THE TERM ‘HINDUTVA’ has by now gained considerable currency on its own and is often rendered into English as Hindu nationalism.
No hackles are raised when one talks about Hinduism, nor does the use of the word ‘nationalism’ normally generate any discomfort. However, the moment one uses the term ‘Hindu nationalism’, one gets into trouble. Why should two innocent locutions suddenly become menacing merely by being juxtaposed? This is a very interesting and revealing phenomenon. When one uses the word ‘Hinduism’ by itself, the word carries no implication that one is trying to promote or advocate Hinduism. The word can be used as a basis for analysis without implying that it involves advocacy. Similarly, when the word ‘nationalism’ is used by itself, it can serve as a basis for analysing the phenomenon of nationalism, without implying that it involves aggression. But the moment ‘Hindutva’ or ‘Hindu nationalism’ is used, it does not invite analysis but generates the almost irrational fear that Hindu nationalists may be getting ready to take over the country. Such Hinduphobia often comes in the way of analysing the concept.
The term ‘Hindu nationalism’ seems to conceal a deep contradiction which arises from the fact that while Hinduism and nationalism may overlap, they do not coincide. For example, one discovers that Hinduism is not confined to India. The largest Hindu temple complex is not found in India; it is found in Cambodia at Angkor Wat. Similarly, India, as a nation, does not consist only of Hindus. They may constitute almost 80 per cent of Indians but India also perhaps has the largest population of Muslims in the world after Indonesia. It also has substantial numbers of Christians. Many other religious communities have made India their home such as Jews, Zoroastrians, and so on, to say nothing of Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs.
The use of the term ‘Hindu nationalism’, therefore, to put it mildly, is problematic. If this is so, then how does one explain its popularity, for after all a substantial number of Indians have been voting a political party to power over the past two national elections, which is supposed to espouse the cause of Hindutva or Hindu nationalism?
I think the key to what prevents the word ‘Hindu nationalism’ from becoming an oxymoron or a contradiction in terms seems to lie in the fact that both Hinduism as a religious tradition and India as a nation are characterised by pluralism.
Let us first look at India’s history. Indian history and culture can be traced back to at least 5,000 years and during this period many different peoples have made India their home. Throughout its history we hear of people entering India, settling here and making it their home. There is the Indus Valley culture, now usually referred to as the Harappan culture, to begin with, and then we come to the Aryan people. The advent of Aryans into India is a matter of ferocious controversy but it is clear that the scripture they are associated with—mainly the Vedas—adds another dimension to the cultural heritage of the country. Then came the Persians, the Greeks, the Indo-Bactrians, the Indo-Parthians, the Sakas and the Kushanas, and then the Hunas. In the 7th century the Arabs arrived and the Turks, the Afghans and the Mongols followed. Closer to our own time we have the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and then the English adding further diversity to the people present in India. No wonder then that the first prime minister of our country, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, famously described India as a “palimpsest”. India, however, has not been a melting pot in which the identities or groups are erased but is more like a mosaic in which the differences are preserved—and even cherished. A striking proof of this is the fact that even today one finds pockets of people in India living the way they might have lived in Neolithic times and have thus managed to preserve their culture for thousands of years alongside other cultures. One could even maintain that India has been able to retain the entire spectrum of the evolution of civilisation from the stone age to our own times!
The term ‘Nindu nationalism’ seems to conceal a deep contradiction which arises from the fact that while Hinduism and nationalism may overlap, they do not coincide. For example, one discovers that Hinduism is not confined to India
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There are calls these days for the history of India to be rewritten. Nevertheless, whatever shape that history might take it is unlikely that the plural nature of the Indian people and culture will be compromised by it. In this respect, at least, one could say that the more things change, the more they remain the same, as the French discovered.
Like India, Hinduism is also characterised by a plural outlook. How plural it can be I discovered for myself in an interesting manner. I needed to cite the number of gods mentioned in the Rig Veda for a research paper I was working on. I thought this would be a simple matter and requested a leading scholar in Vedic studies, who is also a good friend, to share the correct figure. What I received from him was a reading list which left me aghast. I soon realised what the problem was. The Rig Veda contains statements such as the following: “Indra, who is Varuna, who is Rudra…” and so on. How does one count these? It also speaks of dual divinities such as Mitra-and-Varuna. Are these to be counted as one or two, or as two halves? In other words, no one could tell even in Rig Vedic times how many gods there were in the pantheon. The impact of this discovery was redoubled when I realised that even today nobody can estimate with confidence the number of gods being worshipped in Hinduism.
Hinduism is not a Hindu word: one term which the Hindus use to describe their own religion is ‘Vedic Dharma’. The idea that Hinduism is Vedic in nature can be parsed in several ways. One could consider it Vedic because its foundational texts are the Vedas; one could also call it Vedic because of the acceptance of Vedic authority in Hindu philosophy; one could consider it Vedic because the sacraments of Hinduism are based on the Vedas; and so on. My experience mentioned above provides us with yet another ground for considering it Vedic. It is Vedic because even today Hinduism shares the plural ethos of the Vedas; even today we cannot state with certainty the number of gods in Hinduism no more than one could at the time of the Rig Veda.
What is more, Hinduism has even been self-conscious about the fact that it is plural. The Atharva Veda, in its famous Prithvi Sukta, marvels at the fact that the earth supports people with so many different customs and lifestyles. Almost a thousand years later, the Kurma Purana is even more explicit on this point. It states that men and women living in India belong to different varnas, worship different gods and perform different rituals. It is worth noting that this verse does not say that India has four varnas but rather that it has many varnas (“nana-varna”). The Sanskrit word used in both these citations to represent this plurality is ‘nana’.
Now we have to deal with the paradox that both Indian nationalism and Hinduism also claim to be universalistic. People we venerate today as representative figures of our nationalism, such as Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi, took their nationalism rather lightly, in the sense that they recoiled at the idea of any parochialism being associated with it. Tagore even delivered lectures on the dangers of nationalism, and his famous vision of Indian independence, which begins with the line “Where the mind is without fear… ” and ends with “Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake” could resonate with any country. Mahatma Gandhi famously said that he wanted the winds of all cultures to be blown freely around his house, but refused to be blown off his feet by any. And Hindu savants never tire of reminding us that the world is our family (vasudhaivakutumbakam). India as a nation is clearly different from other nations and Hinduism as a religion is also different from other religions. Indian nationalism is based on India being a distinct nation and yet it almost seems to compromise this with its talk of universalism. Similarly, Hinduism is a distinct religion but it also seems to compromise its distinctness by talking in universal terms. What is going on here?
Swami Vivekananda spoke of universal religion but never of one religion becoming the universal religion, and VD Savarkar remarks that ‘a Hindu is most a Hindu when least a Hindu’
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What is going on here is clearly revealed when we try to examine the word ‘universal’ closely. The word belongs to the language in which this piece is being written and therefore carries with it the semantic ambiguity which surrounds this word in English. To uncover this let us consider the following two expressions: One, English is a universal language; two, language is a universal phenomenon. The word ‘universal’ has been used in both these statements but not in exactly the same sense. In the first example, it conveys the meaning that one language is spoken all over the world. In the second example, it conveys the meaning that there are many languages in the world and not just one. Let us describe the first sense as monochromatic in nature. There is this one thing which is present everywhere seamlessly. And let us describe the second sense as polychromatic in nature. There is this one thing which has many forms. We have to distinguish here between two kinds of universalism, one which we could call seamless universalism and the other which we could call granular universalism. One could compare the first form of universalism to a string without any knots and the second to a string made up of knots. Both are strings, both bind, but they do it in different ways. Western universalism tends to be of the first kind and Indian universalism tends to be of the second kind. The difference is perhaps encapsulated in the distinction between uniformity and unity.
We drew a distinction between India as a country and Hinduism as a religion. Let us add to this now the distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva, often drawn by modern critics of Hindutva who like to distinguish between what they regard as good Hinduism (for which they use the word ‘Hinduism’) and bad Hinduism (for which they use the word ‘Hindutva’).
What is remarkable is that all the three entities identified above—India (or Indian nationalism), Hinduism and Hindutva—subscribe to the second form of universalism which we have identified as granular. Rabindranath Tagore compared various distinct cultures to different mountains of the same range, and Mahatma Gandhi, when approached to comment on the achievement of Indian independence, is reported to have said: “I am glad that India is becoming independent but I am sad that a great empire is coming to an end.” Swami Vivekananda spoke of universal religion but never of one religion becoming the universal religion, and VD Savarkar remarks, as he concludes his tract Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu? (1928), that “a Hindu is most a Hindu when least a Hindu.”
Indian nationalism, Hinduism, Hinduness (or Hindutva) all converge on this point, but do they merge?
Arvind Sharma is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University, Montreal. He is the author of , among other titles, Hermeneutics and Hindu Thought and Hinduism and Its Sense of History