Hindu Dharma and Hindutva

Are the same or different?

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Two eminent Hindu spiritual leaders share their thoughts on the relationship between Hindu Dharma and Hindutva. The answer they offer is unambiguous: Hindutva is nothing but the essence of being a Hindu, just as Christianity is the essence of being a person of Christian faith.

Swami Mitrananda

Etymologically, Swami Mitrananda said, the word Hindutva emerges from Hindu-Tattva, meaning the essence of Hinduism. For the Hindu, Hindutva means a way of life that is one of accommodation, where both the primitive and the sublime seeker are uninhibitedly embraced. This is something unique and beautiful about Hindu Dharma which has the depth to accommodate the primitive seeker – the one who is just starting, as well as someone who is highly advanced.

In the past, the differences of opinion were openly debated to arrive at the truth. Today, the debate has been replaced with the creation of narratives; the side with access to power is the one that gets heard. That precisely is how Hindutva is getting defined.

In other words, even though there is no difference between Hindu Dharma and Hindutva, the public perception of Hindutva is very negative, thanks to a strong contrarian narrative. Citing the example of the Aryan invasion theory, he said it had no place in history books if it were just a theory and not a fact. But generations of people have read this and believe that settlers came from Central Asia to India, brought Sanskrit with them, and people living in Bharat were Dravidians who got pushed to the South. This narrative has become so entrenched that when it is debunked through carbon dating or astronomical and geographic evidence, it is dismissed and dubbed Hindutva.

He then drew attention to the fact that while other faiths in India manage their own institutions, Hindu temples were controlled by the government, and often the person in charge was not a devotee. But when it is suggested that Hindu temples be given to Hindus to run, it is called Hindutva.

Swamiji said using celebrities had been another way to set the narrative. In that segment of the public, which is Hindu by birth but knows little about Hindu-Tattva, this messaging causes confusion. When attempts are made to correct it, the voices are silenced by terming them as fundamentalist, fascist, or Bhakt. The latter term, he said, was a lovely word emanating from the beautiful quality of Bhakti, but now it has been deliberately equated with fanaticism.

Historically, the narrative has been taken from the hands of Hindus. In the centuries of suppression through Islamic invasions and European colonization – not just British but Dutch and French too – traditional Gurukulas were destroyed. Ancient universities like Takshashila, Nalanda, Vikramashila, and Vallabhi were destroyed and forgotten, leaving in their space a narrative created by the outsiders that served to instill a sense of inferiority. The hope was that an independent India would right this wrong, but instead, the appeasement of minorities became important in electoral politics, and when some tried to resist this, that voice again got labeled as Hindutva.

Swamiji explained that Hindutva was the practice of Hindu culture and values. That means there is the freedom to worship any god, but Indian culture has to be followed. In Indonesia, he said, despite it being an Islamic country, the Ramayana was not forgotten but embraced as part of its culture. If a person lives in India, there are basic Samskaras everyone should follow, like saying Namaste, touching the feet of elders, or viewing the rivers and earth as mother. This idea has been demonized and has divided people, with some saying they were practicing Hindus but were against Hindutva. Swamiji said all these forces acting together make the voice of assertion sound fanatical.

Hindutva is clearly about standing up for one’s rights. This became a need, Swamiji said, when co-existence was denied to the Hindu, who, because of his accommodation, does not have theological enemies but is perceived as one and is, therefore, forced to raise his voice for preservation.

He warned that if nothing is done to reclaim what is lost, what is there cannot be sustained either. The region, he pointed out, had, at one point, been populated predominantly by Hindus. There has been geographic shrinking over time, and even within Bharat, there are states where Hindus are not a majority anymore.

The best thing to do, he said, is not to be bothered about being termed fanatic and know that it is being said only to gain silence. He suggested that if someone were to be called Bhakt, to proudly accept it and say that negative connotations lay in the other person’s perception alone.

Swamiji also urged the honing of communication skills. With the youth, the information had to be imparted in ways accessible and friendly to them. It was the responsibility of global organizations to see that the right information emanated and ensure that Hindu youth understand their faith better.

Swami Sarveshananda

Hindu dharma is Vedic Sanatana Dharma, the oldest and the only continuing civilization in history, said Swami Sarveshananda.

One person did not coin Hindutva; as soon as the word Hindu started, its Hinduness was immediately recognized. It is not a narrative or a political movement or standpoint. Hindutva is a Tva-Pratyaya added to the word Hindu. Tva-Pratyaya, when it is added to say sugar, becomes sugar-tva, and its essence is expressed. Similarly, the essence of Hinduism is the Hindu Tattva, said Swamiji.

He spoke of how at one point, present-day Afghanistan, Tibet, Nepal, Bangladesh, Burma, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka, were all considered Bharat. He observed how Sanatana Dharma had been under attack for over 1,300 years while noting the destructive swathe that the rulers of Ghori and Ghazni cut through India and the evangelical approach of the various Europeans who landed on India’s shores. He estimated that over 80,000 temples had been destroyed or repurposed for other religions in this time frame.

After 1857, when Mangal Pandey led a revolt against colonialism, the scope of the emulsification of Hindu culture became systematic. That is when the effect of Macaulay and Max Muller began to be felt. The first thing done to break the civilization was to end the Gurukula system. The second was to inflict all of their histories on India while shrinking the Indian one. So, among other things, the Aryan invasion theory was born, and the concept of a proto-Indo-European language was given credence. Then came the Marxist-Socialists with their understanding that to create something new, the old has to be destroyed. The result has been that even after independence, Hindus are yet to find that independence civilizationally, religiously, and spiritually.

Turning his attention to the Diaspora, Swamiji opined that months of planning goes into events like those that aim to dismantle Hindutva (Ed. Here, the reference is being made to the DGH conference), and several years poured into research to create narratives through works like those of Sheldon Pollock or Wendy Doniger. All the while, professors and educators are produced to occupy key positions at universities to continue the same talking points. The narratives run so deep that children in elementary schools are taught the same things.

This hatred towards Hinduism, he said, is a historically recognizable one – since the first attack through invasions had failed, the attempt was now being made to get to the Hindu psyche. The word Hindutva has been seized, meaning assigned to it, and thrust back on academia and society at large. Even school textbooks in India carry the same narrative. It has become impossible to explain that just as Christians and Christianity are conflated, so are Hindus and Hindutva.

On the other hand, things have been conveniently misappropriated from India. There have been attempts to patent Basmati, turmeric, and neem; yoga has been cleaned out of mantras, with Hindus themselves saying yoga has nothing to do with Hinduism. On the topic of yoga, Swamiji said he had even heard a foolish argument of how yoga had been given to the world by Patanjali and that the yogic master was actually from Pakistan! When the Patanjali Yoga Sutras were framed, there was no Pakistan. It was the undivided Bharatavarsha, he said.

Addressing a suggestion that sometimes comes up – that if the term Hindutva has so much negativity attached to it, to drop it and adopt another term – Swamiji saw no upside to this, saying that the same kind of trouble would be brewed irrespective of the term. In any case, picking a collective identity cannot be forced, he said.

The whole situation has been made political; most don’t want to get into politics, but it is an existential moment. If Hindus don’t stand up today, someone else will ascribe meaning to what their faith is, Swamiji cautioned. Hindus must get their skin in the game and embrace the term Hindutva as the very essence of their identity.

He strongly recommended that Hindus stop understanding their faith through osmosis – leafing through an Amar Chitra Katha or watching B.R Chopra’s Mahabharata and Ramananda Sagar’s Ramayana – and begin to understand the basic tenets deeply. It is not about redefining identity but going to the root and understanding the sanctity of the root. Only with knowledge is empowerment possible.

He also suggested Hindus make a strong connection with their history. He recommended the works of R.C. Majumdar, C.V. Vaidya, V.K. Rajwade, Jadunath Sircar, and Swami Vivekananda. This would set things in context: the glory of the Cholas, the Vijayanagar empire, Sisodias, Marathas, etc., would be understood. How the great Indian civilization stands after sustained oppression will also be understood. In contrast, other civilizations like the Greeks and Romans collapsed, unable to withstand a few attacks by their enemies.

In today’s climate, one more thing was critical: to develop a language that provided answers to wokeism and those from the leftist standpoint. We need to develop the ability to understand their language and be able to have a dialog with them in their own language.

Dr. Jai Bansal is a retired scientist, currently serving as the VP Education for the World Hindu Council of America (VHPA)