Two faces of the Hindu Monolith

Significance of the excluded

One of my teachers, late Pulin Garg, had a favourite question- ” In saying what you are saying, what are you not saying AND in not saying, what you are not saying, what are you actually saying ?” Besides being a nice tongue twister, the question is also a reminder  that in order to understand any phenomenon, it is important to take into account that which has been edited out.

Thus I was quite amused by the fact that Shashi Tharoor in his recent book “Why I am a Hindu”, makes no reference to Ambedkar’s ” Riddles in Hinduism” or even ” Annihilation of caste”. In fact, Ambedkar’s name figures only thrice in the book with no serious engagement with his views. One wonders, where does Ambedkar figure in the grand narrative of Hinduism ( religion for the 21st century etc.) offered by Mr. Tharoor. Presumably, Mr. Tharoor does not agree with Ambedkar’s position, but then why does he not refute it and explicitly state his disagreement. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Mr. Tharoor’s book is essentially a political statement and the best thing to do would be to stay clear of everything which could spoil the grand narrative which he wishes to lure us with, as also to sidestep anything which could be potentially controversial.

Political dilemma and the same Monolith 

Mr. Tharoor’s predicament is understandable. His party has FINALLY recognised that the secular card has lost much of its sheen and credibility, and hence carries very little traction with a large part of the electorate. On the other hand, its main political rival has achieved considerable success through consolidation of what is somewhat simplistically referred to as “Hindu vote”. Under the circumstances, the only viable choice that it is left with, is to offer its own version of Hinduism and convince the electorate that it is being hoodwinked by its rival in the name of Hinduism. The strategy is identical to what its political rival had done by coining the term “pseudo-secularism” . Mr. Tharoor is now trying to turn the tables by suggesting that what his political opponent is following is “pseudo- Hinduism ( though he does not use this term) and his party is the torch bearer of “real Hinduism”

Consequently, there is very little difference in his version of Hinduism and the one subscribed to by the Hindutva brigade. . They draw from the same scriptures ( Vedas, Upanashids, Gita, etc.) offer identical interpretations and extol the same virtues of tolerance, plurality, etc. Even in respect of social ills (like untouchability, superstition, oppression of the downtrodden, cruelty towards widows etc.) their perspectives are  identical i.e. these are distortions which have emerged (mostly in the last few centuries) and have very little to do with the intrinsic nature of Hinduism.

Thus beneath the veneer of modern sensibilities Mr. Tharoor offers as the same monolithic version of Hinduism as the Hindutva brigade – the same smug claims of being the only universal religion ( without of course seeking to proselytise) and the same subtle  “holier than thou” stance. Note for instance Mr. Tharoor’s assertion- ” India’s secular co-existence was paradoxically made possible by the fact that the overwhelming majority of   Indians are Hindu” Net net, Mr. Tharoor has no difference of opinion with his Hindutva counterparts as far as the understanding of Hinduism goes. All that he is saying is that ” They are fake, I am the authentic version”

Hinduness as a cultural construct

Both Mr. Tharoor and Hindutva brigade, also seem to agree that Hinduism ( or more appropriately Hindu-ness) is also a cultural construct- a perspective, a philosophy, a way of life, a set of values, a psycho-social predisposition about different facets of human existence. This notion of Hindu-ness is not restricted to any specific religious creed but transcends  religious affiliations. In this sense, the term Hindu becomes quite similar to the way Mohd. Iqbal used the term Hindi, in his famous verse ” Hindi hein, watan hai hindustan hamara” ( We are Hindis and our land is Hindustan)

It is therefore logical to infer that both for the Hundutva brigade, and the likes of Mr. Tharoor, Hindu-ness is not the monopoly of only those who belong to the so called Hindu religions. ( I use the plural because I do not believe that there is anything called Hindu religion. At best, we can talk of a wide set of belief systems, which can broadly be classified as Hindu) . To a large extent, both the virtues and ills of Hinduness, cut across the religious barriers and can be witnessed in most inhabitants of this land, including the followers of Abrahamic faiths. 

The two fallacies

There is thus an undeniable overlap between Hinduness and Indianness. Where Mr. Tharoor differs from his Hindutva counterparts, is in his response to this overlap. The Hindutva brigade treats Hinduness and Indianness as identical and refuses to acknowledge any difference between the two. From their point of view all Indians are Hindus who belong to different sects( or Panths) Thus Moslems become Mohammed Panthi Hindus, Christian become Issah Panthi Hindus, Sikhs become Nanak Panthi Hindus, and so on.

On the face of it, this approach seems quite inclusive, but what it conveniently overlooks is that religions are not just about theology, worship of God and religious rituals. They are also social arrangements and significant anchors of a person/community’s identity. This insistence to erode the distinction between Hinduness and Indianness only fuels paranoia and enhances the need to assert one’s separateness . What is worse, it leaves the community feeling vulnerable about unwanted intrusions into its ways of living e.g. dietary preferences and the like. The net result is that non-recognition of difference between Hinduness and Indianness, only heightens the difference between them.

On the other hand, people like Mr. Tharoor treat them as disjointed separate entities,  They believe that  Hinduness and Indianness should not be mixed with each other and each should be respected and valued in its own right. This sounds perfectly rational but the trouble is that humans are not just rational beings – they also have emotive needs. Devoid of Hinduness, the notion of Indianness is reduced to a mere geo-political convenience and carries no emotive force with it. 

This approach of dealing with the overlap, not merely leaves a huge  emotional vacuum for exploitation by various vested interests, it also puts people like Mr. Tharoor in a peculiar double bind, because they are unable to take any cogent stance in respect of our collective cultural heritage. Thus on one hand Mr. Tharoor wants epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata to be treated as non-religious texts which should be taught in our schools, but simultaneously castigates Doordarshan for telecasting them and contributing to the Hindutva agenda.

There is no way we can remain connected with our heritage without gracing our Hinduness, because a large part of our epics, mythology, cultural symbols, architecture,  art forms, etc. have a strong stamp of Hinduness. Similarly in order to infuse our notion of national identity, with emotive force, we are forced to fall back on Hinduness, because it lives within us ,irrespective of our religious affiliations,  and provides the invisible thread which connects this diverse and pluralistic society. 

While the Hindutva brigade commits the error of not differentiating between Hinduness and Indianness, people like Mr. Tharoor err by disassociating them. Neither approach helps us in pursuing our cherished goal of “Unity in Diversity” In the first scenario, diversity is sacrificed and all that we are left with is a hegemony in the name of unity. In the second scenario, the invisible thread of Hinduness, which holds us together, is forgotten and all that we are left with is a soulless, incoherent melee in the name of diversity.

Unresolved Feelings about Hinduness

It is indeed not easy to acknowledge the overlap between two constructs without confusing them with each other.  What makes it even more difficult for us is the strong religious associations with the term Hindu and the host of unresolved feelings around our Hinduness.  For a variety of reasons, the followers of Hindu religions have carried a strong sense of stigma, shame and feelings of victimisation. These are either discharged through hyper aggressive reactivity or compensated through a self-image of hyper graciousness( we are tolerant, inclusive welcoming, non-violent etc.) The Hidutvawadis try and exploit the sense of victimhood and injury, whereas the likes of Mr. Tharoor appeal to the innate graciousness of the Hindu identity. The  ill effects of  stoking the victimhood are well known but ironically the appeals to graciousness are not likely to work either. This is so because graciousness and victimhood become two sides of the same coin- “We have suffered because we are too gracious” kind of syndrome.  Hence the more we exaggerate the gracious side of Hinduness, the more we will fuel the sense of victimhood, and the greater will be the counter reaction in terms of crude aggressive “show of strength”  

The followers of non- Hindu religions have their own set of difficulties . Often,the fear of being swallowed and losing their identity, makes it difficult for them to embrace their innate Hinduness.  Also, they have a clearer and tighter religious organisations, which do not always sit well with the “open-ended and fluid” notions of religiosity associated with Hinduness. This creates a conflict of loyalties for them. Their innate Hinduness pulls them towards an open ended approach, but it also leaves residual discomfort/guilt about betraying their religious doctrines. Additionally, there is sometimes a sense of superiority about the foreign ( and hence more advanced/progressive) origins of their religion and a wish to differentiate themselves from the heathen Hindu.

Another difficulty stems from the fear that any emphasis on either Hinduness or Indianness, will make us parochial and closed. This is particularly prevalent among a section of English educated urban elite, who see themselves primarily as “global citizens”. Their belief is that all social/cultural codings ( like race, gender, ethnicity etc.) create prejudice and stereotypes, and consequently prevent us from acknowledging the innate humanness which cuts across these differences.

I have a great degree of resonance with this perspective, but I also find it limiting. Human beings are not just autonomous entities but also relational beings. A large part of our identity ( a sense of who we are) stems from our belonging system (family, community, culture etc.) .Thus codings received from these systems have a significant impact on how we think, feel and act. When this impact is not acknowledged and graced, it either operates in a surreptitious manner or makes us rootless and alienated ,not just from our context but also from ourselves. It is true that often these codings become a burden and prevent us from thinking freely, but it is equally true that they are an integral part of ourselves. The more we fight them and deny them, the more virulent they become. It is only through acknowledging them, understanding them and gracing them, that we can go beyond them and release ourselves from their captivity.

To sum up, we can not escape the reality that beyond our differences of class, creed, religion, ethnicity etc. there is a shared invisible  cultural thread which holds this diverse society together. We also share a heritage which is largely ( though by no means completely) associated with the term Hindu. In this sense Hinduness  can be seen as an integral part of us. We may like it or hate it, but we cannot wish it away. This Hinduness deeply impacts the way we see ourselves as a nation. We can neither equate Hinduness with Indianness, nor can we disassociate them with each other. We simply have to learn ( both individually and collectively) to walk the tight rope of ” differentiation without disassociation ” However, this will only be possible if we first learn as to what does Hinduness really mean, and deal with our own unresolved feelings around it.  The more we get caught in the” victim-gracious ” binary , the more difficult our task will become.




3 thoughts on “Two faces of the Hindu Monolith

  1. I liked the two faces of the monolith and then the reference to the omission of Ambedkar – for he clearly challenged the monolithic picture of Hindusim, drawing attention to and not very graciously and nor from a victimized mindset – to the violence of the monolith. The overlap that you refer to seems ephemeral as it evokes / provokes personal identity configurations and thus becomes difficult to sustain through any dialogue. Nice provocative piece Ashok

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  2. Not just Shashi, i am yet to find a review/ response to Ambedkars essays ” Who is the Shudra” and “Untouchables”. In the context of what is happening in TN, i wrote and spoke to many about what holds TN to India, i can clearly see the BJPs version. But couldnt understand the liberals views, most of them are not sure. Intelligensia in TN is peculiar in a sense they glorify the same values of BJP packaged in Tamil, but refuse and abject the hinduisation. It is not just the fear of non hindus, its also the fear of Tamils as well, though in essence what BJP says as culture is no different from the TN nationalist. The attempt is made to disassociate Tamil religion from the overall hindu religion as well. Am sure this is what is happening in lingayat issue as well…so the real hinduism which is regional, dialectic, in some way responding the westernised hinduism of the BJP and RSS.

    And some way ambedkar responded to this as well….when he says Shudra is apart of kshatriya varna, belonging to Surya Vamsa, who opposed the ritualist…

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    1. Completely agree with you. The hegemony of monolithic Hinduism is as much of a threat to several other communities, which would normally be considered as part of the Hindu umbrella. lingayat issue being a classical example of it. That is one of the reasons I dislike the term Hinduism. Ironically, Hinduism has become the biggest block to Hindness, or Hindiness or Hinduness, whatever term you fancy, to describe the invisible thread which holds us together.


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