19th Century's Hindu Nationalism Was Flawed But Had Purpose. Now, We Have Only Hate

Two projects of yoking ancient India to nationalism and national identity have been attempted. One carried the seeds of self-critique within it, the second one, that has Indians in thrall now, refuses to look at the ravages wreaked upon the people by so-called Hindus.

For the past few years, the political discourse that has emerged from the corridors of power is dominated by Hinduism and yet more Hinduism. Our power holders have restored temples, called into question the existence of mosques, catapulted environmental disaster in the Himalayan region to facilitate pilgrimages, and terrorised minorities. Now they are trying to rewrite history to focus on the glories of ancient India without verification and sans methodology.

At the same time there is uneasiness and insecurity in the corridors of power. Scholars with debatable credentials are on the selection committees of prestigious universities. Their task is to ensure that no one, but no one, who possesses the gift of critical scholarship is appointed to faculties. Dissenters are jailed. Above all we have begun to hear the chant that India is the ‘mother of democracy’.

The last claim is bound to evoke ridicule among democrats across the world. History shows us that democracy was first invented in ancient Athens. The etymological basis of democracy is the demos, which is a Greek word for populace. But democracy in Athens had nothing to do with modern forms of democracy that were hammered into shape through revolutions in the 18th century, notably in France. These introduced the belief that power emanates from the people, and that the people have rights independent of the government.

The nation is also an invention of the 18th century. Both these concepts belong to political modernity based on individualism, or the primacy of the individual and his capacity to think and act rationally [it was always a ‘he’ in those days].

Individualism is, of course, a progeny of capitalism: the consumer in the marketplace. Standing above all concepts of political modernity is the nation state, which is now seen as one of the greatest blunders of history. The historian Eric Hobsbawm told us that when history is yoked to the cause of nationalism it causes more deaths than those wrought by irresponsible builders. Tired of ethnic wars, towards the end of the 20th century and the cessation of the Cold War, scholars began to conceive regional and global organisations and their attendant ideology of cosmopolitanism and global justice.

Today we are, once against caught up in an era of hyper-nationalism based on the presumed glories of ancient India. This is, of course, not the first time that ancient India has been yoked to the creation of a national identity. The leaders of our national movement skipped 500 years of history; a history marked by a remarkable fusion of ideas, language, architecture, painting, and music, and went back to Vedic India. This was a historical mistake because it laid the seeds of animus and exclusion against minorities.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with UP Governor Anandiben Patel, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and others perform Bhoomi Pujan rituals for the construction of the Ram Mandir, at Ayodhya on August 5. Photo: PTI

The two nationalist projects

But this is not the point I wish to labour on. I wish to argue that there is a vital difference between the way ancient India was yoked to the project of creating a national identity in the 19th century, and today’s project of controlling the country through invocations of Hinduism that took shape in ancient times.

In the 19th century, public intellectuals positioning themselves against colonial officials and missionaries invoked the ancient past to create a unique identity for India, but also to critique contemporary practices of Hinduism as violative of the essence of the religion. The past served to criticise the present. If an ancient leader of the time of the Upanishads, the Buddhist period or later classical age were to be set down in modern India, wrote Aurobindo Ghose in The Foundations of Indian Culture, he would “see his race clinging to forms and shells and rags of the past and missing nine-tenths of its nobler values…he would be amazed by the extent of its later degeneracy, its mental poverty, immobility, static repetition, the comparative feebleness of the creative institution, the long sterility of art, the cessation of science.”

Earlier, this despondency had been expressed by Ram Mohan Roy, popularly hailed as the father of the Indian Renaissance.

Roy [1772-1833] was among the first to ask the question – who are we? His response catapulted the thorny issue of how Indians could recover self-respect and forge a collective self, into a nascent public sphere. Given the context of his times, he launched the project of understanding the past to speak to western audiences, and to counter attacks by Christian missionaries on what they considered an inferior form of religion.

He began his exposition by accepting that the Hinduism of his day was sadly wanting. Writing in a deeply regretful tone to a friend, John Digby, in England on January 18, 1928, Roy complained that the Hindu community was immersed in ‘gross idolatry’ and peculiar beliefs.

“I regret to say that the present system of religion adhered to by the Hindus is not well calculated to promote their political interest. The distinction of castes, introducing innumerable divisions and sub-divisions among them has entirely deprived them of patriotic feeling, and the multitude of religious rites and ceremonies and laws of purification have totally disqualified them from undertaking any difficult enterprise…It is, I think, necessary that some change should take place in their religion, at least for the sake of their political advantage and social comfort.” said The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy. He concluded with the observation that there was nothing to equal the sublime principles of Christ.

Raja Rammohan Roy. Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Roy was influenced by one strain of Christianity: Unitarianism, which posed a challenge to Christian orthodoxy, particularly the belief in the Trinity. The universal precepts of Unitarianism hold that the principles of Christ’s teachings are separate from the culturally specific and institutional trappings of the religion. In a similar fashion, Roy had, at a fairly young age, abstracted the original teachings of Hinduism from contemporary social practices that he found degenerate and a departure from the tenets of Hinduism, and held them up as a mirror to contemporary practices.

Christianity was not the only system of thought to impact his ideas. Having received a traditional education, Roy was familiar with Persian and Arabic theology that were influenced by Aristotelian thought. His beliefs in theism, and on the nature of the divine, were significantly impacted by inductive reason, and requirement of empirical proof by rationalist schools of thought in Islam. His first published work at a fairly young age was Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin or A Gift to Deists (1803-04).

He wrote this work in Persian, and the preface was authored in Arabic. He exposed and chastised dogmas that focussed on revelation, in miracle-inducing acts such as worshipping at shrines and bathing in rivers, and on the widely held belief in prophets. And above all, he castigated the many rituals, such as fasts and imposition of privations that defined the sort of lives people should live, notions of what is or is not propitious, and rank superstition.

In 1816, Roy translated the Vedanta into Bengali, Hindustani and English. The translation was accompanied by a comprehensive introduction and an equally comprehensive commentary. In the introduction, he launched a critique of extant Hindu practices. He wished to prove that “the superstitious practices which deform the Hindu religion have nothing to do with the pure spirit of its dictates”. He also wanted to establish that the temples that had been erected to many gods and goddesses, and the rituals that were performed to propitiate them, had deviated from the norms of Hinduism. It is my design to prove, he wrote, that “every rite has its derivation from the allegorical adoration of the true deity; but at the present day all this is forgotten, and among many it is even heresy to mention it.”

Today’s temple builders and destroyers of mosques should heed this critique of deviations from what is regarded as the most perfect form of Hinduism.

Also read: A Mosque Can’t Be Turned Into a Hindu Temple. Period. The Law Says So.

Roy was a pragmatic thinker and he intended that his interpretation of Hinduism as theism could catalyse social transformation. His early discomfort with western criticism of idolatry and superstition inspired an investigation into Hinduism through recovery of the meaning of the Vedanta. The retrieval of meaning was deployed to attack what, in his view, were irrelevant and useless rituals that inexorably led society into irrationality and delusions. He belonged to the great tradition of social reformers who engaged with current practices through the prism of the wisdom of the ancients.

Though he was certainly influenced by the liberal tradition, there was much more to Roy’s intellectualism. He brought together worlds that technically belonged to different religious traditions, because they converged on theism which formed the essence of the Vedanta. He was undoubtedly inspired by the essentially modern conviction that persons should be able to critically evaluate the religion they subscribe to. He chose to do so by ‘stepping back’ from current practices, and by reclaiming the original formulations of Hindu texts.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, public intellectuals, riled by criticism of Hinduism by missionaries and administrative officials, took on the task of social reform. They invoked a Golden Age to critique present day practices. Their criticism of religious practices was unsparing, even though their attempts to resurrect the intellectual disposition of the classics remained confined to the urban intelligentsia, at least till the arrival of M.K. Gandhi onto the scene.

Keshub Chandra Sen (1838-1884), a leader of the Brahmo Samaj, established by Ram Mohan Roy, captured the spirit of this endeavour when he said, somewhat, baldly that India was a fallen nation, a “nation whose primitive greatness lies buried in ruins… As we survey the mournful and dismal scene of desolation – spiritual, social and intellectual – which spreads around us, we in vain try to recognise therein the land of Kalidas – the land of poetry, of science, and of civilisation,” in Charles Heimsath’s (1964) Indian Nationalism and Hindu Social Reform.

By the end of the 19th century, the Vedanta was tailored to suit contemporary times as neo-Vedanta. We find the fullest articulation of this philosophy in Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) when he addressed the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Orthodox Hindu organisations, such as the ‘Arya Dharma Pracharni Sabha’ and ‘Prathna Sabhas’ had stressed the universal nature of Hinduism. But when Vivekananda, well-versed in western philosophy, the sacred texts, and Bengali literature, presented the Vedanta to the world, he gave to Hinduism the status of not only a world religion, but of a supra religion that could teach other belief systems how to live with each other in tolerance and harmony. Those who have appropriated Vivekanand should heed his words.

Attacking the infirmities of Hinduism of his day, he spoke of an ancient religion that taught acceptance and understanding of each other. “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance.” These precepts are integral to Hinduism.

“Oh Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various thoughts though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to thee.” [The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, volume one]. He spoke of a universal religion that had no limits of time or space, and of a religion that united the whole credo of the human spirit, from the fetishism of the savage to the liberal creative affirmations of modern science.

Having provided the emerging national movement with a political identity, which was no longer a source of embarrassment but one of pride, Vivekananda made it very clear that Hinduism needed to be cleansed of all contradictions and schisms that led to poverty and misery. His Vedanta did not tolerate the existing gap between its commitment to human liberation and material deprivation. Material well-being was an essential precondition of individual liberation or moksha.

In the early years of the 19th century, Roy had retrieved the essential teachings of the Vedas, to restore the glories of Hinduism that had been subjected to critique and dismissal. For him sacred texts were a touchstone to evaluate extant practices. By the closing years of the 19th century, the intellectual wheel had turned full circle. Vivekananda pronounced the superiority of Hinduism as a universal religion. The wisdom of this universal religion transcended identities of specific religious groups and respected all of them. We believe, he said, not only in universal toleration but we accept all religions as true.  There could be no more damming critique of contemporary religious nationalism.

Also read: What History Really Tells Us About Hindu-Muslim Relations

The trajectory of modern Indian political thought was succinctly described by Aurobindo Ghosh in his The Renaissance in India. He wrote that the first effect of the European entry into the country was the destruction of much that had no longer the power to live. A new activity was at first crudely and confusedly imitative of foreign culture. But whatever temporary rotting and destruction this crude impact of European life and culture has caused, it revived the dormant intellectual and critical impulse, it rehabilitated life and awakened the desire of new creation.

“The national mind turned a new eye on its past culture, reawoke to its sense and import, but also at the same time saw it in relation to modern knowledge and ideas. Out of this awakening vision and impulse the Indian renaissance is arising, and that must determine its future tendency.”

Today, once again, ancient India is used to legitimise the hyper-nationalist project, but not as a Renaissance, and as self-critique of our ‘godmen’, superstitions, caste-based and religion-based discrimination, and murderous intent. It does not question the disabilities of Hinduism, untouchability, patriarchy, indifference to poverty, want and misery, and violence against people on the basis of their identity.

Newspapers regularly disburse mind-numbing incidents of enormous brutality wrought on Dalits, on manual scavengers, of the homeless, of little children begging at traffic lights, of the vulnerability of women. We see photographs of ‘upper caste’ men mercilessly dragging a Dalit woman out of a temple; we find that temples have not given up their belief that women should not enter because of this reason or that; we read of incredible brutality etched on the bodies of co-citizens, and of institutionalised violence against women.

Kahan hai, kahan hai muhafiz khudi ke, jine naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hai?’ These lines penned by Sahir Ludhianvi for Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa equally apply to the custodians of Hinduism.

Which of our leaders, either from the right-wing or even from the liberal left, or whatever is left of it, today, have criticised the caste system, the discrimination against people from the Dalit community, adherence to superstition, patriarchy, fascism and attacks on minorities from the vantage point of a Hinduism they espouse, and hold forth as the primary means of control of India?

The stereotyping of the Indian society as gloriously Hindu from time immemorial has not helped us forge an equitable future. India, with all its material inequities, communalism, and casteism, is now accepted as an inevitable byproduct of oligarchy. Our rulers invoke the ancient past, but fail to accept the infirmities of a Hinduism wielded like a sceptre by saffron clad [so-called] renouncers who call for the destruction of our own people. What kind of Hinduism is this?

Two projects of yoking ancient India to nationalism and national identity have been attempted in India. One carried the seeds of self-critique within it, the second one, that has Indians in thrall, refuses to look at the ravages wreaked upon the people by so-called Hindus. The former phase in 19th century India might have been flawed. Which phase in history is not? The present phase is flawed because it refuses to recognise the deep-rooted rot in society sanctioned or even set by the custodians of Hinduism.