Militant Hinduism

People in Western societies often believe that Eastern religions are more peaceful, less fundamentalist, than Judaism, Christianity or Islam have historically been. And it may well be true that the fluid, polytheistic nature of Hinduism and Buddhism makes them more tolerant, more willing to accommodate differing beliefs, than the fiercely monotheistic religions whose gods are unable to abide any competition.

Nevertheless, every religion has its violent, fundamentalist wing, and Eastern religions like Hinduism are no exception. In India, the problem is mainly in the form of a right-wing, ultra-nationalist movement that calls itself Hindutva, which wants its version of Hindu religious law imposed on the world’s largest democracy. Among other things, proponents of Hindutva are virulently anti-Muslim as a rule – some have called for the expulsion of all Muslims from India (there are over 100 million Indian Muslims, so this would be by far the largest forced migration in human history) and the annexation of the disputed territory Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan have come to the brink of open war several times. Other Hindutva members have been linked to bombings and other terrorist acts aimed at Muslims.

Hindutva extremists have also targeted their fellow Hindu believers for not being sufficiently strict about religious observances and rules – especially those having to do with sex. In 2009, for example, a mob of youths from a right-wing Hindu group Sri Ram Sena attacked partygoers at a club in Mangalore, beating several people so severely they required hospitalization. The Sri Ram Sena has also warned local businesses not to celebrate Valentine’s Day and couples not to show affection in public – although Indian feminists, showing some spirit of their own, have fought back by pledging to bombard the group with pink underwear.

Like most religious extremists, Hindu fundamentalists are also opposed to much of mainstream science and history. In 2006, for example, a Hindu nationalist group filed a lawsuit in California over the content of several world history textbooks which they claimed were discriminatory against Hinduism. In reality, most of the changes they were seeking were to whitewash history to cast their beliefs in a better light – they wanted to soften or delete references to polytheism, sexism against women, and the caste system in ancient India. Although the lawsuit was dismissed, it showed that Hindu groups are not above attempting to rewrite history to serve apologetic ends. (source; see also)

Hindus, like Christians, also have their own creationists who deny evolution and mainstream theories about the age of the earth and humanity – although, in this case, the Vedic creationists believe that humanity is far older than mainstream geology and the theory of evolution say. See this article for more (HT: Sensuous Curmudgeon).

Although these fundamentalists don’t have quite as much influence in India as the Christian right does in America or the Muslim right does in most of the Islamic world, it’s striking how similar their goals are. It implies that fundamentalism is the same kind of evil, no matter where it springs up; it’s only the outward trappings used to justify these actions that differ from one culture to another.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

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  • Reginald Selkirk

    I met a Hindu Creationist once. He had quite a bizarre mixture of beliefs. Probably the most bizarre aspect was that he seemed to hold to vitalism: that there is a “life force.” He was college-educated.

  • Polly

    People in Western societies often believe that Eastern religions are more peaceful, less fundamentalist, than Judaism, Christianity or Islam have historically been.

    Too true. The very title of this post reminded me of that Monty Python skit with the old lady gang harrassing young men on the street and causing other mischief.
    At first blush, “militant Hinduism” looks like a comical oxymoron.

  • Javaman

    You mentioned Buddhism, any reports on Buddhist fundamentalists present or past displaying extreme crazy behavior?

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Buddhism shouldn’t get a pass either, and maybe some day I will get around to doing a post on it that I have been contemplating. Quite a few Buddhist majority countries are lacking in what we consider to be basic human rights. Witness the Buddhist Sinhalese majority’s treatment of its minority Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka, Myanmar with its ruling military junta, Thailand with its lese-majeste laws that sees people thrown into prison for criticism of the royal family, and so on.

    Of course, you can argue that the oppressiveness of these regimes should not be seen as reflecting negatively on Buddhism itself, but it does go to show that a majority Buddhist country can be just as harsh and authoritarian as any other authoritarian country.

  • gkdada

    I am a Hindu and I approve of this article. :-)

    More seriously, I have observed, with some amount of alarm, this new disturbing trend of a raise of fundamentalism in India. Contrary to what happens elsewhere, Indian fundamentalism is not born out of the priestly conservative class who are shocked to see their cherished values biting dust. Rather, this movement is born, nurtured and grown by the politicians who have subscribed to THIS fundamentalistic view as a way to grab power.

    It started as a small movement in early years of 20th century, reached pinnacle around Mahatma Gandhi’s murder in 1948 (by right-wing fundamentalist(s)) and faded to insignificance for a few decades, only to raise to prominence again in late 70′s and 80′s with the collapse of both the (till-then) major ruling party AND it’s hastily-put-together alternative.

    Those fundamentalists of 70′s and 80′s were bad enough. But, what you are seeing now are a new crop of youngish politicians who are trying to outdo the above in fundamentalism in order to grab those very same votes. I mean, there are just so many fundie votes in India (just as there are only so many ultra conservative christian votes here in US) and the politicians try to outdo each other in demonstration of fundamentalism in order to grab it (or keep it).
    The best way to prove that their fundie-hood is skin deep is to check what their kids are doing/did. You will find that most all of them have kids studying/studied in prestigious residential schools in Dehra Dun or hill stations of south, which are run in a very christian, very british way.
    It all would be quite funny, if it weren’t so tragic.

  • Curtis

    Unfortunately, you are wrong about the strength of Hindutva in Indian. Bharatiya Janata Partyt (BJP), the main opposition party, has Hindutva as an essential part of its ideology. BJP’s growth in the 90′s occurred largely because of their demand to have a Hindu temple on the site of a 500 year old mosque (and also allegedly the birthplace of Rama.) The BJP fanned riots which destroyed the mosque in 1992. Other riots related to the mosque/temple have killed thousands of people.

    Today, Hindu extremism is much more severe and violent than Christian extermism.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Excellent post. Buddhists served in the Japanese ranks in WWII, and in British uniform as well.

  • Mark.V.

    What is it about religion and sex? Every religion, with authoritarian aspirations, sooner or later attempts to control a person’s sexuality and the Hindu religion is no different. I guess, because the human sex drive is the most powerful, if you can control that or make a person feel guilty about his sexuality, you control the whole person.

  • Caiphen

    Mark V

    You’ve stunned me. You’re so correct. Now I understand the evil reasoning behind the control of sexuality.

    Without going off the topic too much, the slow and painstaking path to rationality will inevitably breakdown all fundamentalism. We have a long way to go. It’ll probably take centuries, but hopefully not. It seems, from what I’ve seen in fundamentalist christian churches, they’re in a pathetic state of denial which is exaserbated by money hungry clergy whom I believe know there’s no God. Hinduism seems similar.

  • Javaman

    Tommykey,
    I’m a little vague–exactly what is the bad thing Buddhists have done in these examples? Are these social animosities between these groups based on one saying their religion is better than the other one? Or trying to force a theocracy in the country? I just need a specific example in which Buddhists claim their theology is superior to others.

    Thumpalumpacus,
    I am aware of this black mark about some Buddhist temples sympathizing with Japanese government during WWII. Very sad. But also, didn’t atheists serve in uniform in WWII and kill people?

    Buddhism is the only non-theistic religion. There is no god in Buddhism to be worshipped. The Buddha did not claim to be god, or god’s messenger, or claim divine knowledge. He was just a man who had an insight into reality. Many Buddhists are atheists.

    Peace. Respect.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Javaman, I was merely pointing out that Buddhist majority countries themselves are not exactly paragons of human rights. And while Buddhism in its purest form is not particularly theistic, it essentially is theistic in practice. Look at Tibetan Buddhism, for example, which has a host of gods and demons in its theology.

    Understand, the Buddhist text the Dhammapadda had a strong influence on my moral value system. I don’t consider myself a Buddhist, but I absorbed a lot from it. There are certain obstacles that prevent me from accepting it 100%.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Every religion, with authoritarian aspirations, sooner or later attempts to control a person’s sexuality and the Hindu religion is no different.

    And to think Hinduism also gave us the Kama Sutra!

  • JC!

    Javaman, I was merely pointing out that Buddhist majority countries themselves are not exactly paragons of human rights.

    You might as well just say “I can’t find anything directly wrong with it but they’re not perfect either.” What this or that Christian, Jew, Muslim, Atheist, Buddhist, or whatever person did is irrelevant. What matters is- did their [lack of] religion/lifestance lead them to it, as well as the intrinsic power and influence that belief structure has over society.

    I am an atheist who loathes and condemns religion as a general rule; however Buddhism is perhaps the one single religion so far that I don’t, despite the fact that I am not a follower. I condemn religions because they promote ignorance, fear, prejudice, and are generally harmful to, and retard the evolution of, civilized society. If a religion doesn’t do these things then yes, they do “get a pass” as you put it.

    Look at Tibetan Buddhism, for example, which has a host of gods and demons in its theology.

    Tibetan Buddhism is an amalgamation of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Bön. I would recommend examining Theravada which is the oldest surviving school of Buddhism. It is unmistakeably non-theistic.

    Truth be told I wouldn’t even consider Theravada Budddhism a true religion primarily because it is non-theistic, it refutes concepts of a creator or any creation theory for that matter, rejects the idea of a permanent self or an unchanging, eternal soul, and generally just has no acknowledgeable aspects dealing with elements of a supernatural nature.

    It is in essence humanism. All of the tenets of secular humanism are aspects of Theravada. For example the idea of “the need to test beliefs and the commitment to use critical reason and factual evidence (i.e. the scientific method)” has been used by Buddhist for millenaries via the Vibhajjavada or ”Teachings of Analysis” which states that insight must come from the aspirant’s experience, critical investigation, and reasoning instead of by blind faith.

    As I said, I don’t think it should be considered a religion any more than secular humanism should be and I think it’s kind of ironic for an atheist to lump it in with religion when Buddhism has been refuting blind faith and theistic views as well as promoting knowledge via personal experience and critical investigation since monotheism was still in its infancy.

  • http://bridgingschisms.org Eshu

    Mark.V.

    if you can control that or make a person feel guilty about his sexuality, you control the whole person.

    I think you’re on to something – grab ‘em by the balls and the heart and mind follows!

    Yikes, we could start the uber-evilest cult. Fortunately, I think none of us here are so minded.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Javaman,

    My point was that Buddhists too can be violent, despite the “peaceful” stereotypes of them prevalent here in America. Of course atheist fought, killed, and died, in all wars. What is your point, other than assuaging some obviously ruffled feelings?

  • Samuel Skinner

    “Witness the Buddhist Sinhalese majority’s treatment of its minority Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka, ”

    I’m going to have to ask for evidence. From what I know a large portion of the Tamils in Sri Lanka were brought in by the British and asked for special priviledges after independence, sparking the civil war that was mercifully ended when the government finally managed to adopt peace through superior firepower. The Tamils Tigers were responsible for such atrocities as deliberately targeting civilians, the invention of modern suicide bombings and attempts to collapse civil society by turning the ethnic groups against each other.

    I’m pretty sure Tibet counted as a negative example of buddhism- establishing a theocracy that supported the nobility, slavery and the status quo is bad. There are other Buddhist states that are bad, but generally not because of Buddhism- the worst I can think of is certain cultural actions that are tied up with it that are problematic (like releasing birds as an example of compassion- not good if there is a fear of disease from said birds).

  • P

    First, the links you give to show that creationists exist in Hindus too refer to an organization called ISKCON. They aren’t the same people as the ones who are usually labeled hindu fundamentalists (hindutva). ISKCON is a pop religious cult primarily based on lazy interpretations of Bhagvad gita. They gained a great following in the west during the hippie years. In India it had no following originally, but that changed once it became popular in the west. ISKCON is primarily a sort of self-help organization for mostly disillusioned westerners.

    Actually, there are big difference between the american fundamentalists and the so called hindu fundamentalists. You wouldn’t find hindu fundamentalists opposing ideas like evolution. In general, they would only be in favour of science and technology. In fact you would find many “fundamentalists” and moderates who like to claim that the idea of evolution is there in Indian mythology or that ancient Indians (Indian Indians not american Indians) had the knowledge of nuclear weapons, or that India was scientifically very advanced and all that information is now lost. Many of these claims do not have much basis. But some do have some basis.

    So, the important difference between the american fundamentalists and the hindu fundamentalists is that the hindu fundamentalism has got a more cultural flavor to it than religious. You have to go to India’s pre-independence era to understand their ideology. The British raped India not only materially but also culturally. India as a people and culture lost confidence in itself. The British and the europeans in general propagated ideas like their racial superiority, “white man’s burden” etc. Hindutva took birth in such an atmosphere. It’s idea was to remind the Indians of their glorious past, to unite all India (which then included pakistan and bangladesh) culturally.

    And you haven’t mentioned one very important thing the hindu fundamentalists are notorious for – Their opposition to forced conversions (to christianity). Most of these conversions are done by evangelicals and have really crazy ideas.

    I agree that these hindu fundamentalists do lots of silly and crazy things but they do not get very fair coverage even from the Indian media who equate modernization and “progress” with westernization.

  • http://radisworld.blogspot.com Radi

    Bingo! As an Indian brought up in India as Hindu, but now a committed non-theist, I say:

    Dale, you hit the nail on the head about the virulent fundamentalism in the Hindu religion – you don’t know how many times I have had to point out to people (usually Indian, usually Hindus, but a also good portion of people in this country who haven’t the slightest notion of the religion), that the scourge of fundamentalism is perfectly present in the so-called “peaceful Eastern religions.” Bull crap!

    Think the Hindu religion is full of peace? Bull crap.
    Go to India’s financial capital, Mumbai, and try saying anything against the religion, and see how soon the mob comes after you, stirred up by the rabble rousers of the Shiv Sena, which RULES Mumbai, no matter which party “wins” the elections.

    Think Sikhism is a peaceful religion?
    Go to India’s breadbowl – the state of Punjab (on the border with Pakistan), and try saying something derogatory about Sikhism (Hinduism melded with some tenets of Islam, about 300-400 years ago). You might escape with your life.

    Aha, but what about Buddhism? You see the Dalai Lama – he’s a peaceful man! And he leads the Buddhists, doesn’t he?
    Nope. He leads the Tibetans, most of whom happen to be Buddhists. You want to know more about Buddhism? Go to Sri Lanka, where it is the official religion of the majority Sinhalese. Go tell them something derogatory about their religion. And you’d better flee immediately, if you value your life and limbs. Go to Thailand, and see the Buddhists fighting ferociously against the minority Muslims there.

    Zen Buddhism? What about that?
    It ain’t a religion … yet, that’s what about that.

    I can give you examples of “eastern” religions that are not in the least peaceful, nor without their accompanying fundamentalists, trying hard to break peaceful lives.

    One thing in common with all these religious fundamentalists, Eastern and Western alike, as Dale points out –

    it’s striking how similar their goals are. It implies that fundamentalism is the same kind of evil, no matter where it springs up; it’s only the outward trappings used to justify these actions that differ from one culture to another.

  • RollingStone

    We need to start inviting Vedic creationists to creation/evolution debates, so they can present young-earth creationists with their alternative theory that humans have actually existed LONGER than the scientific evidence indicates. That would be GREAT entertainment!

  • John Nernoff

    With all due respect to those here that think Buddhism is non-theistic and “un-religious” in the American fundamentalist sense, I have observed behavior which suggests otherwise. I lived in Japan for 6 years and most homes have dual shrines; one to Shintoism and one to Buddhism. I have been to Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore and many asian sites with temples to Buddha and have seen many people kneeling and praying, with hands clasped together, muttering something or other “to” or in front of images of Buddha. If they are not believers in a living deity-like Buddha, then what ARE they believing in?

    The most amusing thing was in China where people were burning brown paper grocery bags stuffed with paper/foil rectangles representing “money” the burning of which would be wafted up to the sky for use as currency by their dead relatives!

    I don’t know, but there seems to be evidence that Buddhism may well be, in part at least, a standard theistic belief structure.