Is Religion the biggest impediment to progress in the modern world ?

And do you think that unto such as you

A maggot minded, starved , fanatic crew

God gave a secret, and denied it to me?

Well, well — what matters it? Believe that too!

-THE RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYAM

(RICHARD LE GALLIENNE TRANSLATION)

The young man boards the bus as it leaves the station. He wears an overcoat. Beneath an overcoat, he is wearing a bomb. His pockets are filled with nails, ball bearings, and rat poison. The man’s parents soon learn of his fate. Although saddened to have lost a son, they feel tremendous pride at his accomplishment. These are facts. These are what we know for certain about the man. Is there anything else we can infer about him on the basis of these facts? Was he popular is school? Was he rich or poor? Was he intelligent or not? Did he have a college education? His actions are simply mute on questions of this sort. Why is it , then, not so difficult  to guess this man’s religion?

One does not have to strive to look very hard to find examples of Religious violence and the misusing of Religious ideologies for political purposes. Even today, in 2017, politics is rife with religious rhetoric, sometimes feeding off the hatred that these ideologies evoke. Some critics have even said that India’s Secular tradition has slumped and that the state is tilting towards fascism with the rise of Hindu Nationalism. The Partition in 1947 which led to the formation of the Dominions of India and Pakistan resulted in a conflict that has not been resolved even after 70 years. One cannot downplay the significance and role of religion in the Partition. Ambedkar, in his speech, “One country, two nations’ made a distinction between the “Hindu Nation” and the “Mohammedan Nation.” Religious-based violence and militarism has been present as early as the 11th century during the The Crusades which  were a series of religious wars sanctioned by the Latin Church in the medieval period, especially the campaigns in the Eastern Mediterranean aimed at recovering the Holy Land from Islamic rule. Max Weber was the first to predict that there would be a “clash of civilizations” between Islamic Fundamentalism and the West in late 20th century. This “clash” is evident with the formation of various extremist groups like Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Hizbullah and the Islamic State. The Islamic State is more than a terrorist group. Their numerous Human Rights abuses like Religious and minority group persecution, Treatment of civilians, Child soldier, Sexual violence and slavery, Attacks on members of the press,  Beheadings and mass execution, Destruction of cultural and religious heritage clearly represent a 7th century ideology. Couple this with a 21st century apocalyptic weapon, and you have a recipe for the destruction of civilization.

Why is it so easy so politically instrumentalize Religion and why do conflicts between and because of Religion persist even in today’s day and age ? Almost all conflict today is because of or in some way related to Religion. Dogmatic belief in any ideology is dangerous. But unlike Religion other ideologies are subjected to criticism and can be discussed and debated on. Both Religious extremists and moderates demand that faith be respected and this has put Religion outside the ambit of rational debate. It has somehow immunized itself overtime to the kind of scrutiny and criticism that we apply to every other area of human discourse. Further, unlike doctrines of other ideologies that constantly improved upon and changed, Religious texts are static. It can be argued that the contents of these texts are purely metaphysical. However, belief in these doctrines have real world consequences.

A belief is a lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything else in a person’s life. Your beliefs determine your vision of the world; they dictate your behaviour; they determine your emotional responses to other human beings. Consider how a you would behave if you came to believe one of the following propositions

  1. You have only two weeks to live.
  2. You’ve just won a lottery prize of a hundred crore rupees.
  3. Aliens have implanted a receiver in your skull and are manipulating your thoughts

These are mere words—until you believe them. Once believed, they become part of the very apparatus of your mind, determining your desires, fears, expectations, and subsequent behaviour. There seems, however, to be a problem with some of our most cherished beliefs about the world. They are leading us, inexorably, to kill one another. The link between belief and behaviour raises the stakes considerably.  Subscribing to the kind of beliefs that religion prescribes can be dangerous because it is a totalitarian solution to everything, or at least claims to be. Religion’s essential fanaticism, consideration of the human being as raw material and its fantasy of purity is what makes it a problem in the contemporary world. Once you assume a creator and a plan (as monotheism does explicitly) it makes us objects in a cruel experiment whereby we are created sick and ordered to be well. And over us to supervise this is installed a celestial dictatorship, exigent for uncritical praise and swift to punish the sins with which it so tenderly gifted us in the very first place. Salvation or redemption is promised at the price of the surrender of our critical faculties. Is it good for the world to appeal to our credulity and not to our scepticism? If someone were to seriously represent their belief that the Earth was as big as the Sun,  he/she would immediately be ridiculed and branded as a lunatic.  However, Jesus Christ—who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death, and rose bodily into the heavens—can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. You are just a Catholic if you believe in this proposition. Is there any doubt that a lone subscriber to these beliefs would be considered mad? I would maintain that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. However, religion does not provide even a shred of ordinary evidence for its supernatural claims. The danger of religious faith is that each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that all others must.

I cannot of course propose that all conflict and violence stem from Religion. However,  as the Historian Steven Weinberg puts it “ In an ideal model of the world with or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” The mildest criticism of religion is also the most devastating one. Religion is man-made. Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or redeemers or Gurus said or did. Religion was in the words of Christopher Hitchens “Our first attempt at the truth, and because it is our first, it is our worst.” The scriptures were probably beneficial to us at a time when men were ignorant about so many things. For example, micro-organism disease was explained by curses from witches or ill-wishing. We now know that diseases come from micro-organisms. Its ghastly reliance on the supernatural is what renders it immune to honest scrutiny. One encounters an ocean of liberal delusion while trying to criticize any of these faith-based ideologies. For example, any criticism of the doctrine of Islam is conflated with bigotry against Muslims as people. Islam is after all an idea and there is a big difference criticizing an idea and criticizing people. Sam Harris in his thesis of Collateral Damage imagines how our recent conflicts would look like using “perfect weapons” – which are defined as weapons that allow us either to temporarily impair or to kill a particular person, or group, at any distance without damaging anything or killing anyone else in the surroundings. How would George Bush have used perfect weapons? Would he have targeted the thousands of Iraqi civilians who were maimed and killed? There is no reason to think that he would have sanctioned the death of even one innocent person. How would Religious extremists use these weapons? Intent is the key point here. Not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development.

I would like to conclude in the words of the late Christopher Hitchens, “…we have the same job we always had, to say as thinking people and as humans that there are no final solutions, there is no absolute truth, there is no supreme leader, there is no totalitarian solution, that says that if you would just give up your freedom of inquiry, if you would simply abandon your critical faculties, a world of idiotic bliss can be yours. We have to begin by repudiating all such claims. Grand Rabbis, Chief Ayatollahs, infallible Popes, the peddlers or surrogate and mutant quasi political religion and worship, the Dear Leader, the Great Leader, we have no need for any of this.”

The author, Aditya Kumar, is an ex-student of  Political Science at St. Xavier’s college, Kolkata.

 

 

 

Hindutva: A Ghost Story

 

It’s easier battling the living. You can be sure where your weapon falls. The cut it makes. The blood that spills.

But, fighting a ghost is another thing.1 You can’t just begin right away. In order for the fight to be possible, you got to create the ghost. You got to work really hard.

Because, creating a ghost, is a huge issue. After you’ve done your bit, jotted the details, joined the dots, and can almost see the shape emerging before you, there are high chances of your discovering just another dot you’d completely overlooked, a little detail you’d previously missed.

And dots are generally too many. And they are all over the place. And the crazy thing about them is that you can join them to make whatever you wish. The ghost of a pumpkin. The ghost of a cactus. Anything.

And when that ghost is the ghost of Hindutva, things (usually) take a wrong turn. The cactus becomes the pumpkin. The pumpkin then becomes the pie. So, what was in the beginning a thorny plant, is gradually made to appear as a sweet-dish.

In this essay, I would like to un-do the picture a little. Un-join the dots. And then join them once again. To present the cactus as the cactus. The pumpkin as the pumpkin. And the sweet pie as a lie.

Here follows a set of three myths, which combine to create the pumpkin pie, the ghost, the giant myth of Hindutva.  The worshippers of the ghost—they who fly by night, they who chant its name, they who offer up flesh and blood to slake its monstrous thirst—they want us to believe in these myths. I argue against ‘them’. I argue against ‘their’ politics. I go like this—

            Myth Number One: ‘Hindu’ just means ‘Indian’, so chill !

This is kind of cute. Like Juliet calling the rose in ‘any other name.’

Well, to establish that ‘Hindu’ is not just ‘Indian’, but also the chauvinist, patriarchal, masculine Hindu, one must begin etymologically. Arguably, the earliest traceable use of the word ‘Hindu’ appears in Zend Avesta—

The first chapter of the Avestan Vendidad contains an allusion to a portion of Northern India in a list which it gives of sixteen lands or regions…The fifteenth of these domains, was Hapta Hindu, ‘Seven Rivers’, a region of ‘abnormal heat’, probably identical with the territory of Sapta Sindhavas, ‘Seven Rivers’, in the Veda.2

It is interesting that even in this very first instance (possibly) of the use of the word, the religious is not separate from the territorial. It is probably anticipatory of how the word eventually came to bear connotations both regional and communal.

The semantic bifurcation of the word established itself clearly for the first time, as the word travelled to the west and the east.3 In its Persian and Greek acceptation, the word became a signifier of region—‘the-whole-landmass-stretching-between-the-Hindukush-and-the-Hindu Sagar’ (yes, you’re right)—and, in its Chinese acceptation, it possessed a religious dimension—the followers of a religion, Hinduism.

For a considerable time in history, true, that ‘Hindu’ meant Indian. Yet, gradually by and by, the word came to be used (prominently, at least since the sixteenth century) in its religious sense. Ekanath (1548-1600) writes: ‘If I call myself a Hindu I will be beaten up, and Muslim I am not’ (Hindu kahan ta mariya, muslaman bhee nahe).

However, despite its lack of clarity (or because of it) the word Hindu, after a brief period of flirtation with other words, was ‘adopted by the British to characterise all things in India (specially elements and features found in the cultures and religions of India) which were not Muslim, not Christian, not Jewish, or, hence, not Western’, as affirmed by Frykenberg.4 Thus, came about the idea of pan-Indian Hinduism.

Now, the rise of this idea of pan-Indian Hinduism, coincided with the emergence of Indian nationalism. Hence, inevitable questions began to be raised about the relationship between the two: will Indian nationalism (or nationalisms) be territorial or religious in nature?  This issue, which remains unresolved to this day, went back to the ambiguity inherent in the word ‘Hindu’—does it stand for a country or a religion? The fact that both the words: India as well as Hindu, etymologically go back to the same word (Sindhu) dramatised this issue of ambiguity.

One can thus visualise two channels along which the energies released by the emerging nationalist forces in India could play themselves out. One channel was that of territorial nationalism—an aspiration represented by the Indian National Congress. Another was represented by the All-India Muslim League, formed in 1906, more in line with the optional channel of religious nationalism. Although there was an initial Hindu reaction also to move in that direction, it was basically checked by the rise of Gandhian influence in Indian politics from 1920 onwards and the primacy which the Indian National Congress began to enjoy thereafter. However, Indian and Hindu nationalisms did finally begin to diverge. This happened after the collapse of the Khilafat movement of 1919, which ended in a series of communal riots by mid-1920s. The founding of the RSS in 1925 clearly symbolised this vicious breach.5

It was during these times that neo-Hinduism began to emerge, as distinct from the other reformist Hindu movements as the Arya Samaj,6 Brahmo Samaj, and the Ramakrishna Mission. Neo-Hinduism began to display a distinctly ethnic streak and evolved a word to go with it—Hindutva.

The word was first popularised as the title of a book by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? The book is the real charter of the neo-Hindu ethic, and was written in prison, after he had come in contact with Khilafatists whose attitude apparently convinced him—a revolutionary till then—that Muslims were the real enemies, not the British.7

Savarkar’s stand is very close to the British stance of pan-Indian Hinduism. If you read carefully between the lines of Savarkar’s text, he is talking about an ethnic standardisation. National identity rests for him on three pillars: geographical unity, racial uniformity, and a common culture. Commonness, standardisation and adjustment are the watchwords. There is no place for diversity, difference or multifariousness.

Though in his text he affirms again and again, that ‘we have all along referred to the progress of the Hindu movement as a whole and not to any particular creed or religious section thereof’—never does he show whole-hearted acceptance of Islam or Christianity as valid ways of living. Rather, they are ‘others’ who must be ‘brought in’ and standardised, that is made to shed all differences of culture or community.

He asks, ‘But can we, who here are concerned with investigating into facts as they are and not as they should be, recognize these Mohammedans as Hindus?’ His reply is, ‘they cannot be called Hindus in the sense in which that term is actually understood, because, we Hindus are bound together not only by the tie of the love we bear to a common fatherland…, but also by the tie of the common homage we pay to our great civilization—our Hindu culture…our Mohammedan or Christian countrymen…cannot be recognized as Hindus. For though Hindusthan to them is Fatherland as to any other Hindu yet it is not to them a Holyland too. Their Holyland is far off in Arabia or Palestine. Their mythology and Godmen, ideas and heroes are not the children of this soil. Consequently their names and their outlook smack of a foreign origin. Their love is divided. Nay, if some of them be really believing what they profess to do, then there can be no choice—they must, to a man, set their Holyland above their Fatherland…’8

Thus, even for Savarkar, the subtlest and the most muted of the Hindutvavadis, ‘Hindu’ and ‘Indian’ are not equal. The Hindu is whose ‘Holyland’ (whatever he meant by that) and ‘Fatherland’ (what would Freud have said about his choice of word?) are the same—India. He is the true Indian. But, oh for the ones less fortunate! They are half-Indians, however much they belong to the land, just because they are a follower of a different religion, and because their ‘holyland’ is not in India. He suggests that their only means of integration into this (now) secular democracy is to give up their religious identity. This includes, among other things, an acceptance of Hindu customs, the Hindu system of Caste, and the acceptance of Sanskrit as the one language of the nation.

Please note that this is not a call for secularism. This is not an appeal to citizens to see themselves as Indians first, and then as members of their religion. Because, simply, Savarkar’s advice is not for Hindus. He is not advising Hindus to forget that they are Hindus to qualify as Indians. This is something that the ‘other’ religions must do.

Cute. Isn’t it?

——-

Myth Number Two: Don’t worry, Hindutva is not Saffron Radicalism…

            Rubbish.

Hindutva is Saffron Radicalism. An emotion of a particularly bad sort.

Look up some excerpts from Savarkar’s book, Bhartiya Itihasatil Saha Soneri Paane (‘Six Golden Epochs in Indian History’).9 On pages 390-391 of the above-mentioned book, Savarkar takes to task the Marathas for not taking revenge on Muslims in response to the atrocities committed around the year 1757 by Abdalli. Savarkar would have liked the Marathas to not just take revenge, but to annihilate Muslim religion (Mussalmani Dharma), exterminate the Muslim people, and make India “Muslim-free”. He reports with great approval how Spain, Portugal, Greece and Bulgaria had done a similar thing in the past and ensured the safety of Christianity.

Further (page 392), Savarkar is unrelenting in his criticism of the Marathas for failing to exact revenge, not only on Abdalli and his forces for their atrocities on Hindus, but on those ordinary Muslims who continued to live in Mathura, Gokul, etc. According to Savarkar, the Maratha army should have killed ordinary Muslims (that is, not soldiers only), destroyed their mosques and raped Muslim women. The revenge was to be taken, not on the perpetrators of the earlier atrocities, but on those who had nothing to do with the earlier episodes, on those who were ordinary residents of these places and whose only crime was that they shared their religion with the perpetrators of the earlier atrocities. The above reference from Savarkar’s book indicates that he believed in the collective guilt of Muslims: they were to be punished not for what they had done, but for what their co-religionists had done.

What would you call this? Hindutva? Saffron Radicalism? Or both?

Or, would you finally say that they are the one and the same thing?

Here’s an excerpt of an interview, published on March 3, 2003, of the famous historian Bipan Chandra—

What exactly does Hindutva mean?

Hindutva is nothing but Hindu communalism. But the word ‘communalism’ is so dirty in our country that even communalists don’t call themselves communalists. The votaries of Hindutva have shifted from their initial stance on Hindu rashtra.10

Yet, the Supreme Court of India, in its Supreme Knowledge and Authority, has sought to define ‘Hindutva’: in its historic 1995 judgement, it conferred upon ‘Hindutva’ the status of a ‘way of life’. Hindutva apologists have, for long, clutched on to this piece of judicial ruling as conclusive philosophy. I will let it go by saying that whichever Hindutva the judgement talks about, it is not Savarkar’s Hindutva. In fact, the judgement doesn’t even mention Savarkar.

It is like delineating Marxism without talking about Marx, or the Gujarat of 2002 without Narendra Modi.11

———-

Myth Number Three: Join your Hands, and Close your Eyes, for Hindutva Rejuvenates Bharatiya Culture.

            Please. The only thing that Hindutva does to ‘Bharatiya’ culture is that it destroys it.

The other day, I read a sketchy post by a wannabe Hindutvavadi. In the twisted, little write-up he desperately sought to get one fact straight: Indian culture is under threat, and Hindutva is the answer.

Yes. Our culture is under threat. But Hindutva isn’t the answer. It is the threat.

Let’s get back to etymology for a while: have you noticed the tendency among Hindutvavadis and Hindutva-sympathisers to call India by the name ‘Aryavarta’? ‘Aryadesa’? ‘Aryabhoomi’?

If Lacan is right, and the unconscious is indeed structured as language, the preference for this particular term has an explanation. The Hindutvavadis often preach that this our Aryavarta has been subjected to invasions by foreign races, and their cultures have engulfed and replaced ours. Our only means of rejuvenating our great Aryavarta is through Hindutva.

This amounts to assuming that ‘Aryavarta’ is India Unadulterated. Its culture is India’s Original Culture.

Let’s begin by saying that when India was Aryavarta, there was no cricket, no chai (let alone chaiwallah), no Doordarshan (‘India ka Apna Channel’), no Tata Salt (‘Desh ka Namak’), no democracy. In other words, there was no India. It was another civilisation. It wasn’t us. Besides, if you think of it, anyway the original inhabitants of this land were not Aryas, not Hindus. Believe it or not, there was life before Hinduism. Perhaps, India’s Adivasi people have a greater claim to being indigenous to this land than anybody else.

On a graver note, this hankering after Authentic Indian Culture has tremendous connotations. Note, that this is racism at its highest worst. Note, that this authenticity was what drove Hitler to the murder of a generation of Jews. No wonder, Gowalkar, the respected RSS ideologue, its second chief after Hedgewar, and a great fan of Hitler, wrote—

In Hindustan, land of the Hindus, lives [sic.] and should live the Hindu Nation…All others are traitors and enemies to the National Cause…The foreign races in Hindustan…may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment—not even citizen’s rights…To keep up the purity of its race and culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic races—the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here…a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.12

To those who say, we need Hindutva to counter cultural invasion, I have just a few questions. Are nuclear bombs Hindu (Indian)? Is corporate-globalisation particularly protective towards what you call Indian Culture? …Yet, these are measures, either taken, or supported by the BJP, a political party that has (at least, had) ‘Hindutva’ as one of its official policies, both written in its manifesto, and publicised by its cadres.13

It’s interesting that just when Manmohan Singh, then the finance minister, was preparing Indian markets for neo-liberalism, Advani went on his first Rath-Yatra.  In December 1992, the Babri Masjid was demolished. In 1993, the Congress government of Maharashtra signed a power purchase agreement with Enron—a contract, disastrous as it turned out, that kick-started the era of privatisation in India. Then, as the Congress whined from the sidelines, the BJP wrested the baton from its hands. The first act of the BJP in office was to conduct a series of nuclear tests. Across the country, sadhus and corporates alike, celebrated the Bomb. The VHP wanted to distribute radioactive sands from the Pokhran deserts as prasad to people all across India.

The BJP government conducted an extraordinary dual-orchestra. While one arm kept busy, selling off the nation’s assets in chunks, the other, to divert attention, arranged a baying, howling, deranged chorus of Hindutva. The inexorable ruthlessness of one process fed directly into the insanity of the other. Parts of the enormous profits generated by the process of indiscriminate privatisation went into financing Hindutva’s vast army—the RSS, the VHP, the Bajrang Dal, and the myriad other charities and trusts that run schools, hospitals and social services. Between them they created tens of thousands of shakhas across the country. The harted they preach, combined with the unmanageable frustration generated by the relentless impoverishment and dispossession of the corporate globalisation project, still fuels the violence of poor on poor—the perfect smoke screen to keep the structures of power intact and unchallenged.

Now talk about culture-invasion.

———-

Even as I write this, notifications pop up on my laptop screen, showing the rotund face of Uma Bharti. ‘Kuchh saazish nahi, sab khullam khulla hai, Ram Mandir banke rahega. Koi maai ka laal nahi rok sakta…14

Oh, the ghost of Hindutva!

Oh, the worshippers of that ghost!

Tell us something:

Have you heard Ghalib? Have you read the Book of Revelation? Do you know what nehari tastes like? Have you been to Kashmir?

Of course you haven’t.

Stay in your grave. RIP.

Notes—

  1. Jacques Derrida’s invocation of the spectral in Specters of Marx provides the basis for my metaphor of the ghost. In his text, Derrida introduces the figure of the spectre/ghost for its potential for deconstruction. The figure of the ghost suits Derrida’s deconstructive purpose, as well as my own essay, because, it ‘is neither substance, nor essence, nor existence, is never present as such.’
  2. See Jackson, A.V. Williams, ‘The Persian Dominions in Northern India Down to the Time of Alexander’s Invasion.’ In Ancient India, ed. E.J. Rapson. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, pp. 319-344.
  3. The findings about the etymology of the word ‘Hindu’ draw on Arvind Sharma, ‘On Hindu, Hindustan, Hinduism and Hindutva.’

The author, Suchismito Khatua, is a student of English at St. Xavier’s College, kolkata.