The gospel of modernity — or, its secular reasoning and techno-scientific project — has not yet succeeded in eliminating the tremendous hold of organised religions over our collective existence. In fact, in our times, the militant assertion of one’s religious identity in the politico-cultural domain has caused diverse forms of orthodoxy, and posed a challenge to the ideals of heterodoxy, symmetrical pluralism and the spiritual oneness of humankind. Is it the reason why, in our country, the debate on Hinduism vs Hindutva continues to occupy the imagination of political activists and public intellectuals?
It is not difficult to understand why there are Hindus who feel uneasy with what is going on in the name of Hindutva — an ideology of hyper-nationalism that stimulates one’s religious identity, prefers a monolithic discourse, and suspects or even demonises the “other”. In other words, the cultural narcissism or aggression implicit in the ideology and practice of Hindutva is something that hurts the sensibilities of those Hindus who believe that Hinduism is about pluralism, dialogue and assimilation. They refuse to be influenced by the likes of Savarkar and Golwalkar. Instead, they recall a largely decentralised tradition with multiple forms of worship, and diverse schools of thought in Hindu philosophy — from Lokyata to Vedanta; and they remind themselves of the music of harmony that characterised the spiritual practices of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Narayana Guru or Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. In other words, they seek to convey a message that the loud champions of exclusivist Hindutva have no right to claim a monopoly over pluralist and dialogic Hinduism.
Even though this sort of debate has tremendous significance to keep the argumentative spirit of democracy alive, it is equally important to ask a fundamental question: Is it possible to see beyond Hinduism vs Hindutva, and reimagine our religiosity beyond all labels and categories? Is it possible for one to be deeply religious and spiritual without wearing any uniform, or without being a Hindu or Muslim or Christian? We should not forget that barring remarkable exceptions, even a “good” Hindu is likely to remain somewhat separated from a “good” Muslim; or, even when a “good” Muslim is enthusiastic about Jalaluddin Rumi, she/he might not quote the Upanishads with equal enthusiasm. Hence, it is important to realise that while the Bhagavad Gita, or the Quran or The New Testament still carry an “identity” with an immense emotive connotation, the flower that blooms, or the tree that whispers, or the river that flows has no limiting identity. The vastness of the sky, the mystery of the snow-clad peaks, and the recurrence of life and death, or form and formlessness — can these experiences be seen as our shared epics and our spiritual companions without any “Hindu”/“Muslim”/“Christian”/“Sikh” marker?
I ask this question because our true religiosity is a quest — existential, psychic and spiritual; it is a longing for a deep understanding of our location in this vast universe; it is an urge to see meaning for existence amid pain, suffering and impermanence of everything that is phenomenal; and it is a striving for the light of the infinite that illumines the finite. It is not about repeating the scriptures like a parrot, wearing special uniforms, and following the crowd. Jesus might have experienced the ecstasy and power of love. However, unless you and I experience it, there is no meaning in repeating his sermons, even if we are born in a “Christian” family. There is no meaning in glorifying the Bhagavad Gita, and asking a priest to recite it at the time of death ritual, if we are not convinced of niskama karma or detached action. Unless you and I choose to be authentic seekers with wonder, meditative quest and existential perplexity, and without any standardised manual, we will end up following the crowd, dividing ourselves into different and conflicting groups, and making noise. Ironically, organised religions with their priestcraft and heavy burden of ritualism seek to condition our minds, limit our horizons, and discourage our own quest. Hence, will it ever be possible to say that we are neither Hindus nor Muslims, and we are like tiny blue flowers experiencing the light of the sun, radiating our fragrance, and then withering away silently and gracefully, and merging with the soil?
In the absence of this authentic religiosity, we would merely debate intellectually, and keep asking academic questions, like this: Was Swami Vivekananda a “Hindu nationalist”, or a radical monk with socialist sensibilities? The exchange of words — scholarly or toxic — would take us nowhere except boost our own egos. Meanwhile, we would witness yet another round of cow vigilantism and an epidemic of sedition charges. Likewise, in the absence of experiential religiosity, we would begin to see the “sacred” in the rapidly flourishing commodities we buy and possess; “management gurus” as the new priests of neoliberalism would promote consumptionist hedonism as the most celebrated ritual; and spectacular shopping malls would acquire the status of temples. And at times, this market-driven ritualism goes well with the militancy of religious nationalism. Be a “proud” Hindu and be a loyal consumer of the products the Adanis and Ambanis produce.
As we love the false security that all sorts of “certainties” (I am a “Hindu”, she is a “Muslim”; I am an “Indian”, he is a “Pakistani”) provide, it is not easy to decondition our minds, and experience the spirit of being a wanderer — a seeker without the baggage of any fixed book or any fixed doctrine. Yet, even in these violent times, the quest for deep religiosity— without uniform, without boundaries — ought to continue.
This column first appeared in the print edition on December 4, 2021 under the title ‘Religiosity without uniforms’. The writer is professor of Sociology at JNU.