12.1. A concession to convention
As part of their entrenched power position, the British colonisers and later their Nehruvian successors have always tried to control the discourse on religion. Among other concerns, they have seen to it that the term “Hindu” got divorced from its historical meaning, which quite inclusively encompassed all Indian Pagans, in order to fragment Hindu society. In parallel with their effort to pit caste against caste, they have tried to pit sect against sect, offering nurture to the egos of sect leaders by telling them that in fact they were popes in their own right of full-fledged religions, equal in status but morally superior to Hinduism. Hindu Revivalists have countered this effort by reaffirming the basic Hindu character of tribal Animism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism and more recent reformist sects. In some cases, the separation of sects from the Hindu commonwealth was entirely contrived and artificial, in others it had a partial doctrinal justification, though even there the proper distinction was never between them and “Hinduism” as historically conceived, but between them and the Vedic-Puranic “Great Tradition” of Hinduism.
The reader may have noticed that throughout this book, I have kept on using expressions like “Buddhists and Hindus” or “Sikhs and Hindus”, expressions which some Hindu Revivalists reject in favour of “Buddhist and other Hindus” or “Sikh and non-Sikh Hindus”. I have done this in deference to established usage, but also because there really is an anti-Hindu element in these semi-Hindu religions, whether ab initio (esp. in the case of neo-Buddhism) or as a consequence of relatively recent innovations. It is of little practical use to call Buddhists Hindus when these same Buddhists are attacking Hinduism and defining Buddhism as the saviour in shining armour for the poor Indians gnashing their teeth under the mentally and socially oppressive weight of Hinduism. Or more briefly, it is not polite to address people by a name they reject.
It also goes against common sense to include in the Hindu category those who insist that they don’t belong there and don’t want to belong there. We tend to behave as if implicitly assuming the (unhistorical) definition: “Is Hindu, he who calls himself Hindu”. In some cases, analysis may show that this insistence on being labeled non-Hindu is based on misconceptions, such as the identification of Hinduism with the caste system, with theism, or with belief in reincarnation. Nonetheless, the term “Hindu” is an item of language, i.e. a conventional system of signifiers, and can therefore not be used in total disregard of what meaning the language community gives to it. So, if people declare that they are not Hindus, for whichever reason right or wrong, it is at least impractical and possibly unjustified to impose that label on them.
Along with most Hindus, who are easy-going people not given to fussing over words, I don’t think the gain of using theoretically defensible expressions like “Sikhs and other Hindus” outweighs the communal friction it may generate. Anti-Hindu separatism is at any rate not going to be cured by a mere choice of terminology. To be sure, it is possible that separatists get persuaded at some point to change their minds about the Hindu character of their own sect or tradition. But that will require better arguments or deeper experiences than mere verbal expressions like “Buddha the Hindu”.
12.2. An uncompromising application of definitions
While something can be said in favour of going with the flow and acquiescing in the prevalent usage, the inclusive usage adopted by activist Hindus also has its merits, though in different degrees for the different communities considered, and also depending on which of the more inclusive definitions we adopt. First of all, if we assume the historical definition of Hinduism as “all Indian Paganism”, we find that it does include (Indian) Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, tribals, and modem Hindu reform movements including such starry-eyed all-inclusivisms as “Ramakrishnaism”. In that respect, the Hindu Revivalist inclusive usage is 100% correct, and those who denounce it are 100% wrong.
In accepting the historical definition, Hindus would also avoid the trap unintentionally present in Savarkar’s definition of the Hindu as “one to whom India is both Fatherland and Holyland”. By the latter definition, communities who expressly identify with only a part of India, rejecting the rest, such as neo-Sikhs advertising their separatism in secular terms as “Panjabi nationalism”, or tribals proclaiming themselves “Jharkhandi nationalists” or “Mizo patriots”, would thereby fall outside the Hindu fold. Regardless of whether we share Savarkar’s political views, and regardless even of whether we consider Sikhs or Mizo and Jharkhandi tribals as Hindus, everyone can see that this would be a bad definition because it also excludes people who are Hindus by any account and who also call themselves Hindus.
Thus, Nepal has a strong tradition of Nepali particularism, with orthodox Brahmins performing yajnas to prevent India from becoming too powerful and swallowing Nepal. It is perfectly possible to be a Hindu and yet not be a partisan of a state which unites all Hindus. One can espouse a Hindu cosmology, observe Hindu ethics, perform Hindu rituals, and yet not care for the land of India nor for its political unity. This is admittedly rare, and in practice Savarkar’s definition does approximately cover all Hindus, but its inaccuracy in some contentious corners of the South-Asian land mass or of Hindu society is consequential. The idea of defining Hinduism in geographical terms is not without a basis in reality, and is even better understandable in the context of the struggle which Savarkar’s generation waged against British imperialism and Muslim separatism. But it is inevitably imperfect, and is becoming obsolete now that more and more Hindus live outside South Asia and strike roots (or, as converts, even originate) in distant continents.
Leaving aside the historical and the Savarkarite definition, even narrower or “credal” definitions (e.g. observance of endogamy, belief in reincarnation, acceptance of the Vedas) generally imply that the communities under discussion fall within the ambit of Hinduism, in some or in all respects. They do share common origins, or common social practices, or common doctrines, or common rituals, with a thus defined Hinduism. These common elements set them collectively apart, along with Hinduism, from the Abrahamic family of religions.
To be sure, under narrower definitions, the Indic traditions will fall inside or outside the domain of the definition to different extents. While Buddhism has been a distinctive tradition since the beginning, Sikhism’s separateness is much younger and more superficial. In its prehistory, it shares a much longer common itinerary with the Hindu mainstream. If we take reverence for the Vedas as a criterion, Sikhism is unambiguously Hindus, Buddhism only in an indirect sense (viz. that crucial ideas of the Buddha are traceable to Vedic literature), while some tribals may never even have heard of the Vedas, even if their beliefs (e.g. polytheism or pantheism) happen to be similar to mainstream Hinduism.
So, we cannot give a simple answer to the question whether Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Animists and Ramakrishnaites are Hindus. In a way they are, in a way they are not; the question is as complex as the choice of a definition of “Hindu”. If we agree to leave the safe ground of the historical definition, which classifies all the groups under discussion as Hindus regardless of what they themselves may say, we cannot escape facing cases where one or more of these communities do fall outside the definition, and are then entitled to be called non-Hindu. If belief in the Vedas is the criterion, Jains will be non-Hindus; or if the prohibition on cow-slaughter is, many tribals will be.
The objection to this is that the term “Hindu” was not conceived as a synonym of “Vedic”,-if that meaning had been intended, the term “Vedic” itself was already available. Being derived from the name of the South-Asian land mass, the term “Hindu” simply happens to connote India and all religions native to India.
Amore practical way of dealing with the question whether given sects are Hindu or not, is to study the specific claims made by the “separatist” ideologues of the communities concerned. When we do so, we find that Hindu Revivalist critique has pin-pricked (though not yet exhaustively) some of the cheap modem apologetics by which community leaders want to affirm the uniqueness and superiority of their own tradition as compared to Hinduism. This is especially true of the number one selling argument of all non-Hindu or would-be non-Hindu religions in India: that they, unlike Hinduism, are egalitarian.
Most importantly, there is not one pre-20th century sect or religion or community in India which is egalitarian or caste-free. The only seeming exception would be Virashaivism, a sect started by Basava, a Brahmin Prime Minister of a princely state in Karnataka (ca. AD 1200), hence hardly a “revolt” but rather a “royal experiment”. Even at the height of his egalitarian innovation, Basava never called himself a “non-Hindu”. He did promote intermarriage for one or two generations, i.e. a caste equality which was more than just spiritual. This may be sufficient to serve as a selling proposition in the modem religion market, at least among people who go by historical anecdote rather than living social practice. For, very soon, his sect simply became one more high and proud Hindu caste, which it has remained till today. Its egalitarianism lasted but a brief moment.
The actual history of Virashaivism illustrates how in the context of premodern Indian religion, the programme of equality has inevitably been confined to the spiritual sphere or else remained a mirage. The same is true for all the other traditions and sects now advertised as egalitarian, except that they mostly never even began to upset existing caste practice, not even for that brief moment.
To be sure, some traditions have preached and even practised equality at the spiritual level, rating spiritual practitioners purely on spiritual merit and proclaiming the accessibility of Liberation to all regardless of social or ethnic provenance; but have never endeavoured to actually destroy the caste system in lay society. But this purely theoretical equality was professed as much by fully Hindu sects in the Bhakti movement as by any would-be non-Hindu sect.
Egalitarianism as a sociopolitical ideal is a modem standard which pre-modern traditions can only claim as their own original endowment at the expense of their regard for truth. If inequality must be outgrown, then Hindus, semi-Hindus and non-Hindus will have to outgrow it together.
12.4. Honour by association
If a man is poor and without social position, or if he is the target of accusations and the object of contempt, he finds himself quite alone. If he was in a better condition before but has lost his luck, he sees his friends desert him, except for a hard core of friend in need, friends indeed. Even his relatives avoid and disown him. And if later on his name is cleared and his good fortune returns, the fairweather friends will again come flocking to his company.
It takes little more than this very elementary psychology to understand anti-Hindu separatism among the offshoots of Hinduism. Nobody wants to get associated with a religion which is hated and held in contempt. Conversely, when a religious tradition or doctrine gains prestige, numerous people and groups will surprise you with their discovery of how they had essentially been espousing it all along. We can safely predict that the day when Hinduism is held in high esteem again, the Ramakrishnaites will echo Swami Vivekananda’s call to “say with pride: we are Hindus”. On that day, Sikhs too will quote the Gurus’ pledges of loyalty to Hindu Dharma.
At this point I believe it is appropriate even for an outside observer to become a little judgmental. After all, it takes a very contrived neutrality not to be struck by the obvious lack of honour of those who sail with the winds of dominant opinion like that.
When Ranjit Singh was establishing a Hindu empire in the Northwest, no Sikh thought of disowning his Hindu religion. When the anti-imperialist struggle was revaluating the national religion as a rallying-point and a source of national pride, no follower of Swami Vivekananda would have called himself anything except Hindu. But when the British disparaged Hinduism, anti-Hindu separatism gained ground among the collaborating communities. And when Nehruvian secularism embarked on its long-term project of making India un-Hindu, the spineless ones in Vivekananda’s order betrayed their founder’s injunction of pride in Hinduism. This is called abject surrender.
There may be situations where surrender is the lesser evil. Thus, we should not judge those Hindus too harshly who saved their skins by succumbing to brutal Islamic pressure to convert. But in the past two centuries, when the oppressors were mere liberal Britons and smug Nehruvians, remaining loyal to Hinduism didn’t take that much bravery. The man who sees his friends abandon him when he is out of luck, though all they risk by keeping his company is a bit of a bad name by association, has the right to take a skeptical view of not just their friendship, but of their character as well. Even his enemy, who sees the so-called friends cross over to his own side, will not have a high opinion of them. If the Sikhs and Ramakrishnaites want to save their honour, they had better declare themselves Hindu before the anti-Hindu atmosphere fades away.
The point is valid even for those who have slightly more reason to profess their non-Hindu identity, such as Buddhists, Jains or the historically most isolated ones among the Animists. Even where they do have a case, it remains in most instances all too obvious that they profess a non-Hindu identity because this is profitable rather than because it is truthful. It simply doesn’t feel good to be associated with the leper among world religions.
We can argue this matter out at great length, but the actual behaviour of the people concerned, their public assertion of a Hindu or non-Hindu identity, is rarely going to depend on arguments, be they doctrinal or historical. Instead, their choice will depend on considerations of prestige and, in really pitiable cases, on purely material calculations pertaining to state funding and sect-based job reservations. Trying to set this debate on a better conceptual footing has been an interesting academic exercise, but we should not expect too many tangible results from it. It is the power equation and the distribution of prestige which will decide the matter.
12.5. What Hindus can do
To a restless Westerner like myself, one of the traits in the Hindu character that seems less commendable is the lack of activism. In my experience, Hindus are always elated when they hear that a problem is going to be solved all by itself. In discussions of the Islam problem, I have heard so many Hindus predict that “the West will take care of it”, or “the true tolerant Islam is going to defeat the fanatics”, or some other scenario in which at any rate the Hindus themselves won’t have to do anything.
Then again, perhaps they do act to influence matters in their favour, but in an indirect manner. Perhaps their fire ceremonies somehow set in motion an unseen mechanic of destiny (exactly as intended by the officiants) which subtly directs the course of events in their favour. Well, I don’t know what it is, but somehow Hindu non-activism seems to bear fruit.
Two world wars passed India by, allowing India to profit economically and politically, and weakening her colonial oppressor to the extent that he washed his hands off her and quit. The secession of Pakistan could not be prevented (and again Hindus didn’t try very hard), but the real Pakistan was much smaller and weaker than the one planned by its founder M.A. Jinnah. Moreover, the Partition turned out to be a blessing in disguise, dividing and demoralizing the Muslim community, giving Hindus a breather in remainder-India. The Chinese invaded and were in a position to occupy the whole Northeast, but somehow they decided to withdraw. Without Hindu intervention, the Bengalis rose up and partitioned Pakistan in 1971 (with just a little help from India in the final stage). Just recently, in the autumn of 2001, a Western intervention in Afghanistan greatly weakened Pakistan and clipped its potential for fomenting terrorism.
Given the clumsy performance of Indian governments and the Hindutva leadership, it is a miracle that there are any Hindus left at all. But somehow, without doing much, the Hindus or their Gods seem to get things done.
In this case too, Hindus don’t have to do very much. Preaching to the minorities of how Hindu they really are, will work only with the already-convinced, and may even be counterproductive. Instead, at the practical level, Hindus may explore the common ground with these borderline-Hindu communities, these “prodigal daughters”, simply by doing things together. No matter if neo-Buddhists disown Hinduism but sit down to practise the Buddha’s spiritual discipline; let Hindus sit down beside them and also practise what the Buddha taught. No matter if Sikhs refuse to visit non-Sikh Vaishnava shrines, Hindus will continue to visit Sikh Vaishnava shrines, and likewise to offer worship at the Mahabodhi temple, etc. Let the others call these places non-Hindu all they want; Hindus may claim them as their own simply by paying respect to them. Daughters may try to break away from their mother, but a mother cannot disown her daughters.