LIKE other religions Hinduism has faced challenges from ancient times from within its fold and outside. Hindutva is a modern invention and the idea of a right-wing militarist nation state it panders to would not be possible before the advent of the nation states that came with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Some Muslim ideologues opposed the movement for Pakistan also on similar lines, saying there was no sanction for a nation state in Islam.
The three-day international conference on ‘Dismantling Global Hindutva’ ended on Sunday with important insights into Hinduism itself, but the discussions also revived memories of the pitfalls of similar projects and criticisms attempted in the recent and distant past.
One takeaway from the conference was that critiquing Hindutva, the militant philosophy that set out to model Hindus on the European fascism of the 1930s (by replacing European Jews with Indian Muslims and Christians as targets of hate) would remain incomplete if B.R. Ambedkar’s call for the destruction of the Hindu caste system remained unheeded. Ambedkar canvassed for equal and secular rights for everyone, starting with the liberation of the Dalits from Hinduism’s Brahminical hold and women from its patriarchal fold.
Organisers of the conference offered a word of caution. “To equate Hinduism and Hindutva is to fall into the narrow, bigoted, and reductionist fiction that instrumentalises Hinduism by erasing the diverse practices of the religion, the debates within the fold, as well as its conversations with other faiths. If the poet A.K. Ramanujan reminds us about the importance of acknowledging Three Hundred Ramayanas, then Hindutva seeks to obliterate that complexity into a monolithic fascism.”
Hinduism as we know it today has been in ferment since its inception.
A scholarly intervention made a less-discussed argument that underscored many commonality of views between Hindutva practitioners and Zionist settler class Jews in occupied Palestine. Akanksha Mehta particularly focused on the affinities between women activists of Hindutva and Jewish settler women. She introduced a different perspective to the currently overstated comparisons between the Taliban and Hindutva practices. Their colonial project and the economic underpinning of Hindutva and Zionism together with hidebound social and gender iniquities perpetuated within both groups present a remarkable similarity.
Ambedkar had noted the absence of a defining feature of Hinduism other than the caste. There were anti-idolatry Hindu sects and there were worshippers of deities and images and nature. In Bengal, they worship Durga as slayer of evil and protector of her followers. In swaths of Uttar Pradesh the role is given to Hanuman — sankatmochan, who clears the path of personal and social impediments. In Maharashtra, Ganapati is the vighna-haran or remover of obstacles dogging the followers.
Ambedkar listed Hindus who followed Muslim customs, observed circumcision and buried their dead. He pointed to Muslims who called Brahmin and Muslim priests to together preside over their weddings. It is a relic of the mediaeval Bhakti movement that Muslims and Hindus are entwined in the worship of common saints, particularly in Punjab. Atheists and monotheists also came out of the Vedic fold in early Hinduism and its accompanying Brahminical practices. Nastikas took a materialist view of the world and were opposed to Brahminical rituals. They were shunned as a class as were followers of Buddha and Mahavira.
I got a call from a close friend from Mumbai on Friday, a Jain with a modern lens. “I’m calling you to forgive me for any wrong I may have done you,” he said to my complete surprise. It was part of a period of Jain rituals, Sumedh Shah confided. It was observed over several days and ended with the quest for forgiveness from friends and family. The discussion veered around to a Jain belief that they were the original Indian atheists. And since Mahavira was the 24th teerthankar, a contemporary of Buddha around 600 BC, the claim would tend to put the atheism of Jains ahead of the Hindu nastikas.
Be that as it may, the point is that Hinduism as we know it today has been in ferment since its inception, not unlike other religions that branched off from their original purposes of peace and harmony, as Swami Vivekanand observed, into puritanism, mysticism and even bloodletting by acquiring weaponised and sectarian forms.
For close to two centuries in India, Hindu reformers have been trying to tweak Hinduism. Of these the most persistent but not entirely successful lot belonged to the Bengal Renaissance — from Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) to Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). The question is: were the reformers anti-Hindu or Hindu-phobic, to use the term thrown by many right-wing Hindus at their critics. Supporters of militant Hindu groups in the US and India have used such terms to describe and even threaten rival Hindus against critiquing India’s current tryst with what is otherwise regarded as a great religion of the world.
The Bengal Renaissance canvassed support for banning child marriage, encouraging widow remarriage and scientific education, discouraging superstition and sati — the practice of Hindu widows being forced to sit on their husband’s funeral pyre.
The Bengal effort was, however, a social movement largely aloof from politics. The synthesis of politics and social reforms was to flower with Gandhi. When he arrived on the scene from South Africa, the political churning against colonialism had already spread from Bengal to Maharashtra and Punjab, but it had acquired pronouncedly Hindu motifs. The use of religion for anti-colonial mobilisation also tempted Muslim leaders like Maulana Azad. He applied the Bengal model to unfolding events in Turkey to woo Muslims to the Congress.
Gandhi strove to use religion to bring Hindus and Muslims together, but his attempt at reforming Hinduism was slammed as vacuous by Ambedkar, and as too emasculated for a fascist project by leaders like Savarkar and Golwalkar. It may not be wrong to ask, therefore: if Ambedkar failed to annihilate the Hindu caste system, what’s the chance the virulent Hindutva project could be dismantled with well-meaning intellectual cogitation?
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2021