Is Hinduism the same as Hindutva?

Published on 29th March, 2017, on

If you ask a follower of the Hindutva ideology, he/she will say yes, Hindutva and Hinduism are indeed the same, or that Hindutva is actually a superset that includes politics and economics, while Hinduism is restricted to religion and culture.

If you ask a Marxist historian, or many followers of liberal, atheist and secular ideologies, they will see Hindutva as a fascist nationalistic hegemonic communal supremacist patriarchal misogynist casteist force of upper caste, upper and middle class Hindus, designed to homogenise India with their own idea of the Hindu state (rashtra).

Many Hindus would recognise Hindutva as one of Hinduism’s many, and currently most influential, sampradayas (schools of thought) because it has a clearly defined leadership (originating with Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, KB Hedgewar and MS Golwalkar), a clearly defined institutional structure (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Bharatiya Janata Party and Vishwa Hindu Parishad), a clear history — starting from the early 20th century — that is political in nature, and has a distinct tendency to bristle with rage at even the slightest criticism, howsoever valid, of what are seen as Hindu customs and beliefs.

A crude, but useful way to understand the relationship between Hinduism and Hindutva is to study Hindu history. Note: Like many orthodox Christians and Muslims, Hindutva despises the word “mythology”, and by clinging to its colonial interpretation, sees it as a secular ploy of scientists to dismiss traditional wisdom. It yearns for historic validation, resonating Abrahamic mythologies. If Christians need to see the resurrection of Jesus as a historical fact, if Muslims need to see God and his appointing of Prophet as historical facts, then surely Hindus need to see Shiva, Ram and Krishna as historical figures, argues Hindutva.

A fluid oral culture thus got fixed by the 19th century. Photo: Reuters

Hinduism has evolved organically over 5,000 years approximately and can be seen as having seven phases that telescope into one another. Some Hindutva advocates will insist Hinduism was revealed to sages in its perfect form as far back as the end of the Ice Age, 12,000 years ago. In Hindutva history, mythology is just proto-history, from times that historians cannot or will not calculate. In recent times, Hinduism has been described as an “open source religion”, unique in that it has no defined founder or doctrine, and its ideas evolve continuously in response to historical and geographical realities. It is best described as a river with many tributaries and branches, Hindutva being one of the branches, and currently very powerful, assumed by many to be the river itself.

The earliest phase, 5,000 years ago, in the Bronze Age, can be traced to what is now called the Harappan civilisation characterised by brick cities that thrived for nearly a thousand years over a vast area from the Indus river valley, right up to the Gangetic plain. In these cities, we find clay seals with images that are very much part of the current Hindu iconography such as the pipal tree, the bull, the swastika, seven maidens, and a man seated in yogic postures. We don’t know much about this phase as the language remains to be deciphered.

The second phase, 3,500 years ago, in the Iron Age, can be traced to Vedic hymns and rituals that contain traces of Harappan thinking, but seem to have been designed for a nomadic and rural lifestyle rather than a settled urban lifestyle. Some Hindutva advocates will passionately disagree and insist the two phases are actually one. In this phase, we find a worldview that celebrates the material world, where gods are invoked with rituals, and asked to bestow health and wealth, prosperity and peace. This aspect of invoking gods and seeking favours from them continues to this day, though the rituals are different. The Vedas reveal a gradual spread from the Indus (now Punjab) to the Upper Gangetic (now Agra and Varanasi) and the lower Gangetic (now Patna) plains. Some Hindutva scholars refute such a geographical spread and insist the subcontinent was a fully developed, homogenous, urban Vedic culture since ancient times, privy to advanced technology such as plastic surgery and even the aeroplane.

The third phase also saw Brahmin priests reorganising Vedic thought through the composition of Dharma-shastras. Photo: Independent blog

The third phase began 2,500 years ago, with texts known as Upanishads, where greater value was placed on introspection and meditation than rituals, and we see increased focus on ideas such as rebirth, monasticism, liberation from the cycle of birth and death. This phase saw the rise of shraman (monastic) paramparas (traditions), such as Buddhism and Jainism, its followers spoke in Pali and Prakrit, and rejected the Vedic way as well as the Vedic language, Sanskrit. It also saw Brahmin priests reorganising Vedic thought through the composition of Dharma-shastras, books that focus on regulating social life through marriage and rites of passage, and obligations of people defined by the debt they owe to their ancestors, their caste and the world at large. Many academicians use the word Brahminism to describe this organisation of Vedic thought and see it as an essentially patriarchal and misogynist force competing violently with egalitarian and pacifist monastic orders. Buddhism and Jainism, along with Vedic customs and beliefs, spread from North India to South India, and eventually beyond the subcontinent to Central Asia, and South East Asia. In the South, it encountered the Tamil Sangam culture, information about which comes from a collection of early poems, that reveals some knowledge of Vedic rituals, and later epics with knowledge of Buddhism and Jainism. Some Hindutva scholars insist there was no separate Tamil Sangam culture. It was part of a pan-Indian fully developed, homogenous, urban Vedic culture, where everyone spoke Sanskrit.

The fourth phase that began 2,000 years ago witnessed the rise of chronicles such as Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas, where stories are used to reconcile the worldview of householders and hermits, and create the now familiar Hindu worldview. We are introduced to a fully developed mythosphere where the world has no beginning (anadi) or end (ananta), with multiple heavens and multiple hells, governed by action and reaction (karma), where all societies go through cycles of birth and death, just like all living creatures. This phase witnesses the rise of temples and temple rituals. We also see the rise of monastic Vedantic orders that frown upon the body and all things sensory, as well as occult Tantrik orders that explore the body and all things sensory. We also see the mingling of the Old Nigama parampara, where divinity is seen as formless with new Agama parampara, where divinity takes the form of Shiva and his sons, Vishnu and his avatars, and the Goddess and her many manifestations. With new orders and traditions emerging, we also see the consolidation of jati system (or caste, a European word), community groups based on vocation that isolate themselves by not intermarrying. Many academicians see caste as an essential feature of Hinduism designed to favour upper castes, an accusation that Hindutva rejects. Many Hindutva scholars insist caste has a scientific and rational base, and has nothing to do with politics or economics.

The fifth phase is 1,000 years old, and it witnessed the rise of devotion (bhakti) as a doctrine, where devotees passionately connected with deities through emotional songs, composed in regional languages, often bypassing the temple system. This was the time when a rigid caste hierarchy had entrenched itself firmly, basing itself on the doctrine of purity with some castes being seen as impure and unworthy of touch. They are even denied access to the community well. It is also the time when Islam enters India, peacefully in the south via sea-traders and violently in the north via Central Asian warlords, who destroy Buddhist monasteries and Hindu temples, which are also centres of political power, and eventually establish their rule, often resisted by Hindu kings such as Rajputs in the North, Ahoms in the East, Marathas and the Vijaynagar Empire in the Deccan. Hindutva sees the arrival of Islam and the rise of Delhi and Deccani sultanates, followed by Mughal rule, as marking the end of the great Hindu culture, a theme that Marxist historians declare to be paranoid communal propaganda. The latter highlight only Hindu-Islamic collaboration, going to the other extreme, argue non-Marxist historians.

The sixth phase is 300 years old when Hinduism responded to the rise of European power in the subcontinent, and the consequent arrival of Christian missionaries, and the rational scientific discourse. Some Hindutva scholars do not differentiate between the two. This age saw European scholars trying to make sense of Hinduism using both scientific methods as well as the Judeo-Christian lens. For them, monotheism was the true religion, and scientific; polytheism was pagan mythology. They started a massive exercise of translating and documenting the Hindu way of life. They looked for a holy book, a prophet, and, more importantly, a purpose. Eventually, to organise the complexity, they began defining Hinduism as Brahminism, distinguishing it from Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. This Orientalist framework continues to inform global understanding of Eastern faiths via schools, colleges and media.

A fluid oral culture thus got fixed by the 19th century. Hindus, newly educated in the Western ways, felt a deep sense of shame and embarrassment when asked about their customs and beliefs. Some decided to reform Hinduism to satisfy the colonial gaze. Others reframed it seeking out the “true essence” of Hinduism and rejecting “later corrupt” practices. Still others rejected Hinduism itself and saw all religion as a dark dangerous force to be replaced by rationality and a scientific temper. It is in this phase that Hindutva arose as a counterforce that challenged what they saw as the relentless and unfair mockery of all things Hindu at European, and later at American and Indian universities. Hindutva saw Marxism as well as all other Western discourses as just another form of the Christian discourse, seeking to wipe out all trace of the Hindu way of life, doing what Islam had done in Central and South East Asia in past centuries.

The seventh phase, post-Independence, cannot be ignored, even though it stretches only to the last 70 years, because it begins with the violent and blood-soaked Partition of India on religious grounds and the creation of East and West Pakistan for Muslims. Did that make India a Hindu state by default? Or did it inspire the “idea of India” where all people were equally respected, irrespective of religion and caste? Different people will answer this differently. Hindutva saw secularism as minority appeasement, positive discrimination favouring certain castes as anti-meritocracy, socialism simply creating crony capitalism, doctrines of social justice and gender equality threatening traditional Hindu family values, and the absence of Uniform Civil Code as yet another way to divide India. Many intellectuals lost respect when they argued that concepts such as Hinduism, as well as India, were creations of the British, with no real ancient roots, disdainfully referring to the faith of common folk to the contrary as fanciful imaginaries. It became worse when academicians around the world who insisted on equating Hinduism with casteism refused to link Islam with terrorism, or Christianity with militant missionary activity. Many saw the doctrine of Marxism, liberalism and secularism of having failed a majority of Indians, most of whom continue to live in abject poverty. Justified or not, the aggrieved felt it was time to give Hindutva a chance, despite its aggressively masculine stance, especially since it spoke the language of development, and aspiration.

Hindutva seeks to save the world by reclaiming what it sees as Hinduism’s glorious past destroyed by Muslims and Christians and now, Marxists-secular-liberal forces that it bundles into one group. Photo: Reuters

Ironically, Hindutva follows a linear Western template just like Marxism, secularism, and liberalism, ideologies it holds in deepest contempt. This means, both see themselves as objective and scientific and seek the truth, and are disturbed by ideas such as existence of multiple myths that are true for some but not all. Both find the present imperfect and problematic. Both yearn for solutions and seek perfection through human intervention in one lifetime. Thus, both use words like mission, destination and revolution. Both display messianic certainty and a sense of urgency. Both harbour a saviour complex! While Marxism, secularism and liberalism seek to save the world by reforming what they see as an unfair past, Hindutva seeks to save the world by reclaiming what it sees as Hinduism’s glorious past destroyed by Muslims and Christians and now, Marxists-secular-liberal forces that it bundles into one group. Both are combative, constantly seeking and finding villains to annihilate and establish their righteous heroism. Both despise alternate points of view. Neither likes diversity and seeks to contain it within a larger single homogenous discourse, like nationalism, or human rights. Both are embedded in anger, and seek justice. One can argue that Hindutva marks the semitisation of Hinduism, for linear thought is the hallmark of Abrahamic mythology, while Hinduism is rooted in cyclical structures.

A line is a circle with identity-crisis. And so Hindutva can be seen as yet another manifestation of Hinduism, of contextual relevance, a response to the past, that will eventually be consumed by whatever it will provoke. In Hindu worldview, life has no great climax, as nothing lasts forever. Every hierarchy eventually collapses and gives way to newer hierarchies. Multiple doctrines simultaneously vie for domination. The world is like a stormy ocean full of waves and winds. We ride these waves and winds; we do not create them; we cannot control them. This indifferent restless world makes us feel invalid and so we yearn desperately for meaning. The quest for meaning is atma-gyan (self-realisation), the essence of Hindu wisdom, communicated in Vedic rituals, Upanishadic dialogues, Tantrik art and Puranic stories. In the absence of atma-gyan, we are driven by the animal instinct to dominate and be territorial. We are consumed by a sense of injustice and inequality, and feel hungry and insecure. We do not empathise with others, and end up exploiting or fearing or seeking control over them. We feel neither love, nor contentment, only ambition, oppression, rage, bitterness and violence. Atma-gyan alone reveals why Hinduism is called sanatan dharma (eternal doctrine): it needs no saviours, but saviours need it.