Understanding Hindutva

Commonly understood as the “essence of being a Hindu”, does Hindutva really need a formal definition?

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For those of us that are confused, afraid, or just plain dislike the word ‘Hindutva,’ this video sheds light on the misappropriation of the term and provides much-needed answers:

  • How was the Hindutva term defined originally? To what purpose?
  • Do we need a new, contemporary definition?

Dr. Godbole began with a presentation on the history of the term Hindutva. According to his research, the word ‘Hindutva’ was first used by a Bengali thinker and author Sri Chandranath Basu in 1892 in his book ‘Hindutwa: Hindur Prokrito Itihas.’ In this book, Sri Basu advocated the Advaita Vedanta philosophy and established that the Hindus were the only ones to attain spiritual consciousness.

While Sri Basu used the word first, the movement of Hindu revivalism had already begun in Bengal. In 1866, a Kolkata resident and thinker, Sri Rishi Rajnarayan Basu, was influencing people around him with his thoughts on Hindu nationalism. His lectures on the superiority of Hinduism among the world religions, the innate tolerant and non-proselytizing nature of that religion, and its existence from time memorial influenced many personalities such as his grandson Yogi Aurobindo, Swami Dayanand, Bankim Chandra, Sri Navagopal Mitro and Sri Vijendranath Tagore among others.

According to Dr. Godbole, the next milestone in an attempt to define a Hindu and Hindutva was by Lokmanya Sri Bala Gangadhar Tilak. Between 1900 and 1915, he issued a definition of a Hindu as someone who believes in the infallibility of the Vedas and lives his/her life according to the norms laid down in the Shastras. Absolute belief in the Shruti, Smriti, and Puranas is a must to be a Hindu, according to Tilak. In today’s world, the definition will look very constrained as many Hindus themselves do not follow the Sanatana Dharma lifestyle. This definition also restricts several sister faiths, such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, that have their origins in Hinduism.

Dr. Godbole mentions about two stalwarts that had written books on Hindutva, one being Ganesh Damodar Savarkar and the other Guruji, M.S Golwalkar but the rest of his presentation is focused on Veer Savarkar, who had created vast literature on defining Hindutva and on his seminal book called ‘Hindutva’ first published in May 1923. Even after almost 100 years since its publishing, the thoughts expressed in this book are the cornerstone of the Hindutva movement.

In the book, Savarkar establishes that clarity in what a word is called or how it is understood is very crucial. His famous sentence from the book ‘Confusion in Words Leads to Confusion in Thoughts’ espouses his understanding that the words Hindu and Hindutva are distinct words. He also defines Hindu Dharma as a code or system, a collective term to refer to all traditions, faiths, and sects that consider Bharat to be their Pitrubhoomi (Fatherland) and Punyabhoomi (Holy land).

While Hindu Dharma is that broad a term, it is still only a fraction of the much wider and comprehensive term ‘Hindutva.’ According to Savarkar, Hindutva refers to not only the religious aspect of the Hindus but also refers to their linguistic, cultural, social, and political aspects. And if one wants to exactly translate the word ‘Hindutva’ into English, it would be ‘Hindu-ness’, the essence of being a Hindu. According to Savarkar, there are two criteria for calling a person a Hindu. The first criterion is that the said person’s first and discernible origin can be traced to the land called Hindustan. The second is that this person considers Hindustan as his punyabhoomi. A Hindu is he/she who has inherited and claims as his/her own the Hindu civilization as represented in a commonality of history, heroes, literature, art, law, jurisprudence, fairs and festivals, rites and rituals, ceremonies, and sacraments. Under this definition, even an atheist can be a Hindu. But even though this is a sociological definition, Savarkar admits the term cannot be too rigid nor too elastic or loose and hence states that members of other religions that hold their holy land above the Fatherland of Bharat cannot be called Hindus anymore. In regard to the Hindus living outside of Bharat, Savarkar opined that the only geographical limits of Hindutva are the limits of the Earth.

Saumitra Gokhale began by noting that while there was a need to define Hindus and Hindutva in the colonial setting in the 19th century, Hindus and Hindutva already existed and evolved over the millennia. “Do we really need a definition for a civilization that is several millennia old,” Gokhale asks rhetorically, “Wouldn’t that be like drawing borders?”

Saumitra ji, however, explains that definition does not amount to drawing borders because the fundamental tenet of Hinduism and Hindutva is the idea of transcendence to reach beyond an identity. This universal philosophy of Hindus is why those Hindus that have moved away from Bharat several generations ago still consider Bharat as their punyabhoomi and matrubhoomi (Motherland). These diaspora Hindus have a very special place in their heart for the spiritual sites and sacred pilgrimage centers in Bharat; they follow the traditions, festivals, and cultural norms of Bharat, and so Savarkar’s definition definitely applies to them.

In the diaspora, be it Hindus or Jains or Buddhists, or Sikhs, there is a common culture among them. And by the culture here, Saumitra ji means the values that one is ready to live by and, if need be, defend by all means. All these Dharmas that arose out of Bharat have a common belief system in regard to a few concepts. One is the quest for the ultimate truth and lasting happiness. Second is the goal of liberation. The third is to become seekers, experience and realize liberation, not just learn about it. All these Dharmas identify the material vs. the spiritual. All these Dharmas teach similar virtues and guide their followers to lead a complete life in this world and eventually try to seek to transcend life. This commonality was nourished and developed by Hindutva over time.

Saumitra Ji mentions that Professor Dharam Bhawuk at the University of Hawaii had written a very interesting piece wondering what it was in this amazing culture that has given birth to so many spiritual geniuses. His theory is that when a culture gives importance to a certain thing, it creates geniuses in that area. The great philosophy and the great truths that our rishis and arahants have given us influenced society and culture, which in turn gave birth to spiritual geniuses who then developed many paths and imparted more immortal truths to society. Hindutva is a pluralistic, accepting culture where no matter how many different paths are formed, we accept all of them because we believe that the truth is one, but it can be interpreted in many different ways. We are accepting of noble thoughts and sincere efforts from all quarters and, at the same time, believe in the single-minded pursuit of one’s own path. This ‘do your own and allow others to do their own’ is a quintessential aspect of Hindutva.

Similarly, another common trait among all Indic traditions is that we see divinity in everything – animate or inanimate. Sustaining a society based on Dharma has been the mainstay of our expression of this culture. If we define this culture from the point of view of Sat-Chit-Ananda, then anything that has to do with the welfare of everybody is Satyam, all the sacred rituals, traditions, festivals, and observances that help elevate the mind and live life to the fullest in this world becomes Shivam, and the beautiful literature, art forms, architecture, sciences become Sundaram.

The other vibrant aspect of Hindutva is that it gives us the strength and will to stand up against any societal degradation that might have occurred over time and to reinvent and reform ourselves. Hindutva allows and, in fact, encourages this continuous introspection. The universality of Hindutva has also been proven time and again. Be it Arumuga Navalar in Sri Lanka, who was able to resist mass conversions of Hindus by Christian missionaries, or Sivadas Sadhu in Trinidad and Tobago, who fought and rebuilt his temple that was demolished by the then colonial government. Or in Malaysia, where Hindus gathered in large numbers to fight against discrimination. Or in South Africa, where Hindus stood shoulder to shoulder with Nelson Mandela against apartheid. Or in the current context where Hindus are coming together to fight Hindudvesha (systemic Hinduphobia) in academia and media. The Hindus in the diaspora world over have not only carried with them the traditions, the celebrations, the rituals, the spirituality but have imbibed deep in them this holistic view of the greater good and live their lives according to this consciousness.

Dr. Shreerang Godbole is from Pune, Bharat, an endocrinologist by profession and an author.

Sri Saumitra Gokhale, also a Pune native, is the global coordinator for Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, an organization that practices and promotes Hindu values for Global unity and peace.

Neena Narumanchi is associated with the HSS and the Hindu University of America. She is keenly interested in preserving and propagating Hindu Dharma.