M. Reza Pirbhai is an associate professor of history and the faculty chair at Georgetown University in Qatar. He is the author of “Demons in Hindutva: Writing a Theology for Hindu Nationalism,” Modern Intellectual History 5, no. 1 (2008) and the monographs Reconsidering Islam in a South Asian Context (2009) and Fatima Jinnah: Mother of the Nation (2017).
Religious nationalism is ubiquitous today. Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim variants wield influence across the globe.
Some have attempted to explain religious nationalism’s prominence among contemporary political ideologies as a case of populations hanging on to tradition when challenged by a progressively secular modern world. I beg to differ with this binary primarily because the so-called traditions informing individual expressions of religious nationalism are no more historical artifacts than secularism. In fact, these traditions have been formulated and reformulated in dialogue with, rather than in reactionary opposition to, a number of ideologies specific to the modern period. Defining Hindu nationalism not only illustrates the point but suggests answers to some of the questions posed in this forum, particularly pertaining to the global popularity and relationship between denominational examples of religious nationalism.
The term “Hindutva” (lit. “Hindu-ness”) was popularized by V.D. Savarkar—once president of the Hindu Mahasabha, forerunner of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that presently governs India. Now, as when Savarkar wrote the Essentials of Hindutva in 1923, the term’s meaning was informed by the classically liberal imagining of a nation: a historically identifiable ethnic (“Indian”), linguistic (“Hindi”), and religious (“Hindu”) community populating a contiguous territory (“India”) with the political will to constitute a state. In this sense, Savarkar was no different than Octavian Hume, founder of the Indian National Congress, and any who proposed a liberal Indian nation. Of course, all Indian nationalist ideologues conveniently side-stepped South Asia’s ethnic and linguistic diversity. Only religious diversity could not be so flippantly avoided in a British colonial context that had essentialized religious community as the prime marker of identity.
The liberal (and later socialist) Indian nationalist sought to accommodate non-Hindus as minorities bound to the majority by historical, ethnic, linguistic, and political affiliations. Savarkar, on the other hand, argued that acknowledgement of India as one’s “motherland” was insufficient. India must also be your “holy land.” By invoking holiness, sectarian diversity among Hindus and divides between them and Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists were potentially ameliorated. Followers of Abrahamic faiths (most significantly Muslims), however, were entirely excluded from the Indian nation.
Theology, interestingly, played no part in Savarkar’s Hindutva. He was a self-described atheist. To Savarkar, Hindus were not merely a religious community, but a historical, ethnic, linguistic, and political group—a nation. Furthermore, this Hindu nation’s relations with non-Hindus in South Asia was most thoroughly informed not by Brahmanical thought but by Orientalism and fascism. The first essentialized Muslims as a foreign nation of predatory invaders. The second provided the template for dealing with such enemies within. Even after World War II’s atrocities, Savarkar wrote in Hindu Rashtra Darshan (1949) that “Nazism proved undeniably the savior of Germany.” He often drew parallels between Germans and Hindus, between German Jews and Indian Muslims. However, he did not openly call for the latter’s extermination, instead espousing their religious assimilation, falling short of which ghettoization was a must.
In the post-colonial period, the ideology of Hindutva has evolved to include a theological component. That theology likewise dates back to the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Also influenced by Orientalism, while more pointedly engaged in polemical exchanges with Christian evangelicals during the colonial period, a number of apologists formed associations that sought to promote “true” Hinduism. The Arya Samaj, for example, integrated the idea of a unified Hindu community, reflected Christian theology by laying greatest stress on a particular book from within the Brahmanical canon (Rigveda), raising it to the level of the Bible in Christianity, and only emphasized that book’s monotheistic elements. As the name of this samaj (society) further suggests, its scions additionally enshrined Orientalism’s propensity to posit a stark, racial divide between the “Aryan” and the “Semite.” Others, such as Swami Vivekananda of the Rama Krishna Mission, focused on Vedanta, aligning themselves with such perennial philosophers as Arthur Schopenhauer and Paul Deussen to turn Orientalism’s tropes of the rational, monotheistic occident and mystical, polytheistic orient on their heads. Together they argued that mysticism was superior to rationalism and Aryan monism truer than Semitic monotheism. In fact, following Deussen’s lead, Vivekananda went as far as to state that the monistic contents of the Aryan Vedas had created “angels” among adherents, while the Semitic books’ monotheistic “tyrant of God” had led to “devils” walking the earth.
Both such strands of apologetics have had a profound effect on the ideology of Hindutva as espoused by the BJP in the post-colonial era. This is partly because the BJP has long operated as part of broader Hindu nationalist groupings that include a host of pandit-led parties and associations. But more importantly, BJP leaders and ideologues have also recognized that unlike Savarkar the atheist, their ranks and the electorate are broadly composed of men and women whose faith is defined by the above apologists. Since the 1960s, therefore, BJP ideologues have particularly favored the German-Vivekananda’s type of theology as a means of bolstering Savarkar’s political agenda with a divine mission. The consistent message has been that Hinduism (inclusive of Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism) is the perennial truth carried forward by Indo-Aryans, despite constant persecution by those falling under the spell of the false and foreign religions of the Semites. Although broadly echoing Vivekananda’s equation in this regard, such ideologues as Ram Swarup have, since the 1980s, taken one step further to argue that in the Semitic tradition “one meets the Devil masquerading as God.”
When liberalism, socialism, fascism, Nazism, Christian evangelicalism, perennial philosophy and Orientalism require reference to define Hindutva, the answers to the questions posed in this forum are clearly not as straightforward as reactionary Hindus hanging onto tradition when challenged by a progressively secular modern world. Rather, having been articulated in dialogue with the plethora of contemporary ideologies, discourses, and intellectual movements mentioned, the example of Hindutva and its popularity over the last century suggests that the ubiquity of religious nationalism is best explained when its denominational variants are acknowledged with secular nationalism as definitive expressions of what it means to be modern.