Recently, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, on the theme of defending human rights, several Hindu groups complained that, at an event celebrating the commonalities between religious communities, they have been unfairly linked to India’s controversial religious policy.
What those who complained failed to address is that they themselves, along with a growing number of Hindu organizations in India and the United States, have tied themselves to these controversial and aggressive policies. These groups should not be surprised when their views on the relationship between religion and the nation-state are brought up in the public space, especially as these ideologies contribute to tensions and violence in India and elsewhere.
In fact, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, where religions come together to discuss global challenges and solutions, is precisely the place to raise such concerns. The purpose of this gathering is not to promote superficial harmony or overlook issues that divide religions. It is naive to suggest, as one participant did, that parliament is a ‘kumbaya’ event and should unreservedly give a platform to the most dangerous ideologies.
But complaints after Parliament go beyond politics. They reflect a growing gap between (at least) two ways of thinking about Hindu identity and the meaning of Hinduism as a religious tradition. These different ways of thinking about Hinduism are also present in relations with other traditions.
On one side of the divide are the Hindu organizations influenced, in various ways, by the ideology systematized and expounded by the mid-twentieth century figure, VD Savarkar, known as Hindutva (Hinduism), in a well-known book of the same name. Savarkar linked religious identity to national identity by defining a Hindu as a citizen of India, as a descendant of Hindu ancestors, as a participant in a shared Sanskrit culture, and as someone who views India as a land holy.
Based on these criteria – and especially the last two – Savarkar included Jains, Sikhs and Indian Buddhists in its “Hindu” category, but excluded Indian Muslims and Indian Christians. According to Savarkar, Muslims and Christians “have ceased to appropriate Hindu (Sanskriti) civilization as a whole. They belong or feel they belong to a totally different cultural unit from the Hindu one.
Essentially, he accused non-Dharmic Indians of having shared love and loyalty, of holding lands outside India as sacred, of revering rulers, and of professing beliefs that did not originate in India and revere their holy lands above India. According to him, they do not belong to India in the same way as the Hindus.
It should not be difficult to understand why a clear fusion of religious and national identity that privileges Hindus causes anxiety and fear among those who are excluded. Hindutva is associated with hostility, mistrust and growing violence towards communities that do not meet its criteria.
Savarkar’s equation between Hinduism and India, which neglected the universal claims of Hinduism, reduced it to the religion of a particular ethnic and national group. A religious nationalism that deifies the nation, its defense and its service only diminishes both the faith and the nation. It is not surprising that some followers of this ideology see Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s criticism as a negation of Hinduism.
The version of Hinduism given by Savarkar is not without importance. It is alive in various contemporary organizations, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates, many of which have partner associations in the United States, some of which have participated in the Parliament of the World’s Religions. It is significant that on February 26, 2003, amid controversy, a portrait of Savarkar was unveiled in the central hall of the Indian Parliament, opposite a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi.
On the other side of the Hindu divide are groups, also recently present in Chicago, who do not confuse religious and national identities, for whom “Hindu” connotes a universally accessible religious identity transcending nationality, ethnic origin and South Asian culture.
For these groups, being Hindu is not the same as being Indian. Nourished by spiritual traditions originating in India, these groups honor the sacred geography of India, but the veneration of India is not a requirement of Hindu identity nor a criterion of exclusion. Love for India is neither anti-Muslim nor anti-Christian.
These groups elevate the ancient and powerful tradition of hospitality to the religious diversity of the Hindu tradition. This tradition has enabled Indian Hindus to adapt to the great diversity of religious beliefs and practices in the country and to provide refuge to religious groups that have been persecuted for centuries. They see the Hindu tradition as offering a theological understanding of religious diversity that complements diversity in the civic sphere and opposes the use of state power in the name of a particular religion. They stand for diversity, justice, dignity and equal worth of all human beings.
Hinduism has never been a homogeneous tradition, but today what most likely distinguishes one Hindu from another is their understanding of the relationship between Hinduism and the state. Self-described Hindu organizations in the United States are obligated to explicitly state their views on the subject, and failure to do so leaves room for misunderstanding.
Historically, the interests of the state and the deeper purposes of religious teachings rarely coincide. In the long run, the refusal to make a critical distinction between the universal and humanistic teachings of the Hindu tradition and the specific historical expression of the Indian state will do the religion a disservice. This will limit the tradition’s potential to be a blessing to the world.
This story was first published in Religious Information Service and republished here with permission.
Anantanand Rambachan is Emeritus Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College.