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Strengthening Indianness

`In building an Indian nation that takes account of the country's true Hindu heritage, we have to return to the pluralism of the national movement.'

IN my last column I argued the case for a tolerant Hinduism, as opposed to an intolerant Hindutva, in contributing to the strengthening of Indianness. Quoting Swami Vivekananda, I deplored the anti-Hinduism of the bigots who are perverting its doctrines in the name of all Hindus. I would like to develop this theme further today.

The misuse of Hinduism for sectarian minority-bashing is especially sad since Hinduism provides the basis for a shared sense of common culture within India that has little to do with religion. Hindu festivals, from Holi to Deepavali, have already gone beyond their religious origins to unite Indians of all faiths as a shared experience (the revelry of Holi and the lights, firecrackers, mithais and social gambling of Deepavali have made both into secular occasions). Festivals, melas, lilas, all "Hindu" in origin, have become occasions for the mingling of ordinary Indians of all backgrounds; indeed, for generations now, Muslim artisans in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi have made the traditional masks for the annual Ram Lila. Religion lies at the heart of Indian culture, but not necessarily as a source of division; religious myths like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata provide a common idiom, a shared matrix of reference, to all Indians, and it was not surprising that when Doordarshan broadcast a 52-episode serialisation of the Mahabharata, the script was written by a Muslim, Dr Rahi Masoom Raza. Hinduism and Islam are intertwined in India; both religions, after all, have shared the same history in the same space, and theirs is a cohabitation of necessity as well as fact.

Both Hindus and Muslims throng the tombs and dargahs of Sufi Muslim saints. Hindu devotional songs are magnificently sung by the Muslim Dagar brothers. Muslim sociologists and anthropologists have argued that Islam in rural India is more Indian than Islamic, in the sense that the faith as practised by the ordinary Muslim villagers reflects the considerable degree of cultural assimilation that has occurred between Hindus and Muslims in their daily lives. The Muslim reformist scholar Asghar Ali Engineer has written that "rural Islam ... (is) almost indistinguishable from Hinduism except in the form of worship .... The degree may vary from one area to another; but cultural integration between the Hindus and Muslims is a fact which no one, except victims of misinformation, can deny."

To some degree, India's other minorities have found it comfortable to take on elements of Hindu culture as proof of their own integration into the national mainstream. The tennis-playing brothers Anand, Vijay and Ashok Amritraj all bear Hindu names, but they are Christian, the sons of Robert and Maggie Amritraj, and they played with prominent crosses dangling from their necks, which they were fond of kissing in supplication or gratitude at tense moments on court. But giving their children Hindu names must have seemed, to Robert and Maggie, more nationalist in these post-colonial times, and quite unrelated to which God they were brought up to worship. I would not wish to make too much of this, because Muslim Indians still feel obliged to adopt Arab names in deference to the roots of their faith, but the Amritraj case (repeated in many other Christian families I know) is merely an example of Hinduism serving as a framework for the voluntary cultural assimilation of minority groups, without either compulsion or conversion becoming an issue.

It is possible to a great extent to speak of Hinduism as culture rather than as religion (a distinction the votaries of Hindutva reject or blur). The inauguration of a public project, the laying of a foundation stone or the launching of a ship usually start with the ritual smashing of a coconut, an auspicious practice in Hinduism but one which most Indians of other faiths cheerfully accept in much the same spirit as a teetotaller acknowledges the role of champagne in a Western celebration. Interestingly, similar Hindu customs have survived in now-Muslim Java and now-Buddhist Thailand. Islamic Indonesians still cherish the Ramayana legend, now shorn (for them) of its religious associations. Javanese Muslims bear Sanskrit names. Hindu culture can easily be embraced by non-Hindus if it is separated from religious faith and treated as a heritage to which all may lay claim.

The economist Amartya Sen made a related point in regretting the neglect by the votaries of Hindutva of the great achievements of Hindu civilization in favour of its more dubious features. As Sen wrote: "Not for them the sophistication of the Upanishads or Gita, or of Brahmagupta or Sankara, or of Kalidasa or Sudraka; they prefer the adoration of Rama's idol and Hanuman's image. Their nationalism also ignores the rationalist traditions of India, a country in which some of the earliest steps in algebra, geometry, and astronomy were taken, where the decimal system emerged, where early philosophy — secular as well as religious — achieved exceptional sophistication, where people invented games like chess, pioneered sex education, and began the first systematic study of political economy. The Hindu militant chooses instead to present India — explicitly or implicitly — as a country of unquestioning idolaters, delirious fanatics, belligerent devotees, and religious murderers."

Sen is right to stress that Hinduism is not simply the Hindutva of Ayodhya or Gujarat; it has left all Indians a religious, philosophical, spiritual and historical legacy that gives meaning to the civilizational content of secular Indian nationalism. In building an Indian nation that takes account of the country's true Hindu heritage, we have to return to the pluralism of the national movement. This must involve turning away from the strident calls for Hindutva that would privilege a doctrinaire view of Hinduism at the expense of the minorities, because such calls are a denial of the essence of the Hinduism of Vivekananda. I say this not as a godless secularist, but as a proud Hindu who is mortified at what his own faith is being reduced to in the hands of bigots — petty men who know little about the traditions in whose defence they claim to act.

(Concluded)

The first part of this article appeared on January 5, 2003.

Shashi Tharoor is the author of India: from Midnight to the Millennium and the recent novel Riot. Visit him at www.shashitharoor.com

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