “Religious intolerance, which was foreign to antiquity before this and long after, was inevitably born with the belief in one god.”

To quote again from my DNA article:

History offers us several confirmatory examples (of the link between monotheism, empire, imperialism and intolerance). After the council of Nicea in 325 AD, Constantine the Great had all alternative versions of the Bible junked in order to consolidate his power. The prophet of Islam opted for monotheism for the same reason. If people worshipped all kinds of gods, there was no hope in hell that they would work together. Once the rival gods were eliminated, Islam was unstoppable. Akbar, the Great, had much the same idea when he tried to create a composite religion (Din-e-elahi). He issued an ‘infallibility decree’ (mahzar) which said that if, in future, any questions arose relating to religious laws and their interpretation, he alone would be the final deciding authority. He got several senior ulema to sign this decree.

Hitler’s third Reich had the slogan, Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Furhrer. The only thing missing was Ein Gott – One God, or monotheism. Authoritarianism and intolerance need you to believe in one idea – and one idea only. And Abrahamic monotheisms – which believe only they have the right God and his Word must rule all corners of the world -– are nothing but imperialisms masquerading as universalisms.

The dilemma facing Hindus is this: to confront a universalist, imperialist and predatory idea, you cannot remain perennially divided and plural with no unity to support your independence. This means sacrificing some of the plurality and divisiveness inherent to Hinduism.

Hindutva is an attempt to retain some plurality under the unifying banner of an over-arching “Hindu” identity. Beneath that identity, you can still be anything you want to be. It is a compromise between monotheism and polytheism – and an essential condition for Hindu survival.

An independent kirana shop can never win against a Walmart or Amazon. It can choose to join one of those business ecosystems and play second fiddle, living by their rules, and survive. It can never exist on its own terms.

Hindutva is the only weapon Hindus have to defeat caste-based divisiveness and disunity. Hindutva is a refusal to privilege disunity over unity.

As long as predatory and imperialist faiths continue to target Hinduism for surrender, conversion or reduction to vassal status, Hindutva is an essential part of the armoury.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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