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BY: Vamsee Juluri
Hindu culture has moved beyond the tribalistic politics of the 1980s and 1990s. It may be the beginning of what it means to be Hindu in a modern, diverse and global world.
The seemingly unstoppable ascent of Narendra Modi needs to be seen not simply as a resurgence in Hindu nationalism of the Ram Janmabhoomi kind but more broadly in relation to a profound generational and cultural change in how Hinduism is understood and lived today, a change that seems to have passed unnoticed.
Regardless of one’s views of Modi and his politics, one needs to recognise that everyday Hindu life and culture in this country have moved beyond the tribalistic identity politics of the 1980s and 1990s. It marks, perhaps, the beginning of a new sense of what it means to be Hindu in a modern, diverse, global, and indeed, secular world too. Its signs are mostly in the popular culture of the young, rather than in any serious commentary about Hinduism (and that, frankly, is a problem for the intellectual classes that needs to be addressed).
The signs of these new emerging sensibilities can be seen widely in the recent resurgence of mythology in the popular culture. The novels of Amish Tripathi, Anand Neelakantan, Ashwin Sanghi and others show us an essentially modern Hindu imagination rising to re-imagine the past. To merely dismiss all of this, as secular commentators often do, as the normalisation of Hindutva in Indian public culture, misses the depths of the new narratives about being Hindu (and Indian, generally) that are emerging. And in these new narratives, Hindus see themselves as neither purely spiritual and idealistic, nor entirely militant and tribal. But they are action-oriented. They just do it.
Tripathi’s Shiva, for example, is a fun-loving human, a “dude”, who struggles to earn his worthiness to bear the “Mahadev” image that has been foisted upon him. Neelakantan’s Ravana is as modern as any character in a good novel might get, deeply vulnerable to our sympathy, and a moral renegade at the same time. The days of simplistic good and bad sides, Devas and Asuras, and perhaps “good Hindus” and “bad others”, are gone; in our popular imagination, at least. It is a marked change in the forms and concerns of earlier popular depictions of mythology, especially the Doordarshan epics of the 1980s, which scholars argue directly or indirectly emphasised a historical, nationalistic narrative of Hinduism rather than a purely devotional one.
But the sensibilities of today’s mythological imagination are not entirely unproblematic on one important point which, coincidentally enough, given Modi’s promise, revolves around governance. Many of the characters in the new novels are fantastic technocrats; we continued…