Origins of Hindutva: Re-arming Hinduism in an era of nation states

The works and thoughts of Hindutva ideologues remind me of a certain few lines from a famous poem: "Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

The 6th of December will forever be etched in the memory of Indians as the very day on which the future of politics in the country under the banner of Hindutva was secured. Since then, Hindutva has gone on to become the dominant political force in the country with the Bharatiya Janata Party forming the government at the Center and the ruling party in an overwhelming majority of states.

Despite the dominance of Hindutva, very little effort has been made to understand the circumstances under which it developed and the source of its origins. The political opponents of Hindutva could not ever be expected to provide an objective analysis of the circumstances that led to the development of Hindutva. However, even adherents of the political ideology have not made much effort to elaborate on the history of Hindutva and how it came to be. There are very good reasons for this but time has come for us to understand the intellectual basis of the ideology and what it represents.

Essentially, Hindutva was an attempt by Hindu intellectuals to arm Hinduism to adapt to a world order based on the concept of nation states. Until the 19th and the 20th century, there was no need for Hindu scholars to attempt such an endeavour as world politics revolved around Kings and Empires. The advent of nation-states, however, made it imperative for Hinduism to adapt and develop a sense of nationalism in the political arena if it was to secure a place of its own in a world dominated by monotheism.

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Hindutva, thus, ought to be considered the political wing of Hinduism. Its primary purpose was to concretely define the concept of nationhood around Hindu identity rather than along regional or caste identities. In a heterogeneous polytheistic society, it was not such an easy endeavour as various identities were regularly in conflict with each other. But for the polytheistic order to survive, Hindu society had to overcome such fault-lines to sustain its continued existence.

At its core, Hindutva is a reactionary ideology. It emerged as a reaction to a world order based on nation-states and the task of ensuring the political unity of the vast lands of India once the British forfeited their claim to it. Centuries of conflict with imperial ideologies made Hindu intellectuals acutely aware of the urgent need to ensure the political unity of the Hindu populace. Hindutva was the product of such endeavours and its purpose was explicit: To ensure that the whole of Hindu society lends its allegiance to a nation state which would then protect and serve the interests of the Hindu social order.

The detractors of Hinduism often make the claim that Hindutva is a distortion of Hinduism. And on occasions, they make vehement proclamations to the tune of ‘Hindutva is not Hinduism’. The detractors pretend they have made some fantastic assertion which ought to discredit Hindutva entirely. But the thinkers who originally promulgated the term were very much aware of it themselves. Veer Savarkar in his book, ‘Essentials of Hindutva’, made it clear that Hinduism and Hindutva were distinct from each other. Hindutva is best understood as the political arm of Hinduism in a world dominated by nation states. It was an attempt by Hindu leaders to imbibe Hinduism with the notions of nationalism, a sentiment that Hindus thus far did not have to contend with as they still existed primarily under an order based on Monarchs and Emperors.

Hindutva does not concern itself with the rituals and religious tenets of Hinduism. It’s only concerned with the political unity of the Hindu identity. Hindutva does not bother to offer edicts on Hindu philosophy, its primary concern is to organize Hindus as a political outfit. It is aimed at creating a civilizational consciousness among Hindus.

The early thinkers of Hindutva after deep contemplation reached the conclusion that Hindus had to endure centuries of foreign domination because they were not united as a political force. Although Hindus shared the same philosophy about religion and were aware of the invisible threads of Dharma that bound them together, they could not reconcile their differences to come together as a political unit to resist foreign domination. There was unity in terms of beliefs, rituals, traditions and social order but politically, there wasn’t any. And Hindutva thinkers came to believe that if Hindus are to preserve their way of life, they have to unite politically.

Thus, contrary to popular claims that Hindutva is a divisive ideology, the objective is to create political unity among Hindus. The vision was that when Hindutva dominates Hindu society, Rajputs and Marathas and Tamilians and Kannadigas and Biharis and others will continue to compete with each other in internal affairs but when confronted by a foreign enemy, every Hindu shall stand together as a rock to ensure the continued existence of the Hindu civilization. Political unity is the target, Hindutva is the bullet.

Savarkar and others recognized that Hindus ought to have a nation-state of their own if they were to secure their existence in the ancient tradition of their forefathers. Hindutva is Hindu Nationalism. Unlike American, French and English nationalism which arose as a consequence of common ethnicity and is then superseded by their allegiance to Christianity and Western Civilization, the very objective of Hindutva is to help Hindus transcend the enormous heterogeneity in our society.

Early thinkers of Hindutva were aware of the developments in Europe and the manner in which the continent was ravaged by endless wars. Even nations that shared a common religion were endlessly at war with one another and ultimately ended up inflicting enormous devastation on each other. They recognized that if Hindus chose to tread a similar path, consequences could be similar for Hindus as well. Therefore, it was imperative that Hindus developed a political unity to safeguard themselves against further attempts by imperial forces and also to avoid conflict among themselves.

The dominant political entity in the modern world is nation states. Therefore, to Savarkar and others, it was crucial to ensure that Hindus organized themselves under a single nation-state. If ethnic nationalism was allowed to dominate, then the emerging nation states could very well end up in conflict among themselves. This explains why Hindutvavadis have such immense respect for Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The Iron Man of India ensured through his iron will that the myriad of princely states agreed to accede their kingdoms to the Indian Union.

To many of us now, it does not appear to be that big of a deal. However, in the tumultuous years of the 1940s, it was far from a given that India will emerge as a single state out of a conflagration of princely states. Thus, when Sardar Patel ensured the emergence of India, half the concerns of Hindutvavadis had already been addressed. A lot of things we take for certain now wasn’t so much during the chaos of the early part of the 20th century. Therefore, the enormity of the achievements of certain people does not appear obvious to us unless we attempt to understand the circumstances under which such remarkable feats were accomplished.

There is a fundamental difference between Hindutvavadis and liberals in their perception of the Indian state. Liberals believe that the Indian state started from a blank slate in 1947 after a period of extreme communal violence. In their eyes, the Indian state represents the union of the Hindu and Islamic cultures and it is a beacon of coexistence worldwide that conveys the simple message that two communities with a history of entrenched violence could still exist as a nation under a state. The Hindutva conception of the India state differs. Through the lens of Hindutva, the Indian state appears as the political union of Hindus under a nation-state and the Indian state is the custodian of the great Hindu civilization and its foremost duty is to ensure the continued existence of Dharma.

Liberals perceive Indian nationalism to be secular, Hindutvavadis consider Indian nationalism to be synonymous with Hindu nationalism. These are fundamental differences regarding the role, function and identity of the Indian state between liberals and Hindutvavadis. And, it surely does not appear reconcilable.

The task that was set before Hindutva thinkers was humongous, to say the least. In Essentials of Hindutva, Veer Savarkar describes how Hindus have always united under the banner of Dharma and their Hindu identity whenever they were confronted by external forces. However, once the threat disappeared, Hindus aligned themselves politically under the banner of their respective monarchs. Savarkar describes how the Hindu identity has always featured prominently in the resistance against foreign invaders. As stated earlier, Hindutva thinkers came to conclude that the lack of political unity among Hindus was the reason for their demise. And they sought to remedy that.

Liberals might argue that there isn’t any essential difference between Hindutva and Islamic or Christian nationalism. But in reality, it’s much like comparing apples and oranges; they are fruits but they are not the same. Islamic and Christian nationalism is the natural consequence of the political nature of monotheistic faiths themselves. However, Hindutva is an abstract higher ideal borne of the political necessities of the times we live in. In a world dominated by polytheism, Hindutva, perhaps, won’t be required as much. However, at a time the Hindu faith is under constant assault from the evangelical nature of monotheistic faiths, Hindutva becomes of paramount importance.

The differences between Hindutva and monotheistic nationalism is quite the same that is between Hinduism and Abrahamic religions. The emphasis of polytheism is on diversity and the freedom that is granted to every community to pursue their own path to the Gods while the emphasis in monotheism is on forced uniformity and creating an army for the God they claim to worship. Hindutva is a higher ideal that was agreed upon after deep contemplation of the crisis of the Hindu faith while monotheistic nationalism is merely the logical conclusion of the path laid down in Abrahamic scriptures. The Hindu scriptures offer no certainty that an ideology in the fashion of Hindutva would come to dominate Hindu society one day but Abrahamic scriptures do provide for the monotheistic counterpart themselves. The task for early Hindutva ideologues was, thus, far greater.

Most importantly, Hindutva does not seek to impose itself on Hindu society by quoting verses from the scriptures. It merely seeks to impress upon people the virtues of the values embedded in our Shastras and urges them to unite politically for their defence. Hindutva is an appeal to reason and intellect, its Abrahamic counterparts often appeal to religious bigotry and fanaticism.

Hindutva ideologues, thus, attempted to promulgate a nationalism for a Hindu nation-state, which did not exist as yet, based on a sense of social solidarity among Hindus with a clear emphasis on civilizational consciousness and a sense of shared purpose in the defence of the last standing bastion of polytheism. Their vision was audacious, may even appear outrageous to some, but their acute awareness about the perils of modernity was genuinely awe-inspiring. On one hand, there was the task of convincing princely states to align themselves under the banner of a single nation-state and on the other, they had to create a civilizational narrative of Hindu civilization.

Hindutva ideologues sought to answer the very critical question of who is a Hindu. Savarkar did provide an answer to that question, very simple in its meaning and yet, vast in its depth. According to Savarkar, any individual whose allegiance lies with the holy land of India, whose ancestors lived and died and practised the traditions borne on the sacred soil of Bharata was a Hindu. In his book, Savarkar elucidated greatly upon the ancient history of the word ‘Hindu’ and traced its origins to unrecorded History. It was very critical because attempts were being made by western scholars to deny the existence of an ancient Hindu identity itself.

Since independence, although Hindus have voted along caste, regional and linguistic lines, undermining the very basis of their social order, there was the always the undercurrent of Hindutva coursing through Indian polity which burst onto the scene during the Ram Janambhoomi movement.

Hindutvavadis do not see any difference between Indian nationalism and Hindu nationalism. Indian nationalism is Hindu nationalism, they say. According to them, India can afford to exist as a single nation state only because it’s based on the political union of Hindus. The day when Hindus become politically weak or the Hindu identity becomes politically weak, India may well cease to exist as we know it. The fears and aspirations and ambitions of Hindutvavadis only show that Hindu nationalism arose from the perception of existential threats to the great Hindu Civilization. And Hindutva concerns itself not with the religious belief system of Hindus but fomenting a political unity among Hindus so that this belief system can be preserved against external threats.

The works and thoughts of Hindutva ideologues remind me of a certain few lines from a famous poem.

“Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Hindutva was Hinduism rearming itself in a world it hardly recognized. At a very critical juncture of our history, Hindutva ideologues identified an extremely critical problem and set their heart and minds to solving it. Considering recent political developments and the rise in the political consciousness of Hindus which is reflected in Indian polity being remarkably vocal regarding Hindu concerns and interests, the achievement of Hindutva ideologues is truly unprecedented in history.

The Indian state exists as a political union of Hindus, dedicated Hindutvavadis have taken control of the central government and their hold over centre looks almost certain for the next 5 years as well. They control most states in the country and since their rise, Nationalism has been a topic hotly debated at every juncture. And as the original thinkers of Hindutva had envisioned, all that remains is recognizing India as the custodian of the great Hindu civilization and the government acting accordingly in due time.

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