5.1. The “Semitic religions”
the height of the Ayodhya controversy, many secularists suddenly set themselves
up as teachers of Hinduism, of “real Hinduism” as opposed to the “distorted”
Hinduism of the Hindu Nationalists.1 This
was a crucial step forward for the Hindu cause, for it meant that Hinduism
was replacing secularism as the norm. The secularists told the Hindu
activists that Hinduism is alright, only, it is something altogether different
from what you think it is.
Thus, to depict
Rama as a virile warrior was a sin against Hinduism, an imitation of colonialist
virility myths, a betrayal of the feminine passivity of genuine Hinduism.
Or, to organize the Hindu religious personnel on a common platform (the
Dharma Sansad, more or less “religious parliament”) is an un-Hindu imitation
of the Bishops’ Synod in the Catholic Church. Or, to alert the Hindus
against Muslim or Christian conversion campaigns is an abandonment of the
cheerful Hindu indifference to sectarian name-tags, the only thing which
really changes upon conversion. Indeed, anything
that could play a role in upholding and preserving Hinduism was found to
be un-Hindu, while anything that could make or keep Hinduism defenceless
and moribund, was glorified as true Hinduism. Anything that smacked
of vitality and the will to survive was dubbed “Semitic”.2
In India, it is
not uncommon to lump Judaism, Christianity and Islam, or what the latter
calls “the peoples of the Book”, together under the heading “Semitic religions”.
The choice of the term is unfortunate, not only because it is tainted (at
least to Western cars) by its association with “anti-Semitism”, but also
because it is hopelessly inaccurate. It wrongly
identifies a religious current with a language family, even while many
Semitic-speaking peoples were Pagans (Babylonians, Assyrians, pre-Mosaic
and even many post-Mosaic Israelites, pre-Mohammedan Arabs)3
and the basic text of Christianity was written in non-Semitic Greek.
Therefore, Sita Ram Goel and N.S. Rajaram advocate the abandonment of this
term in favour of more analytic terms like “prophetic monotheism”. In
Goel’s words: “I consider neither Christianity nor Islam Semitic religions.
The Semites of the Middle East were Pagans; their tradition was pluralistic
before the arrival of the Biblical God.”4
term “Semitic” is still being used in a derogatory sense, mostly in a somewhat
bizarre Marxist discourse alleging a tendency in the Hindu movement to
borrow elements from the prophetic-monotheist religions. Hindutva
is said to constitute a “semitization” of Hinduism.
5.2. “Semitic”, or dogmatic and
It must be admitted
at the outset that this usage of the term “Semitic” as meaning “that which
Hinduism is not and should never become” is sometimes applied in good faith
by people who wish Hinduism well. Thus, novelist U.R. Ananthamurthy
(of the famous anti-Brahmin novel Samskara), when contrasting the
Upanishadic tradition with contemporary Hindu militancy, offered the following
observation which I could largely make my own: “The Hindu militancy that
we see today is short-sighted because those behind it are aware of their
history until 300 years ago. I do not begin with Shivaji. My ancestor
is Yajnavalkya. The great tradition to which
I belong was suspicious of all temples. I don’t think there is room for
radical mysticism in Hindu militancy. It’s more political than spiritual.
What I would describe briefly as-trying to semitise the Hindus.”5
This is a benign
piece of advice for the Hindutva movement to get serious about exploring
the roots of the tradition to which it pays so much lip-service.
What it says is that in comparison with the Upanishadic tradition, the
Semitic religions lack inferiority, and so does the Hindutva movement.
In brandishing pro-Hindu slogans and pledging allegiance to Hindu civilization,
the Hindutva activists resemble the proverbial donkey who carries a bag
of gold on its back without being aware of the gold’s value.
But unlike Ananthamurthy,
most authors who use this concept of the “semitization of Hinduism” have
no eye for the spiritual dimension which the Hindutva activists allegedly
neglect. They bring up other concerns, which are also deemed un-Semitic
by implication, e.g. social reform. Thus, Praful
Bidwai sees a “forced attempt to forge a Semitic, monolithic, chosen people
identity for Hindus” which “stands in sharp contrast to the enlightened
effort at founding a modern, social rationale for religion as, say, in
Vivekananda”.6 As if Vivekananda did not stand
for an assertive-allegedly “Semitic”-Hinduism, all while paying attention
to the need for social reform.
specifically, the allegation of “semitization” amounts to a claim that
Hinduism is turned into a centralized, exclusivist and monopolistic religion.
The Ayodhya movement is described as “an attempt to semitise the Hindu
religion. Ram is to be the prophet and Ayodhya the Vatican City.”7
But the Ayodhya
movement has not changed the status which Ram had acquired long ago in
existing Hindu tradition, nor has it ever defined him as a “prophet”.
It never tried to give him any “Semitic” kind of spiritual monopoly by
discarding other (“rival”) Hindu Gods. It never tried to give Ayodhya
a new status nor to set up any institution similar in status to what the
Papal State represents in Catholicism. Rather, the claim quoted appears
to Le the effect of first adopting the “semitization” rhetoric and then
filling it in with the required “Semitic” features, without checking whether
these correspond to the reality of the Ayodhya movement. Secularist
criticism of Hindutva is amazingly careless on facts, apparently because
a decades-long monopoly on public discourse has made the secularists smug
5.3. Romila Thapar on semitization
The locus classicus
of the theory of the “semitization of Hinduism by the Hindutva movement”,
implying a derogatory use of the term “Semitic”, is JNU Professor Romila
Thapar’s claim that in the Hindu right wing’s reasoning, “if capitalism
is to succeed in India, then Hinduism would have to be moulded to a Semitic
form (…) Characteristic of the Semitic religions are features such as a
historically attested teacher or prophet, a sacred book, a geographically
identifiable location for its beginnings, an ecclesiastical infrastructure
and the conversion of large numbers of people to the religion-all characteristics
which are largely irrelevant to the various manifestations of Hinduism
until recent times. Thus instead of emphasizing the fact that the
religious experience of Indian civilization and of religious sects which
are bunched together under the label of ‘Hindu’ are distinctively different
from that of the Semitic, attempts are being made to find parallels with
the Semitic religions as if these parallels are necessary to the future
of Hinduism. (…)
“The teacher or
prophet is replaced by the avatâra of Vishnu, Rama; the sacred
book is the Râmâyana; the geographical identity or the
beginnings of the cult and the historicity of Rama are being sought in
the insistence that the precise birthplace of Rama in Ayodhya was marked
by a temple, which was destroyed by Babur and replaced by the Babri Masjid;
an ecclesiastical infrastructure is implied by inducting into the movement
the support of Mahants and the Shankaracharyas or what the Vishwa Hindu
Parishad calls a Dharma Sansad; the support
of large numbers of people, far surpassing the figures of earlier followers
of Rama-bhakti, was organized through the worship of bricks destined
for the building of a temple on the location of the mosque.”8
Though the general
impression that the Ayodhya militants display more muscle than understanding
of the subtleties of Hinduism deserves consideration, much in this attack
on Hindu activism as “false, semitized Hinduism” is unrelated to reality.
To make “capitalism” the secret goal of Hindutva betrays ignorance of the
strong socialist current within the Hindutva movement, esp. in the erstwhile
Jana Sangh (1952-77) and in the RSS trade union, the Bharatiya Mazdoor
Sangh. At any rate, now that capitalism has proved victorious, there
is still a Hindutva movement and a conflict between different ideologies,
just as in the capitalist USA there are still political antagonisms between
Christians and secularists. Let us just smile about this Marxist
professor’s naive reduction of every debate in the ideological-political
superstructure to a conflict of interests in the economic infrastructure.
To say that Rama
and the Ramayana have acquired the same positions in the Hindutva version
of Hinduism as Jesus or Mohammed c.q. the Bible or the Quran is simply
untrue. Since the discourse on “semitization” is meant to evoke the
impression of fanaticism, it would also imply that Rama worshippers have
practised typically Christian or Islamic forms of fanaticism, say, destroying
images of “false gods” (like Shiva or Krishna?) or burning copies of rivalling
“heretic” books (like the Vedas or the Gita?), if not the readers of these
books as well. In reality, Hindus who worship Krishna or Shiva as
their chosen deity have participated in the Ayodhya movement in huge numbers,
without ever getting the impression that their own deity was being disparaged.
Thapar’s enumeration of the typical characteristics of the “Semitic religions”
is not entirely accurate. A “historically attested teacher” is not
necessarily proof of a “Semitic” religion. While not available for
Hinduism as a whole, the type exists for certain sects and schools within
Hinduism and other non- “Semitic” traditions (e.g. Confucianism), though
these teachers (the Buddha, Guru Nanak, Chaitanya) never claimed the same
unique and apocalyptic status for themselves as Jesus and Mohammed did.
The fact of having a historically situated founder is in itself no argument
for or against the truth, the humaneness or even the Hinduness of a religious
Ms. Thapar is
right, however, about having a “prophet” as founder as a defining characteristic
of “Semitic religions”. It would not be right to describe Gautama
the Buddha, Guru Nanak, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Swami Narayan and other founders
of Hindu traditions as “prophets”, i.e. exclusive spokesmen of the Heavenly
Sovereign. By now, the term prophet cannot be delinked anymore
from the more specific meaning which the Abrahamic religions have given
to it: “one who communicates messages from God”. In a less monopolistic
sense, “communicating messages from a god” was a Shamanic practice common
to many early cultures, but it only acquired its exclusive connotation
when it was coupled with the doctrine of monotheism.
And this, then,
is the crucial point about “Semitic religions” which Professor Thapar strangely
overlooks. Monotheism is what the “Semitic religions” see as their
own contribution to humanity’s progress. Hinduism
can accommodate monotheism: as Ram Swarup has argued, it sees no incompatibility
between the unicity and the multiplicity of the Divine, nor between the
immanence and transcendence of the Divine.9 Hindutva
authors never tire of quoting this Vedic verse which bridges the gap between
the One and the Many: “The wise call the One Being by many names.”10
The defining characteristic of the “Semitic” religions is that they do
not see unicity and multiplicity as two legitimately coexisting viewpoints
but as hostile positions identifiable with good and evil, respectively.
It is not true
that this characteristic of the “Semitic religions” has been adopted in
any way by the Hindutva movement. While the 19th century Hindu reform
sects Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj had been persuaded (or intimidated by
the prevalent religious power equation) to reject polytheism and idol-worship
as evil and as the cause of Hinduism’s decline, today the “mono-poly” controversy
is just not an issue to the broad spectrum of sects and schools which have
joined the Dharma Sansad since 1985. It is not true at all that Rama
has been projected in neo-monotheistic fashion as a sole “jealous God”
or “final Prophet”.
is nothing wrong or “Semitic” about having “a sacred book, a geographically
identifiable location for its beginnings, an ecclesiastical infrastructure
and the conversion of large numbers of people to the religion”; nor is
it true that these are “all characteristics which are largely irrelevant
to the various manifestations of Hinduism until recent times”. Hindus
recited the Vedas even before the first “Semitic” scripture was compiled,
and later the Gita, the Ramcharitmanas and other “sacred books”.
The Vedas and the Epics give quite a bit of information concerning their
locations, and as for the Buddha, the Pali Canon tells us the exact location
and circumstance of every single speech he gave.
for conversion, various forms of initiation of outsiders into successively
more inner circles of Hindu tradition have existed for millennia, from
the Vedic Vratyastoma ritual down to the Shuddhi ritual of the Arya Samaj.11
Buddhism is one offshoot of Hinduism which has practised the induction
of newcomers on a large scale. The precise relation between Buddhism
and Hinduism is a matter of dispute, as we shall see, but at any rate Buddhism
is not “Semitic”. Most “Pagan” religions have this more relaxed attitude
towards the induction of outsiders: they keep the option open, esp. for
people who marry into the community, but they don’t propagate it.
Some sects jealous of their pedigree even refuse to accept converts, e.g.
the Parsis. However, to object to Hinduism accepting converts or
“reconverts” in the present circumstances is to plead for the extinction
of Hinduism, as indicated by the near-extinction of indeed the Parsis.
Prof. Thapar is
also off the mark when she alleges that Hindu Revivalists deny or disregard
“the fact that the religious experience of Indian civilization [is] distinctively
different from that of the Semitic” and that, on the contrary, they make
“attempts to find parallels with the Semitic religions as if these parallels
are necessary to the future of Hinduism”. The whole of Hindu Revivalist
literature is replete with emphatic assertions of the contrast between
Hinduism and the prophetic-monotheistic religions, starting with the contrast
between Hindu pluralism and prophetic-monotheist intolerance. This
remained true even when some of the movement’s leading lights inadvertently
interiorized prejudices borrowed from Christianity or Islam, such as the
insistence on monotheism.
So, the argument
that Hindutva is a “semitized” form of Hinduism is a mixed affair, which
in most respects fails to convince. It is a different matter whether
the phenomena described as “semitization” are all that undesirable.
5.4. The need to “semitize” Hinduism
criticism of the attempt to set up an organized platform of Hindu religious
leaders, the VHP’s reply is: to the extent that this is an innovation,
could it not be that Hindu society has the right to innovate its organizing
principles when this is needed in the struggle for survival?12
Does not the secularist rejection of any deviation from museum Hinduism
betray a desire to impose rigor mortis on Hinduism? So far,
there is no sign that the cooperation of religious personnel in the Dharma
Sansad has caused any new limitations on the freedom of any sect to pursue
its own spiritual path, quite unlike the stifling control exercised by
certain “Semitic” authorities on their flock. All that has happened
is that Hindu religious leaders are becoming more practical and adapting
to the needs of modern society.
It is ironical
that the sins of these “Semitic religions” are held against the Hindutva
movement, which seeks to safeguard India from the further encroachment
by those same religions. To be sure, real
history presents such ironical cases of entities imitating their enemies
all the better to defeat them; in this case, it has been called “strategic
syncretism” or “strategic emulation”.13 But
even if the Hindutva movement is such a case, it is still illogical to
take it to task for imitating the prophetic-monotheistic religions without
first putting these religions themselves in the dock.
India-watcher of the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, a parastatal
world-watch bureau in Washington DC, has remarked that this alleged semitization,
which is but a pejorative synonym for self-organization, may simply be
necessary for Hinduism’s survival. He points
out that in Africa, the traditional religions are fast being replaced by
Christianity and Islam precisely because they have no organization which
can prepare a strategy of self-defence.14
African traditionalists are not denounced as “semitized fundamentalists”
because in effect, they submit to the liquidation of their tradition by
It is hard to
find fault with this observation (except to insist that the missionary
religions are intrinsically superior and that consequently it is but a
good thing if they replace the native traditions). Consider:
why was the Roman Empire christianized, but not the Persian Empire? As
a Flemish historian of early Christianity has shown, without using the
term, the difference was precisely that the Roman state religion was not
“semitized”, while the Persian state religion was.15
The Roman state religion was pluralistic and didn’t have much of a policy,
while the Mazdean state religion in Persia did organize the opposition
against Christian proselytization, mobilizing both the state and the population,
and developing a combative “Semitic” character in the process (the Mazdean
oppression of Christianity led to the migration of some Syrian Christians
to Kerala in the 4th century, where they survive till today). It
is a different point whether the means used by the Persians were the right
ones, but organization was certainly a minimum requirement.
And why did, in
ca. AD 630, the Arabs lose their religion? In spite of being numerically
in the majority, they lost against Mohammed in the battle of Badr, and
likewise in the larger struggle for the land and soul of Arabia, for this
reason: “The weak point of the Meccan army was that it consisted of different
clans each with its own commander, while on the Muslim side there was only
one commander, Mohammed. Moreover, the Meccans
had not come to kill as many people as possible: that would only lead to
endless vendettas. They simply wanted to show their strength and
frighten the rebels. By contrast, Mohammed reacted in a fanatical
The Arabs were
defeated because they were not sufficiently organized, and not sufficiently
determined. In the Ridda (“apostasy”) war just after Mohammed’s
death, they repeated their mistake: after having defeated the Muslim army,
they did not pursue it in its retreat. They demobilized while the
Muslims regrouped and struck back, this time to liquidate Arab Paganism
for good. The Arabs lost their religion because in the struggle against
its mortal enemy, they were not “Semitic” enough.
Ram Swarup analyzes
the political intention behind laudatory labels like “tolerant” and hate
labels like “Semitic”. He too points to Africa as an instance of what to
avoid: “The African continent has been under the attack of the two monolatrous
religions, Christianity and Islam, for centuries. Under this attack,
it has already lost much of its old culture. Recently, the attack
has very much intensified and indigenous Africa is on the verge of losing
its age-old religions. Some time ago, there
was an article in the London Economist praising it for taking this attack
with such pagan tolerance. But there was no word of protest
against intolerance practised against its peoples and their religions.”17
This praise of religions which submit to being annihilated (“tolerant”)
and the concomitant opprobrium for religions which don’t, indeed the condemnation
of the very will to survive as “fanatical”, is reminiscent of a French
saying: “This animal is very mean: it defends itself when attacked.”
5.5. The non-existence of Hinduism
So far, we have
been assuming that the word “Hinduism” does have a referent in the real
world. But judging from recent trends in Hinduism studies, this was
naive. Robert Frykenberg denies the Hindu identity as a recent fiction,
and a pernicious one at that: “The concept of ‘Hinduism’
as denoting a single religious community has (…) done enormous, even incalculable
damage to structures undergirding the peace, security and unity of the
whole Indian political system.”18
This habit of
enclosing the word Hinduism in quotation marks is catching on. Thus,
David Ludden rejects the notion that India “was ever populated predominantly
by people whose identity was formed by their collective identification
with a religion called ‘Hinduism’ or with a ‘Hindu’ religious persona”.19
In this view, the Hindu nation is at best an “identity project”, and for
that matter one bound to fail, given the internal contradictions of the
“Hindu” conglomerate of communities.
But does Prof.
Ludden’s argument refute the position of the Hindu nationalists? After
all, they will readily agree with his observation that “‘Hindu’ thus did
not begin its career as a religious term, but rather as a term used by
outsiders and state officials to designate people who lived east of the
Indus”.20 Hindus indeed
did not call themselves Hindu until outsiders did so, a historical and
terminological anecdote which they do not find threatening to the underlying
reality of an ancient Hindu identity.21
This does not
exclude a collective identity: people within a collective refer to one
another’s lower-level identities (i.c. Brahmins, Banias, Jats, Chamars;
or Kashmiris, Gujaratis, Tamils; or Vaishnavas, Kabirpanthis etc.), but
in a meeting with outsiders, everyone realizes that something distinguishes
the outsiders from all of them collectively. This scenario is not
very problematic. Everybody knows that within the Brown family, Johnny
and Mary never call each other Brown, and if it wasn’t for the occasional
meeting with outsiders (schoolteachers reading out the list of their new
pupils, etc.), they would grow up without ever knowing that they were the
Browns; but outsiders call both of them Brown, because from the outside
it is obvious that for all their separate identities they are members of
a single family.
Shourie’s rewording of the dominant paradigm: “Caste is real. The
working class is real. Being a Naga is real. But ‘India is
just a geographical expression!’ Similarly, being a Muslim, of course,
is real (…) But Hinduism?
there is no such thing: it is just an aggregation, a pile of assorted beliefs
and practices. In a word, the parts alone are real. The whole
is just a construct.”22 Numerous Indians
including the Muslims for thirteen centuries have had no difficulty recognizing
some basic cultural traits collectively designated as Hindu.
If today’s intellectuals cannot recognize these, the problem may well be
in the eye of the beholder. Shourie, for one,
does not believe in their good faith: “The beginning of reconstruction,
therefore, the sine qua non for it, is to overturn the intellectual
fashions set by these intellectuals, and defeat their verbal terrorism.”23
in this view, the reality of narrower identities, like caste, need not
exclude the reality of larger identities, such as Hindu-ness, or for that
matter, Indian-ness, a notion equally challenged as unreal and unhistorical.24
Identities are partly a matter of choice, and the choice of secularists
and Indologists to play down the larger identity and fortify the smaller
identity can legitimately be read as a political act in an ongoing struggle,
parallel and partly equivalent with the struggle between various separatisms
and Indian unity. That, at least, is a central
Hindu Revivalist suspicion.25 Against it,
Hindus, for once on the same wavelength with “nation-builder” Jawaharlal
Nehru, want to strengthen the factors which unite these many castes and
language groups, want to maximize the more encompassing levels of identity.
5.6. Circular proof for Hinduism’s
fashionable view of Hinduism is summed up in Arthur Bonner’s claim: “A
Hindu is a Hindu not because he accepts doctrines or philosophies but because
he is a member of a caste”26 , and: “Without
caste there is no Hindu”.27 This caste identity
is so strong, that it excludes any common identity between members of different
castes: “Social entities functioned on a rigid caste basis. North
Indians, for instance, saw one another as Brahmins, Rajputs, Baniyas, Khatris,
Jats, Ahirs, Chamars, or Muslims-distinctive castes, not fellow citizens.”28
I let the claim
of caste “rigidity” pass; a budding line in Hindu Revivalist history-rewriting,
rather well in touch with modem Western scholarship, is to question this
alleged age-old rigidity of caste and emphasize the relative fluidity of
the system before British policies and the census classifications rigidified
it. Even Jawaharlal Nehru observed: “But I
think that the conception of Hindu society as a very conservative society
(…) is not quite correct. In the past, changes took place not by legislation
but by custom; by the people themselves changing.”29
of the all-pervasiveness of caste is a colonial construct. Firstly,
the East India Company had entrusted Brahmins with the task of informing
its own officials who were compiling a native-based law code; these Brahmins
imposed their own view, which was the scripturalist reference to the Shastras,
but which was not shared by all layers of society nor universally operative
in social practice.”30 Secondly, there was
the, perhaps unintended, effect of policies of the modem state.
As J.C. Heesterman
writes, “the modern state-in contradistinction to the ancien regime-is
hived off from society and pretends to govern it by remote control as it
were. To that end, it first of all needs an all-inclusive and immutable
grid of rigidly bounded and inflexible categories (…) This need for an
immutable grid of categories was filled with deplorable obviousness by
caste, seemingly custom-made for the purpose, esp. in its Brahmanic form
of varna separation. Conversely, the modern
state and its census grid could not but project the image of an unchangeably
fixed order of society. One may wonder whether and how far the notion
of a never-changing, utterly tradition-bound and stagnating India has been
formed by the modern state’s view of society.”31
The point we should
look into now, is whether, as Bonner claims, the people concerned were
only members of distinctive castes, and not citizens of a common
polity. It seems to me that this claim is
factually incorrect. Leave aside the higher levels, even the village
community was based on an ongoing process of compromise between the castes
represented in the village through the village panchayat, which decided
by consensus.32 It is simply obvious that
the communities interacted, not at random but as parts of a larger polity,
both at the village and at the state level; yes, there were structures
integrating the different castes into a single polity. One of the
meanings of Dharma is precisely the harmonious integration of such
diverse units into a functioning whole, and that is precisely the difference
between present-day caste struggle and the ancient caste system.
One could argue that this meant that people were kept in their place with
religious sop stories, “opium of the people” (like in most pre-modern societies),
but the fact itself stands out: the functional gap between castes was bridged
by a number of cultural factors, integrating them into a society of which
the Muslim invaders immediately saw the distinctiveness and coherence,
and which they labelled as “Hindu”. This is
what Ram Swarup refers to when commenting on those who reduce Hinduism
to caste, lopping off its cultural and religious dimensions: “The new self-styled
social justice intellectuals and parties do not want an India without castes,
they want castes without dharma.”33
inclusion of the Muslims in the list on an equal footing with the Hindu
castes is an unjustifiable sleight-of-hand, for there is a decisive difference
between Muslims on the one and all the others on the other hand: from an
Islamic viewpoint, the former go to heaven and the latter to hell, the
former can marry Muslim women and the latter cannot, and other legally
and theologically consequential contrasts. From a Hindu viewpoint
too, there is a decisive difference: though an orthodox Brahmin will keep
both the Jat and the Muslim far from his daughter and from his dinner table,
he will serve as ritual officiant for the Jat but not for the Muslim, and
he knows that the Jat worships the same Gods as he does, unlike the Muslim.
For another application
of the dominant paradigm, Kancha Ilaiah tries to prove the non-existence
of a common “Hindu” identity by recounting that
in his own Andhra village, the Backward Karuma (wool-weaver) community
felt closer to Muslims and Christians (“we all eat meat”) than to Brahmins
and Banias, who treated the three other communities as equally impure.34
Ironically, this argument is typically Hindu: it does not consider belief
but observation or non-observation of purity rules as the decisive criterion.
This only makes sense as long as religion, esp. the viewpoint of those
Christians and Muslims, is kept out of the picture; once you consider the
criterion of religious belief too, the cleavage between Christians or Muslims
on the one hand and Brahmins and Karumas on the other proves more fundamental.
Christians and Muslims are trained to be sharply aware of religious identities,
and to them, both Shudras and Brahmins are unbelievers. Possibly
some of Ilaiah’s Christian or Muslim neighbours were liberals uninterested
in matters of afterlife salvation, only Christian or Muslim in name, but
then their transcending these communal boundaries took place precisely
to the extent that they, too, kept religious doctrine out of the picture.
the distinctive religious practices of the Backward Castes, which do differ
on some points with those of the Brahmins. In
that context, he mentions the folk Goddess Pochamma, popular among the
Backwards but accessible to all, so that even “a Brahmin can speak to her
in Sanskrit”.35 The point is: a Muslim or
a Christian who takes his religion seriously, will not speak to her at
all, unlike the frequent Backward and the occasional Brahmin worshippers
That is how, in spite of the social distance, religion does unite all Hindu
castes as distinct from Christians and Muslims.
of Muslims with Brahmins and Karumas, suggesting that the difference between
the Hindu castes is as deep as that between any of them and the Muslims,
is similarly based on the denial of the religious dimension. It is
more or less the logical and necessary outcome of his assumption that Hinduism
is caste, wholly caste and nothing but caste. That assumption is
If it were right,
it would mean that all tribals, all Christians, most Muslims, as well as
the Parsis and the Jews of India, are all Hindus, for practically all of
them traditionally observe endogamy rules. That is admittedly one
version of Hindutva, affirmed many times by BJP stalwarts: that
all Indians are Hindus because they share a common culture (of which, fortunately
or unfortunately, caste practices are a part), even if they believe in
Jesus or Mohammed. But such an extension rather than a denial of
Hindu identity is obviously not what Bonner meant. On
the other hand, many progressive and overseas Hindus who ignore commensality
rules altogether and increasingly dispense with endogamy as well would
fall outside the Hindu category, no matter how much they perform Durga-puja
or Surya-namaskar or Agni-hotra.36 Such a
definition of Hinduism is entirely counterintuitive: what else would you
call a Ganesha worshipper, regardless of caste observance, if not Hindu?
Hindus are aware
that Hindu civilization is not monolithic and subjected to uniform normative
prescriptions of faith and behaviour emanating from a single scriptural
or ecclesiastical authority. Most Hindutva ideologues keep on eulogizing
this pluralism and diversity: “Since India never had a religion in the
sense in which Islam and Christianity are religions, it never had religious
unity of the type that Islamic and Christian countries [have], in which
the people are forced to conform to the religion of the rulers. Such
a creed is alien to the Hindu ethics and culture rooted in the Vedic gospel:
Ekam sad viprah bahudha vadanti, ‘God is one but the wise call Him
by many names.’”37 The very phenomenon (decentralization,
pluralism) which Frykenberg, Ludden, Bonner and their school propose as
a devastating refutation of Hindu identity and as a trump card against
the Hindu movement, has since long been appropriated by the Hindu movement
and brandished as one of the great merits of Hinduism.
But the said Indologists,
along with the Indian Marxists, do not accept this more relaxed and pluralistic
view of Hindu identity: to them, that is no collective identity at all.
When Hindus try to set up a minimum of pan-Hindu organization, they are
accused of being unfaithful to the true Hindu tradition of decentralization,
and of “semitizing” Hinduism. At that point, their critics suddenly
assume the existence of Hinduism and even claim to know its essence well
enough to assure us that it is the opposite of “Semitic”. Yet,
precisely because Hinduism does not have a monolithic, “Semitic” view of
its own collective identity, the same critics refuse to acknowledge the
very existence of such a thing as Hinduism.38
Once more, Hindus
are damned if they do, damned if they don’t, typifying their lingering
condition of colonial underlings. And it is only because of their
inferior position that this game can be played with them: first telling
them that their religion doesn’t exist because it has no “Semitic” type
of core structure; then taunting them for being untrue to their non-existent
religion by devising an allegedly “Semitic” structure.
There is no simple
solution for the complex question, “Who is a Hindu?” Definitions using
tests of beliefs or caste practices fail to yield a semantic domain which
approximately coincides with the collection of people actually described
as Hindus at any time of the term’s usage. Yet, attempts to deny
that there exist a meaningful usage of the collective term Hindu
must be rejected, even if there is plenty of diversity within its normal
Moreover, we have
discovered one definition which is both implied in the oldest usage of
the term in India and accepted by the Constitution and Laws of the Indian
Republic: is Hindu, every Indian who is not a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian
or a Zoroastrian (Indian being a geographical term referring to
the whole subcontinent). Given these credentials, this definition
certainly deserves precedence over all newly-proposed alternatives.
Hindus themselves have appropriated it as a key to a universal dimension
of their confrontation with Christianity and Islam, viz. by catching it
in the phrase “Indian Paganism”.
is more or less equivalent with V.D. Savarkar’s definition of Hindutva,
which may be reformulated as follows: is Hindu, every Indian who considers
India his Holyland. However, the Sangh Parivar has tried to broaden
the scope of this term in a secular-nationalist sense, so as to include
“nationalist” Christians and Muslims. This broader usage is not catching
on, and for good reason: the communities affected reject it, and the term
Hindu in its established usage is highly functional, whereas its
proposed shift in meaning to some kind of synonymy with the geographical
term Indian serves no purpose except to blur issues.
e.g. the debate on whether Swami Vivekananda, undoubtedly a Hindu, conformed
to the modern definition of a “secularist”, between A.B. Bardhan on the
Communist side and Arun Shourie and Dina Nath Mishra on the Hindu side,
in Sunday, 31-1, 7-2, 28-3, 2-5 and 8-8-1993.
more on the use of the concept “Semitic” in secularist discourse, vide
K. Elst: The Saffron Swastika, Ch.8.5.4.
the USA, there are “neo-Pagan Jewish” associations harking back to the
Israelite tradition in its “original wholeness”, before Goddess Ashera,
traditionally worshipped in sacred groves, was lopped off and censored
out of the psalms by monotheistic and “patriarchal” scribes.
with S.R. Goel in Antaios (Brussels), summer 1996, p.78.
Ananthamurthy, interviewed by Suchitra Chaudhary: “For export only”, Illustrated
Weekly of India, 5-12-1992.
Bidwai: “The Sena/VHP Offensive. Disintegrative Politics of Identity”,
Times of India 25-10-1991, quoted with approval in Antony Copley:
“Indian Secularism Reconsidered: From Gandhi to Ayodhya”, Contemporary
South Asia, 1993, 2(1), p.45-65, n.4.
Hasan, historian, quoted in Raj Chengappa: “Dangerous Dimensions”, India
Thapar: “A Historical Perspective on the Story of Rama”, in S. Gopal, ed.:
Anatomy of a Confrontation, p.141-163, spec. p.159-160. Dharma
Sansad = “religious parliament”, common platform of priests and renunciates
convened by the VHP but shunned by the remaining citadels of Hindu orthodoxy
because of its reformist orientation.
Ram Swarup: Word as Revelation, and above, Ch.2.4.
was the ritual for Vedic initiation of the Vrâtyas, “those
who live in groups” (though often explained as “those who are bound by
a vow”, such as the vow of silence, the vow of poverty, the vow of loyalty),
roaming bands of warriors in the eastern Ganga plain, probably the origin
of the ascetic Shramana sects.
need to organize, in Swami Shraddhananda’s terminology Hindu
Sangathan, is the basic philosophy and the very raison d’Ítre
of the Sangh Parivar.
Jaffrelot: Hindu Nationalist Movement, p.359, where the reference
is to a policy of organizing collective (all-caste) services in temples
in emulation of collective worship in mosques.
Chiappetta, speaking to me at the Annual South Asia Conference in Madison,
Wisconsin, October 1995.
is the main thesis of Dany Praet: God der Goden, in which he seeks
to explain how the breakthrough of Christianity was possible.
Catherine: Islam voor ongelovigen (Dutch: “Islam for Unbelievers”),
Swarup: Hindu View, p.52; emphasis in the original.
Eric Frykenburg: “The Emergence of Modern ‘Hinduism’ as a Concept and as
an Institution”, in G. Sontheimer and H. Kulke, eds.: Hinduism Reconsidered,
Ludden: Making India Hindu, p.6.
Ludden: Making India Hindu, p.7. Ludden is, however, mistaken in
attributing the fixation of the current meaning of Hindu to the British
(“government use in census statistics and elections”, p.7) rather than
the earliest Muslim invaders, a mistake of about 1,000 years.
in S.R. Goel: Hindu and Hinduism, Manipulation of Meanings.
Shourie: “Parts talk and anti-ourselves talk”, Observer of Business
and Politics, 15-11-1996.
Shourie: “Parts talk and anti-ourselves talk”, Observer of Business
and Politics, 15-11-1996.
C. Aloysius: Nationalism without a Nation in India.
A. Shourie: A Secular Agenda. For Saving Our Country, for Welding It,
esp. Ch. : “‘But we aren’t even one nation’”.
Bonner: Democracy in India, p.46, quoting J. Hinnells and E. Sharpe:
Hinduism, p. 128.
Bonner: Democracy in India, p.46, quoting Max Weber, no reference
given, but actually from Weber: The Religion of India, p. 29.
Bonner: Democracy in India, p.46.
talking to Tibor Mende: Conversations with Mr. Nehru, p. 107.
fact, the whole of the law was hardly a codified law”, according to J.
Nehru talking to Tibor Mende: Conversations with Mr. Nehru, p. 107.
Heesterman: The Inner Conflict of Tradition, p.202.
= “council of five”, village council.
Swarup: “Logic behind Perversion of Caste”, Indian Express, 13-9-1996.
Ilaiah: Why I Am Not a Hindu, p.xi. With its promising title, and
in spite of its rich panorama of the specificities of Backward Caste culture,
the book disappoints because unlike its title counterparts (Bertrand Russell:
Why I Am Not a Christian, and Ibn Warraq: Why I Am Not a Muslim),
it fails to address the central doctrinal aspects of the repudiated religion,
on the admittedly voguish, nearly paradigmatic assumption that Hinduism
can be reduced to its social structure (though to his credit, he is less
extreme in this approach than the Western scholars cited in this section)
Ilaiah: Why I Am Not a Hindu, p.92.
devotional ritual for Durga, annual autumn festival; Sûrya namaskâra:
“salute to the sun”, term of both a ritual and a yogic exercise; Agni-hotra:
vedic fire ceremony.
Madhok: Rationale of Hindu State, p.32. Madhok, under Arya Samaj
influence, translates “ekam sat” as “one God”; but it means “one being”,
manipulation of meanings, with non-Hindus appropriating to themselves the
authority of deciding what Hindu means, in disregard of its established
meaning and even of elementary logic (where the first rule is “a = a”,
a term retains the same meaning all through), is just a matter of who
is in power. This is where Alice in Wonderland was told
by Humpty Dumpty that the meaning of words is a matter of who is boss.
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