Any exploration or attempt to understand Hinduism requires a viratdrishti; a grand, deep and encompassing vision of how cultures and civilizations take birth, unfold and expand over millennia.
A narrow or sectarian perspective would invariably limit, if not distort, the journey of the cultural and spiritual process that culminates in the formation of a grand civilization that Hindus have built and sustained since time immemorial.
Aravindan Neelkandan’s Hindutva is the result of such a viratdrishti; a grand, erudite and magnificent tour of how Hindus explored, evolved and integrated various organic layers of Hindu Rashtra. This ‘historical and civilizational process’ of over ten thousand years has laid the strong foundations of Hindu-ness; popularly known as Hindutva. It is a historical as well as an ongoing process that has organically integrated various races, languages, cultures, customs, and traditions.
Aravindan aptly begins his work, defining Hindutva, with the following caveat:
“Hindutva is not an ideology but a process—a historical-civilizational process. As such, it does not fit the expectations of any ideological framework…..It cannot be a monolith by its very nature. As a very fluid process, it is more a river than an ideology or dogma.”
The metaphor of perennial river is often used by Hindu thinkers to denote the historical journey of their civilization as it summarizes the various themes underlying the process of unification and divergence, of organic whole and its interacting parts, of incessantly changing reality anchored in unchanging essence, of fluid dynamics resting on solid foundations. It is an apt metaphor because it subsumes all paradoxes and contradictions that are the hallmark of Hindutva.
Aravindan’s quest to understand the essence of Hindutva may be divided into three broad categories:
- What are the non-negotiable or unchanging principles of Hindu philosophy?
- What are the changing and fluid dynamics of Hindu society? and
- What are the ideological boundaries that Hindutva resists and counters to protect its fundamental principles?
I must admit that the result of this quest gives a very comprehensive, sublime, and profound understanding of Hindutva.
His exploration begins with the oldest concept of Hindutva as expressed in the Vedas – the concept of Rta, an underlying cosmic order. It is the foundational idea of cosmic unity of all life forms in Hindu philosophy. It unites not only the whole of humanity but visualizes every particle, thing, and beings – animate and inanimate – as a part of one unifying spectrum. It does not leave space for any kind of eternal divisive forces – be it theological, economic, or social.
Aravindan argues that Hindutva is as old as the first hymns of the Vedas as it resonates with the idea of cosmic unity of all beings. To him, at the most sublime level, Hindutva is the exploration of self at the individual as well as cosmic level; as an organically intertwined phenomenon. The expansion of self from personal to cosmic level allowed every possible ideological framework to evolve and integrate various dimensions of life. Moreover, it prevented any room for the spread of mono-culturalisms and fanatic expansionism. The author summarizes this exploration of self as follows:
“Hindutva or Hinduness is in realizing the other as yet another manifestation of the self while at same time inhibiting the expansionist monocultural drives that may be present in the ‘other’.”
The study of expansion of self and its impact on the integrated and holistic framework is also explored in neurosciences these days. The author rightly compares the findings of ‘mirror neurons’ by neurobiologist V.S Ramachandran and the experience of ‘Absolute Unitary Being (AUB)’ by Andrew Newberg as an exploration of the similar phenomenon of expanding and integrating process of self.
Spiritual Pluralism or Theo-Diversity
Hindutva, according to the Indic framework, rests on spiritual pluralism that allows openness and diversity to explore divinity and sacredness in its infinite forms. What is often ignored, and unfortunately not given much space, in global discourse is that spiritual pluralism is the fountainhead of all other kinds of pluralism in society. It naturally allows unhindered exploration of various areas of civilization such as economy, polity, culture and sciences; promoting pluralism at every level. It has allowed Hindus to experiment and refine various models for long-term solutions and a sustainable society.
Aravindan terms this spiritual pluralism as ‘theo-diversity’ and calls it ‘the defining unique feature of Hinduism’. He quotes a noted Buddhist scholar Lokesh Chandra, who first stated the concept of theo-diversity in connection with the cherished idea of biodiversity:
“Bio-diversity is the supreme law of nature…. Likewise, faith has to divine the several meanings of spiritual life, the fuzzy wisdom of nature, the light of the Many, and to image the sacrament that enshrines the Multiple, the Changing, the Silent…. The One has to become the Many. Theo-diversity is an inescapable corollary to the astounding discoveries in science and their universal application in technology. Theo-diversity alone will ensure the ascension of humanity to light and nobility that makes Joy (sac-cid-ananda) not an attribute of the spirit but its essential nature”
All noted Hindu thinkers and activists, including Vivekanand, Tilak, Aurobindo, Tagore and Gandhi have repeatedly emphasized theo-diveristy as the foundational principle of Hindutva. It is a non-negotiable idea for Hindu minds. This one unchanging principle provided a solid anchor for Hindu society to evolve, assimilate, as well as resist myriads of changes over several millennia.
He also eruditely traces the history of manifestations of these subtle ideas into reverence for Bharat Mata or Mother India. In demolishing the myth that Bharat Mata is a modern political creation, he explores the history of India’s sacred landscape through the form of the BhoomiSukta of Atharva Veda and worship of the Vedic Goddess Nirrtias someone who punishes the disrupter of Rta, a cosmic order.
The amazing continuity of India’s sacred landscape, in the form of the divine feminine, also resonates and manifests whenever Hindu society faced a survival threat and emerged as a symbol of protest. The goddess Kottravai, as depicted in a Tamil epic of Chilapathikaram(probably composed in the 5th or 6th century CE), is revered and adored by dacoits, to resist the chaos and injustice is the finest example of such a protest.
The author also highlights this continuity of goddess worship, as the life and soul of Hindu Rashtra, through the examples of the patron deities of the Maratha and Rajput Empires. Therefore, Bharat Mata is not a figment of political imagination of the twentieth century but has a hoary antecedent to the earliest times of Hindu Rashtra.
Aravindan summarizes this pan-Indic phenomenon in the following words:
“In short, the Goddess who emerges when the land and people suffer, is already right there with the tribal communities deep in South India. What is even more important is that this Goddess has her roots still deeper in Indian history, and in terms of literary evidence she is very much present in the Vedic literature and has an abiding presence in historical times as well.”
The Sacred Cow
He also deals extensively with another central concern of the Hindutva framework – the veneration of cow and controversies surrounding it. In the ideological war against Hindus, the issue of cows is reduced to either lynching or eating beef as a ‘personal choice’; devoid of any cultural and historical context. Instead of adopting a multi-dimensional approach that is often characteristic of a complex study, the colonized intelligentsia often reduce it to simple binaries, mislead the Hindu community and eventually promote communal disharmony.
The author studies this complex issue from the much needed multi-dimensional perspectives, ranging from unexplored areas of the terror link of cattle smuggling mafia to misinterpretations of various Vedic words related to the cow (go, goghana, goswami etc.). The role of imputing sacredness to cow in sustaining the agricultural base of India that prevented various man-made famines during the British rule and scientific findings related to ecological health of our planet are also explored with amazing clarity and depth.
In doing so, Aravindan shatters the myth that cow worship is linked to recent political maneuvers of the Hindutva brigade. The leading voices of our freedom struggle (not any way related to the current Hindutva dispensation) such as Tilak, Gandhi, Munshi and Ambedkar vociferously promoted the sanctity of cow in Hindu society. They also encouraged people to study the importance of cow from a scientific perspective since it would prove helpful in reviving the agrarian economy of India.
This is in stark contrast to pseudo-scientific studies promoted by congress-communist ideologues. In fact, every tool has been used, in this propaganda war, to endorse the overgrazing impact of cow and subsequent ecological degradation. It has also led to the misguided ban on livestock grazing in national parks. Aravindan brilliantly exposes the unfounded claims of such studies. He narrates the importance of livestock grazing in restoring ecological balance on a sound scientific footing. A section worth reading and important for policymakers in India.
On one hand, various scientific reports on climate change are appreciating the impact of vegetarian diets on environment and warn us about the dangerous impacts of beef eating on global warming. On the other hand, the left intelligentsia is still indulging in distortions and meaningless rhetoric. Their hatred towards anything related to Hindutva has blinded them to ignore and suppress various scientific evidences.
Caste and Hindutva
Caste is another complex issue that has been mired in various political jargon and academic stereotypes since colonial discourse has overtaken the commonsensical approach. Caste is invariably portrayed as the worst form of discrimination, and it is equated with racism. An Indic approach to studying and understanding the complex dynamics of caste has not been given any space in their discourse.
Aravindan takes a multi-pronged approach to address the caste issue including historical, social, cultural, and scientific aspects. He states that social structures are always in flux and require a broad, flexible, and open-minded approach for their evaluation.
Acknowledging the core and non-negotiable principle of Hindutva in its Vedantic manifestation of the oneness of humankind and other life forms, he encourages us to look at the caste issues from dynamic and ever-changing social realities. We must keep in mind that the social stratification along with subsequent changes and stagnations is a part of every culture and civilization on this planet.
However, the credit must be given to Indian minds for infusing a fresh breath of air, as and when required, to overcome social stagnation. He explains the role of spiritual values in social reforms:
“The sociocultural history of India is also replete with instances where social stagnation is resisted through the ‘spiritual’ values considered essential to Hindu culture. Dr. Ambedkar had rightly pointed out that the Upanishadic concept of Brahman has provided India with a strong spiritual basis for social democracy”
He quotes Sri Aurobindo extensively to substantiate his thesis :
“Sri Aurobindo spoke about historical instances where the caste arrogance was held in check by spiritual tradition in India: ‘ChokhaMela, the MarathaPariah, became the Guru of Brahmins proud of their caste purity; Chandala taught Shankaracharya.’”
He shares Sri Aurobindo’s critical analyses of the origin and evolution of caste and its present degradation. Sri Aurobindo was very clear on the worth-based division of society as ‘determined by spiritual qualifications’ and not on its current distorted form ‘determined by the purely material tests’ of occupation and birth .Aurobindo was not alone in endorsing worth-based system of caste. His views were also echoed by other Indian thinkers such as Swami Vivekananda, Swami Shraddhananda, Savarkar, Gandhi, Ambedkar, etc.
In fact, it was quite enlightening to read about the wide range of social Hindu reformers who worked tirelessly to eradicate untouchability and related discrimination in India. A patwari turned activist Bhagat Fool Singh, inspired by Swami Shraddhananda, fasted unto death to allow access to drinking water from public wells.
Barrister Jayakar who encouraged reformers to go beyond superficial changes and focus on the Vedantic ideal used an interesting example. This was the encounter between a Chandala and Adi Shankara, a model for social reforms based on a spiritual foundation. Savarkar, another great Hindu activist-scholar, opened the temple of Ratnagiri for all sections of society, without any discrimination.
It must be kept in mind that all these social reformers were proud Hindus and at the same time, also looked for an ideal solution through Indic perspective. In stark contrast to their representation by the colonized intelligentsia, as obscurantists and fascists, these reformers emerged as the most liberal minds of their times. Aravindan aptly summarizes that:
“The ‘who’s who’ of Hindu Sanghatanists or Hindutvaites of the time, Malaviya, Moonje and Jayakar, sided clearly with the nationalist Hindu SCleader Jagjivan Ram and opposed their own revered religious head for the rights of the Scheduled Community”
The author also highlighted that these indigenous reforms rattled the British government, as evident in the following letter from Sir Harcourt Butler, the Lieutenant Governor of Oudh and Northwest Provinces:
“The Arya Somaj is a dangerous movement because it combines an appeal to national feeling with atendency to elevate the low castes. Shivaji did this. So has every great Hindu leader….They swept in new forces by promoting low castes to be Rajputs and Brahmans. Theeddies in Hindu society show that there are strong currents at work now.”
The Prominent pre-SanghInfluencers
Hindutva, as discussed earlier, originated in the hymns of the Vedas but was forged, shaped and customized, throughout millennia, by great minds of India. In recent times, the RSS (or the Sangh) has been associated for the promotion of Hindutva ideas. However, like any perennial philosophy, it is fed by streams of various thoughts, sometimes through well-knit organizations but often through independent thinkers and activists.
Aravindan narrates the lives and deeds of such finest thinkers for a better understanding of the Hindutva movement. The prominent pre-Sangh influencers such as Savarkar and Lala Lajpat Rai along with other lesser-known figures like Bhai Parmanand and Lala Hard Dayal are discussed in detail.
The contribution of Savarkar in reclaiming history writing from an Indic perspective is paid a fitting tribute, as they became the influential texts for scores of freedom fighters. Bhai Parmanand, a passionate teacher with a vision to restore Indic teaching, was also among the first few to highlight the difference between Hindu spirituality and dogmatic religions of the West. Lala Lajpat Rai’s prescient insights on the ‘theological cage’ of Islam and its dangerous implications for Hindu-Muslim unity despite the best intentions of Gandhi are also thoroughly analyzed.
One of the surprising geniuses, for me personally, was a brilliant thinker named Lala Har Dayal whose wide-ranging contributions to science, education, politics, and cultural studies are unfortunately never discussed in our textbooks. Ahead of his times, Dayal warned contemporary thinkers against ‘ill-digested European ideas’, the dogma of creator-deity in theexploration of natural sciences, applying reductionism in life sciences and the binary trap of capitalism and communism. On the positive side, he advocated decentralized “indigenous education”, promoted the study of zoology to ‘realize the essential unity of living beings’ and considered the research of J.C. Bose as the prototype to study the continuum between living and non-living beings.
The Role of RSS in shaping Hindutva
No work of Hindutva movement can be complete without mentioning the role of the prominent Sangh founders and thinkers who created the largest organization of volunteers (swayamsevaks) that changed the course of Indian history.
It was the visionary approach of Dr Hedgewar who started gathering some boys informally for doing exercises and playing kabaddi, thateventually sowed the seeds of the most ‘anti-fragile’ network – decentralized and modular – to serve dharma and nation in the spirit of cosmic yajna. Even the harshest critics of the Sangh, Aravindan highlights, admit that their volunteers are the first ones to provide rescue and relief in the event of a calamity. They have served their fellow citizens regardless of caste, creed and religion.
The author draws our attention to an important difference between the approach of the Sangh and the Left intelligentsia when it comes to the issue of caste. He finds that left-leaning scholars always adopt an ‘essentialist approach’ where Jati and Varna is depicted as a monstrous system devised by Brahminical priests for the oppression of other members of society. This has resulted in creating past conflicts which aim to promote communal disharmony in the present.
He compares this with an “evolutionary approach” of the Sangh members who look at the dynamics of the social order through various historical, cultural, and spiritual processes. The evolutionary approach has allowed them to look at the global phenomenon of ordering all pre-modern societies in a certain hierarchy, not necessarily oppressive and demeaning. However, what is unique to India is the spiritual wisdom to bring continuous reforms against social stagnation. It is worth reading Aravindan’s insightful passage in this regard:
“So, for an anthropologist with a deeper vision, what is that which makes Indian caste system distinct? There is not a single instance of mass movement in Christendom that spoke for these voiceless people of ‘dishonourable’ trades. Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, took pride in saying he was instrumental in the massacre of peasants. There is not a single traditional Christian saint who spoke against the treatment meted out to European untouchable communities though they did exist. But what distinguishes India is the constant voice of spiritual emancipation which was raised for the marginal communities in society—and often helping communities break the shackles in the process.”
The Sangh founders followed this age-old spiritual wisdom of India while resolving various caste issues in India, aggravated, and amplified over thousands of years of colonization. The author informs us about the important and historic role of Guru Golwalkar in the 1969 Udupi conference, to bring together reformers and traditionalists on one platform for passing a resolution against all sorts of untouchability in Indian society. Unfortunately, this historic movement is never mentioned in mainstream academic discourse. Aravindan claims that,
“In any other society or in the history of any other religion, this conference and resolution would have been hailed as a decisive moment in the national life of the people. But as this defies the stereotype of the Sangh as a conservative status quo organization, we see a momentous truth being sacrificed at the altar of the convenience of ideologically vested interests—the Taj Mahal of real status quo.”
The Sangh ideologues also contributed immensely to other domains of social, culture and economic thoughts whether it be DattopantThengadi’s economic concept of the ‘Third Way’ and ‘Industrial Family’ or Deendayal’s idea of ‘Integral Humanity’ uniting the individual with a concentric and widening circle of all life beings and, not to forget, the influential framework of ‘Indianization’ or cultural nationalism of Balraj Madhok that rejected the romantic notion of pure race but also warned Hindu society of misleading concept of the ‘composite culture’, propagated by enemies to dilute Hindu identity.
Samanvaya: Harmonizing Divergent Views
A recurrent theme in the book that Aravindan emphasizes as the meta-movement of Hindutva is the process of Samanvaya. He considers it as one of the most defining features of Hindutva – an ability to harmonize divergent views and integrate them in a holistic framework.
It rests on the spiritual pluralism or ‘theo-diveristy’ that allows multiple and often contradictory frameworks to flourish under organic unity. In fact, the process of debate and dialogue in Indian tradition plays such an important role that differences do not turn into disputes that could engender perpetual violence. This has saved Indian thought from degenerating into a blind dogma or unquestionable commandment closely associated with theocratic fundamentalism.
The author shares the outstanding history of the process of Samanvya, tracing its first seed in the Vedic literature where seemingly opposite ideas are subsumed under a complementary framework. The free-flowing discussion (over whether gods are having forms or without form, reality is relative or absolute, worshipping divine through intellect or devotion, knowledge is personal or impersonal or universe is eternal or bound by space and time) provided flexible yet coherent space for binaries to exist, with insights to harmonize and transcend them.
What comes out of this amazing churning is that divergences, however extreme, were seen as the essential parts of an organic whole. Aravindan narrates the following various important incidents from Indian history :
- When AdiShankaracharyaprevented his opponent Amarasimha to burn his own work and left for posterity the great thesaurus Amarakosha,
- The erudite emperor Shalivahana, well-versed in Sanskrit, initially thought of Paishachi work Brihadkatha as inferior, ended up admitting it as one of the classics in Indian literature, and
- Guru Tegh Bahadur’s initial campaign against seemingly degenerated forms of tantric tradition in Assam and his later writings on the tantric goddess Chandi.
However, it must be mentioned that the Samanvaya process worked very well only with those who believed in the ‘meta-framework’ of freedom, open exploration and plurality. Therefore, it marked a signal change when Abrahamic religions landed on the scene with their dogmatic assertions, blind beliefs and exclusive ideas; leaving no room for discussions and dialogues.
With scholarly command over a wide range of subjects, Aravindan has dealt with this complex and sensitive topic with much-needed finesse. An interaction of theo-diveristy with expansionist monocultures, over thousands of years, requires a broad canvas to unveil multiple layers and numerous characters for a larger understanding. Aravindan’s scholarly exposition on the process of Samanvaya with Abrahamic religions is the finest example of scholarship, rooted in the innate liberal ideas of India. One might not agree with whatever he is writing on this complex subject, but, what is worth learning and emulating is his multi-dimensional approach that we rarely find in our contemporary discourse.
It is worth reading this section for multiple themes that emerge at the encounter of Hindutva with exclusive dogmas.
Samanvaya with Judaism
Judaism, being non-proselytizing among three Abrahamic religions, also contains various mystical components that allow it to have constructive dialogues with Hinduism. Aravindan quotes Jewish scholar Alon Goshen-Gottsein on the mystical (and perhaps Vedantic) interpretation of ‘idolatry’ as the worship of ‘materialistic’ tendencies within us and not just an outer image of a deity. Owing to such innate plurality, Jews could become an integral part of Indian society without an iota of separatist tendencies.
Samanvaya with Islam
On the other hand, engagement with the supposedly mystical sect of Islam has often resulted in mixed success. Some genuine Sufis, under the influence of Hinduism, have produced works that brought them closer to the concept of ‘oneness’ and ‘non-duality’. However, they are outnumbered by fanatic and militant Sufis who always worked for hand in glove with Islamic rulers for the extermination of Hindus.
What is more tragic is that Islamist leaders never promoted genuine Sufis, in the long run, for the integration of Islam with Hinduism. Author-educationist Haroon Khalid ruefully writes:
“A few years ago, when I was working at an elite school in Lahore, one that has more than a hundred branches all over the country, I came across a poster in the corridor captioned “Muslim heroes”. The poster had photographs of Muhammad bin Qasim, Mahmud Ghazni and Ahmad Shah Abdali. Walking back, I wondered why our heroes cannot be people like Baba Farid, Waris Shah and Bulleh Shah, who spread the message of peace and brought several religious communities together instead of shedding blood.”
Only in DarahShukoh, that too after many centuries of arrival of Islam in India, one finds the urge to move beyond the dogmas of Islam and see the possibility of genuine interaction between Islam and Hinduism. Even this interaction was never accepted by Islamists and was condemned as heresy. Aravindan marks that ‘Dara Shukhoh represents an important civilizational peak for India’ and must be taken as a ‘model for approaching theo-diveristy for Abhrahamic religions’. He cites historian R C Mazumdar’s insights in this regard:
“Judged by ordinary standards Aurangzeb was a great success, and Dara a hopeless failure; but to those whose visions transcend the ordinary limitations imposed by worldly conventions, and catch a glimpse of ultimate reality, the position may be exactly the reverse.”
What is also important to understand is that Hindutva leaders always looked for an amicable solution and engaged with the Muslim community for dialogue. When the Ayodhya dispute was at its peak, the Sangh leaders demanded the restoration of three temples, related to the birthplace of Hindu deities with a view to harmoniously settle the dispute over thousands of temples that were looted, destroyed and converted into mosques. This reminds us of Shri Krishna, who also demanded, on behalf of Pandavas, the five villages from Kauravas to avoid any war. However, the leftist historians distorted the whole issue and played a big role in deepening this conflict.
At the other end of the spectrum of Hindutvaite leaders lies the historian and author Sita Ram Goel, who observed that national integration of Muslims in India is possible only when they shed the exclusive claim of reaching divine and overcome their dangerous division of humankind into believers and non-believers.
Samanvaya with Christianity
In the final section of his book, Aravindan discusses the multi-pronged approaches of Christianity to infiltrate, appropriate and digest Hinduism. The life and works of Jules Moanachin and Henri Le Sauxare extensively narrated as a case study of someone who took the garb of Hindu saints to delude and convert innocent Hindus. He appreciates and highlights the relentless efforts of historian Sita Ram Goel in exposing this theological deception of the Church through his works such as ‘History of Hindu-Christian Enounters’, ‘Jesus Christ : An Artifice for Aggression’ and ‘Catholic Ashrmas : Sannyasins or Swindlers’ among many others.
While exposing those who come with the hidden agenda of subversion alone, Aravindan also mentions genuine seekers such as Thoman Merton, Thomas Berry and Anthony de Mello who would like to explore and Indianize Christianity as per the ethos of dharmic plurality and oneness. He writes that such positive interactions should be encouraged for the better future of humanity:
“Both in Thomas Merton and Thomas Berry, one finds how the Hindu-Christian interaction without the agenda of proselytization and appropriation can creatively and spiritually benefit humanity”.
In all, the process of Samanvaya requires a deeper exploration of common and universal features of mankind along with a profound analysis of separatist forces that impedes and break the unity. It requires separating the wheat from chaff with healing hands. Aravindan does a great service to the Indic cause by narrating the historical, cultural, and spiritual process of Samanvaya that has shaped Hindu minds.
Aravindan’s Hindutva: Origin, Evolution and Future is a grand journey of core Hindu ideas as they have evolved, expanded and endured over thousands of years. It is a story of seers, thinkers and activists who have shaped the cultural and intellectual discourse in India. Hindutva, in this journey, comes out not as a monolithic identity seeking to crush dissent and diversity, but as a dynamic and organic process that rests on the solid foundations of spiritual pluralism (Shashtra), open exploration and constructive dialogues (Shashtrartha). This is a work of profound scholarship and deep sensitivity that removes various distortions around ‘the last pagan tradition’ of the world and therefore helps in its revival for benefit of humankind.
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