Hinduism, Hindu Way of Life and RSS Hindutva



Generic image of demonstration against mob lynching, courtesy ED Times

[In this column this time, I am reproducing a piece that I recently wrote at the request of some friends – as a popular pamphlet, meant primarily for election purposes. Therefore, while it draws on the work of experts in the field, it does not really address the academic reader.]

“Hinduize all politics and militarize Hindudom – And the resurrection of our Hindu Nation is bound to follow it as certainly as the Dawn follows the darkest hour of the Night!” – Hindutva’s founding ideologue Vinayak D. Savarkar’s message to Hindudom on his 59th birthday, 25 May 1941.

“Our arms stretched as far as America on the one side – that was long before Columbus ‘discovered’ America – and on the other side to China, Japan, Cambodia, Malay, Siam, Indonesia and all the South-East Asian countries and right up to Mongolia and Siberia in the North. Our powerful political empire too spread over these South-East areas and continued for 1,400 years, the Shailendra empire alone flourishing for over 700 years – standing as a powerful bulwark against Chinese expansion.” M. S. Golwalkar, [First Sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak  Sangh (RSS)], Bunch of Thoughts, Vikrama Prakashan, Bangalore 1968, p. 9.

“Emotions have more connection with the senses than with the faculty of reason; and therefore when principles are entirely lost sight of and emotions prevail, religions degenerate into fanaticism…They are no better than party politicsThe most horribly ignorant notions will be taken up, and for these ideas thousands will be ready to cut the throats of their brethren.” – Swami Vivekananda, “The Methods and Purpose of Religion”, The Definitive Vivekananda, Rupa, New Delhi, 2018, p. 211]

Hindutva is about Politics, Not about Religion

It should be clear from these two quotes from Savarkar and Golwalkar alone, that ‘Hindutva’ is not about religion, beliefs or ethical practices that govern people’s lives but about politics, very simply. If Savarkar wanted Hindus to Hinduize all politics and militarize what he calls Hindudom, this was because he wanted to use Hinduism and ‘Hinduness’ (Hindutva) to create a violent nationalist politics. His vision is central to Hindutva’s fascination with arms and violence. Remember the repeated images of ‘shastra puja’, undertaken by none other than Narendra Modi as chief minister? We might also do well to remember that in the budget for this year there is a proposal for opening 100 Sainik schools with ‘NGOs’, which will all most likely be RSS linked organizations.

This is not just some wild imagination on our part. The RSS understanding of Hindutva flows directly from Savarkar’s injunction of Hinduizing the polity and militarizing Hinduism, even though Savarkar himself never became part of the RSS.

Narendra Modi doing Shastra Pooja on Vijaydashami, October 2013, Courtesy OutlookIndia

Now, let us look at the second quote from the first RSS head, Golwalkar. It is clear that this too is not about religion but about an expansionist militarist political view of the world in which Golwalkar basks in the glory of “our [Hindu] political empire that extended over 1400 years” over South-East Asia! Please do not make the mistake of thinking that this is some idle imagination about the past – for an organization like the RSS, this is its very reason for existence. Ever since its formation in 1925, it has only been fighting the ghosts of Babar and Aurangzeb – scrupulously staying away from both the anticolonial struggle and the everyday problems of people today, be it unemployment or poverty. ‘Hindu unity’ was their answer to the ghosts of Babar and Aurangzeb.

Image of RSS Foundation Day ceremony with Golwalkar’s photograph looking out, October 2017, courtesy The Wire

The RSS and its kindred organization, the Hindu Mahasabha, were actually so obsessed with their desire for Hindu unity that they even felt enraged by attempts by the lower castes and dalits to demand equal rights, because this fractured the myth of Hindu unity.

It is not often remembered today but it is very important to keep in mind that between 1934 and 1948, there were five attempts on Gandhiji’s life before he was finally killed on 30 January 1948 on the sixth attempt. All six of them were carried out by Hindu extremists spawned by the ideology of hate and violence that we know as Hindutva. In fact the very first attempt was made in June 1934, against the background of the raging controversy around the demand for temple entry by the sudra and atisudra castes. In 1933, the Indian National Congress had introduced the Temple Entry Bill in the Madras Legislative Assembly – and this had just been preceded by the Poona Pact between Dr B. R. Ambedkar and the Hindu leaders in September 1932, following Gandhiji’s fast-unto-death. Though the Poona Pact, on Gandhiji’s insistence, did away with separate electorates and thus earned him the permanent wrath of the Dalits, it is also true that from the opposite end, it angered the Hindu extremists no less. After all, the Pact provided for reservations for dalits and adivasis (SCs and STs) in provincial legislatures and had obviously enraged the Hindu extremists, who held Gandhi responsible for it.

There is one more thing that is remarkable in the quotation from Golwalkar above – for a politics that cannot stop talking about Sultanate or Mughal rule in India as “foreign”, he has no compunction in celebrating the great Hindu dominion over South East Asia for 1400 years! In comparison, “Muslim” rule in India lasted barely 800 years.

Golwalkar is in fact imposing on the past his own 20th century understanding. In ancient and medieval times neither notions of territorial integrity nor ‘national sovereignty’ existed. And religions and cultures were not imprisoned in boundaries of nation-states in the way we have become used to seeing them today. Historically, all over the world, rulers were those who most often established their rule through conquest. They had their own religious affiliations and agendas as well but it is also true that some of the most tolerant regimes the world over, in religious terms, were Eastern empires like the Ottoman and the Mughal empire, both of which Golwalkar and his followers would call “Muslim”.

The modern world created nation-states and notions of territorial integrity based on the idea of ‘nations’ as homogeneous cultural entities. It thus started the endless search for the ‘pure’ and ‘uncontaminated’ national cultures that had particularly disastrous consequences for the colonized world, which started modelling itself along the lines of European nation-states.

These ideas of ‘nation’ and ‘nationhood’ were modern Europe’s poisoned gift to the world – ideas that our great thinkers like Rabindranath so decisively rejected. They rejected them because they saw them to be standing in stark contrast to the Indian ethos as well as with the Upanishadic wisdom that many modern thinkers like him and Vivekananda, in very different ways, saw as the essence of Hinduism. To many thinkers like Tagore and Gandhi, the essence of Hinduism lay not in its narrow ritualistic aspects – the karmakanda that Vivekananda too so vehemently rejected – but in its universalistic philosophy that contained the truth of all religions. If Rabindranath talked of the ‘religion of man’ [manusher dharma], Vivekananda too talked of a universal religion that would bring “marvellous harmony among conflicting sects not only in India but also outside India”. Rabindranath underlined that

“Man only recognizes as the best he who is accepted across all times, by all human beings…who through his own soul, he reveals the soul of all human beings.”

Rabindranath underlines that it is “in the midst of the abundance of material wealth that we can often see the signs of such ruin when man, drunk with self-interest and power [actually his terms are modandho ar svarthandho]’ revolts against that Eternal Man [chiromanab].”

What we see in both Savarkar and Golwalkar in the above quotes is the rise of this man drunk with narrow self-interest and intoxicated with dreams or lust for power.

And here is Swami Vivekananda, whom the RSS often tries to claim as among its ancestors, addressing the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago:

“I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.”

Vivekananda’s language, unlike the poet’s, is more down to earth and though he often seemingly talks of nations and nationalism, it is religion he is interested in – and he keeps it steadfastly away from politics. Indeed, in the quote above, Vivekananda categorically rejects the degeneration of religion into fanaticism and party politics.

Hinduism as Religion and Way of Life

As opposed to this militarist and violent cult of hatred, how have the thinkers of Hinduism or Hindu religion defined themselves? Acharya Kshiti Mohan Sen, who spent a lifetime studying Hinduism’s various currents, a large part of it while he worked with Rabindranath in Santiniketan, says:

“Unlike other world religions such as Christianity, Islam or Buddhism, Hinduism did not have any one founder. It grew gradually over a period of five thousand years, absorbing and assimilating all the religious and cultural movements of India.”

It is, in other words, akin to an ocean. ‘Five thousand years’ may be a bit of an overstatement but there is no doubt that what we know today as ‘Hinduism’ is not really ‘religion’ in the sense in which it is understood in modern times. What do we mean when we say that Hinduism grew gradually over a period of thousands of years, absorbing and assimilating all the religious and cultural movements of India? Kshiti Mohan Sen refers to Rajjab, a poet-saint who lived over four hundred years ago and tells us that when it came to be known that he had received “illumination” people came in large numbers to ask him what he saw and what he heard. “He answered: ‘I see the eternal play of life. I hear heavenly voices singing. Give form to the yet unformed, speak out and express.’” Perhaps it is this idea that Swami Vivekananda theorizes when he says that “Hindu religion does not consist in struggles and attempts to believe a certain doctrine or dogma, but in realizing – not in believing but in being and becoming.”

Vivekananda, in his Response to the Welcome at Chicago, asserted this same idea of different streams coming from their sources in different places, eventually mingling their water in the sea, quoting from a hymn, which he recited in his childhood.

In an ocean, there are different kinds of plant and animal life – and all of them do not live in harmony always and all the time. There are conflicts and animosities that go along with the fact that they all live the same oceanic life but these different forms of life learn to live with each other.

For practices that have evolved over millennia, it is the same. And all modern Hindu thinkers and reformers knew this very well. They knew that it was not enough to say that everything from the Vedas and Upanishads to the Puranas and Tantric practices were all equally valid. They had severe internal contradictions, contestations and conflicts but there was and remains a common horizon of intelligibility – a certain set of common cosmological assumptions about the world itself as without beginning and end, and the figure of the Supreme Being – sometimes called Brahma(n), sometimes Prajapati, sometimes the Trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh, sometimes Iswara (a much later idea) and sometimes simply ‘moner manush’ as among the Bauls – as immanent in the world.

But within this large ocean of Hinduism there always were nastikas as well – like the Lokayatikas/ Charvaka who denied the authority of the Vedas and the permanence of the soul. But this large ocean called India, from ancient times, was constituted not just by Hinduism but by the innumerable Sramanic currents like Buddhism, Jainism and the Ajivikas.

Later came Islam and Christianity – though we sometimes forget that St Thomas himself was the first Christian to arrive in India, as early as in 52 CE/ AD. Likewise, contacts through trade and commerce with Arabs goes far back, to a time even before the rise of Islam.

Over the centuries, the absorption and assimilation that Kshiti Mohan Sen talks about led to a unique way of being that was based on toleration in a broad sense and even absorption of the elements of the other’s beliefs and practices within one’s own.

That is why Swami Vivekananda could say with such ease that “[H]ere have been the Aryan, the Dravidian, the Tartar, the Turk, the Mogul, the European – all the nations of the world pouring their blood into this land.” [‘The Future of India’] This almost echoes the words of the late Urdu poet Rahat Indori – “sabhi ka khoon ha ishamil is mitti mein”, more than a hundred years later. Clearly, this reflects a common ethos of the land that we all inhabit.

Who is a Foreigner?

RSS and Hindutva produce their own brands of pseudo-history and propagate them as truths – and in this they are often helped by the fact that most of us are not interested in finding out the truth about the remote past.

Whatever exists as “culture” anywhere in the world is the result of many kinds of influences coming together due to a variety of reasons – violent conquest, peaceful trade, the migration of foreign communities into new places, intermarriage. And so there is nothing that can be claimed to be purely Indian, not even the Vedas.

A large part of the Indus Valley Civilization, discovered in the 1920s, actually overlaps with the present territory of Kashmir, Pakistan, part of North-Western India and parts of Gujarat and we know little of the religion of the Indus Valley peoples. Some recent excavations in Hissar district in Haryana shows that it might have extended right up to present-day Haryana.

But does the Vedic civilization grow from the Indus Valley civilization?  It does not seem so.

First, the Vedas take the horse seriously, (with 27 ribs) while Harappans only know of wild asses (26 ribs). There are no horse bones, drawings or even toys of horse drawn carts – there are only bullock carts, with solid wheels unlike the recurrent motif of wheels with spokes in the Vedas.

Second, Vedic literature discusses an entirely nomadic life and there are no fixed places of stay or worship. Harappans were highly urbanised for almost a thousand years.

So it seems that the people who came with the Vedas and the Vedic language and settled in India were certainly not the ‘original inhabitants’ of this country.

For example, in a treaty signed in the second millennium BCE, three Vedic gods, Indra, Mitra and Varuna are mentioned. This treaty was between a Hittite King who ruled in Asia Minor (that is, parts of present-day Turkey) and a Mitanni ruler whose territory extended from Syria to Iraq. So clearly, Vedic culture has a much wider geographical location than the region we now call India. The Vedic language too has very close links to languages of those regions and thus Sanskrit too does not have pure “Indian” origins.

What does this mean? One, it means that many of the gods and goddesses of the Vedas, and the knowledge that the Vedas embody were part of a much larger oral culture, which spread over what are Iran, Syria and Turkey today, before it was written down.

Two, even though there are indications that the Vedas were written down or composed in India, they seem to have come here with a section of population that came from central and west Asia.

Three, a large majority of people who inhabit present-day India and Pakistan have of course lived here for much longer, long before the Vedic people entered. But it was they who, at some point, seem to have adopted Vedas and the Vedic language – which was an ancestor of Sanskrit.

So, it is clear that neither the texts and knowledge of the Vedas that we swear by, nor the great Indus Valley civilization – Harappa and Mohenjodaro – are strictly ‘Indian’, if by India we mean the current nation-state.

The language, culture and religion of India has evolved over a few thousand years and it was only sometime between the 12th and 16th centuries that a small section of thinkers started thinking of themselves as Hindus. As a proper description of a specific religious community in the sense in which we understand it, the term only acquires currency in the 19th century, when British censuses start defining ‘Hindus’ as a broad category enveloping all kinds of people and their practices. An ocean of beliefs and practices of all kinds that grew organically over millennia and which Sri Ramakrishna celebrated in his motto ‘jato mat, tato path’, were now brought under the principles of government and became a matter of politics and subsequently, political mobilization.

Today there is a sudden obsession, spawned by the RSS, to find ‘foreigners’ everywhere. With the Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register, there is an attempt to declare large sections of our population as ‘foreigners’. In the RSS and Hindutva way of looking at the world, all Muslims are seen as ‘foreigners’. Though in words the RSS concedes that Muslims are also Indian, their politics places all Muslims under suspicion. Once again, we need to go back to Swami Vivekananda, to understand the difference between the rulers who conquered and ruled this land the vast majority of people who adopted Islam. For unlike those who want to use Hinduism for political purposes and a Hindu monk like Vivekananda, the difference lies in the fact that the latter recognizes the problems internal to Hindu society, its hierarchies, and its structures of caste oppression. Let us hear what he has to say, in his own words:

“The days of exclusive privileges and exclusive claims are gone, gone forever from the soil of India…and it is one of the blessings of the British Rule in India. Even to the Mohammedan Rule we owe that great blessing, the destruction of exclusive privilege…The Mohammedan conquest of India came as a salvation, to the downtrodden, to the poor. That is why one-fifths of our people have become Mohammedans. It was not the sword that did it all. It would be the height of madness to think it was all the work of sword and fire.”

One-fifths of our people became Muslim, not because of the sword but because they were excluded, downtrodden and poor. Remember that they were not even equal before God or Iswara – they tried entering temples but could not. From Mahatma Gandhi to Dr Ambedkar, so many of leaders and thinkers of modern India tried to reform the orthodox Hindu but to no avail.

If they – the atisudras, the untouchables, the panchamas, the pariahs – were not equal even before God, how could they be equal before his devotee? They could not even access the common wells to drink water in the villages – and it was after experiences like Dr Ambedkar’s Mahad Satyagraha where he drank water from a recently opened common municipal well, that he too realized that it was not possible to reform the orthodox. That was what forced him to declare that though born a Hindu he would not die one. As one contemporary report put it,

“Two hours after this event, some evil-minded caste Hindus raised a false rumour that the Untouchables were also planning to enter the temple of Veereshwar. At this a large crowd of riffraff armed with bamboo sticks collected at street corners. All orthodox Mahad was up in arms and the whole town at once became a surging mass of rowdies. They said that their religion was in danger, and strangely enough they clamoured that their God, too, was in danger of being polluted!”

Does this remind you of recent demonstrations of rowdies in West Bengal on occasions like the Ram Navami processions and such like sponsored by the RSS? Eventually Dr Ambedkar converted to Buddhism. But it is not a coincidence that all the Hindu reformers who were serious about religion, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, tried to underline the fact that such practices of untouchability and caste discrimination were social evils that had to be eradicated.

If we remember the recent happenings like the flogging of four Dalit boys in Una in Gujarat in 2016 or the gangrape of the young Dalit girl in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh – both BJP/RSS ruled states, it should not be difficult to realize what forces the RSS stands with. It is not that atrocities on Dalits do not happen in other states but the virulence with which any protest against them is suppressed in these states should tell us which world these forces inhabit.

We need to recognize then that the RSS and the BJP are not interested in Hindu religion and way of life. Rather, they want to convert Hindus into fanatics in the pursuit of their lust for political power – something that both Rabindranath and Vivekananda in their own ways warned us against.

One thought on “Hinduism, Hindu Way of Life and RSS Hindutva”

  1. The BJP India is nothing but tribalism fanned by primitive emotions that are out of step with the evolved, progressive societies. There is no glory to belong to a club that has Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey as members! How ironic that BJP is aspiring to be like their nemeses!

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