Hindutva or Hinduism? A subtle Polemic against Hindu Dharma

Hindutva or Hinduism? A subtle Polemic against Hindu Dharma


During the course of our freedom movement, the idea of nationalism as it is known to us today crystallised in its various psycho-philosophical constructs. The one carried forward by the Indian National Congress of those days could be called ‘territorial nationalism’ that had a free India as its goal, irrespective of any other characteristic of the diverse population that lived within. There was another nationalism that had its beginnings in the idea of Pakistan based on religious sentiments of the Muslims of the subcontinent and wanted to create an Islamic nation-state once the British rule ended. It is these two varieties of nationalism that were realised to some extent, though not entirely in 1947. Apart from the two mentioned here, there was another that assumed its formal shape with the formation of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, popularly known as RSS. Since its formation in 1925, RSS has been related with the idea of ‘Hindu nationalism’ with its more popular connotation called “Hindutva”. Those against the idea of a Hindu nation-state have been toiling for decades to demonise the meaning of Hindutva, at least its meaning as understood in India’s popular culture. The army of such people comprises people from the media, entertainment industry, academics and other allied professions that could have a telling effect when it comes to shaping the opinion of the common folks. The latest method adopted by the crusaders against Hindutva is to delineate the scope of Hinduism as a religion which, in their view, has nothing to do with Hindutva. This paper is an attempt to look into the reasons for raising the debate, the significance of the time at which the debate has popped up, the historical forces that played a part in shaping our society in the manner as we find it today, the cross-connection between dharma and derivatives of the term, Hindu, and the hidden agenda, seemingly innocuous and secular, propelled by various forces engaged in the job of attacking Hindutva and the entire belief system accompanying it. Therefore, it is not a mere linguistic exercise striving to differentiate the two terms – Hindutva and Hinduism. It will be argued that although neither of the two terms describes the essence of our civilisation, the debate itself could be seen as an attack on Hindu civilisation.


“It has therefore been suggested that while the methods of the natural sciences are fundamentally nominalistic, social science must adopt a methodological essentialism.” – Karl Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, 1957 [2002:26].

That’s how Karl Popper summed up the debate between ‘nominalism’ and ‘essentialism’. Going by this viewpoint, every discussion that revolves around words and their myriad connotations and interpretations ought to focus upon finding the essence of the concepts it aims to explain. Therefore, essentialism as applied by a number of scholars to the study of religions seems to be an obvious choice for those operating with a social science approach. The fact has been underlined by Carl W. Ernst who claims that “since the Protestant Reformation, the dominant concept of religions has been one of essences unconditioned by history” (Ernst, 2005:15). Does it help our cause which is one of trying to fathom the underlying deep structure within particular religions? Pondering upon the degree of subjectivity, rather intersubjectivity involved in the study of religions, one is led to conclude that studying the essence of a religion is an almost impossible task. Having lived with a different theology and worldview for a good number of years since birth, it’s difficult to understand exactly what the other person feels and believes as a member of another religion. Thus, a comparative approach seems more viable than the essentialist one. This newly developed clarity with regard to one’s methodological position could probably serve as a reliable guide in our project of examining the two competing and seemingly synonymous terms – ‘Hindutva’ and ‘Hinduism’. In fact, it could also be argued that neither essentialism nor comparative study of religions would suffice to trace the development of the two concepts. Notwithstanding the preceding sentence, one must also remember that both these terms are of recent origin. Therefore, there is a need to investigate the historicity of the two. Both differ only insofar as the term, Hindu has been suffixed by two different words, one that is “ism” being of western origin while the other, “tva” being more indigenous to our culture. It could precisely be the reason why Savarkar (1923) considered Hinduism to be a subset of Hindutva.

It has been well established that languages often carry a diachronic part that is dynamic in nature and thus meanings of words undergo linguistic metamorphosis of some sort at various points of time in history. In the process, neologisms emerge. The current debate centering upon Hindutva vis-a-vis Hinduism is one such debate which has undergone multiple waves of transformation over the years, at least over the past two centuries or so under the influence of Enlightenment in Europe that gave rise to an invigorated sense of interest in India and its people among the inquisitive European minds. While scholars such as David Lorenzen (1999) contest the fact that it was the British who invented Hinduism, the thesis finds strong support from many a scholar both Indian as well as western – Robert Frykenberg and Harjot Oberoi to name a couple of them. However, one could argue that far from inventing or discovering, it was just the suffix, “ism” that western scholars added to the word, Hindu that has existed for thousands of years in living memory both within and without the territory, inhabitants of which have been referred to by the term. There are two dominant theories that have been in wide use in order to explain the origin of the term, Hindu. The reference to the word, Hindu could be found at numerous places in ancient Sanskrit texts, but the two widely accepted theories on the origin of the term suggest that the word has a foreign origin (also alluded to by Arvind Sharma (2002) in his article, On Hindu, Hindustān, Hinduism and Hindutva). The first theory attributes it to the role of the Greeks led by Alexander as well as ancient Persians under the rule of Darius and Xerxes who pronounced Sindhu as Hindu. The other and the more recent people to repeat the same feat were the Islamic invaders led by Mohmmad Ibn Qasim in the 8th century who once again pronounced Sindh as Hind, although it was known as al-Hind even in pre-Islamic Arabia (Wink, 1990). Parallels are drawn between the description of “Sapta Sindhu” or “Sapta Sindhava” in Rig Veda (I, 32.12; I, 35.8; I, 102.2; II, 12.3; II, 12.12; IV, 28.1, VIII, 24.27 & VIII, 69.12) and “Hapta Hindu” mentioned in the ancient Persian text, Avesta.

Whatever be the origin of the term, it assumed its current connotation owing to the process that is not more than two hundred years old. The shift in the focus of the continental enlightenment that sought to explain India and its people from a freshly acquired vantage point could be viewed as a probable cause why we come to hear of the term, “Hinduism”. The addition of the suffix, “ism” goes a long way to suggest the westernisation of the values and principles of whatever the term Hindu hitherto conveyed. Before it was explained by the term, Hinduism, it could be considered to be vaguely equivalent to Hindu Dharma or Sanatana Dharma. While the two are often used synonymously, there is a need to trace the difference in the two terms owing to the diachronic nature of the term, Hindu itself. As we shall discover, the debate seems to be redundant owing to the fact that neither of the two terms possesses authoritative capability to explain the essence of a culture that has till date not been precisely located on the timeline of history as far as its origin is concerned. There could be a list of nouns such as Hinduness, Hinduhood, Hinduism, Hindutva etc. attempting to explain the essence of the civilisation, but every such term explains only a part of the reality. Owing to the unavailability of a satisfactory term that could expound the essence of the civilisation, the term sanatana assumed larger importance as a consequence of nineteenth century reform movements, especially the Arya Samaj that held the Vedas to be the authoritative texts of Hindu tradition and sanatana dharma. However, the term, sanatana could be considered to encompass a set of principles of a real dharma that is very basic to the duty of each one of us as human beings. It is synchronic and is beyond the material world. But before we elaborate upon the various meanings of Sanatana Dharma, there is a need to analyse the meaning of the word, Dharma. A simple way of making sense of the word is to think of it as a set of ethical principles to be adhered to by individuals in their conduct in every sphere of action in this world. While we shall return to analyse the philosophical significance of dharma in shaping our lives and its often overlooked interrelationship with Hinduism as well as Hindutva, we must, at this juncture, analyse the need that has arisen in recent times that compels us to undertake the task of examining the idea conveyed by those terms.

Why a fresh debate in our times?

When Sheldon Pollock took up the job of commenting upon the culture of those practicing the Hindu Dharma, he made it a point that not a single subtle technique to malign it should be left unused. This is what Pollock (1993:261) wrote while referring to the rathyatra taken up by L. K. Advani in 1990:

“It was this yatra that led, with the force of logic, to the event that inaugurated the most recent riots, the actual demolition of the mosque on December 6, 1992, not by a mob but by what appears to have been a trained group of Hindu militants.”

One wonders why it “appears” and not corroborated with facts that the mosque was demolished by a “trained group of Hindu militants”. It does not bespeak rigour in Pollock’s academic investigation. All he manages to do is to paint the event in a negative shade when it comes to portraying the Hindu content in it. Not just that, he also shows his ineptness at being able to make a clear sense of the category he attempts to analyse in the following declaration of his intent (Pollock, 1993:262):

‘It is the symbology of these events that I want to examine in what follows. For whatever ideological cohesion the BJP secured, and the primary impetus for political mobilisation – in the name of a Hindu theocratic politics and against the Muslim population – derived in large part from the invocation of a specific set of symbols: the figure of the warrior-god Rama, his birthplace temple in Ayodhya, and the liberation of this sacred site’.

The first term to strike one’s attention in the statement is “Hindu theocratic politics”. Theology as understood in a Christocentric manner falls way short of explaining anything about the practitioners of the Hindu Dharma. The notion of God itself does not have any parallel with anything we derive from the Vedas or the Upanishads, leave aside the existence of a full-fledged Theology at par with Christian theology. Therefore, Pollock’s claim is a clear sign of Eurocentrism or Euro-imposition which could be a better word to describe what has taken place for centuries preceding Pollock’s venture. But, even if one tried to overlook such points of error in Pollock’s analysis, one can’t afford to bypass his deliberate attempt to wrongly fiddle with Hindu beliefs when he calls Rama the “warrior-God”. What has been repeatedly established in our culture, as we know it today, is the portrayal of Rama as the epitome of ethical behavior, Maryada Purushottam as they call it. Thus, by any semantically correct translation, Rama is either “The Ethical God” or “God of Ethics”. In fact, Rama could also be called the “The Ethical Being”. Prefixing it with the term, “warrior” provides Pollock with the additional advantage of the chance to create a civilisational narrative based on war and violence which is nothing but a mere act of ignominious propaganda.

Hundreds of years of false propaganda and malevolent interpretation have taken a heavy toll on the minds of the people who in one or the other way led a life that drew heavily from the Vedas, Upanishads and the Gita. Hindus have lived in a state of collective amnesia for about two centuries now when they have been forced to fall back on western interpretation of their own heritage, thanks to the scholarship in India both before and after independence. It sounds quite strange as one comes across a candid confession by John Oxenford (1853) who while referring to Arthur Schopenhauer in his article entitled, Iconoclasm in German Philosophy wrote:

‘Christianity, he thinks, is a result of Hindooism, which became corrupted in its passage through Palestine, and he is excessively wroth with those missionary societies who send back to India the adulterated form of a doctrine which the natives already possess in greater purity.’

Does it not surprise us given the current context when everything western and probably Christian looms large in shaping our tastes and preferences including our beliefs and ways of logical interpretation? However, Oxenford’s observation compels us to review the debate over the struggle between Hindusim and Christianity in the 19th century which could be seen as a precursor to the modern-day debate on Hindutva versus Hinduism. If what Schopenhauer estimated about Hinduism was correct, then what went wrong that plunged it into darkness and led it towards a never-ending search for its identity?

The Colonial Onslaught

The answer to this question could be sought in the cultural history of India as documented over the past two centuries. While the official policy of the British until 1813 was one of non-interference in religious matters of the native inhabitants, there were subtle ways through which western values wrapped in the label of Christianity were impinged upon the Indian mind. Sir Henry Cotton was of the view that the missionary education could result in a “break” in the Indian thought (Bellenoit, 2007). The missionary activity in the nineteenth century took place at two planes – to begin with, it was a political affair that looked to mitigate the sufferings of many a member of the Hindu society by casting out social evils from the society. The abolition of Sati is one such grand effort. However, there was another silent manner in which Christian values made inroads into Indian society of the nineteenth century. Based upon the Hegelian view that considered Hindus as lesser humans incapable of being transformed without a helping hand from Christianity, the Education Department under the British rule gave effect to an irreversible change, consequences of which could be witnessed even in our current times. It was John Farquhar (1913) who thought that all other religions are waiting to be cloaked in Christian values through a process of evolution in which Hinduism is definitely not an exception. Hence, there was a mushrooming of Christian mission schools in every town and city of India in the nineteenth century. These schools served as centres for imparting Christocentric knowledge to young Indian minds. The schools assumed huge popularity in places such as U. P. where, as suggested by one official report entitled, General Report on Public Instruction in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, 1912, around 70% of all schools run were mission-controlled. These schools sometimes also served as battlegrounds between the school administration and the local population who sent their children to gain modern education but expressed their aversion to all means of conversion. One such incident took place in Almora when the entire school was emptied because one Hindu student converted to Christianity (Bellenoit, 2007). Hence, it could be said to be established beyond doubt that education imparted by mission schools did play a decisive role in galvanising the Indian mind with a skewed understanding of Hinduism. Some scholars such as Franz Lorinser and Nicol Manicol argued that themes of love, kindness and compassion in the character of Krishna have been incorporated owing to the influence of early missionary activity in north India, however, the view was countered by Hemachandra Rayachaudhuri who proved that Krishna’s teachings were well-contained within the knowledge hidden in the Vedas and other ancient texts (Bellenoit, 2007). Thus, the potential of the missionary education to lure the Indian mind towards Christianity could hardly be discounted, more so when looked at from the perspective that even after independence not much has changed in this sector. Mission schools are still considered to be centres of quality education with a secular tinge.

The system of school education acted just as a primer, the idea of introducing Christocentric thought to India received further fortification from college education that could be considered to be the churning platform for reformist and revivalist movements of the nineteenth century India. The disdain with which the modernisation discourse looked at Hinduism could be glimpsed in the following statement (Hopkins, 1988:60):

‘Duffs view of Hinduism was, to say the least, a negative one, as he made clear in his book India and Indian Missions: “Of all the systems of false religion ever fabricated by the perverse ingenuity of fallen man,” he says in his restrained Scottish style, “Hinduism is surely the most stupendous. … Of all systems of false religion it is that which seems to embody the largest amount and variety of semblances and counterfeits of divinely revealed facts and doctrines” (p. 155). More subtly, but with no less conviction, his school conveyed the same message to its students.’

It must be noted that Alexander Duff was the founder of the Duff School at Calcutta which later came to be called Scottish Churches’ College which was seen as the one of the pioneering institutions imparting ‘rational’ and ‘modern’ education in the nineteenth century India.

In order to get a fuller grasp of the issue under discussion, one may digress a bit from the impact of missionary education in isolation. A brief history of movements such as Brahmo Samaj as well as Arya Samaj throws light upon the fact that these movements were nothing but defensive techniques against the onslaught of the Christian critique of Hinduism, especially its institutions of polytheism and idol-worship. “Let India accept Christ”. That is how Keshab Chandra Sen expressed his predilection for Christianity as a faith over and above Hinduism while addressing a congregation at Calcutta in 1879 (Lillingston, 1901). Sen being one of the prominent leaders of the Brahmo Samaj made his agenda quite clear. It was an unequivocal evidence of the influence of Christian monotheism on Hinduism. While Brahmo Samaj remained within the fold of Hinduism, it showed clear signs of professing and propagating Christian thought in the 19th century India (Lillingston, 1901). Ram Mohun Roy confessed: “The ground which I took in all my controversies was not that of opposition to Brahminism, but to a perversion of it…” (Collett, 1873:2). Collett claims that “his great ambition was to bring together men of all existing persuasions into a system of universal worship of the One True God, the common father of all mankind.” (Collett, 1873:3). The statement could be viewed as a definite attempt at injecting the idea of monotheism within Hindu thought with its clear signs of influence from Christianity. Debendranath Tagore also had as his object “to sustain the labour of Rajah Ram Mohun Roy by introducing gradually among the natives of this country the Monotheistic system of Divine worship inculcated in the original Hindu scriptures.” (Collett, 1873:6). In his attempt, he encouraged teachings based on texts from Upanishads. Prior to that, during Ram Mohun’s time, it was the recitation of verses from the Vedas that was the major form of activity performed at the Brahmo Samaj.

The emphasis on Vedas was also the backbone of the Arya Samaj. These attempts were nothing but to manufacture an answer to the challenge of monotheism presented by Christianity. The interpretation of the Vedas and Upanishads by these reformist movements somehow looked to establish the fact that the Vedas professed monotheism which is pretty obscure. The debate between polytheism and monotheism is far from settled when one takes a closer dig at the Vedas. Ram Govind Trivedi (1954) highlights a position taken by the Rig Veda which says, Mahaddevanam Surattvamekam. It can roughly be translated to mean that there are multiple gods who derive their power form the same source. The interpretation appears to be dicey as it’s difficult to adjudicate what exactly is the notion of god as conveyed by the Sanskrit phrase. Living with the difficulty in trying to figure out whether it was polytheism or monotheism that formed the core belief of the Hindu civilisation, Ram Mohun Roy expressed his enthusiasm in favour of monotheism which was not favourable for Hindu identity in the nineteenth century as explained by R. C. Adhikary:

‘The price, however, was high in terms of Hindu identity, because by rejecting all of post-Vedic Hinduism Ram Mohan eliminated all of the major Hindu social teachings: the traditional Dharma Sãstras, Epics (including the BG), and Purãnas on which Hindu society and social values had been based for 2,000 years. In their place, he turned to the ethical teachings of Jesus, whose “simple code of religion and morality,” as Ram Mohan stated in 1820 in his Precepts of Jesus, was “well fitted to regulate the conduct of the human race in discharge of their duties to God, to themselves, and to society” (Lavan, pp. 3-4)’ (Adhikary,1926:62).

In Adhikary’s estimate, Hinduism as a doctrine had many strong points that were overlooked by reformers such as Ram Mohun Roy. Adhikary confessed:

‘The ethical basis of Hinduism is strong. Throughout whole course of its history, in the midst of all changes, maintained fairly uniformly the same code of ethics. standard is not altruism or egoism, but perfectionism Hindu sense of the word. According to this standard, is to subordinate all he has to his supreme spiritual He is to think more of the life to come than of the life He is to sacrifice his temporal interests at the altar Eternal. He is to perfect himself first, then in and himself to perfect his society and the rest of mankind. must not, however, neglect the flesh or idolize the spirit, must take account of the fact that he is a combination and spirit, body and soul. The natural and the supernatural must claim his attention.’ (Adhikary, 1926:164).

It could also be argued that the other reformist movement of the 19th century, the Arya Samaj also emerged as a reaction to four-fold critique by Christian missionaries – child marriage, untouchability, idolatry, and polytheism (Bhatt, 1968:27). With respect to the teachings of Swami Dayanand Saraswati and his project known as Arya Samaj, Diana Dimitrova (2007:91) writes about him:

‘His social teachings about caste, education, and language were influenced by contact with Christianity and Western thought and attracted the urban merchant classes who were striving for social and material progress. While he did not reject the caste system, he reinterpreted it for the new times. To him caste was not based on birth but on merit.’

Hence, it is now understood to some good extent that Hinduism that got its shape as a consequence of the diatribe unleashed by Christianity during colonial rule, was hollowed out right to its core and thus distanced itself from the doctrine of dharma.

 Is Dharma the essence of Hinduism?

There are opinions in this regard that consider our civilisation a Dharmic civilisation which could not be explained in terms of any modern derivative term such as Hinduism or Hindutva (Badrinath, 1990). Looked at from this vantage point, it seems interesting to trace the nature and role of ‘dharma’ in shaping the civilisation the way we find it today. Much before the struggle against British rule and missionary activity, there was another struggle which could be understood with the help of two historical accounts based in medieval India – one in the assumption of the title of Hinduraya Suratrana by the emperor of Vijaynagar in the 14th century, the other and more recent was the campaign led by Shivaji in the 17th century that sought to establish a “Hindavi Swarajya” in India. Both these historical facts could be seen as reaction of the civilisation based on Hindu Dharma to foreign invaders who practiced and propagated a different faith. Both these campaigns were attempts at protecting and reestablishing Dharma. In her book entitled, Dharma, Annie Besant (1964) proclaimed to the world the exalted position of Dharma which was the essence of Indian thought and a gift of our civilisation to the entire world. Thus, it is of quintessential significance that one must try and find out what is the meaning of dharma within Hindu thought.

A simple understanding of the term suggests that it is a set of unalterable set of principles that acts as guideline in one’s individual and social pursuits. However, the term is seldom interpreted in such simplistic terms. Etymologically, dharma is derived from the Sanskrit root, “dhr” which means “to have, hold or maintain” (Suda, 1970:359). It may be seen as the property of a thing that makes it what it is. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad equates dharma with Truth which is otherwise thought to be equivalent to Brahman. The thought is further reinforced by exposition contained in Brahma-Sutra which categorically states that dharma precedes Brahman. Hence, the foundational stone of all worldly pursuits is dharma over and above the realisation of Brahman. Manu’s opinion on the subject contained in Manusmriti stands in favour of the subordination of artha and kama to dharma in order for one to attain the ultimate goal of moksha. A metaphysical explanation based on Manu’s Dharmashastra was proposed by Kewal Motwani (1958) who considered it to be the process by which the One is expressed in Many and the Many is integrated into One. However, there are more pragmatic versions of dharma carrying moral appeal. Brihaspati stressed upon virtues such as daya and kshama while Yajnavalkya lists down ahimsa, satya, asteya, indrinigrah, dana and shanti as traits of the universal dharma. However, he considers self-knowledge through yoga as the highest form of all ‘dharmas’. The complexity characterising the term could be fathomed from two statements mentioned below:

“Aachaarah paramo dharmah.”, and

 “Ahimsa paramo dharmah.”

 Both statements act as didactic commandments applicable to different conditions and circumstances. A virtuous tinge to dharma has also been accorded by Tulsidas who taught his disciples:

“parahit saris dharma nahin bhai.” (excerpted from Ramcharitmanas)

 Representing a slight deviation from purely moral and virtuous standpoint, the view that emanates from Mimansa sutra, confines Dharma to the realm of observance. It is in practices based on properly performed Vedic rites that dharma is said to be observed. The Manusmriti declares that:

dharma eva hato hanta, dharmo rakshati rakshitah.”

 The statement is very clear in its message that is categorical about the fact that dharma must be protected. But what this dharma is? It could be answered with the help of the following verse from Narayana Upanishad:

“dharmo vishwasya jagatah pratishtha.”

Another interpretation of ‘dharma’ finds mention in Vaisesikadarshana which comes up with the following claim:

 “yatobhyudayanihshreyassiddhih sa dharmah.”

In order to sum up these various interpretations of dharma, one needs to focus on two popular notions of dharmarajdharma and swadharma. Rajdharma is elaborately explained by Bhishma to Yudhishthira in the Shantiparva of the Mahabharata. It is the instrument of controlling worldly affairs, especially by the King with salvation as its final goal. On the other hand, the importance accorded to the individual self in ancient Indian tradition is reflected in the idea of swadharma brilliantly illuminated with the help of a verse in the Bhagvad Gita (3.35). Therefore, a short survey of the concept of dharma posits an insurmountable challenge from an academic viewpoint when it comes to clinging to any one interpretation out of the many ways in which the term has been explained. It is precisely due to this reason that thinkers at various times have come out with their unique manner of understanding of the term, Hindu or Sanatana Dharma. Having observed these multiple interpretation of dharma, one must proceed to examine what it meant in practice in the two historical interpretations of dharma in the two historical situations referred to above, instances when it was sought to be protected and propagated.

The case of Maharashtra Dharma

Maharashtra Dharma is synonymous with Hindu Dharma according to B. K. Apte (1953). Similar views have also been held by Chitnis (1990). Hence, Maharashtra Dharma that guided Shivaji’s campaign of Hindavi Swarajya must be scrutinised in some detail in order to make sense about the nature and essence of Hindu dharma in practice. Maharashtra Dharma finds its first mention in the book, Gurucharitra that was based on the teachings of Lord Dattatreya. It was reiterated with a renewed political enthusiasm by Guru Ramdas in his Dasbodh. Even before Ramdas or Gurucharitra, ‘Maharashtra Dharma’ had already appeared in the literature published in medieval India. It featured in Mahikavati (1370) where it was concerned with personal actions and the sixteen samskaras. It hardly touched upon the issue of political pursuit in one’s life. Even in Gurucharitra, ‘Maharashtra Dharma’ emphasised on the teachings of the Vedas, Varnashrama dharma, good conduct, rites and rituals. Thus, it was Ramdas who cloaked it in a political tone and explained it with reference to its six characteristics, namely, Aishwaryakanksha, Prapanch, Lokjagriti, Shakti, Yatnadev and Swarajya and Swadharma (read as one term). The striking feature in Ramdas’s teaching was his attempt to brew an answer to the Islamic rule that engulfed many parts of India in the medieval period. Therefore, it could be argued that Ramdas was trying to erect the edifice of nationalism of some kind on the Indian soil which, in his opinion, was not possible without aiming at material success and prosperity. The first of the six characteristics precisely advocates such an attitude to be inculcated by each and every member of the Hindu society. The erstwhile philosophy taught by Shankaracharya and Kumarila Bhatta ought to be revised according to Ramdas who considered it to be a philosophy of renunciation which is not this-worldly. Thus, he emphasised upon the need to lead a worldly life and differed from Manu who stood in favour of the relegation of artha and kama vis-à-vis dharma in order to attain salvation. On the contrary, Guru Ramdas stressed upon the need to follow and practice one’s Grihasthashrama dharma more diligently than anything else because he thought that those who renounce the world for moksha end up being impoverished and miserable and also plunge their families into a situation of quandary. He called this approach to life Prapanch. But that is not all when one is out on a political mission to construct a kind of nationalism that is seldom achievable without educating and uniting people. Thus, Ramdas propounded the concept of Lokjagriti which was a process of enlightening and organising the people to live for a common cause.  The other vital ingredient, of no less significance required in the project of nation building, was physical strength according to Ramdas which he explained through the concept of Shakti. He categorically stated that “kingdoms are won by physical strength.” All this could only be realised if one believed in actions and not fate according to Ramdas. Therefore, he taught his followers to lead a life of activism which he called Yatnadev because it is only through activism that results could be obtained in this world. In the end, it was Swarajya or self-government coupled with Swadharma that would eventually result in the establishment of the nation Guru Ramdas dreamt of. What becomes quite evident is that Maharashtra Dharma as propounded by Guru Ramdas was nothing but a reaction to the challenge thrown by Islamic invaders in medieval India.

Not just Maharashtra Dharma, there were similar attempts at protection of Hindu Dharma by the rulers of the Vijayanagar Empire as early as 1352 AD when the first mention of the term, Hinduraya Suratrana could be established (Wagoner, 1996). Although Wagoner and other historians of medieval India have erroneously translated Suratrana as “Sultan among Hindu Kings”, the term in Sanskrit actually means “Protector of God”. Thus, in response to the Islamic challenge posed by the Sultans of Deccan, the Hindu rulers of Vijaynagar assumed the responsibility of protecting their Gods as well their beliefs and practices.

Contextualising the Present

The invective against Hinduism in modern times is multi-pronged. It could be seen on the religious-philosophical plane where other cults such as Christianity and Islam try to make incursions into the Indian soil attracting many more fresh converts. However, there is a political side to it as well. The modern polemic in the form of International Religious Freedom reports seems to corner anything that is pro-Hindu with a pejorative portrayal of the term, Hindutva. While the cause of all such polemic is supported by the Jesuit mission, one must be aware of the fact that the reason for the worry among parties both within and outside India could be many.

A survey of contemporary politics in India has surprised many a scholar and observer owing to the phenomenon of affinity of the “low” castes with Hindutva groups (Upadhyay, 2013:7). Thus, the amalgamation of those at the bottom rungs of the society with the politics of Hindutva is definitely a matter of worry for many engaged in the project of balkanising India. It is interesting to note that the mutuality between the politics of Dalit-Bahujan and religious conversion is also pointed out by Upadhyay (2013:10) in the statement below:

“Conversion cannot be said to be operating within the sanskritization process but it is important to note that there is a rupture in religious affiliation of low castes and Dalits with Hinduism.”

Thus, one must analyse the modes of reasoning that constrain our imagination in current times owing to a variety of reasons, globalisation and mass media being of prime significance among them. A question must be asked: Why are we compelled to believe that we live in a world based on faith when so much is said and written about the process of rationalisation, first theorised and explained by Max Weber in a comprehensive manner? We live in times when our Bollywood actors express their aversion to meet the Prime Minister of Israel who was accorded full state honour by our country only because they had issues with the conflict between their faith and the faith represented by Benjamin Netanyahu. We also know that Israel is the natural home for the people of Jewish faith living in every corner of the world. In a world where market dynamics seem to dominate international affairs, religious freedom is seldom a forgotten issue. It featured in Obama’s speech when he was invited as the chief guest of India’s Republic Day celebrations in 2015. What does religious freedom imply in religio-political sense? The International Religious Freedom Report, 2017 (section on India) is nothing but a polemical attack on Hinduism taken in its modern sense. It has continued since the controversy emanated from the content of the school text books in the American state of California. Both Hindu Educational Foundation and Vedic Foundation were described as organisations representing “militant Hindu groups in India” (Bose, 2008:11). Any attempt by Hindu organisations to oppose what describes our past in a pejorative sense has been criticised as militant under the pretext of preserving religious freedom. It is in this backdrop that one needs to revisit the whole debate of Hindutva versus Hinduism in modern times. The efforts of both HEF and VF were sought to be neutralised by Michael Witzel of the Harvard University. An excerpt from a paper of which he is one of the co-authors tells us why:

‘The Hindutva movement also has historic links to Italian and German forms of fascism from the 1920s and 1930s, and another form of textbook revision can be seen in its treatment of fascism. Prashant, an NGO based in Ahmedabad and lead by Jesuits, undertook an analysis of Gujarati class nine textbooks in 2005 and found several distortions and omissions on this count: “There is no mention of Hitler’s role in the concentration camps, the holocaust and the extermination of millions of Jews; in fact, the role of Hitler is seen as always positive.” Similarly, the Gujarat state class ten social studies textbooks contained chapters titled “Hitler, the Supremo” and “Internal Achievements of Nazism” where Nazi administrative efficiency is lauded. The Holocaust is not mentioned by name, but “the gruesome and inhuman act of suffocating 60 lakh [6 million] Jews in gas chambers” is noted. The section on “Ideology of Nazism” translates Hitler’s title of “Fuhrer” as “Savior.”’ (Visweswaran et al., 2009:103).

The most common analogy drawn between any viewpoints hinting at Hindutva is with Fascism and Nazism of the twentieth century Europe which is nothing more than propaganda owing to the fact that while genocide and slavery have been commonplace instruments wielded by rulers in the West, nothing of the sort has ever been a part of our civilisation. Analogies at times could be more misleading than falsity. Isn’t it? Coming back to the issue, one could read between the lines from the International Religious Freedom Report, 2017 on India. The section named “Key Findings” of the Report claims:

‘National and state laws that restrict religious conversion, cow slaughter, and foreign funding of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and a constitutional provision deeming Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains to be Hindus helped create the conditions enabling these violations.’

Can we discern the concern aired in the report regarding two things – prohibition of foreign funding of NGOs and absence of schism between Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains. A careful analysis of this statement read together with the above excerpt throws more light on the subject. It could be clearly seen that the polemic against Hindutva has been led by a Jesuit NGO, ‘Prashant’ in the case of Gujarat. The efforts of the NGO also attempts to draw parallels between Hindutva, Fascism and Nazism. This is probably what hurts those who drafted the International Religious Freedom Report on India, 2017. A ban on the foreign funding of NGOs could well spoil their new tactic of leftist-imperial imposition of varied nature guided by theories of “cultural Marxism” on ancient civilisations such as ours. Thus, the designs of those working towards converting from Hinduism can hardly be overlooked, although these are often presented under the garb of flowery terms such as “religious freedom” and human rights. Hence, the battle going forward is neither philosophical nor theological. Such questions hardly matter anymore as Hindutva itself has been translated as Hinduness (International Religious Freedom Report, 2017:2) which multiplies the degree of vagueness attached with the term. Rather it’s a battle of literature production. More voluminous the polemical literature against Hindu Dharma, the greater shall be the damage. It is something we need to counter and guard against.


Adhikary, R. C. (1926). The Present Religious Situation in India. The Journal of Religion,6(2), 163-173.

Apte, B. K. (1953). The Contents of Maratha Nationalism. Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 16, 285-287.

Badrinath, C. (1990). Dharma: The Individual and World Order. India International Centre Quarterly, 17(2), 26-38.

Bellenoit, H. J. A. (2007). Missionary Education, Religion and Knowledge in India, c. 1880-1915. Modern Asian Studies, 41(2), 369-394.

Besant, A. (1964). Dharma. Madras: Theosophical Publishing House.

Bhatt, G. S. (1968). Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj and the Church-Sect Typology. Review of Religious Research, 10(1), 23-32.

Bose, P. (2008). Hindutva Abroad: The California Textbook Controversy. The Global South, 2(1), 11-34.

Chitins, K. N. (1990). Medieval Indian History. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers & Distributors.

Collett, S. D. (1873). An Historical Sketch of the Brahmo Samaj. Calcutta: Calcutta Central Press Company.

Dimitrova, D. (2007). The Development of Sanātana Dharma in the Twentieth Century: A Rādhāsoamī Guru’sPerspective. International Journal of Hindu Studies,11(1), 89-98.

Ernst, Carl W. (2005). Situating Sufism and Yoga. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 15(1), 15-43.

Farquhar, J. N. (1913). The Crown of Hinduism. London: Oxford University Press.

Hopkins, T. J. (1988). The Rediscovery of the “Bhagavad Gita” in Modern India. Journal of South Asian Literature,23(2), 58-72.

Jamison, S. W. & Brereton, J. P. (2014). The Rigveda: The Earliest Religious Poetry of India. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Lorenzen, D. N. (1999). Who Invented Hinduism? Comparative Studies in Society and History, 41(4), 630-659.

Lillingston, F. (1901). The Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj in their bearing upon Christianity: A Study in Indian Theism. London: Macmillan and Co.

Motwani, K. (1958). Manu’s Dharmashastra. Madras: Ganesh & Co.

Oxenford, J. (1853). Iconoclasm in German Philosophy. The Westminster Review, III(2), 388-407.

Pollock, S. (1993). Ramayana and Political Imagination in India. The Journal of Asian Studies, 52(2), 261-297.

Popper, K. (2002). The Poverty of Historicism. London: Routledge.

Savarkar, V. D. (2016 [1923]). Essentials of Hindutva. CreateSpace.

Sharma, A. (2002). On Hindu, Hindustān, Hinduism and Hindutva. Numen, 49(1), 1-36.

Suda, J. P. (1970). Dharma: Its Nature and Role in Ancient India. The Indian Journal of Political Science, 31(4), 356-366.

Trivedi, R. G. (1954). Hindi Rigveda. Prayag: Indian Press.

Upadhyay, S. P. (2013). Sanskritization at large: Cultural changes in Contemporary India. Indian Anthropologist, 43(2), 1-24.

S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. (2017). Annual Report. US Federal Government.

Visweswaran, Kamala, Witzel, M., Manjrenkar, N., Bhog, D., and Chakravarti, U. (2009). The Hindutva view of History: Rewriting textbooks in India and the United States. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 10(1):101-112.

Wagoner, P. B. (1996). “Sultan among Hindu Kings”: Dress, Titles, and the Islamicization of Hindu Culture at Vijayanagara. The Journal of Asian Studies, 55(4), 851-880.

Wink, A. (1990). Al Hind: The Making of the Indo-Islamic World. 2 vols. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Featured Image: Times of India

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

Akhilesh Pathak

The author is a PhD Scholar at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.