A religion regains its pride
PR Ramesh | 13 Aug, 2020
Prime Minister Narendra Modi performs bhoomipuja at the site of the proposed Ram temple in Ayodhya, August 5 (Photo: AP)
Not long ago, Hindus were made to feel ashamed of flaunting their religious identity, in the name of being secular by nature. While the scars of such humiliations are yet to disappear, one cannot but notice the buoyant Hindu assertion that triumphs over the sense of guilt foisted on them by the proponents of so-called secularism who had no qualms about promoting public displays of identity for other religions. Breaking free of that cultural entrapment institutionalised by the politically expedient leaders of post-Independence India, Hindus of this country are now proud of their heritage and history and do not want to be seen as effacing their beliefs for the sake of Abrahamic religions, such as Christianity and Islam, that received preferential treatment for decades in a contrived effort to champion ‘secular’ ideals. Yes, the initial attempts to de-Hinduise India have hit the skids following the awakening of Hindu consciousness in the land where Narendra Modi as Prime Minister successfully obliterated the political requirement for excessive appeasement of any other religion at the expense of Hinduism.
The course correction was rapid and effective. The country would no longer be at the mercy of wokes and the practitioners of cultural Marxism who used to set whimsical standards for what was right and wrong in India’s socio-political realm.
The first concrete attempt at decolonising the Hindu mind came with Swami Vivekananda’s Chicago address of September 11th, 1893. It was there, in the heart of the US, that he proactively dismissed the myths being propagated about Sanatan Dharma by the ruling establishment in the subcontinent and the missionaries encouraged by them. His intent was not so much to attack Christianity as to own and celebrate the tenets of Hinduism.
Of the six speeches he delivered in Chicago between September 11th and 27th, 1893 at the Parliament of Religions, the first was the most dramatic and strident. Referring to those present as “sisters and brothers of America” to thunderous applause, the Swami launched a full-frontal attack on the colonial view of Hinduism on everything, from “idolatry”, “caste system” and “salvation” , as opposed to what prevailed in Christianity. Several religious publications there reporting his speeches refused to even mention the reception the charismatic Swami got from a disenchanted youthful audience who found his critical views on Christian doctrinal positions on “damning sin and salvation in Jesus Christ” rather heartening.
Historian Sita Ram Goel points out that he reiterated, time and again, that he did not aim at making converts to Hinduism but to focus on “the deepening and purification of Christianity which had been vulgarised by theologians and debased by missionaries”. Defying the strong prevailing current of denigrating all things Hindu, driven to a good extent by the acute bigotry of several members of the British ruling class and thinkers, Vivekananda asserted this in his address: “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation.”
Prior to this, the only resolute defender of Hindu Dharma in this “intellectually hostile atmosphere that prevailed” was Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. Vivekananda himself admired Bankim Chandra’s worldview. Bankim Chandra had come to the definite conclusion that Hindus had nothing to learn from Christianity. The speech which Sri Aurobindo delivered at Uttarpara which brazenly and proudly linked Sanatan Dharma directly with nationalism came years after Vivekananda’s Chicago address in 1909. He not only aggressively defended Sanatan Dharma but also inextricably linked it with nationalism.
But the juggernaut reclaiming and reasserting Hinduism with pride, begun by the likes of Vivekananda and Aurobindo and Tagore was stalled in its tracks. Weaponised by the state and Lord Macaulay, missionaries by the droves were allowed to spread and propagate Christianity across the subcontinent and pillory Hinduism as a faith defined by idolatry, irrationality and ritualistic emotional claptrap. Post-Independence, Nehruvian socialism and secularism further impeded the gains in reviving pride in Sanatan Dharma which was practised by millions in the subcontinent. The prevailing worldview was reshaped into one of ridiculing and disparaging Hinduism and denigrating the community of believers and the rich matrix of history, tradition, culture, social norms and civilisational moorings. Glorification of not just Christianity but Islam too began—and everything bad or illiberal associated with religion was dumped into the Hindu column.
Against this backdrop, perhaps trying to overcompensate for his being from a faith perceived as regressive and from an esoteric land of snakes and rope tricks, the first Prime Minister was keen to project the newly free country as one that symbolised reason, a scientific temper, and a modern society. Hinduism, and the centuries of civilisational history, culture and tradition backing it, became key collateral damage.
What was crucial about this post-Independence pushback against the renewed resurgence of Hindu pride was the fact that it came from the elite class within the country and not from faiths born outside or forces executing a colonial project. This bid came from the Hindus of India themselves. Though they were notional Hindus, they denied the fact that they belonged to the faith. It allowed this class to criticise the religion with impunity, claiming a locus which the proselytisers from outside the geography or the faith could never have. Any criticism from the Church or the Ulema could have been brushed aside as prejudiced, meant for propagating and expanding their faith at the cost of the Hindus. But since it came from Hindus, it acquired a high credibility quotient. Therefore, those who attacked Hinduism and its culture had the credentials, locus, competence—and they went ahead with their task more ruthlessly than any evangelist. Yet, they escaped the scrutiny that would be extended to evangelists and ambassadors of other faiths.
Everything changed on the afternoon of May 16th, 2014 when Modi rode to power in Delhi. The incentive to demonise Hinduism was suddenly gone when he openly embraced his Hindu faith in public. With the advent of Modi, the stigma around being a devout Hindu ground to a full stop
Beginning with 1980, when the slogan “Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain” was coined—a simplistic reinterpretation of Vivekananda’s speech—the resurgence had a ready resonance. But it still looked to be lacking in substance because the elite controlled the intellectual space. Educated urbanites were by and large still apologetic about displaying their religious beliefs in public spaces and ashamed to acknowledge that they were Hindu by faith. The practice of Hinduism had been vilified and suppressed and de-legitimised for so long that transformation would soon come knocking. This was partly also because the socio-political echo system was not conducive to the ruling Congress. The Ram Mandir movement of the early 1990s revitalised the masses and heralded a renewed Hindu pride. Despite that, the ruling elite and the intelligentsia in metros were still loath to own their faith openly with conviction and confidence. With the coming to power of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) later, its minorityism called the shots for a whole decade. It was a time when civil society activists, NGOs and others, in the name of neutrality, revelled in being patently unfriendly towards Hindus. The political premium on minorityism reinforced, especially in urban power centres, a persistent emasculation of anything remotely Hindu in nature.
Everything changed radically on the afternoon of May 16th, 2014 when Modi rode to power in Delhi. The incentive to vilify and demonise Hinduism was suddenly gone when he openly embraced his Hindu faith in public, defying past traditions. With the advent of Modi, two crucial developments occurred. First, the insidious penalty levied on practising Hinduism and owning the religion with pride vanished. Second, the general mindset prevailing for long in society, that the Hindu could not do the very things connected to the practice of his religion that other communities could, without feeling diffident or guilty about his actions, was radically restructured. Suddenly, the stigma around being a devout Hindu ground to a full stop.
In April last year, Modi, accompanied by Amit Shah, attended the Ganga Aarti in his constituency of Varanasi, sitting through 150 seconds of Shanknaad (conch shell blowing), dressed in a simple saffron kurta and gamchha, hands folded in complete devotion. He quoted from the scriptures in public. And from the works of famous seers and ascetics across the country and celebrating famed rulers and warriors, including Rana Pratap, Chhatrapati Shivaji, Prithviraj Chauhan, and so on. Modi was also liberal in his patronage of important places associated with the Hindu religion, as in the reconstruction of the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi that had fallen to rack and ruin for dozens of years and the building of a road connecting the Char Dham.
Temples in Kashi, Mathura and Ayodhya were symbols seared indelibly into the collective conscious of the Hindu masses, stemming from the brutality of a thousand civilisational cuts inflicted by Mughal rulers such as Babur and Aurangzeb and others who razed these sites of core Hindu faith and belief to build mosques in their stead. The open advocacy of their reconstruction and celebration engendered a massive boost to Hindu revivalism and an end to minority appeasement in politics and society. One that had, in fact, allowed mollycoddling the Church and the Ulemas, the likes of the Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, in modern India. Modi’s arrival centrestage fuelled thousands of youth who refused to be apologetic about their convictions. As Ashwin Sanghi, bestselling author of The Sialkot Saga and other books, wrote: ‘Hindus do not expect an apology from anyone. But my generation is equally unwilling to apologise for being Hindu. We are also tired of being the ones who have to regularly prove how secular we are. This agni-pariksha must stop. Do you really want to preserve secularism in India? Then preserve the Hindu ethos first.’
Following Modi’s arrival on the national stage, the change was evident in a pronounced manner among the metropolitan middle class. Disdain for the Hindu believer was still around, but it had now been forced to the margins. Being Hindu without guilt had acquired both acceptance and respectability.
Simultaneously, the Modi Government has started pushing for a new economic order, active on gender issues, including giving women new opportunities, enhancing maternity leave, permanent commission in the army and new roles acknowledging their place on frontiers like space. Aerospace engineer Ritu Karidhal, for example, was the first woman mission director of a crucial space mission, responsible for guiding Chandrayaan-2 through its space journey. Flying Officer Avani Chaturvedi created history when she became the first woman fighter pilot to fly solo after she flew a MiG-21. Modernity and a progressive, forward-looking worldview, even while being proudly rooted in the rich traditions and culture, gained new traction. On the artistic front, the bhajan as a musical form regained popularity and dethroned the Qawwali—patronised by the elite in the national capital—as the only popular form of devotional music.
Modi’s unabashed owning of Hinduism and its religious rituals expunged the taboo attached to this for decades among the urban elite. It was here that the new assertion made itself manifest loudest. The bulk of rural India had never abandoned its religious beliefs and rituals despite attempts by missionaries converting Tribals to Christianity in large numbers. Even in small towns, there was no disincentive on being overtly religious. The power of marketing these festivities among consumers in rural and small-town India only consolidated the beliefs and their public espousal, both in urban and rural India, to the point that Modi’s actions mainstreamed Hinduism and its practice. The domination and celebration of Christian and Islamic cultures and the high premium placed by those in power on Hindu-bashing started to subside and wane, whittling down the diffidence and the guilt associated with practising Hinduism in a land where an overwhelming majority was Hindu.
The overall effect was that of a re-Hinduisation, a confident display of faith, a faith that had faced many invasions, assaults, centuries of ridicule and derision, but still had enough resilience to insulate its core and find ingenious and multiple ways to survive. It was a vigorous re-appreciation of the past and a reassertion of the secularism practised in the faith, through history, of Sarva Dharma Samabhava. Writing in the Pakistani press on the common cultural moorings of the subcontinent that were being denied in the rewriting of history as viewed through the prism of modern politics, author Khalid Ahmed recently pointed out that Pakistan must recall the golden age when Muslims and Hindus benefited from each other.
Religion, he argued, has got Muslims their Pakistan but mathematics remains the weakest subject taught in their schools and universities.
Referring to one of the Central Asian astronomers of yore involved in the project of measuring the distance between two meridians, Abu Jafar Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (780-850), Ahmed writes that Hindus and Muslims had much respect for each other then and that al-Khwarizmi—the most influential mathematician during the early Middle Ages—had learned his most important lessons from Hindu mathematicians. ‘Al-Khwarizmi got today’s term algorithm named after him after reading Hindu writings. His booklet penned in 825 called Algoritmi de numero Indorum was picked up from Brahmagupta,’ Ahmed writes.
This liberal exchange of ideas and knowledge with other cultures and peoples through the ages tied in completely with the claims made by the likes of Swami Vivekananda about Hinduism— that it was cosmopolitan to its core, all-accepting and, unlike other religions, completely divorced from bigotry in its fundamental principles. It did not seek to amalgamate or claim the principles of other religions for itself but was cosmopolitan and accepting of all men, in its very core. The exchange of knowledge on the frontiers of learning in all sectors was a key part of the cosmopolitanism of Hinduism.
The historical imagination in modern India has curious time warps. Its mainstay is medieval India. There is ancient India somewhere, to be sure, but given the distance between our time and that hoary past, it has little relevance. What we know about it is largely epigraphic: there are no memoirs, no court records and scanty evidence about what happened more than a millennium ago. Finally, there is the period in which we live, that is independent India. But that is more appropriate to political analysis than historical reflection. In sum, Indian history has spindly legs, a huge torso and feeble forearms.
A morphological metaphor is not the best description for the past of a nation but, unfortunately, the gross politicisation of history-writing in India has brought it to such a pass. Everything about historians who practised this craft, roughly since 1960, has been geared to a single function: the legitimisation of the current political masters. How that has been done is a sordid tale. Fact-based history and those who wrote it were deemed communal. Painstaking reconstruction of medieval India at the hands of academics as different as AL Srivastava, Parmatma Saran and Jadunath Sarkar among others was ignored and their books discarded as obsolete. Instead, interpretative studies that cast the blood-soaked annals of medieval India—from the Khiljis until Farrukhsiyar—in a glowing light became the norm. Of course, there were aberrations, but then so were Hindu rulers of the past. All this was called secular history.
In recent years, there have been tentative steps towards writing on bits and parts of independent India that fit with this historical project. For example, there have been new histories of the Emergency period, but these again are devious: the effort is to compare that notorious time when democracy was suspended with the present times, in a bid to cast the current Prime Minister in a dark hue. In fact, a forthcoming history mischievously describes Emergency as India’s ‘first dictatorship’. Indian history, always mired in the swamp of contemporary politics, can never redeem itself until its practice is purged of ideology.
Speaking at the bhoomipuja ceremony in Ayodhya on August 5th, Prime Minister Modi, who attended the historic event, assertively established the link between the Ram Mandir movement, the freedom struggle and the deep-rooted civilisational nationalism. Comparing August 5th to Independence Day, August 15th, Modi said: “During our freedom struggle, everyone sacrificed for our freedom. Just as August 15th symbolises the end of our struggle for freedom, where the entire country played its part, for the Ram Mandir, people have made a number of sacrifices and struggled. And today symbolises the culmination of the fight for a Ram Mandir for centuries.” Referring to the Ram Mandir as an instrument for uniting all of India, the Prime Minister maintained that the temple would prove to be a bridge and connect the entire country, and that it signifies truth and sacrifice. Ram is the thread of India’s unity in diversity, he said.
The process of reappraisal and re-appreciation of the past is going to stay. And questions will be raised on the attempts to push aside a significant part of history. There will be attempts to resurrect national heroes and this process will become irreversible. By 2024, the execution of this process is expected to be concretised, set in stone. Opponents of this should be worried if Modi stays on beyond 2024. By then, his reassertion of Hinduism would have irrevocably changed the course of the country beyond the most nightmarish visions of the secularists who sought to de-Hinduise India and deny the subcontinent the spiritual zeal of its glorious past.