In this panel, Drs. DK and Hema Hari, and Dr. Ratan Sharda share their perspectives on the relationship between Hinduism and Hindutva. They also talk about how Hindutva came to be portrayed in a bad light by its detractors.
D.K. Hari and Hema Hari
With the help of a film they had made a decade ago, DK and Hema Hari began by addressing the origin of three keywords: Hind, Hindu, and Hinduism, and how that led to the coining of the term Hindutva.
In Persian, DK and Hema Hari said, the syllable ‘Sa’ was pronounced as ‘Ha.’ When the Persians came East toward the river Sindhu, they called the land around it Hind. When this term moved Westward, the Greeks, in whose lingua ‘H’ was interchangeable with ‘I,’ pronounced Hind as Ind. As early as 200 BCE, the Greek scholars Peutinger and Ptolemy portrayed the subcontinent as Indi in their maps, and India came to be. Christian missionaries later coined Hinduism 200 years ago to identify Indic religions. The Haris cited a series of sources to support this point.
Canadian author and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Wilfred Cantwell Smith, in his book, ‘The Meaning and End of Religions,’ says that Hinduism is a particularly false concept. He notes that the word Hindu was unknown to classical Hindus; Hinduism as a concept certainly did not exist. Smith posits that it was probably imagined by the British in the early 19th century to describe, create and control an enormously complex configuration of people and their traditions found in the South Asian subcontinent.
The Haris then spoke of Robert Eric Frankenberg’s book ‘Hinduism Reconsidered,’ in which he says, “There has never been any religion or even one system of religions to which the term Hindu can be accurately applied. Moreover, no one faith system can exclusively claim the term Hinduism. The very notion of the existence of any single religious community by this name, one may further argue, has been falsely conceived.” The Haris called it a “newly coined concept” by “scholars in the Age of Enlightenment, from Nathanial Brassey Halhed and William Jones to Max Muller.” Here was another scholarly viewpoint, the Haris said, on how the term was used to classify and control the diversity the Europeans encountered in Bharat.
Another source alluded to was Richard King in ‘Orientalism and Religio,’ in which he utters the word Hindu, which came into prominence among Westerners only in the 18th century. Till then, there were references to people belonging to the religion of the ‘Gentoos.’ The Haris explained that Gentoo functioned as an alternative to Heathen. In Indian languages, they said, Jantu means creepy crawly creatures, which is how the Europeans viewed the people of Bharat.
They then explained the etymology of the word Heathen: It is Germanic and represents the one who lives in the heaths, moor, country, and woods and by derivation, is considered uncultured. So, when the Europeans came to a world that was tropical and green, with villages and farmers, they labeled the dwellers of Bharat as Heathen.
The key to the West’s initial postulation on the unity of Hinduism, they said, is derived from the Judeo-Christian presupposition that distinctive religions cannot coexist. Emerging, as they were, from the Dark Ages and the conflict of the Crusades, the existence of so much harmony in the diversity they witnessed was not fathomable. Instead, they ascribed this religious unity to the term Hindu. The German Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, in his ‘Malabarisches Heidenthum,’ has described inhabitants of the earth as Jews, Christians, Mohammedans, and Heathens. The latter was the largest group but not uniform and clubbed them together as Hindus.
They summarized the progression in describing the people of Bharat: first, Heathen, then Gentoo, and finally, Hindu.
It was in the 1300s that the medieval historian Abdul Malik Isami used a couple of terms: Hinduaan and Hindian. The inhabitants of Bharat, being in the region of Hind, irrespective of their faith, he called Hindian. The non-Muslim inhabitants he called Hinduaan. From here, the British derived Hindu. The poet Amir Khusro, who had a Turki father and a Rajput mother, used the words Hindustani and Hindawi.
So, the Haris concluded. Each term under discussion was coined and imposed by an outsider.
They further noted that Hinduism was formalized as a religion by the British for administrative purposes. Henry Maine engaged with Indian scholars and created what is known today as Hindu Law. The Supreme Court of independent India later echoed Maine’s legal rules saying it was difficult, if not impossible, to define the Hindu religion or even adequately describe it. So, as late as 1966, the Haris noted, it was being said that it was not like a religion, but still made it one.
Sanatana Dharma, said the Haris, has been followed in the land for eons. Over the centuries, reformers have corrected its practices, leading to the formation of Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Lingayat, Varkaris, Chaitanya Bhaktas, Arya Samajis, etc. There is some divergence in the teachings of the saints, yet there is a subtle, indescribable unity that keeps them within the sweep of a broad practice. Fundamentally, this is what people notice about Hinduism. It has evolved and adapted to changes in ecology, the environment, society, and the nature of people.
Sanatana Dharma is not a religion. In fact, we have a different term for religion – Mata – which means applying one’s intellect, Mati. Hinduism encourages its use. Unlike commonly used words that have been imposed, like faith and belief, which essentially means to accept things, whether right or wrong, Hinduism asks individuals to use their Mati – intellect – and determine things for themselves. This gives freedom to the individual and, if explained thus to the youth, is very appealing.
Sanatana means eternal. Dharma is that which bears you and your character, the speakers said. It is ever young and ancient, the two ends of the spectrum. This shows its ability to reinvent itself and stay in tune with the times, science, and reality.
The Haris said it is important not to lose the term Sanatana Dharma while adding that it was not necessary to jettison the word Hindu. Just as the country has two names, India and Bharat, it is okay to simultaneously have the names of Hinduism and Sanatana Dharma or Hindu Dharma. What is important is to understand the tattva behind it and live as per Dharma.
They then turned their attention to the term Hindutva which they said is commonly attributed to Veer Savarkar but predates his authorship. In Bengal in 1892, Chandranath Basu invented or at least referred to it in his work. Hindu-tva is Hindu-ness or the essence of Hindu Dharma. The commonality that underlies diversity and holds everybody together is Hindutva. The labels, they said, have always come from outside. However, now that Hindutva has sprung internally and is being embraced, seeds of division were being sown by disparaging the term.
The Haris noted that in the age of knowledge, negativity has to be pushed back with knowledge. For this, the fundamentals of the term Hind, Hindu, Hinduism, and Hindutva has to be grasped fully, avoiding Western interpretations, so that the beauty of each term is realized. Then it is possible to engage meaningfully from a position of strength, avoid labels, and leave the defining of Hindus to Hindus.
Explaining the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) perspective on Hindutva, Sharda noted that Dr. K.B. Hedgewar, the founder of the RSS, was not overly interested in defining who a Hindu was but instead focused his energies on uniting and organizing Hindu society, said Ratan Sharda. But he considered, just as the Indian constitution did later, that anyone, whether a Muslim, Jew, Zoroastrian, or Christian, is a Hindu. He said that the idea of minorities within the Hindu fold came much later and can be attributed to secular politics.
Hedgewar generally accepted Savarkar’s definition of Hindutva. However, the word mostly had social and cultural connotations for the RSS. Hegdewar’s focus was Gharwapsi. Those who had left the Hindu fold were encouraged to return and get in touch once again with their cultural roots and, through it, the nation. Before passing away in 1972, he expanded Gharwapsi to include all those who believed in the same history, forefathers, and culture, irrespective of their religion or mode of worship.
Savarkar considered Hindutva and Hinduism as different, but the RSS did not. Sharda noted that English cannot convey the essence of Sanskrit terms like Varna, Rashtra, Moksha, Hindutva, etc. Instead, other, less accurate words are substituted for them. This may explain why Hinduism is the preferred term in English over Hindutva. However, ‘Ism’ is a closed ideology, and Hindu Dharma is definitely not closed, which is why it cannot be called Hinduism, he said.
Sharda then went on to touch upon what is quintessentially Hindu. He said Hindutva has been defined as a way of life by the Indian Supreme Court, echoing Swami Vivekananda’s Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanti. Free of religious connotations, it just calls for respect for all. Also common to all Bharatiya traditions are the Karma, reincarnation, Mukti, Nirvana, and Shunya principles. Whether it is called Vedic, Indic, Bhartiya, Sanathaniya, or Hindutva, it is all the same, said Sharda.
He said Hedgewar’s idea of the nation-state was not the Western model. Instead, he considered Hindutva as Rashtriyatva. The essence of the nation is the essence of being Hindu. And for Hedgewar, Hinduness is derived from the Vedas, where the word Rashtra is used 72 times along with Sabha, Samiti, and Janapada. He traced the idea of modern nationhood to Giuseppe Mazzini, who, in fact, was a hardcore Sanatani – a fact that the West does not want to acknowledge – and whose model was eventually adopted by the British.
Sharda said there were other essential traits that were not religious but defined Hindu Rashtra in a civilizational sense. He explained:
Runga – a practice where a vendor weighing vegetables typically will add a little something extra to the purchase – is characteristically Indian, with the shopkeeper believing the trade must be conducted in a Dharmic way. If there is an error, it must not disadvantage the customer.
Bohni – the first job or the first sale – is expected to determine luck for the rest of the day. Typically, everyone involved in the transaction joins in, trying to make it successful for the individual.
Bhoomi Pooja is done to acknowledge the debt to nature as mother earth is being dug, and forgiveness is required.
Games – Across Bharat, from Nagaland to Kerala, Gujarat to Kashmir, the same games with the same rules have been played for years without sports committees monitoring and determining the rules. Sharda cited many games, including Atya Patya, Kho Kho, and Kabaddi. The uniqueness of these games is that they are not limited to any gender, and in playing them, one understands philosophical concepts like rebirth.
Punya – He gave the example of Pyau as the biggest Punya, where people serve water freely to all in need.
Duty, Dharma, Rin: In the remotest and poorest villages, food and water are served without any thought of making money. Not rights, but duty is paramount.
The Hindu Rashtra is not a theocratic concept – Dharma is not theocratic. A king has his Dharma, and the subjects have theirs. No Hindu king ever had a state religion, he said. Sharda pointed out the irony: the two historical kings revered by secularists are those who professed faiths different from their subjects and destroyed them to keep their own Dharma; the Buddhist Ashoka and Din-I-Ilahi of Akbar.
So, Hindutva is a global idea where those who accept and follow the oldest Sanatani rules and live by them are Hindu. Sharda quoted Perry Anderson from his book ‘Indian Ideology’ where he says, “There is something unique about the antiquity of this subcontinent and its tremendous impress of oneness, making its inhabitants throughout these ages distinctively Indian with the same national heritage, the same set of moral and mental qualities and a dream unity that has occupied the mind of India since the dawn of civilization. This is a unique network of unity that is Hindutva and Hinduness.” The expansiveness of Sanatana Dharma, Sharda explained with an Edwin Markham verse:
He drew a circle that shut me out
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
This is what has been happening historically, with invaders like the Sakas and Huna becoming part of Bharat and the Hindu ethos. People are absorbed even while keeping their uniqueness alive. Hindutva, he concluded, has to thrive and rise in the true essence that Dr. Hedgewar defined.
Dr. D.K. Hari and Hema Hari are corporate professionals who quit their jobs to follow their calling to research the ancient Indic civilization through an Indic lens. They run the Bharatgyan portal and conduct courses through the Hindu University of America. They are authors of various books, blogs, and articles on the subject.
Dr. Ratan Sharda is a well-known TV personality and author. His popular book, ‘Secrets of RSS: Demystifying the Sangh’ has been printed in multiple editions. He has written on Guru Nanak and is soon going to publish a book on conflict resolution. He is also a columnist whose work has appeared in several newspapers.