Hindutva and the individualTwo books look at Hindus who shuttle between two philosophical poles of alterity and ontology
Last year I read many books out of which two were about Hinduism. They were RSS written by Walter K. Andersen and Shridhar D. Damle, and Why I am a Hindu written by Sashi Tharoor. I was struck by the temporality, and the debate they have triggered among the people who are caught in the twilight zone like me, a secular person born into a Hindu family. Though not a practitioner, I have an inner urge to look at Hindus who shuttle between two philosophical poles of alterity and ontology.
I do not want to make my discussion philosophical but the name Hindu itself evokes alterity because it was created by the foreigners; people here adopted that without qualms. I am trying to understand my mother’s impact on me as well as the learned discussions about Hinduism, in simple terms.
Torn between the two
RSS, published by Penguin Viking, explores at the historical-political context of the organisation. In the sizable book comprising 14 chapters, the authors have taken an academic modus operandi to write it. In several chapters at the beginning the authors surveyed the three decades of the RSS, which appear to be turbulent and challenging.
They were banned in 1948 on suspicion of their involvement in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, which remained until 1949, but even after that the RSS kept seeking to adopt various policies to boost their morale and to clear their image as radical Hindutvavadis. The chapters cover the historicity of RSS from its genesis in 1925 when a medical doctor and a Telugu Brahmin Keshav Baliram founded it, swayed by anxiety to reverse the process of the disunity among the Hindus caused by external powers to control the land for a thousand years. He believed that the union could be achieved through charitra nirman or character building of individuals. A few things that the writers say about RSS intrigue me because I had never looked at this organisation from those perspectives. The involvement of the RSS in the tensions following the JNU march of 9 February 2016 is one of them.
The book shows how the RSS has always been torn by pain of being looked as a pariah and saves itself from being philosophically considered as the alterity in the Hindu system, and the need to expand its influence beyond the territory. Chapters in the book describe how the RSS has reached out to the Hindu communities abroad, especially in America. In the same vein, the RSS, says the book, has reached out to the Muslim and Christian communities too by adopting a policy of fraternity.
The word parivar or a family, is used by RSS for the purpose of creating harmony and peace. The authors conclude the RSS is not a revolutionary organisation, and it never can be because their method is not one of arms.
Curiously, the word family or parivar is also used by the Unification Church founded by Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a Korean evangelist. This organisation under the nomenclature Universal Peace Federation organised a big Asia-Pacific Summit in Kathmandu on December 1, 2018, with the widow of the late Rev. Moon presenting herself to be the only daughter of Jesus Christ, anointing the mass including the prominent communist party leaders who were among the organisers, with the Eucharistic wine. The communist government that too participated in the celebration with enthusiasm drew a lot of ire from its party and media. The participation of the communists in the above conference continues to be debated in various ways. I too joined the debate putting some caveats on the subject, in an article published in Kantipur daily.
The word family, like parivar of the RSS, that is bandied about in this organisation makes a meaningful comparison here. The RSS too through expanding fraternity, as the book says, has been expanding its sphere and trying to open up new ways of reaching out to organisations and people who hold different views. The other purpose of this allusion is, as one can gather from the reading the book, though the RSS is not a religious organisation, it nevertheless espouses values that sometimes smack of Hindu religious programmes. Its definition of Hindutva says, “the goal of the RSS is ‘reorganising the Hindu society on the lines of its unique national genius’ and that the ‘ideal of the Sangh is to carry the nation to …glory …through organising the entire society and ensuring the protection of Hindu Dharma”.
The book provides nine case studies of the RSS, which includes their non-hostile or harmonious approach to the semi-affiliated Muslim Rashtriya Manch, their helpful approach to the formation of state governments and their cautious border dealings with China, which is reflective of the pragmatic approach of the RSS in such matters.
The self in the writing
Tharoor is a renowned Indian writer on various political and cultural subjects, who has friends in Nepal. He has also given a few seminars and colloquiums in Kathmandu at different times. I have attended them. Tharoor’s approach to Hinduism is personal and is based on free interpretation of it. The significant part of this study is that Tharoor puts himself in this writing. His book is a combination of erudition and literature savvy personal narrative. That is precisely what strikes me as someone born in a Hindu family, yet remaining open and secular in matters of religion. Tharoor’s treatment of Hinduism as the oldest religious tradition with its philosophical roots treated by both the Eastern and Western scholars with respect like Vedanta, Bhakti, Bhagavatgita, and in modern times, the interpretations of Vivekananda and many more do not appear to espouse any jingoistic Hindutva beliefs. Tharoor’s criticism of the extremism in Hindu religion and its politicisation makes his approach very different from that espoused by the RSS.
At one SAARC literary conference in Jaipur in October 2015, one Rajasthani gentleman of a feudal family with connections in Nepal, and a great supporter of the RSS came rushing with some news to tell me. He said, “professor, I am so relieved to hear that a Brahmin became the prime minister of Nepal, even though he is a communist”. That communist was KP Oli. That RSS anxiety and communist Brahmin nexus remain unanswered to me even after reading this fat tome about them.