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Their master’s voice

Christophe Jaffrelot finds that Jyotirmaya Sharma’s book on M S Golwalkar fills a gap in the available studies on Hindu nationalism.

india Updated: Apr 30, 2007 14:11 IST
Christophe Jaffrelot
Christophe Jaffrelot
Hindustan Times

Terrifying Vision: M.S. Golwalkar, the RSS and India
Author: Jyotirmaya Sharma
Publisher: Penguin Viking
Pages: 184
Format: Hardcover
Price: Rs 295

Jyotirmaya Sharma has made a speciality of the study of Hindu nationalist ideologues. In the book he published three years ago, he focused on Dayananda, Aurobindo, Vivekananda and Savarkar. In the book he has just published, he concentrates on the life and thought of M S Golwalkar. He shows convincingly that the relation to a dominant Other has
acted as the main catalyst in the making of the Hindu nationalist ideology. Dayananda, writes Sharma, wanted “to reform Hinduism and Indian society” because the British regarded India “as vulgar, sensuous, bombastic and despotic”. Dayananda not only reacted to the British views but also acknowledged their superiority: “Indians had to shed a lot of baggage and begin afresh. They had to retrieve their lost glory through recapturing the letter and spirit of the Vedas and move on to a better future on the basis of a firm commitment to the Vedic religion.”

<b1>What Sharma misses here is an explanation of the way Dayananda reconciles the need to “begin afresh” and his “commitment to the Vedic religion”. How does he merge reformism and revivalism? In fact he tried to emulate the
British while pretending to rediscover their values and technical achievements in a mythical Vedic Golden Age.
For instance, Dayananda claims that the Vedas ignored the caste system of today, in which the European saw the alienation of individuals. Instead of caste by birth, he says, there were castes in which children were classified according to their merits and values. Why does he say so? To emulate British individualism while defending the Vedic Golden Age at the same time.

This thought pattern has been repeated by Savarkar — but for him, the aggressors are not the British any more, but the Muslims. Sharma fully understands the ambivalence of Savarkar vis-à-vis the Muslims: “The truth is that Savarkar greatly admired the Muslims […] he greatly admired the political and religious fervour of Islam.” And what he rightly points out is Savarkar’s determination to emulate the Muslims in order to make the Hindus better organised, more coherent and more masculine.

For Savarkar, Hindus had to absorb “much that contributed to the success of the Muhammedans”. This is also what Dayananda had tried to do with the Shuddhi movement. He had tried to imitate the Christian ritual of conversion — to invent a Hindu ritual of (re)conversion — in order to counter the missionaries’ proselytism more effectively.

Even though Sharma does not elaborate, his juxtaposition of the thoughts of Dayananda and Savarkar suggests a clear parallel so far as the intellectual mechanisms of their ideology-making pattern is concerned — in both cases the stigmatisation of their favourite “threatening other” went on par with a systematic emulation process.

The divergence between Dayananda and Savarkar concerns their view of religion. Sharma believes that “religion formed the very basis of politics for Savarkar”. But Savarkar did not believe in any religious ritual and made a clear distinction between Hindutva and Hinduism. Dayananda, in contrast, followed religious rituals and was even a religious character who had embraced the career of a sannyasin in his youth.

Aurobindo and Vivekananda were also religious — ostensibly, self-proclaimed religious persons. But they missed what Dayananda had in common with Savarkar: a full fledged ethnic brand of nationalism.<b2>

Vivekananda was not as xenophobic as Dayananda and Savarkar. Sharma shows that in the late 1880s, he favoured some collaboration between Islam and Hinduism. To be more precise, he advocated a complementarity between “Vedanta brain and Islam body”. That was his philosophy of what he called ‘Practical Vedanta’, a perfect recipe for multiculturalism: “We must show the spirituality of the Hindus, the mercifulness of the Buddhists, the activity of the Christians, the brotherhood of the Mahommedans by our practical lives.”

Vivekandanda’s respect for pluralism was largely a façade because his tolerance was presented in terms of some universalisation of the self: Hinduism is so “tolerant” that it can accept every religion… in its fold. Hence the very abstract definition of religion promoted by Vivekananda, who had not selected the Vedanta just by chance: “All other

religions of the world are included in the nameless, limitless, eternal Vedic religion.” Vivekananda, therefore, added to the Hindutva ideology a benign face, which presents Hinduism as an all-encompassing and, therefore, hegemonic creed.

Aurobindo made another valuable addition, according to Sharma, in the form of a plea for the martial legacy of the Hindus. According to Aurobindo, “Hinduism has always been pliable and aggressive.” Sharma calls this attitude “jihadi Hinduism”. Indeed, it would have been most interesting to go one step further to analyse whether this attitude derived from another imitation of the Muslims. Recently, Bal Thackeray suggested that Hindus should start suicide squads like the


to fight the Muslims, a clear example of stigmatisation and emulation of threatening others.

Sharma’s biography of Golwalkar is short but dense. Mostly based on secondary sources, it fills a gap in the available studies on Hindu nationalism in English. It offers a clear analysis of the thought of the RSS’s chief ideologue, who remained at the helm of the organisation from 1940 to his death in 1973. The Sangh — and especially its primary unit, the shakha — is rightly defined as a collective self in which individuals must merge, abdicating any personal will. In this — truly totalitarian — perspective, the RSS is a true embodiment of a united Hindu Rashtra, a socio-political construct to be built against the enemies of the nation, who are “the aliens”, the Muslims and the Christians.

<b3>Sharma convincingly argues that Golwalkar’s agenda ignored any party-based political activity in contrast to Savarkar’s approach of Hindutva. Therefore, the real turning point in the career of the RSS took place after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. This is when the movement decided to become involved in the public arena through the Jana Sangh in order to get a spokesperson to defend its cause.

Golwalkar looked at caste as a major source of division of Hindu society, divisions being the recurring reason for the conquest of India by invaders, the Muslims being the worst of all, according to him. At the same time, he was a strong advocate of the Varna system and a staunch Brahmin imbued with upper-caste racism, as evident from Golwalkar pride for the “pure blood [that] flows in every vein of [his]”. How can one reconcile both things? The answer lay in the organicist conception of the nation that Golwalkar evolved. For him, each caste group had a part to play in its place, but had to adhere to the upper-caste ethos taught in the shakhas through a selective set of samskars. For
Golwalkar, “Brahminhood was the Sangh’s inspiration and Kshatriyahood its strategy.”.

Golwalkar’s reference to the model of the Kshatriya harks back to his views regarding the legitimacy of violence. RSS leaders have always been very good at negating their involvement in any violent activity. But for Golwalkar, “In an emergency, to remove a social malaise, violence in the form of surgery may be essential.” As a true pracharak, Narendra
Modi transformed himself into a chief surgeon in 2002 and removed a so-called malaise — to create a bigger one.<b4>

Sharma argues that “the Sangh owed more to certain ideas of European Enlightenment, nationalism and romanticism than is normally acknowledged”. Such an assessment is unfair to the scholars who have painstakingly identified the foreign sources of Golwalkar’s ideology. Secondly, this assessment is self-contradictory; at least, Sharma should have tried to explain how Golwalkar could reconcile Enlightenment and romanticism! In fact, he drew most of his inspiration
from an ethnic brand of nationalism. As a corollary, Sharma argues that “there is nothing Hindu or ‘Bharatiya’ — essentially Indian — in Golwalkar’s entire ideological universe”. Such a view misses the typically Hindu character of his upper-caste racism which, in contrast to the European eugenics, leaves open the possibility of some integration, provided the Muslim and Christian converts “follow the national religion and the religion of their ancestors…”

Similarly, there is something Hindu in the ascetic dimension of the RSS cadres. True, the model of the Karmayogi has been perverted by the organisation. But there is nothing European in the lifestyle of the pracharaks who pretend to emulate it either.

Among the influences that Western authors exerted over Golwalkar, Sharma mentions “the ideas of the State as a mystical institution”. But there is no mystique of the State for the RSS — incidentally, this is the main difference with European fascism. It aspires to reform society by reshaping the psyche of the Hindus. The aim has never been to seize the State, an artificial addition superimposed over the living body of society, in which lay real power. Ideally, society should govern itself. In the meantime, the RSS may become the advisor-in-chief of the rulers, and this is why it is longing for the comeback of the BJP.

Christophe Jaffrelot is Director of CERI, Paris. He is the author of

The Hindu Nationalist Movement


India’s Silent Revolution


Dr Ambedkar and Untouchability

and the editor of

Hindu Nationalism: A Reader

First Published: Apr 30, 2007 13:26 IST