Narendra Modi, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has just ridden in to power at the head of the biggest democracy in the world. This has naturally created some apprehension in the minds of liberal thinkers, because the BJP is known for its rejection of secularism (which it calls “pseudosecularism”) and wholesale advocacy of Hindutva (“Hindu-ness”), a term coined by V. D. Savarkar. To be fair, however, he did not mean any kind of fundamentalism by the word – from Wikipedia, in Savarkar’s own words:
Hindutva is not a word but a history. Not only the spiritual or religious history of our people as at times it is mistaken to be … but a history in full … Hindutva embraces all the departments of thought and activity of the whole Being of our Hindu race.
In this sense, Hindutva means only being Indian in the true sense; accepting its multi-flavoured culture while at the same time recognising that there is a common thread which unites us all, rather like beads of different colours and size being strung together on to make a necklace. Indians were called Hindus by the Persians, because they occupied the land beyond the Sindhu (Indus) river. It was a term more geographical than religious, and used in this sense, there is nothing objectionable in it.
But is “Indian” and “Hindu” synonymous in the current historical context? Unfortunately, I will have to say no.
Even though Hindus like to call their religion the Sanatana Dharma (“Eternal Law”), there is nothing eternal about it – it is a mixture of the beliefs of the Aryans who migrated to India around 1700 B.C.E, and the indigenous people of the subcontinent. Over a period of time, the mythologies of the nomadic and warlike Aryans melded and merged with a kaleidoscope of local beliefs to create the rich tapestry we know by the name “Hinduism” today. There is no standard textbook for it, nor is there any standard ritual. What may be sacred for Hindus in one part of India may be the most heinous sin in other parts.
However, over a period of time, this religion took on an organised structure, and in terms of humanitarian principles, one of the worst ever in the history of world religions – the hierarchy of caste. Brahmins ruled over this mega structure without contributing anything to society (except esoteric “learning”) while the actual working class was thrown out of the social framework altogether: they were considered too “unclean” even to touch. The lowest stratum of society lived on in abject poverty while working themselves to death, while the top layer enjoyed life without doing a day’s productive work.
One can argue that this was the condition of humanity in almost all human societies in the ancient and medieval world, and one would be right. However, what set the Indian society apart was that this structure was doomed to stasis. Since caste was inherited, there was no way to escape from its tyranny in this life – so Hindus posited multiple lives in which the soul will be born again and again, either higher up or lower down in the hierarchy depending upon how virtuous one was in the current life. And the yardstick of virtuousness was how one adhered to the “Dharma” of one’s caste. So the maintenance of the status quo was firmly established. The Manu Smriti (“Laws of Manu”) sets forth the “ISO standard” (so to say!) for this system.
I do not know how such a non-egalitarian society came into being, or how a small minority was able to lord it over a huge majority for such a long time without the use of force. But it happened.
The Philosophical Aspect
Indians always had the tendency to run away from public life and meditate. So it is not unusual that while producing one of the most unfair societies, India also produced some of the world’s deepest philosophies. The sages went to the forest and meditated, and came up with one of the most advanced notions of God ever formulated – that of the Brahman. The Brahman, which may be roughly translated as “World Soul”, is the be-all and end-all of everything, the bedrock of all existence. Individual Atman (soul, consciousness) comes from it, and goes back to it after death. It is without time or space, containing everything, and finding expression in everything. The ultimate end of any Hindu is the realisation of Aham Brahma Asmi (“I am the Brahman”) or Tat Tvam Asi (“Thou Art That”), as found in the Upanishads.
It is interesting to note that such a lofty philosophy existed side by side with a religion which was extremely cruel in its treatment of human beings: and that too, without conflict. Indeed, when the Buddha turned this philosophy on its head and said that there was no Atman or Brahman, it was also assimilated into Indian culture – and the Buddha was turned into an incarnation of Vishnu! This is the strength of this religion, this assimilatory nature: pluralism is inbuilt. This is why Hindus and Hinduism have continued even under trying times.
As Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita: “People the world over worship me in different forms. Ultimately they all come to me.”
You can’t get more inclusive than that.
The Coming of Christianity and Islam
The coming of the Levantine religions to India was also relatively peaceful. Christianity and Islam came to the Malabar Coast via the trade routes. According to all historical records, the rulers of Kerala gave these people land and the permission to build places of worship, and also to proselytise and spread their religion: this happened when bloody wars were being fought in the name of God elsewhere in the world.
The entry of Islam to northern India was a bit more problematic, as it was brought in by warlike tribes from Asia and not peaceful Arab traders as it happened in Kerala. Under waves and waves of invasions by Muslim warlords, and the reigns of various Muslim dynasties, there is sure to have been bad blood between Muslims and Hindus. The intolerance of Christian and Muslim rulers all over the world towards other religions is generally well-documented: there is no reason to assume it was different in India under Islamic rule. But we must not forget that religious tolerance is a relatively recent idea in history, before judging them; we must also note that even in such intolerant times, India produced an enlightened emperor like Akbar.
Secularism, the Indian Way
I have heard it repeated ad nauseam that it was the English that gave India the concept of a democratic and secular country. While this may be true in the case of democracy, I would beg to differ in the case of secularism – because secularism was practised in India much before this idea arose in the West.
I got the following definition from the web, from the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Secularism: the belief that religion should not play a role in government, education, or other public parts of society
Full Definition of SECULARISM: indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations
As one can see, secularism here is more concerned with the exclusion of religion from the public sphere. It is etymologically related to secularisation, which means “the transformation of a society from close identification with religious values and institutions toward nonreligious (or irreligious) values and secular institutions”(from Wikipedia): that is, a slow movement away from religion. Many scientists and progressive thinkers (Richard Dawkins being one vociferous example) in the West still believe that society will become fully atheistic in the future – they in fact see this as a desirable outcome. Secularism is seen as the first step to this Godless utopia.
I think Indian secularism is markedly different from this. It has its roots in the concept of Sarva Dharma Sama Bhavana as propounded by Gandhi – accepting the equality of all religions as valid pathways to enlightenment. Here, the state embraces all religions equally. It is driven by the principle of inclusion rather than exclusion – acceptance of all religions and appeasement of none.
The Resurgence of Hindutva
Unfortunately, the above principle would work only if all religions get enlightened. In India, it has led to minorities banding in communal terms and becoming vote banks, which politicians exploit. This has lead to dissatisfaction among the majority Hindus, which the BJP has been exploiting in a big way since 1989: twenty-five years hence, they have stormed into power.
The worrying factor here is the fact that the BJP’s interpretation of Hindutva is not one of inclusiveness. By calling Hinduism the Sanatana Dharma, they go back to Vedic Brahmanism with all its reactionary baggage. It is true that the caste hierarchy is condemned by the party, but the texts they consider sacred are the same ones which justified this system. The BJP’s requirement to accept the whole of Hindu thought and history per se as “true” and “sacred” precludes any critical review of the same – in this they are as bad as any Levantine religion. Only, they use the pluralism of Indian history very cleverly to promote the notion of “Hindu tolerance”. That they could do this while tearing down a religious edifice of another religion must be recorded as one of the ironies of Indian history.
To summarise: I do not reject the concept of Hindutva as “Indian-ness”. Rather, I consider it superior to Western secularism. But my notion of Hindutva embraces Charvaka, the atheist philosopher; it draws energy from the concept of Aham Brahma Asmi and Tat Tvam Asi of the Upanishads; it looks upon the Buddha and Adi Sankara with the same reverence. My concept rejects the Laws of Manu, which forced a king to kill a lower caste person for doing Sannyasa (the Hindu way of meditation and penance to attain enlightenment); it rejects the sentiments of a crazed mob which tore down a place of worship in the name of a mythical Hindu king who is hailed as “Maryada Purushottama” (a morally perfect human being).
I am an Indian, and a Hindu – and I stand by right to reject the Vedas, the “Holy” Scriptures, and “God” as defined by the pundits, and still remain a Hindu.
This is what “Hindutva” means to me.