India Today and Hindu Nationalism

India Today and Hindu Nationalism November 9, 2015

After traveling in the United States, G. K. Chesterton famously described America as “a nation with the soul of the a church.” Something akin to this could be said of India, but to church one must quickly add Buddhist stupa, Jain mandir, Sikh gurdwara, Parsi dar-e mihr, Muslim mosque, and, not least, Hindu temple. Indeed, the turbulently modernizing nation bristles with religious energy and diversity. Anyone wedded to the tired notion that modernity leads necessarily to secularization would to do well to visit this 70-year-old republic.

This past summer I had the opportunity to participate in a study trip to India. Our study team—comprised of ten American scholars and ten Indian scholars, journalists, and activists supported by the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin College—traveled to the cities of Bangalore, Chennai, and Delhi. Our remit: to understand issues pertaining to religious freedom in India today and to think about the relationship of religion to social and economic development.

There were many “findings” on the trip. But the biggest for me was to gain a deeper understanding of the ideology of “Hindutva” (literally, “Hindu-ness)–encouraged and transmitted by the presently-ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian People’s Party)—and how it poses a threat to the secular consensus that goes back to the post-1947 founding era and the leadership of Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. Under BJP rule, persecution of religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, has markedly increased. The many Christian leaders in the country with whom we spoke voiced grave concern about the future. In addition to worrying about their own flocks, they also expressed anxiety that the West, smitten with the BJP’s growth-oriented economic agenda and more preoccupied with the threat of global Islamic extremism, is blinded to the constriction of religious freedom and human rights taking place in India today.

“Hindutva,” should not be mistaken for Hinduism. The latter is a bewilderingly complex set of beliefs, practices and rituals that have existed on the Indian sub-continent since time immemorial. By contrast, Hindutva, is a distinctly modern phenomenon, a South Asian species of what Benedict Anderson famously described as an “imagined community,” i.e., nationalism. Its emergence during the late colonial period in India was a self-consciously homogenizing and quasi-racialist conception of Hinduism. For a Western analogue, one might point to the various religiously-tinged cultural nationalisms that arose in the wake of the French Revolution and the European Romantic movement. The Protestant, fiercely anti-immigrant nativist movement in nineteenth-century America might be another point of comparison.

Hindutva gained its first major public voice in Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), who published in 1923 Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? Ironically, Savarkar, who coined the term “Hindutva,’ himself was an atheist and rationalist. Self-schooled in the history of European nationalism—especially that championed by the Italian Giuseppe Mazzini–Savarkar sought to give expression to a broad cultural ideology that could challenge the British Raj, counter Western influence more generally, and provide intellectual defenses against Muslim beliefs and the allegedly culture-destroying work of Christian missionaries. For him Indian identity, or Hindutva, was a sacred trust and cultural patrimony, but one that necessarily manifest itself in racial (“common blood”) and geographical (“sacred land”) terms.

Much more could be said about this worrisome ideology and its influence today, but let me close this post by recommending a book that I am currently reading: Martha Nussbaum’s The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future. India looms both as an economic behemoth and the world’s most populous country by 2050. We all should do due diligence in understanding what makes this country tick and what challenges it faces. The rise and spread of Hindu nationalism is certainly one of them.

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  • Anonymous

    Correction Jain Derasar not Jain temple

  • Dapper Dan

    ““Hindutva,” should not be mistaken for Hinduism. The latter is a bewilderingly complex set of beliefs, practices and rituals that have existed on the Indian sub-continent since time immemorial. ”

    And there it is. Always the Western–lets be honest, White, with a capital W–dislike, distaste for the Hindu faith. Do White people ever describe the “bewildering”, arcane, contradictory, ritual based religion known as Judaism? No. Why? Because Judaism is the basis of the religion of the majority of White people. Why does the Hindu faith have to be bewildering but Christianity is not? Judaism is not. Islam is not.
    This hatred of the Hindu faith lies in the Jewish faith’s tribal view of the world. That distaste was processed into the White world’s Christianity and mission to Christianize non-Christians.
    The “constriction” of religious freedom in India huh? So …Muslims are not allowed to be Muslims? Do we ever have the same criticism of intolerance in Israel? No. Why? Because Judaism is protected by White Christians. Whatever problems India has as a nation it is nothing compared to the Muslim world. But sure, make the equivalency. Make them the same. The Christian world was allowed to form its identity, to engage in its identity politics, but India has to suffer the White world’s double standards because it refuses to be Christian and white. A 5,000 year old civilization needs to be brow beatened by the worst race of human beings the planet has seen. A race the brutalized almost every part of the world. That never gets brought up. No mention of Christianity’s slave trade whenever Christianity is written up. But always Hindu bashing is okay.

  • Theodore Fenton

    Loosely speaking, this new quasi-Hindu ideology is the Indian version of Nazism. The fact that its founder was an atheist tells all you need to know. Hitler was not a Christian (the leftists make that accusation constantly), nor did he really believe in the Germanic paganism that was woven into the Nazi propaganda, he understood that national and ethnic pride need some sort of religious feel to attract people. He and the other high-ranking Nazis liked to depict the harmless German pagans as innocent victims of the exploitive Christian missionaries. It was all bunk, but people will buy bunk and will even kill in the name of bunk.

  • .
    You have such a weird unreferenced lecturing tone, and always throwing in “lefties” as some sort of ad hoc insult — what’s your challenge with getting along in a complex egalitarian society without having to gratituously bash people, this time not even in response, but just a lead-in post, @theodore_fenton:disqus?

  • DeathWarmedOver

    You’re right, people will buy bunk. Like, “make America great again”, chillingly echoing Hitler’s “make Germany great again”.