In our political discourse, just mention the word ?Hindu?, both the traditional ?Rightists? and the faithful ?Leftists? would flare into an argument. Once that argument starts there is no logic left. Now that the next two years would see elections at different levels casting their shadow over the national politics culminating into the five-yearly General Elections, it is time to pause and redefine what we mean and, equally important, what we do not mean.
The entry of so much emotion into this discourse is in fact a matter of surprise. You call everyone in that historic island called Great Britain, ?British?, no one would threaten to hit you the next moment. In fact, some like the Bangladeshis and the Pakistanis or Indians in that island for decades, would thank you. So also the Algerians and Moroccans in France, on being called the French. But call a Muslim living for the last one thousand years in India as a ?Hindu?, you will get a smack on the chin.
Is ?Hindu? synonymous of ?Indian?? A ?yes? to this question will be dismissed xenophobia as by the ?secularists?. But what are the facts? Both the words owe their origin to the river Sindhu. Since the Persians pronounced Sindhu as Hindu, those living beyond the mighty river were called ?Hindus?. The anglicised version of ?Sindhu? is Indus and hence the terms ?India? and ?Indian?. So ?Hindus? and ?Indians? mean the same people. Nowhere in the accepted texts of the religion dominated by the Vedas is there a single word called ?Hindu?. Most historians now agree that it was convenience of usage by others that created the word ?Hindu??it has nothing to do with a specific way of worship, but denotes a way of life in a specific geographical area.
The people who have been living within a geography limited by the Himalayas in the north and the seas in the south were distinguished by one thing acceptance of diversity in religious thinking, ways of worship, languages, ethnic groups etc. came naturally to them. In ways of worship they had as many gods as they themselves. They could worship their gods as they liked, they have different systems of philosophy and theology. Though each one or each sect had its own God or gods, there was interaction also among these gods and different divine hierarchies, in fact so many of these hierarchies that one loses count. It is almost maddening. But that is the price you pay if you have to respect diversity.
Even totally atheists like the Charvaka were within the ?Hindu? fold. In that cultural respect they had a single identification tag. In effect Hindu was and continues to be a culture, a way of life that accepted there could be different paths to God or there could be different personal gods. Some of these ancient texts written by venerable figures called ?Rishis? even said that God could have neither gender, nor quality or form. Otherwise men in this geography wrote extensively about gods with multifarious human attributes, some of them even jealous of others. The people who collectively came to be specified as ?Hindus? over the ages began to follow certain texts and philosophies and began to develop the same approach to the issues of the day like life after death, attitude to wealth, renunciation and simple living and contemplative life.
In fact the best definition of ?Hinduism? is to be found in The New Encyclopaedia Britannica. It says ?In principle, Hinduism incorporates all forms of belief and worship without necessitating the selection or elimination of any. It is axiomatic that no religious idea in India ever dies or is superseded?it is merely combined with the new ideas that arise in response to it. Hindus are inclined to revere the divine in every manifestation, whatever it may be, and are doctrinally tolerant, allowing others?including both Hindus and non-Hindus, whatever beliefs suit them best. A Hindu may embrace a non-Hindu religion without ceasing to be a Hindu, and because Hindus are disposed to think synthetically and to regard other forms of worship, strange gods, and divergent doctrines as inadequate rather than wrong or objectionable, they tend to believe that the highest divine powers complement one another. Few religious ideas are considered to be irreconcilable. The core of religion does not depend on the existence or nonexistence of God or on whether there is one God or many. Because religious truth is said to transcend all verbal definition, it is not conceived in dogmatic terms. Moreover, the tendency of Hindus to distinguish themselves from others on the basis of practice (orthopraxy) rather than doctrine (orthodoxy) further de-emphasizes doctrinal differences.
Hinduism is both a civilization and a congregation of religions; it has neither a beginning or founder, nor a central authority, hierarchy, or organization. Every attempt at a specific definition of Hinduism has proved unsatisfactory in one way or another, the more so because the finest scholars of Hinduism, including Hindu themselves, have emphasized different aspects of the whole.?
Compare that breadth of vision with the hundreds of years of wars and mutual hatred that characterise civilisations elsewhere over religion. Protestant-Catholic conflicts within Europe ran for over 400 years and mutual exclusion characterises their relationships even today in many countries. Sunni-Shia mutual hatred and wars dominate the West Asia situation. This war of attrition is being currently fought to the detriment of both in the name of Allah in the streets of Baghdad and Karachi even now. Each of these sects calls the other not a true Christian or Muslim. Even in our neighbourhood, Sinhala speaking Buddhists and Tamil speaking non-Buddhists are unable to live together as Sri Lankans.
The Puranas that many historians find as a good source of the country'shistory, or the various Vedic hymns, refer to the geographical occupied by their followers as ?Jambu-dweepa? or ?Bharata-varsha? alternatively. It is significant that in north India, Radha gets preference over Lord Krishna. But south of Maharashtra, it is wife Rukmani who finds the place of honour with the Lord. The Hindu pantheism has numerous such examples. So there is no uniformity. The culture of variety in all respects had an overlap of unity, the glue being patriotism. A great thinker from the south, Prof. Rathinaswamy, who was a Swatantra Party MP for several terms and a Christian by faith, used to say that for all of us living within the Indian geography, River Ganga should evoke feelings of the sacred, whatever be our individual mode of worship.
In such a dispensation patriotism does not become the monopoly of one school of thought or a particular way of worship. All people living in our country are culturally Hindus and they are expected to accept variety and diversity in all aspects. The threat to this age-old exalted maxim now comes from alien creeds such as Marxism, proselytising church and radical Islam and also from the alienated??secularists? divorced from the pluralistic Indian tradition. One must, however, make a clear distinction between the Church, (with an agenda to convert the ?non-believers) and common Christians who are as good (or as bad) citizens as any body else. Similarly there are a large number of Muslims struggling to break out of the stranglehold of radical Islam. Most of the time, the alien creeds and the alienated work in tandem with each other. The question is then can all those people who believe in the Indian axiom of diversity come together on issues that affect the basic structure of that culture and historic traditions against this wicked gang-up. In effect these are the issues that can create a ?Hindu? vote-bank rather than is there a ?Hindu? vote bank?
There are several issues like retaining the integrity of the nation as fissiparous and divisive issues are sought to be created or promoted. As a nation we need to invest huge resources in, say education. But do we instead say that the first call on these resources would be for Muslims? It is madness to seek to promote a Muslim education and a Hindu education portfolios separately.
The excuse in first making these divisions appears plausible. The next move is to build separate constituencies. In reality it is the first step to divide the country into two. Quotas once created do not go away easily. Wherever these quotas exist they have entrenched themselves and set one community against another. Since they are good vote catchers so they entrench themselves. There are several other issues like this that hinder process of national integration.
The great heritage products of the nation include most Sanskrit works whether Upanishads or the dramas of Kalidasa. However, it is a tragedy to see our young people growing up without their schools teaching them even a nodding acquaintance with these works. You propose such a teaching. And out goes the cry ?they are trying to saffronise the country?. At the same time certain political parties are promoting madrasa based education with government aid, where not even a shred is taught about India'sgreat traditions embedded in Sanskrit literature whether it is Puranas or Kalidasa. In fact, institutions that from the start say that Purana or Kalidasa are profane, are getting government support. But demand that let every Indian should know Mahabharta and Shakuntalam is dismissed as saffronisation. And this is despite an European writer of the stature of Geothe singing that Kalidasa'smost famous drama Meghdoot as the best flowering of India'sgenius!
Of course, there are others in this part of the political divide who also undermine the Hindu vote bank by assuming themselves to be the moral police of the country and defenders of ?Hindu ethos?. Objecting to anything remotely inspired by the West as anti-Hindu they go about tearing cinema posters and threaten cinema and cable owners. In the land of Kamasutra and Khajuraho, they are seeking to uphold what is essentially Victorian prudery including telling young people what they should wear. Many a time these restless souls have a arguable case. But instead of advocating their point of view in the public domain, they resort to direct action and end up as `Hindu Taliban? What is Hindu tradition? Is book burning and poster tearing a part of the Hindu tradition when in the conglomerate known as Hindu, there has been a room for such varying doctrines as Adwaita, Vishishtadwaita and Dwaita? And for such contradictory practices as animal sacrifice and animal worship?
National culture needs to be understood in its essence and national destiny defined in the light of historic experience. Those who say that diversity in thought, religion, social and political discourse is at the core of this culture, cannot allow the understanding of the culture in terms of uniformity and narrowly restricted ritual experience. The other extreme is what is practiced now widely in the name of ?secularism??a refusal to identify the roots of Hindu experience over several millennia and an attempt to define an Indian identity shorn of both history and culture. Unfortunately for this country, several political parties compete to squeeze out whatever is Hindu (or Indian) out of future roadmap. India minus `Hindu? will leave us with only a big zero in terms of the celebrated timeless civilisation.
There is no doubt that the ?Hindu? mass are eagerly waiting for the right quality of leadership to emerge that could safeguard and promote what is essentially and culturally Hindu. Behind such a leadership, the Hindu vote bank is bound to crystallise.
(Writer can be contacted at [email protected]