Hindu Political Thought: Liberal, Conservative and Reactionary
This essay is intended to provide a theoretical introduction to the three varieties of political thought that have emerged among the Hindus in modern times. The circumstances of modernity naturally give rise to these three, as well as other forms of political discourse, all of which are traceable to a Western past. But the fact that modernity originated in the West and was transported to India, and that too under colonial conditions, problematizes in the Indian context, the relevance of the Indian past, which is usually designated as Hindu. In case of the West, modernity is a transformation of its own past and in that sense its past survives, albeit in an altered shape, into modernity. On the other hand, in case of India because modernity is a foreign import one is confronted by the issue of the abandonment of its past.
To this, one group responds in the affirmative and insists on a new beginning from the clean slate of the Indian independence movement. This group, who we might call the Indian liberals, usually identified as purveyors of the ‘Idea of India,’ see no special value in the Hindu past. It is just another stream of thought, parallel to the world-views held by Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Dalits and so on; at worse, it is a threat given its power and influence over the majority of Indians. The group opposing the Indian liberals invest considerable value in the Hindu past and hold that Indian modernity should organically develop from it just as Western modernity emerged from its own past. It is this group who is of interest in this essay and we explore the three ways in which they seek to engage with the Hindu past – the liberal, the conservative and the reactionary – from the perspective of modernity. Inasmuch as an interest in the past is a characteristic of right-wing thought, one could even say that these are the three strands of Indian right-wing intellectualism.
The Liberal Hindu
It is possible to classify the 19th century Hindu responses to British colonialism into two categories – orthodox and heterodox – and consider these as the forerunners of conservative and reactionary, and of liberal Hindu political thought, respectively. The orthodox response was probably nothing new and for the most part a continuity of a strategy that would have been operational in the Islamic regime which preceded the British rule. This was a hunkered-down approach, a plea to be allowed to pursue one’s traditional customs, to live according to the ways of their illustrious forefathers, within the overarching context of an alien state. Like some of the British governor generals, there would have been Muslim rulers who would have insisted on applying their power to do ‘good’ in the world as they saw fit i.e. to persuade the Hindus to give up their heathen ways and adopt the right path: Islam in the latter case, Christianity or liberalism in the former case. But by and large most rulers are in power for the sake of power and its ancillary benefits. The orthodox response is most suitable to them as it grants them the loyalty and legitimacy which they seek above all. Moreover, the conservative and narrow-minded character of the orthodoxy, and the degraded state to which tradition becomes reduced under their control, ensure that the people remain largely servile and do not rise up against the state. The same strategy, we must bear in mind, was also applied by the Congress in post-Independent India with regards to the Muslims, where the latter were assured the continuity of their degraded customs under a dogmatic leadership, in return for votes in favour of the Congress. The Hindu orthodox response to Islamic and British rule does not appear to be any different in character. It simply grasped the conditions under which the alien state would permit the Hindus to preserve their traditions and it fulfilled them. For example, in case of British rule, it became evident that as long as there was scriptural sanction for a particular custom it would be regarded by the state as legitimate. Accordingly, the orthodox groups scoured the texts and prepared testimonies in government-stipulated formats in defence of their traditions.
If there was a heterodox Hindu response to the Islamic regime, it does not appear to have been anywhere nearly as distinctive as the explosion of modern Hindu voices that we find in the 19th century. We must bear in mind that the Islamic dominion in India was as much a part of a global power as the British Raj. Even if not a jewel in the crown, India was dragged out of its isolation and made part of a global world ruled by Islam. But the Hindu mind does not appear to have opened itself fully to this hegemony and did not recognise itself as a citizen of a global Islamic empire as it did in case of the British. The reason is not hard to guess. The Islamic world was uncompromisingly religious and there does not appear to have been a way for one to participate in it effectively unless one became a Muslim. Evidently, the modern European world was radically different. It was liberal-humanist in orientation and rational in its approach. It was Christian but tolerant of internal and external critiques of Christianity. It was a world to which the Hindus could open up, under whose aegis they could hope to regenerate their world which Islam had so brutally shattered.
The nature of this opening up of the Hindu mind to the global world dominated by the Western discourse needs to be properly understood. The labels generally ascribed to it, such as ‘Hindu renaissance’ or ‘national awakening,’ obscure the radical character of what was entailed in this process. It was nothing less than a project of cultural assimilation into the West-dominated global order, initiated by the Hindus themselves. Mutual influences notwithstanding, it appears that ancient India had existed in relative isolation from the civilisations and cultures contesting for power in the Near East and Eastern Europe. The intellectual trajectory that emerged in this tumult, which subsequently developed further in Western Europe, forms the basis of the contemporary global discourse but India for the most part of this history existed in its own bubble, absorbing whatever ideas came its way, on its own terms. India developed its own intellectual trajectory which came increasingly under threat as the global discourse poured into India, first under the aegis of Islam and then under the British.
The orthodox Hindu response, as stated above, was to stick to the indigenous trajectory and have nothing much to do with the foreign discourse. But the heterodox Hindus did the opposite. Like fishes who, finding their own river has become moribund, migrate to another river with more abundant, nutritious waters, they shifted from one trajectory to another and showed a willingness to participate in the global world ruled by the Western discourse, to make the international standards of proper conduct their own, to hold forth on the world stage as a unique culture and civilisation. In hindsight, it makes no sense to criticise this decision but it must be pointed out that we were not ready for so momentous a change and even now it does not appear to have fully sunk into the Hindu mind, the devastating nature of what has been accomplished by our own volition.
Maybe there was no choice in the matter but where there was a choice, and where it was definitely not properly exercised, was the false assumptions that liberal Hindu thinkers made of the West and of the Hindu past. The liberal-humanist view which dominated the West since the 19th century was admitted as gospel by the Hindu thinkers in spite of the rocky foundations on which it stood and the many other schools of thought in the West which contested against it. Its doctrine of social equality and political freedom, along with its basis, the equally insufferable Christian narrative of peace and forgiveness, righteousness in politics and love for the whole of humanity was accepted without critique by the Hindu thinkers. Even in the West, this sentimental rubbish which can addle the human brain and disrupt the human order, has not gone without its severe critiques. To the Reformation, there was a counter-Reformation; to the Revolution, there was a counter-Revolution; and to the Enlightenment, there was a counter-Enlightenment. But the Hindu intellectuals seem to be interested only in the Western ideal of liberalism and never in the manner in which its hare-brained ambitions were constantly in the process of being tempered by conservative and reactionary thinkers in the West. To quote the view of Ananda Coomaraswamy, from the essay The Interpreters by Aatish Taseer:
India misunderstood Western modernity. It treated the ‘concrete and material achievement’ of Western civilisation as an end in itself, and ‘endeavoured rather to imitate results than to assimilate methods’.
The reason for this unfortunate state of affairs is simple. Liberalism is a universalist philosophy. All it has to do is migrate to other lands and supplant the traditions thriving there with itself. On the other hand, the conservative and reactionary thinkers of any region – British, French or German – will oppose liberalism on the basis of their own traditions. They will assume that Indian conservatives and reactionaries should accordingly fight the liberal scourge by means of their own traditions. Thus, while the Western liberal has an interest in spreading liberalism to other lands, including India, the Western conservative and reactionary has no such interest for every country is conservative and reactionary in its own way. There is, of course, plenty to learn from Western conservatism and reaction but that is an initiative which the Hindus must take themselves. Unfortunately, the Hindus do not appear to have taken such an initiative at all but have, instead, remained satisfied with the guided tour the Western thinkers have offered about the wonders of liberalism.
If the Hindu intellectuals had examined Western liberalism critically they would have noticed that it is an inherently flawed doctrine. Within the economic sphere, it is connected with the transition from a feudal to a capitalistic age which began in 17th century Europe. In feudal society, property was mainly owned by the lord and rented out to the peasants. Capitalism, on the other hand, was marked by the right to accumulate private property which is a liberal value. In the liberal philosophy, this view was not advanced merely out of self-interest but from an expectation that it would enhance a sense of citizenship, public duty and civic virtue. In the feudal world, government affairs were managed by an aristocracy consisting of the king and the nobility, and spiritual matters by the ecclesiastical authority. Liberalism began as a movement to emancipate ordinary peoples from the control of these forces; to invest them with a meaningful voice in their own governance and a right to determine their own spiritual destiny. Feudal relations were paternalistic in nature with the lord and peasant playing the role of the father and son respectively. Liberalism was a revolt against both the order and its hierarchical nature.
All of this sounds wonderful but what happened in reality was that liberalism only succeeded in destroying the paternalistic tie between lord and peasant, not the master-servant hierarchy itself, which in turn reproduced itself in the modern form of the capitalist and labourer. But in the absence of paternalism, the new master and servant were connected by the egalitarian bond of brotherhood and unlike the erstwhile lord-father in whom was vested the responsibility of protecting and nurturing the peasant-son, the capitalist, could legitimately retort when asked to provide the same welfare to the labourer: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Thus, liberalism destroyed the best of feudalism and retained its worst. Increasingly, it came to be seen as a bourgeois creed, a revolt against the aristocracy, on the one hand, the oppression of the working class, on the other. The problem is that you cannot build a human society based simply on competition and strife. The objective of society cannot be to merely create the conditions so that the best persons can win. There will always be weaker members and society is required to look after them. In case of liberalism, therefore, the result was a degeneration into socialism. The responsibility of supporting the weaker sections of society, which was shrugged off by the capitalist class, naturally devolved on the state. This, in a sense, was also a throwback to the feudal times: those who were without support, of a strong master or a strong kinsman, their support was the king. Socialism, as we know, produced significant problems of its own in the 20th century, which in turn led to a revival of classical liberalism and faith in market forces and minimum government.
This is the trajectory which the Indian liberal establishment, inheritors of the heterodox Hindu response, had joined and yet they have been merely the passive recipients of this turbulent history of Western liberalism. They were supporters of classical liberalism when that was dominant, of socialism when that became dominant, and now, since the 1990s, they have become votaries of neo-liberalism when that has become dominant. Where is their original thinking or critique of the global discourse in which they have chosen to assimilate themselves?
While the Indian liberals remonstrated against Hinduism, the energies of the liberal Hindu intellectuals were spent rather in demonstrating that Hinduism was perfectly compatible with the wonderful ideals of Western liberalism, whatever form it may take – classical, socialist or neo – and that the former need not be abandoned in the pursuit of the latter. Thus, for example, the principle of egalitarianism itself was never questioned, its merits or lack thereof were never examined. The impetus was only on showing that the Hindu ‘way of life’ did not require a compromise on this principle. And so with the other values. Hindu sarva-dharma samabhava was the best expression of pluralism and secularism. Respect for women was ensured by the worship of the divine feminine. Homosexuality was tolerated as a third gender. Most importantly, there was no conflict between science and religion in Hinduism. Not only the problems which Enlightenment purported to solve, were already solved within Hinduism, even problems created by Enlightenment had been solved within Hinduism. Of course, compared to the West the present situation of the Hindus was a holy mess but the Protestant narrative of medieval accretions, the intellectual deposits of greedy and corrupt Brahmins, was at hand to explain it.
The liberal Hindu response was thus a process of adopting Western ideals in a Hindu idiom. It was happy to abandon the prevalent Hindu norms as backward and oppressive. It only wanted the assurance that the new ways that were being adopted were the true essence of Hinduism. It was reiterated that Hindu dharma was not dogmatic like Christianity or Islam and transformed itself constantly to new circumstances. It did not matter if the constitution of modern India owed nothing to the Hindu śāstras and was derived entirely from the constitutions of France, Britain, Ireland and the USA. It could still be magically treated as if it had sprung from the holy soil of India. All in all, the new and the foreign could be admitted without admitting that it was either new or foreign.
The net result of all this has been a deplorable stunting in the Indian public discourse. No liberal value, for example, is ever interrogated. The issue is only about the compatibility and the fitness of Hinduism to promote it. Thus, with regards to any liberal value X – equality, secularism, democracy, pluralism, human rights, social justice, autonomy – the anti-Hindu, ‘Idea of India’ camp says: “X is good but in order for it to work in India, the Hindu traditions which are antithetical to X must be destroyed. The Hindus want to uphold their traditions because they are against X.” The pro-Hindu liberal camp argues: “X has always been practised in Hindu traditions and they are actually the best means to attain X. In fact, it is the Indian liberals who are not genuinely interested in X at all. They just want to destroy Hindu traditions.” As to whether X is good and desirable at all, from whence it originates and what contradictions are latent within it, are never the subjects of a debate.
It would be useful to reflect on how the Hindu intellectuals managed to read liberal values in ancient Hindu thought. Obviously it was not possible without a sleight of hand. Advaita Vedanta and its doctrine of the essential reality of the self as Brahman, especially its tat-tvam-asi ‘that art thou’ ethic, proved particularly useful in this regard. Sure, a liberal system promoting social equality could be built on this foundation but it was forgotten that Advaita Vedanta was a monastic doctrine. Just because Adi Sankara, the monk, saw Brahman in a caṇḍāla does not mean that the insight was expected to be followed by the worldly Hindu householder. Indeed, no vyavahāra (practical world) can proceed from the paramārtha (ultimate truth) of Advaita Vedanta. Whatever its pāramārthika reality as Brahman, the self manifests itself in the world as a finite being constrained by varna and jāti, and is thus obliged to follow the dharmas associated with these identities. This, at least was how the traditional Hindu world saw the issue and it is likely that even Adi Sankara would not have disagreed. The wonderful ideals of Advaita Vedanta become applicable only after one has attained vairagya-bhāva (disillusionment) and taken sannyāsa from the world. The case for traditional Hindus was that for as long as one chose to abide in the world, one remained bound by its norms as stipulated in the śāstras. This radical idea, of living in vyavahāra according to the rules of paramārtha, was learnt by the liberal Hindus from the Abrahamic religions, of course, for it is only in their case and not in the pagan traditions that people decided to live in the world in accordance with the ultimate truth, as revealed by God. Thus, it was by demoting the śāstras that were actually followed by the worldly Hindus and by valorising the doctrines found in the texts and practices of monastic groups that liberalism was grafted into Hinduism.
The Bhagavad Gita also came to the rescue of the liberal Hindus. This is a text on meta-dharma i.e. it outlines the spirit in which dharma is to be practised so that instead of binding the agent, it becomes conducive to liberation. However, it has nothing much to say on the contents of dharma itself. For this purpose, it defers to the śāstras which it upholds as the pramāṇa with regards to what should and should not be done (see last two verses of chapter 16). And the 17th chapter is for those who act merely on faith while being neglectful of the śāstras. This can be pretty useful, for one can, instead of the śāstras, follow the Indian constitution and the norms of the contemporary zeitgeist and still pretend that one is being Hindu because one is following these ‘dharmas’ in accordance with the spirit outlined in the Gita.
This critique of Hindu liberalism is nothing new and more or less follows the arguments raised against neo-Vedanta and neo-Hinduism. The issue is not with the project of cultural assimilation in the global world dominated by the Western discourse or with the abandonment of the Hindu traditions but the unfaithfulness of the Hindu liberals with regards to both acts. The former implies that one is locating oneself in an intellectual trajectory that begins with the Greco-Roman-Egyptian traditions, passes through Christianity and the other Abrahamic religions, as well as through the subsequent history of Western Europe. The Hindu liberals have shown no sign of participating effectively in this trajectory, of having made any original and noteworthy contributions to it. Rather their impetus has been on demonstrating how Hinduism is the best means for promoting whatever is considered good and desirable in this trajectory. In doing so, they have abandoned their Hindu past, neglected what their tradition itself has to say about what is good and desirable in the world. Yet, they have not shown the courage to make a clean break with it. Instead, they have dragged the Hindu traditions through the muck of obfuscation and misinterpretation, superimposing upon them the modern, liberal values of equality, liberty and fraternity, which those traditions neither understand nor recognise. As a consequence, the Hindu liberals have lost their intellectual adhikāra – they are today not recognised as an authority even with regard to their own traditions and they never did attain adequate knowledge to be recognised as an authority with regards to the Western traditions in which they have assimilated themselves.
Hindu liberalism has established itself as the dominant form of thinking in the Hindu intellectual landscape over the past two centuries. Therefore, inasmuch as upholding Hindu traditions constitutes right-wing thought, it is fair to say, along with Ramachandra Guha and Aatish Taseer, that there is no right-wing intellectualism in India. Firstly, because liberalism in its sundry forms is not right-wing and, secondly, merely reading it back into Hindu traditions is not intellectualism. But for that matter, it must also be asked as to whether there is any original and noteworthy left-wing intellectualism in India, over and above the ideas that have been propagated by Western academicians? The debate has been only about whether these ideas involve a break or continuity with the Hindu past, whether they constitute an assault on or an affirmation of genuine Hindu thought. It thus appears that if any original and noteworthy intellectualism is to develop in India, organically from its Hindu past, then it can arise only from conservative and reactionary thought and it is to these that we now turn.
The Conservative Hindu
If liberalism can be summed up by the modern values of liberty, equality and fraternity, then the essence of conservatism can be outlined by its antithesis – political despotism, social hierarchy and kinship communities. The antagonism between liberty and despotism, and between equality and hierarchy is self-evident. Let me briefly explain the antagonism between fraternity and kinship communities. Fraternity means brotherhood and suggests that people should treat each other like brothers. It entails mutual respect as autonomous beings and economic independence whether in the capitalist form, in which each one looks after one’s own needs, or the socialist form, in which the state looks after the needs of all citizens – but there is no relation of dependence or sense of obligation between the ‘brothers’ themselves.
A kinship community, on the other hand, involves the patriarchal relations typical in a family where the superior person is the master and the inferior persons are his servants. Each master could be, in turn, one among the servants of a higher master, and a servant, in turn, could be a master of his own servants. In this way, the human world can be modelled as a web of master-servant relations, where the superior protects and nurtures the inferior and the inferior serves and defers to the superior. This works, of course, under ideal circumstances, while in the bad times the superior exploits the inferior and the inferior deceives the superior. A conservative society tries to avoid this worse case by instilling a sense of honour and obligation in the master, as well as fear and obedience in the servant. The master as the father and the servant as the son forms a family and it is precisely such a web of master-servant relations embracing the whole of humanity, with protection and nurture flowing down the chain, and service and deference flowing up the chain, that constitutes a vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam, which Hindu liberals misrepresent as the equivalent of Western brotherhood. A kuṭumba (family) does not encompasses brotherly equality but rather a father-son hierarchy. In Sanskrit vocabulary, the master, the patriarch of the family, is referred to as the svāmin and the dependents are made up of the bandhu-varga and the bhṛtya-varga, which refers to his vulnerable kinsmen or the families of other jātis which serve him, respectively. When we read the ancient Indian texts it becomes apparent that this is how Indian society was constituted and all the greatness and wonder that it achieved in ancient times was on the basis of this structure, which continues to survive to some extent even today but is not permitted any discursive space, not permitted a voice to explain how it could be possible to establish a decent society under this rubric.
Now it cannot be emphasised enough that while conservatism manifests itself in the form of political despotism, social hierarchy and kinship communities, these do not constitute its essential principles though they are mistakenly understood as such by the opponents of conservatism. Rather, conservatism is a mind-set that human beings are born into nature like temporary guests and for the course of their passage on earth they must adapt themselves to the ways of nature. The so-called conservative principles are not claimed by conservative thinkers to have been conceived by means of abstract reflection, but through a careful observation of nature they have been acknowledged by them as the ways in which humans are shaped by nature i.e. to say, it is understood that a group of human beings will naturally organise themselves into a system of political despotism, social hierarchy and kinship communities.
Moreover, conservative thinkers, especially the wisest among them, will be the first to admit that such a system, even if natural, is oppressive to humankind. Hindu liberals, of course, assert strongly that Hindu thought is superior because it exists in harmony with nature but they forget that all beings abide in nature as prey and predator – to live in harmony with nature is precisely to engage in its incessant violence as food and eater. That is why this world was regarded by the ancient Indian thinkers as saṃsāra, birth within it was regarded as the greatest suffering and liberation from it, the greatest joy.
This is, in fact, a point of overlap between conservatism and liberalism. Both agree that conservative principles are inherently oppressive. The only argument that conservatives make in their favour is that, notwithstanding the oppressiveness, it is how humans are expected by their nature to live in this world and they can, if they put their mind to it, build a tolerable society within this framework. The ideal forms of existence, on the other hand, are possible only for those who have renounced the world, a point I made above when I stated that in ancient India there appears to have been a consensus across monastic and worldly schools of thought that paramārtha and vyavahāra belonged to separate realms.
This is an argument which liberalism rejects and it alleges that the naturalism which conservatism pleads, is a deliberate ploy to naturalise its oppression – there is no such thing as nature, there is only culture. The rejection makes its appearance for the first time in the Abrahamic religions and Greek philosophy when it was insisted that humans should live not in accordance with the ways of nature but the path revealed by a God outside nature or by a reason beyond the passions.
But it required modernity to finally break the back of conservatism. Faith and reason only insisted that humans should dominate the ways of nature for the sake of God or philosophy but modernity yielded to humans the power to actually do it. Given the tremendous control that humans have secured over nature due to advances in science and technology, surely it is not proper for them to merely adapt themselves to the ways of nature but through abstract reflection they should conceive of an ideal state of affairs and make it real in the here and now? This is really the nub of the issue and it is the dividing line which separates the Left from the Right. Yes, we have acquired great power but is it enough that, having disregarded the ways of the ancestors, we can simply envision a utopian society and make it real by means of education and legislation? Or is nature ultimately supreme and notwithstanding our power we are obliged to adapt ourselves to her by following the traditions that have been handed down the generations?
To answer this question, we must take note of the two forms of political thinking which occurs in the world: pragmatic and ideological. Pragmatic politics is characterised by a lack of systematic reflection on the political arrangements that ought to govern us. Human beings naturally seek power and as a result of this contest some political enterprise will gain supremacy. Pragmatic politics emerges as an afterthought to determine how this political enterprise should work so that it can maintain itself and yet not become oppressive to the people at large. This is an adjustment that is done to take care of a natural phenomenon – the human quest for power. People who engage in pragmatic politics don’t imagine a state, maybe they don’t even want a state, but a state imposes itself on them; so they come up with ideas to deal with it – to adapt themselves to it and to manipulate it to suit themselves.
Conservatives typically engage in pragmatic politics and the history of Hindu socio-political thought shows that it was essentially pragmatic and, to a great degree, continues to be so even today. The British established in India a parliamentary democracy, so we are a parliamentary democracy. If they had established something else, we would have accepted that too – like an act of nature – and made it work just as well – and just as badly – as the current system. In spite of a lack of democratic traditions, there is no serious public debate on whether democracy is appropriate for India. Instead, the goal of research has been for the most part to show how democratic traditions flourished in ancient India in the form of the gaṇarājya or janapada or the Buddhist sangha or whatever else. The truth about the democratic nature of these institutions doesn’t really matter because the purpose is never to build on those forms but to make a case for democracy in India, to show that Indians are fit for it. Once it is established, of course, it will not be followed in principle but will be adapted and manipulated by the people to suit their needs.
Democracy survives in India but anything can survive in the realm of pragmatic politics. The same is true of secularism and the rest. In fact, Hindu liberalism can itself be considered a conservative Hindu response, which is why it is so ersatz. The Hindu intellectuals did not adopt liberal values because they critically reflected upon them and found them to be perfect. They simply adapted themselves to the dominant zeitgeist which turned out to be liberalism and it was not expected to be too much of a compromise since Hinduism, as they understood it, was essentially compatible with it. In the realm of pragmatic politics, it is impossible to say anything with certainty – what principle is adopted, how it is compromised, the diverse forms it acquires in an ad-hoc fashion, and the confidence with which the disorder is hailed as a unique and outstanding form of the original principle. Like Indian secularism, which is in reality a mockery of secularism but paraded before the world by its votaries as if it were a superior form of secularism, it is all quite bizarre.
Therefore, some may argue that, properly speaking, pragmatic politics is not really “politics” at all and, indeed, from the perspective of ideological politics, the Hindus come across as an “apolitical” people. Ideological politics, on the other hand, involves a serious, self-conscious sense of political will. It means that people reflect on the structure and processes that should constitute an ideal state and then strive to make it real. They don’t just produce a rājadharma to constrain or direct a king who has made them his subjects. They argue about whether monarchy is a proper form of government in the first place, or is oligarchy or democracy a more appropriate type of political organisation. In times of subjugation, they may resort to adaptation and manipulation with the hegemonic power but they never fail to nurture ideas about how they ought to be governed as a people. When they fight against their enemies, it is not just to protect their nation but their cherished form of governance or their unique mode of socio-political organisation.
It should be evident that the Hindus are not a “political” people in this sense. In saying so, I do not mean to pass a judgement but simply reckoning a fact. A people don’t have to be political and one may even argue that being political is not such a good thing after all. But the global environment in which the Hindus find themselves today, into which they took the decision two hundred years ago to assimilate themselves, demands them to be political. That is the dilemma, for the age-old conservative strategy of adaptation and manipulation, which led them to embrace liberalism and then tweak it to their needs, will not work any more. The clash of civilisations is not a natural quest for power but a contest of political wills. Every contender in the arena has a clear idea about an ideal form of socio-political organisation. For the Hindus, therefore, it is either a case of developing a political will of their own or of waiting for someone to emerge as the victor in the clash of civilisations who can serve as the future model for adaptation and manipulation. Certainly, for a people endowed with industry and intellect, as well as a sense of self-pride, the former is the preferable option. In other words, Hindu conservatism needs to shed its pragmatism and turn ideological. And when conservatism seeks to promote itself on ideological grounds, it becomes reactionary.
The Reactionary Hindu
Hindu reactionary thought is the most challenging because it is completely antagonistic to the contemporary zeitgeist. It shares with liberalism its radical spirit and with conservatism its principles of political despotism, social hierarchy and kinship communities. However, as mentioned above, the conservatives would be the first to admit that these principles are oppressive, not ideally suited for human flourishing but required by the nature of worldly existence. If there is an alternative, then that would be certainly preferable – and liberalism claims to offer just such an alternative, which conservatives find hard to resist.
Reactionary thought is based on conservative principles but it is contrary to the conservative spirit. It is a child born of the marriage between conservatism and modernity. Its purpose is to defend conservative ideas but in the form of a non-conservative discourse, as if they constituted an ideology, the political vision of a good society. The inherent complexity and controversial nature of this project would explain why the adherents of reactionary thought are likely to express themselves in social media rather than universities, through memes and blogs rather than theoretical and systematic essays. Henry Dampier has succinctly summed up the problem in the Western context and it a applies just as well to aspirants of Hindu reaction:
What makes the dark enlightenment (of which neo-reaction is a subset) so intimidating is that its movement is one of restlessness, it is a loud stomping of male feet eager to be given direction, mixed with a horrifying skittering of unidentifiable creatures. In aggregate, it moves not at all, but the noise that it makes seems to be from another world, another time.
There is a great deal of angst in the social media today against the Indian liberal establishment but it is important to distinguish this from Hindu reaction. This angst is not against liberalism itself but that it has not been correctly implemented by the Indian government in the last seven decades. Its charge is that under the guise of liberalism, the government has been pursuing anti-Hindu policies. Its end goal is the proper application of liberalism and it is undergirded by the faith that Hinduism is perfectly compatible with this ideology. Hindu reaction, on the other hand, means that liberalism is any form will spell the doom of Hindu traditions and that it is through a development of the ancient worldly knowledges embedded in the dharmaśāstras and arthaśāstras that the future of India should emerge. These ancient Hindu worldly knowledges should become the starting point of intellectual inquiry. But how to make this possible?
The heavy-lifting for the Hindu liberals is already accomplished for them in the Western academia. All they have to do is read these values back into Hindu traditions and show compatibility. The work of the conservative Hindus is harder for they need to show through a perusal of their ancient texts of how it was possible to establish a decent society based on conservative principles. This can be of assistance to the reactionary Hindus whose task, even more arduous, is to show that conservative principles are actually good and desirable for society, not merely a necessity demanded by the nature of worldly existence. This is a tough job for it is one thing to admit conservative principles as a necessary framework of a worldly life, but how does one uphold them as the vision of an ideal society?
According to conservatism, it so happens that natural inequality between humans gives rise to social hierarchy. It so happens that the natural contest for power between humans gives rise to political despotism. It so happens that natural affection for relations of blood and marriage gives rise to kinship communities. While a rational case could be made for them, they cannot be self-consciously willed into existence. Just as a farmer can only prepare the soil but the seed germinates at its own proper time, so all that can be done is to create a favourable intellectual climate in the world, and svāmin-bhṛtya (master-servant) relations, kingships and families will spontaneously emerge. This really is the challenge before reactionary Hindu thinkers and if they can address it then we could have a genuine right-wing intellectualism in India.
To some extent Hindu conservatism can be of value in this project. In fact, from a conservative perspective, given the assumption that nature itself guides humans from within to organise themselves around conservative principles, one could argue that no rational case is necessary for them. It is similar to the manner in which Adi Sankara has explained Krishna’s counsel in the Bhagavad Gita. He says that Krishna did not ‘command’ Arjuna to fight. Arjuna had already come to the battlefield to fight on account of his warrior nature but he became deluded by sorrow and attachment. All Krishna did was to remove this delusion and let nature take its course. This is a typically conservative interpretation and the same could be applied to the conservative principles i.e. it is not necessary to make a rational case for people to uphold them. One need only remove the delusion imposed by liberalism, prevent the human mind from getting seduced into pursuing its utopian goals, point out the ruin of family life in the liberal West and of the economy in the socialist West – and freed of this deception, people will automatically return to the conservative fold which is natural to their disposition.
However, what the reactionary would like to show in the above case is that Krishna did issue a command because it was good and desirable for Arjuna to fight on the side of dharma. It would have to be asserted as an act of political will. It would not be the case that the whole of Hindu thought is conservative. There are bound to be some reactionary traditions which defended and celebrated the role of the householder, even if engaged in violence, against monastic thought. One could recover those traditions but useful support could also be drawn from reactionary thought in the West.
There is nothing to be ashamed of this now since we have already chosen to and increasingly have become culturally assimilated in the West, as evident from our language, our education system and our political arrangements. In fact, it is on account of our cultural assimilation in the West that the need for reactionary thought has imposed itself upon us. The recovery of Hindu traditions will have to be articulated in the Western discourse in which we have chosen to participate. One should take care, however, that it does not end up like Hindu liberalism and Western reactionary thought is simply read back into Hinduism. One would need to master and thus own the reactionary dimension of the Western intellectual trajectory and participate in it equipped with the knowledge of ancient Hindu thought. Unlike the Hindu liberals, the Hindu conservatives and reactionaries should be in a better position to make original and noteworthy contributions to this aspect of Western thought because Hindu thought is itself strongly conservative and reactionary in its orientation.
The West has already developed a powerful conservative/reactionary intellectual tradition in opposition to liberalism which can be applied in the modern Indian context. Besides that, Hindu reactionaries can develop their own critiques of the fundamental liberal values. Consider egalitarianism, for example. Is it an achievable goal? If not, what is the point of constantly reiterating it as an ideal? Even the West has not achieved social equality – what the West has achieved, however, is a discourse of social equality i.e. there is a hierarchy alright but that hierarchy is not permitted to express itself in discourse. This is no mean achievement, however, for in spite of the hierarchy what it does assure is that everyone is treated with dignity. This achievement we must certainly concede to the West but we should not miss the lesson it conceals: what people want is not equality but to be treated with dignity. Equality is just a means to that end. What we learn from the West is precisely that even in circumstances of inequality, everyone can be assured of being treated with dignity provided there is a discourse of equality. This raises the question of whether everyone can be assured of being treated with dignity even in a discourse of inequality. We know through our texts that a discourse of inequality prevailed in ancient India. If it can be shown through those same texts that the dignity of each person was assured through such a discourse, then it is possible to get rid of the meaningless rhetoric of social equality which our intellectuals and politicians keep parroting like a mantra. This is an example of how reactionary thought can challenge the assumptions of liberalism.
While one can thus make rational arguments in favour of conservative principles, the objective of a Hindu reactionary project, however, should ideally be to shape the Hindus into a political community based on the conservative ideology. This means that every cause dear to the Hindus does not require a rational basis and should be asserted as a matter of political will, provided it is not unreasonable. The banning of cow slaughter, for example, need not be justified on grounds of health or carbon emissions. It has to be asserted as an act of political will. The building of Ram temple at Ayodhya, likewise, need not be pleaded on the basis of faith in the birth of Ram at a certain place or archaeological evidence. It has to be asserted as an act of political will. The act of saving a cow’s life or of recovering one monument out of countless desecrated ones, are not unreasonable demands. To make them possible for reasons of science or faith, or as the outcome of a legal process, is to undercut the political significance of these acts. These events become meaningful only if they forge the Hindus into a political community and become manifest as the expression of their collective will. These acts should be done not because they are supported by reason or faith or law but because we so will it as a community. Admittedly, this would be a matter of great embarrassment and consternation for most Hindus, not because of their colonised mind-set, not because of their dhimmitude, but because this is not the kind of people we are, who go about imposing their collective will on others. But this is the kind of people the global world requires us to be, this is what it takes to survive and flourish in the new environment in which we find ourselves; to reject this would be to take the path of cultural suicide.
The sense of being a political community must be foremost among the Hindus also for the sake of preserving their traditions in a modern context. In the traditional milieu, the customary acts are repeated out of reverence for the ancestors or the gods who first performed them. In a modern society, characterised by a spirit of disenchantment, to insist on repeating the customary acts for the same reason is an act of bad faith for one does not genuinely feel the reverence for the other-worldly that is characteristic of the innocence of tradition. The only authentic reason for which continuity of tradition can be maintained is for political reasons, the fact that such acts, performed as a matter of political will, transform a people into a political community and conform to their vision of an ideal society.
A final point I should clarify is that the whole colonisation/decolonisation business is in my view a red herring. The Hindus were also colonised by the Muslim rulers. Like Macaulay, the Muslim rulers also established a governing class of Hindu administrators, expert in Persian and Arabic, between themselves and the masses. But the Hindus did not open up to the Islamic global power as dramatically as they did to the European. The Hindus chose to culturally assimilate themselves in the Western dominated global system which they had refused to do in case of Islam. This did not happen because of colonisation and it will not be reversed by decolonisation, an idea which has become famous only after it was endorsed and promoted by the Western academia – that itself should make one suspicious of it.
In any case, this was all our doing, a decision taken by a generation of our thinkers, and we cannot now run away from the consequences of that choice. For better or for worse, we are now part of the global order, participants in that intellectual trajectory which began in the Near East and developed in Europe, called upon by it to assert ourselves as a unique culture and civilisation i.e. as a political community with a political vision of our own. The only way ahead is to understand the nature of the thought which has shaped our own history – which, as far as I can see, is deeply conservative – and align ourselves with those forces in the Western discourse that are likely to be of synergistic value – which, in the modern context, can only be its reactionary dimension.
The article has been republished from author’s blog with permission.