Resilient Hinduism Has Endured Upheavals
It was not always like this. Hinduism neutralised competing elements by absorbing them. This faith tradition was strong enough to let internal theological differences and dissent be aired.
How Hinduism casts its spell on Indian politics is observed by the people and covered by the media. The impact of politics on Hinduism remains to be studied by such scholars as Karen Armstrong. The current struggle for the soul of Hinduism has been sparked by a vicious political battle, with one party determined to make Hinduism muscular and aggressive. Many Hindus see this as a challenge to the values of renaissance by conservative revivalism.
The Hindu nationalists led by the ruling BJP propagate a politicised version of this ancient faith, calling it “Hindutva”. Hinduism gets diminished when distorted and used to polarise society and create vote banks. The cry of “faith is bigger than the Constitution” sounds the death knell of democracy.
The abuse of faith for political purposes is prevalent in democracies such as the US, Brazil and Israel.
The diverse and inclusive Hinduism is in harmony with the spirit of democracy. Ironically, democracy facilitated the rise of Hindu militancy, just as in Indonesia, it promoted Islamic militancy. The abuse of faith for political purposes is prevalent in democracies such as the US, Brazil and Israel. Will the abuse of Hinduism turn an immense idea into a dismal creed? Can politicians, in league with frenzied believers and Hollywood Hindus, modify this unique religion? Whither politically-tinkered-with Hinduism? These questions have got little attention so far.
When a BJP chief minister unfolds his plan to build the biggest statue of Lord Ram, the secular state sponsors idol-worship. When a secular chief minister invokes Goddess Durga to fight her political enemies using Lord Ram in an electoral battle, she conjures up a silly competition between two divine entities, insulting both. When a secular Congress leader visits temples during an election season, he narrows the gulf between religion and politics, even if his intention is to highlight the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva. Of course, the Hindu nationalists get irritated because their political rival breaks their monopoly over the use of holy gestures.
The TV shows based on mythological tales have influenced the conduct of a large section of Hindus. Social media now promotes the political project of linking Hinduism to anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan rhetoric. Angry songs evangelising a militant form of Hinduism supplement the hateful political rhetoric and set YouTube on fire!
To take just one example, a 28-year-old woman singer Laxmi Dubey who as a child sang devotional songs on stage, says “we were not this aggressive then and in school days we used to sing Hindu-Muslim Bhai Bhai (brothers)”. Dubey’s video today is designed to incite religious violence. It has been watched 20 million times on YouTube since 2017. Her interviewer Mansi Dua says the songs, composed to a melody-less repetitive beat, speak – in the same breath – of Hindus beheading enemies and worshipping Lord Ram. Anger is the hallmark of Dubey’s music. “The new Hindu is exhorted to rise and protect his religion, ban cow slaughter, build the Ram temple on the disputed site and pulverise Pakistan!” The people want to hear such songs and Dubey responds to the market!
Popular culture apart, even the fields of science and education feel the impact of the rise of Hindutva. The lost glory of Hinduism is recalled on every occasion. Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the mastery of plastic surgery reflected in the act of Lord Shiva transplanting the elephant’s head on the body of his son Ganesh. Some Indian scientists took the cue and made most unscientific statements at the prestigious Science Congress. Testifying to the Prime Minister’s influence, one referred to a coming discovery as the Modi Wave.
Since the BJP came to power in 2014, the number of aggressive Hindutva believers has shot up. Digital warriors go after the rationalists and believers in an inclusive, eclectic and dialogic faith. Be he a pundit quoting the sacred texts or a western historian of Hinduism, every critic of Hindutva is called anti-Hindu and subjected to a tirade on social media. The vigilantes impose their own blasphemy law! The abusive posts reflect their unfamiliarity with the language which does not mean that highly educated persons are not stricken with the sectarian virus.
“Hindus will be reduced to a minority one day”, goes the refrain. Hinduism is in danger and it must appear in an aggressive avatar. The Hindutva votaries say the gentle nature of their religion caused the victimisation of Hindus. These warriors are out to protect Hinduism as if it is being attacked today by the Islamic rulers. Names of the streets, railway stations and towns reminding us of Moghul rule are being changed. Interestingly, the Christian imperialists are spared.
The ultimate objective of the religious right wing is to establish a Hindu nation by gaining sufficient political power that could enable it to amend the Constitution. Since the Hindutva agenda cannot be implemented without political power, winning elections is crucial for the BJP. This makes its leaders fight poll battles with messianic zeal. The BJP says it will continue to win elections for years to come. The Prime Minister has promised to cleanse the country of the main opposition party!
Religion sways voters at times but it not always yields political dividends. Such setbacks do not dishearten the Hindutva forces. Their progress since the demolition of the Babri mosque has given them confidence to continue their holy mission. Preparations have begun for the coming general election as seen in scores of semi-religious events and declarations to intensify the Ram temple movement. Demands may be raised about other temples destroyed during the Moghul rule.
The abuse of religion for divisive poll campaigns undermines the inclusive spirit of Hinduism. Respect for all religions, a principle enshrined in India’s Constitution, is inherent in Hinduism with its belief that there are many ways to reach God. In sharp contrast, Hindutva’s message is “we are not like them”. The creation of a vote bank depends on exacerbating the inter-religious differences. During the election season, the warning of “Hinduism in danger” becomes shriller as many Hindu activists hold violent demonstrations and the obliging “seers” bless the ruling party leaders. The “hurt” psyche leads to a militant response through street violence and denunciation of the rival faith.
Politicisation of Hinduism, as mentioned in a previous article, promotes faux religiosity to facilitate mass mobilisation. The muscular Hindutva fuels intolerance and competitive sectarianism. Political activists inflame religious passion. A stray comment or a viral video hurts religious sentiments. Hardly a week goes by without someone shouting in a TV studio that Hindu or Muslim sensitivities have been hurt. The “hurt” psyche leads to a militant response through street violence and denunciation of the rival faith. A reference to the women-playmates of Lord Krishna provokes an educated Hindu to respond with a post on the Christian women who consider themselves married to Jesus! Heightened sensitivities are politically useful for rallying forces against the religious Other.
Hindus living outside India feel even more insecure about their religious identity and adore the Hindutva leaders of India. And if the sectarian tensions rise in India, it does not affect them. During the Ram temple agitation in the nineties, some Non-resident Indians sent symbolic bricks for the temple! They are active in “protecting” their gods and goddesses from insults.
It was not always like this. Hinduism neutralised competing elements by absorbing them. Hindus felt confident enough to ignore silly remarks against their faith. This faith tradition was strong enough to let internal theological differences and dissent be aired.
Centuries of foreign rule neither diminished the influence of Hinduism nor shook the self-confidence of this faith community. The powerful impact of the West did not lead to large-scale conversions to Christianity. In fact, the British rulers kept away from religious reforms and some seeking gender parity and social justice were undertaken by the Government of the independent India.
Foreign rulers could not harm Hinduism but if one were to believe the Hindu nationalists, 70 years after India’s independence, Hinduism is in danger today! This slogan is designed to make the majority fearful and to promote hatred towards the religious Other.
Movements within Hinduism did influence this faith tradition. At times, Hinduism resorted to reformation and at times, it failed to do so. In the mid-15th century, Guru Nanak Dev, a born Hindu, rebelled against impurities in his faith and exploitation by its priestly class. His teachings led to the foundation of Sikhism.
Some 60 years ago, eminent Dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism, taking with him thousands of Hindus belonging to his oppressed-depressed caste. Ambedkar condemned the caste system and even said, “if Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt be the greatest calamity for this country”. In order to woo the Dalit voters, the Hindu nationalist political leaders today pay rich tributes to this very leader, ignoring his attacks on Hinduism and conversion to Buddhism. The ruling BJP is an expert in appropriation through misrepresentation.
The talk of religious reforms provokes violent reaction. Rituals have got more popular as their emotional appeal has increased. Increased literacy has not weakened the hold of superstitions. The influence of the reformist Arya Samajhas declined. The nexus of politics and religion has resulted in the proliferation of so-called Ashrams. Assured of official protection in lieu of their power to deliver votes, several charlatans established institutions that attract devotees in large numbers. Some Ashram founders have been jailed following criminal complaints. Consequently, the words such as Ashram and Guru have been devalued.
Politics has affected Hinduism by solidifying caste identity, a major determinant of the voting behaviour. Thus, it reinforces casteism. This regressive trend becomes more prominent with every successive election. The rise of identity politics based on castes and sub-castes and clans promotes orthodoxy, enthusing conservative Hindus and slowing down the march of modernity.
However, in the narrow context of a caste system, politics – like railway travel – also has a positive influence on Hinduism. It has lessened the hold of the upper castes and empowered the depressed castes. This corrective impact on Hinduism can be attributed to democracy, the game of numbers. Even the BJP, mainly a party of the upper castes, has been forced to be a bit more inclusive to woo the Dalit voters in order to expand its footprint. The upper castes, with their limited voting power, are unable to retain their dominance. The depressed castes, made aware of their leverage during elections, learn to protest. This is a welcome development even if the process is conflict-ridden.
There is widespread anxiety that injecting sectarian poison into society is like releasing the genie from the bottle. Noted film actor Naseeruddin Shah who expressed this fear was forced to cancel his appearance in a literary festival because of threats by Hindu protestors.
Shorn of its inclusiveness and laced with bigotry, Hinduism will threaten not just the religious minorities but a very large section of practicing Hindus. In the neighbouring theocratic state of Pakistan, non-Sunni sections of Muslims have always felt threatened by their co-religionists.
Some are turning away from Hinduism as a reaction to its vulgarisation. A woman commentator records her response to the degradation of her faith tradition. Shalini Langer writes in The Indian Express: “As statues were planned and temples returned to drawing boards, 2018 was the year “God” diminished further for me.” In a form asking for religion, she and her son filled “agnostic”.
She describes her early years of acquaintance with God through pilgrimages, temple visits and viewing of the TV serials on Rama and Krishna. “But the halo soon had clouds. Before long, our gods of flesh and bone were candidates in the political field, to middling success. Even at that age, this seemed a cheap trade-off.” God started souring for her by the late 1990s as the Ram temple movement picked up pace, the images of blood-thirsty mobs started crowding in and as the first hammerblow struck the Babri mosque dome. She concludes by asking what kind of a helpless, puny, god-less God is it who discriminates, needs a statue or requires to be portrayed as a ferocious sticker on the back of cars?
Many Hindus feel the same. Some from the upper classes are more comfortable practicing Buddhism of a Japanese school. External forces could do no harm to Hinduism during the colonial times. But in an independent democratic India, manufactured insecurity has caused a churning within Hinduism.
Some of the Hindus disturbed by Hindutva express their anguish in letters to editors. On the anniversary of the mosque demolition, a Hindu correspondent recalls “India’s darkest hour and a huge blow to our multicultural identity”. Like army generals, our leaders exhorted party workers to create mayhem and anarchy. So what atonement can be expected from forces that stoked this very fire, he says. Another letter condemns the latest killings associated with alleged cow slaughter. “How can anger and violence become expressions of religious fervour? It suggests that one can get away with much in the name of religion.”
Such voices are not heard in the din caused by men in saffron demanding that a Ram temple be built on the very spot where the Babri mosque stood once! Bigotry gets plenty of publicity, the calls for religious harmony are ignored. Future historians depending on the media will find that political Hinduism became popular during this period.
The adverse reaction of the devout Hindus apart, the rise of Hindutva has dampened the attraction for Hinduism felt by those belonging to other faiths. Will Hinduism continue to appeal to young westerners revolting against crass materialism and seeking spiritual solace? The brand image of Hinduism in the global spiritual market is diminishing!
A silent majority
Hindus who bow their heads while passing by a mosque or a church are still in a majority, but it is a silent majority. They grieve privately when their liberal faith is violated while the Hindutva votaries dominate public discourse and fight on the streets. With the BJP in power, very few dare to challenge those playing politics with Hinduism or indulging in an un-Hindu like conduct. Most keep quiet in the face of mob frenzy.
Local communities have stakes in social harmony and in any mass disturbance they sense a danger to their livelihood. Many localities of Ayodhya have a mixed population and Hindus and Muslims have lived peacefully together. The town’s devout Hindus were not interested in causing violence in the name of God and that is why the leaders of the Ram temple movement had to transport volunteers in from outside.
Of course, those Hindus who, like devout Muslims, felt pained by the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, did not come out to do penance as Gandhi would have done. A spontaneous move by Hindus to contribute to the rebuilding of the Babri mosque would have defeated the scheming politicians. This is not unthinkable in India where the syncretic tradition still asserts itself on occasions and in places that attract multi-faith worshippers. In the past, some Moghul rulers have demolished temples, but some others also contributed to building temples and protected these.
A political event led to the rise of Hindutva but another political development can herald its decline. The Hindutva card’s futility in the recent state elections has caused unease and dissonance within the ruling alliance. Without political power, the BJP’s polarisation mission will falter. This is because the police and investigating agencies tend to take the cue from their political masters. The police inaction encourages the religious right-wing mobs. This trend will be reversed if the BJP fails to form the next government. And if it has to depend on allies to form the government, the BJP will hastily drop the idea of a theocratic state.
The Prime Minister’s critics will multiply as political power is seen slipping from BJP’s grasp. It will then get hard to mobilise mobs to attack the secular Hindus and the court judgments seeking to loosen the hold of religious orthodoxy. The Prime Minister will stop making subtle references to Hindu-Muslim issues, even if challenged by the extremists in his political family.
Once the divisive leaders are politically neutered, Hinduism’s central message supportive of social harmony will be heard. Private contemplation and meditation may become more attractive. The gulf between religion and the state may widen again. In any case, notwithstanding the state-sponsored infiltration of the right-wing Hindu activists in official and autonomous institutions, the conversion of India into a theocratic state will remain a dream of the BJP-RSS combine.
When the Hindutva card fails to work in successive elections and voters turn away from the BJP, democracy’s self-correcting mechanism will come into play. Hinduism’s resilience will lead to the retreat of the right-wing religious extremists. The BJP will leave this religion alone for some time. Thus, politics of that time will protect Hinduism. In a way, the immediate future of Hinduism lies in the hands of the voters!
A charismatic leader
However, a lot will also depend on the Hindu community’s ability to realise what has gone wrong. As yet, one does not see a giant wave of revulsion against playing politics with Hinduism. The message of sanity has to come from a charismatic devout Hindu reformer who emerges to free Hinduism from the clutches of politicians and to detoxify society through a cultural revolution.
He or she can influence mass consciousness and encourage spiritual leaders to spread the true message of Hinduism. Only then can secularism shape social and political imagination. It has done so even during the more challenging times of the post-Partition communal killings.
Some features of Hinduism obstruct the Hindutva forces. Its pluralism, highlighted in the sacred texts and hymns, resists uniformity. Its diversity protects its inclusive character. The BJP’s campaign to establish the primacy of Lord Ram cannot succeed in regions having a different devotional ethos. Those Hindus will not start establishing Ram temples at the behest of a political party. In fact, they resent attempts to violate their belief system. In some states, the BJP cannot afford to launch its aggressive campaign against beef-eating.
The religious right-wing would like Hinduism to imitate Islam, a religion of the Book. It wants Hinduism to have a central creed so that Hindus claim that theirs is the only valid view. A BJP minister wanted the Bhagavad-Gita to be given an official national status. In this sacred book, Lord Krishna gives Arjuna a list of 35 qualities of a devotee. It defines the devotee as one who hates no creature and is friendly and compassionate. Since Atman (Eternal Self) within us is in all beings, to hate another is to hate our self. Tell this to a hate-mongering politician and he will say his party is not a charitable organisation! Obviously, the sacred book was needed just to show off the Government’s commitment to Hindutva. The proposal just fizzled out!
To hate another is to hate our self. Tell this to a hate-mongering politician and he will say his party is not a charitable organisation!
The tolerance for all-comers has been the strength and genius of Hinduism and the explanation for its resilient vitality in the face of all social challenges and upheavals, says scholar Kerry Brown. Can Hinduism that remained unharmed during foreign rule be distorted by the desi sectarian rulers? Can politicians change the way Hindus look at their religion? Will the current political upheaval have a lasting impact on this faith tradition?
Since analysts do not forecast the future of faith, one may as well cite the faithful who are confident that the current aberration too shall pass. Hinduism is called Sanatan Dharma. Sanatan is eternal or constant and thus this faith tradition will again prove true to its name. The readers of the Bhagavad-Gita feel assured that once the pitcher of sins fills up, the Divine intervenes to set His creation right again! They have the word of Lord Krishna:
Whenever there is decay of
Righteousness, O Bharata,
And there is exaltation of
Unrighteousness, then I Myself
For the protection of the good, for
The destruction of evil-doors,
For the sake of firmly establishing
Righteousness, I am born from
Age to age.
Translated by Swami Vivekananda
L K Sharma has followed no profession other than journalism for more than four decades, covering criminals and prime ministers. Was the European Correspondent of The Times of India based in London for a decade. Reported for five years from Washington as the Foreign Editor of the Deccan Herald. Edited three volumes on innovations in India. He has completed a work of creative nonfiction on V. S. Naipaul His two e-books The Twain and A Parliamentary Affair form part of The Englandia Quartet.
This article was first published at Opendemocracy.