Thoughts in a temple

The growth of Hindutva; the demise of Hinduism

Two weeks ago, I went for a walk with my daughter to the Birla temple. It is not far from where I live and I have seen it coming up for years, from a time when I did not actually live in Calcutta but when, during long or short periods of transit, would look at it from the balcony of this flat. It was built – this plush Orientalist artefact – by the family after which it is named: the Birlas, whose forefather moved from Rajasthan to Calcutta and made his fortune here.

I can’t say I unreservedly enjoy going to this temple; there are, however, only so many places to walk about in Calcutta. My daughter, though, does enjoy going there, without reservation, and this was both her second visit and mine. The first time must have been almost exactly a year ago. I remember the warm marble floor under our bare feet from that excursion, the floor that must have absorbed the heat all day to give it out in the evening. I can also remember my daughter, a year younger, running across the space before the main shrine. On our second visit, the marble was warm again beneath our feet.

On this visit, the precincts of the temple were more crowded than the first time I went there. It was a site of recreation – men and women, and some children, sat in the large space before the steps that led to the sanctum in which the arti (evening prayers offered to the deity) was being performed. They looked content, like people at the seaside. My daughter, easily frightened, was alarmed at the sound of the bell and did not want to investigate the arti – the familiar tune, which one can hear these days even when certain domestic water filters are used, was being played on a tape – and so we roamed around the premises. A thought came to me: would these people condone, or at least defend, what was happening in Gujarat?

The question was probably grossly unfair but impossible to keep out of my head or leave unasked. In the last ten years, gradually, the idea of the ‘peace-loving Hindu’ has been turned inside out. The most innocent-seeming of activities appear to be charged with unarticulated violence. To walk in the Birla temple was to sense – perhaps to imagine, but to imagine powerfully – that subterranean violence which Hinduism is now charged with in its totality: because you cannot isolate one kind of ‘religious’ activity from another.

Perhaps it was the location; perhaps I wouldn’t have felt this discomfort if these people had gathered at a more ancient, less ostentatious, place of worship. I have never really cared for the Birla temple, for its security guards who hover not very far from you once you enter, its marble floor and enormous chandelier, its expansive air of a lobby in a four star hotel, its spotless, garish, unimpeachable idols.

This spectacle is part of the production of a version of Hinduism that has been a steadily developing enterprise in independent India: Hinduism as a rich man’s, a trader’s, religion. Although aggressive exhortations are made on behalf of Lord Ram, the principal deities of this religion are Ganesh and Lakshmi: not Ganesh, the wily and rapid transcriber of the Mahabharata, but the bringer of good fortune to the black marketeer; not Lakshmi, the agrarian goddess, but the goddess who presides over the urban dowry system. As ever, our divinities bless their devotees indiscriminately.

I have heard Hinduism celebrated for the resilience with which it, unlike other religions, has embraced capitalism, but perhaps it has embraced capitalism a little too well. It has left the Hindu with an importunate will to fit into the modern world, and without a social conscience.

Hindutva – the BJP’s frequently used ontologically and culturally assertive term for ‘Hinduness’ – does not so much promote religion as it does material success for the followers of the Hindu religion. Success, in the nineties, has been its keyword, but success for the majority only. It will not barter or share it with anyone else; it will even pretend no one else exists. If they do, it will see to it that they cease to. I presume it is not a coincidence that the extreme measures of ethnic cleansing in Gujarat should be undertaken by those who have been the most effective proponents of the new Hinduism’s mantra of material well-being. Many of the sources that fund our new kitsch Hinduism are also those that fund, or quietly encourage, a government that has a chief minister who defends and protects murderers, and a prime minister (Atal Bihari Vajpayee, this piece was written in 2002) who defends and protects that minister. Then there is the largesse that flows in from overseas, from businessmen in London, from expatriates in England and America. Does it only take an arti to keep our gods happy?

Hinduism was never in the past (unlike Christianity) at the heart of a revolutionary political movement precisely because it was never an evangelical religion; it had no word, or truth, to spread. The killings done in its name today are not part of a jihad and nor are they the residue of a misguided evangelism. They are a brutal and calculated exercise of power in a moral vacuum: Hinduism as the punitive instrument of the powerful.

Christianity has often had a quarrel with modernity and the materialism it denotes in its eyes; Islam has a related quarrel with the West, modernity’s synecdoche. That is why Islamic militancy, even at its worst, has the dimensions of an ideology albeit a distorted one. Hindutva, on the other hand, has no problem with modernity or with the West and it rushes to embrace the latter’s material benefits. This happy concordance, in Hindutva, of cultural extremism and materialism makes it less like a ‘fundamentalist’ religious movement than like fascism.

‘Hinduism’ and the ‘mainstream’, how frequently are these words juxtaposed and made synonymous with each other by the ruling political party! ‘Mainstream’: the word that would mean, in a democratic nation, the law-abiding democratic polity, is cunningly conflated, in the newspeak of our present government, with the religious majority and those who don’t belong to that majority become, by subconscious association and suggestion, anti-democratic and breakers of the law.

Ironically, saffron is the colour of our mainstream. Saffron, or ‘gerua’ in the Indian languages: its resonances are wholly to do with that powerful undercurrent in Hinduism, ‘vairagya’, the melancholy and romantic possibility of renunciation. At what point, and how, did the colour of renunciation and withdrawal from the world become the symbol of a militant and materialistic majoritarianism? Gerua represents not what is brahmanical and conservative but what is most radical about the Hindu religion. It is the colour not of belonging, or fitting in, but of exile, of the marginal man. Hindutva, while rewriting our secular histories, has also rewritten the language of Hinduism and purged it of these meanings; and those of us who mourn the passing of secularism must also believe we are witnessing the passing, and demise, of the Hindu religion as we have known it.

We perhaps owe the politicisation of the colour saffron, its recent use in India as a sign of national pride, to the Hindu revivalist, Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902). We largely owe to him too (more than we do to any other single person) the notion of ‘Hinduness’. Vivekananda is a curious figure and an exemplary one; his story is inflected with the conflicts of interest, the contradictions, of the emergence of Hinduism into modernity.

Vivekananda’s real name was Narendranath Datta. He was a graduate of Calcutta University and had studied European religions carefully. Like many other middle class, educated men of his generation in India and elsewhere, he was a seeker after metaphysical and religious truth, but his search was related to the self-awareness of a colonial subject. After rejecting the major religions and philosophies he was surrounded by, Datta finally found his master in a rustic visionary and saint, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, who was a priest in a town north of Calcutta, who spoke in parables and homilies and claimed to have ‘seen’ Ma Kali. Ironically, and characteristically of the time, he first heard of Ramakrishna from an Englishman, Professor WW Hastie. And it was Ramakrishna who reportedly identified Datta’s spiritual potential and named him Vivekananda – ‘the one who exults in a clear conscience and in discernment’.

Ramakrishna was an extraordinary man himself. He had experimented, literally, in varieties of religious experience. He could practise, for periods of time, faiths such as Islam and Christianity. His immersion, during these trance-like periods, in these alternative modes of worship was so complete that he would begin to internalise the habits and customs of other religions, to spend, for instance, long spells inside a mosque and eat beef; he’d even experience a sort of revulsion towards his beloved deity, Kali. His experiments led him to conclude, influentially, that all paths led to god (‘jata mat tata path’ – ‘there are as many paths as there are faiths’).

This, then, was part of Vivekananda’s liberal inheritance but it was an inheritance quite different from that of the liberal humanism that had come to exist in Bengal by this time, and which Vivekananda, as Narendranath Datta, would probably have subscribed to had he not met Ramakrishna. It was a middle class humanism that decreed tolerance towards all faiths regardless of whether or not you adhered to one yourself.

Ramakrishna, on the other hand, located these various religions not in the society or nation he lived in but in himself. It was here they coexisted and competed with each other, often annihilating each other temporarily. History animated him from within.

The liberal humanism of the Bengal Renaissance formed the basis of the secular Indian state. The experiments of Ramakrishna, in which different ways of seeing existed in a sort of tension within oneself, formed the basis of the creativity of the modern Indian. It is no accident that every significant Indian writer or artist has negotiated seemingly antithetical world views or languages in his or her work.

But the relationship that the BJP and the new BJP-governed middle class have with Hinduism is prescriptive, not creative. For years now, the BJP’s satellites of the far right have imposed a violent if illegal ban on imagined offences to the Hindu religion, and abused and harassed artists and writers for their supposed transgressions. This is not only a failure of secularism; it speaks to us of the imminent death of Ramakrishna’s inheritance: leaving us unable to negotiate any more the different ways of seeing in a way that might create rather than destroy.

In 1893, a penurious Vivekananda travelled to Chicago to attend the Parliament of World Religions. By this time he had abandoned the white apparel of the brahmachari, the celibate devotee, for the saffron of the sanyasi, the wandering holy mendicant. As a follower of Ramakrishna he had graduated from brahmacharya to sanyas, from celibacy to renunciation, and yet it was now that he and his religion would embrace the world, not only in a metaphorical and metaphysical but in a new, global, sense. His address in Chicago, in which he announced a resurgent Hinduism to the West, made him famous and made, by association and almost by chance, the colour he was wearing the sign of that resurgence rather than of liminality.

We might think we see some of the lineaments of today’s Hindutva in Vivekananda’s revived faith and while it is hard to deny the lineage, it is important to distinguish between the two.

Certainly, Vivekananda wanted Hinduism to stand on its own two feet, to become less inward-looking, and exhorted it to become a more ‘manly’ religion. Like other figures of the Bengal Renaissance, he welcomed western rationalism, science and materialism, and wanted Hinduism to enter into a transaction with these things. Hindutva continues that journey westward but the West itself has become a different entity from what it was in the late 19th century. Vivekananda could not have foreseen a West that is synonymous, principally, with the benefits of the free market, which the twice-born Hindutva now rushes towards. Moreover, Ramakrishna, the rustic seer, was important to Vivekananda as the vernacular root of Hinduism. He couldn’t have known that the religion he helped revive would venture so far into the world that it would become, in essence, a globalised urban faith, in Delhi and Bombay, London and New York, divorced from the vernacular experience that Ramakrishna represented. The followers of the postmodern Hindutva still ritually, and piously, celebrate Vivekananda but, a hundred years after his death, no longer exult in conscience or discernment.

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Society



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