Amidst the noisy debate on intolerance that marked the political discourse this year, one voice has been conspicuously absent — that of the Hindu obviously steeped in the tradition. Of course, a large number of Hindus, at least nominal Hindus, have spoken out against the growing climate of bigotry and chauvinism — Nayantara Sahgal, Kailash Satyarthi, P.M. Bhargava, N.R. Narayana Murthy, Raghuram Rajan, Admiral Ramdas and now the new Chief Justice of India T.S. Thakur, to name a few. However, none of them appears to be a tilak-sporting, shloka-chanting, bhajan-singing, puja-performing, pilgrimage-going, observant Hindu. Rather, they are exactly the sort of urban, secularised, English-speakers that the proponents of Hindutva scorn as “inauthentic” in terms of their Hindu roots.
Indeed, most of India’s liberal Hindus would confess that they are Hindu, if at all, mainly in a vaguely spiritual and philosophical sense and have little understanding of Hinduism’s history or scriptures and no truck with its many rituals, symbols and observances. Their liberal sentiments are rooted largely in their own cosmopolitan
experience and, at best, a homegrown understanding of the Hindu tradition absorbed from the family milieu rather than anchored in the texts and tenets of Hinduism. Of course, the more eclectically read can trot out a supportive quotation or two from the Gita, but their plural and tolerant understanding of Hinduism is instinctive rather than intellectual.
Sadly, however, this well-meaning guff is simply not going to cut it. The misguided rants of the RSS, Sangh Parivar and the rest of the Hindutva brigade have to be delegitimised from deep within Hinduism — by wielding the texts, idioms, history and practices of the Hindu tradition, rather than the liberal and secular values of the European Enlightenment. Hindutva can only be countered by showing it up as “un-Hindu”.
This is easier said than done. No Hindu religious leader of any consequence — not one of the hordes of gurus and mahants supposedly immersed in the tradition and, therefore, able to authoritatively represent its core values — has spoken out against the rampant distortions of Hinduism that are currently being propagated. On the contrary, many have implicitly condoned or are explicitly riding the Hindutva bandwagon. Sadly, there is no Swami Vivekananda around to once again articulate an ecumenical vision for Hinduism — “a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance”, as he memorably put it at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893.
What, then, are liberal Hindus to do?
Gandhi provides a model. This London-educated barrister saw the profound social, cultural, intellectual and political influence exerted by Hindu religiosity and spirituality on Indians and understood the importance of expressing his political ideals — be it ahimsa, satyagraha, or sarvodaya — in a Hindu idiom to mobilise the masses. He realised that Hinduism was too important to be left to Hindu religious leaders. Instead of looking to them, Gandhi engaged with the texts and traditions himself. He was thus able to draw credibly on the Isopanishad, which he interpreted as endorsing “universal brotherhood” and “the doctrine of equality of all creatures on earth”, the Bhagavad Gita, of which he published a Gujarati translation and commentary, the Tulsi Ramayana and his family’s Vaishnava heritage to articulate a vision of an independent India based on religious pluralism. Equally, by his knowledgeable references to the Sermon on the Mount and the teachings of the Buddha and Mahavira, or his use of the Surah Fatiha from the Quran in his daily prayer services, or by popularising the version of Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram that included a reference to Allah, Gandhi was able to walk his secular talk while remaining a devout Hindu throughout his life.
Equally, by his knowledgeable references to the Sermon on the Mount and the teachings of the Buddha and Mahavira, or his use of the Surah Fatiha from the Quran in his daily prayer services, or by popularising the version of Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram that included a reference to Allah, Gandhi was able to walk his secular talk while remaining a devout Hindu throughout his life.
Of course, Gandhi’s moral sway waned in his latter years and he was viewed by many Muslims as having gone overboard in his use of Hindu idioms such as Ram rajya and Bharat mata and in his enthusiasm for cow protection.
Ultimately, the horrific communal massacres that blighted Partition made a mockery of what Gandhi had stood for, but there is no question that his pluralist stance was critical in creating acceptance within the Hindu majority of an inclusive, non-sectarian ethos within the independence movement and post-Independence India.
After Independence, however, the prevailing Nehruvian ethos of secular modernity meant that Hinduism found no place in the country’s mainstream political or intellectual life. Neither the Congress nor the Left had the inclination or cultural confidence to follow Gandhi’s lead and integrate Hindu idioms and ideals into their discourse, while the Hindu tradition was left out of school curriculums and not taken seriously by universities (unlike, say, Christianity, whose doctrines and development are rigorously researched and critiqued in theology departments at the best Western universities, be it Oxford or Harvard).
Educated, urban Hindus gradually lost their connection with the tradition. Few have read the core Hindu scriptures and fewer know even the barest facts about the tradition’s historical evolution or the sources of its practices. Hinduism, for them, has become nothing more than an incoherent jumble of ungrounded and unintelligible rituals, observances and superstitions leavened by the occasional pleasures of celebrating a Diwali, listening to a Meera bhajan or reading the Hanuman Chalisa. How many times have we seen supposedly observant Hindus looking thoroughly bored or confused with the rites at their own wedding, let alone other religious occasions?
An environment in which even educated Hindus don’t know their Hinduism (in a critical and intellectual sense), even as the Hindu faith retains its pre-eminent sway over the masses, has become fertile ground for fanatical bigots.
Under the garb of saffron-clad, tilak-sporting piety, which ostensibly accords them the legitimacy to speak for Hindus, they can run around railroading the simplistic, monolithic pieties of Hindutva — whether on the cow, the role of women, or Rama — in support of a majoritarian political agenda.
Countering this poisonous discourse will require India’s liberals today to, like Gandhi, learn their Hinduism. Hinduism matters too much socially and politically to remain the preserve of sadhus and swamis and so-called Hindu leaders.
Secular Hindus need to engage seriously with Hinduism’s history, texts and living practices to articulate from within it an ethic of pluralism and tolerance that resonates in today’s India. Fundamental to this engagement is recognising the manifold variants of the tradition — the “Three Hundred Ramayanas” celebrated by the late poet and scholar A.K. Ramanujan in his essay that hardline Hindu groups succeeded in getting dropped from the history syllabus of Delhi University.
Exactly this sort of uninformed homogenisation of Hinduism leads, in a lighter vein, to my north Indian friends wishing me a happy new year on their Diwali, little realising that as a Tamil, I not only celebrate my new year in April but even my Diwali is celebrated according to a different calendar on a different day from the typical north Indian, and for a totally different reason (to mark the killing of the demonic Narakasura by Krishna’s consort, Sathyabhama, rather than the return of Rama to Ayodhya after defeating Ravana).
In sum, India’s liberals need to recognise that secularism and tolerance in a nation whose social and cultural fabric is woven largely from the multiple strands of the Hindu tradition is best protected by engaging with the majority religion rather than bypassing it. The diversity built into Hinduism’s very structure is itself the most sustainable underpinning for a plural polity that accommodates differences between the majority faith and other religions of the land, just as it accommodates enormous variations within Hinduism.