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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 1 New Delhi December 22, 2018 [Annual Number]

Whither Politically tinkered Hinduism?

Sunday 23 December 2018


by L.K. Sharma

How Indian politics fares under the spell of Hinduism is covered extensively by the media. It is time scholars studying religions such as Karen Armstrong wrote on the impact of politics on Hinduism. Can this unique religion be modified by politicians aided by frenzied devotees and Hollywood Hindus? This question has got little attention so far.

Hindutva”, a political form of faith propa-gated by the ruling BJP and allied Right-wing groups, was injected with full force into the recent State election campaigns. Hindu gods were made to descend on the political battle- field. The movement was revived for building a Ram temple on a disputed plot of land where a mosque stood before its demolition in 1992.

That the Hindutva card did not yield the desired election results this time does not mean that misrepresentation of the true spirit of Hinduism will cease. Preparations have already begun to play this card in a big way during the national elections in a few months.

In the States that went to polls, the BJP set the terms of political discourse dominated by the Ram temple, women’s entry into a temple, castes and sub-castes, faith traditions and protection of the holy cow. A mob agitating against alleged cow slaughter killed two persons including a police officer in a BJP-ruled State not involved in elections. The BJP’s monk-politician Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath campaigned for the party in other States.

The Hindu caste system struck with full force when the Yogi told an election rally that Lord Hanuman, known as Monkey God in the West, was a Dalit (belonging to an oppressed caste). Hanuman, a devotee of Lord Ram, is worshipped by millions of Hindus. The statement made to garner the Dalit votes caused a blowback that the Yogi had not imagined. Dalit leaders demanded that since Hanuman was a Dalit, all Hanuman temples should have Dalit priests, and these and the offerings should be handed over to them! The Dalits took their protests to temples and in one of these, the Brahmin priest was forced to leave the building.

A woman Dalit parliamentarian resigned from the ruling BJP saying that Lord Hanuman faced humiliation because he happened to be a Dalit. He helped Lord Ram win the war against the demon king, Ravan, and yet he was turned into a monkey with a black face!

The Yogi also offended the Brahmins, the priestly class, who were not amused by his calling Hanuman a Dalit. Some protesting Brahmins filed a legal case against the Yogi. One leader in the Yogi’s own party said Hanuman was not a Dalit but an Arya since the caste system had not started in his age! This will be contested by those who worship Ram as a Kshatriya (belonging to the warrior caste). In fact, there is a pro-BJP royal Rajput family that claims to have descended from the family of Lord Ram!

Another monk, who runs a mega business and supports the ruling BJP, invoked the sacred texts saying that caste is determined not by birth but by the nature of duties performed by a Hindu. Since Hanuman burnt down Sri Lanka to make Ram victorious in his war against Ravan, he was a Kshatriya!

The amused secular Hindus grumbled that after dividing humans for political gains, the BJP was now dividing Gods on the basis of caste! Commenting on this weird political discourse, newspaper editors lamented that the election campaign did not focus on the livelihood issues. Foreign observers wondered what the exotic Indians are talking about and what do they really want from an elected government?

With the ruling BJP repeatedly playing the Hindutva card in elections, sectarian statements and violence have become the new normal. It creates emotional frenzy through a divisive polarising rhetoric, mythological tales and warning of the danger posed by the religious “Other”.

Scholars of comparative religions can observe how a noble faith tradition, hijacked for political purposes, gets vulgarised. The devotees, prompted by politicians, tend to display faux religiosity. They are assembled at events where the sarkari (pro-government) “seers” bless the ruling party. The seers want political patronage; the ruling party needs their endorsement.

Politicians shun theological complexities and the glorious history of disputation and argumen-tation in Hinduism. They use mythology to convey a simplified common version of the faith. Since there is no single central creed, political campaigners can pick and choose a religious saying to validate their assertion suited to the audience they are addressing.

The ruling party leaders want the people to feel, not to think. They propagate a modified version of Hinduism, devoid of its flexibility, inclusi-veness, diversity, tolerance and other liberal features. They make statements designed to incite the conservatives and kill the spirit of reformation.

The BJP Government undertook a noble mission of reforming Islam in India when it ensured that an unfair divorce process victimising Muslim women is outlawed. But reformation of Hinduism is a no-go area. In fact, progressive Hindus and a law court seeking the latter provoked the BJP which organised protests when the Supreme Court ruled that woman of all ages should be allowed entry in a south Indian Hindu temple! The BJP President asked courts to pass only such judgments that are “implementable” and refrain from hurting the Hindu sentiments.

Politicians using religion advocate economic reforms but oppose religious reforms. In the current atmosphere, Hindus hesitate to talk of reforms lest they are called anti-Hindu. Political mobs are unleashed on the reformists who fight bigotry and assert the inclusiveness of Hinduism. Swami Agnivesh, an advocate of the Vedic tradition and a social activist, has faced physical assaults.

Orthodoxy is encouraged. Atrocious state-ments are issued. A poll candidate said if she is elected, the police will not be allowed to check child marriage! The atmosphere reeks of bigotry and hostility towards other faiths rises. Children learn that “when we say prayers loudly, it is worship, when they worship loudly, it is disturbing noise!”

Politicisation retards reforms needed by every faith tradition that accumulates undesirable rituals and practices. Hinduism, being a product of many cultures and cults, is more prone to do so. In its long journey, Hinduism acquired and discarded many questionable rituals. Some religious practices were abolished in response to the challenge posed by Christianity. Comm-enting on this process of reforms and renewal, scholar Kshiti Mohan Sen writes that the impact of the West produced new schools of thought which emphasised old doctrines.

Hinduism has a history of reforms. Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1824-83), who founded the Arya Samaj, gave the call “Back to the Vedas”, drawing a large section of Hindus away from idol-worship and exploitative priests. Arya Samaj established excellent educational institutions and worked to raise the status of the backward classes. It also introduced proselytisation, which was no part of the Hindu traditions.

Swami Dayanand came from the State of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who had used regional pride as an electoral card. Curiously, some videos glorify several sons of Gujarat, but not this Arya Samaj founder! Praising this great Gujarati will pose a problem for the party that has made the Ram temple a central issue of its political campaign. Arya Samaj opposes idol-worship. The Vedic tradition involved sacred sacrifice in the open. The Indo-Aryans did not build permanent structures for the practice of their religion. Temples began to be built much later when worship and supplication were added to sacrifice in the Hindu religious ethos.

In Bengal, Raja Rammohun Roy (1774-1833) founded the Brahmo Samaj facing opposition by orthodox Hindus who were dead set against his progressive outlook on social matters. He advocated modern education and wanted Indians to learn science and technology. His agitation led to the abolition of the criminal practice of Sati that ordained a wife to commit suicide by plunging into the fire consuming her dead husband.

Another new school of Hinduism developed in Bengal under the influence of Ramakrishna Paramhamsa (1834-86) that appealed to the common man who just prays before a deity without bothering about theology. This simple communication with God became very popular and came to be known as the Bhakti movement. There were reformers in south India and other parts of the country who are venerated till today. They have left behind institutions that attract a large number of followers.

In British India, the conservative Hindu leaders debated with reformers vigorously, but that contestation was due to clashing beliefs and not a political strategy for use in a demo-cracy. Today the conservative Hindu leaders are glad to be corralled into supporting Prime Minister Modi. The frequently organised massive gatherings of Hindu monks in saffron are politically valuable for the BJP! The BJP strategists have a vested interest in the Hinduism of communal ceremonies and public rituals that make good TV and help political campaigning on the religious platform.

The use of religion in politics is criticised by secular politicians but respected religious scholars and heads of genuine spiritual institutions keep quiet. Surely, they must be pained by the slow degradation of their faith tradition. Islamic scholars are blamed for not condemning the misuse of their faith by politicians or terrorists. The situation is no different in the context of Hinduism. One may ask: where have the real spiritual seekers gone?

Some secular politicians draw a distinction between Hinduism and the BJP’s Hindutva to highlight the inclusive nature of the genuine faith that assimilated principles from many faiths and cultures during its 5000 years of history. Not all Hindu gods are Aryan gods. The secular politicians reason well but they cannot influence those swayed by the men in saffron robes.

The Leftists, not well-versed in India’s cultural traditions, have little leverage as the faithful of the religious kind do not belong to their constituency. Only firm believers, who protest against the “hijacking of our religion”, can make convincing counter-arguments. They alone can increase public understanding of Hinduism unsullied by politics. The sacred texts of Hinduism make bigotry unthinkable. In the wake of the demolition of the Ayodhya mosque, Prof Amartya Sen said fanaticism grew mainly because of the neglect of the classics in education. Noted documentary maker Anand Patwardhan says the TV serial, Ramayan, watched by millions, paved the way for the demolition of the Babri mosque. “A bow-and-arrow bearing Ram would enter every household and every heart.” There was no social media then, but television is also an effective medium for popularising pop religion and also for causing social disharmony.

Those rushing to break a mosque or place an idol on a disputed plot of land, all in the name of Hinduism, know nothing about a faith that had no founder and that assimilated various religions and cultural movements of India. They are familiar with folklore, mythology and stories of miracles and black magic but unaware of the Vedic Song of Creation that wonders whether even the Creator knows all! That kind of questioning will be considered blasphemy in some other religions.

In fact, the Western media erroneously used the term “Hindu fundamentalists” to describe the political leaders such as L.K. Advani when he went to Ayodhya in a chariot to demand the building of a temple to Lord Ram. That move-ment resulted in the destruction of a mosque. Advani, knowing that the term fundamentalism had acquired a bad odour in the context of Islam, hastened to declare that they were Hindu nationalists and not “fundamentalists”. He was correct because going back to the fundamentals in his religion would mean the Vedic tradition that will rob the proposed Ram temple of all significance! His 1992 movement to build a Ram temple on the plot where the mosque stood once generated a toxic mix of religion and nationalism that has been turned into a potent political weapon.

The diversity of Hinduism and its tolerance enabled the establishment of a secular state even in the wake of horrendous sectarian violence. Then the parent bodies of today’s Hindutva forces failed to politically challenge Nehru and the Nehruvian ethos. That was the India that was!

Hinduism has millions of gods and goddesses worshipped in a hundred different ways. Hinduism sanctifies sacrifices of the Vedic Aryans as well as the rituals of primitive tribes. A sacred text features Mahadevi, literally the Great Goddess who encompasses the thousands of local and regional devis as well as the pan-Indian goddesses. This most democratic religion presided over by a Parliament of Gods had no founder and is without one single authoritative book.

Hindus continue to worship Gods both in iconic and aniconic forms. And not only are there numerous gods and goddesses but even a single god or goddess appears in several forms. Hindus of one region in India may accord primacy to one form while of another region may not worship that form at all.

Within the fold of this faith, each one acts according to his individual belief. There is no one single prescribed common form of worship. One may try to reach God through work, or meditation and knowledge or simply through devotion. Each way is as valid as every other. India’s philosopher-President said what counts is conduct, not belief. That is why Hinduism embraces believers and non-believers, the theist and the atheist, the sceptic and the agonistic.

Scholar Kshiti Mohan Sen writes that the uniting force among the enormous variety of religious beliefs and ceremonies in Hinduism has been a belief in a basic code of behaviour. The recent years have witnessed some Hindu groups indulging in an un-Hindu-like conduct under political compulsions. The lynching of alleged beef transporters is a recent example. The belief-driven chariot that reached Ayodhya in 1992 led not only to the destruction of a place of worship but also to killings.

Respect for all religions is a principle enshrined in India’s Constitution. So, when religious polarisation is created, the Constitution is diminished, and democracy dies. Hinduism is diminished by screams that faith is bigger than the Constitution!

When a BJP Chief Minister unfolds his plan to build the biggest statue of Lord Ram, the state gives a crass dimension to idol-worship. When a secular Chief Minister tells her political enemies using Lord Ram in electoral battles that she has the protection of Goddess Durga, she conjures up a silly competition between the two, showing disrespect to both.

Some effects of politicisation can be observed. Display of faux religiosity and ritual are getting more popular. The TV programmes draw heavily on mythology and cover religious events more extensively. Resistance to reforms reinforces orthodoxy that carries great emotional appeal. The influence of the Arya Samaj has declined. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the numbers of Hindus going to temples and Muslims going to mosques have increased.

The nexus of politics and religion has resulted in the proliferation of so-called Ashrams. Assured of official protection in lieu of their vote delivering powers, several charlatans established institutions that attract a large number of devotees. Some of them have been exposed as criminals. Consequently, the word Ashram has been devalued.

In order to make Hinduism muscular and less gentle, intolerance and competitive sectaria-nism have to be fuelled. An atmosphere is created in which religious sentiments get hurt easily even by a stray comment or a viral video. Hardly a week goes by without some political activist shouting in a TV studio that Hindu sensitivities have been hurt by one statement or the other. The “hurt” Hindu psyche leads to a militant response through street violence and denunciation of the rival faith. A reference to the women-playmates of Lord Krishna provokes an educated Hindu political activist to write a long post on the Christian women who consider themselves married to Jesus!

Many Hindus living outside India actively ”protect” their gods and goddesses from insults. Hollywood Hindus ignore that their faith felt strong enough to allow internal theological differences and dissent. It neutralised competing elements by absorbing them. Hindus felt confident enough to ignore silly remarks against their faith. But politicians find heightened sensitivities useful for rallying forces against the religious Other.

They do not want common Hindus to know that their faith is not the product of one major revelation granted to one prophet. Had Hinduism been any different, it would not have permitted a monk to become a politician and there would be no Yogi-Chief Minister. Just as by weakening its commitment to secularism, some politicians want India to imitate Pakistan, by modifying the character of Hinduism they want it to imitate Islam, a religion of the Book.

Thanks to the inherent strength and resilience of Hinduism, the powerful impact of the West did not lead to large-scale conversions to Christianity. In fact, the British rulers kept away from reforms in Hinduism some of which seeking gender parity and social justice were undertaken later by the Government of the independent India. Foreign rulers posed little danger to Hinduism but if one were to believe the Hindu nationalists, today 70 years after India’s independence, Hinduism is in danger! This slogan is designed to make the majority fearful and to promote hatred towards the religious “Other”. The votaries of Political Hinduism would like to adopt an absolute central creed so that Hindus claim that their view is the only view.

The rise of the Hindutva forces has made a large number of Hindus anxious. A few Hindus may even leave this faith to show their disapproval of its vulgarisation. Hindus of a certain class are already more comfortable practicing a Japanese school of Buddhism. In the mid 15th century, Guru Nanak Dev, a born Hindu, rebelled against impurities in this faith and exploitation by its priestly class. His teachings led to the foundation of Sikhism.

More than 60 years ago, eminent Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism taking with him thousands of Hindus belonging to his oppressed caste. Ambedkar condemned the caste system and even said, “If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt be the greatest calamity for this country.” In order to woo the Dalit voters, the BJP leaders today pay rich tributes to this very leader, ignoring his attacks on Hinduism. The ruling party is an expert in appropriation through misrepresentation!

The warning of Hinduism in danger, the obliging “seers” blessing the ruling party at election time and violent protests by Hindu activists mark political contestation. At times faith sways voters but at times it fails to yield political dividends. That does not dishearten the Hindutva forces and they continue their mission to recapture political power with the ultimate aim of establishing a Hindu Nation.

Notwithstanding occasional setbacks, their progress since the demolition of the Babri mosque indicates that they are not going to disappear anytime soon. The Ram temple issue is taken up by public rallies at which the courts are told to respect Hindu sentiments. A fair number of rally participants are hired, given saffron head-bands, told to shout a particular slogan and brought to the venue by buses. This holy mission will continue. Events will be planned for the next few years and demands will be made about other temples destroyed during the Mogul rule. This strategy makes the BJP confident of winning ever after. The Prime Minister declares that he would cleanse the country of its main Opposition!

Significantly, a political setback to the Hindutva forces is not caused or accompanied by a wave of revulsion against the politics of hatred and the misuse of Hinduism. The Hindus given to bowing their heads while passing by a mosque or a church are in a majority, but it is a silent majority. Such Hindus grieve privately when their liberal faith is violated while the public fora is left free for the Hindutva votaries. Those Hindus who, like devout Muslims, felt pained by the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, did not come out on the streets to do penance as Gandhi would have done resisting the Right-wing Hindu activists who celebrated the mosque demolition anniversary on December 6 as a day of bravery. Muslims observed it as a day of sorrow.

Here is a stray example of the typical reaction of genuine devout Hindus to the destruction of the Babri mosque. The elderly Gujarati mother of writer Salil Tripathi on watching the mosque destruction on the TV rang her son in Singapore. She said on phone: “We have just killed Gandhi again.” And she added: Avu te karaay koi divas? (in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mother-tongue). Can anyone do such a thing any time? Her statement comes closest to what is said in gentle Britain: Simply not done!

Shorn of its inclusiveness and laced with bigotry, Hinduism will threaten not just the religious minorities but a very large section of practicing Hindus. In the neighbouring theocratic state of Pakistan, non-Sunni sections of Muslims have always felt threatened.

After the BJP came to power in 2014, there has been a phenomenal rise of believers in the aggressive political Hindutva as also in the numbers of the RSS volunteers. Digital warriors go after anyone talking about the philosophical dimension of this inclusive, eclectic and dialogic faith. Anyone citing the sacred texts, be he a Hindu Sanskrit pundit or a scholar proficient in English, is branded anti-Hindu and “sickular”. Social media is suffused with tirades against such Hindus. Their posts reflect their lack of familiarity with modern languages and classical literature, let apart books on theology and philosophy.

The refrain is the same. Hinduism is in danger unless it appears in an aggressive and violent avatar. The votaries of political Hindutva say in unison that because of the gentle nature of their religion that Hindus were victimised in the past. It appears as if India has just got free from the Islamic rulers and now Hindu warriors are out to protect Hinduism from depredations by a foreign faith. If historians depend on the media to collect the spoken and written words, they will find that political Hindutva became extremely popular during this period.

Many devout Hindus are shocked by the politicisation of their faith and attempts to impose a cruel muscular creed. But faced with organised mob frenzy, they surrender to silence. All they can do is to write letters to the editor. On the anniversary of the mosque demolition, a letter written by a Hindu refers to “India’s darkest hour and a huge blow to our multi-cultural identity”. Like Army Generals, our leaders exhorted party workers to create mayhem and anarchy. So what atonement can be expected from forces that stoked this very fire, it said.

Another letter condemns the latest killings associated with alleged cow slaughter. It suggests that one can get away with much in the name of religion. “How can anger and violence become expressions of religious fervour?”

Such voices are hardly heard when thousands of men in saffron electrify a mass rally by demanding the building of a Ram temple on the spot where the Babri mosque stood once! The situation can be changed only if a fearless devout Hindu reformer emerges to free Hinduism from the clutches of politicians and to detoxify society through a cultural revolution. He or she should be able to influence a community’s social psychology. Some seers may then start spreading the true message of Hinduism. Secularism will then influence mass consciousness and shape social and political imagination. It had done so even during the more challenging times of the post-Partition communal killings. That will make it difficult to mobilise mobs against the Hindus not subscribing to Hindutva and against court rulings that seek to loosen the hold of religious orthodoxy.

The Hindutva forces do face hurdles in uniting Hindus on one single political platform. Varied and pluralistic traits of Hinduism resist uniformity. Hindus believe in the existence of many ways of reaching God. All sacred texts and hymns emphasise this. The BJP’s campaign to establish the primacy of Lord Ram cannot succeed in large parts of the country where people cherish their own devotional ethos. They will not start establishing Ram temples at the behest of a political formation. In fact, they resent attempts to violate their patterns of belief. In some States, the BJP cannot afford to launch its aggressive campaign against beef-eating. A BJP Minister’s idea of giving a special formal status to the Bhagavad Gita just fizzled out.

The diversity of the faith makes it difficult for a political establishment to impose uniformity. Notwithstanding the state-supported infiltration of the Right-wing Hindu activists in several official and autonomous institutions, the conversion of India into a theocratic state will remain a dream of the BJP-RSS combine.

How far the politicians will succeed in their polarisation project? The BJP’s rule in New Delhi and several States enables it to popularise Hindutva but if it loses political power, that mission will become more difficult. That is why winning elections has become for it a matter of supreme importance and the BJP leaders are fighting poll battles with messianic zeal.

Hinduism withstood challenges by foreign rulers of alien faiths. Many believe that this religion can withstand attacks by the sectarian desi politicians. The gulf between religion and state may again widen. The compulsions of diversity may strengthen the inclusive character of Hinduism. Private contemplation and medi-tation may become more attractive.

Politicians will continue to tinker with Hinduism, but can they modify Hinduism or change the way Hindus look at their religion? Since analysts do not forecast future in the area of faith, one may as well cite those who say the current aberration too shall pass.They believe that once the pitcher of sins fills up to the brim, the Divine intervenes to set the creation right again! They have the word of Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita:

Whenever there is decay of

Righteousness, O Bharata,

And there is exaltation of

Unrighteousness, then I Myself

Come forth;

For the protection of the good, for

The destruction of evil-doors,

For the sake of firmly establishing

Righteousness, I am born from

Age to age.

(Translated by Swami Vivekananda)

(Courtesy: Open Democracy)

The author is a senior journalist and writer who worked in India and abroad (notably Britain) in several major newspapers. Now retired, he is a freelancer.

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