As we step into a new decade, Hinduism, and its interpretation and practice, will play an increasingly pivotal role. We have seen the manifestation of ‘hard’ political Hindutva, wedded to the goal of a Hindu Rashtra. It stands discredited not for its evangelism, but for its lack of knowledge of the basics of Hinduism. Another label bandied about is ‘soft’ Hindutva, but with no real clarity about what it means. Since India is a deeply religious country, such notions need to be investigated before they distort the role religion plays in politics and, indeed, in our lives.
The pejorative phrase ‘soft Hindutva’ is an outcome of a curious – if unintended – collusion between the ultra-Hindu right and the ultra-liberal left. The supporters of political Hindutva believe that they have a monopoly over public display of religion (PDR). They are overt in their passionate – and sometimes fanatical – belief in the need to project, promote and impose their warped view of Hinduism. Thus, they view PDR by any other section of the political class, as an attempt to usurp their ordained public space through a weak imitation, ‘soft’ as against their ‘hard’ religious commitment.
The ultra-liberal left is dismissive about religion per se, and believes that any public show of personal religious fealty by politicians is a betrayal of secularism. For its votaries, political Hindutva can be countered not by a saner practice of religion, but by not practising religion at all, least of all publicly.
I wonder what Mahatma Gandhi would have thought of these unseemly definitional shenanigans. He was, as Nehru said, ‘a Hindu to the innermost depth of his being’. During his first jail term in South Africa (January 1908), he read Rajayoga, commentaries on the Gita. During his second incarceration (October-December 1908) he read the Bhagwad Gita almost every day.
During his third imprisonment (February-May 1909) he read the Veda-Shabda-Sangana, the Upanishads, the Manusmriti, Patanjali’s Yoga Shastra, and re-read the Gita. One of the first books published by his International Press in Phoenix, Natal, was an abridged version of Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, which, as he wrote in his autobiography, was ‘the greatest book in all devotional literature’.
He did not, therefore, see anything wrong in espousing the utopia of Ram Rajya. But – and this is critically important – he combined his staunch belief in Hinduism with the fullest respect for all religions.
Let us take another example. Madan Mohan Malviya (1861-1946) was four times the president of the Indian National Congress, a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, and like him a devout Hindu. When, as a member of the Congress, he founded the Akhil Bhartiya Hindu Mahasabha, for the welfare of Hindus and Hinduism, was he practising soft Hindutva or merely following his personal faith? He is credited for having begun the aarti puja at Har-ki-Pauri in Haridwar – which continues to this day – and the setting up of organisations for the protection of the cow, and for a cleaner Ganga.
He is also the iconic founder of the Banaras Hindu University, from where, as its vice-chancellor, he published a magazine called Sanatan Dharma to promote religious and dharmic interests. The national slogan – Satyameva Jayate – taken from the Mundaka Upanishad, was also his contribution. Did all of this make him a proud Hindu immersed in his faith, or just a practitioner of soft Hindutva, uncritically emulating Savarkar and the RSS?
Our assessments need to get away from such knee-jerk categorisations and aspire to a more reflective inquiry. The truth is that when Hinduism is reduced to cynical tokenism for short-term political dividends, it is soft Hindutva. When it is devalued to illiterate aggression for long-term political gain, it is political Hindutva. Both these extremes are a deliberate ploy to make genuine Hindus lose agency of the way they wish to practice their religion in conformity with republican values, democratic principles and constitutional secularism.
Swami Vivekananda, the towering symbol of Hindu renaissance, would have been impatient of such categorisations of ‘soft’ or ‘hard’. His mission was to espouse an enlightened and inclusive form of Hinduism sans hatred, intolerance and violence. Once, when he was berated by conservative Hindu critics for staying with a Muslim lawyer in Mount Abu, he expostulated: ‘Sir, what do you mean? I am a sanyasin. I am above all your social conventions … I am not afraid of God because he sanctions it. I am not afraid of the scriptures, because they allow it. But I am afraid of you people and your society. You know nothing of God and the scriptures. I see Brahman everywhere manifested through even the meanest creature. For me there is nothing high or low. Shiva, Shiva!’
Hinduism deserves a true renaissance based on its great wisdoms. But this will require its followers to study their religious legacy, and prevent its distortion by ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Hindutva-vadis.
Lord Ram in the Ramayana says: ‘Janani Janambhoomischa Swargadapi Gariyasi’ – Mother and motherland are superior to heaven. Today, our motherland requires social harmony and stability to realise her destiny of becoming one of the great nations of the world. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call, ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas’, is not to become just an expedient slogan, it must be based on Swami Vivekananda’s vision and on Mahatma Gandhi’s inclusiveness.
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