Abrahamic Hindutva: The religious fundamentalism that is a threat to India's tolerant and pluralist civilisational order
I have used the term 'Abrahamic Hindutva' to argue that this civilisational order is under threat from the current generation of the people who long ago evolved these pluralistic concepts, authoured the Vedas and Smritis, and discovered Yoga and Ayurveda.
Other than India, there is absolutely no country in the world that can claim copyright on the concepts of pluralism, coexistence and toleration. These, originally Indian ideas, informed the civilisational order that prevailed through the course of the known Indian history. However, in a recent article I have used the term "Abrahamic Hindutva" to argue that this civilisational order is under threat from the current generation of the people who long ago evolved these pluralistic concepts, authoured the Vedas and Smritis, and discovered Yoga and Ayurveda.
The argument is not what the Vedas taught when they were created, but what set of ideas prevail currently in the minds of the people who describe themselves wrongly as Hindus. To understand this phenomenon, I described Abrahamic Hindutva as "Hinduism influenced by Islam" and as a concept underpinned by "Hindu theology." I also noted that Abrahamic Hindutva denotes "a growing inability of Hindu youths to comprehend their Hindu identity as sufficient in itself – without a reference to Islam and Christianity." Some writers have used the word "semitisation" to denote the impact of Islam and Christianity on the way of life of India. Ram Madhav, the Bharatiya Janata Party leader, has called it "semitisation of Indian cultural behaviour." In the case of Islam, it was seen that politics to capture power transformed into theology, dividing Muslims into Shias and Sunnis. In the case of Hinduism, culture is transforming into Hindu theology.
Some people frown at the mention of "Hindu theology", but the ideas currently prevailing in the minds of the cow vigilantes are of theological nature – even if not deriving from Hindu scriptures – and are identical to Islam's blasphemy law. Muslims believe they must kill you if you insult Prophet Muhammad. Hindus similarly believe that they should kill you if you harm the cow. The theological views associated with Prophet Muhammad and the cow are identical and murderous. In Pakistan, you can be legally punished with death for blasphemy. In India, Hindu youths out to defend Hinduism are willing to kill you for transporting cows. Much like jihadis' argument that each Muslim must take up arms because there is no Caliphate to authorise jihad, Hindu youths too think that India is no Hindu rashtra and therefore a Hindu should take law in their own hands. But the accepted principle worldwide is this: nobody can take law in their own hands without the authority from the sovereign, which being the king or the Indian State in modern times.
Abraham was the common prophet for the Jews, Christians and Muslims. He is known for birthing religions in the Middle East which gave the concept of monotheism. In a recent article in The Spectator of London discussing the co-existence of incompatible religions Shinto and Buddhism in Japan, Gary Dexter spoke of "Abrahamic monotheism" in counter-pluralistic terms: "There would seem to be little hope that we can reshape Abrahamic monotheism to acknowledge that contradictory faiths are equally true and, crucially, equally worth practising." In this sense, Abrahamic Hindutva is contradictory to pluralism and co-existence, and denotes the impact of the monotheistic religions, especially Christianity and Islam, on Hindus.
Since Islam has ruled parts of India for up to 1,400 years, it has impacted our ways of living. For example, the concept of divorce among Hindus came originally from Islam and even now India's predominantly Hindu ethos disapprove of divorce. Muslim women going to the Supreme Court against the practice of Triple Talaq are primarily aggrieved by the idea of divorce itself, which is unacceptable in the predominantly Hindu society in which they live. The Islamic rule in India goes back to the early Islam. Muhammad bin Qasim is described as the first Islamic general to register victories in India during 712-715 CE. However, this is historically inaccurate. In his book, Pakistan Mein Tehzeeb Ka Irtiqa, Sibte Hassan notes that Islamic attacks against Sindh and Balochistan had begun during the era of Umar ibn Khattab, the second caliph of Islam who governed from 634 to 644 CE. Usman ibn Affan, the third caliph who ruled from 644 to 656 CE, considered an attack on Sindh by land. At that time Makran, now a part of Balochistan, was already ruled by a Muslim governor.
Elsewhere, I have discussed several versions of Hindutva. One, Hindutva is a universal way of life. Everything that constituted the corpus of syncretic practices and beliefs held by the people living in the territory of India over centuries, particularly before the birth of Christianity and Islam, can be described as a way of life. In this sense, Hindutva is a territorial concept, but with a strong message of universalism. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh views Hindutva in this conception but problems arise when radical groups associated with it take the law in their hands to cleanse our way of life of influences some of which, such as free speech, are now incorrectly deemed to be external to Indian civilisational order.
Two, this type of Hindutva, being a way of life, has been dynamic and diverse. Hindus worship rivers, trees, snakes, women and the sun. There are temples dedicated to the Saturn and living cricketers and actors like Sachin Tendulkar and Amitabh Bachchan. Heterogeneity and diversity were at the core of Hindutva originally. Three, the Supreme Court noted in a 1995 judgement: "Ordinarily, Hindutva is understood as a way of life or a state of mind and it is not to be equated with, or understood as religious Hindu fundamentalism"; "[It is] a fallacy… that the use of words 'Hindutva' or 'Hinduism' per se depict an attitude hostile to all persons practising any religion other than the Hindu religion." However, the apex court's definition of Hindutva is deficient because it fails to explain the theological reasons that give birth to cow vigilantes.
The concept of Abrahamic Hindutva is, therefore, a relevant tool to examine some ideas held by Hindu youths and not held by their ancestors who lived in pre-Christianity and pre-Islamic India. In this sense, Abrahamic Hindutva is a religious fundamentalism and a type of jihadism typical to Islam. In recent years, it has been seen that groups of Hindu youths have entered parks and shopping malls to prevent youths from celebrating the Valentine's Day. Members of the radical Hindu group Bajrang Dal organised protests in Hyderabad against the Valentine's Day this year and dubbed it as "western onslaught" on Indian values. This protest by Hindu groups is typical to the Islamism prevailing in Pakistan where on 13 February this year the Islamabad High Court ordered a ban on events marking the Valentine's Day.
What is Islamism in Pakistan can be called the soft version of Abrahamic Hindutva in India. Islamism is the peaceful version of jihadism, which is armed. When Hindu groups start practically implementing this type of agenda, it can be described as armed Abrahamic Hindutva. For example, members of the Hindu radical group Sri Rama Sena entered the Amnesia Bar and Restaurant in Mangalore in January 2009 and attacked women for drinking and immoral acts. Such purist thinking shouldn't be imaginable in India where there are temples where people offer wine to gods. Prominent organisations that promote religious radicalism among Hindus include the Shiv Sena, Hindu Mahasabha, Bajrang Dal, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and the like. However, this is not pure "religious" fundamentalism because in the case of Hinduism, culture and religion cannot be separated – much like religion and politics cannot be separated in the case of Islam.
Islamism is the methodology by which Islam propagates itself through institutions like madrassas, mosques, Sufi shrines and Islamic clerics. Islamism is the peaceful means, while jihadism is the weaponised version of Islamism. If Islamism is the first-stage cancer, jihadism is its logical next-step. In the case of Hindu youths, it is seen that they view certain dresses like jeans and certain naked paintings as unacceptable. Groups like the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of BJP, have led campaigns for a ban on jeans for women in a Kanpur college. In 2014, the Hindu Mahasabha attracted headlines for demanding that women should not use cellphones and not wear jeans. Hindu Mahasabha also said: "Our culture is getting affected due to live-in relationship and hence a law prohibiting live-in-relationships should be enacted."
If such thinking of the Hindu groups can be compared with Islamism, the second-stage cancer will be Hindu jihadism – or armed Abrahamic Hindutva. Consequently, these groups will demand the demolition of Khajuraho temples, much like the Taliban demolished the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. At times, it appears that the followers of Abrahamic Hindutva are identical to the Taliban of Afghanistan. For such groups, Hindutva represents an armed doctrine, not merely a universal way of life. In fact, a series of terror attacks have taken place in India which do not appear to have been carried out by Muslims. For example, in April 2017, a National Investigating Agency (NIA) court in Jaipur sentenced two Hindu youths – Devendra Gupta and Bhavesh Bhai Patel – to life in prison for the 2007 terror attack at the Sufi shrine in the town of Ajmer.
Previously, I have discussed that terms like Hindu terrorism and Islamic terror are valid concepts, with the difference being only in the scale of their operations. While Islamic terrorists are inspired by the idea of a global Caliphate, Hindu terrorists, notably those associated with Abhinav Bharat, are motivated by the concept of Hindu rashtra. Much like jihadis in Pakistan, the followers of Abrahamic Hindutva believe in taking up law in their own hands. In fact, Shiv Sena, a coalition partner of the Modi government, advocates creation of Hindu bombers, much like jihadi suicide bombers in Islam. In a Saamna editorial on 18 June, 2008, Shiv Sena leader Balasaheb Thackeray called for creating Hindu suicide bombers, stating: "A Hindu fidayeen band is necessary to combat Muslim fundamentalism."
The editorial was written following a terror attack on a theatre in Mumbai in which a Hindu group was involved. The editorial's thrust was that Hindus should carry big attacks, not small attacks which yield no benefits. This was not a one-off call by Shiva Sena. On August 15, 2015, the Shiv Sena reiterated the call for Hindu suicide bombers to invade Pakistan in an editorial in Saamna: "Hindus should be able to live in this country with pride and his (a Hindu's) voice should roar like that of a lion. If an answer has to be given to Pakistan extremists, Hindus will also have to become highly religious. To answer Pakistan, Hindus need to become human bombs and invade their country." The editorial observed: "People have lot of love and respect for Balasaheb Thackeray and feel proud of his nationalist ideals. He surely instilled the fear of Hindus among people."
Some characteristics of Abrahamic Hindutva can be noticed in the beliefs, demands and outbursts of its followers as reported in the media. Much like monotheistic religions, its followers believe in concepts identical to Islamism and jihadism. Pursuing the homogenising ideals of the monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam, the followers of Abrahamic Hindutva view India's identity as homogenous. A good example of this homogenising trait of Abrahamic Hindutva shows up in the demand for imposition of Hindi language on all other states and peoples of India. Such Hindu youths are incapable of grasping that the Indian way of life has always been ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse. A day after Modi became the prime minister, the government issued a directive that Hindi be used compulsorily on social media accounts. Abrahamic Hindus cannot grasp that every language and every dialect can be the national language of India.
Homogenisation – intrinsic to Christianity and Islam, and alien to Indian civilisation – forms the core of Abrahamic Hindutva. For example, both Islamists and Abrahamic Hindus believe in conversions, though Hinduism was not known for converting people's beliefs and practices. In his televised speech on Vijayadashami in 2013, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said: "(Our people) travelled across the world from Mexico to Siberia in olden eras. Without attempting to conquer any empire or without destroying way of life of any society, prayer systems or national and cultural identity, they shared with them the Bharatiya ethos of love, affection and universal welfare." Insofar as Bhagwat was speaking of our past, he is right. But in the present times, many Hindu groups do believe in and engage in conversions. While some can claim re-conversion to be right, the argument remains that conversion is a concept external to Indian civilisational order.
The idea of purity defines Abrahamic Hindutva. In the case of Islam, liberal Muslims are deemed as insufficient Muslims by Islamic clerics and are dismissed as munafiqeen, or hypocrites. In the case of Hinduism, liberal Hindus are deemed as insufficient Hindus by the Abrahamic Hindus.
If you are a Muslim, followers of Abrahamic Hindutva describe you on social media as impure, as having Arab genes — even though DNA tests carried out by scientists establish that the first known humans originated in Africa, not India. Abrahamic Hindutva is against the values and concepts that were intrinsic to the people of India in pre-Christianity and pre-Islamic times. It is almost certain that in the Abrahamic Hindus' conception of how India should look like, Muslims do not exist. In 2014, Rajeshwar Singh, a leader of the Dharm Jagran Samiti, called for freeing India of Muslims and Christians by 2021. At present, many scholars masquerading as Vedic scholars are basically nursed in the school of Abrahamic Hindutva. It remains to be seen how groups like the Dharm Jagran Samiti will cleanse India of Muslims by following the concepts and beliefs which are borrowed from Christianity and Islam.
The "Hindu" identity is very recent. Some activists mention the word expression "Hindavi empire" used by Shivaji, who ruled during the last quarter of the 17th century.
But "Hindavi" was used first by Amir Khusro in the 13th century to denote a corpus of syncretic linguistic movements which are also known as Hindustani. In an article, eminent lawyer and politician Ram Jethmalani has argued that "The word Hinduism did not exist before 1830" and "There is no mention of the terms 'Hindu' or 'Sanatana Dharma' in the Vedas, Puranas or any other religious text prior to 1830 AD. Nor are they found in any inscription or in any record of foreign travellers to India before English rule. The term 'Hindusthan' was first used in the 12th century by Muhammad Ghori, who dubbed his new subjects 'Hindus'."
Jethmalani also added: "Then came the first census of India by the British in 1871 that defined 'Hindu' as an omnibus term to encompass several religions that were not Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or Jain. Later, the term Sanatana Dharma was invented to deliberately swallow the English invention of Hinduism."
The key argument of this essay is that the followers of Abrahamic Hindutva are driven by concepts and beliefs which were alien to the people of India in the Vedic times. For example, freedom of thought and expression, once an integral part of India's civilisational order, now appears alien to them.
Abrahamic Hindutva groups routinely demand ban on plays, books, movies and television serials. In July this year, Hindu Makkal Katchi demanded a ban on the Tamil version of the reality TV show Big Boss and arrest of the host Kamal Haasan and contestants for uttering obscene words. Recently, RSS worker Dinanath Batra has demanded that books be cleansed of anti-Hindu contents. In May 2015, Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS) demanded the deportation of former porn star-turned actor Sunny Leone for displaying "vulgarity". HJS has also demanded ban on Marathi plays and television serials such as MTV Splitsvilla for showing girls as wearing short skirts, strap dress and bikinis.
However, free speech has been very much part of the Indian way of life. The Natya Shastra, the ancient text on dramatic art written between 1st century BCE and 3rd century CE, allows for free speech even in cases when religious sentiments are hurt. Speaking on the tradition of free speech in India, eminent author Salman Rushdie noted that the Indian tradition has "very powerful defences of free expression" and in the Natya Shastra, an offensive play was performed before the gods and actors were attacked "whereupon Indra and Brahma come to the actors' defence and gods are positioned at all four corners of the stage. And it is Indra who says from now on that stage will be a stage where everything can be said and nothing can be stopped." Rushdie added: "This is one of the most ancient of the Indian texts. Natya Shastra… contains as explicit, extreme defence of freedom of expression as you will find anywhere in the world. This is not alien to India."
Abrahamic Hindutva groups justify their actions based on the argument that Christians and Muslims will not accept free speech and therefore Hindus too must not. They think their actions will restore the Indian version of India's history. "The idea of history as a space where the salvation of individuals as members of a 'nation,' a 'race,' or a 'faith' manifests," noted a writer recently, "is alien to Indian thought. It has its roots in Christianity."
Since Hindu groups like the Shiv Sena, Hindu Mahasabha, Bajrang Dal, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and others associated with the RSS are under the influence of concepts rooted in the monotheist religions of Christianity and Islam, their actions and beliefs form the core of Abrahamic Hindutva. In some ways, they might be creating a new religion which can be called a Hindu version of Islamism.
This is a threat to India's civilisation order which once thrived under liberty. The challenge for writers and yogis is to evolve a term other than "Hindu" to describe India's people and their practices and beliefs that are compatible with the indigenous ways of living. Until that happens, Abrahamic Hindutva is a living threat to India's civilisational order as known to our ancestors in the Vedic times.
The author, a former BBC journalist, is a contributing editor at Firstpost and executive director of the Open Source Institute, New Delhi. He tweets @tufailelif
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