The Bihar election results are and it is fairly disappointing to see the BJP losing out in the manner it did in Bihar (and quite a surprise in seeing the RJD emerge as the single largest party, even if it was with a convenient political compromise and gatbandhan), particularly because of issues of its own making, even with so much to put forth in terms of good policies and governance by the NDA government at the centre, be it the Mudra program, reforms in the bureaucracy, progress on various economic development parameters or even labor law reforms.
I believe the BJP should truly rein in fanatic fringe elements and incendiary statements by prominent leaders for short-term gain. Not to forget, a national party cannot be a two-man show and needs good state leaders. This election also shows that caste in politics is still very relevant in Bihar.
However, this post is not for discussing the Bihar elections. It is rather to assess the ideas of ‘Hindutva’ in the context they should be debated in, devoid of selective distortion.
As Charles Assisi said, Hindutva as defined by current political rhetoric is abhorrent, its perpetrators despicable and the idea as one that ought to be rejected outright by practitioners of Hinduism. If Hindutva is to be truly ‘Hindu’ in nature and not necessarily driven by survivalist political undertones, it has to grow and evolve over and beyond the Savarkar-Golwalkar-Hedgewar years of the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS. There is little space for religious intolerance in Hinduism and therefore there should be little space for it in Hindutva as well.
So who is a ‘Hindu’? In the 18th-century, Europeans began to refer to the followers of Indian religions as Hindus. By mid 19th-century, colonial orientalists further distinguished Hindus from Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains, but it is important to note that the colonial laws continued to consider all of them to be within the scope of the term Hindu until about mid 20th-century. The term ‘Hindu’ implied a geographic, ethnic or cultural identifier for people living in Indian subcontinent, typically beyond (and to the East of) the Sindhu river (River Indus). Going by this analysis, the current concept of ‘Hinduism’ as the religion that derives it roots from the Vedantic School of thought or from the Sanatan Dharma is a fairly recent construct. For that matter, the subdivisions in the religion and the absence of any particular over-arching element for all the strands of ‘Hinduism’ besides the Vedas, Upanishad, the epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata) and Puranas, makes it more a ‘way of life’ than a religion at all. Much like Judaism, the origins of ‘Hinduism’ are lost to antiquity and the religion itself survives in and among its followers rather than as a separate, discernible entity.
Gandhi was a believer of the Hindu scriptures but few of his most cited words are as follows: ““My belief in the Hindu scriptures does not require me to accept every word and every verse as divinely inspired. I decline to be bound by any interpretation, however learned it may be, if it is repugnant to reason or moral sense,” he wrote in the Aspects of Hinduism.” In the same way, there are practices and ideas that have come about over the past millenia that have corrupted certain facets of the ‘Hindu’ way of life.
A simple example? Prohibition of consuming beef. In Vedic times, there were instances of animal sacrifice including that of the cow and the ox, as put forth by Norman Brown. But given the significance of cattle, particularly cows, in terms of utilitarian purposes, the cow slowly came to be venerated as more than just an animal. Yes, there have been references in the Rig Veda about cows, such as
One who partakes of human flesh, the flesh of a horse or of another animal and deprives others from milk by slaughtering cows ; if such a fiend does not desist then even cut off their heads by your powers Oh king.
(Rig Veda X.87.16)
Yes, there have been references to the preeminence of the cow as an important animal even in the Atharva Veda and Srimad Bhagavad Gita. But going by the argument of non-violence to animals, one should desist from harming any and all animals. If the cow was important because it gave so much to the denizens of Vedic age settlements, then surely so were goats and chicken. If chicken and other ‘consumable’ animals were not so important so as to warrant their sacrifice, how much more important could cows be?
I, for one, understand the basis for the idea (and personally am not particularly fond of beef consumption, but then again, that is my personal choice) of the worship of cows, more out of social and utilitarian reasons than religious ones, but imposing a ban on beef for everyone in India, including non-Hindus, is somewhat arbitrary and based on shaky grounds, if one were to argue on the basis of religious scriptures and edicts of Hinduism.
Similarly, issues such as the invention of the Pushpak Viman, the ancient craft that could fly, and other notable achievements in science and technology (including an association with Quantum Physics) in ancient India may certainly be points of discussion, critical reasoning and possible interest, but they or, for that matter, beef, should not hold so much of the centre-stage of the conceptualization of Hindutva that it leaves aside very humane and fundamental nuances of Hinduism and the true ‘Hindu’ way of life, be it tolerance, non-violence or charity. We may have had a Dharma Yudh (a War for Establishing Righteousness) in the Mahabharata but that cannot be used as an excuse to establish a hegemony based on Hinduism by violent means. As Assisi mentions,
Krishna’s discourse on dharma yuddha reveals it does not sanction violence to seize the assets of another community, or to gain power through conquest and control of others. Battles fought on these turfs, Krishna tells Arjuna, are the primary sources of greed and evil. Equally important, in a dharma yuddha, the opponent is not demonized and there is complete absence of rhetoric that accompanies hatred and contempt.
The fact that the concept of ‘Hindutva’, as prevalent in political circles, needs to be revised and revisited, is all the more evident by an analysis of the use of the words ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Hindutva’ in books since the early 19th century (using Google Ngram Viewer).
The rise of the concept of ‘Hindutva’ happened around the time of the demolition of the Babri Masjid (early 1900s). Was there a ‘state of Hindu-ness’ before that? Was there true ‘Hindutva’ before that? Were elements of Hinduism prevalent and defining the ways in which a large number of people in India lived their lives before that? If any (or all) of these questions have a affirmative response from your side, well, then isn’t the debate quite conclusively shelved, from your point of view? Savarkar put forth the ideas of ‘Hindutva’ in the early twentieth century, as did Hedgewar, Golwalkar and other stalwarts of the Hindu Mahasabha, RSS and the Jan Sangh. But the term in itself never got the popularity that it did after an act of destruction and violence: the destruction of the Babri Masjid, alongwith having a fairly negative correlation with the popularity of ‘Hinduism’ in scholarly and academic circles, if one were to go by the graph above. That is what I see as the fundamental reason for redefining ‘Hindutva’, by dialogue and discussion.
True ‘Hindutva’ (or should I just called it ‘Indian’-ness, modern construct that it is) is more than just a single religion or nuances related to one. It survived as a ‘national’ consciousness for centuries, and the resilience that one can ascribe to it rises not out of intolerance but the tolerance and ease of assimilation that one can ascribe to it when other religions, cultures and ideas have been brought to its fold or near its branches. We need to rediscover that to truly understand the ‘Hindu’ way of life and what truly is the ‘state of Hindu-ness’.