A rural temple in South India, painted stone as deity.
If you hear the rising roar of faith, it is election-time in India. Belief in God is stronger than any political belief. Faith rushes to fill ideological vacuum and goes on to cleanse politics of its residual ideological content.
Religious fervour, injected into a poll campaign, boosts popular interest in elections, promotes identity politics and alters voting preferences. That is why the ruling BJP has made religious polarisation its electoral strategy. It consolidates Hindu votes by propagating Hindutva, a militant and less inclusive version of Hinduism.
The BJP leaders including L K Advani, who went to Ayodhya in 1992 to demand the building of a Ram temple, were erroneously called “Hindu fundamentalists”. Knowing that the term “fundamentalism” has acquired bad odour in the context of Islam, Advani declared that they were “Hindu nationalists” not “Hindu fundamentalists”. He was correct because going back to the fundamentals in his religion would mean the Vedic tradition which will rob the proposed Ram temple of all significance!
His 1992 movement to build a Ram temple generated a toxic mix of religion and nationalism and turned it into a potent political weapon. Till then the political armies marching under the saffron flag had not been able to make much headway. Advani’s historic journey to Ayodhya in his belief-driven ‘chariot’ led to the demolition of a mosque and the killings of Muslims and Hindus.
Noted documentary maker Anand Patwardhan says TV serial Ramayan, watched by millions, paved the way for the demolition of the Babri mosque. “A bow-and-arrow bearing Ram entered every household and every heart.” There was no social media then, but TV too promotes pop religion and causes social disharmony. Some partisan TV channels go all out to fuel religious polarisation.
During the past four years, the sectarian poison has spread much more, with incidents of mob rule becoming frequent. It has seeped into “cultured” upper-class Hindu homes. The kind of people involved in violence matters. Intent is important. While sectarian violence can break out in the best of times, mental pollution sustains the process of violence.
The BJP finds assemblies of Hindu monks in saffron politically valuable. Communal worship and public observance of rituals make good TV that spreads the message of Hindutva. Mythology-based TV drama helps.
The Hindu nationalists wilfully ignore the theological complexities of Vedic thought and their faith’s glorious history of disputation and argumentation. They try to enforce a simplistic doctrine that supersedes the rich variegated strands of thought and belief. In order to collect Hindus on a single political platform, they want to create a central creed and designate one holy book. Above all, they want to establish the primacy of warrior-king Lord Ram. The people must feel, not think.
To get more Hindu votes, the party must fuel envy and animosity by blaming a secular government for “appeasing Muslims. In an election speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a subtle reference to the Hindu cremation grounds and the Muslim graveyards. This was a hint that the socialist state government’s provision of building walls around the graveyards to protect these from encroachment was discriminatory.
In the run-up to elections, vicious statements are made to cause tensions and promote orthodoxy. What the BJP spokesmen shout at times during TV discussions is unfit to print. The Muslim spokesmen shout back, which serves the purpose of all sectarian forces. The atmosphere reeks of bigotry and hostility towards the “other” faith. Some children hear their parents say that so and so should be elected since he would “fix” a minority. They learn that “when we say prayers loudly, it is worship, when they worship loudly, it is disturbing noise!” Children learn that “when we say prayers loudly, it is worship, when they worship loudly, it is disturbing noise!”
As the BJP gained power, the Hindutva got many new adherents. The “secular” leaders who used to condemn Narendra Modi’s sectarianism, now see a messiah in him. Several Hindutva groups have sprung up under official patronage. Their activity highlights the anti-minority dimension of Hindutva. The divisive rhetoric flows with force as the police and some in the lower rungs of judiciary have turned partisan.
Some BJP leaders make weird statements that can be generally described as anti-science and irrational. The power of superstition seems to have increased. A poll candidate declares that if she is elected, the police will not be allowed to check child marriage! The fashion of wearing religion on one’s sleeves has caught on. Commercial interests promote more religious festivals. The outbreak of religiosity is to be seen to be believed. More Hindu pilgrims march for miles and miles to fetch the holy Ganga water. Charitable Hindus set up tents on the footpaths for feeding the tired pilgrims. This public spectacle disrupts traffic and at times results in clashes.
Meditation, quiet contemplation.The attendance in temples has gone up. More Hindu temples, as also mosques and churches, are being built as a result of growing prosperity. Competitive communalism makes mosques more crowded. The temple loudspeaker’s volume is increased to match the sound coming from the neighbouring mosque. In this atmosphere of religious rivalry, private contemplation and meditation get devalued.
Hindutva versus Hindu interplay
A brainchild of the Hindu nationalists, Hindutva is not eclectic and dialogic. It has been honed as a powerful tool for political mobilisation through incendiary divisive statements. Hindutva fiercely seeks converts. When popularised by a charismatic divisive leader, its political dimension overshadows spirituality.
In the current atmosphere of intolerance, the political message of Hindutva is amplified through social media by political activists including the Non-Resident Indians. Little is heard about the huge difference between Hindutva and Hinduism known over the centuries as Santan Dharma.
To understand the distortion of Hinduism, one has to be familiarised with the real thing. Hinduism, tolerant and inclusive, includes principles taken from different faiths and cultures. Even before its interaction with Islam and Christianity, Hinduism assimilated new ideas and practices while transiting from the Vedic to the Puranic period.
Hinduism sanctifies sacrifices of the Vedic Aryans as well as the rituals of primitive tribes. Not all Hindu gods are Aryan gods. Hinduism has no central creed and no central authority, nor does it prescribe one specific book to follow. It is not based on a revelation granted to a prophet. Hindus do not consider themselves to be the “chosen people”. They do not consider their faith to be superior to others. This democratic religion, presided over by a Parliament of Gods, has no founder. Hinduism has no central creed and no central authority, nor does it prescribe one specific book to follow… This democratic religion, presided over by a Parliament of Gods, has no founder.
The Divine can be reached through any of the several different ways. Two prominent ones are the path of knowledge and the path of devotion. This is a simple journalistic statement about a faith whose complexities even scholars find hard to fathom. Hinduism is studded with elegant metaphysical knots and strange paradoxes. It offers infinite choice. Those who do not like the idea of a galaxy of gods and goddesses can take comfort from the Rig Vedic thought that all the many gods are manifestation of the One Reality. Hindus revere a saint-poet who does not believe in rituals or external formalities and for whom God lives, not in a temple or a mosque but in his devotion.
A Hindu can choose from the nine specified ways to perform devotion or devise one of his own. Astounding diversity is reflected not just in innumerable gods and ways of worship but also in the multiple versions of its sacred books and philosophical treatises. Rituals vary from region to region and from caste to caste. There is choice in the ways of dying. Hindus are generally cremated, but thousands of Hindus are given earthen and riverine burials. The variety of thought content, rituals and devotional practices meet the needs of all sections of society, ranging from the intellectual elite to the illiterate masses.
Millions recite 1000 names of one God and 1000 names of a Goddess. 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. Each god or goddess is worshipped in several forms.
Columnist Shobha Narayan writes about her mother being part of an ancient Hindu lineage linked to goddess worship called Sri Vidya. She says: “It is visually and aesthetically very beautiful - with flowers, incense, oil lamps, hand gestures called mudras, sacred drawings called mandalas or yantras, and the chanting of mantras. Mudra, mandala and mantra, the triumvirate as it were - is at the root of this goddess cult.”
Hindus of one region may accord primacy to one form which may not be worshipped at all by those of another region. Then, the veneration of natural forces such as the monsoon rains and trees and of animals is common among those living in forests. Ideas and practices from the margins have been leaking into the mainstream.
This interplay is seen in Hindu religious art and objects made by Muslims. They participate in Hindu religious festivals. Eminent Muslim musicians played in Hindu temples. Muslim poets wrote devotional songs in praise of Hindu Gods. A most devout Brahmin, Congress leader Kamalapati Tripathi, had a Muslim assistant to clean and arrange the idols in his home temple before daily worship.
In the absence of a set form of worship, a Hindu is free to act according to his individual belief. What counts is not belief but conduct, as stated by philosopher S. Radhakrishnan, who was India’s President. No wonder Hinduism embraces believers and non-believers, the theist and the atheist, the sceptic and the agonistic.
Scholar Kshiti Mohan Sen says the uniting force among the enormous variety of religious beliefs and ceremonies in Hinduism has been the belief in a basic code of behaviour. Today he would have seen more Hindus indulging in an un-Hindu-like conduct at the behest of political leaders. The examples include the lynching of alleged beef transporters, intimidating women temple-goers, disrupting a Christian prayer meeting and demolishing a mosque.
The influence of Hinduism over Islam and Christianity is reflected in the Sufi tradition and in Christian meditation and Christian Vedanta. It can be seen in the global Hare Krishna movement. Hinduism also contributed to the New Age faiths! Muslims and Christians extended the reach of the sacred Hindu literature by translating it and even helped preserve some of it. This is never recalled while the voters are constantly reminded of the Hindu temples destroyed by the Moghuls.
India’s syncretic tradition can be attributed mainly to the diversity of Hinduism that has a history of several philosophical turns. Of course, this diversity leads to confusion over certain precepts. Differing practices and various interpretations of the same sacred text, in the absence of a validating central authority, result in mixed-up theological concepts and endless arguments. That is why theological dissent always got accommodated.
Hinduism is suffused with paradoxes. The Divine is unimaginable and unknowable and yet the Divine is imagined in countless forms appearing in representational and abstract art and as idols of stone and metal. Hindus worship gods both in iconic and aniconic forms. The deity in thousands of rural temples is just a painted stone. Devotion takes the form of meditation, quiet contemplation, lighting sacrificial fire, loud out-of-tune community singing, disciplined congregational chanting, ritual bathing, fasting or even social service since God lives in every human being.
There is latent divinity in every being and everything. There is an external God and the God within. God is a distant entity but then the devotee is also part of Brahman, the universal soul! Ahaṁ Brahmāsmi in general terms implies the unity of individual self with the Absolute. Thus, divinity is shared by every human being. Divisive rhetoric has to be foreign to Hinduism which says: Thou art That (Tat Tvam Asi).
Scholars of comparative religions can observe how Hinduism, when hijacked for political purposes, gets vulgarised. The devotees are encouraged to display faux religiosity. The Sarkari (pro-Government) “seers”, in their so-called religious discourses, bless the Prime Minister. The ruling party needs their endorsement, the seers want political patronage. The seers are sought after by politicians more than by spiritual aspirants.
Respected heads of genuine spiritual institutions keep quiet about the misuse of religion for elections. Surely, they are pained by the distortion of their faith tradition, seeing an immense idea being reduced to a dismal creed. Islamic leaders get blamed for not condemning the misuse of their faith by politicians and terrorists. One may ask where have the Hindu spiritual leaders gone? Islamic leaders get blamed for not condemning the misuse of their faith by politicians and terrorists. One may ask where have the Hindu spiritual leaders gone?
The distortion of Hinduism does not provoke much reaction while many western Christian communities vigorously debate spirituality vs. institutionalised religion. Currently there is no such discourse in Hinduism, notwithstanding its tradition of argumentation.
It is left to a few secular politicians and the leftists to offer a trenchant criticism of Hindutva. They reason well but they cannot influence those swayed by the men in saffron robes. The leftists, not well-versed in India’s spiritual traditions, have little leverage with the faithful. Only firm believers protesting against the “hijacking of our religion” can make an impact. They can increase the public understanding of Hinduism unsullied by politics.
Those rushing to demolish a mosque or build a temple on a disputed plot know nothing about a faith that assimilated various religions and cultural movements. They are familiar with folklore, mythology and 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 and a punishable offence in some other religions. The sacred texts of Hinduism make bigotry unthinkable. In the wake of the Babri mosque’s demolition, Prof. Amartya Sen attributed growing fanaticism to the neglect of the classics in education. In the wake of the Babri mosque’s demolition, Prof. Amartya Sen attributed growing fanaticism to the neglect of the classics in education.
Fanaticism versus self-renewing reform
Fanaticism characterises the politicisation of a religion which retards reforms. The Supreme Court lifted the ban on the entry of young women into a Hindu temple. The BJP launched an agitation against the entry of young women in order to uphold a “sacred tradition”. However, the same ruling party was all for abolishing the traditional Muslim custom of instant divorce because it oppressed Muslim women. The BJP Government undertook the noble mission of reforming Islam but considers reformation of Hinduism as a no-go area. The BJP president advises law courts to refrain from hurting Hindu sentiments and to pass only such judgments that are “implementable”!
Every old faith tradition accumulates undesirable rituals and practices and 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. It abolished some practices partly due to the influence of Christian values but mainly by recollecting its own glorious Vedic past. There was recognition of the corruptive influence of idolatry, child-marriage, self-immolation by widows and untouchability that had no place in its ancient culture. Commenting 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.
Swami Dyanand who founded Arya Samaj to reform Hinduism.Hinduism has a rich 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 proselytization, 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, 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.
Reformer Raja Rammohan Roy.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, known as the Bhakti movement, became very popular. Earlier in the late 15th century Bengal, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu had mesmerised his followers, leading them in congregational chanting, Sankirtan. There were reformers in south India who are venerated by millions of Hindus.
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu – simple devotion through singing in praise of the Lord.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 democracy. Today the orthodox Hindu leaders who are corralled into supporting Prime Minister Modi have no interest in theological debates.
In the current atmosphere, Hindus hesitate to even talk of reforms lest they are called anti-Hindu. Political mobs are unleashed on the few reformists asserting the inclusiveness of Hinduism and fighting bigotry. Swami Agnivesh, a social activist who propagates the Vedic tradition, has faced physical assaults. That has not deterred him from continuing his struggle against superstitions that defile religion. Swami Agnivesh laments that politicians promote belief without truth. He reminds the people that the Vedic religion identified God with truth and Gandhi went a step further by saying that “Truth is God”.
The Hindu nationalists always opposed religious reforms. In Nehru’s secular India, they protested strongly, but the Government went ahead taking steps for improving the status of Hindu women. Today it seems like a miracle that in the face of horrendous Partition-related Hindu-Muslim killings, the Congress leaders managed to establish a secular state. That feat was made possible by Hinduism’s spirit of tolerance and mass adoration of the secular leaders. The parent bodies of today’s Hindutva forces failed to politically challenge Nehru and destroy the Nehruvian ethos. Nehru had called development projects the new temples of India!
The slogan “Hinduism in danger” had no appeal then as Hindus had enough self-confidence. That was the India that was! Since then much water has flowed down the holy Ganga. Hinduism now figures in a story of regression. Read the newspapers, listen to the TV “debates” and see the WhatsApp-trained ignorant armies clash day and night.