The limits of the Hindu versus Hindutvavadi debate

In the aftermath of the overwhelming hold of the Hindutva, one is tempted to counter it by juxtaposing Hinduism with Hindutva, the virtuous Hindu with the wicked Hindutvavadi. Rahul Gandhi insisted on this theme. But it is also a new cultural spirit. The temptation is understandable. It is better to align Hinduism with moral values ​​than the discourse of blood and earth that Hindutva represents. Better to reclaim Hindu traditions to acquire political legitimacy. But this temptation is historically short-sighted and morally confused.

This approach seems to want to solve the problem by definition. A true Hindu, you see, can never be intolerant or tempted by power. The greatest Shiv bhakt of all time in the Hindu tradition was Ravana. His Shiv Tandav Stotram is the most vivid expression of vikas and virasat: shimmering temples, Kuber’s beneficence, and great yogic powers and insight. But he also engaged in adharmic acts and let his ahamkara (ego) dominate everything else. Did that make him less of a Shiv bhakt? No. Has being a Shiv bhakt hindered his adharma? No. Tradition has understood this complexity. You cannot define people by saying that they are not real Hindus. Gandhi and Godse are both Hindus, just as Osama bin Laden and Mulla Sadra are both Muslims, just as Francis of Assisi or Pope Pius XI are Christians. Religion consecrates the highest bliss. But it can also help terror and violence. As any religious thinker knows, the same eros that pulls you right can easily take pathological form. You cannot get rid of Godse or Ravana by saying that they are not Hindu. In fact, it is a cheap gesture to say that they also fall outside our collective responsibility. And who exactly is this “Hindutvavadis are not Hindus” supposed to be persuading?

This approach requires sincerity, moral credibility and a grammar of action. Launching a claim that “true Hinduism is tolerant” has become an easy meme. It must be implemented in its exemplary nature. Ramkrishna Paramhansa embraced this, living several religious lives without contradiction or sacrifice of his devotion to the Mother. Gandhi could stand in the midst of unspeakable violence and exert moral strength, not only by understanding but by enduring the pain of others. Even that blind Hindu, Jawaharlal Nehru, could jump into the crowd and berate community hate traders. But who is playing this role now? Week after week, namaz in Gurgaon is disrupted. Let’s be clear, Hindu hooligans who bother him have no interest in public spaces or principles. They use it as a pretext to exercise a sort of vile hegemony. Would the true Hindu have the courage to come out and say to this crowd, face to face, “What kind of twisted imagination is wondering what prayer can I disturb on Friday?” Where are the “tolerant” Hindu leaders who would show their brethren a moral mirror or protect those who pray? All that “a true Hindu cannot be intolerant” is just moral evasion, if you don’t risk saying it. Following the “Hindu trope”, our leaders manage to show their cowardice more than their leadership.

We have already tried this path of “true Hinduism”. It was the generation of Vivekananda, Gandhi and Vinoba, and countless others. But in the 1930s, this project to overhaul the spiritual foundations of Hinduism could not prevent a deep and generalized communitarization. Moreover, the debates in Indian Islam on “Indian Muslim women” have not prevented this communitarization. Historical memories are short, but Rajiv Gandhi more opportunistically, and PV Narasimha Rao more sincerely but slyly, have tried to occupy the “engage with Hinduism” ground. In America, you have seen “moderate” Christianity make peace with violent Trumpism. Who draws these lines between a true believer and a false?

Attempting to draw these lines publicly between good and bad believers does not increase tolerance; it intensifies the conflict over who has authority. Once you prefix any public moral argument with “speak as a Hindu or as a Muslim…” you’ve probably already lost the plot, where identity will colonize reason. All that will remain is the strengthening of identity, not the expansion of moral sympathies. It also encourages this cuckoo country to think that if everyone just retreated into their “true religion”, harmony would ensue. In a metaphysical sense, perhaps. But this kind of thinking does not help to think about real conflicts in politics: how to organize the representation within the communities? How will the public spaces be managed? How to deal with contested representations of history? How do you create institutions that treat people equally? Whose nation is it? Can we take a consistent stand against all blasphemy laws? These are the kinds of political conflicts that blood is spilled on. By going back to “true religion” or metaphysics, you have left the political world vacant. The Hinduism debate also creates exactly the distraction the BJP wants.

Finally, this immersion in religious metaphysics avoids calling a spade a spade. The problem with people who pour out bigotry or spread vile prejudices is not that they are “bad Hindus”. Seriously, who cares? The problem is that they have allowed their collective narcissism to hamper good human morals and are ready to violate the terms of the social contract which honors the fundamental dignity of the individual. The claim that India is a nation of Hindus prompts more questions than answers. In a trivial factual sense, it is true that this is essentially a Hindu nation. But it is simply a fundamental fact. What follows from this? That it is not a nation that also has Muslims, atheists, communists, liberals and even Hindutvavadis? It is also their nation, and they have rights and a voice to shape it. The challenge is, what are the basic standards of reciprocity that govern this conversation? Who defends those who have credibility?

In the great churning of our politics, a lot of poison is generated. Since Kashi is in the air, we can meditate on the glorious Rudrashtakam of Tulsidas, Shiv as the bliss of pure consciousness. It defines the highest end of life. But I suspect Mahadeva is also whispering: don’t expect the metaphysical project of defining a true Hindu to ring the political cat of building a decent society. Definitions do not absorb community poison. Who will do this is an open question.

The writer is editor-in-chief, The Indian Express