The recently concluded Parliament of the World’s Religions (Parliament) in Chicago may have broken new ground by rescinding its invitation to Nivedita Bhide of the Vivekananda Kendra (Kendra), whose values were seen as in conflict with the Parliament’s mission to “cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities”.
Her name was abruptly removed from the list of “Featured Global Luminaries” after activists raised concerns about her history of Islamophobic tweets and her close ties to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Protesters had argued that a gathering like the Parliament, with the theme of defending “freedom and human rights,” should have no place on its stage for anyone from the RSS family, whose caustic anti-minority ideology has created an unprecedented human rights crisis in India.
Hindu nationalist response
Predictably, some Hindu nationalist organisations objected to the Parliament’s decision, erroneously claiming that it was an attempt to “target and cancel Hindu voices”.
They seemed to have forgotten that at the last in-person Parliament in Toronto in 2018, Hindu nationalists had viciously campaigned to cancel the voice of Swami Agnivesh, the only prominent Hindu religious leader who had consistently and courageously opposed Hindu nationalism (Hindutva). Fortunately, the Parliament refused to yield to their threats and Swamiji was able to deliver his speeches. He died in 2020, partially as a result of an injury from a physical attack on him in India by Hindu nationalists.
In reality, contrary to the claim that Bhide’s dis-invitation constituted an erasure of Hindu voices, Hindu themes and speakers were very well represented at the Parliament. They covered a rich diversity of topics such as Vedanta, Bhagavad Gita, Ahimsa, Yoga, ethics, environment, animal welfare, and so on. These were interspersed with Indian classical music as well as examples of Hindu worship and chants. As a matter of fact, the number of Swamis as speakers exceeded the number of Reverends and Rabbis!
Hindus for Human Rights had organised four panel discussions, each of which directly touched on the theme of the Parliament: Challenging Christian and Hindu Nationalism, Confronting Caste, Freedom of Speech, and Advancing Human Rights in South Asia. We also had a children’s booth where they could try yoga poses related to nature and reflect on the interconnectedness of all beings. Our sister organisation Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus also organised and participated in several conversations on Hindu themes as well as on climate justice.
Despite such a visibly large Hindu presence, Hindu nationalist organisations insisted that Hindus were excluded by the Parliament by tying them unfairly “to India’s contentious religious politics” – their implication being that Hindus in the US were being targeted for events happening far away in India, over which they had no control.
That may sound like a perfectly reasonable objection, but it’s far from the truth. As HfHR’s Advisory Board member Prof. Anantanand Rambachan observed that those who raised this objection didn’t address the fact that a “growing number of Hindu organisations in India and in the United States have tied themselves to [India’s] contentious and aggressive politics…” In his view, it was naive to suggest that the Parliament should uncritically give a platform to those dangerous ideologies.
The fact of the matter is that some of the same people and organisations who pretend to be far removed from “their ancestral homeland’s woes” are directly implicated in their uncritical support for the Modi government and its anti-minority policies – with some even actively campaigning for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India’s elections. Many others are likely financially supporting Modi’s party through the completely opaque Electoral Bonds scheme, which permits anonymous contributions from non-resident Indians as well as foreign businesses, as long as they have Indian subsidiaries.
Co-opting Swami Vivekananda
There is a deeper significance to the Parliament’s decision to distance itself from the Kendra and the RSS family, which may not be immediately evident.
The Kendra’s call to action is founded on the celebrated speech by Swami Vivekananda at the first World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, in which he declared, “I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”
He also went on to decry the unhealthy competition among religions: “…if anyone here hopes that this unity will come by the triumph of any one of the religions and the destruction of the others, to him I say, ‘Brother, yours is an impossible hope.’ Do I wish that the Christian would become Hindu? God forbid. Do I wish that the Hindu or Buddhist would become Christian? God forbid.”
Unfortunately, the RSS family, which portray themselves as sole custodians of Vivekananda’s legacy, selectively deploy his words from that speech, as well as from his large body of writings, to make him seem like a supporter of their call for the establishment of a majoritarian Hindu Rashtra, where Muslims and Christians would be relegated to second class citizenship.
I had an opportunity to engage with a senior leader of the Kendra at its Chennai office several years ago. Taking me to be a sympathetic supporter, he had railed on about the dangers posed to Hindus and to India’s security by the growth of Christianity in South India and in the Northeastern states. The one-way conversation was mostly centered around the Kendra’s fierce rivalry with Christian fisherfolk in the Kanyakumari area, many of whom are 16th-century converts to Catholicism by Saint Francis Xavier.
My interlocutor also spoke at length about the Vivekananda Rock Memorial that the RSS had built on an off-shore rock on which the Swami is said to have sat in meditation prior to his momentous journey to Chicago in 1893. And he made no secret of the primary motivation of the RSS in conceiving the memorial: The strong desire to push back on the dominance of Christians in the area. Vivekananda Kendra was established by the RSS in 1972 as a by-product of the memorial.
In the words of Kendra’s founder, Eknath Ranade, a senior functionary of the RSS, “Since long though many of them have become Christians even then the Hindu thought and behavior is prominently present in them. The work of bringing all those communities back to the large Hindu fold is not as difficult as it appears to be…The Memorial of Swami Vivekananda is only a forerunner of that grand plan.”
Parameswaran, who served as the Kendra’s president in the 1990s, was known for his wild conspiracy theories targeting the West and Christians. He posited that America knows that the next war “will have to be fought between Islam on one side and the USA and the Church on the other side…The USA plans, therefore, to browbeat, subdue, cajole, coax and trick India to become an ally…[and] to secure the loyalty of the Indians – the Hindus – they must first be converted to Christianity.”
The Kendra has also made a fetish out of peddling the conspiracy theory that the legend of apostle St. Thomas coming to India was a fraud perpetrated by missionaries merely to advance conversions, and that the iconic St. Thomas Basilica in Mylapore was built on top of a destroyed Shiva temple. Whatever the historical truth, for an avowed spiritual organization to actively scorn the beliefs of another faith defines the very character of the Kendra and the RSS.
In my view, the Parliament’s bold action in disinviting the Kendra was in effect a repudiation of such gross misappropriation of Vivekananda’s legacy by Hindu nationalists and their claim to be speaking for all Hindus.
Hinduism without Hindutva at the Parliament
Since the advent of the Modi government, Hindu nationalists around the world have been attempting to conflate their caustic Hindutva ideology with Hinduism at large. They have insinuated themselves into inter-faith spaces, claiming to speak for all Hindus. Their modus operandi has been to play the victim card by exaggerating claims of Hinduphobia as a cover for their own antipathy towards Muslims and Christians as well as to divert attention away from their staunch support for Modi’s disastrous anti-minority policies.
We have just seen them use the same playbook in their response to the Parliament’s decision to disinvite Bhide. To its credit, the Parliament did not yield. Thankfully, most of the Hindu nationalist groups were kept off the stage and had to settle for attendee status, and no one seems to have missed their voices.
What we witnessed in Chicago in mid-August was a refreshing reminder of what Hinduism looks like without Hindutva – memories that are fading in much of India since the Modi government came to power.
Raju Rajagopal is with Hindus for Human Rights.