The rise of Hindutva may prove to be the most important phenomenon of the 21st century. It is therefore of great importance to understand its meaning and implication.
India is unique as a civilization that embodies spiritual values reflecting its overriding concern for Dharma— or justice and righteous code of conduct. Of late, some politicians and intellectuals are holding up something they call ‘secularism’ as the foundation of the Indian nation. But secularism is a negative concept. All it originally meant is the negation of any role for organized religion, particularly intolerant and exclusivist religious beliefs, in the government. The same people deny also any role for India’s spiritual tradition (Sanatana Dharma) in national life. This is a deeply flawed vision, for secularism can never define a nation. United States, France and Germany are secular in the true sense of the word: their Governments are independent of religion. But that alone has not made them a single nation. What defines a nation is shared history and tradition. In the case of India, this role is played by the Hindu Civilization founded on Sanatana Dharma. Hindutva is its present-day ideological offshoot.
The term Hindutva was coined by Veer Savarkar— a man who suffered more for the country than almost any other leader. Many scholars, including Savarkar have tried to define Hindutva, but none so far is entirely satisfactory. This is because they begin with some assumptions about Hinduism and the land or the territory where it has historically flourished. This territory can of course change. A thousand years ago, Hinduism was flourishing in Afghanistan but not today. In contrast, it has now extended its reach into parts of America, which was not the case a hundred or even fifty years ago.
At the same time Hinduism is increasing in importance both nationally and internationally, with the ideology known as Hindutva gaining ground in India and abroad. There will soon be a time when Hindutva will define India as a nation, just as democracy defines the United States. It is therefore of great importance for everyone to have a clear idea of what Hindutva really stands for. For this, we must first understand what Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma stands for. This can be difficult because Hinduism embodies a state of mind and a way of looking at the world and not just beliefs and rules prescribed in a book as in the case of Western religions. The problem is compounded by the fact that for several centuries, Hinduism has been described by forces basically hostile to its spiritual aspirations and the civilization it has given rise to. The same is true of Hindutva. As I next describe, Hindutva is not tied to any sect or religious group— though it draws its inspiration from India’s ancient heritage.
What is Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma?
First we need to understand Hinduism, more properly called ‘Sanatana Dharma’. It is not a creed like Christianity or Islam, but a code of conduct and a value system that has spiritual freedom as its core.Any pathway or spiritual vision that accepts the spiritual freedom of others may be considered part of Sanatana Dharma. Let us try to understand the essentials of this value system and the associated vision that form the core of Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism.This is the foundation of Hindutva.
First and foremost, Sanatana Dharma is anadi (without beginning) and also a-paurusheya(without a human founder). It is defined by the quest for cosmic truth, just as the quest for physical truth defines science. Its earliest record is the Rigveda, which is the record of ancient sages who by whatever means tried to learn the truth about the universe, in relations to Man’s place in relation to the cosmos. They saw nature — including all living and non-living things — as part of the same cosmic equation, and as pervaded by a higher consciousness. This search has no historical beginning; nor does it have a historical founder. This is not to say that the Rigveda always existed as a literary work. It means that we cannot point to a particular time or person in history and say: ‘Before this man spoke, what is in the Rigveda did not exist.’ On the other hand, we can say this about Christianity and Islam, because they are historical religions.
Sanatana Dharma is also a-paurusheya, which means it did not originate in any man (purusha). That is to say it has no historical founder like Christianity has Jesus and Islam has Prophet Muhammad. We can say that Jesus is the purusha of Christianity while Muhammad is the purusha of Islam. These religions have no existence without their founders.
Christianity and Islam are therefore paurusheya.Hinduism has no such purusha on whose authority it rests. Hinduism is a-paurusheya also in a deeper sense, which brings it close to science, bringing its spiritual quest close to the scientific method. In paurusheya religions, the word of the purusha (the founder) must be accepted without question, and that no one else can achieve what he did. This gives rise to an enforcing authority known as the clergy to ensure that no one strays from the ‘true path’ as shown by the founder, but in reality as enforced by the human representative who claims to be the true spokesman of the purusha. This naturally leads to men exercising power in the name of God. In this scheme, the medium invariably becomes more important than God and truth.
Hinduism on the other hand acknowledges no such authority. If any work is considered great, it is because of the message and not the messenger. Similarly, a teacher is considered great because of the greatness of the teaching. For example, Vishwamitra is considered a great sage because of the greatness of the Gayatri Mantra, which he enunciated. If someone else than Vishwamitra had given us the Gayatri Mantra, it would still be considered great because of its message. It is the same with Krishna and the Gita. It is the message of the Gita that has led to people revering Krishna as a great teacher. Also, a Hindu is free to question or reject any part or all of a religious work. The teaching must stand or fall on its own merit. This is what makes it a-paurusheya. Cosmic truths existed before the arrival of Vishwamitra and Krishna. These sages, who first expressed them, were historical persons but the truth of their message is eternal and always existed.
This feature— of focusing on the message and its truth rather than the authority of the messenger brings Sanatana Dharma close to science and the scientific method. In science also, a principle or a theory must stand or fall on its own merit and not on the authority of anyone. If Newton and Einstein are considered great scientists, it is because of the power and validity of their scientific theories. In that sense, science is also a-paurusheya. Gravitation and Relativity are eternal laws of nature that existed long before Newton and Einstein. These are cosmic laws that happened to be discovered by scientific sages Newton and Einstein. Their greatness as sages lies in the fact that they discovered and revealed great scientific truths. But no one invokes Newton or Einstein as authority to ‘prove’ the truth of laws of nature. They stand on their own merit. The same is true of the Gita and the Gayatri Mantra.
In addition to these, Hinduism recognizes the freedom of the individual. It recognizes no prophet’s claim as the possessor of the ‘only’ truth or the ‘only’ way. This is probably the greatest difference between Sanatana Dharma and revealed religions. I can illustrate this with the help of a recent proclamation by the Vatican. In a just released document titled ‘Declaration of Lord Jesus‘ the Vatican proclaims non-Christians to be in a ‘gravely deficient situation’ and that even non-Catholic churches have ‘defects‘ because they do not acknowledge the primacy of the Pope. This of course means that the Vatican refuses to acknowledge the spiritual right (and freedom) of non-Catholics. This consigns non-Christians to hell, and the only way they can save themselves is by becoming Christians, preferably Catholics, by submitting to the Pope.
It is worth noting that this statement has nothing to do with God, or even noble conduct. A Hindu who lives a life of virtue is still consigned to hell because he refuses to acknowledge Jesus as the only savior and the Pope as his representative on earth. A believer is one who accepts the intermediary as the savior. God is irrelevant. He is even dispensable, but not the intermediary. Hinduism recognizes no intermediary as the exclusive messenger of God. In fact the Rigveda itself says: ‘ekam sat, vipra bahuda vadanti,’ meaning ‘universal truth is one, but the wise express it in many ways.‘
From this it is also clear why revealed religions always claim to be monotheistic: One God allows only One Intermediary. So every monotheistic religion also tends to be monopolistic. It also requires a thought police to enforce this belief system, just as every earthly dictator does. So they invariably become theocratic political systems. In contrast, in Hinduism, God is internal to the seeker. As a result each seeker has his or his own version of God. Different traditions like Dvaita, Advaita and others represent different pathways. They exercise no authority and there is no clergy to enforce belief.
This spirit of freedom is the foundation of Hindutva. Where the twentieth century was dominated by the materialist ideology of Communism, this century will see Hindutva founded on spirituality on the rise. Its rise will accompany the ecological catastrophe that is likely to overtake our planet. Ecology is not my concern in this essay, important though it is, and a topic to which Hinduism attaches great importance. In politics, Hindutva is the application of this principle of spiritual freedom to national life.
Hinduism and spiritual freedom
India is the land where Sanatana Dharma took root and flourished. So whatever her present condition, the rise of Hindutva in India will have a major impact on the history and politics of this century. It is therefore of fundamental importance to understand it role in the growth of the Indian nation. It is a uniquely spiritual ideology founded on spiritual freedom. In the light of this, ‘conversion’ to Hinduism entails accepting a way of looking at the world and not simply changing faith and adopting a new mode of worship. Above all it means acknowledging spiritual freedom and rejecting exclusivism.
It is like accepting the scientific method, which also is a way of looking at the world. But ultimately, every Hindu must place truth and knowledge above faith. There is no dogma. This is why people who are initiated into Hinduism are made to recite the Gayatri Mantra, which is an assertion of this spirit of intellectual freedom. The only enemies of Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) are those that oppose spiritual freedom. Protecting and nurturing Sanatana Dharma and the society founded on it is the responsibility of Hindutva. Rights like spiritual freedom come with responsibility.
India’s unity is of untold antiquity
After a long and dark period in its history, Hinduism is again on the rise. This is true in the national as well as the spiritual sense, for India cannot exist without its spiritual foundation. There are many Western scholars as well as Western educated Indians who hold that India was never a nation but only a collection of clans and groups in a geographical ‘subcontinent’. They further claim that Indians were united as a people for first time by the British. This has two fallacies. First, the British did not rule over a united India. Their authority extended over roughly two-thirds of India while the remaining portion was ruled by hereditary rulers — like the Maharajas and Nawabs — who acknowledged the British monarch as their chief but ruled according to their own laws and tradition. This means it is not India per se, but British India that was not a nation, but a patchwork or states. Second, although often politically divided, the goal was always to unite all of India under a single rule.
In spite of this history, it was claimed by the British, and faithfully repeated by the Leftist intellectuals, that the British unified India. This is completely false. The unity of India, rooted in her ancient culture, is of untold antiquity. It may have been divided at various times into smaller kingdoms, but the goal was always to be united under a ‘Chakravartin’ or a ‘Samrat’. There was always a cultural unity even when it was politically divided. This cultural unity was seriously damaged during the Medieval period, when India was engaged in a struggle for survival — like what is happening in Kashmir today. Going back thousands of years, India had been united under a single ruler many times. The earliest recorded emperor of India was Bharata, the son of Shakuntala and Dushyanta, but there were several others. I give below some examples from the Aitareya Brahmana.
‘With this great anointing of Indra, Dirghatamas Mamateya anointed Bharata Daushanti. Therefore, Bharata Daushanti went round the earth completely, conquering on every side and offered the horse in sacrifice.’
‘With this great anointing of Indra, Tura Kavasheya anointed JanamejayaParikshita. Therefore JanamejayaParikshita went round the earth completely, conquering on every side and offered the horse in sacrifice.’
There are similar statements about Sudasa Paijavana anointed by Vasistha, Anga anointed by Udamaya Atreya, Durmukha Pancala anointed by Brihadukta and Atyarati Janampati anointed by Vasistha Satyahavya. Atyarati, though not born a king, became an emperor and went on to conquer even the Uttara Kuru or the modern Sinkiang and Turkestan that lie north of Kashmir. There are others also mentioned in the Shatapatha Brahmana and also the Mahabharata. This shows that the unity of India is an ancient concept.
As previously noted, the British did not rule over a unified India. Far from it, for their goal was divide and rule. They had treaties with the rulers of hereditary kingdoms like Mysore, Kashmir, Hyderabad and others that were more or less independent. The person who united all these was Sardar Patel, not the British. But this unification was possible only because India is culturally one. Pakistan, with no such identity or cultural unity, is falling apart.
The spiritual tradition of Sanatana Dharma, which we call Hinduism, includes the code of Raja Dharma and Kshatra Dharma needed to defend the nation. This is also part of Hindutva. This is needed to defend society against hostile forces seeking to destroy society, especially its spiritual foundation. This is what happened during the medieval period when Islamic warriors tried to uproot Hinduism from its soil. But thanks to the heroism of both rulers and the common people, Hindutva defeated these forces and saved Sanatana Dharma. It is now being called upon to defend again in the face of cries of Jihad by fanatics across the border and intellectuals and politicians hostile to the concept of nationalism. It is therefore of paramount importance to understand what the role of Hindutva is in defending the country. This is what we need to look at next.
Kshatra Dharma is everyone’s duty
While Hinduism (or Sanatana Dharma) provides and nourishes spiritual freedom, there are always hostile forces at work that want to destroy this freedom and turn humans into intellectual and spiritual slaves. So it is always necessary to have the tools — both physical and intellectual — to protect this freedom. This part of Sanatana Dharma is called kshatra dharma. Those engaged in the defense of Sanatana Dharma are called kshatriyas. Politics, like warfare calls for the kshatriya spirit— to protect the weak and uphold values like freedom.
A kshatriya does not always fight with weapons. The intellect is as important as the sword and the gun. As Sri Aurobindo put it:
‘We should be absolutely unsparing in our attack on whatever obstructs the growth of the nation, and never be afraid to call a spade a spade. Excessive good nature will never do… in serious politics. Respect of persons must give way to truth and conscience… What India needs especially at this moment is aggressive virtues, the spirit of soaring idealism, bold creation, fearless resistance, courageous attack; of the passive tamasic inertia we already have too much.‘
His words still hold today. It was this ‘tamasic inertia’ as Sri Aurobindo called it that gave rise to endless appeasement of evil in the name of ahimsa— or nonviolence. (In Sanskrit, ‘tamas’ means darkness or ignorance.) Evil must always be resisted, not appeased. Intellectually, this calls for taking and defending unpopular positions. A kshatriya must do it.
Without this kshatriya spirit, a noble ideal like Sanatana Dharma becomes an orphan. This is what happened in India a thousand years ago. Excessive wealth and attachment to pleasure sapped its strength. Soldiers were willing to lay down their lives in defending the land, but intellectuals failed to analyze the new destructive ideology that came in the guise of religion. As Allaudin Khalji’s general Malik Kafur ravaged South India, our acharyas sat in the seclusion of their monasteries and wrote commentaries upon abstruse commentaries. There were noble exceptions. Sayana, the greatest Vedic scholar of the age, and his brother the great Vidyaranya helped Harihara and Bukka found the empire of Vijayangara. They too were Kshatriyas but fighting without weapons. They used their mind as weapons— like Krishna in the Mahabharata War.
‘The sword of the warrior is as necessary to the fulfillment of justice and righteousness as the holiness of the saint. Ramdas is not complete without Shivaji. To maintain justice and to prevent the strong from despoiling, and the weak from being oppressed is the function for which the Kshatriya was created. Therefore, says Krishna in the Mahabharata, God created battle and armour, the sword, the bow and the dagger.’
Resisting evil does not simply mean fighting invaders and other foreign enemies. There are internal evils also — lack of education, discrimination on the basis of caste, untouchability, rampant corruption — that should also be seen as enemies to freedom that must be destroyed. This is the case in India today. At the same time, in a time of national crisis, everyone has to become a kshatriya of one kind or another. Scientists have to work on new weapons to defeat the enemy. Similarly, businesses and workers must create whatever is necessary to defend the nation. Everyone must contribute to the defense of society, and not just depend on the ruling class and the professional soldier.
This is what people had to do during the medieval period when Hindu society was struggling for survival against the onslaught of Islam. In fact, many of what we call backward and scheduled castes and tribes were created out of the fighting classes when they were dispossessed by the invading armies. As the renowned medieval historian K.S. Lal has written:
‘The Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, Dalits and Other Backward Castes are there in large numbers in present-day India. Many backward classes were there from pre-historic or very ancient times, but many more were added in the medieval period spanning over a thousand years… As we put the record straight, we find that the small and scattered class of trained and traditional warriors, mostly Rajputs, stood exhausted by the time of the Mughal invasion, having fought the earlier invaders at every step for well nigh eight centuries — from the middle of the seventh to the end of the fifteenth.
The leadership of Hindu resistance to Muslim rule thereafter was provided by what are termed the Backwards Castes and the Dalits in present-day India. These classes had fought earlier under the leadership of Rajput Rajas and Zamindars. Now onwards they took up the leadership on themselves, and battled with the Moghul regime till the latter stood shattered by the middle of the eighteenth century. It is a different story that in the process the Backward Castes and the Dalits suffered grievously and found themselves in bad shape by the time the Islamic nightmare was over.’
This shows that the people we call Dalits— the Scheduled castes and tribes have made a major contribution to defending India and Sanatana Dharma. It is no accident that many such tribal clans still carry names lake ‘Nayaka’, ‘Raja’ and ‘Dorai’ that bear testimony to their previous station as warriors and defenders of the land. (History books should bring out and highlight this forgotten chapter in history.) This was so even in ancient times. In times of crisis and oppression, it was the duty of everyone, regardless of position to fight to uproot evil and defend society. This is the reason that the sage Parashurama became a warrior to end the tyranny of the Haihaya king Kartaviryarjuna.
Hindutva leads to spiritual nationalism
Hindutva therefore is an outgrowth of Sanatana Dharma as well as an essential part of it. Its main goal is to serve, defend and nurture Sanatana Dharma. It is not an aggressive or imperialistic ideology. It seeks to destroy no one except those that want to destroy spiritual freedom, i.e., enemies of Sanatana Dharma. It is no accident that the Hindus have never sent armies of missionaries to convert others. It is important to note that ‘dharma’ does not mean religion or creed or sect, but a way of life, a code and a body of knowledge. Sanatana Dharma is this body of knowledge acquired through the ages by sages, rulers and the common people.
And for India to rise again and find its place in the world, it must rediscover the message of its ancient sages. When Sanatana Dharma was going through a crisis like the present one, and leaders had lost their nerve, in the Bhagavadgita Sri Krishna gave the message to Arjuna:
‘I taught this timeless Yoga to Vivasvan, who taught it to Manu. Manu bequeathed it to Ikshvaku. This ancient wisdom transmitted through generations of royal sages became lost in the tides of time. I have taught you, my best disciple, this best and most mystical knowledge.’
Observe the importance Krishna attaches to the ‘royal sages’ or members of the ruling class. This wisdom became lost again in the darkness of the medieval age when India and her civilization were struggling for survival. Then other sages arose — from Vidyaranya and Ramdas to Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo — to lead India out of the darkness. All were sages, but they were also kshatriyas in the intellectual field. They fought hostile forces — both soldiers and propagandists like missionaries — with uncompromising force of the spirit and intellect. To inspire this struggle, Sri Aurobindo defined Indian nationalism in spiritual terms. He expressed it in public in his famous Uttarapara speech:
‘It is this dharma that I am raising up before the world, it is this that I have perfected and developed through the Rishis, saints and Avatars, and is now going forth to do my work among the nations… When therefore it is said that India shall rise, it is Sanatana Dharma that shall rise. When it is said that India shall be great, it is Sanatana Dharma that shall be great. When it is said that India shall expand and extend itself, it is Sanatana Dharma that shall expand and extend itself all over the world. It is for the Dharma and by the Dharma that India exists… I say no longer that nationalism is a creed, a religion, a faith; I say that it is the Sanatana Dharma which for us is the nationalism.’
So the message is clear. India and Sanatana Dharma exist for each other. Sanatana Dharma is Indian nationalism and Indian nationalism is Sanatana Dharma. Hindutva is the practical and political manifestation of Sanatana Dharma. It exists to defend Sanatana Dharma, while threatening no one. This was the India that Sri Aurobindo and many other sages dreamed about. It should also the dream and goal of every nationalist and leader, and everyone who holds spiritual freedom dear— regardless of race, creed or national origin.