4.1. Savarkar’s definition
contours of the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS-BJP are usually summed up in
the term Hindutva, literally “Hindu-ness”, meaning Hindu identity
as a unifying identity transcending castewise, regional and sectarian differences
within Hindu society. The term was coined by the Freedom Fighter
and later HMS president V. D. Savarkar as the title of his book Hindutva,
written in prison and clandestinely published in 1924. Inspired by
the doctrines of the Italian liberal nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini, he tried
to give a nationalist content to the concept of Hinduness. Incidentally,
non-Hindutva nationalists including Jawaharlal Nehru equally recognized
the influence which Mazzini had had on their ideological orientation during
their student days.1
While there may
be good reasons to reject the very attempt of capturing Hinduism in an
essentialist definition, and while most attempts to capture it in a doctrinal
definition are failures omitting large numbers of de facto Hindus, Savarkar
devised his definition as very inclusive but still meaningful: “A
Hindu means a person who regards this land of Bharatavarsha, from the Indus
to the Seas, as his Fatherland as well as his Holyland, that is the cradle-land
of his religion.”2
This means that
a non-Indian cannot be a Hindu, even if he considers India as his “Holyland”;
while a born Indian cannot be a Hindu if he considers a non-Indian place
(Mecca, Jerusalem, Rome) as his “Holyland”. Since Jainism, Buddhism,
Veerashaivism, Sikhism, and all Indian tribal cults have their historical
origins and sacred sites on Indian soil, all Indian Jains, Buddhists, Veerashaivas,
Sikhs and so-called “animists” qualify as Hindus.
the RSS-BJP and other Hindu parties including Savarkar’s own Hindu Mahasabha
use the term “Hindu” in the broad sense: as including Buddhism, Jainism,
Sikhism, Veerashaivism, Arya Samaj, Ramakrishna Mission, Indian tribal
“animists”, and other sects and movements which elsewhere are sometimes
described as separate religions in their own right. This merely follows
the historical usage of the ancient Persians and of the medieval Muslim
invaders, and the “legal Hindu” category of modern Indian legislation.
The inclusive usage by Savarkar and the RSS-BJP has better legal and historical
credentials than the insistently restrictive usage by India’s secularists,
who try to narrow the term’s referent down to cow-worshipping non-tribal
upper-caste Sanâtanî (“eternalist”, here in the sense
of “nonreformist”, “non-Arya Samaji”) Hindus, if at all they admit that
4.2. Can geography define religion?
A problem with
Savarkar’s definition is that certain communities may consider only their
own area as fatherland and holyland, and do not identify with India as
a whole. The horizon of many tribal communities is limited to a small
area; they may say that they only consider that small area as their own,
and that they feel like foreigners in other parts of India. This
might even be claimed on behalf of the Sikhs, whose separatism is sometimes
rationalized in secular terms as “Panjabi nationalism” (in spite of the
pan-Indian pilgrimages of some of the Sikh Gurus). But Savarkar was
satisfied that at any rate, their loyalty would be to an area within India,
rather than to one outside of it.
That leaves us
with the more fundamental problem that genuine Hindus may not bother to
consider India as a kind of “holyland”, holier than other pieces of Mother
Earth. Hinduism has become international, and increasingly includes
people who have never seen India or have only been there once or twice
on a family visit, appalled at the dirt and lack of efficiency, and anxious
to get back home to London or Vancouver. Further, many people with
no Indian blood take up practices developed by Hindu culture without being
very interested in the geographical cradle of their new-found “spiritual
path”. They may not be inclined to call themselves
“Hindu” because of the term’s geographical connotation, but they do commit
themselves to the Hindu civilization, using terms like “Vedic” or “Dharma”.3
The values of
Sanatana Dharma are not tied up with this piece of land, and the Vedas
or the Gita, though obviously situated in India, are not bothered with
notions of “fatherland” and “holyland”. As
Dr. Pukh Raj Sharma, a teacher of Ayurveda and Bhakti-Yoga from Jodhpur
once said: “The country India is not important. One day, India too
will go.”4 So, we may question the wisdom
of defining a religious tradition by an external characteristic such as
its geographical location, even if the domain of this definition admirably
coincides with the actual referent of the term Hindu in its common
4.3. The Sangh Parivar’s understanding
The RSS-BJP try
to make Savarkar’s term Hindutva even more inclusive than Savarkar
intended. They claim 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”.
As L.K. Advani explains: “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 fonnulation.”5
in this sense, they would be just as much at home in a Hindu Rashtra as
a Vaishnava or Shaiva Hindu.
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.”6
Remark that an acknowledged spokesman of Sangh Parivar ideology includes
Indian Christianity and Indian Islam in his understanding of Hindutva. This
would reduce the meaning of Hindutva to the casual reasoning of
a Sikh couple in Defence Colony interviewed during the 1989 elections:
“Ham Hindustân men rehte hain, bam Hindû hî to hue.
(We live in Hindustan, that makes us Hindu).”7
Both the nationalist
definition of Hindu-ness developed by Savarkar and the clumsy notion of
“Mohammedi Hindus” brandished by the RSS and BJP are elements of an attempt
to delink the term Hinduism from its natural religious or cultural contents.
In Savarkar’s case, the definition restores a historical usage, but the
RSS definition extends the meaning even further: the opposition between
“Indian secular nationalism” and “Hindu communalism” is declared non-existent,
essentially by replacing the latter’s position with the former’s: Kamath’s
conception of Hindutva is entirely coterminous with Jawaharlal Nehru’s
To support the
non-doctrinal, non-religious, non-communal usage of the term Hindu,
RSS joint secretary-general K. S. Sudarshan relates
some anecdotes in which Arabs and Frenchmen refer to any Indian (including
the imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid when he visited Arabia) as a “Hindu”.8
So what? A linguist would say that in that case, the word Hindu
is a “false friend”: though sounding the same and having the same etymology,
it has a different meaning in Arabic or French 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”.
A point of comparison
for this overextended definition of Hindu identity is the now-common understanding
of “Christian civilization” as encompassing more than just the believing
Christians. Christian-Democrats after World
War 2 have argued that “Christian values” have since long become a common
heritage of Europe (and the Americas), shared by non-Christians as well.9 And
some non-Christians also accept this view.10
If Christianity, which has strictly defined its own contours with precise
beliefs, can be definitionally broadened to coincide with a “value system”,
the same could legitimately be done with the much less rigidly self-defined
4.4. Equality of religions
Some Hindu activists
insist that “all religions are equally true”, a logically untenable sentimentalist
position now widely shared in Western-educated Hindu circles as well as
among some “progressive” Christians and “New Agers” in the West.
As an explicit position, this is marginal in the Hindutva movement, though
the Gandhian phrase “equal respect for all religions” (sarva-dharma-samabhava),
invoked in the BJP Constitution, comes close to the same meaning.
At any rate, as an implicit guideline, the acceptance of all religions
as equally good can be found all over the Hindutva literature.
of the BJP and even of the RSS studiously avoid criticism of Islam and
Christianity as belief systems. Even the Rushdie affair, when the
BJP put up a rather perfunctory defence of Salman Rushdie, did not trigger
any debate on the basic doctrines of Islam in the pages of the Hindutva
papers. The position of both RSS and BJP, and even of Hindutva hard-liners
like Balraj Madhok, is that Islam and Christianity
are alright in themselves, but that in India, they constitute a problem
of disloyalty. As soon as these foreign-originated religions agree
to shed their foreign loyalties and to “indianize” themselves, the problem
In theory, and
at first sight, the doctrine of the equal validity of all religions could
be intellectually defensible if we start from the Hindu doctrine of the
ishta devatâ, 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 “Hindutva”, and apart
from a handful of multi-culturalist Christians who call themselves “both
Hindu and Christian”, this cooptation of Muslims and Christians into the
Hindu fold has no takers.12 It is an elementary
courtesy to check with the people concerned before you give them labels.
4.5. The impotence of semantic
If the attempt
to redefine Indian Muslims as “Mohammedi Hindus” is received with little
enthusiasm by non-Hindus, it is criticized even more sternly by Radical
Hindus, who point out that the attempt to get Muslims and Christians under
the umbrella of an extended Hindu identity constitutes a retreat from the
historical Hindu position vis-à-vis the proselytizing religions:
it confers an undeserved legitimacy upon the presence of the “predatory
religions”, Islam and Christianity, in India. The time-length of
the presence of the colonial powers in their colonies (nearly five centuries
in the case of some Portuguese colonies, and more than seven centuries
in the case of the Arab possessions in Spain) did not justify their
presence in the eyes of the native anti-colonial liberation movements.
Likewise, the fact that Islam and Christianity have acquired a firm and
enduring foothold in India does not, to Hindu Revivalists, make them acceptable
as legitimate components of Indian culture. As
Harsh Narain argues: “Muslim culture invaded Indian culture not to make
friends with it but to wipe it out. (…) Hence Muslim culture cannot be
said to be an integral part of Indian culture and must be regarded as an
anticulture or counter-culture in our bodypolitic.”13
semantic manipulations undermine the credibility of Hindu protests (regularly
seen in the RSS weeklies and sometimes even in the BJP fortnightly BJP
Today) against Christian and Muslim proselytization activities. After
all, if there is nothing wrong with these religions per se, then why bother
if Hindus convert to them? Now that the Catholic Church uses “inculturation”
as a mission strategy, why object to Hindus adopting this duly “indianized”
version of Christianity?
semantic manipulations about “Mohammedi Hindus” invite contempt and ridicule.
They have never convinced anyone, and it is typical of the RSS’s refusal
to learn from feedback that it still propagates these notions. Defining
India’s communal conflict in terms of secular nationalism, as a matter
of “nationalist” vs. “antinational” loyalties, is mostly the effect of
Hindu escapism, of the refusal to confront Hinduism’s challengers ideologically.
Such exercises in self-deception are understandable as a symptom of Hindu
society’s lingering psychology of defeat, but after half a century of independence,
that excuse has worn out its validity.
talking to Tibor Mende: Conversations with Mr. Nehru, p. 15.
Savarkar: Hindutva, p. 116. In some editions this definition
is also given as motto on the title page
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s projects are all called “Vedic”, partly at least
because the term “Hindu” would repel many Westerners; ISKCON has a publication
series Veda Pockets (Amsterdam); David Frawley’s institute in Santa
Fe is called American Institute of Vedic Studies, etc.
in Mechelen, Belgium, 1991.
wants Muslims to identify with ‘Hindutva’”, Times of India, 30-1-1995.
Kamath: “The Essence of Hindutva”, Organiser, 28-4-1996.
in a dilemma”, Times of India, 24-11-1989.
H.V. Seshadri et al.: Why Hindu Rashtra?, p. 5. In French, the usage
of hindou for “Indian” is obsolete. An anecdote not included
though well-known is that HMS leader B.S. Moonje was asked in America whether
“all Hindus are Muslims?”
founding “Christmas Programme” (1945) of the Belgian Christian-Democratic
Party says: “The human values which form the basis of our Western civilization
(…) were contributed by Christianity, yet today they are the common property
of the faithful and the unbelievers”; quoted in L. Tindemans: De toekomst
van een idee (Dutch: “The future of an idea”, viz. of Christian-Democratic
in 1994, the Dutch Liberal Party leader Frits Bolkestein, an agnostic and
secularist, affirmed that the European polity could only be rooted in Christian
is the central flies of Balraj Madhok: Indianisation.
Christian syncretism with Hinduism, see e.g. Bede Griffiths: The Marriage
of East and West, and Catherine Cornille: The Guru in Indian Catholicism.
A very critical Hindu comment on this trend is S.R. Goel: Christian
Ashrams: Sannyasins or Swindlers?
Narain: Myth of Composite Culture, p.29.
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