Dharma Files | Mainstream Hinduism aims to modernise Hinduism, but Hindutva tries to Hinduise modernity

Dharma Files

Hinduism can be seen as oscillating between its ethnic and universalistic poles. Under the Congress, the universalistic pole was pushed probably to its stretching point, and now under the BJP, we may be seeing a shift towards the ethnic pole

Both Hinduism and Hindutva are relatively modern words. Hinduism as a term began to appear towards the end of the eighteenth century. According to some, it was first used by Raja Ram Mohan Roy (c. 1772-1833) but recent research seems to suggest that it may have been used earlier by Charles Grant (1746-1823). Similarly, the use of the term Hindutva was popularised by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966) in the twentieth century.

For a while it was thought the word may also have been coined by him, but recent research suggests that it was used earlier, towards the end of the nineteenth century, by Chandranath Basu (1844-1910).

Whatever the precise genealogy, however, they are relatively modern terms. What I wish to recognise by emphasising this is, that both the terms appear in the context of India’s encounter with ‘modernity’ during British rule, when India was exposed to such modern influences as colonialism, capitalism, science, Christianity, rationalism, and so on. It, therefore, makes sense to try to understand both these concepts in the context of India’s experience of modernity.

One reaction to the challenges posed by modernity can be analysed along the vector of Hinduism. What I mean by saying this is that, beginning with Raja Ram Mohan Roy (c. 1772-1833), Hinduism is characterised by a chain of reformers, who tried to enable Hinduism to keep up with the times as it were.

This list includes such luminaries as Roy himself, followed by Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905), Keshub Chunder Sen (1838-1884), Dayananada Saraswati (1824-1883), Ramakrishna (1836-86), Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902 ), Justice Ranade ( 1842-1901), GK Gokhale (1866-1915), BG Tilak (1856-1920), Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), S Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) and others, all of whom, in one way or another, helped Hindus face the challenges posed by modernity, with such success that, according to Dutch scholar Hendrik Kraemer (1888-1965), Hinduism entered the modern world not “as a pleader but as a leader”.

This period is indeed referred to by some historians, like DS Sarma, as one of Hindu renaissance.

This list is also significant, however, for whom it does not include. I discovered this in an interesting way. Early in the 21st Century I put together a book on the life and works of the spokespersons of Hinduism in the modern period, such as those listed above, and sent it to a very well-known publisher in India.

It was accepted for publication virtually by return of post, but I was politely asked to drop the name of Savarkar, whom I had included in the list! I hope most readers of this article will agree that so-called figures of the Hindu Right, such as Savarkar, MS Golwalkar (1906-1973), and Balraj Madhok (1920-2016) were also grappling with forces released by modernity, in their life and thought.

Their diagnosis of the situation may have been different from those who are regarded as mainline figures, but they were facing the same reality. They represent another vector of India’s response to modernity, which can be labelled as that of Hindutva.

In acting the way it did, the press was only reflecting the prevailing climate of opinion. When a professor from Yale University, Philip Ashby, visited India in the 1960s and sought to interview some spokespersons of the Hindu Right as a part of his project, his Indian colleagues tried to dissuade him from doing so. The reason for this is not far to seek.

Until 1920, the so-called Hindu Right, represented by such figures as Lala Lajpat Rai (1865-1928) and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, was part of the mainline national movement. The rise of Mahatma Gandhi, however, with his emphasis on non-violence, Hindu-Muslim unity, and ecumenical Hinduism, relegated the Hindu Right to the margins. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi after Independence, by a member of the Hindu Right, further sealed its fate, and pushed it into obscurity. It is only now, after the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), that the spokespersons of the Hindu Right are receiving greater recognition, especially since 2014.

From one perspective, Hinduism can be seen as oscillating between its ethnic and universalistic poles. Under Mahatma Gandhi, and then under the political dispensation of the Congress, which claimed to follow him, the universalistic pole was pushed probably to its stretching point, and we may now be witnessing a shift towards the ethnic pole.

The point of contrast between Hinduism and Hindutva, with reference to modernity, is that while mainstream Hinduism tries to modernise Hinduism, Hindutva tries to Hinduise modernity.

The point at issue is important. Several years ago, Jawaharlal Nehru organised a conference of Muslim scholars on the question of social reform in Islam. One invitee to this conference was professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr from Iran. Several appeals were made, at this conference, that “Islam must keep up with the times”.

When it was professor Nasr’s turn to speak, he simply asked: If Islam is supposed to keep up with the times, what are the times supposed to keep up with?

When I subsequently met professor Nasr at a conference in Berlin, I asked him whether what I had heard was true. He confirmed the incident and added, “I thought Prime Minister Nehru was going to have a heart attack!”

Arvind Sharma, formerly of the IAS, is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal Canada, where he has taught for over thirty years. He has also taught in Australia and the United States and at Nalanda University in India. He has published extensively in the fields of Indian religions and world religions. Views expressed are personal.


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