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Posted Online on Thursday 15, September 2005 00:20 IST

Hinduism, Hindutva and Judiciary 

By Ram Puniyani <>

The Milli Gazette (online edition); September 15, 2005

Justice Varma's Judgment, Hindutva as a way of life, popularly known as Hindutva judgment, took the agenda of BJP/RSS for Hindu nation several notches up. Last month (May 2005) in yet another law suit involving Guruvayoor temple the court has given similar opinion. One recalls that way back in 1966 in a case involving Satsangis, who were asking for status of a separate religion, the court had given the similar opinion, that Hinduism is a way of life, so where is the question of Satsangis being given the status of a separate religion? 

These three major decisions from court seem to have been inspired by Dr. Radhakrishana's formulation. Trying to follow the definition of Radhakrishanan, Justice P. B. Gajendragadkar in Satsangi case pointed out that Hinduism is difficult to define, and so 'way of life' seems to be closest definition one can opt for. Again following the lead from the philosopher President he sought to find a subtle indescribable unity within the divergence of Hinduism. As per him the differences amongst Hindu sects are merely on surface and Hindus were a "distinct cultural unit, with common history, a common literature and a common civilization" (Quoted in TOI Ronojoy Sen, June1, 2005) On slightly parallel but distinct lines Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, in discovery of India writes "Hinduism as a faith is vague, amorphous, many sided, all things to all men. It is hardly possible to define it, or indeed to say definitely whether it is a religion or not, in the usual sense of the word, in its present form, and even in the past, it embraces many beliefs and practices, from the highest to the lowest, often opposed to or contradicting each other."

At surface these definitions seem to be describing the phenomenon in an appealing way. Defining Hinduism in such a way is far from accurate. The reason for the need to refer such matters to the courts seems to be, one, Hinduism is not a prophet based religion, it has no single founder and two, religions developing in this part of the world have been lumped together as Hinduism and three; there are so many diversities in the practices of Hinduism that all streams can not be painted with a single brush. Most of the judgments delivered by the courts are the one's which do not see caste as the core defining point of Hinduism. Also the attitude of judiciary has been based on common sense and the prevalent dominant discourse in the society. It is questionable if courts are theologically and sociologically equipped to define Hinduism. Surely Justice Varma while conflating Hinduism and Hindutva displays double naivety. One is at loss to understand as to how he could lump the diverse religious traditions of the country as Hinduism and see Hindutva as a synonym of Hinduism, as per him, the "terms are indicative more of a way of life of the Indian people and are not confined merely to describe persons practising the Hindu religion as a faith." This did go against the exclusionary Savarkar/ RSS definition of Hindutva but RSS was quick enough to appropriate the same court ruling to buttress its ideology. RSS/BJP started presenting its own politics in the new words, the one's provided by Justice Varma. Just to recall, Justice Varma's judgement exonerated the BJP-Shiv Sena candidates whose elections were challenged on the ground of their using corrupt electoral practices. These candidates had used Hindutva and Hindu Rajya in their election speeches and so their elections were challenged. BJP picked up from where RSS had shown the way and in the vision document released before the 2004 elections, it stated, "Contrary to what its detractors say, and as the Supreme court itself has decreed Hindutva is not a religious or exclusivist concept. It is inclusive, integrative and abhors any kind of discrimination against any section of people of India on the basis of their faith." Where is the problem? Does RSS/BJP concept of Hindusim, Hindutva and so the Hindu nation correctly describe the phenomenon? Does Radhakrishnan-Nehru-the popular discourse on Hinduism/Hindutva correctly describe these terms? Something is seriously amiss in the whole gamut of expressions and definitions as put forward by the giant's Indian politics and accepted by the judiciary. We have witnessed in practice that since the time Hindutva/Hindu rashtra came up as assertive phenomenon in the political scene during the decade of 1980s the divisiveness has gone up by leaps and bounds, the polarization of communities has gone up, and the minorities have taken a mortal fear of Hindutva and Hindu Rashtra. Their intimidation has a lot to do with the politics of RSS/BJP under the flag of Hindutva, Hindu Rashtra. While Radhakrishanan/Nehru/Judiciary have in a simple-mindedness tried to project the diversity of Hindu sects, the understanding of Savarkar/RSS/BJP is based on a particular version of Hinduism/Hindutva, is exclusionary to the core, and serves the political goals of an elite section of society. 

Before we deal with the definition of Hinduism it is important to note that there are particular markers which characterise any religion. The religions are associated with particular sentiment and emotions. Holy books, communitarian functions, rituals, ethical norms and authority of clergy are the major visible symbols of a religion. We have to see whether what is called Hinduism has these traits or not. At another level, way of life is a very broad term; it encompasses not only religion but other factors related to region, language, food habits, literary and cultural aspects of life, which may not have anything to do with religion. In a way the 'way of life' characterization of Hinduism-Hindutva is a fatigued response because of its diversity. It is an attempt to avoid the bother to oneself of understanding the definitive religious aspect of this phenomenon, Hinduism. It tries to define the phenomenon without going into its genesis and role in society. Can a religion be called as 'way of life' just because it is too diverse? On the other hand their may be people with narrow and monolithic way of life and calling it as religion. The litmus test for a religion is the existence of the parameters listed above. Does Hinduism have these parameters or not? Are emotions associated with holy deities, holy books, present in Hinduism or not? 


The emotive content and other factors listed above are crucial markers for a religion. In that sense right in the beginning we can say that Hinduism with its multiple streams is a religion without any doubt. Reducing all facets of life, the meaning which is communicated by the phrase 'way of life', the multiple dimensions of human social life to religion is invalid in itself. Religion is not and cannot be the sole content of the phrase 'way of life'. Two major points of departure for Hinduism are the absence of a founding prophet and the presence of the imprint of caste system on major aspects of Hinduism, the religious sanctity for social inequality, caste system being the soul of its scriptures and practices. The conditions under which the terms came into being also tell a lot about the real meaning of those terms. Aryans who came in a series of migrations were pastorals and were polytheists. During the early period we see the coming into being of Vedas, which give the glimpse of value system of that period and also the number of gods with diverse portfolios, the prevalence of polytheism. Laws of Manu were the guiding principles of society. This Vedic phase merged into Brahminic phase. During this phase elite of the society remained insulated from the all and sundry. At this point of time caste system provided a perfect mechanism for this insulation of elite. Buddhism's challenge to caste system forced Brahmanism to come up with a phase which can be called Hinduism. During this the cultic practices were broadened and public ceremonies and rituals were devised to influence the broad masses to wean them away from Buddhism.

It is interesting to note that till 8th century the so called Hindu texts do not have the word Hindu itself. This word came into being with the Arabs and Middle East Muslims coming to this side. They called the people living on this side of Sindhu as Hindus. The word Hindu began as a geographical category. It was later that religions developing in this part started being called as Hindu religions. Due to caste system there was no question of proselytisation. On the contrary the victims of caste system made all the efforts to convert to other religions, Buddhism, Islam and partly Christianity and later to Sikhism.

Within Hindu religion two streams ran parallel, Brahmanism and Shramanism. Shramans defied the brahminical control and rejected caste system. While Brahminism remained dominant, other streams of Hinduism also prevailed, Tantra, Bhakti, Shaiva, Siddhanta etc. Shramans did not conform to the Vedic norms and values. Brahminism categorized religious practices by caste while Shramanism rejected caste distinctions. Brahminical Hinduism was the most dominant tendency as it was associated with rulers. Sidetracking the Hindu traditions of lower castes, Brahminism came to be recognised as Hinduism in due course of time. This phenomenon began with Magadh-Mauryan Empire after subjugating Budhhism and Jainism in particular. Later with coming of British who were trying to understand Indian society, Hindu identity, based on Brahminical norms was constructed for all non Muslims and non Christians. Vedas and other Brahminical texts were projected as the Hindu texts. Thus the diversity of Hinduism was put under the carpet and Brahminism came to be recognised as Hinduism. So Hinduism as understood as a religion is based on Brahminical rituals, texts and authority of Brahmins.

The victory of Brahminism over the shramanic traditions is visible all through as brahminism was associated with social ruling classes the Landlord-traders. This was reaffirmed in not very distant past when Dr. Bhimrao Babsaheb Ambedkar tried to get an equal place in Hindu fold. He led the agitations for public drinking water for dalits (Chavdar talab), temple entry (Kalaram Mandir) and saw both these being beaten back by the traditional Hindu society. Its' due to Brahminical domination of Hinduism, which made him realise that Hinduism is basically Brahminic theology, based on Manusmriti. That's what led to his decision to burn Manusmriti and to decide to convert away from Hinduism. 

In the political changes which occurred during the British rule, modern education and industrialisation, the landlord and priestly classes felt threatened and resorted to religion as a saviour for their declining dominance of social power. In parallel to the Muslim declining classes, who used Islam for their politics, Hindu landlords/kings resorted to the use of Hindu religion for their political goals. It is from here that the concept of Hindutva started taking shape and came to be articulated by Savarkar in his book, 'Hindutva or who is a Hindu'. Since there was no uniform marker for Hindus and since politically 'foreign born religions', Islam and Christianity were to be opposed, a new definition of Hindu came into being which was based on exclusion, as per this definition all those who regard this land from Sindhu to seas as their holy land and father land are Hindus.

This was a strange mix of religion and politics. Like the political elaboration of Muslim League, Savarkar's formulations were meant to oppose the values of freedom movement and that of Indian National Congerss, those of Gandhi, in particular, "Mere geographical independence of the bit of earth called India should not be confused with real 'swarajya'. To the Hindus, the independence of Hindustan could only be worth having if it ensured 'their Hindutva-their religious, racial and cultural identity'. Swarajya to the Hindus must mean only that 'Rajya' in which their 'Swatva', their Hindutva could assert itself without being overloaded by non-Hindu people, whether they be Indian territorial or extra territorials." He summarised his Hindutva and Hindu nation in one of his presidential speeches at Hindu Mahasabha, "Yes, we Hindus are a nation by ourselves, because religious, racial, cultural and historical affinities bind us intimately into a homogenous nation and added to it we are most pre eminently gifted with a territorial unity as well. Our racial being is identified with India-our beloved fatherland and our holy land above all and irrespective of it all we Hindus will to be a nation, and therefore we are a Nation" (Hindu Rashtra Darshan, p. 52)

The first confusion occurs when the term Hindu's origin as a geographical meaning are considered. Hindus are those who live on this side of Sindhu! This is how M. M. Joshi called Muslims as Ahmadiya Hindus and Christians as Christi Hindus. Sudarshan also goes on to subscribe to this assertive trick. In this the first step everyone is Hindu because they live here, in the second step since they are Hindus they must worship Lord Ram, cow and Vedas. The second confusion is that all non Christian-non Muslims are Hindus. VHP has been opposing Jains being given minority status on the ground that Jainism is not a separate religion. Also RSS chief Sudarshan's statement that Sikhism is a mere sect of Hinduism created huge opposition from amongst Sikhs all over. The Jains have struggled against Hindutva forces and got minority status for themselves, as an independent religion and not just a sect of Hinduism. Sudarshan's 'Sikhism as sect of Hindu religion' was thoroughly opposed. The third point pertains to Hinduism not being a religion per se. What-ever the historical origins of the word Hindu, Brahminism is Hinduism of the day. It has Brahminical rituals, holy books, holy deities (Lord Ram+ others). The Ram Temple movement was propped up by using the emotive aspect related to a religious deity. Even now the campaign for cow slaughter ban is revived when the time permits, despite the fact that many of those who are dictated to be Hindus eat beef as a part of way of life. 

Than what is Hindutva, is it a synonym of Hinduism? No way. Hindutva is a synthesis of religion and politics. It is a politics opposed to the values, which came to be associated with India's freedom movement, the secular democratic principles. It is the parallel and supplement to Islamism, the politics of Muslim League. Both these are based on similar principles. Both these are subtly opposed to the transformation of social relations, both these did not participate in freedom movement and were not the subject of wrath by the British. Both these spread hatred against the people of other religions and sowed the seeds of divisiveness. Both these are exclusionary and so both these were rejected by the Indian people at the electoral level in pre-independence India time and over again. Both these are against the concept of gender and caste class equality in subtle and not so subtle form. And interestingly these formulations began with Nawabs-Rajas and were later on joined by the ideologues. While national movement had the participation of all religions, castes and both genders, these had mainly elite males of their community as the members of their politics. They both claimed to be representatives of their religious communities but were rejected thoroughly at hustings. When time permitted they did collaborate with each other in forming Governments in Sindh and Bengal and were mortally opposed to land reforms. 

Hinduism as prevails today is religion in all sense of the sociological characteristics. It is dominated by Brahminism is another matter. Hindutva is the politics based on the values of Brahminism. One wonders as to why repeatedly judiciary has to fall back on 'way of life' formulation. One also wonders why RSS etc. are opposed to Satsangis or Jains or Sikhs to have a full status of religion? One wonders a bit more how this 'way of life', which can be very libratory, can be 'successfully' used for the opposite end, as witnessed currently. Nothing can be worse than the fact that 'way of life' formulation has been picked up by the most orthodox elements, who dictate and assert a particular way as the way, a particular book as the book and a particular deity as the deity. 

Comments by Prakash Narain: 
Nascent Vedic Hinduism that survives is Vedanta

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