Beyond Reactive Political Hinduism

Why we are grumpy

Hindu political activity finds itself in a very interesting position in late 2020. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which is the primary vehicle of the political manifestation of Hindu identity, is now India’s dominant national political force. It has a comfortable grip on power in the Center and is also governing many prominent States across the country. And it is constantly expanding into new States, with the most recent examples being West Bengal and Telangana. As a leader, there is nobody on the national stage that can come anywhere close to the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Indic movement — the organic, emergent ideological thread of this political movement — is also growing. Everyday, more and more brilliant voices are becoming part of this movement in India, and are bringing with them diverse, compelling and stimulating discussion about India’s history, culture and society. Because of these successes, an impartial observer might think as if this part of Indian politics is “winning”. But is this reflected in the mood of the followers of the Indic movement?

If one were to gauge the general mood among the most dedicated and committed followers of this movement, i.e. the activists and intellectuals who dedicate large portions of their life “fighting” for the movement (online and in real life), you are likely to find a sense of doom and gloom about the current state of things. Far from celebrating their victories, intellectuals and activists on the Indic wing are pessimistic, and increasingly focused on issues that are emotionally negative — whether that is “love-jihad”, destroyed Hindu temples, etc. The word “black-pilled” is used a lot in these circles and there seems to be a real deficit of joy and positivity in the movement. One can dismiss this as the emotions and instincts of a small minority of India’s population — and there would be an element of truth to that dismissal as the number of people in India wholly dedicated to political activism is quite small — but it is also not right to dismiss this sentiment entirely. The fact that the Indic movement is gloomy and dominated by emotive issues is a fact worth studying.

The famous “Angry Hanuman”, which became a prominent Hindu symbol in the last decade

So why this gravitation towards emotive issues? One reason could be that emotive issues are useful in bringing new people into the movement. Therefore, there is an immediate incentive for any political movement to be negative and emotive. Emotive issues are functionally an effective way to reach people who are currently “dormant” or “deracinated” Hindus— i.e. people are born into Hindu families but do not seem to care about Hindu political issues or society. So one of they key objects of contention among the Indic wing is: Why aren’t more Hindus joining us in our fight? Why do they not care about issues that affect, at least in theory, the whole of the Hindu community? Why are many Hindus themselves fighting against the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya? It will be tough to find Muslim or Christian voices in India who can be this antagonistic towards their own community and causes. So why do Hindus act this way? The answer, for me, lies in some old-fashioned political science.

It is well known that every individual in the world has many identities — mother, sister, employee, gym member, etc. Religion, language, economic status, ethnicity and ideology are all additional aspects of peoples’ identities. However, not all identities get “activated” politically. For example, you probably won’t find a voter in most modern democracies whose primary driving force while voting is her identity as a gym member, or as a left-handed person. Usually, it is aspects like ethnicity, economic status and ideology that drive people’s political participation. Those who look at the Indic wing of Indian politics (commonly known by the term “Hindutva”) and are confused about what is happening, should realize that for a large (and growing) number of people in India, Hinduism — its status, preservation and survival — has become a politically “activating” issue. More broadly, this movement wants to ideally move forward to accommodate other Indic traditions — Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism — into its fold, and create a movement that represents and asserts India’s organic civilizational identity. The mission statement of those on the Indic wing is to increase this category of people. And so when the movement hits a brick wall in this desire for consolidation, it gets frustrated.

Talking about common civilizational pain (and its modern equivalents) can be a powerful binding force for any movement. But it is not enough by itself. Emotive issues are by their very nature, reactive. They define us and our movement in opposition to something else, but do not give us a proactive, positive agenda to work on. Any healthy movement will contain a balance of both these instincts, but it is clear that the Indic movement today is far more reactive than proactive.

Another thing that haunts the Indic Wing is its comparative lack of non-political power. This comes from a (smart and accurate) realization that cultural, social, entertainment-based, educational and academic power, all matter just as much, if not more than political power. This is especially true for a movement like the Indic movement that has an actual vision for how it wants to change Indian society. The Indic Wing is not wholly conservative in the Burkean or Chestertonian sense of the word. While there might be an element of traditionalism in the movement (grounding in the ancient Indic faiths and cultures, and even ones like Sikhi, which emerged in the medieval era), the movement is actually quite revolutionary in its outlook. The dream of this movement is a confident, prosperous and united India, one that can hold its own in the matters of the world. But, one might object, that India’s “secular” sections of the society want this too. And that is true. The difference is, the Indic movement wants this prosperity and greatness to be bathed in Indic culture and presuppositions. It does not want to go back to some gilded era in the past, rather, it wants to march into the future, but in a way that is consistent with the culture, history and civilizational ethos of India. Instead of using English, it would like to proliferate Sanskrit and other Indic languages as a glue that holds this country together. Instead of looking at Western nations for constant approval, it seeks to build confidence in one’s own decisions and instincts. Instead of relying on Western axioms and epistemology, it wants to interpret and judge the world on its terms. This is not born out of a sense of hatred of Western or Islamic cultures, rather, it comes a desire to preserve, propagate and evolve the organic Indic culture and tradition. And finally, instead of giving the people of India a “negative” identity of secularism (i.e. one that tells you what NOT to do), the Indic wing seeks to confidently proclaim India’s character as unique, unbroken, resilient and organic civilization. This identity should be confident about what India IS, and not what concerned with what it is NOT.

A negative identity is all the vogue in the liberal world of the 21st century. The feeling is that one of the lessons of the 20th century is that when a people start thinking too positively of themselves, they do reckless and terrible things (e.g. the Japanese and the Germans). This is obviously a simplistic reduction of the complex Second World War, but it has a hegemonic hold over the thought-leaders of today. Whenever an act of extremism occurs in these Western countries, politicians of all sorts respond with the favorite truism, “This is not who we are”. But, as Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ token conservative columnist wrote in a must-read piece, these liberal hymns beg the question: “Who are we?”. This is especially complex for post-colonial societies, where the notion of self and nationhood has been historically defined and dominated by the colonial mind. The Indian people, one of these long-colonized populations, have had their histories (medieval and early modern) written by a series of foreign invaders, all of whom sought to achieve their own propagandistic goals when writing this history. As Indians crawls out of this colonial cage — physically and psychologically — they have the right to seek for themselves a positive, confident vision for themselves and their society. A vision that is grounded in the nation’s organic traditions and looking forward to a more prosperous future. In this search, a negative identity like secularism, and other Western epistemological presuppositions, are incompatible and insufficient by themselves to answer our quest for self-identification.

A great recent example of the common “This is not who we are” truism

In this endeavor, the Indic wing rightly understands that politics is simply a mirror to the culture of a society — and that currently, the Indic wing is massively underrepresented within the halls of the media, academia and culture. Influence in academia, the media and entertainment offers staying power for a political movement even if it becomes electorally irrelevant. By far the greatest example of this is the Communist movement in India, whose main electoral manifestation — the Communist Party of India (Marxist) — is perhaps at its lowest ebb in its history, but it continues to maintain relevance in our contemporary political and cultural discourse because of its “Long March through the Institutions”. CPI(M)’s number of Lok Sabha seats might be down to single digits in 2019 — there’s not even enough Communists in the Lok Sabha to qualify for Section 144 restrictions — but they have no shortage of admirers and “fellow-travellers” in newsrooms, academic lecture halls and NGOs, all of whom give the movement a larger voice than its support base would merit. Cultural and academic power also allows you to reach parts of elite and educated society that would otherwise not want to associate with a subaltern and organic movement like the Indic movement, due to obvious cultural differences. This shows us that cultural power is staying power, and the Indic wing’s anxiety is rational when its comparatively light presence in these major societal institutions is considered.

So, while I do not particularly like this reality, I do believe that the gloominess of the Indic movement should make sense to the objective observer.

Dharmo Rakshathi Rakshitaha

To the extent that conservatism does exist in the Indic movement, it is more concerned with the survival and propagation of Indic faiths and cultures into the future. It wants to protect Dharma from the threats it sees on the horizon. It realizes what a miracle it is that we have inherited these ancient and unbroken traditions, texts and cultures, and also understands the burden of responsibility on our shoulders to protect and preserve our treasured inheritance. In this fight, the Indic faiths face a two-fold threat: (1) External threats like the two proselytizing Abrahamic religions of Islam and Christianity (I will not be delving into this minefield in this article) and (2) Internal threats like the schisms and divisions among Hindus themselves.

When it comes to internal threats, the Indic movement is increasingly concerned over the survival and continuation of Hindu traditions and cultures in the modern age. This comes due to the correct realization that modernity, and the assumptions that come with it, are fundamentally western in nature. There are countless examples of how these ideas — science, reason, logic, etc — have benefitted our society, but the piercing and inquisitive nature of these ideas are also hostile to ancient traditions (often based on ritual and not reason). These instincts of ideas are fundamentally anti-Nomian (i.e. against customs and traditions), which makes them challenging for those who want to preserve what Aristotle called the “Wisdom of the Ages”, for the next generation to inherit. Some of this is inevitable in a globalizing world where information from around the world is available to everyone in a matter of seconds. To an extent, a rigorous form of honest inquiry might even help Hindu traditions evolve through the times (as they have countless times in the past — Vaishnavism/Shaivism, Bhakti, etc). It might help our traditions improve, because as we know, the hardest steel is forged in the hottest fires.

But the other side of this reckless inquisition into traditional cultures — inquisition done simply for the sake of criticism, and not in good faith — is that it slowly weakens and erodes the bonds that held us together for millennia. The fate of Christianity in European countries — especially Western Europe — is a good warning sign for the Indic wing. Countries like France, Austria, Germany, etc. might be home to some of the most beautiful churches and Cathedrals in the world but they are also mostly empty and increasingly abandoned, being unable to attract the young and inquisitive Europeans, raised in the modern world, into their fold. Contrast this with India, and even the small roadside Temple under the tree probably gets more people stopping to offer prayers than many beautiful Cathedrals in France. For those on the Indic wing, even the thought of a similar erosion, especially when equipped with the knowledge about how much our ancestors struggled to propagate their faiths, is unacceptable.

This is why, despite the political success, the Indic movement remains dissatisfied and pessimistic. It hasn’t yet found a way to penetrate into the apolitical level of the society — i.e. the cultural, social and even academic level. It is clear to any keen observer that a significant portion of Hindu society remains aloof, unaware, or in the worst case, hostile to the notion that the Indian nation is an uninterrupted, largely unbroken civilization whose memory and pride goes back thousands of years, and not simply a European-style nation-state that was formed between 1947-50. While this is a radical notion today, videos like these prove that the idea of India as a proud old civilization was not as uncommon less than even a century ago. It was only after the Partipendence of India, during the era of Jawaharlal Nehru, that this notion of “having to forget the past in order to move on to the future” really took hold. And Nehru himself, as a British-educated Fabian incrementalist, best embodied this change. He was deeply uncomfortable with anything that could even remotely be considered traditionally Indian, as is seen in his reluctance to attend the inauguration of the reconstructed Somnath Temple. The example of Somnath is actually the perfect way to understand the different between these two world views. For the Indic wing, this Temple and its reconstruction is an embodiment of the resilience of Hindu culture in the face of centuries of invasion and targeted destruction. Rebuilding it signifies the acknowledgement of India as a civilization that the medieval force of Islam couldn’t fully erode. A civilization that has existed for millennia as a cultural nation, despite not being a unified political entity in the modern European sense of the world. For the Nehruvian mind, the reconstruction of the Temple represented only “Hindu revivalism”, a desire to go back to an inglorious and ugly past. According to this mindset, almost nothing in the Indian past is worth preserving. Instead, history is seen as the baggage that acts as a barrier to the arrival of a progressive future. The past must be erased, obfuscated and the hold of collective memory on the people must be removed through selective education. This is why a crucial part of this project is to underplay the pain and torment Hindus have been subjected-to in the medieval and early-modern past at the hands of foreign forces. Our historians, journalists and intellectuals do this by following the Commandment of Communal Harmony, an unbreakable code which mandates that any historical aspect of crimes by other communities on Dharmic faiths must be underplayed and obfuscated. If muddying the waters is not a possibility, then the crimes (e.g. the Moplah genocide of Malabar Hindus) must be rationalized on other grounds like economics. In elite circles, breaking this Commandment is a one-way-ticket to losing one’s “eminentness”.

Politically, this creates an interesting situation — while other religious communities in India spend all their energy fighting for their own, explicity religious, causes and their own community, a large chunk of the Hindu population spends its time fighting for other communities, and is repulsed by the thought of raising their voices for “Hindu causes”. Thus, as Dr. Ambedkar observed in “Pakistan, or the Partition of India”, the primary thread of Hindu politics in India is mostly focused on the economic and material development of the nation, whereas the politics of Muslims (and Christians) is primarily focused on the advancement and preservation their religions. This was true before Partition, and in some ways, remains true even today. This is not to say that all people from either group behave in this way, mainly that as overall communities, this is how the politics of these groups operates.

It is this myopia about India’s past — this pretense that history begins in 1947 — that is our biggest foe in this quest to reclaim India’s civilizational narrative. And this myopia is also entrenched now in broader society, after seven decades of being part of education and history curriculum. It is a tall order, but I think that the Indic wing has started to realize the scale and daunting nature of the problem. The realization of the task at hand, and the amount of effort it will take to succeed, is why everyone is so gloomy, despite their political dispensation being “in power” today.

So is there a way to solve this problem? I think there is. And it lies in the reassertion of Hindu identity and symbols in the public sphere, to transform the movement from a reactive, defensive movement into a proactive and offensive movement.

A Possible Prescription

If you have travelled through any modern Indian city in the last 10–20 years, one thing will stand out to you immediately — that the art, architecture and symbolism of the Indian public sphere — whether it is shopping malls, train stations, sidewalks, parks or gardens, etc — is completely “secular” in nature. That is, it betrays almost no connection to the unique artistic tradition and cultures (which are obviously diverse and vary by region) of India and instead opts for the Modernist notion of “form follows function”. When an average Hindu walks past these forms of art and architecture, the effect these structures have is to disconnect and distance the Hindu from his culture. I see this as an example of Hindu retreat, a concept that I’ve highlighted in my article on Bengal. In many ways, it reflects the failure of Hindus and other Dharmic faiths in being able to assert ourselves in the public sphere of our own land. A prominent recent example of this is the lifeless new “Central Vista” project being pursued by the BJP government led by Narendra Modi. It is, as many have pointed out, a big missed opportunity for the positive reassertion of Dharma in India.

To give a short summary, I think that the Hindu retreat from public places — by not being as assertive about their culture and religion in the public and restricting it to the confines of one’s home — was most likely a result of the subjugation of Hindus for centuries at the hands of Islamic invaders and rulers. Since a lot of these invaders destroyed many prominent Indic institutions and religious structures, worked for the proliferation of Islam through mass conversions, and were actively hostile to Indic faiths, the ardent followers of these religions (Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and later, Sikhism) were forced to look inside the house to preserve their culture. This created a timidity and shyness among the followers of these faiths in being open and proud about their faiths in the public sphere — a mindset that I think still persists today among many Hindus, Jains and Buddhists. Sikhi, to its credit, has been much more successful in preserving its ability to project its customs in the public sphere, and the prominence of Gurudwaras as the Center of Sikh life and economy shows that Sikhi, a medieval Indic civilizational response birthed in the tumultuous Punjab, is something other Indic faiths can learn a lot from. To beat the retreat, and fight against pessimism and deracination, Dharmic faiths must reclaim the public spaces — physically and emotionally — of Bharat.

In order to overcome this mental barrier, we need to find a way to reassert the Hindu (and Jain and Buddhist) presence in the Indian public sphere. We can’t just undertake this process without a predetermined plan or idea. We need to build structures and art that represent “Indic” styles and sensibilities and not be afraid to be proactive and confident in our assertions. But the question is, how do we do this?

To successfully carry out this proposal, we will need a blueprint and a plan that can be replicated throughout the nation. And it will need to be flexible to the different issues facing Hindus in different parts of the nation (Hindu issues in Assam are very different from Hindu issues in Kerala). However, in all of these places, there is a need for the identification of an institution that can help us execute this project. As far as I’m concerned, the answer is staring us in the face. The only Hindu institution that has the history, reach, and power to achieve this goal is the Hindu Temple.

My theory is simple: A fundamental reason for why many Hindus often feel deracinated from their history and culture, is that role of temples has been effectively minimized or completely erased from the lives of many Hindus, especially those who live in urban areas and study in English-medium schools (i.e. people like me). For our religion to thrive and its followers to feel a sense of belonging with this ancient and proud Dharmic tradition, we need to restore the primacy of Temples as an active institution of daily life. They can act as places of worship, places to collect societal wealth, vehicles for charitable activities like serving the poor or the rehabilitation of Hindu women who have been victims of religiously targeted crimes. The Hindu temple can be the centerpiece of all these endeavors. There are many issues that still plague Indian society, beyond the ones I have already mentioned. We are still dealing with caste issues, issues with treatment of women, etc. especially in rural areas. For Hinduism to come into the modern world as a confident and assured religion that its followers can feel pride in, it must strive to deal with these issues cause frictions within our community.

But, some might say, there are already so many temples out there. Why aren’t they solving the problems right now? The answer might lie in the state control of temples and their funds, as many on the Indic wing have already pointed-out and are fighting to change. However, I believe that is a larger issue at play. I think that the actual, current physical state of most of our temples is a big cause of this Hindu “Deracination”.

Currently, almost all of our temples are either old, crumbling, or destroyed (by either the Muslim invaders or the British Colonial entities or our own neglect and apathy). Many temples are some combination of all three descriptions, and this is a fundamental problem with our Hindu condition right now. As far as I am concerned, our Temples should be the crowning jewels of our community. They should look grand, clean, free of hassle, and always have a fresh coat of paint. Their current bleak condition is a judgement on us as Hindus — a monument to our passive approach to our own faith. For a Hindu, going to a Temple must play the role of lifting the spirits, connecting him to the divine and giving him a sense of community and belonging.

This can only be done by undertaking a grand project of restoration, reconstruction and new construction of Temples. And this will present us with a dual challenge. A lot of times, when construction or urbanization happens in India, it happens in an unorganized, unplanned manner. While this gives our communities a somewhat pre-modern, organic character, it also creates an incredible amount of inefficiencies, inconveniences and problems. For example, if one has visited Varanasi and been to the current structure of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, he knows just how inconvenient it is to reach the Temple. You have to go through crowded, and often dirty lanes to get to a structure that is, at least in North India, one of the most powerful symbols of Hindu resilience in the face of medieval Islamic destruction. It is only, under Prime Minister Modi, who is also the Member of Parliament from Varanasi, that this unfortunate state of affairs is being corrected through the construction of a temple corridor. And as anyone who has visited many temples in India knows, this example in Kashi is not the only temple that suffers from such a problem.

So we have to find a way of reconstructing (I will address the need to build new temples in later articles) and restoring old temples in a way that maintains their historical essence, while also bringing them up to date with modern times and sensitivities like hygiene, crowd-control, etc. All of our surviving temples that are falling apart due to a lack of vigilance or care, must be given the attention they deserve. These temples, that have survived centuries of oppression from external forces, are a symbol of Hindu resilience and as the inheritors of these ancient treasures we have a responsibility to act to preserve them for the future, while also bringing them up to modern times. And we cannot rely on just the Indian State under PM Modi to do all of this. This must be, like all of the other things I have mentioned, a movement within the civil society.

The next issue is one of “dead” temples and destroyed temples. I am not going to spend too much time talking about destroyed temples like the old Kashi Vishwanath temple, a site on which today stands the grotesque structure of the Gyanvapi Mosque, or the similar case in Mathura. This issue is well known, and thankfully, is one issue where our Hindu society seems to have clarity of thought and action. However, there is another category of temples that are just as important, but are often ignored — the category of “dead” temples, or in other words ,“Museum temples” or “ASI temples”. These are inactive temples where the structure, fully (like the Shore Temple in Mamallapuram) or partially (like the Martand Sun Temple in Anantnag, Kashmir or the Deogarh Temple in U.P.) still survives. But due to the state of the temple, the Archeological Survey of India has taken them over to “preserve” them. In my opinion, this “mummification” of our heritage and physical wonders is in some ways, a fate worse than destruction. Without people attending them, without puja being done inside them, these temples are simply old rickety structures without a soul. We need to free these temples from the hands of the ASI, and work to restore and reconstruct these temples and then allow people to pray and restore the soul of these structures. It will obviously be done in a manner such that the integrity and character of the original structures is maintained, but again, as with old and crumbling temples, these structures would also be brought into modern times. The great historical model for this is the reconstructed Somnath Temple.

And the thing is, we don’t even have to worry about issues like communal tension that are obvious roadblocks to any attempts to regain the Kashi or Mathura sites. These “Museum” temples are just sitting there, doing nothing in the hands of the ASI. They have, in essence, been buried and mummified. The reclamation and restoration of these temples can be a beautiful moment of rejuvenation for Hindu society. It is also an easy win for us. The crown jewel in these dead temples that could be restored is the Konark Sun Temple in Odisha. This grand temple was so big that its Garbha-Griha collapsed under its own weight

In this image, the yellow represents the surviving structure and the white represents the Shikhara that no longer exists. A reconstructed and completed Konark Temple can be a beam of light for Hindu society and a grand restoration project. It should be possible to do, given modern technology and construction methods and the lessons learned from Konark can be extended to other surviving structures.

The Martand Temple in Kashmir in particular has a symbolic importance that is vital to uphold. It is located in Anantnag, Kashmir, a hotbed of Islamic separatism and a city that separatists call “Islamabad”. The presence of Martand is a stinging reminder to these Islamist separatists radicals that they do not own Kashmir, the land or its story. Kashmir is India, and Dharmic and a grand restoration of the Martand Sun Temple would be the most-befitting reply we can give to the cancer that has consumed the literal and metaphorical crown of Bharat.

The revival of Martand could be a physical manifestation of the Dharmic reclamation of Kashmir. Of course, this is also why the violent elements and separatists will fight till the end to prevent such a revival. But we cannot give up. There is no India without Kashmir. And there is no Kashmir without the Martand Temple. The day we do with Martand what we did with Somnath, is the day we will win the civilizational fight for Kashmir.

An artist’s impression of what a restored Martand Temple could look like

Conclusion

The aim of this essay was not to tell people to stop worrying about emotive issues that affect the Hindu community. I think that many of these issues deserve our attention and activism. However, I think we should avoid being completely defined by these emotive and negative issues. “Hindutva” is often described as “Hinduism that resists” and I broadly agree with the need for this resistance against the many internal and external threats we face. But we must not restrict ourselves to only being a movement concerned with resistance. In doing this, we risk defining the movement as a reactive movement that needs an “opposition” to function. It is also true that in the purest sense of real-politik, a reactive movement is in a way accepting defeat from the very start, because its very existence is built on the requirement of an “other” to oppose. These are all reasons to avoid being singularly and solely reactive as a political movement.

Instead, we should give equal, if not more, attention to the positive spreading of Dharma — its teachings, its history, its aesthetics, etc — in every sphere of public life. And we should do this with a smile on our face. We must remember that we are the children of people who refused to give up their faiths in the face of unimaginable repression. And we should derive strength from this. There are many people already doing this, and one of my personal favorite people in the movement who focus on the positive is Nivedita Tiwari. Her positive messaging is something we must learn from, and build upon as a movement to maximize our staying power as a long-term force in Indian life.

We should realize the importance of joy in our movement. And we must also realize that there’s much more effective ways to spread Dharma than anger and frustration. We can do so by making Dharma and all its characteristics manifest in every sphere of life. We must restore temples, strive for Indic art and music, develop Indic architectural styles. We must make Dharma inescapable. It must be in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the buildings and parks and roads we walk through. That, and not victory in the next election, is what true success for the Indic movement looks like.

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