12.1. A concession to convention
As part of their
entrenched power position, the British colonisers and later their Nehruvian
successors have always tried to control the discourse on religion.
Among other concerns, they have seen to it that the term “Hindu” got divorced
from its historical meaning, which quite inclusively encompassed all Indian
Pagans, in order to fragment Hindu society. In parallel with their
effort to pit caste against caste, they have tried to pit sect against
sect, offering nurture to the egos of sect leaders by telling them that
in fact they were popes in their own right of full-fledged religions, equal
in status but morally superior to Hinduism. Hindu Revivalists have
countered this effort by reaffirming the basic Hindu character of tribal
Animism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism and more recent reformist sects.
In some cases, the separation of sects from the Hindu commonwealth was
entirely contrived and artificial, in others it had a partial doctrinal
justification, though even there the proper distinction was never between
them and “Hinduism” as historically conceived, but between them and the
Vedic-Puranic “Great Tradition” of Hinduism.
The reader may
have noticed that throughout this book, I have kept on using expressions
like “Buddhists and Hindus” or “Sikhs and Hindus”, expressions which some
Hindu Revivalists reject in favour of “Buddhist and other Hindus” or “Sikh
and non-Sikh Hindus”. I have done this in deference to established
usage, but also because there really is an anti-Hindu element in these
semi-Hindu religions, whether ab initio (esp. in the case of neo-Buddhism)
or as a consequence of relatively recent innovations. It is of little
practical use to call Buddhists Hindus when these same Buddhists are attacking
Hinduism and defining Buddhism as the saviour in shining armour for the
poor Indians gnashing their teeth under the mentally and socially oppressive
weight of Hinduism. Or more briefly, it is not polite to address
people by a name they reject.
It also goes against
common sense to include in the Hindu category those who insist that they
don’t belong there and don’t want to belong there. We tend to behave
as if implicitly assuming the (unhistorical) definition: “Is Hindu, he
who calls himself Hindu”. In some cases, analysis may show that this
insistence on being labeled non-Hindu is based on misconceptions, such
as the identification of Hinduism with the caste system, with theism, or
with belief in reincarnation. Nonetheless, the term “Hindu” is an
item of language, i.e. a conventional system of signifiers, and can therefore
not be used in total disregard of what meaning the language community gives
to it. So, if people declare that they are not Hindus, for whichever
reason right or wrong, it is at least impractical and possibly unjustified
to impose that label on them.
Along with most
Hindus, who are easy-going people not given to fussing over words, I don’t
think the gain of using theoretically defensible expressions like “Sikhs
and other Hindus” outweighs the communal friction it may generate.
Anti-Hindu separatism is at any rate not going to be cured by a mere choice
of terminology. To be sure, it is possible that separatists get persuaded
at some point to change their minds about the Hindu character of their
own sect or tradition. But that will require better arguments or
deeper experiences than mere verbal expressions like “Buddha the Hindu”.
12.2. An uncompromising application
can be said in favour of going with the flow and acquiescing in the prevalent
usage, the inclusive usage adopted by activist Hindus also has its merits,
though in different degrees for the different communities considered, and
also depending on which of the more inclusive definitions we adopt.
First of all, if we assume the historical definition of Hinduism as “all
Indian Paganism”, we find that it does include (Indian) Buddhists,
Jains, Sikhs, tribals, and modem Hindu reform movements including such
starry-eyed all-inclusivisms as “Ramakrishnaism”. In that respect,
the Hindu Revivalist inclusive usage is 100% correct, and those who denounce
it are 100% wrong.
In accepting the
historical definition, Hindus would also avoid the trap unintentionally
present in Savarkar’s definition of the Hindu as “one to whom India is
both Fatherland and Holyland”. By the latter definition, communities
who expressly identify with only a part of India, rejecting the rest, such
as neo-Sikhs advertising their separatism in secular terms as “Panjabi
nationalism”, or tribals proclaiming themselves “Jharkhandi nationalists”
or “Mizo patriots”, would thereby fall outside the Hindu fold. Regardless
of whether we share Savarkar’s political views, and regardless even of
whether we consider Sikhs or Mizo and Jharkhandi tribals as Hindus, everyone
can see that this would be a bad definition because it also excludes people
who are Hindus by any account and who also call themselves Hindus.
Thus, Nepal has
a strong tradition of Nepali particularism, with orthodox Brahmins performing
yajnas to prevent India from becoming too powerful and swallowing Nepal.
It is perfectly possible to be a Hindu and yet not be a partisan of a state
which unites all Hindus. One can espouse a Hindu cosmology, observe
Hindu ethics, perform Hindu rituals, and yet not care for the land of India
nor for its political unity. This is admittedly rare, and in practice
Savarkar’s definition does approximately cover all Hindus, but its inaccuracy
in some contentious corners of the South-Asian land mass or of Hindu society
is consequential. The idea of defining Hinduism in geographical terms
is not without a basis in reality, and is even better understandable in
the context of the struggle which Savarkar’s generation waged against British
imperialism and Muslim separatism. But it is inevitably imperfect,
and is becoming obsolete now that more and more Hindus live outside South
Asia and strike roots (or, as converts, even originate) in distant continents.
the historical and the Savarkarite definition, even narrower or “credal”
definitions (e.g. observance of endogamy, belief in reincarnation, acceptance
of the Vedas) generally imply that the communities under discussion fall
within the ambit of Hinduism, in some or in all respects. They do
share common origins, or common social practices, or common doctrines,
or common rituals, with a thus defined Hinduism. These common elements
set them collectively apart, along with Hinduism, from the Abrahamic family
To be sure, under
narrower definitions, the Indic traditions will fall inside or outside
the domain of the definition to different extents. While Buddhism
has been a distinctive tradition since the beginning, Sikhism’s separateness
is much younger and more superficial. In its prehistory, it shares
a much longer common itinerary with the Hindu mainstream. If we take
reverence for the Vedas as a criterion, Sikhism is unambiguously Hindus,
Buddhism only in an indirect sense (viz. that crucial ideas of the Buddha
are traceable to Vedic literature), while some tribals may never even have
heard of the Vedas, even if their beliefs (e.g. polytheism or pantheism)
happen to be similar to mainstream Hinduism.
So, we cannot
give a simple answer to the question whether Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Animists
and Ramakrishnaites are Hindus. In a way they are, in a way they
are not; the question is as complex as the choice of a definition
of “Hindu”. If we agree to leave the safe ground of the historical
definition, which classifies all the groups under discussion as Hindus
regardless of what they themselves may say, we cannot escape facing cases
where one or more of these communities do fall outside the definition,
and are then entitled to be called non-Hindu. If belief in the Vedas
is the criterion, Jains will be non-Hindus; or if the prohibition on cow-slaughter
is, many tribals will be.
to this is that the term “Hindu” was not conceived as a synonym of “Vedic”,-if
that meaning had been intended, the term “Vedic” itself was already available.
Being derived from the name of the South-Asian land mass, the term “Hindu”
simply happens to connote India and all religions native to India.
way of dealing with the question whether given sects are Hindu or not,
is to study the specific claims made by the “separatist” ideologues of
the communities concerned. When we do so, we find that Hindu Revivalist
critique has pin-pricked (though not yet exhaustively) some of the cheap
modem apologetics by which community leaders want to affirm the uniqueness
and superiority of their own tradition as compared to Hinduism. This
is especially true of the number one selling argument of all non-Hindu
or would-be non-Hindu religions in India: that they, unlike Hinduism, are
there is not one pre-20th century sect or religion or community in India
which is egalitarian or caste-free. The only seeming exception would
be Virashaivism, a sect started by Basava, a Brahmin Prime Minister of
a princely state in Karnataka (ca. AD 1200), hence hardly a “revolt”
but rather a “royal experiment”. Even at the height of his egalitarian
innovation, Basava never called himself a “non-Hindu”. He did promote
intermarriage for one or two generations, i.e. a caste equality which was
more than just spiritual. This may be sufficient to serve as a selling
proposition in the modem religion market, at least among people who go
by historical anecdote rather than living social practice. For, very
soon, his sect simply became one more high and proud Hindu caste, which
it has remained till today. Its egalitarianism lasted but a brief
The actual history
of Virashaivism illustrates how in the context of premodern Indian religion,
the programme of equality has inevitably been confined to the spiritual
sphere or else remained a mirage. The same is true for all the other
traditions and sects now advertised as egalitarian, except that they mostly
never even began to upset existing caste practice, not even for that brief
To be sure, some
traditions have preached and even practised equality at the spiritual level,
rating spiritual practitioners purely on spiritual merit and proclaiming
the accessibility of Liberation to all regardless of social or ethnic provenance;
but have never endeavoured to actually destroy the caste system in lay
society. But this purely theoretical equality was professed as much
by fully Hindu sects in the Bhakti movement as by any would-be non-Hindu
as a sociopolitical ideal is a modem standard which pre-modern traditions
can only claim as their own original endowment at the expense of their
regard for truth. If inequality must be outgrown, then Hindus, semi-Hindus
and non-Hindus will have to outgrow it together.
12.4. Honour by association
If a man is poor
and without social position, or if he is the target of accusations and
the object of contempt, he finds himself quite alone. If he was in
a better condition before but has lost his luck, he sees his friends desert
him, except for a hard core of friend in need, friends indeed.
Even his relatives avoid and disown him. And if later on his name
is cleared and his good fortune returns, the fairweather friends will again
come flocking to his company.
It takes little
more than this very elementary psychology to understand anti-Hindu separatism
among the offshoots of Hinduism. Nobody wants to get associated with
a religion which is hated and held in contempt. Conversely, when
a religious tradition or doctrine gains prestige, numerous people and groups
will surprise you with their discovery of how they had essentially been
espousing it all along. We can safely predict that the day when Hinduism
is held in high esteem again, the Ramakrishnaites will echo Swami Vivekananda’s
call to “say with pride: we are Hindus”. On that day, Sikhs too will
quote the Gurus’ pledges of loyalty to Hindu Dharma.
At this point
I believe it is appropriate even for an outside observer to become a little
judgmental. After all, it takes a very contrived neutrality not to
be struck by the obvious lack of honour of those who sail with the winds
of dominant opinion like that.
When Ranjit Singh
was establishing a Hindu empire in the Northwest, no Sikh thought of disowning
his Hindu religion. When the anti-imperialist struggle was revaluating
the national religion as a rallying-point and a source of national pride,
no follower of Swami Vivekananda would have called himself anything except
Hindu. But when the British disparaged Hinduism, anti-Hindu separatism
gained ground among the collaborating communities. And when Nehruvian
secularism embarked on its long-term project of making India un-Hindu,
the spineless ones in Vivekananda’s order betrayed their founder’s injunction
of pride in Hinduism. This is called abject surrender.
There may be situations
where surrender is the lesser evil. Thus, we should not judge those
Hindus too harshly who saved their skins by succumbing to brutal Islamic
pressure to convert. But in the past two centuries, when the oppressors
were mere liberal Britons and smug Nehruvians, remaining loyal to Hinduism
didn’t take that much bravery. The man who sees his friends abandon
him when he is out of luck, though all they risk by keeping his company
is a bit of a bad name by association, has the right to take a skeptical
view of not just their friendship, but of their character as well.
Even his enemy, who sees the so-called friends cross over to his own side,
will not have a high opinion of them. If the Sikhs and Ramakrishnaites
want to save their honour, they had better declare themselves Hindu before
the anti-Hindu atmosphere fades away.
The point is valid
even for those who have slightly more reason to profess their non-Hindu
identity, such as Buddhists, Jains or the historically most isolated ones
among the Animists. Even where they do have a case, it remains in
most instances all too obvious that they profess a non-Hindu identity because
this is profitable rather than because it is truthful. It simply doesn’t
feel good to be associated with the leper among world religions.
We can argue this
matter out at great length, but the actual behaviour of the people concerned,
their public assertion of a Hindu or non-Hindu identity, is rarely going
to depend on arguments, be they doctrinal or historical. Instead,
their choice will depend on considerations of prestige and, in really pitiable
cases, on purely material calculations pertaining to state funding and
sect-based job reservations. Trying to set this debate on a better
conceptual footing has been an interesting academic exercise, but we should
not expect too many tangible results from it. It is the power equation
and the distribution of prestige which will decide the matter.
12.5. What Hindus can do
To a restless
Westerner like myself, one of the traits in the Hindu character that seems
less commendable is the lack of activism. In my experience, Hindus
are always elated when they hear that a problem is going to be solved all
by itself. In discussions of the Islam problem, I have heard so many Hindus
predict that “the West will take care of it”, or “the true tolerant Islam
is going to defeat the fanatics”, or some other scenario in which at any
rate the Hindus themselves won’t have to do anything.
Then again, perhaps
they do act to influence matters in their favour, but in an indirect manner.
Perhaps their fire ceremonies somehow set in motion an unseen mechanic
of destiny (exactly as intended by the officiants) which subtly directs
the course of events in their favour. Well, I don’t know what it
is, but somehow Hindu non-activism seems to bear fruit.
Two world wars
passed India by, allowing India to profit economically and politically,
and weakening her colonial oppressor to the extent that he washed his hands
off her and quit. The secession of Pakistan could not be prevented
(and again Hindus didn’t try very hard), but the real Pakistan was much
smaller and weaker than the one planned by its founder M.A. Jinnah.
Moreover, the Partition turned out to be a blessing in disguise, dividing
and demoralizing the Muslim community, giving Hindus a breather in remainder-India.
The Chinese invaded and were in a position to occupy the whole Northeast,
but somehow they decided to withdraw. Without Hindu intervention,
the Bengalis rose up and partitioned Pakistan in 1971 (with just a little
help from India in the final stage). Just recently, in the autumn
of 2001, a Western intervention in Afghanistan greatly weakened Pakistan
and clipped its potential for fomenting terrorism.
Given the clumsy
performance of Indian governments and the Hindutva leadership, it is a
miracle that there are any Hindus left at all. But somehow, without
doing much, the Hindus or their Gods seem to get things done.
In this case too,
Hindus don’t have to do very much. Preaching to the minorities of
how Hindu they really are, will work only with the already-convinced, and
may even be counterproductive. Instead, at the practical level, Hindus
may explore the common ground with these borderline-Hindu communities,
these “prodigal daughters”, simply by doing things together. No matter
if neo-Buddhists disown Hinduism but sit down to practise the Buddha’s
spiritual discipline; let Hindus sit down beside them and also practise
what the Buddha taught. No matter if Sikhs refuse to visit non-Sikh
Vaishnava shrines, Hindus will continue to visit Sikh Vaishnava shrines,
and likewise to offer worship at the Mahabodhi temple, etc. Let the
others call these places non-Hindu all they want; Hindus may claim them
as their own simply by paying respect to them. Daughters may try
to break away from their mother, but a mother cannot disown her daughters.
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