It is now a truism that faith divides people, engenders identities, perpetuates meaningless violence and places stupid restrictions on human behaviour. Whether it be Islamophobic attacks or the rise of the Islamic State, religion, rather than making us better human beings, can drive us towards all kinds of mindless evil. So it is no wonder that people think religion is (or ought to be) a dying institution or social phenomenon.
But the fight it is putting up by seeking to tie-up with politics means that it is not going away anytime soon. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Indian general election results of 2019, which saw India’s Hindu Nationalist party being swept back into power after a fiery, divisive and communally-charged campaign. But to say that this election result is the endorsement of a militant, monolithic kind of Hinduism would be disingenuous. Hinduism is, ultimately, a complex and chaotic faith that has multiple aspects and ever-changing dialectics in every age. And the Hindu Nationalist’s victory is countered by numerous different perspectives, both correct and incorrect. These narratives serve to show us a faith that is alive, and, more importantly, learning to find a sweet spot in a modern world that may see religion as a relic of human stupidity. The zeitgeist of Hinduism today lies not in the polarising voices of Prime Minister Modi and his minions, but in the vast extent of all the different ideas that dominate Hinduism’s current cultural landscape.
From an animistic, possibly agnostic faith that was centred around animal sacrifice and elaborate fire rituals over 3,000 years ago, Hinduism has come a long way. It now has an organised chaos, in every sense of the phrase, with multiple strands of theistic and atheistic philosophies, grand epics, a notorious caste system and 330 million ‘gods’. Prima facie, one can see how the Sanatan Dharma (or The Eternal Faith, as so many Hindus call it) is ever so different from Christianity, Islam or Judaism. However, given Hinduism’s openness to new ideas, an analysis of some of the broad socio-political strands currently prevailing within (and without) the faith reveals many similarities with Abrahamic religions. In fact, it is the “Hindu revivalism” championed by (what can only be called) India’s Hindu Nationalists that seems to have the strongest resemblance to Abrahamic faiths.
Hindu Nationalist organisations, collectively known as the “Sangh Parivar” (Family of Associations), which form the ideological bedrock of PM Modi’s party, explicitly subscribe to a kind of “Hindu Zionism”. They believe that, like Israel, the glue that should bind India is the idea of a Hindu motherland, where a great Temple is built (in place of an existing mosque) that is dedicated to Lord Ram. Lord Ram is a Hindu god king from the epic Ramayana, and his rule is seen as the most perfect model for good governance and nation-building. Hindu Nationalists paint Lord Ram and the idea of India with brushstrokes that evidently transplant ideas from the Christian, Islamic or Israeli far right. They have major problems with the presence of another faith in their own ‘backyard’, they rely heavily on spiritual ‘gurus’ and religious leadership to spread their message, and they cling on to “older, truer” values like an opposition to the LGBTQ movement. While these groups have usually been a noisy minority with a record of some major violence like the vandalism of the mosque which allegedly stood in Lord Ram’s birthplace, they are now a formidable force.
Despite all their faults, the Hindu Nationalists have sparked a true debate on the nature of Hinduism. They have forced people to ask: What makes Hinduism ‘different’? What is the difference between the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ kind of Hinduism? How important is it for a Hindu to not consume beef? Should Hinduism seek some level of organisation like Abrahamic faiths? Is the idea of India inextricably linked to a fundamentally “Hindu identity”? The import of these questions extends far beyond their relevance to Hindu dogma (if there is one).
Although not from a strictly Hindu perspective, the political criticism of Hindu Nationalism comes from India’s broad cross-section of left-wing intellectuals and politicians. Their first major criticism being that PM Modi and his coterie of fanatic backers have perpetuated greater communal violence and intolerance. This is certainly not untrue. In a country which prides itself on having a composite culture, the recent increase in lynchings of people belonging to minority faiths is a complete and utter travesty. If there’s one thing a faith or ideology should not have is a penchant for violence. If the Hinduism of tomorrow or the India of tomorrow is run by people who resemble the Taliban, then Hinduism must rightly die as a faith.
Yet, the second major criticism hurled at the Hindu Nationalist is more ideological than factual. The Indian left-wing sees Hindu Nationalism as contrary both to the idea of India and the demands of a more modern world. The idea of India put forward by the Indian Left is very significantly influenced by the ideas of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. Nehru argues that India is a composite culture that has forever lived in harmony verily because of the immense spiritual diversity of Hinduism. Consequently, the Nehruvian vision of India dreams of a secular Indian state that stands in support of all faiths and respects all minorities.
But there are great internal flaws in these ideas. It is completely counterfactual to suggest that India has ever had true harmony in its history. The histories are replete with examples of Islamic rulers exploiting their Hindu subjects and vice versa. And it is undeniably a cheap political lie to suggest that Hinduism has, historically, been a tolerant faith that has always accepted outsiders. The history of Hinduism is plagued both by strands of profound pluralism and horrific clashes. For instance, the burning and pillaging of Buddhist monasteries has been a feature of Hinduism since the rise of the former as an alternative to a faith that thinks it’s okay (desirable, even) to label someone an ‘Untouchable’. The works of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of India’s Constitution are filled with examples of Hinduism terrorising all kinds of people―especially those who are untouchable. I fail to see how a faith that has denied ‘lower’ people the right to share clean water with some ‘higher’ people on the basis of birthright can be considered tolerant, especially when it ironically says each person possesses an immanent, infinite and transcendental soul.
The Indian left-wing seems to always ignore these truths, taking refuge instead in the apologetic argument that Hindu Nationalist ideology is a hangover from a colonial past or that it is a high caste conspiracy. While this argument makes sense in part, its implications are far more problematic. Yes, it is true that the coloniser’s view of Hinduism’s fearsome, naked goddesses and shamanic traditions drove it to embrace more Victorian trends like prudishness about sex or LGBTQ people (in the land of the Kama Sutra!). But that ominously suggests that if Hinduism were rid of colonial influences then it could return to some kind of earlier purity. Quite obviously, that ignores what Hinduism was before colonisation―a religion that burned widows alive. And, moreover, it implies that cultures can reverse history, which quite clearly is impossible. Faiths today cannot rely on the smokescreen of a heyday of yesteryear to redeem themselves, they must seek to move forward, not backwards.
As far as blaming the higher castes for Hinduism’s social evils is concerned, that argument seems both malicious and futile. No one can deny that the Brahmins played an active role in engendering the dehumanising aspects of the caste system. And, of course, ex post rationalisations of caste as a division of labour are deeply troublesome. But to confuse fighting against the caste system with fighting against the Brahmins entails a society that is fraught with acrimonious divisions. Nowhere is this truer than in South India, where movements led by the late thinker Periyar have created an environment that is hostile to Brahmins–leading to a slow death of their culture. The Left’s view of the caste system as a symptom of Brahmin hegemony, rather than the other way around, blames a group of people following Hinduism over the religion itself―which is the source of this rot. Instead of finding positive solutions it only presents arguments on whom to blame, making it extremely unhelpful to those who actually require emancipation and empowerment.
Evidently, the back and forth between India’s Hindu Right and Secular Left seems very poor in providing either a vision of Hinduism that is ready for a modern age or an idea of India that is historically accurate. While one side sees Hinduism as the be-all and end-all of 1.3 billion people, the other trivialises it by white-washing the faith to provide a rather deceptive vision. The Hindu Indian voter in the 2019 election was forced to stand between a rock and a hard place. And the predicament of the Indian voter reveals the confusion that animates all of society today in regards to religion. The Hindu may have chosen the Hindu Nationalists, but they did so only because the other parties didn’t really give two hoots about their faith, which obviously defines their identity. Like the American Evangelical, the Hindu voter knows that Modi, like Trump, doesn’t actually care about faith and god. After all, to the Hindu Nationalist, Lord Ram isn’t a god who provides deep spiritual enhancement, he’s a political tool. To the Indian Secularist, Hinduism is only relevant or important in so far as it helps their idea of India. All movements that seem to use religion for politics, seem to do verily that, use it for politics. And to think the Hindu Indian voter doesn’t know that, or that he’s going to let the Hindu Nationalist define his faith post this election victory reeks of naivety.
Fortunately for the Hindu Indian voter, a new, more philosophical movement seems emergent amidst all of these political debates. While no movement of this kind is attributable to a single person, this “new age Hinduism” does have an unofficial leader: Devdutt Pattanaik. Pattanaik has written over forty books and hundreds of columns on Hinduism and has been a management consultant to many large corporates―where he has ingeniously combined mythology to put forth new ideas on management. His writings provide both scathing critiques and poignant praise of all that is found in Hinduism, unravelling how the mythology of Indian culture shapes its people. Most radically, the Pattanaikist worldview shatters the illusion that Hinduism can provide any singular answer to what it is and what it should be. Instead, it suggests that Hinduism is truly about embracing the diversity of opinions it allows and accepting that the Eternal Faith is so because nothing in it is eternally true. Pattanaik illustrates this by contrasting the two versions of the same god Vishnu in his books Sita and Jaya, which are his takes on the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In one age, Vishnu, the preserver of Dharma (that which is right) is Lord Ram, who is the perfect man because he upholds social rules, no matter how distasteful they are. While, in another age, Vishnu is Lord Krishna, who is the perfect man because he upholds what is right by disregarding social rules.
Although not readily apparent, Pattanaik’s philosophy has certain very optimistic implications for the plight of the Hindu post the 2019 Indian general elections. Firstly, it serves to remind the Hindu that his faith is richer than shibboleths like beef bans and Ram Temples. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Pattnaikist view provides any political clarion call against India’s Hindu Nationalists. Rather, it does something far more impactful: it brings the devoted Hindu a way of psychologically divorcing his faith from those who would claim a monopoly on it in the name of nationalism or politics. The Hindu, being enlightened by the multilayered and complex nature of his religion, is able to rise above the politics of the Hindu Nationalist to worship Lord Ram for who he is: a perfect god, instead of some pithy political totem.
Secondly, the Pattanaik worldview, quite counterintuitively, provides what I think is a truer understanding of Hinduism and its place in the “idea of India”. It recognises where Hinduism must change to fit a secular Indian society while continuing to grow. Instead of the Indian Left’s apologetic or misleading narratives, Pattanaik provides a very positive but limited argument. And unlike the Hindu Nationalist’s strident dogmatism, his view entails a very comforting kind of ambiguity. Pattanaik writes in in the Introduction to Jaya: “Within infinite lies, lies a truth. Who sees it all? Varuna [the god of the waters] has but a thousand eyes, Indra [the god of rain], a hundred, you and I, only two.” The liberating quality of this short mantra cannot be emphasised enough, stemming from the depths of Upanishadic Hindu philosophy. It reminds Hindus and, more broadly, Indians that it is difficult to always see the truth. So, to blame anyone for what we consider different, or misguided, or, perhaps, plain wrong is rather hypocritical. This means that Hindus and India must learn, as part of kind of national introspection, to not only tolerate differences, but to accept them as alternative truths one may not be able to fully see.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that Hinduism ought to be a ‘lolbertarian’ religion. But it does mean that Hinduism in the age of Kali must learn to live with other religions and with the variations in its own nature. And that applies, contrary to Popperian ‘mythologies’, even if it is found that there is a view that opposes that very truth―as Hindu Nationalism ostensibly does. To put it in Pattanaik’s own words, “Everybody has beliefs, and most beliefs are stupid”, and that clearly means no one is really in the position to evaluate if another’s belief is based on falsehoods or not. We are simply not that wise. A Hindu by definition is supposed to believe that he has not the moral or epistemic authority to disrespect anyone’s views. And that makes for an undeniably marvellous faith that is willing to coexist with others, with more than just tolerance, even if there is disagreement.
The ideas of Pattanaik and their growing popularity offer respite to anyone who thinks this Indian election has set Hinduism on a course towards fanaticism. It provides a template for how religions, by having both a healthy measure of empathy towards all those who ‘twist’ its tenets and trivialise its significance, can survive in a modern world. Religions have lost much due to their inability to adapt and put forward a zeitgeist that is brimming with new ideas. Pattanaik’s view gives us a Hinduism whose true zeitgeist today, far from being restricted to Modi’s Lotus flags (even if inclusive of it), is animated by a hotbed of new ideas. And all these ideas are rising up to the challenge of making the Hindu life more meaningful and enriching at a very interesting time. Pattanaik’s view of Hinduism gives us more than a reason to believe that Hinduism shall continue to be rich and complex, it tells us why that’s a very good thing.
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