By Upasna Sharma
In 1992, Hindu fanatics promoting “Hindutva” or Hindu nationalism, belonging to different political parties – the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), VHP, (Vishva Hindu Parishad) and BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party) – demolished the Babri Masjid, a 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya, India. The followers of Hindutva believe that since Ayodhya is the birthplace of the God-king Rama, Hindus should have exclusive rights to worship and construct temples in this sacred city. Unfortunately for a secular country like India, the Hindutva movement is on the rise; indeed, the BJP, with its calls for “awakening” the “Hindu identity,” has become one of India’s major political parties.
It is clear that the Hindutva movement encourages the marginalization of religious minorities in India, and is thus an anti-democratic force in the country. What is less clear, but equally pernicious, is that the Hindutva’s revisionist ideas of Hinduism – especially their strict ideas about what qualifies as proper Hindu belief and what does not – threaten the tolerant and multifaceted nature of the religion itself. Because a majority of Indians identify with Hinduism in some way or another, this decrease in religious openness promotes extremism in a country known historically for its tolerance of different lines of thought under the same roof.
While the Hindutya movement may view itself as characterizing true “Hinduness” (as its founder, Savarkar, has stated), it is in fact a fairly recent historical development. The term “Hindu” itself occurs nowhere in the classical scriptures of Hinduism, but rather was first employed by the Achaemenid Persians to describe all the people who lived on or beyond the banks of the river Sindhu, or Indus. Thus, ‘Hindu’ was originally an ethno-geographic marker that described people with a wide variety of religious beliefs. During the Mughal period, from roughly the early 1500s to the early 1700s, the term began to gain a religious connotation, but it was not until colonial times that the term ‘Hinduism’ acquired wide currency as referring collectively to varied religious communities, such as the Saivites, Vaishvanites, and the Lingyats.
Even within the orthodoxy of Hinduism, few would argue that the religious claims of a particular group must be accepted as indisputable truth. Hinduism encompasses an extremely diverse and complex set of ancient traditions and evolving philosophies. In fact, while many Hindus share the three pivotal beliefs of “Karma” (action), “reincarnation,” and “all-pervasive divinity,” one need not follow a certain God, or believe in God at all, in order to be a Hindu. Differences in metaphysical doctrine do not prevent the development of an accepted basic code of conduct. The important thing about a man is his dharma (personal basis of behavior) and not necessarily his religion. This liberality and tolerance, which set Hinduism apart from other religions, contrasts sharply with the in-your-face sectarian interpretation of Hinduism promoted by various Hindutva agents.
The political implications of Hindutva are immense indeed, as much of the electorate has shifted its focus from voting for the best political party to voting for the party that seems to best promote a narrow version of Hinduism. During the 1990s, the Hindu nationalist BJP grew from a small, marginal party to become a major challenger to the Indian National Congress; the BJP even headed the national coalition government from 1998 to 2004. A secular country with an immense variety of religions, India faces the real possibility of being ruled again by a political party with a religious extremist agenda.
Within the BJP, the older generation subscribes to economic nationalism and has close ties to the RSS. The RSS, which is seen by some as an “Indian version of fascism” and has been connected to instances of religious violence against Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. The younger generation, who will soon lead the party, includes much of the new middle class and tends to be more pragmatic and supportive of free trade economic policies. However, it remains to be seen whether these emerging leaders will move the BJP away from Hindutva and the RSS and reinvent the BJP as a normal political party to the right of the Congress Party. Such a transformation could be good for the BJP as well as the development of a thriving multi-party system in India. However, if the new leaders continue to maintain strong ties with the RSS, then the future of the BJP remains bleak.
In conclusion, there is a large gap between Hinduism, as it has been understood over thousands of years, and the Hindutva ideology. There are many Hindu political activists today who are committed to doing away with the broad and tolerant parts of the Hindu tradition in favor of a fairly crude view, which they hope to impose on all Hindus. Both Hinduism and Indian society are harmed when Hindus shy away from the spiritual elements of Hinduism and instead use the religion as a means to cheap and prejudiced material and political ends. However, the Indian public still by and large maintains its sense of national Indian identity that transcends religious divisions. So, hopefully, Indian politicians and political parties will cease to advance religious goals; a true separation of Church and State will protect the integrity of both Hinduism as a religion and India as a nation.