I began teaching the Indian Political Thought course last summer with the usual introductory class on Brahmanic tradition. It began with a brief about how Vedism predates what later came to be called Hinduism, how it is the font of Hinduism and how the latter absorbed and synthesised religious ideas, puranic stories, non-theistic and Shramanik traditions.
I followed up with a question: What would be some of the defining features of Hinduism, or a Hindu way of life, as the students experienced and practised it? What emerged was both interesting and predictable. For every belief and practice that was cited, there seemed to be a validity of its exact opposite. You could be a Hindu and believe in one omnipotent being or worship many gods; you could be a part of a sect or you could be a devout Hindu and shun the deification of mortal humans; you could be a vegetarian or non-vegetarian; you could believe in animal sacrifice or be its fiercest critic; you could be a practitioner of ahimsa or not be its strict advocate; you could believe in the caste system or call for its annihilation.
What emerges from these apparently conflicting propositions is an idea of openness. As Jyotirmaya Sharma says: “Every Hindu decides what is Hinduism. That space ought to remain inviolable.” At times a particular space would be in sync with other ways of being Hindu but it could also be conflictual. But this plurality of gods and practices, norms and habits, cultures and castes, this multiplicity of belief-systems also poses an enormous challenge for projects of nationalism that seek a united, coherent imagination of one nation, one people.
From this challenge was born the ideology of Hindutva, first in the writings of V D Savarkar in 1923. It was taken forward by ideologues of the RSS, and its affiliates. Hindutva, as Savarkar wrote, is “not to be confused with the other conjugate term Hinduism. Hinduism is only a derivate, a fraction, a part of Hindutva.” Hinduism, therefore, is a belief system, a matter of faith, Hindutva, is a political ideology that uses Hinduism to fashion Hindu nationalism. It is, as Ashis Nandy says, “political Hinduism”. Hinduism and Hindutva are thus different, not to be conflated or confused with each other. There are at least three features of Hindutva that distinguish it from Hinduism.
First, Hindutva is a homogenising project that seeks to surmount the diversity of Hindu gods, scriptures, practices, rituals. It seeks to re-imagine India in terms of an essentialised similitude of one people, unified by a shared sense of being parts of a singular entity. M S Golwalkar wrote in his Bunch of Thoughts that the view upholding the so-called diversity in Hinduism was simply superficial and partial: “All the various castes, the various ways of worshipping god, the various languages are all expressions of one great homogeneous solid Hindu people — the children of this motherland.”
Second, the quest for homogeneity seeks prescription, of practices that can form the basis of this uniformity. Brahmanical conservatism, which today rules our social psyche like never before, is adopted as the adjudicator of what this homogenous culture should comprise of. Its influence is behind what is prescribed as sacred, pure, natural and sanskari or proscribed as profane, impure, unnatural and alien. For instance, consuming beef is an act of untold travesty, a sin that deserves severest of punishments, Durga is deemed sacred, while Mahishasur (the demon god of the Adivasis and Dalits) is regarded profane, gay sex is considered unnatural and allowing women of menstruating age entry into Sabarimala is offensive to the idea of purity and godly celibacy. Social relationships are disciplined, increasingly through the conservative lens of Brahmanical social values.
Third, Hindutva conflates the idea of religion with citizenship. It directly or indirectly subscribes to Savarkar’s theory in this respect. For Savarkar, India belonged to the Hindus because for Hindus alone India was both their pitribhu (fatherland) and punyabhumi (holyland). He goes on to say that “some of our Mohammedan or Christian… cannot be recognised as [this land] is not to them a Holyland. Consequently their names and their outlook smack of a foreign origin. Their love is divided”. Golwalkar too says: “In this land of ours, Bharat, the national life is of the Hindu People. In short, this is the Hindu nation.”
The RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat may have said that Golwalkar’s thoughts and prescriptions are not valid for all times to come and that Hindutva is an evolving and inclusive project. But the truth is that it is easier to expunge Golwalkar from rhetoric than it is to erase him from the social psyche and the practice of Hindutva. It is no accident that the rhetoric of inclusion is linked to the underlying unity of being a Hindu — “everyone living in India is a “Hindu”, asserted Bhagwat last year.
To say that the terms Hindu and Hindutva include Muslims and Christians is a peculiar invitation to citizenship. It demands a double consciousness based on a sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of the Hindu, always measuring one’s faith by the type of a world that looks on, at times in contempt and at times with pity but seldom as equals. Such conditional accommodation of other religions and cultures makes for a diversity that is hierarchical rather than plural. It is opposed to the idea of a composite nationhood, which may actually be possible if the majority were left alone to simply being practising Hindus.