How I Came to Question the Hinduism I Grew up With

The essence of the religion that I received acknowledged tolerance. Today, we have a new Hindutva of polemical double-speak.

I grew up a Hindu and till recently, have not had to question my place in this remarkable religion. To atheist friends, or those who belonged to other faiths, I was able to proudly explain that my faith was all-inclusive and had philosophical approaches which took such a wide path to my personal god, that I had no need to feel awkward about my religion.

I studied in a Roman Catholic school in the North-East, went to the small chapel a few times over the years. I sometimes attended midnight mass at the gorgeous cathedral in town and listened, at Christmas time with great joy, to carols that sang the praise of Jesus.

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But that did not make me any less Hindu. It did not take away from what my mother taught me as a child when I was about eight years old – one of the most fundamental pantheistic paeans of all times, to the source of all our natural light and heat, the sun. Om jabakusuma samkashyam…. Over time, I learnt that the origins of Hinduism lay in the adoration of the world around us, the cosmos, the sun and the moon and the stars, the vegetation and the waters, and the position of the puny human being in that universe.

It was my wife, with a fair understanding of Sanskrit, who explained to me some remarkable aspects of that oneness with the universe. Perhaps the most essential was the prayer ‘Om dhyo Shanti‘:

May there be peace in heaven. May there be peace in the sky. May there be peace on earth. May there be peace in the waters. May there be peace in the plants. May there be peace in the trees. May there be peace in the gods. May there be peace in Brahman. May there be peace in all. May that peace, real peace, be mine. (Universal Prayers by Swami Yatishwarananda, Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1954)

Such prayers do not teach disturbance in any manner, disaffection, disrespect, disregard of other beings. The Vedas do not teach us hatred, animosity, misanthropy. There is a new debate that some people are trying to open up, that Carnatic music, which comes from the chants of the Sama Veda, gives no place to Christian or Islamic songs; artistes have been threatened and only the brave like T.M. Krishna have resisted.

But, the opening verses of the Sama Veda, in their invocation to Agni, the all purifying fire, include these lines:

Do thou, O Agni, with great might guard us from all malignity, Yea, from the hate of mortal man!

It is this hatred of mortal man that is becoming the principal feature of political and religious discourse in India today. Is it then that my Hinduism is so different from the Hinduism of those who wish to have divisive thoughts?

The word Hindutva has become, as it were, a copyright of certain “right-wing” members of our society, people who are not willing to accept that there can be more than one view of the world. The only other word is Hinduism, in English.

There are two competing issues here: one’s religion, a very personal acceptance of the divine, and one’s societal world, measured either by citizenship or systems of governance. When these worlds, religion and nation, collide, we have a catastrophic alteration of our natural, societal ecosystems.

Questioning my roots

Citizenship, as I grew up, I took for granted. For a young member of a young nation, there was no need to question one’s identity. But I now realise how fortunate I was. As an “upper caste”, upper-middle class Hindu, I did not have to feel marginalised in any way. Now, as a septuagenarian, I find myself questioning my roots, my beliefs, my thinking.

Was it all so wrong? Was the history that we then studied skewed? Certainly, in the immediate aftermath of British rule, we studied what the British told us – in 1857, there was the Sepoy Mutiny and not the First Indian War of Independence. The latter sounds grand but, frankly, the war was confined to certain pockets of our vast land. Indeed, what was India then, my “mahan” Bharat? Culturally colossal, but politically five hundred fragments of a pot that only after 1947 were put together by our new leadership with adroitness.

Revolt of 1857. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Our political and social divisions showed up the many contradictions that needed to be balanced, contradictions that can only be understood today with patience, with forbearance. Our leaders then eschewed arrogance; they believed, having fought for freedom, that liberty was fundamental, as essential to our living as our breath.

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The unity and integrity of India that we proudly uphold came, ironically, tragically, as a result of a partition, a sundering of that same land. And yet, after the creation of two – now three  – nations, we still do not want to allow the dust to settle. Those Muslims who chose to stay back in their homeland are now aged, their kin born in India know no other home; but they are now being questioned.

As if they have to apologise for what happened centuries ago, when the Turks first invaded our land. But the original inhabitants of our land may themselves have come from Africa, perhaps well over 125,000 years ago. Are we not all invaders, explorers of an untrammelled world?

Beginning of a new dystopian world

Rather than an expansive worldview, we have begun to move towards a rigid religiosity that has no place in today’s modern thinking. It is the beginning of a new dystopian world. But how did that happen? It is known – but not totally understood how it occurs – that a normal cell can suddenly turn cancerous. That might just explain why the complex thought processes of Hinduism have turned, in some citizens, into jingoistic majoritarianism. The dialectics of Hinduism must surely begin with the Rig Veda itself, which posits the limitation, the complexity of human thought:

He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,
Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.

The distilled essence of the religion that was my received knowledge was an acknowledgement of tolerance, of a multi-faceted way of life. Today, we have a new Hindutva, a differently layered equivocation, often a form of polemical double-speak which relates to less intangible matters.

The present cacophony that engulfs Indian political debate is shrill and loud, as if to ensure that only one view must prevail. Let me not delude myself that my religion did not ever exhibit anger and war in the past, but now, in our new, modern state, should I be afraid of any religion “overriding” mine? Surely not. And no offensive action, in all senses of the term, should be required of me.

Why then is jingoism overtaking all reasonableness of expression, confronting the rule of law as enshrined in our Constitution, the delicately crafted document that sets out the parameters of our modern state? Why do we have to obligate students to celebrate surgical strikes – what have these strikes achieved – and not, say, the Bangladesh and Kargil victories? But then why celebrate war at all?

Fusing religion and state

The chief of the RSS and the prime minister say that lynchings are unacceptable, but why is vigilantism police-protected and approved of by other leaders? Is not the resolution of the Uttarkhand assembly, declaring the cow as ‘rashtra mata, a direct fusion of religion and the state that goes against our modern Constitution?

How can the president of the BJP directly violate the orders of the Supreme Court in the Sabarimala matter, and for once, both the BJP and the Congress act in petty political unison? Now, as the 2019 elections approach, the war bugle over the temple at Ayodhya is again beginning to be heard; the right-wing Hindu brigade wants legislation to bring about the Ram temple in the winter session of parliament. Better still, an ordinance, even as the matter is being heard by the Supreme Court.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah. Credit: PTI/Shahbaz Khan

But amidst fears for, and amongst, those who do not subscribe to our new religiosity, would I be naïve in believing that a “majority” of Hindus do not approve of a brazen display of the new “Hindutva”? I turn to the wisdom of that great modern Hindu saint Vivekananda, the other Narendranath, who said in his closing words at the World Parliament of Religions at Chicago in 1893:

…if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart, and point out to him that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written in spite of resistance: “Help and not fight”, “Assimilation and not Destruction”, “Harmony and Peace and not Dissension.”

Abhijit Sengupta is a former secretary, government of India.