The Cultural Logic of Hindutva Saumya Dey
The Cultural Logic of Hindutva

Let me propose that Hindutva, when treated as the totality of the ideas of Savarkar, Guru Golwalkar and Pandit Upadhyaya, is an ethical continuum that binds dharma with dharā and rājya (state).

Hindutva and the Slanderous Liberals

The liberals consistently slander Hindutva. As a cultural or political conviction, they regard it thoroughly undesirable. A mere article such as this is not enough to recount or summarize even most of, leave alone all, the calumny that the liberals have directed upon Hindutva. Liberals deriding Hindutva is just too common. But, to get a fair idea of the terms in which they do so, let us turn to Mr. Shahi Tharoor. After all, Mr. Tharoor is the suave liberal per excellence, with a haw-haw English accent to boot – it is so correctly upper-class British.

In his most recent book, Why I am a Hindu, Mr. Tharoor spends an entire, fifty-nine pages long, chapter (‘Hinduism and the Politics of Hindutva’) establishing why Hindutva is such a bad idea and also an unnatural one. He does this by considering the philosophies of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Guru Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar and Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. Mr. Tharoor’s conclusion is that Hindutva, he appears to use the word as a representative précis of the ideas of the three, is a “Travesty of Hindusim” – this is the heading that the concluding section of the chapter bears.[1] Hindutva is Hinduism malformed and misrepresented, Mr. Tharoor alleges, because it is a denial of “the diversity within Hinduism itself”[2] – the great variety of beliefs, practices and social mores that it encompasses. Apparently, Hindutva amounts to a ‘Semitization’ of Hinduism since it is contingent upon belief in “an identifiable God (preferably Rama)” and “principal holy book (the Gita).”[3] Hindutva, thus, we are further told by this natty liberal, is incompatible with the “lived Hinduism of the vast majority of Hindus.”[4] All the more since, “Hinduism is an inward directed faith” while “Hindutva is an outward directed concept.”[5]

I beg to disagree. Mr. Tharoor is wrong. Contrary to what he and the rest of his liberal ilk claim, Hindutva is no monstrous mischief, nor an aberration to Indic tradition. True, Hindus themselves had never used the word before Savarkar. In that sense it is a neologism for sure. But I’d like to argue that the word stands for a genuine and vital expanse of the Indic civilizational mode. What Hindutva represents predates Savarkar. Just as gravity actually predates Isaac Newton – this is the truth, no matter how surprising the not so scientifically minded liberals might find it. Mr. Newton did not invent gravity; he merely observed and mathematically proved this aspect of the universe. Similarly, Hindutva is no invention; when first used by Savarkar, the word was the conceptualization of a cultural frame which has been a historically vital component of the collective Indic self. Later, it can be suggested in the light of historical hindsight, the thoughts of Guru Golwalkar and Pandit Upadhyaya continued with, or added to, this conceptualization (though they did not use the word ‘Hindutva’ itself). Let us try to identify below the bases upon which this conceptualization rests.

The Bases of Hindutva

“Hindutva is not a word but history”,[6] writes Savarkar in Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? (first published in 1928). He saw this history enclosing “all departments of thought and activity” of the Hindu ‘race’.[7] He, however, did not mean by it a consanguineous people – do not think that there is even a hint of the race theories that were in prevalence in the west then. Savarkar primarily suggests geographical identity when he uses the word. The Hindus are a ‘race’ since they inhabit a naturally delimited geographical space – “…the land that lies between Sindhu and Sindhu – from the Indus to the Seas.”[8] Inhabiting this geographical space, saw Savarkar, has lent the Hindus a shared mentality – they are a community of sentiment, or, to borrow a phrase from the historian Rajat Kanta Ray, one vast ‘felt community.’[9] Hindus, points out Savarkar, grieve together and for the same reasons from one extreme of the land to another – “The fall of Prithwiraj is bewailed in Bengal: the martyred sons of Govind Singh in Maharashtra.”[10] The Hindus also rejoice together having “feasts and festivals in common.”[11] A prominent feature of their shared mentality is the sacredness they attach to the land they inhabit – it is their “punyabhumi.”[12] To the Hindus, says Savarkar, “Sacred are its rivers, hallowed are its groves.”[13] Hinduism, “the system of religious beliefs found common among the Hindu people,”[14] is but an aspect of Hindutva – the common history of their ‘thought and activity.’

Turning to Guru Golwalkar, we find that he understood the concept of ‘race’ the same way as Savarkar. A race, he wrote in We or Our Nationhood Defined (first published in 1939), is a “population with a common origin under one culture.”[15] Every race is distinguished by a ‘tradition’ which is the “sum-total of its religious, cultural and political life.”[16] And the Hindus are a ‘race’ since living in “Hindusthan…since pre-historic times” they have acquired “common traditions, by memories of common glory and disaster, by similar historical political, social, religious and other experiences…”[17]

In my view, what emerges from the pronouncements of Guru Golwalkar, as in the case of Savarkar, is that a ‘race’ is a community of sentiment. And the Hindus are a ‘race’, a community of sentiment, on account of inhabiting the uniquely delimited geographical space that is India. Both Savarkar and Guru Golwalkar appear to view the dharma of the Hindus especially contingent upon them occupying the dharā (earth, landscape) that is India. In whatever sense one uses the word dharma – it is a remarkably capacious Indic concept that can cover mentality, tradition, culture and the quest of the Sacred – Hindus seem to have acquired it through their shared habitation and veneration (as pointed out by Savarkar) of the land that is India. The contingency of dharma upon dharā in the Indic context may be termed the first basis of Hindutva.

The second basis of Hindutva is the idea of a uniquely Indic ethical state. Pandit Upadhyaya dwelt on its nature while developing his philosophy of ‘integral humanism’. “The outlook of Bharatiya Sanskriti is integral”, he wrote.[18] This outlook, he suggested, adopts a uniquely holistic (‘integral’) approach in which the development of the human individual and welfare of society combine. This is sought to be done through the pursuit of the four purushārthas of dharma, artha, kāma and moksha.[19] In the Indic civilisational context, the state, Pandit Upadhyaya suggested, was an institution that existed to aid the pursuit of the four purushārthas. It did this by upholding the principle of dharma rājya which involved “tolerance and respect for all faiths and creeds…”[20] In other words, we may propose, this state stood neutral above all forms of dharma and enabled their observance or pursuit. Thus, while Savarkar and Guru Golwarkar combine dharma and dharā, Pandit Upadhyaya allies dharma with rājya – the state.

Hindutva is a Cultural Truth

Let me propose that Hindutva, when treated as the totality of the ideas of Savarkar, Guru Golwalkar and Pandit Upadhyaya, is an ethical continuum that binds dharma with dharā and rājya (state). Once one arrives at this understanding of Hindutva, one finds it immanent throughout the course of Indian history. Hindutva is a cultural truth. It is a uniquely Indic consciousness or, as the ancient Greeks would have called it, nomos – a philosophical means to order the world and lend it ethical sense. All culturally authentic Indians are bearers of this nomos and, hence, of Hindutva. To them the Indian landscape is not inert. It is numinous (possessing a spiritual charge) in a special manner. The dharā of India is the bearer of their dharma. Thus, at the level of a normative-spatial sense (an outlook combining a cultural value and sense of geographical space), Hindutva is but the recognition of this mingling of dharā and dharma in the minds of the inhabitants of Bharata. As far as Indic cultural convictions go, this one is truly ancient and has been acknowledged by B. D. Chattopadhyaya, former Professor of Ancient History at Jawaharlal Nehru University. In his book, The Concept of Bharatvarsha, he observes that as per our ancient forebears

“…in the other varṣas [continents] there was…no sense of dharma or adharma, or of the high and low, or of the division of yugas, Bhāratavarṣa alone journeyed through various yugas; it was the region where Karma was in operation…The other varṣas were bhoga-bhūmi, but by virtue of being karma-bhūmi, Bhāratavarṣa was projected as the best among all other varṣas.”[21]

Here I must add that before western geographers demoted India to the status of a ‘subcontinent’, she was a proper, full-fledged continent in the eyes of her denizens. India was, nevertheless, looked upon as a cultural unity.

The cultural unity of India was founded on the shared mentality that prevailed (and continues to prevail) across her length and breadth. Once again, it issued from the merger of dharma and dharā. Traditional Indian patriotism is closely linked to reverence, or, broadly, what we term bhakti – even the word for patriotism in many of our languages is deshabhakti. Indian patriotism is more than attachment to the land, the desha. It is reverence for the same as the site of the unfolding of dharma, its sacred itihāsa and the tirthas resonant with the Presence of the Divine. Historically, this outlook has played a significant role in shaping the multiple regional identities that today constitute Bharata, as well as their effortless merger into a broader Bharatiya civilisational whole. Discussing the historical crystallization of the Maharashtrian identity, Professor C.A. Bayly, the late Cambridge historian, refers to the “distinct Maratha version of Lord Vishnu, Vithoba”[22] and “the popular ballads on the life of Tukaram” which are “redolent of a sense of place, of the lived landscape of Maharashtra.”[23] He seems to imply that visiting Pandharpur to venerate Lord Vishnu in the form of Vithoba and listening to, or performing, ballads on the life of Tukaram lent the dwellers of medieval Maharashtra their distinctive cultural identity. Similarly, speaking of Odisha, Professor Bayly remarks that “the attachment of people from both the coastal plains and the upland valleys [of Odisha] to the cult of Lord Jagannatha at Puri was yet more critical in forming the subtle boundaries of a regional community [of Oriyas].”[24] Similarly, Kamarupa-Pargjyotishapura (present day Assam) in the north-east of India derived its unique identity from the shrine of Devi Kamakhya, one of the shakti pithas. Of all lands, we learn from B.D. Chattopadhyaya, Kamarupa-Pargjyotishapura was “mysterious and excellent” being “marked by the site of Mahāmāya Yoganidrā Kāmākhyā and by the constant presence of Mahādeva, Brahma and Viṣṇu as well as other divinities.”[25]A little to the south, neighboring Tripura derives its name and identity from the shrine of Devi Tripura Sundari, another shakti pitha. In the other extreme of India, in the context of Rajasthan, Norman P. Zeigler says that Rajputs drew their cohesion, a sense of being a military brotherhood, from a shared notion of the sanctity of the land they inhabited.[26] To the south of India, the land of the Andhras was especially meritorious and was called the Triliṅga-bhūmi since it was home to three shrines of Lord Shiva – Śrīśaila, Kāleśvara and Drākṣāṝama.[27] I could go on providing more examples of the kind, but I desist out of a fear of making this article over long.

The various regional cultures of India, thus, shared the same mentality – they saw the territories they inhabited as being specially suffused with the Divine. This shared mentality, in turn, actualized the cultural unity of India. As Diana L. Eck, Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard, observes, none of the sanctified regions and their tirthas of India were bearers of an exclusive sacredness. They were ‘interlocking’ and were together seen as parts of a great, pan-Indian “sacred geography.” None of them stood alone, but were “part of a living, storied, and intricately connected landscape.”[28] The sanctified regions and tirthas of India, Professor Eck says, are “inter-referential” since

“the famous goddesses of Kāshi are also linked to hundreds of goddesses in a network of association called shakti pithas…The river Gangā, skirting the city [of Kāshi], with its famous bathing ghāts is one of the “seven Gangās” of India, including the Narmadā, Godāvarī and Kāveri Rivers, each of which lays claim to the heavenly origin and gracious power of the Gangā that flows past Banāras in North India.”[29]

This ‘inter-referentiality’ of India’s sanctified regions and tirthas made, and continues to make, all of her a vast punyabhumi for those who truly consider themselves her children in the civilizational sense.

How has this association of dharā and dharma manifested itself across the length of Indian history in political behavior, or, the conception of the state? To begin with, it seems to have translated into observances that tied kingship with the sacredness of the land and constructed the Indic ethical state. For example, Professor Bayly observes that Indian “royal installation ceremonies included rituals in which kings were anointed with mud made from earth and water taken from the constituent parts of their kingdoms.”[30] He concludes that this was done since we Indians had “notions of charismatic land”[31] – I take this to be an Englishman’s manner of saying that we saw land as the bearer of dharma and, consequently, of sanctity. Once anointed, as the custodian of the rājya, the king’s role was to preserve the dharma that the dharā bore. He was expected to do this by impartially standing above all manifestations of dharma. The rājya, through the person of the king, preserved dharma by being the great arbiter. For example, writes B. D. Chattopadhyaya, “Early Indian thinkers seem to agree that all dharmas merge in rājadharma (the king’s dharma) and that rājadharma is at the head of all dharmas.”[32] Indic kingship performed this great arbiter role till very late in history. Right till the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, C.A. Bayly observes, rulers from Nepal (an Indic society) to Travancore “emphasized their role as arbiters between castes and upholders of Hindu righteousness.”[33] It looks like the rājya in India was indeed how Pandit Upadhayaya had imagined it to be, it sought to be neutral in a way as to allow every constituent unit of society to pursue the purusharthas as it wished to.

Thus, when understood as an ethical continuum combining dharma, dharā and rājya, as an ancient Indic nomos, Hindutva is none of the things that Mr. Tharoor alleges it is. Hindutva is no “travesty” of Hinduism, or Hinduism “Semitized”. As Savarkar had said, Hindutva is indeed a history because this ethical continuum, or nomos, has produced three very sophisticated historical realities – the specific form of Indic patriotism, the cultural unity of India (based on a grid of sanctified regions and tirthas) and the Indic idea of an ethical state. Terming Hindutva “outward directed” and Hinduism “inward directed”, as Mr. Tharoor does, is also a false dichotomy. Let me argue that Hindutva is the cultural ‘life world’, lebenswelt, of the Indic and Hinduism is the history and existing reality of its spiritual efforts and aspirations. As Savarkar had said – Hinduism is a derivative of Hindutva. Hindutva is not contrary to the “lived Hinduism” of the Hindus. Rather it is integral to it and embraces and represents all of its prodigious diversity.  

Hindutva beyond Savarkar, Guru Golwarkar and Pandit Upadhyaya

A question yet remains. Above I identify Hindutva as an Indic nomos. This means that its expressions should not be restricted to the thoughts of three personages alone. We ought to find its traces in the philosophies of individuals other than Savarkar, Guru Golwarkar and Pandit Upadhyaya. Do we? The answer is yes. When we do a survey of the colonial period and its intellectual history, we find that Hindutva is traceable in a lot of the political and nationalist thinking that emerged therein. Take, for instance, Swami Vivekananda dwelling on the sacredness of India. Addressing a reception given in his honor at Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 15 January 1897, he said that

“If there is any land on this earth that can lay claim to be the blessed Punya Bhumi, to be the land to which all souls on this earth must come to account for Karma, the land to which every soul that is wending its way Godward must come to attain its last home, the land where humanity has attained its highest towards gentleness, towards generosity, towards purity, towards calmness, above all, the land of introspection and of spirituality – it is India.”[34]

Then we find Bal Gangadhar Tilak reminding his country people that they, despite all their diversities, are one community of sentiment – a single ‘felt community’. Addressing a gathering at Varanasi in 1906 he said that Indians “might put on a different dress, speak a different language” but “the inner sentiments” which move all of them “are the same.” This is because, the widely loved Lokamanya said, “The study of the Gita, Ramayana and Mahabharata produce the same ideas throughout the country.”[35] Bipin Chandra Pal, Tilak’s ally and close friend, saw the entire landscape of India as a manifestation of the Devi – coming from Bengal, he belonged to the Shakta tradition of Hinduism. He, resultantly, argued that one must view the history of India as “the sacred biography of the Mother” in order to fully understand the “strange idealization” of her land by her children.[36] Pal understood that Indian civic life, collective action that engages with the state, is suffused with the spiritual. This is because, he wrote in his book The Spirit of Indian Nationalism (published in 1910), the “symbols and rituals of” of Hinduism “are all partly religious and partly civic.”[37] He, we might say, understood the close linkage between politics and dharma in the Indian context which can only be due to the Indian yearning to create an ethical state in its own manner. Shri Aurobindo too underlined that Indian nationalism is not mere politics but is entwined with dharma. Delivering a speech at Uttarpara, a town in the Hooghly district of West Bengal, on 30 May 1909, he emphatically declared that “it is the Sanatana Dharma which for us is nationalism.”[38] In sheer poetry of expression, however, this learned seer was surpassed some years later by a young boy called Subhas Chandra Bose. At the age of fifteen, in the year 1912, he wrote a touchingly beautiful letter to his mother. It was steeped in bhakti, reverence, for his desha. “Revered mother,” wrote he,

“India is God’s beloved land. He has been born in this great land in every age in the form of Saviour for the enlightenment of the people, to rid this earth of sin and to establish righteousness and truth in every Indian heart. He has come into being in many countries in human form but not so many times in any other country – that is why I say, India, our motherland, is God’s beloved land.”[39]

How could a mere child of fifteen write thus? He could because he was the inheritor of the ancient nomos that is Hindutva. It is a nomos that naturally lives in all true children of Bharata. It is beautiful as nothing else is, it is our civilization’s memories and poesis.


[1]Why I am a Hindu, Aleph, New Delhi, 2018, p.194.

[2]Why I am a Hindu, p.194.

[3]Why I am a Hindu, p.197.

[4]Why I am a Hindu, p.197.

[5]Why I am a Hindu, p.197.

[6] Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?, Hindi Sahitya Sadan, New Delhi, 2017, p.19.

[7] Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?, p.20.

[8] Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?, p.44.

[9]  Rajat Kanta Ray, The Felt Community. Commonalty and Mentality before the Emergence of Indian Nationalism, OUP, New Delhi, 2003.

[10] Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?, p.96.

[11] Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?, p.99.

[12] Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?, p.110.

[13] Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?, p.111.

[14] Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?,, p.103.

[15] We or Our Nationhood Defined, Bharat Publications, Nagpur, 1939, p.21.

[16] We or Our Nationhood Defined, p.31.

[17] We or Our Nationhood Defined, p.40.

[18] Integral Humanism. An Analysis of Some Basic Elements, Prabhat Paperbacks, New Delhi, 2016, p.46.

[19] Integral Humanism, p.47.

[20] Integral Humanism, p.49.

[21]The Concept of Bharatvarsha and other Essays, Permanent Black in Association with Ashoka University, Ranikhet, 2017, p.13.

[22]Origins of Nationality in South Asia. Patriotism and Ethical Government in the Making of Modern India, OUP, Delhi, 1998, p.23.

[23]Origins of Nationality in South Asia, p.24.

[24]Origins of Nationality in South Asia, p.73.

[25]The Concept of Bharatvarsha and other Essays, p.115.

[26] ‘Some Notes on Rajput Loyalties in the Mughal Period’ in J. F. Richards (ed.), Kingship and Authority in South Asia, Wisconsin-Madison, 1978, p.223.

[27] The Concept of Bharatvarsha and other Essays, p.24.

[28]India. A Sacred Geography, Harmony Books, New York, 2012, p.2.

[29]India. A Sacred Geography, p.3.

[30]Origins of Nationality in South Asia, p.12.

[31]Origins of Nationality in South Asia, p.12.

[32]The Concept of Bharatvarsha and other Essays, p.174.

[33]Origins of Nationality in South Asia, 45.

[34] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Mayavati Memorial Edition, Vol. III, Advaita Ashrama, 1964 [Ninth Edition], p.103.

[35] S. Irfan Habib (ed.), Indian Nationalism. The Essential Writings, Aleph, New Delhi, 2017, p.48.

[36]See Sugata Bose, The Nation as Mother and Other Visions of Nationhood, Penguin Viking, 2017, p.1.

[37] Indian Nationalism. The Essential Writings, p.66.

[38] The Nation as Mother and Other Visions of Nationhood, p.95.

[39] Subhas Chandra Bose, An Indian Pilgrim (edited by Sisir K. Bose and Sugata Bose), OUP, New Delhi, 2008 [Seventh Impression], p.138.

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