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The aberration of Hindu fundamentalism.

AN English friend, a scholar of comparative religion, asked me some while ago if I thought the Hindus living in this country were affected by the virulent propagation of Hindu fundamentalism by one of the political parties in the context of India's last general election. If so, would it add to inter-ethnic tensions in Britain? I said that, first of all, Hindu fundamentalism was a contradiction in terms. The dictionary definition of fundamentalism, of a literal acceptance and maintenance of a finite set of traditional orthodox beliefs of a religion, did not apply to Hinduism. There was no one set of beliefs which a Hindu was required to accept and practise. But, in setting out to provide a better understanding of the new assertion--which I do here--I am accepting reference to Hinduism as a religion and its aberrant form as Hindu fundamentalism as they are thus identified in the public mind. Neither notion is correct, but I will have to be thus content.

The propaganda for Hindu fundamentalism did not spring from any new discovery of principle in the great Hindu texts that had not previously been applied in the last 3,000 years. It was an unscrupulous exploitation of the economic ills of a vast underclass for acquiring power.

Most people are familiar with the religious persecutions in the histories of the revealed religions of Semitic origins -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- which have demanded compliance with the Word and the Book. There is no historical evidence of such persecution in the Hindu kingdoms since Vedic times. The kings (among whom were my own ancestors) were good, bad or indifferent, but none indulged in persecuting subjects or travellers who did not worship as they did or as their organised priesthood conducted public or private worship. The Muslim scholar, Al-Biruni, who travelled in India in the 11th century and made an extended study of Hinduism, amply makes this point. The principle of tolerance was handed down to me in impressive oral traditions.

The attitude was a strongly ingrained one. It had its origin in that Hinduism was not a religion in the sense in which the word is understood, that is, a particular system of faith and worship. It was primarily a moral order of humanity and righteousness within a highly organised social system. Its historic texts are singularly free from dogmatic affirmation concerning the nature of God. Its core did not depend on the existence or non-existence of God. It is possible to be a good Hindu whether one believes in a single god, or many gods, or an ultimate principle or being, or no god at all. Hinduism is thus a matter of ethics rather than belief. It had no specific name until other religions made their entry into India, when it too acquired a religious significance.

This absence of dogma is basic to an understanding of Hinduism. The Hindus themselves called their moral order sanatana dharma, a concept hard to translate from the Sanskrit. The closest, but yet incomplete, way of comprehending it is to think of an eternal law that governs all human and non-human existence. It gives absolute freedom of belief about the nature of God and form of worship. Dogmas, and therefore religious dogmas, can only be transitory and distort a transcending truth. A passion for dogmatic certainty has racked the religions of Semitic origin. And hence the incessant quarrels within them. The great Hindu teachers through the centuries expanded that all religions are simply different phases of the same Truth, called God by those who so prefer. The intellectual debate of the nature of this Truth has been a continuing one. A significant element of this debate is that it does not seek to safeguard Hinduism and protect conformity, but encourages revision and improvement.

As the Indian elections were announced, unscrupulous men were waiting and reaching out for a theme to exploit the long-suffering millions of India's poor for electoral gain and power. For many years, the future of the country had looked more threatened than ever before. It was rent by violence for regional autonomy, political assassinations became commonplace, and planners and big business were engaged in a systematic rape of the environment regardless of the cost to the hapless poor. Poverty was on a gigantic scale and seemed beyond remedy.

In this tumultous background, voters were asked to cast their votes for the next government. Few of them dared hope that whatever the leadership and whatever the campaign promises, their lives would ever begin to improve. The leaders of the party which purported to represent the Hindus were fully aware of this, and knew that yet another election platform built on the trade worn promise of poverty eradication would take them nowhere. A wholly new and unbeatable tactic was needed to win. An idea worthy of Dr. Goebbels was found. It was to concentrate all on India's glorious past (who would dare ask if it was all that glorious?) and to promise a restoration of |Ram Rajya', or a government of the quality of Lord Rama's, when he ruled from the city of Ayodhya as the seventh incarnation of the God Vishnu, the preserving element in the Hindu Trinity. That government, in Hindu tradition, was one of justice and plenty for all.

Why was this false promise so dangerous? Because it associated progress and prosperity with a vigorous application of the Hindu way of life to the exclusion of all other. Secularism, it said, had degenerated into disrespect for Hinduism, and paved the way for upstart assertion of other beliefs. India had to eschew secularism, and become a Hindu state.

The campaign was hinged on a most convenient and unsolved dispute of many years between Hindus and Muslims in north-western Uttar Pradesh, the most populous if in parts backward Indian state. It was about a tiny site in Ayodhya. The site was claimed by the Hindus, suitably tutored, to be the precise birthplace of Rama, Rama Janmabhoomi. It was said that a temple dedicated to him had once stood there but had been razed by the armies of Babar, the first Mughal emperor, in the 16th century. The Moghuls had then, sacrilegiously, built a mosque on the selfsame spot and, as a sign of the downgrading of Hinduism, it was still there. it was a regular occurrence for politicians to appear here at election times to incite the Hindus against the Muslims, who otherwise lived together in reasonable amity. The old differences would now be used on a nationwide scale, reinforced with the promise of Ram Rajya for the entire nation. A heady specific for a largely unsophisticated electorate.

Media interviewers -- no Sir Robin Day or Brian Walden among them -- on the country's economic failures and appalling poverty were skilfully side-tracked. Attention was channelled on the prime need to move the mosque (funds were offered for its re-erection elsewhere), and to rebuild the temple. The suggestion was that the latter was the foremost task before the country, and the inescapable first rung in the ladder for the climb back to Ram Rajya. The Muslims, justifiably, failed to see the logic. No matter, for it was the Hindu votes that would swing the election. No plausible evidence was ever produced to justify the claim to the holy birthplace, because none can exist.

As with all conspiracies, once the first imaginative leap had been made, the rest followed with intoxicating logic. The drums of orthodoxy and zealotry were loudly beaten to stir up rigorist enthusiasm, and whole contingents of the innumerable Hindu religious orders of the bizarre kind flocked to support the campaign. All aspects of it were reduced to sheer images, taking account of the preponderance of illiteracy of the voters. For the first time in Indian elections, graphic arts were made use of on a grand scale. These assumed a variety of repellant forms and offered rich opportunities to the coarser type of popular artist. Videos, posters and cartoons dispensed with the usual confines of decency. The endless repetition of slogans manipulated the poor Hindu voters and dehumanised the enemy, the Muslims of the region. They were presented as sinister enclaves of irrational backwardness and inferior culture. The leaders, when confronted by the media, denied responsibility for the excesses. But the campaign went on, and violence was never far away.

This campaign to establish a Hindu state of India acquired the name of Hindu fundamentalism, terms previously unknown in 3,000 years of Hinduism. There are no Hindu fundamentals' in it whatever. The concept is as non-hindu as can be, and this is how it is seen in the principal centres of study of Hinduism in India. This essay has not set out to establish that there are no undesirable features in the practice of Hinduism, because there are many which have achieved substance motivated by fear and self-interest. Not surprising when one considers the age of Hinduism and that there are 600 million Hindus. My aim is to refute the idea that Hindu fundamentalism has any authority in the Hindu philosophical code.

In the event, the fundamentalists did not win. What might have been the outcome had they won is fearful to contemplate in the context of a statement made by one of the leaders that India did not need democracy when it had a set of fundamental rules -- those set by the party, of course. Because of the influences of power, it is reasonable to assume that there would have been a real danger of secularism degenerating into disrespect for other faiths, notably Christianity and Islam, and individualism being scoffed at as slavish imitation of the West. The idea of a multi-religious society that once commanded almost universal acceptance, not least after independence, would almost certainly have suffered a setback.

For all this upheaval, only in areas where there are serious poverty and overcrowding together with substantial Muslim minority populations is there any support from Hindus for the aberrant thesis. The emergence of Hindu fundamentalism is not so much a religious phenomenon as a political one. Therefore, the dire economic stress on India's millions has to be overcome. Hindus living in Britain (not to be confused with the other immigrants from the sub-continent) have generally done well for themselves, shown little interest in any form of extremism, and posed no social or political threat to the host nation. They may not have read the Hindu texts, but know enough of their enshrining principles of tolerance. Further, they do not remain untouched by the many strands of British liberal thinking, which has influenced Hindu thinkers and philosophers of the last 200 years.

There is a profound lack of understanding of Hinduism in this country. Media pick up its bizarre and fringe aspects for public hearing or viewing. Interviewers appear to have access only to singularly inarticulate (in English) Hindu savants to answer their questions.

My English friend also asked me to which form of Hinduism I subscribed -- one god, many gods, one principle or no god? I said I didn't have to declare myself, as there was no fear of excommunication, or accusation of heresy, or fear of a death sentence. It was my private business.
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Author:Seshadri, B.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Aug 1, 1992
Words:1865
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