Hindutava and Indianess : Ashok Malhotra


“Hindi hain hum, watan hai Hindostan hamara” Sadly, the author of these lines Mohd. Iqbal became one of the strongest advocates of the two nation theory and hence partition of India. Even more sad is the fact that the term Hindi (meaning people belonging to the land of Hind) has been totally eclipsed by the term Hindu. Hindu is generally understood as a term for people belonging to a certain religion. It is highly debatable whether any such religion has ever existed, but that is how the term has come to be used. Since Hinduism is at best an umbrella term, it gets defined not so much by what it includes but what it excludes. The followers of Semitic organized religions like Islam and Christianity are automatically excluded. Religions like Sikhism and Buddhism though technically non-Hindu, are sometimes regarded as part of the same family of religions/sects, which are broadly clubbed under the Hindu umbrella. Broadly the Hindu umbrella includes several ancient sects like Vedic Brahmanism, Puranic Hinduism, Tantric and Bhakti traditions and the more recent sects like Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj etc. There is no single source from which these various sects have originated, unlike say the Islam or Christianity wherein the different sects can at least claim some sort of commonality of origin in terms of a common founder and/or sacred text. There is at best some sort of link with what may be called philosophical underpinnings e.g. the concept of Yugas, theory of Karma and cycle of rebirth, social design based on the principles of Varna ashram etc. But here again the variations are far too many for Hinduism to be regarded as a monolithic religion. Hence if the term Hindu is to be used in a religious sense then at best we can talk of Hindu religions and not Hindu religion.

Sadhu@Varnasi. Photo Credit : Sharbori Gomes, 2014

The notion of a monolithic construct of Hinduism has been the main plank around which the socio-political ideology of Hindutava has been built. Inevitably, it generates its own counter reactions and in the process the civilizational quintessence of the people of Hind gets totally obscured. In this paper the term Hindatva will be used to convey this civilizational quintessence.

Bodhi Tree @ Sarnath. Photo Credit : Sharbori Gomes, 2014

Human beings are not merely products of their own unique personal context but also of the civilization that they belong to. Salience across different civilizations is not of an absolute nature but only of nuances and relative emphasis. Thus, each civilization depending upon its history and context places a little more emphasis on some human attributes and a little less on others in comparison to other civilizations. For example a civilization may place greater emphasis on individual autonomy whereas another may place greater emphasis on affiliation and belonging. These nuances put together may be broadly called the civilizational character. While the civilizational character is not static, nuances acquired over centuries cannot be overthrown just like that. Further, doing so has its own immense emotional and psychological cost. In a sense, it will tantamount to waging a war against one’s own quintessence.

Khusru Bagh@Allahabad. Photo Credit : Sharbori Gomes, 2014

Religion plays a significant role in shaping the civilizational character, but by no means is it the sole determinant of it. Also the impact of Religion will very much depend upon how the people of that civilization relate to religion, and this it self will not be uniform across all civilizations. Thus, to begin with, it would be pertinent to ask as to what does religion mean to the people of Hind? Romila Thapar, a well known historian has this to say- “From the colonial perspective Hinduism and Islam were two monolithic religions and all Hindus and Muslims observed the rules of their text –based religions. This may have been applicable to sections of the elite, such as court circles and heads of religious institutions. However, for the vast majority of people religion was an open-ended experience-a mixing, merging, overlapping, borrowing or rejecting of forms and ideas beyond the formal labels. Religion for the larger population lay in forms of personal devotion, in the worship of the spirits within trees and mountains, nagas, yakshis and ancillary deities of local cult shrines, in listening to the words of the bhikkhus and the Nayannars and Alvars, the Bhakti and Sufi teachers, to the stories retold from the epics and the puranas, and to the conversations of those who congregated around faqirs, pirs and other holy men, agreeing or disagreeing on the essentials of understanding the purpose of life and meaning of death”

Calligraphy parchment /scroll@Lucknow. Photo Credit : Sharbori Gomes, 2014

This engagement with religion as an open-ended experience is very much in line with what Ashish Nandy has called a fluid self-definition. In an earlier paper (Indianness and Existential Ambivalence) I had suggested that the three main elements of Indian quintessence are a)     A fluid self definition b)     “Maryada” of roles and boundaries, and c)     Faith in the intrinsic benevolence of God/Cosmos/ Nature/Unknown etc. Thus what Thapar has said in respect of religion is perhaps only a manifestation of this civilizational quintessence. Coming back to the issue of religion, the present Indian situation may not exactly conform to Thapar’s description, but is not very different either. Admittedly, the last couple of centuries have witnessed the emergence of more monolithic religious identities but perhaps the association of religion as an open-ended experience is so deeply launched in the psyche of people of Hind that it is not going to be very easy for them to see religion as a monolith. In Hind, followers of even more organized religions like Islam and Christianity have generally shown considerable flexibility and adaptability. In spite of their egalitarian philosophy, they have ended up evolving their own brand of caste system. The Sufi tradition is virtually indistinguishable from the Bhakti tradition, and the ambience of a Dargah is not very different from that of a temple. While there are Christians who believe in the jealous God theory, there are many more who would automatically show some sign of respect while passing by a place of worship irrespective of the religion that it belongs to. In some of the Christian festivities the way Jesus and Mary are worshipped that you could easily mistake them for some Hindu deities. A significant question is- what are the feelings associated with this engagement with religion as an “open-ended experience”? At one level it has been accepted, graced and even showcased as evidence of our tolerance and respect for other religions. However, it has perhaps also been a source of considerable anguish and even shame, particularly for the followers of Hindu religions. A message, which they perhaps ended up internalizing, was that organized religion is a pre-requisite to being civilized. Without a proper organized body, a religious authority and a sacred text, no society can claim to be civilized. Consequently, many of their religious practices got equated to mere superstition. Polytheism, Idol –worship became signs of their backwardness and ignorance. Simultaneously there is perhaps also a feeling that the absence of a monolithic organized religion has come in the way to unification and hence puts them at a considerable disadvantage vis. a vis. their adversaries. Search for a monolithic model like that of more organized Semitic religions has much to do with this feeling of stigma, shame and victimhood. In this endeavour Vedic Brahamanism has a distinctive advantage over other sects of Hindu religions. Not merely does it have more followers among the elite, it also has a much richer stock of sacred texts and an extremely sophisticated philosophy to back it up. Thus it is to be expected that if Hindutva is an endeavour to build a monolithic frame for Hindu religions, then Vedic Brahamanism will become its main plank. Ironically, Vedic Brahamanism also provides the maximum ammunition to its detractors. After all, you can always quote a Manu Smriti to show the oppressive and discriminatory side of the Hindu religions and social order. The followers of non-Hindu religions have their own set of difficulties with the Indian approach to religion as an open-ended experience. Unlike their counterparts in Hindu religions, they have a clearer and tighter religious organization, authority and sacred text. Consequently this open-ended approach is a much greater source of conflicting loyalties for them. While their inner propensity may pull them towards an open-ended approach, they are also likely to be left with the residual feeling of betraying their own religion. The issue gets accentuated with the higher status being granted to the foreigner. As Romila Thapar points out “ Among Muslim castes priority was given to the very few that claimed to be of Arab, Persian or Turkish descent, as against the many who were local converts” The situation in respect of Christians is not likely to be very different. Finally, embracing of the Indian way is perhaps also associated with being equated with the heathen and less civilized.

Durga Temple@Varnasi. Photo Credit : Sharbori Gomes, 2014

All in all, it seems that people of Hind are not quite at ease with their own quintessence or what we can call Hindatva (as distinct from Hindutva) While Hindutva may be an ideology, Hindatva is a reality; a fact of life from which we can not escape. For some people, Hindutva may provide a convenient refuge from the self-hate and victimhood which Hindatva generates in us and they may do so by directing the hate on to the “other” or by glorifying an imagined past or by stubbornly holding on to practices which have lost all relevance. For others, the release from self-hate may come through attacking all that is wrong with us, with our heritage, with our traditions with our practices etc. Sometimes the viciousness with which anything Indian is put down that one begins to wonder whether there are strong vested interests in ensuring that the Indian psyche remains caught with its self-hate and victimhood. Since Hindutva itself is a product of self-hate, the more vicious the attack, the more virulent it becomes. Hindatva and Hindutva are very different from each other but they are also intertwined. Sometimes they appear in sync with each other and sometimes they stand in opposition to each other. Possibly, Hindutava is the backlash of shunning Hindatva. For various historical reasons self-hate and victimhood have become significant parts of the Indian identity. Hindutva provides a convenient medium through which these feelings can be expressed in a reactive and aggressive manner. This is a vicious cycle because it is of little help in restoration of self-esteem. On the other hand, it provides even more ammunition to fuel both self-hate and victimhood. The only purpose that it ends up serving is to provide legitimacy to such reactionary forces, which do no want any fundamental change in the oppressive, discriminatory and exploitative aspects of the present social order. On the other hand are the forces, which perhaps do not want the Indian identity to find release from its self-hate and victimhood. While on the face of it, they champion the cause of the oppressed, and claim to be progressive in their outlook; often their frame of progress has very little space for Hindatva in it. For them, Hindatva is either irrelevant or a burden/handicap in the path of what they consider as progress. The more insensitive, scornful and contemptuous they are towards Hindatva, the more virulent Hindutva becomes. To sum up, the preoccupation with Hindutva has obscured the more important issue of Hindatva. In a sense, there is no real difference between the supporters and detractors of Hindutva. Both ensure that the Indian identity remains in the grip of its historical burden of self-hate and victimhood. If this vicious cycle is to be broken, then we need to

  1. Recognize that religion in the Indian context does not mean the same as it may in other places, that a monolithic organized religion is not a prerequisite for a civilized society, and that our civilization has preferred to adopt an open-ended approach to religion rather than enforcing a commonality. So long as we retain this open-ended orientation, admission of religion(s) into public domain is not a threat to us. The most effective demonstration of this phenomenon was provided by Gandhiji who could easily bring religion(s) into the public domain in an inclusive manner. The paranoia around religious identities that we are experiencing today is perhaps more an outcome of our self-hate than an intrinsic part of our identity.
  2. Recognize that our heritage is extremely rich and also diverse. On one hand, it is an unparalleled storehouse of wisdom, but also contains elements which will make us squirm today e.g. caste and gender based discrimination and oppression. To look at our heritage only through the lens of these negatives is as absurd as attempts to rationalize these negatives or dismiss them as minor distortions. All heritages are a mixed bag of positives and negatives and there is no reason why ours should be an exception. Just because we have a great heritage does not mean that we can turn a blind eye to its negatives. Simultaneously, just because we do not like some features of our heritage does not mean that we condemn it altogether or turn our backs to it or constantly beat ourselves for it. A large part of our self-hate stems from not coming to terms with our heritage. This self-hate manifests itself either through over-glorification of the heritage, or through its outright condemnation, or through disowning it completely as though it does not concern us at all. In the process, we overlook that civilizational heritage is not some thing “out there” but lives through us and there is no way we can run away from it. Here again, Gandhiji showed us the way of how we can embrace our heritage without becoming a captive of its negative features.
  3. Pursue a path of development and progress, which is aligned, to the imperatives of our quintessence. Often progress and development get equated with the ways of the West. Shri Dharampal an eminent Gandhian thinker and historian had suggested that opulence and wide differentials in consumption is largely a postcolonial phenomenon in India. Till that time there was very little difference in the life style and standard of living between the rich and the poor. To substantiate this claim he has relied upon statistical data and other records from various sources including British archives. If this were so, then the present trend to define development in terms of GDP and consumerism may not be our cup of tea. Its glitter may attract us but is it what we really want for ourselves? Surely it will serve the purpose of the Hindutava brigade, but what will it do toHindatva? ⌘⌘⌘
Artist’s name represented by a fish symbol, Khusru Bagh. @Allahabad Photo Credit : Sharbori Gomes, 2014










Ashok Malhotra is an author, thinker, organisation consultant and commentator on the social character of  contemporary Indians.  For related reading by the same author click on: Indianess and Existential AmbivalenceIndianess and UsIndianess and Gender.


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