Explaining the Hindu divide at the Parliament of the World’s Religions

It shouldn’t be hard to see why fusing of religious and national identity causes anxiety and fear.

Religious leaders chant on stage during a climate repentance ceremony at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago on Aug. 15, 2023. Photo by Lauren Pond for RNS

(RNS) — At the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago last week with the theme of defending human rights, several Hindu groups complained that, at an event that celebrates common ground among religious communities, they were tied unfairly to India’s contentious religious politics. 

What those who complained didn’t address was that they, along with a growing number of Hindu organizations in India and in the United States, have tied themselves to those contentious and aggressive politics. These groups ought not to be surprised when their views on the relationship between religion and the nation-state is called out in public spaces,  especially because these ideologies contribute to tension and violence in India and elsewhere.

In fact, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, where religions come together to discuss global challenges and solutions, is precisely the place to raise such concerns. The purpose of the gathering is not to promote a superficial harmony or to overlook issues that divide religions. It is naïve to suggest, as one attendee did, that the parliament is a “kumbaya” event and should uncritically give a platform to even dangerous ideologies.

But the complaints aired after the parliament go beyond politics. They reflect a deepening divide between (at least) two ways of thinking about Hindu identity and the meaning of Hinduism as a religious tradition. These different ways of thinking about Hinduism are also present in relationships with other traditions.

On one side of the divide are those Hindu organizations influenced, in varying ways, by the ideology systematized and expounded by the mid-20th-century figure V.D. Savarkar known as Hindutva (Hinduness), in a well-known book by the same name. Savarkar tied religious identity to national identity by defining a Hindu as a citizen of India, as a descendant of Hindu ancestors, as a participant in a shared Sanskrit culture and as one who regards India as a holy land.

On the basis of these criteria — and especially the last two — Savarkar included Jains, Sikhs and Indian Buddhists in his category of “Hindu,” but excluded Indian Muslims and Indian Christians. In Savarkar’s view, Muslims and Christians “ceased to own Hindu civilization (Sanskriti) as a whole. They belong or feel that they belong to a cultural unit altogether different from the Hindu one.”

In essence he accused nondharmic Indians of having a divided love and loyalty, of regarding lands outside of India as sacred, of venerating leaders and professing beliefs that did not originate in India and of venerating their holy lands above India. In his view, they do not belong to India in the same way as Hindus.

It shouldn’t be difficult to understand why a clear fusing of religious and national identity that privileges Hindus causes anxiety and fear in those who are excluded. Hindutva is associated with hostility, mistrust and increasing violence toward communities that do not satisfy his criteria.

Savarkar’s equation of Hinduism and India, which overlooked the universal claims of Hinduism, reduced it to the religion of a particular ethnic and national group. A religious nationalism that divinizes the nation and its defense and service only diminishes both faith and nation. It is not surprising that some adherents to this ideology see criticism of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the negativization of Hinduism.

Savarkar’s version of Hinduism is not irrelevant. It is alive in various contemporary organizations, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates, many of which have partner associations in the United States, some of which participated in the Parliament of the World’s Religions. It is significant that on Feb. 26, 2003, amid controversy, a portrait of Savarkar was unveiled in the Central Hall of the Indian Parliament, facing a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi. 

On the other side of the Hindu divide are those groups, also present in Chicago last week, that do not conflate religious and national identities, for whom “Hindu” connotes a universally accessible religious identity transcending nationality, ethnicity and South Asian culture.

For these groups, being Hindu is not the same as being Indian. Nourished by spiritual traditions originating in India, these groups honor the sacred geography of India, but veneration for India is not a requirement of Hindu identity and a criterion of exclusion. Love for India is not anti-Muslim or anti-Christian.

These groups lift up the ancient and powerful tradition of hospitality to religious diversity in the Hindu tradition. The tradition has made it possible for Indian Hindus to accommodate the country’s wide diversity of religious beliefs and practices and to offer shelter to persecuted religious groups for centuries. They see the Hindu tradition as offering a theological understanding of religious diversity that complements diversity in the civic sphere and counters the use of state power on behalf of a particular religion. They advocate for diversity, justice, dignity, and the equal worth of all human beings.  

Hinduism has never been a homogeneous tradition, but today what is most likely to distinguish one Hindu from another is their understanding of the relationship between Hinduism and the state. Organizations that describe themselves as Hindu in the U.S. are obliged to be explicit about their view of the topic, and failure to do so leaves room for misunderstanding. 

Historically, the interests of the state and the deeper purposes of religious teachings rarely coincide. In the long run, the refusal to critically distinguish the universal and humanistic teachings of the Hindu tradition from the specific, historical expression of the Indian state will do a grave disservice to the religion. It will limit the potential of the tradition to be a blessing for the world.

(Anantanand Rambachan is emeritus professor of religion at St. Olaf College. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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