Hindu Fundamentalism



Let me begin with some observations that should give any
reasonable person pause. In 1998 Hindu
fundamentalists proposed that a new Goddess temple be built at Pokharan, 50
km from the site of the atomic bomb tests that were conducted in April of
that year.  According to their program this would be the 53rd
example of Shaktipeeths (seats of strength, literally Goddess power) of
Hindu preeminence.  (Another power center is the new temple to Rama in
Ayodhya, being built on the site of the Babri mosque, destroyed by a Hindu
mob in December 1992.)  Some suggested that radioactive sand from the test
site should be distributed as prasad, the Hindu sacrament, but cooler
heads vetoed that idea. Some Hindu fundamentalists also believe that ancient
Indians actually possessed atomic weapons, which they call

The Indian military helps to fuel this religious enthusiasm
by having named its long range missile after the Vedic god of fire Agni. 
(The Pakistanis countered by appropriating the power of the Hindu Goddess by
naming their missile Ghauri, a name for the Goddess in Southern India.)  The
followers of Shri Shena, a fundamentalist
organization in Mumbai, proudly proclaim that, after the bomb tests, Hindus
were no longer eunuchs and now could stand up to the world as real men.
At the 1999 Durga festival in Calcutta celebrants found new figures in the
traditional tableau of the Goddess Durga and her attendants.  They saw life
size figures of brave Indian soldiers who won a victory in the mountains of
Kashmir because of Durga
divine grace.  Hundreds of years ago Hindu kings went into battle only after
receiving Durga
blessing by sacrificing dozens of water buffalo to her.

Another chilling experience
is to read about the recovery of an original Hindu Empire, extending West
into Afghanistan and Central Asia encompassing all Buddhist sites; extending
North to recover the Tibet, the original land of the Aryans according to
Dayananda Saraswati, extending Northwest to Cambodia to recover the Hindu
Khmer kingdoms of Angkor Wat and North Vietnam, where Shiva lingas have been
found; and extending Southeast to Java, where a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom once
flourished, and Bali where three million Hinuds still live.  This reminds me
of Zionist maps of Greater Israel or plans by some Calvinists for a new
Confederate States of America where God-fearing Anglo-Celtic top males will
rule their households and their nation of fifteen states.

The origins of Hindu
religious nationalism are quite recent considering the long history of
advanced cultures in the Indian Sub-Continent.  V. D. Savakar
Hindutva (literally

was published in 1923, but the ideas of this book go back to the beginning of
the 19th Century.  The supreme irony about Hindu fundamentalism is
that its first writers were profoundly influenced by European Orientalism and
its archeological and linguistic discoveries.  The same Orientalism that gave
Europeans the excuse to view Asians as effeminate and impotent, thereby
lacking the capacities for self rule, was used by Indian writers to create a
view of India as a unified nation that gave birth to not only to the European
languages but also to its first civilized peoples and the world
greatest religion.  The idea of
India as the cradle of civilization and
spirituality is, amazingly enough, found in Voltaire, Herder, Kant, Schegel,
Shelling, Hegel, and Schopenhauer.  Some scholars argue that the Indian
philosophy that we now know as neo-Vedanta found in Aurobindo, Vivikeananda,
and Gandhi, is just as much German idealism and Indian philosophy.

Hindu fundamentalists were
flattered by Aldous Huxley
idea of the Perennial Philosophy and its mystic monism, originally found in
the Upanishads and only later, according to their views, spread to other
cultures.  Thesophists such as Annie Besant turned Orientalism on its European
creators, claiming that what they perceived as weaknesses– namely, nondualism,
nonviolence, renunciation, meditation, and tolerance
precisely what was needed for the salvation of Western societies. 
the 1870s there was a concerted effort on the part of English theosophists to
merge with the Indian Arya Samaj (Society of Aryans) as part of Annie Besant=s
vision of a World Federation of Aryans.  Ironically, in another move of
reverse Orientalism, members of Arya Samaj vetoed this idea because they
insisted that Indians were the only true Aryans!
Interestingly enough, both
Indians and Europeans agreed on at least one proposition: Hindu civilization
was indeed corrupt and suffering a long decline, but Hindu fundamentalists
believed that the solution to that problem was not Christian capitialism;
rather, it was the recovery of a glorious Hindu past that Europeans had
conveniently rediscovered for them.

Even before Arya Samaj there
was the Brahmo Samaj (Society of Brahma, the Hindu Creator God) founded in
Calcutta in 1828 by Rammohan Roy, who, although still preserving the idea of
Vedic authority, developed a fully modernist, that is rationalist and
humanist, approach to Indian identity and nationhood.  Debendranath Tagore,
father of the more famous Rabindranath Tagore, broke with Roy over the issue
of Vedic authority, and another nationalist Keshab Chandra Sen proposed that
Hinduism ought to be Christianized.  The result of these developments within
the Bengal Renaissance was a growing view of Hindu supremacy and exclusivity. 
One of the most dramatic examples of these views came from Bajnarain Basu, who
waxed eloquent as follows:

The noble and puissant Hindu
nation rousing herself after sleep, and rushing headlong towards progress with
divine prowess.  I see this rejuvenated nation again illuminating the world by
her knowledge, spirituality and culture, and the glory of the Hindu nation
agin spreading over the whole world.

Rajnarain was insistent that
the Hindu Motherland could have no place for Muslims because their religion
was alien to India.  India
religion should be a cultural Hinduism based on the Upanishads but allowing
for the mediation of the one true God by means of the traditional idols.  The
Brahmo Samaj proposed gradual but sure reform on the elements that had
tarnished the image of Hinduism word wide: caste problems, widow remarriage,
untouchability, and child marriage.

Arya Samaj was founded by Dayananda
Saraswati in 1875 in Bombay, now renamed
Mumbai because of Hindutva.
  (Madras is now called Chennai and Hindu
nationalists want to change all English street names to Hindi and do not want
their children to attend English medium schools.) Dayananda=s
philosophy is sometimes called neo-Hinduism or Semitized Hinduism, what I
would call an Abrahamic Hinduism. Dayananda claimed that the Aryans originated
in Tibet, an hypothesis that the Nazis tested by sending Ernst Schaefer and
Bruno Beger on two expeditions there in the 1930s.  (The Nazis were also
captivated by an alternative bizarre idea that the Arctic was the home of
Aryans, an idea promoted by Hindu nationalist B. G. Tilak.) While in Tibet the
Aryans, according to Dayananda, purged themselves of inferior people
(identified as the dasyus in the Rigveda) and then spread to the
rest of the world.  In India they established the Hindu Golden Age described
in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.  This great age came to an
end with the Bharata War, the beginning of which is dramatically described in
the Bhagavad-gita and the result, according to the text, was over a
million deaths. Hindu civilization then descended into a long decline that was
exacerbated by the pacificism and nihilism of Buddhism and Jainism, which were
seen as failed off shoots of Hinduism and not separate religions from
Hinduism.  During the Second Millennium CE a weakened Hindusim was easy prey
for first the Mughal invaders and second British imperialism.

Dayananda saw the Aryans as paragons of virtue and the world=s
first monotheists.  Even though he uses the Hindu epics as proof of the Golden
Age, he argued that only the Vedas and the Upanishads have religious
authority.  (Oddly enough, the members of the Ayra Samaj retained the Vedic
fire ritual for their services.) He rejected the authority of the priests to
interpret scripture and set himself up, in a way very similar to some
preachers in the Abrahamic religion, as the only one that could interpret the
Vedas correctly.  He saw the Vedas and Upanishads as the literal Word of God
and as the infallible text of the one true Hindu church, a concept alien to
the Indian religious tradition, but one again very similar to the Abrahmanic
religions. Setting the stage for 20th Century Hindutva, Dayananda
lauched systematic attacks on traditional Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs,
Christians, and Buddhists.

On the plus side Dayananda believed that the subjugation of
women came with the decline of Hinduism and declared that this was a social
ill that needed corrected.  He also spoke out against the thousand plus
subcastes (jati) that divide Indians according to specific vocations
and prevent lateral movement in Indian society.  With regard to the four main
castes Dayananda thought that it was a mistake to think of them as hereditary,
a position that was an advance over Gandhi, who, while rejecting the
oppression of the Dalits, still maintained the hereditary nature of the four
main castes.

After Dayananda=s
death there was a campaign to reconvert Dalits whose families had gone over to
Christianity and syncretistic Muslims who, because they so fully participated
in Hindu celebrations, ought, according to Arya Samaj, to return to the fold
of the true faith.  This campaign of reconversion is still at the forefront of
Hindu fundamentalist efforts today, especially among the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

A key figure in the transition from the Brahmo Samaj and the
Arya Samaj is Chandranath Basu who is the author that coined the term Hindutva
(Hinduness) and he turned Hindu nationalism in a decidedly conservative and
reactionary direction.  In 1892 he published HindutvaBAn
Authentic History of the Hindus
in which he defended traditional views
Hindu ritual, caste, restriction of women=s
education and civil rights, and the maintenance of male authority. Chandranath
was firmly committed to demonstrating the superiority of Hinduism over
Christianity, especially after the wide spread concern that conversions to
Christianity were increasing in the latter half of the century.

In the novels and commentaries of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya
we see again the profound influence that European philosophy had on the rise
of Indian nationalism.  Particularly important was the work of Immanuel Kant,
Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, and Auguste Comte.  Interestingly enough,
Bankim early support for women=s
equality, presumably under Mill=s
influence, disappeared in his later works, which also contain stronger claims
to Hindu supremacy and more stringent anti-Muslim comments.  He criticized
Mill and Comte for their atheism and substituted Krishna=s
religion of love as the key to human spiritual cultivation and progress. 
Nineteenth Century Indian nationalists were fully caught up in the idea of
evolution and Bankim proposed that Hinduism was the perfect candidate for
Comte=s idea of
Apositive religion,@
the final stage of human perfection.   Huxley=s
Perennial Philosophy finds a new Indo-European home, but it has a new
humanistic twist.  Bankim rejects both the abstract monotheism he finds in
Abrahamic religions and the impersonal monism of his own Brahmo Samaj in favor
of the divine incarnation of Krishna as a human being.

At the turn of the century one of the most important Indian
nationalist figure is B. G. Tilak, whose importance and standing in the
Congress Party was second only to Gandhi.  For purposes of our study of Hindu
fundamentalism, Tilak was instrumental in inventing a powerful new form of
devotionalism centered on the elephant god Ganesha.  Tilak=s
strategy was calculated and very effective: the new Ganesha festival (first
celebrated in 1893) would compete with the Muslim festival of Muharram, which
Hindus had always attended.  Hindu nationalists in the state of Maharastra
were successful in creating a new division between Muslims and Hindus that
would intensify decade by decade into the new century.  The Ganesha festival
in Bombay is now so huge that it is common to see pictures and stories of it
in the international press.

Tilak also resurrected King Shivaji, who, by the grace of his
patron goddess Bhawani, was by far the most successful Hindu warrior king
against the Mughal Empire during the 17th Century.  Hindu
fundamentalists admire Shivaji=s
courage and excuse his ruthlessness against the Muslims he defeated.  Tilak
also instigated celebrations honoring Shivaji but many of them in the 1890s
turned violent, the beginnings of the communal conflict that was to increase
in the next century but was an uncommon occurrence in earlier times. Tilak
used the Bhagavad-gita to justify Shivaji=s
campaigns against the Mughals but also the violence that may be necessary to
keep the Muslims of his day in line. Shivaji has become a hero and a model for
a militant leader who will bring back the glory of all things Hindu.  It is
significant, however, in terms of the historical Shivaji that while Muslims
repeatedly declared jihad against him, Shivaji principal motivations were
Maratha nationalism rather than a broader Hindu nationalism based on the
concept of the Indian Sub-Continent as one nation and the idea of Hinduism as
a universal religion.  Tilak also ignored the fact that Shivaji not only had
Muslim allies but employed Muslims in his army and administration,
demonstrating that his concept of a Martha nation included non-Hindus as well.
Nonetheless, the revival and revision of Shivaji=s
reign resulted in a number of Shivaji societies that believed that violence
against British rule was a religious duty.

Tilak was also involved in
researching and writing about the origins of Hinduism and the Hindu nation.  I
have already mentioned his wacky thesis, defended in a book entitled The
Arctic Home of the Vedas
, that Aryan culture actually goes all the way
back to the last Ice Age.  Drawing on astronomical allusions in the Vedas,
Tilak takes Vedic history back 8,000 years and argues that the Vedic gods were
polar deities worshiped by arctic Aryans.  From all of his research he drew
the same conclusion that many other 19th Century Indian
nationalists did, and I will conclude with this illustrative but problematic

During Vedic times, India was a
self-contained country.  It was united as great nation.  That unity has
disappeared bringing great degradation and it becomes the duty of the leaders to
revive that union.  A Hindu of this place [Varanasi] is as much a Hindu as one
from Madras or Bombay.  The study of the Gita, Ramayana, and Mahabharata produce
the same ideas throughout the country.  Are not these. . . our common heritage? 
If we lay stress on forgetting all the minor differences that exist between the
different sects, then by the grace of Providence we shall ere long be able to
consolidate all the different sects into a mighty Hindu nation.  This ought to
be the ambition of every Hindu.

The sects of which Tilak speaks
the Sikhs, the Jains, and the Buddhists.  Not at all included, unless they
pledge allegiance to Hindutva (conversion itself is not mandatory), are India
40 million Christians and 120 million Muslims.

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