If Hindutva is dismantled, whom will it harm?

An upcoming conference in the USA, “Dismantling Global Hindutva”, organized by Indians in the USA, most of whom are legally “Hindus”, and supported by over 40 US universities, has provoked the ire of the Hindu Rashtravaadis there as well as in India. Conflating Hindutva with Hinduism is the first step. Based on this, the Hindu American Foundation claims this conference is “Hindu phobic”, that it will put the well-being of Hindu students and faculty at risk, and that “they may feel targeted or threatened, or face hostility or harassment” as a result of “the kinds of generalisations, misunderstandings, and ‘otherising’” the event will perpetuate.

Ho hum. Just another day in Hindu Rashtra-that-is-India then, for most of us “Hindus” who oppose the politics of Hindutva that promotes misunderstandings and otherises us, all the way to mob and media violence, lynchings and jail. It is from Hindutva that “Hindus” are most at risk in India today, not from any non-Hindu “Other”.

(Why these repeated quotation marks around “Hindu”? We will come to that).

An article in Firstpost uses words like “genocidal” and “xenophobic” to describe what this conference is going to be. The conference brochure shows “Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) figures being uprooted, roots and all, with the claw end of a hammer”, and this is “genocidal” according to the author. Showing the German Nazi Party being uprooted would amount to genocide too, in this understanding, perhaps? Since Hindutvavaadis are actively seeking co-victimhood with victims of anti-Semitism, as another article explicitly states, they might want to reconsider this second conflation, of the neo-fascist RSS with “Hindu”. This second article says the conference will “dehumanize Hindus everywhere” and asks indignantly if a conference titled “Dismantling Global Jewry” would be acceptable.

But “Jewry” refers to the Jewish people. Hindutva is a political ideology espoused by some Hindus.  Large numbers of Hindus oppose Hindutva, and some of those Hindus are organizing the conference! This analogy between Jewry and Hindutva is dishonest and misleading.

When seeking sympathy from those who have suffered because of Nazism, it may not be the best idea to flaunt the RSS as your standard  – the RSS is a political organization not a religious one, non-elected, non-representative of those defined as Hindus in India, the RSS has never contested elections. Its stated goal is to establish a Hindu nation that will exclude those who are not Hindu from citizenship rights. The project is both exclusionary (of Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Jews) and assimilationist (claiming as Hindu all those who are not Muslim, Christian, Jewish or Parsi).

The second, assimilationist, project is larger than the RSS, and indicates the reason for the quotation marks around Hindu, and that is what this essay is essentially about.

Meanwhile, suffice it to say that the RSS has long and publicly admired the Italian and German fascists, runs a paramilitary force which has informally but publicly worked with the police in several states since this regime came to power in 2014 [1],  and controls hundreds of organizations that perform acts of violence against non-Hindus and non-conforming Dalits and women. All this is too well established to expand on here, but this essay by Dhirendra K Jha is a good summary of RSS antecedents and its devotion to fascism.

In addition, the first article quoted above compares the Taliban to the organizers of this conference (“The timing could not have been more ironic. The intent could not have been more brazenly sinister.”) It is of course Hindutva that is the parallel to the Taliban, not those who seek to dismantle both Hindutva and Taliban, and all such anti-democratic, exclusionary expressions of nationhood.

These defenders of Hindutva who conflate Hindutva and Hinduism are let down by the progenitor of Hindutva himself, Savarkar, who made it very clear in Essentials of Hindutva (1922) that Hindutva is not Hinduism. He explicitly differentiated between the religious practices he considered to constitute Hinduism, and the political project of drawing in every community other than Muslims and Christians (whose punyabhu or holy land, lay outside India), to consolidate the Hindu Nation. This may appear as expansive and inclusivist, but is in fact an assimilationist and homogenizing move, which is played and replayed in contemporary India. The project of building the myth of India being culturally Hindu, is based on Savarkar’s claim that Hindus in India possess

“a common civilization (sanskriti), as represented in a common history, common heroes, a common literature, a common art, a common law and a common jurisprudence, common fairs and festivals, rites and rituals, ceremonies and sacraments.”

“Hinduism” is thus presented as homogeneous across the land, with assertions such as, all Hindus across India follow the same festivals, for instance, Holi and Rakshabandhan, and that all Hindus worship Rama. These claims are not true even for savarnas who consider themselves Hindu, let alone for Dalit Bahujan Adivasi communities. Through the very move of stating these incorrect claims as facts, Savarkar attempts to create both a singular entity called Hinduism as well as an India that is always already Hindu.

What contemporary Hindutva ideologues call cultural nationalism then, assumes an Indian culture that does not exist, and this Indian culture is conflated with “Hindu” culture which does not exist either. What is noteworthy here is that all strands of nationalism, including the anti-Hindutva mainstream ones, accepted unquestioningly that something that could be termed as a “Hindu” community actually existed. It was only BR Ambedkar who declared that Hindu society is a myth. He pointed out that the name “Hindu” was given by outsiders to refer to all those who lived in this land of the Sindhu river precisely because the people who lived in this land did not have a common name for themselves, as they did not perceive themselves as a single community. Ambedkar asserted that “Hindu society as such does not exist. It is only a collection of castes” (Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste  1936).

Caste and Hindutva

Caste hierarchy and caste violence is foundational to Hinduism.  While Savarkar himself took a strong position against caste, with the purpose of consolidating the Hindu community against the Muslims, his descendants are simply  incapable of rooting out antipathy to “lower” castes from their societies. Even with a unified Hindu Rashtra at stake, what we find since 2014 when this regime came to power is an escalation of the already existing endemic violence against Dalits, including rapes of Dalit women.

To cite just two instances, according to National Crime Record Bureau report of 2020, crime against Dalits shows an increase of 7.3 per cent since 2018. Uttar Pradesh alone accounts for over 25 per cent of the total cases by recording the highest number of atrocities against SC people in the country. In Gujarat atrocities on Dalits rose in the last two decades with the state witnessing a 72 percent increase in the number of registered cases between 2003 and 2018. Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat for eleven of these 15 years and the BJP continues to be in power in the state.

Caste discrimination and harassment is equally widespread among Hindus in the USA, as has been meticulously documented by Equality Labs’ Thenmozhi Soundararajan. Of course this report has been received with outrage by the Hindu American Foundation.

Attempts to include discussions of caste discrimination and patriarchy within Hinduism in textbooks in  the state of California has been an ongoing battle for at least a decade, with Hindutva organizations claiming that this will lead to prejudice against Hindus. Most recently, these organizations succeeded in getting some textbooks removed as well as some references to untouchability, which they claimed were derogatory to Hinduism.

The argument made by Hindutva activists in the US is that as South Asians, Hindus “share in the burden of being brown in America. We also stand out for our ‘foreign’ languages, foods, cultures, and religious traditions.”  Their argument is that to bring up internal oppression based on caste and gender, or to criticize Hindutva for being anti-minority in India, would further stigmatize Hindus.

Perhaps it is time then, that they identified as South Asians committed to democracy and minority rights everywhere including in their lands of origin?  Is this not what the Dismantling Hindutva conference stands for, after all? Has the Hindu American Foundation ever spoken up about “the burden” of being a minority in India, whose “foods, culture and religious traditions” have been under direct attack since 2014?

Even when Hindutva organizations back measures like  the decriminalization of homosexuality in India, as Nishant Upadhyay has carefully traced, the Hindu Right “deploys queerness to propagate its Islamophobic, casteist, and homohindunationalist agendas.”  As Upadhyay puts it:

“Caste-based violence is integral to Hinduism and intertwined with other matrices of oppression, making caste foundational to any claims of Hinduism as queer, trans and gender nonconforming friendly” (Upadhyay 2020)

But who are “Hindus”?

So first, the legal definition – Hindus are those who are not Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jewish. There is no definition that indicates positively who a Hindu is. Hence, the quotation marks around Hindu.

RSS ideologues tend to use the term “cultural nationalism” rather than “Hindu nationalism”. Through the use of the word “culture”, they are able to conflate Indian with Hindu, and Hindu with a certain North Indian savarna masculinist version of Hinduism.

Thus the much older term Hindustan, for the land of the Sindhu or Indus river, is not the same as the label “Hindu” that started emerging in the late 19th C, which was given to heterogeneous communities of people supposedly practicing a single religion. Scholars such as David Lorenzen have contested this claim, pointing out that well before 1800, European scholars resident in India “had identified Hinduism as a set of diverse but identifiable set of beliefs and practices clearly distinguished from Islam” (Lorenzen 2006:13). These practices are the four Vedas, the four varnas, the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva; Goddess worship; the theory of the four yugas; and the theodicy of karma, transmigration and rebirth (Lorenzen 2006:14). One can accept Lorenzen’s claim, but the point is not that there was no identifiable community with this set of beliefs and practices. Rather, the point is that this community was not coterminous with all those who were not Muslim.

There were multiple other practices that got gathered into the umbrella of Hinduism. Further, some practices, like “Goddess worship” take radically different forms among Dalit Bahujan Adivasi communities, and these cannot be conflated with the goddesses who are the spouses of male gods in the “Hindu” model. In other words, it is true that there would have been a community following the beliefs and practices Lorenzen identifies, that could have been termed “Hindu” much before the operation of colonial governmentality, but not all the remaining communities that were “not Muslim” were necessarily “Hindu” in this sense.

Colonial governmentality is responsible for two developments in this arena. It first constructed a monolithic Hindu community and later proceeded to fracture it. The idea that India consisted of mutually exclusive, internally homogeneous religious communities, was concretized first by colonial census officials who developed methods to classify the Indian population from the late 19th C onwards, in  a  manner such that all communities that were not Muslim, Christian or Parsi or Jewish were classified as Hindu. Ram B Bhagat (2003) shows that in addition, after the Censuses of the 19th century, colonial officials also started producing the discourse that Hindus are the majority community in India, threatened by the growth of the “minorities”, a project in which Hindu nationalists soon recognized the potential for political mobilization.

However, colonial power too, soon realized that using the census to construct a homogeneous majority had been unwise. In the census of 1911 therefore, the provincial superintendents were asked to enumerate “genuine Hindus” by eliminating as Hindu, castes or tribes through a ten point test.

Groups were not to be classified as Hindu if they

  1. Deny the supremacy of the Brahmans
  2. Do not receive the mantra (sacred words and phrases having mystical effects) from a Brahmans or other recognised Hindu Guru (religious teacher)
  3. Deny the authority of the Vedas (ancient Hindu religious texts)
  4. Do not worship the great Hindu Gods
  5. Are not served by good Brahmans as family priests
  6. Have no Brahman priests at all
  7.  Are denied access to the interior of ordinary Hindu temples.
  8. Cause pollution a) by touch, b) within certain distance
  9. Bury their dead
  10. Eat beef and do not revere the cow.

By these tests, large numbers of persons earlier classified as Hindus failed some or all of these tests in different parts of India. For example, in the Central Provinces and Berar alone, a quarter of the persons classed as Hindus denied the supremacy of the Brahmans and the authority of the Vedas; more than half did not receive the mantras from a recognised Hindu Guru, a quarter did not worship the great Hindu Gods, and were not served by Brahman priests; a third were denied access to temple; a quarter caused pollution by touch, a seventh always buried their dead, while a half did not regard cremation as obligatory and two fifths ate beef. Moreover, in India the social and cultural practices of Hindus and Muslims are not entirely separable. The 1911 census reported also that “there are many so called Hindus whose religion has a strong Muhammadan flavour” (Census of India 1911c. Cited by Bhagat 2003). This last feature continues into the 20th C and till today, as documented by Shail Mayaram  (1997/2016) for the Meo community.

PK Datta argues that this move in the 1911 census was intended to fracture the “Hindu” community by caste in order to isolate the upper castes who had threatened British power during the Swadeshi movement of 1905. Not surprisingly, Hindu nationalists like Madan Mohan Malaviya and Lajpat Rai challenged the results of this Census as an attempt to make Hindus “politically impotent” (Datta 1999).

Nevertheless, by the time of  Independence, it had become clear that “Hindu” could not be defined in any way that referred to common practices or beliefs. The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 and the four other Acts that codified Hindu personal law, therefore defined “Hindu” as people who are not Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jewish, thus bringing under the umbrella of Hinduism a wide variety of practices, many of them practices that have actually emerged as heterodox critiques of Hinduism, such as Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.

Lately, Lingayats, who had for long been subsumed under Shaivism/Hinduism, have reasserted an old claim that they are not Hindus. This claim is at least eight decades old, as they had asserted their separate identity even while the Constitution was being drafted. Lingayats are followers of the 12th century social reformer Basavanna, who rebelled against Hinduism and all its tenets. He rejected the authority of the Vedas and Upanishads, rejected caste, idol worship and the authority of Sanskrit for Kannada (Lankesh 2017). In 2018, the Karnataka Cabinet granted religious minority status to the Lingayats, but the Union government rejected the recommendation, simply stating in court that “these communities are part of the Hindu religion and do not form another religion of their own.”

Why is the claim of Lingayats not to be Hindu, not acceptable? To whom is it not acceptable? Only to the politics of Hindutva, not to other, ordinary people who come under the umbrella term “Hindu”. Hindutva is the modern politics of the nation-state, in which it is essential for it to establish that “Hindus” are a majority – the foundation of its national culture. This myth is sustained by the legal definition mentioned above. Once Lingayats get a separate identity, it would lead to many other communities demanding the same, and then Sanatan Dharma would just be one among many minority religions on the subcontinent. Ramakrishna Mission has demanded minority status in the past, Sikhs have asked for their own Personal Laws. It would definitely be the thin end of the wedge for the claim that India is a Hindu majority nation.

What we see from the development of the Hindu identity since the late 19th C is that Hinduism is merely the label that enables the assertion of an eternal identity, claiming to be in the majority in India. The term also functions to discipline the diverse practices of castes and communities into this mold of “Hinduism” defined in a narrow North Indian Brahminical/savarna masculinist way. Thus not even a fraction of people brought under the label of Hinduism necessarily identify either with Hinduism or with Hindutva.

Adivasi-Dalit-Bahujan counternarratives to Hinduism and Hindutva

Let us now consider fascinating revisionist accounts of popular Hindu festivals emerging from the perspective of Adivasi-Dalit-Bahujan communities. Of course, they are not really “revisionist”, they simply bring to the surface older histories that have long simmered below the skin of mainstream savarna Hindu society, and are now breaking the surface of Hindutvavadi narratives from within.

Ambedkarite intellectual Kanwal Bharati reminds us that the myths behind almost all Hindu festivals involve the defeat of Asuras by Devas – whether Dussehra, Diwali, Onam or Holi. These Devas, Bharati identifies as Brahmins, and the defeat of the Asuras is the defeat of anti-Brahminical and pre-Brahminical ways of life and religious practices – in forests, and outside centres of established kingdoms. Very often this defeat is by trickery – (Mahabali by Vamana, Ekalavya by Dronacharya) – and by the co-option of willing elements in these non-Brahmin societies – Vibheeshana, Prahlada.

Bharati retells the story of Holi to illustrate this claim. The pre-Hindu spring festival of Holi has a later Hindu mythology that draws it into the Aryan configuration of a perennial Deva-Asura confrontation. Prahlada, the pious son of the Asura Hiranyakashipu (himself pious, but too arrogant for the gods), is sought to be killed by his own father in various ways because he has become a devotee of Vishnu. One of the ways is getting Hiranyakashipu’s sister, Holika, Prahlada’s aunt, to sit with her nephew in her lap in the sacrificial fire, for she has a boon that fire will not burn her. Her boon fails, Bhakt Prahlad survives  by chanting Vishnu’s name, and Hiranyakashipu is slain  by Vishnu in the form of Narasimha. On Holi, effigies of Holika are burnt to symbolize this defeat.

But what was it a defeat of? In Kanwal Bharati’s telling, Prahlad turns to the Brahminical religion (Sanatan Dharma) while Hiranyakashipu and Holika continued to fight Brahminism (Bharti nd)

A similar reversal of narrative is effected by MB Manoj (2016), who, in an interview to Dalit Camera, says that reading Onam through the eyes of Dalits, the festival loses its natural association with the Malayali identity. In fact, in the words of Manoj

Onam is a black day for Dalits, a day of murder, even as it is a day of happiness for the upper castes.

From this perspective, the coming of Onam also marks the coming of the caste system and slavery to Kerala. Manoj talks about Dalit folk songs that criticise the upper-caste nature of Onam and its vegetarianism, as well as songs that criticise the temple entry proclamation of Kerala. There is a realisation among Dalits, says Manoj, that Onam is a celebration of the murder of their king by the upper castes. As part of this realisation, Dalit movements, and especially the Indian Dalit Federation, have observed hunger strikes during the Onam festival. Manoj remembers participating in one of these hunger strikes in Idukki town in Kerala during his college days. Manoj stresses that most Dalits, tribals and backward castes eat meat during Onam and their cultures fall outside the cultural milieu of Onam. Therefore, for the lower-castes, Onam is neither a cultural nor a national festival, but a festival of the upper-castes.

The presence of powerful women among these Adivasi-Dalit-Bahujan communities who must be killed, maimed, humiliated, has of course, not been unnoticed by feminist scholars from Iravati Karve to Nabaneeta Deb Sen and Uma Chakravarty. Surpanakha for example, has been read as a woman unashamed of her own sexual desire, who was never taught that she must be passive and submissive, and must learn that lesson brutally by having her nose cut off. Uma Chakravarty (1983) in a fascinating essay, reads Valmiki’s Ramayana as a reconstruction of multiple elements of stories circulating across South and South East Asia, into a particular narrative whose aim is to establish a new norm over the variegated practices of the land – the Aryan, patriarchal, patrilineal order of sexuality and property. Thus, the Southern people of Lanka, where women were freer, have to be subjugated and taught proper codes of sexual conduct, the people of the forest (the vanaras) are pacified into the Aryan king’s loyal army, and Sita is trained into Aryan patriarchy by being instructed in the dangers that result from crossing the limits set by the Lakshman Rekha.

And as Kanwal Bharati reminds us, the young princes of Ayodhya spend their time in exile, travelling deep into forests establishing, by armed force, Aryan Brahminical rule. Sages seek out the princes to attack and defeat the original inhabitants  of the forests – Asuras of various kinds, who are killed for disturbing the austerities and ceremonies that sages insist on performing in the forests that once belonged to the Asuras.

Black goddesses

There are other, more ancient visions of female power in this land than the RSS Bharat Mata – black goddesses who predate the patriarchy normalized over centuries by Aryan migrations from the north – potent, mysterious forces that offered their devotees annihilation, blood and rage. One historical reading of such black goddesses of the southern part of the Indian sub-continent is offered by anthropologist Lynn Gatwood. In her book Devi and the Spouse Goddess (1985)Gatwood makes the argument that the wild, independent, sexual tribal goddesses of pre-Vedic times were domesticated and tamed by Brahminical priestly classes in the process of pacification of the non-Aryan peoples of the South. They were domesticated by being ‘spousified” – they were installed as the wives of Aryan male gods. In addition we see the domestication of other kinds of divinities with complex histories of formation – also black, some ancient forest gods, many non-human – such as Ganesha, Ayyappa, Skanda/Subramanian – they become the children of these newly formed conjugal couples. The libidinal excess that that cannot be contained in these narratives escapes into myths such as the birth of Ayyappa from Shiva and Vishnu (in the temporary form of Mohini) – born from Vishnu’s thigh.

However, the shrines to these deities continue to have an independent presence in the cosmological landscape, and attract large numbers of worshipers. The wild undomesticated goddesses are still present as living principles – Ellaiyamman, for example; and Sheetala Mata, who protects children from small pox.

Or take the story of Mahishasura and Durga, which at one level, is yet another account of the defeat of Adivasis by Brahmins using trickery.  But a feminist reading produces another level of complexity.

While the defeat of the demon Mahishasura by Durga is the occasion for one of the most important Hindu festivals, Durga Puja, the journal, Forward Press had for some years been reporting on Mahishasura Puja  in Eastern India by adivasis, and publishing images of Mahishasura. For this, it faced police raids and ultimately closed down its print version. The fact is that Mahishasura has for long been worshiped by Santhals and other tribal people across the swathe of the tribal belt in Central India.

The Asur tribe of Jharkhand of over 10,000 members is classified as a “Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group” by the Indian government, and their language—spoken by some 7,000 individuals—is described by UNESCO as “definitely endangered.”

The Asurs, who claim ancestry from Mahishasura himself, believe that the birth of Durga from the conjoined powers of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva was a “crooked conspiracy” hatched because their king Mahishasura was blessed with a boon by Brahma that no man or god could kill him. The more traditionally-inclined members of Asurs therefore even choose to completely isolate themselves and mourn Mahishasura’s death during the period of the Durga Puja (Pandey and Biswas 2016).

The Santhals of Bengal too, have their own story about Mahishasura. He was their Raja Debi, defeated by trickery using a woman named “Durga” sent by the gods. Santhal musical genius Bajar Hembrom described the origins and meaning of the Dashoi festival, which Santhals observe on the last day of Durga Puja  in this way (as related to Kunal Deb and translated by Madhushree Mukherjee):

The Dashoi dance is on the last day of Durga Puja. You worship Durga. We search for, we still search for, our lost Raja Debi. You call him Asur.”

It is clear that the mythology is a deep sorrowful acknowledgement of the dispossession of adivasis from all that was once theirs – jal, jangal and jameen – rivers, forests and land (Mukherjee 2015).

When it was learnt in 2016, when the attack on JNU had just begun, that Dalit Bahujan students of JNU had been celebrating Mahishasura for some years, the Minister for Education at that time, was flabbergasted at this “demon worship”, which she simultaneously termed “anti-national”. The conflation of Nation here with North Indian savarna Hinduism is evident.

Hindutva is shamed and embarrassed by the practices of communities that it terms as “Hindu” for its purposes, and its attempts to “reform” such practices into the rigid North Indian upper caste version, is key to the Hindu nationalist project of consolidating “Hinduism”.

Now, the role of Durga here as a mere “seductress” makes the story more complicated. Who is this Durga? 

Mrinal Pande (2016 a) points to a much longer history of the goddess worshipped by savarna Hindus:

Durga’s historical origins are embedded firmly among the indigenous pre-Aryan cultures of India. The Vedic tradition has no goddess similar to Durga, the warrior goddess. The early Puranic references to Durga… associate her with the Sabara tribals residing among the Vindhya mountains. This was initially an intractable area described as…hard to access – Durgen gamyate, hence the name Durga. The mountainous region with thick forests and inhabited by wild tribes and animals, was peripheral to civilised society…

it is this fierce female principle that Vedic Hinduism seeks to to domesticate as Shiva’s spouse.  However Durga never gets fully domesticated as Shiva’s wife, retaining these fierce and unpredictable, untameable elements.

The reduction of Durga to a mere seducer, an agent of the Devas, in the Adivasi telling  of the story of Mahishasura suggests an attempt to recover Adivasi masculinity from its defeat by Brahminism.  It would seem though that this Durga refers, not to  to the general principle of female power but to the specific Vedic goddess worshipped as Durga, who acts as an agent of the Deavs and tricks Mahishasura.

DD Kosambi (1962), writing about mother goddesses in villages all over Maharashtra, shows how some of them represent Dalit Bahujan  figures, such as a “red-daubed female in relief”, which  represents a teli woman (of the oil vendor community) killed by a stray bullet who would not let her community sleep ion peace until worship was given to her. Others are tribal goddesses, such as “a remarkable primitive and dangerous mother goddess Satavi (who has nothing to do with Sati, he says), which is also the name in Marathi for an unpleasant harridan of a woman. Bolhai is another tribal goddess who has not been Brahminized, beyond being labeled a sister of the Pandavas, to whom blood sacrifice is made, and who sets out on a two month hunting trip every winter, symbolized by a palanquin procession. None of these ancient goddesses have a male consort – they are Mothers, but unmarried, Kosambi reminding us that in tribal societies, knowledge of the father of the child was irrelevant. The next step in history, says Kosambi, is to marry them to a male god.  Although this book was written in the 1960s, goddess worship of this kind embodies living traditions even today, in the 21st century.

Noble Asuras

The simplistic Hindutvavaadi narratives forged in the late 19th and early 20th C, with their black and white Asuras and Devas, continually come up against the challenge posed by alternative narratives that robustly survive.

Asura kings Ravana, Hiranyakashipu and Mahabali are revered as scholars and as devout, even noble figures, even by otherwise devout Hindus who worship Rama and Vishnu. The town of Mandsaur considers itself to be the birthplace of Mandodari, Ravana’s wife, and about 200 families consider themselves to be descendants of Ravana. In Vidisha, Ratlam and Indore districts of Madhya Pradesh, Ravana is a local god, there are temples to Ravana here, and his effigy is never burnt on Dussehra. (Agnihotri 2016).

Similarly, Valmiki communities in many parts of north India revere Ravana and avoid looking at Ravana dahan (Zee News, 2011).

Villagers of Drongiri in the Uttaranchal Himalayas, will not worship Hanuman, for he defaced the mountain they worship by breaking off an entire side of it, when dispatched to pick the herb Sanjivani to revive Lakshman (Pande 2016 b). Nabaneeta Deb Sen tells us about the songs sung by women of rural Bengal, which berate Rama for abandoning Seeta, ram tomar buddhi hoilo naash, they sing, “Ram, you lost your mind” (2013).

Resisting “templeisation”

As recently as August 2021, there was a clash between the Meenas, an Adivasi community in Rajasthan, over the Amagarh Fort that houses the Amba Mata temple, a clan goddess worshiped by the Meenas, and Hindutva activists who hoisted a saffron flag over the temple. The Meenas termed this as an attempt to Hinduise the temple. Representatives of the Meena community told a reporter that they do not identify with Hinduism, and have their own set of beliefs and culture.

This is an on-going attempt by Hindutva. OB Roopesh (2018) has written about Sabarimala in the context of what he terms “templeisation”, a process he describes as:

“converting myriad forms of worship places like kavus [sacred spaces near traditional homes of various non Brahmin and Dalit caste communities in Kerala], to the Hindu (or Brahminical) temple form.”

What the recovery of older and other stories that savarna Hindu society remained unaware of, tells us, is that the domestication of the goddess and the pacification of non-Aryan peoples was never completely successful –  the project of homogenizing Hinduism and subjugating pre-Aryan deities remains an incomplete project to this day. The powerful, ancient yet living Dalit Bahujan Adivasi traditions split the skin of North Indian savarna masculinist Hinduism, from within. The outside keeps fracturing the boundaries of what is sought to be termed “Hinduism”.


It is time to recognize that there is no one “Hindu” community, and there is no majority community in India. If we accept India as a society of multiple communities – none of which is in a majority, and all of which are in some way or the other based on internal inequality of access to resources, caste discrimination and patriarchy, which must be continuously challenged – that could be the basis of building a genuine democracy.

(Parts of this post draw from a paper in Economic and Political Weekly “Counter-narratives to Hindutva Claims. Beyond the Eurocentrism–Indigenism Binary” Vol. 54, Issue No. 38, 21 Sep, 2019)


  1. See for example these two links https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/images-lathi-wielding-rss-workers-checking-vehicles-telangana-ignites-row-122401 and https://indianexpress.com/article/india/in-kumbh-crowd-management-a-first-rss-workers-as-special-police-officers-7274131/


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Bhagat, Ram B (2003) “Hindu Muslim tension in India: An interface between census and Politics during Colonial India”.

Bharti, Kanwal (nd) “Holi: Ek Mithakiya Adhyayan” (Hindi)  Streekal


Chakravarty, Uma (1983) “The Development of the Sita Myth: A Case Study of Women in Myth and Literature”, Samya Shakti. 1, July.

Datta, PK (1999) Carving Blocs. Communal Identity in Early 20th C Bengal. Oxford University Press, Delhi

Dev Sen, Nabaneeta (2013) “Lady Sings the Blues: When Women Retell the Ramayana”, Manushi , 108.

Gatwood, Lyn (1985) Devi and the Spouse Goddess: Women, Sexuality, and Marriage in India, Manohar Publications, Delhi

Kosambi, DD (1962) Myth and History Popular Prakshan, Bombay

Lankesh, Gauri (2017) “Making Sense of the Lingayat vs Veerashaiva Debate”, The Wire, August 8

Lorenzen David N (2006) Who invented Hinduism? Yoda Press, New Delhi

Manoj, MB (2016) on Dalits, Onam and Malayali identity, Dalit Camera, August 9.

Mayaram, Shail (1997/2016) Resisting Regimes: Myth, Memory, and the Shaping of a Muslim Identity, Oxford University Press, Delhi.

Mukherjee, Madhushree (2015) “Durga Puja: celebration of a Santal king’s betrayal?”  http://www.indiaresists.com/durga-puja-celebration-santhal-kings-murder/

Pande, Mrinal (2016 a) “Guess what? Durga and Mahishasur actually share the same origin”, Scroll.in, https://scroll.in/article/804263/guess-what-durga-and-mahishasur-actually-share-the-same-origin

Pande, Mrinal (2016 b) “The Sanjivani quest: An Uttarakhand village hasn”t forgiven Hanuman for defacing their holy mountain”,  https://scroll.in/article/812802/the-sanjivani-quest-an-uttarakhand-village-hasnt-forgiven-hanuman-for-defacing-their-holy-mountain

Pandey, Prashant and Premankur Biswas (2016) “Meet the Asurs — a marginal tribe that describes Durga as a goddess who enticed Mahishasur”, The Indian Express, December 8

Roopesh, OB (2018) ‘Sabarimala Protest. Politics of Standardising Religious Pluralism’, Economic and Political Weekly, December 15

Upadhyay, Nishant (2020)  “Hindu Nation and Its Queers: Caste, Islamophobia, and De/coloniality in India”, Interventions DOI: 10.1080/1369801X.2020.1749709

Zee News (2011) “Here Ravana is worshipped on Dussehra!”http://zeenews.india.com/exclusive/here-ravana-is-worshipped-on-dussehra_4688.html



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