Updated: December 23, 2021 11:44:18 am
In the aftermath of the overwhelming ascendancy of Hindutva, there is a temptation to counter it by juxtaposing Hinduism to Hindutva, the virtuous Hindu to the nasty Hindutvavadi. Rahul Gandhi has been harping on this theme. But this is also a new cultural zeitgeist. The temptation is understandable. It is better to align Hinduism with moral values than the discourse of blood and soil that Hindutva represents. Better to reclaim Hindu traditions as a way of gaining political legitimacy. But this temptation is historically myopic and morally confused.
This approach seems to want to settle the problem by definition. A true Hindu, you see, can never be intolerant or be tempted by power. The greatest Shiv bhakt of all time in Hindu tradition was Raavana. His Shiv Tandav Stotram is a most erumpent expression of both vikas and virasat: Glittering temples, the beneficence of Kuber, along with great yogic powers and insight. But he also engaged in adharmic acts, and let his ahamkara (ego) dominate everything else. Did it make him any less of a Shiv bhakt? No. Did being a Shiv bhakt prevent his adharma? No. The tradition understood this complexity. You cannot define people away by saying they are not a true Hindu. Both Gandhi and Godse are Hindus, just as Osama bin Laden and Mulla Sadra are both Muslims, just as Francis of Assisi or Pope Pius XI are Christians. Religion enshrines the highest beatitude. But it can also give succour to terror and violence. As any religious thinker knows, the same eros that pulls you towards the good can easily take a pathological form. You cannot get rid of Godse or Raavana by saying they are not Hindus. In fact, it is a cheap gesture of saying they are not our collective responsibility as well. And exactly who is this “Hindutvavadis are not Hindus” meant to persuade?
This approach requires sincerity, moral credibility and a grammar of action. The spouting of a claim “real Hinduism is tolerant” has become an easy meme. It has to be enacted in its exemplarity. Ramkrishna Paramhansa enacted this, living out several religious lives without contradiction or sacrifice of his devotion to the Mother. Gandhi could stand in the middle of unspeakable violence and exercise moral force, not just understanding but bearing the pain of others. Even that benighted Hindu, Jawaharlal Nehru, could jump into a crowd and admonish communal hate mongers. But who performs that role now? Week after week, namaz in Gurgaon is being disturbed. Let us be clear that the Hindu hooligans disturbing it have no interest in public spaces or principles. They use these as pretexts for exercising a vile kind of hegemony. Would the true Hindu have the courage to come out and say to this crowd, face to face, “What kind of warped imagination sits around thinking whose prayer can I disturb on Friday?” Where are the “tolerant” Hindu leaders who would show their brethren a moral mirror, or protect those praying? This whole “a true Hindu cannot be intolerant” is just a moral evasion, if you don’t risk anything for saying it. Following the “Hindu trope”, our leaders manage to show their cowardice more than their leadership.
We have tried this “true Hinduism” route before. That was the generation of Vivekananda, Gandhi and Vinoba, and countless others. But by the 1930s that project of recasting Hinduism’s spiritual foundations could not prevent deep and widespread communalisation. Nor for that matter did debates in Indian Islam on “Indian Muslimness” prevent that communalisation. Historical memories are short, but Rajiv Gandhi more opportunistically, and PV Narasimha Rao more sincerely but deviously, tried to occupy the “let us engage with Hinduism” ground. In America you have seen “moderate” Christianity make its peace with violent Trumpism. Who draws these lines between a true believer and a fake one?
The attempt to publicly draw these lines between good and bad believers does not enlarge toleration; it intensifies the conflict over who has authority. Once you prefix any public moral argument with “speaking as a Hindu or as a Muslim…” you have probably already lost the plot, where identity will colonise reason. All that will remain is the reinforcement of identity, not the enlargement of moral sympathies. It also encourages this cuckoo land thinking that if everyone simply retreated to their “true religion”, harmony would ensue. In a metaphysical sense, perhaps. But that kind of thinking does not help thinking about actual disputes in politics: How is representation to be organised within communities? How will public spaces be managed? How does one handle contested representations of history? How do we create institutions that treat people equally? Whose nation is it? Can we take a consistent stand against all blasphemy laws? These are the kinds of political disputes on which blood is spilled. By returning to “true religion” or metaphysics, you have left the political world vacant. The debate over Hinduism also creates exactly the distraction the BJP wants.
Finally, this plunge into religious metaphysics evades calling a spade a spade. The problem with people who spout bigotry or disseminate vile prejudice is not that they are “bad Hindus.” Seriously, who cares? The problem is that they have let their collective narcissism come in the way of basic human decencies, and are prepared to violate the terms of the social contract that honours the basic dignity of the individual. The claim that India is a nation of Hindus generates more questions than answers. In a trivial factual sense, it is true that this is overwhelmingly a Hindu nation. But that is simply a background fact. What follows from that? That this is not a nation which also has Muslims, atheists, communists, liberals, and even Hindutvavadis? It is also their nation, and they do have rights, and a voice to shape it. The challenge is: What are the basic norms of reciprocity that govern this conversation? Who defends those with credibility?
In the great churning of our politics, a lot of poison is being generated. Since Kashi is in the air, we can meditate on Tulsidas’s glorious Rudrashtakam, Shiv as the Bliss of Pure Consciousness. It defines the highest end of life. But I suspect Mahadeva is also whispering: Don’t expect the metaphysical project of defining a true Hindu to bell the political cat of building a decent society. Definitions don’t absorb communal poison. Who will do that, is an open question.
This column first appeared in the print edition on December 16, 2021 under the title ‘Hindus after Hindutva’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express