3. What is Wrong with "Hindu"?

 

         To an extent, the avoidance of the term "Hindu" has characterized many earlier avatars of Hindu nationalism.  Sri Aurobindo titled his newspaper "Arya", and declared that India would rise with "Sanatana Dharma", a more profound term than the colloquial "Hinduism".  The Arya Samaj preferred the term "Vedic", or the Vedic term "Arya" (denoting adherence to Vedic civilizational standards), to the originally purely geographical Persian term "Hindu".  Moreover, "Hindu" was a catch-all term which included traditions considered deviant or non-Vedic by the Arya Samaj (esp. Puranic, Tantric); in the 1881 census, the Arya Samaj even advised its members to register as non-Hindus.  This policy was reversed for the 1901 census, but in the 1980s, some Arya Samaj factions again made attempts to be recognized as a non-Hindu minority.  By then, the term "Hindu" had not only become a distinctly dirty word, but also carried constitutional disadvantages with it (cfr. infra).  In the same period, and for the same conformist and opportunist reasons, the Ramakrishna Mission unsuccessfully tried to get registered as a new non-Hindu religion called Ramakrishnaism.

  

         Even those who espouse doctrines and practices which are described in handbooks on "Hinduism", avoid the term "Hindu".  In recent years, yoga teachers whether Indian or Western have tended to avoid mentioning the purely "Hindu" character of what they offer as the universal "science of yoga" (it is Christian fundamentalists who warn people of the Satanic Hindu character of these seemingly innocuous breathing and mental exercises).  The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi calls his sadhana "science of creative intelligence", the political party which his followers in the West founded is called "Natural Law Party", and its viewpoints are typically prefixed with "Vedic": Vedic economics, Vedic health programme, etc.  One of the reasons certainly is that outside India, the term "Hindu" is exotic and therefore connotes irrelevance to local situations.  Another, more ominous one is that ever since the arrival of Hare Krishna singers in our streets, "Hindu" at best connotes mildly laughable eccentricity if not charlatanism.[1]  For people who get their news and views through Christian missionary information channels, "Hindu" connotes savage superstition, otherworldliness, indolence, oppression and cruelty.  But these reasons cannot count as valid excuses for activists with pro-Hindu convictions working within Hindu society.

 

         The most decent reason for avoiding the term "Hindu" might be that the corpus of Hindu literature itself does not mention it anywhere.  It is, after all, a Persian term brought to India by the Muslim invaders.  Moreover, it has a negative definition: any Indian who does not subscribe to a prophetic-monotheist creed.  It is merely the "Other" of the Muslim invaders in India.  But then, it had the advantage of uniting all Indians of different traditions and levels of culture in a single category clearly demarcated from the predator religions Christianity and Islam.  This gave the term also a positive content, viz. their common civilizational virtues which set them apart from Christianity and Islam: their pluralism, their freedom of thought, their reliance on genuine experience rather than dogmatic belief.  "Hindu" has therefore become a meaningful, more than merely geographical term.  Though in certain contexts a puristic preference for more ancient and native terms may be legitimate, the term "Hindu" should be good enough for household use in the present era.

 

         Therefore, when Hindu freedom fighters created a common platform to counter the anti-national designs of the Muslim League, they did not hesitate to call it Hindu Mahasabha (HMS).  The first session of the All Indian Hindu Mahasabha was held at Haridwar in 1915 and was attended, among others, by Gandhi who had not yet taken command of the Indian National Congress or become known as Mahatma. This, then, is the main exception to the rule that modern Hindu ideologues and organizations shun the name "Hindu".  Later on HMS ideologue V.D. Savarkar gave currency to the neologism "Hindutva" (a somewhat uneasy combination of a Persian loan-word with a high-brow Sanskritic suffix) through his so‑titled book in 1923.  He too tried to give a positive meaning to the term "Hindu", and sought it in people's degree of rootedness in the Indian territory: a Hindu is one for whom India is both "fatherland" and "holyland".

 

         But barely two years later, Dr. Hedgewar, though acknowledging Savarkar's influence, called his newly created organization "Rashtriya" (national, not "Hindu") Swayamsevak Sangh.  By that time, Gandhi had made the word “Hindu” to mean sokething less than “national”, and the nation had become something more than Hindu.. The revolutionary movement in Bengal with which Hedgewar had come in contact was also turning away from its Hindu inspiration and fighting shy of the word “Hindu” in order to lull Muslim suspicions. The name Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh has recently been adopted by the Non-Resident Indian branches of the RSS (in whose case "national" would mean "Trinidadian", "Canadian" etc.), but for the rest, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP, founded in 1964) is the only explicitly "Hindu" RSS affiliate, all others being "Rashtriya" or "Bharatiya".  These terms, in contrast to "Arya" or "Vedic" or "Sanatana Dharma" (which are not used in the quoted BJS and BJP programmes either), are not synonyms of "Hinduism", but purely geographical terms. 

 

         The explanation given by RSS men is that in Hedgewar's view, the nation of India was essentially Hindu, and that the self‑designation "Hindu" would merely corroborate the prevalent British (and later, Nehruvian) demotion of the Hindus as merely one "community" among others, rather than as the nation of India.[2]  The version of the RSS's critics in the Hindu Mahasabha was and is that the RSS was just not brave enough to affirm its natural Hindu identity against the anti‑Hindu dictates of the opinion‑making establishment.  It should be admitted that the tendency to identify "Hindu" with "national" was already present in Savarkar's own definition, but the component "India as holyland" does at least discriminate between traditions originating in India and the predatory religions Christianity and Islam.

 

         Among the Sangh Parivar's components, the BJP is the most emphatic in avoiding any association with Hinduism.  While other organizations somehow affiliated with the RSS may sometimes describe their political ideal as "Hindu Rashtra", the BJP studiously avoids such terms and prefers to swear by "genuine secularism".  When A.B. Vajpayee is asked about the notion of "Hindu Rashtra", he declares he prefers "Bharatiya Rashtra", which, if words still have any meaning, can only denote the already‑existing "Indian state", not an ideal requiring the efforts of a "Bharatiya" political party.  American NRIs told me that when Vajpayee was invited to preside over the opening of a new Hindu temple in the USA, he said that they should have called it a "Bharatiya temple" instead.

 

         L.K. Advani has correctly pointed out that "the term Hindu Rashtra was never used during the Jana Sangh days, neither had it ever been mentioned in any manifesto of the BJP".  At the same time, he reiterated the RSS theory that any Indian who "identifies with India" is thereby a Hindu: a Muslim who satisfies this condition (what Gandhians called a "nationa­list Muslim") should call himself a "Mohammedi Hindu", a Christian should likewise be described as a "Christi Hindu".  In Advani's view, "those residing in the country are Hindus even if many of them believe in different religions.(...) those following Islam are 'Mohammedi Hindus'.  Likewise, Christians living in the country are 'Christian Hindus', while Sikhs are termed 'Sikh Hindus'.  The respective identities are not undermined by such a formulation.  Similarly, someone is a 'Sanatani Hindu', while the other is an 'Arya Samaji Hindu'.  It would be better if such a formulation comes to be accepted.  As part of the same concept, I consider this country to be a Hindu 'rashtra'.  There is no need to convert it into a Hindu 'rashtra'; this needs to be understood.  But I certainly do not believe in forcing people to believe in this."[3]

 

         In theory, and at first sight, this construction could be intellectually defensible if we start from the Hindu doctrine of the ishta devata, the "chosen deity": every Hindu has a right to worship the deity or divine incar­nation or guru whom he chooses, and this may include exotic characters like Allah or Jesus Christ.  In practice, however, anyone can feel that something isn't right with this semantic manipulation: Muslims and Chris­tians abhor and mock the idea of being defined as sects within Hinduism, and apart from a handful of multicul­turalist Christians who call themselves "both Hindu and Christian", this cooptation of Muslims and Christians into the Hindu fold has no takers.  It is actually resented, rejected and ridiculed.  After all, taken to its logical extreme, it would imply that the state of Pakistan, founded by and for Indian Muslims, i.e. "Mohammedi Hindus", is also a Hindu Rashtra.

 

         More than the nationalist definition of Hindu-ness developed by Savarkar (who admitted that including Muslim in his definition of "Hindu" would stretch it too far), the clumsy notion of "Mohammedi Hindus" brandished by the RSS-BJP is an element of an attempt to delink the term Hinduism from its natural religious contents.[4]  This broad concept of Hinduism implies the assumption that Indian Muslims can still, in a way, be Hindus, as expressed by token BJP Muslims who say things like: "When my ances­tors accepted Islam, that didn't mean we changed our culture."  That remains to be seen: a practicing Muslim is expected to condemn Hindu idolatry and polytheism, to have an Arabic name, to observe an Arab-originated dress code, distinct marriage customs, food habits, and rituals of which to Hindus some are absurd (circu­mcision) and others repug­nant (animal sacrifice, abolished in Vedic ritual millennia ago).  Adding separate traditions of Muslim architecture, Persian-Arabic vocabulary, poetry, script and music, it is clear that in practice, Muslim culture in India, though differing in certain externals from Muslim culture el­sewhere, is most certainly a dif­ferent culture from that of the Hindus; in making that very observation during his pro-Partition speeches, Jinnah was simply right.  In spite of this, Hindutva people insist that an "indianized" Islam can be integrated into a Hindu nation­hood. 

 

         Some go even further and accept Indian Muslims within the ambit of Hindutva without any questions asked.  Thus, veteran journalist M.V. Kamath writes in the Organiser: "Hindutva, then, is what is common to all of us, Hindus, Muslims, Chris­tians, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists... whoever has Indian heritage.  Hindutva is the engine that pulls the nation and takes us into the future.  It is cultural nationalism that has the power to unite.(­...) Hindutva is not Hinduism, it does not ask anyone to follow a particular creed or ritual.  Indeed, it does not speak for Hinduism, it is not a religious doctrine."[5]  This way, the opposition between "Indian secular nationalism" and "Hindu communalism" is declared non-existent, essentially by replacing the latter position with the former: Kamath's conception of Hindutva is fully coterminous with Nehru's purely territorial patriotism.  But in that case, what is all the fuss about?  If the Hindutva activists are merely Indian nationalists, why don't they applaud Nehru and join the secularists?  This is one more of those occasions where Hindutva spokesmen assert something (i.e. the equivalence of Hindutva and secular nationalism) to their own satisfaction, but fail to notice that they are convincing no one, that on the contrary everybody derides the exercise as a cheap semantic trick, a transparent attempt to sweep profound antagonisms between religions, or between Nehruvian secularism and Hindutva, under the carpet.

 

         While we could live with redefinitions of the term Hindutva, which is still a neologism, there is just no excuse when Hindutva ideologues go as far as to "secularize" the meaning of the established term Hindu.  Consider the following dialogues, one true and one imaginary, cited by an RSS stalwart as evidence that "Hindu" simply means "Indian":

 

         1. "When the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid of Delhi went to Mecca on a pilgrimage, a local resident asked him, 'Are you a Hindu?'  The Imam was startled by this question and replied, 'No, I am a Muslim.'  When Imam Saheb asked him the reason for calling him a Hindu, he replied that all 'Hindustanis' were called Hindu there."[6] 

         2. "A Frenchman asked an Indian, 'What is your religion?'  The reply was, 'Hindu.'  The Frenchman countered: 'That is your nationality; but what is your religion?'"[7]

 

         This exercise of sanitizing the term "Hindu" from its religio-cultural contents is extremely silly.  What is the use of learning that some ignorant foreigners call the Shahi Imam a Hindu, when you yourself know for fact that the man is an enemy of Hinduism?  And what word shall we invent to designate the phenomenon which all encyclopedias commonly call "Hinduism", once we have imposed on the word "Hindu" the geographical-political meaning which is already satisfactorily expressed by the words "Indian" and "Hindustani"?  What is gained if the expression "Hindu-Muslim riot" becomes replaceable with "Indian-Muslim riot"?  Or if the phrase "Hindus dominate Nepal" turns out to mean "Indians dominate Nepal"?  The people of Nepal, the only Hindu Rashtra so far, might not like it.  Short, this semantic manipulation is as hopelessly transparent as a child's very first lie.  Moreover, it would imply that "Hindu Rashtra", the professed goal of this Sangh leader, simply means "Indian state"; and this in turn would imply that the Hindutva movement is a bunch of buffoons working for the creation of a state which has already been created long ago.[8]  If the word "Hindu" can only be used after distorting its meaning, it is perhaps just as well that the BJP avoids using it.

 

         Most RSS affiliates pledge allegiance to secularism, but they at least do so by emphasizing the "secular" (meaning pluralistic) character of Hinduism, as in the VHP ad campaign: "Hindu India, secular India".  So, if Hinduism is secular, why not openly acknowledge the Hindu inspiration of the BJP's "positive secularism"?  Well, a new argument against an explicitation of the BJP's Hindu orientation was created by a 1992 court decision under the Representation of the People Act, prohibiting the Hindu Mahasabha from contesting elections.  The reasons given by the judges were that the HMS openly aims at founding a Hindu state and that being a Hindu (though defined very inclusively) is a requirement for membership, as per Art.3 and Art.5.A of the HMS constitution.  In several cases, moreover, elected candidates for the BJP or the Shiv Sena have been taken to court for "corrupt electoral practices", meaning the "use" of religion in their campaigns; some of them won their cases, some of them lost, but the danger inherent in openly identifying with the Hindu cause was certainly driven home.

 

         After the Ayodhya demolition, the Congress government threatened to outlaw the BJP on similar grounds, but several socialist and casteist parties, the BJP's erstwhile allies in the struggle against the Emergency, refused to support the necessary legislative reform because they remembered all too well how small the distance is between such rhetoric of "protecting democracy against the communal forces" and the imposition of dictatorship.  The BJP calculates that it was lucky this time around (and the next time, viz. the Supreme Court verdict that an appeal to "Hindutva" is not a corrupt electoral practice), but that on a future occasion, any sign of espousal of a "Hindu" agenda may be fatal.  Instead of questioning the tendency to outlaw religion as a legitimate factor in political choices of Indian citizens, the BJP bends over backwards to adapt to it.

 

         In Europe, with its centuries of struggle against Christian hegemony, nobody minds that the ruling party in Germany is called Christlich-Demokratische Union, "Christian‑Democratic Union".[9]  Democracy allows the citizens to decide for themselves on what basis to form political parties, so they exercise the right to found a party committed to "Christian values", and to vote it to power.  Most Christian-Democratic parties nowadays hasten to add that these "Christian values" have become a "common European heritage shared by non-Christians as well".  But in India, any hint of a "Hindu" party upholding "Hindu values" (even if explained as a "common Indian heritage shared by the minorities as well") is declared intolerable by judges and journalists,-- and by the leaders of the very party concerned.


 

           [1]  "Charlatanism" is the common allegation against traveling babas who promise instant enlightenment by means of a simple technique; it certainly applies when they offer another magic trick, viz. instant harmony between Hindus and Muslims by means of the "equality of religions" (or Ram Rahim ek hai, or Ishwar Allah tere naam, etc.) mantra.

           [2]  Thus, M.S. Golwalkar: Bunch of Thoughts (Jagaran Prakashan, Bangalore 1980 (1966)), p.177-178.

           [3]  "Advani wants Muslims to identify with 'Hindutva'", Times of India, 30/1/1995.

           [4]  To support this non-doctrinal, non-communal usage of the term Hindu, K.S. Sudarshan relates some anecdotes where Arabs and Frenchmen refer to any Indian (including the Imama of Delhi's Jama Masjid when he visited Arabia) as a "Hindu".  A linguist would say that in that case, the word Hindu is a "false friend": though sounding the same, it has a different meaning in Arabic on the one and English or Hindi on the other hand.  This is obviously no sound basis for denying the operative (and historical, and legal) meaning of Hindu as "any Indian except Muslims, Christians and Parsis".

           [5]  M.V. Kamath: "The Essence of Hindutva", Organiser, 28 April 1996.  If "Indian heritage" is the unifying element, the point is precisely that Muslims and Christians reject this heritage.

           [6]  Adapted from Saptahik Hindustan, 1 May 1977, in K.S. Sudarshan et al.: Why Hindu Rashtra? (Suruchi Prakashan, Delhi 1990), p.5.

           [7]  Ibid.; the story is an anachronism, for by now the French distinguish clearly between indien (pertaining to the Indian territory or state) and hindou (pertaining to Hindu religion).

           [8]  We forego the occasion to enter the discussion on the exact meaning of the word Rashtra, simply because it is so obvious: the word can be analyzed as "instrument (-tra) of rulership (raj)", hence "the institution through which government is exercised", hence "state"; and not "nation" (as some RSS stalwarts insist on asserting), the subject for whose benefit this political instrument is created.  Even if the latter meaning is accepted, the "Hindu Rashtra" is an entity which (especially according to Sangh ideologues) has been in existence for ages, viz. the Hindu nation.

           [9]  A Gandhian secularist remarked about this comparison that "Christian-Democratic" refers to a well-defined "Christian" identity, and that there is no Indian equivalent to this, since "Hinduism" is but an undefined conglomerate.  In fact, when the German Christian-Democratic Union was founded, fifty years ago, Protestants and Catholics were still mutually hostile religions, and it was something of a revolution to create a joint political platform representing the values they held in common.  A fortiori, the different "Hindu" traditions (which do not have a history of religious wars against one another, as Catholicism and Protestantism do) can quite legitimately be united for political purposes on a common platform.

 

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