Hinduism vs Hindutva: The search for an ideology in times of cow politics

Updated on Apr 10, 2017 09:30 AM IST

Hinduism is often described as a ‘way of life’ for its range of doctrines and practices. But Hindutva is the use of some symbols of Hinduism for political mobilisation

Sadhus get ready for a dip at Ujjain during Simhastha Kumbh(Shankar Mourya / HT Photo)
Sadhus get ready for a dip at Ujjain during Simhastha Kumbh(Shankar Mourya / HT Photo)
Hindustan Times | By

Ananya Chatterjee (name changed on request), a techie working in Gurgaon, was browsing through a news website recently when she read that Lucknow’s iconic kebab outlet, Tunday Kababi, had been forced to stop selling its signature buffalo meat kebabs. The reason was the shortage of meat following raids at abattoirs across Uttar Pradesh. Ananya was reminded of her own favourite street food in Kolkata. She sent a message to fellow-foodie Malini (name changed on request).

“Do they still sell the beef samosas from that lane near Chowringhee?” she wrote.

“A good Hindu doesn’t eat beef,” Malini replied.

“She was being sarcastic,” explains Ananya. “But I was irritated. Why should some self-appointed custodians of Hinduism tell us what to believe and how to practise our religion?” The Hindutva warriors though, couldn’t care less for such sentiments. In Gurgaon, for example, protestors, some of whom claimed to be with the Shiv Sena, reportedly tried to force restaurants selling non-vegetarian food to down their shutters during the period of Navratra.

Rise of right-wing Hindus

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact date of origin of this brand of Hindutva or Hindu nationalism. But the first half of the 1920s is usually considered the beginning. In the early 1920s Vinayak Damodar Savarkar wrote Essentials of Hindutva. He differentiated between Hinduism and Hindutva – Hinduism according to him, was only a part of Hindutva. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was set up in 1925. Historians have written of how in the 1920s and 1930s Hindu nationalists projected those different from themselves as enemies. While some present-day Hindu nationalists have at times claimed to use the term Hindu to “denote all people who believe in, respect or follow the eternal values of life that have sprung up in Bharat” rather than a religion, they contradict that claim when those ‘eternal values’ are given a religious slant.

“Hindutva has nothing to do with Hinduism as a faith or a religion, but rather as a badge of cultural identity and an instrument of political mobilisation,” says author and Member of Parliament, Shashi Tharoor. “Hinduism is a religion without fundamentals – no founder or prophet, no organised Church, no compulsory beliefs or rites of worship, no single sacred book…What we see today as Hindutva is part of an attempt to ‘semitise’ the faith – to make Hinduism more like the ‘better-organised’ religions like Christianity and Islam, the better to resist their encroachments.”

The accuracy of Tharoor’s statement is reflected in an article on the website of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP). “The Hindu nation as a mere community… was equated with the Muslims and Christians who came here as invaders and aggressors and the Parsis and Jews who came here as refugees being driven away from their respective homelands,” rues the article.

Another article on the website declares, “Hindu interest is national interest. Hence the honour of Hindutva and Hindu interests should be protected at all costs.” A similar mission is espoused by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) on its website: “Expressed in the simplest terms, the ideal of the Sangh is to carry the nation to the pinnacle of glory through organizing the entire society and ensuring the protection of Hindu Dharma.”

Ayodhya, 1992. On December 6,1992, the Babri Masjid was demolished by Hindu nationalist groups. (Sanjay Sharma / HT Photo)
Ayodhya, 1992. On December 6,1992, the Babri Masjid was demolished by Hindu nationalist groups. (Sanjay Sharma / HT Photo)

It’s all in the manifestation

In recent times, that “protection” of dharma has translated into gau raksha or the protection of the holy cow, a severe ban on beef consumption in many states and a demand for a Ram temple in Ayodhya. In some cases it also means a celebration of Shiva or Krishna or other mainstream gods and goddess. But there is a complete neglect of both local faiths and the deeper philosophies of Hinduism. “Hindutva has no use for Hindu thought or philosophy of religion, for that would go against it,” says historian Harbans Mukhia. “All it needs is a few symbols of Hinduism which can be mobilised to create tension vis-à-vis minorities. The cow is that symbol.”

The last couple of years have seen an almost insane veneration of the cow. In an interview last year, Shankar Lal, pradhan of the Akhil Bhartiya Gau Seva Sangh, reportedly said that they “make pregnant women eat cow dung and urine paste to ensure a normal delivery.”

“Hinduism is a conglomeration of a number of religious beliefs and practices,” says historian DN Jha, author of the book The Myth of the Holy Cow. “Beef-eaters in Kerala or the North-East are Hindus, but such people may be ostracised in the Hindi belt. Brahmins in most parts of the country are vegetarians but in Bengal and Mithila (in Bihar) they are non-vegetarians – our ancestors (sage Yajnavalkya for instance) even fattened themselves on sacrificed beef.” Sociologist Ashis Nandy agrees that “one of the Sanskrit synonyms for Brahmins in some parts of India was goghanas, or those who ate beef”.

Akshaya Mukul, author of the book Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, says the debate on the cow began in the last century. “The cow protection movement reached its peak with unprecedented violence in 1966 in Delhi.” But the movement could not find takers across India. “After that, Hindu nationalist groups worked consciously towards creating Ram as a nationalist symbol. The movement to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya got revived in the 1980s in a big way with LK Advani’s famous Rath Yatra, eventually leading to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992,” he says. Now, with the recent appointment of Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Hindutva nationalists have begun voicing their conviction that the temple will soon be built.

Hinduism vs Hindutva

Most scholars feel that far from protecting Hinduism, a structured Hindutva movement is a blow to the very essence of the religion. “Hinduism embraces an eclectic range of doctrines and practices, from pantheism to agnosticism and from faith in reincarnation to belief in the caste system. But none of these constitutes an obligatory credo for a Hindu... Hindutva seeks to impose a narrow set of beliefs, doctrines and practices on an eclectic and loosely-knit faith, in denial of the considerable latitude traditionally available to believers,” says Tharoor.

There are six main schools of philosophy of Hinduism – Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta. But people often identify with sects – such as Vaishnavites or Shaivities or worshippers of Shakti. There are innumerable local gods and goddesses who have a cult following in specific areas.

A sadhu smokes a chillum made up of traditional clay pipe as a holy offering to Lord Shiva at Varanasi. There are six main schools of Hinduism, but people often identify with sects – such as Vaishnavites or Shaivities or worshippers of Shakti. (Rajesh Kumar / HT Photo)
A sadhu smokes a chillum made up of traditional clay pipe as a holy offering to Lord Shiva at Varanasi. There are six main schools of Hinduism, but people often identify with sects – such as Vaishnavites or Shaivities or worshippers of Shakti. (Rajesh Kumar / HT Photo)

It is, in fact, commonly said that there are 330 million gods and goddesses in the Hindu faith. But you can choose not to believe in any of them and still be Hindu, scholars explain. “The Nirguna sect is a very prominent sect which worships a formless god. There are schools of atheists among the Hindus,” says Mukhia. The Carvaka philosophy in ancient India was explicitly atheist, and many Hindus believe in the divinity of the sacred texts rather than in that of a Supreme Being, says Tharoor. “Read Ishwar Krishan’s Sankhya Karika, the most authoritative book on Sankhya darshan, and you will find it rejects the idea of creator. Then we have Vigyan Bhikshu’s text (Sankhya Pravachana Bhashya) that makes the same point. Purva Mimansa also questions the concept of god,” says Mukul. And the Bhakti movement of the medieval era preached an intense devotion in which the worshipper realised that he was a fragment of god’s being and dependent on him.

But the Hindutva narrative, “in order to achieve its larger goal of Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan, has no appetite for multiple voices, schools of philosophy and even traditions from within the Hindu religion,” says Mukul, a thought that is shared by Tharoor. “They also do not recognise the resistance of lower-caste Hindus and adivasis against the dominant Brahmanical tradition,” adds Mukul. “The idea of Hindutva is to Hinduise everyone and make them read one history that glorifies the ancient Hindu past...”

It finds easy targets, feels Nandy, among “the substantial portion of Hindus who are now urbanites and out of touch with their roots. Many have very localised faiths. So, when they migrate they need a different version of Hinduism, a laptop version, that began in the 19th century. It helps the political needs of the RSS and the BJP”.

The way forward, feels sociologist Dipankar Gupta is to decide “what is democratic and what is not.” He says, “To argue that certain political practices are against the essence of Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam or Christianity is certainly not the way to argue for democratic rights. Religion should not be brought in when one discusses issues of citizenship.”

Not everyone will agree. In an unsigned online article Hindutva: The Great Nationalist Ideology, the writer declares – “The future of Bharat is set. Hindutva is here to stay. It is up to the Muslims whether they will be included in the new nationalistic spirit of Bharat...” But what of Hindus who don’t identify with the Hindutva movement?

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    Poulomi Banerjee is assistant editor at Hindustan Times.A journalist with over a decade’s experience, Poulomi has reported on varied subject, but human rights and gender issues are her preferred areas of work

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