What today’s peddlers of Hindutva don’t understand about Hinduism

Mrinal Pande

Writers are incurable fabulists. But lying sleepless in the dark encourages one to mull over the inflexible image of Hindutva, which is today less of a religion and more of a war cry against all non-Hindus. As elections in crucial states draw close and electoral rallies become vast, frenzied affairs, Hindutva is placed centre stage as the Holy Grail for the Hindu Rashtra. Interestingly, there is seldom, if ever, a deeper metaphysical discussion on religion. In rallies, TV panel discussions and editorial pages, Hindutva triggers a celebration of India as the land of Hindus and our ancient past is cited through selective myths to lend Hindutva a misleading gravitas and centrality.

Upon closer inspection, it turns out that sanatana dharma may, at best, be one of the small tributaries of the vast and perpetually self-renewing waters of the mighty cultural flow of the Hindu religion in India. When this is pointed out, not just the Party spokespersons, but friends who pride themselves on their modern thinking, will often grow agitated. They claim to have it on good authority that the term “sanatana” comes from Sanskrit, the language of our ancestors, and when appended to dharma, it can only denote the Hindu religion: An unchanging and disciplined stream for which the correct parameters and rituals were created centuries ago by our Smritis and Puranas and Dharmashastras. Only a “nastik Lefty”, they say, would believe otherwise!

There isn’t much point in telling them that the Sanskrit term “nastik” does not translate to “irreligious non believer”, but a heretic who questions all institutionalised wisdom about God. Rewind to the 7th-century Sanskrit treatise by one Kulluk Bhatt on the Manusmriti. The term “nastik”, Bhatt explains, is used to describe those who do not believe in an afterlife as per the Vedas and Upanishads. They may therefore be considered “ved bahya”, those standing beyond the pale of the Vedas. And mind you, not all ved bahyas are unacceptable. Among the acceptable non-believers, Bhatt lists four branches of Buddhism, the Charvakas, followers of Kapil’s Sankhya and Jaimini’s Mimamsa philosophies, and last but not the least, the Digambar sect of the Jains. Thus, there are two categories of astiks: The pure astiks, who believed in the Vedas and the Smritis , and those who may question Vedic wisdom but are acceptable as having a point. In time, the astiks, in the manner of the Janata Party, have brought forth their own groups of dissenters over matters ranging from certain philosophical interpretations to food taboos, daily rituals and the centrality of certain gods. 

Then, in the 8th century, the great Vedic scholar Shankaracharya arrived. He propounded the abstract philosophy of Advaita for ascetics like himself but he had another mission, namely driving out the Buddhists who had long dominated the scene and cornered state patronage. So, for the laity, he combined the Shaivite and Vaishnavite pantheons and laid down the norms of Panchayatana Puja (worship of gods in both camps). He created the Badrinath Dham and restored Kedarnath as a holy centre of Sanatana Hindu Dharma and laid down the basics for a Brahmin priest-led ritualistic pattern of worship. Shankara was wary of Buddhists retaining their regional hold through some Hindu sects, so he took care to weed out two Shaivite sects from the fold. The reason he gave was that in the Padma Purana, Shiva tells Parvati that the Pashupatas and Maheshwaras among his so-called followers were actually preaching Buddhism under the garb of Shaivism.

Post Shankaracharya, Sanatana Dharma continued to evolve and diversify. The stories of these evolutionary changes come to us largely through various literary sources. But in all this crafting of narratives and counter-narratives, the actual history of the continuous co-mingling of religions and languages and rituals in the Subcontinent got left out or was forgotten. 

On the occasional reading of scholars from other nations in the subcontinent, we may chance upon a quip like the one by Sri Lankan scholar Gamini Salgado, the first non-white full professor of English in England, writing about Buddhism in Sri Lanka: “Buddhism has no god of its own, so through the centuries we have borrowed a few from Hinduism, because it is difficult for men to live without doing homage to the gods, even if they don’t believe in them…” And to think Hindus may have happily borrowed the cave architecture for the Udayagiri caves from the Buddhists’ Ajanta and Ellora caves, where the first-ever statue of Ganesh sits. By the way, Ganesha is originally a Yaksha deity closely associated with Shiva. Then there were the Yavanas, the Ionian Greeks. One of the Hindus’ earliest temples in Besnagar stands next to the Greek Heliodorous pillar dedicated to Vasudeva. Our history certainly hides many little jokes!

In the history of meeting, clashing and quiet co-mingling of religions in India lie the seeds of our syncretic Dharma. In the Shatapatha Brahmana (8th-6th C BCE), we find the tale of one Videgha Madhava, an Aryan priest, arriving on the banks of the river Ganges, and being made to wait for permission to set foot in Kashi, the Adi Deva’s “Avimukta Kshetra” (his forever habitat). The priest and his disciples were permitted to cross the river by the citizens of Kashi only after the newcomers accepted Shiva as the supreme god. Thus, the Aryan faith, its pantheon of gods and its rituals first stepped into Kashi, one of the seven holiest cities and the recognised seat of syncretic Hinduism. One may be sure that they assumed the familiar pilgrims’ pose, walking behind the Shaivites with lowered eyes, bowing to Shiva’s ganas — the Yakshas, Nagas, and even the spirits that roam the cremation grounds and stood guard over Shiva’s city.

Today’s peddlers of Hindutva seem trapped in spectacles made for the visual media: Bhakts crowding for maha aartis on the banks of rivers and mountain valleys that they have polluted and killed. When political leaders go abroad, the Indian diaspora turns out in large numbers: Men in faux Indian gear and women in silk saris dance the traditional dances to the beat of drums, waving the flag of a land they have chosen to forsake. A few hours later, one sees them in tuxedos taking selfies with the Great Visitor from the Motherland, and then sitting in TV studios and talking about trade and money.

As the sleepless pillow liquidates the borders between fact and fiction, the last thought before the oblivion of sleep is: Should one consider writing about the memories of anxieties and the bittersweet convergences and displacements fast disappearing in the mists of time? Or try to dig out our syncretic hidden histories with India’s linguistic archaeological tools? That may yet help substantiate and restore the primaeval diversity of India’s soul.

The writer is former chairperson, Prasar Bharati


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