India’s secular coexistence was paradoxically made possible by the fact that the overwhelming majority of Indians are Hindus. It is odd to read of “Hindu Fundamentalism” because Hinduism is a religion without fundamentals; no organised church, no compulsory beliefs and rights of worship, no single sacred book. The name itself denotes something less, and more, than a set of theological beliefs. In many languages – French and Persian among them – the word for ‘Indian’ is ‘Hindu’. Originally Hindu simply means the people beyond the river Sindhu, or Indus. But, as noted, the Indus is now an Islamic Pakistan; and to make worse, the word Hindu did not exist in any Indian language till its use by foreigners gave Indians a term for self-definition.
Hinduism is thus the name others applied to the indigenous religion of India. It embraces an eclectic range of doctrines and practices, from pantheism to agnosticism and from faith in reincarnation to belief in the caste system. But none of these constitutes an obligatory credo for a Hindu; there are no compulsory dogmas.
I grew up in Hindu household. Our home always had a prayer room, where paintings and portraits of assorted divinities jostled for shelf and wall space with fading photographs of departed ancestors, all stained by ash scattered from the incense burned daily by my devout parents.
Every morning, after his bath, my father would stand in front of the prayer room wrapped in his towel; his wet hair still uncombed, and chant his Sanskrit mantras. But he never obliged me to join him; he exemplified the Hindu idea that religion is an intensely personal matter, that prayer is between you and whatever image of your maker you choose to worship. In the Indian way, I was to find my own truth.
Like most Hindus, I think I have. I am a believer, despite a brief period of schoolgirl atheism (of the kind that comes with the discovery of rationality and goes with an acknowledgment of its limitations – and with the realization that the world offers too many wondrous mysteries for which science has no answers). And I am happy to describe myself as a believing Hindu, not just because it is the faith into which I was born, but for a string of other reasons, though faith requires no reason. One is culture: as a Hindu I belong to a faith that expresses that ancient genius of my own people. Another is, for lack of better phrase, its intellectual “fit”: I am more comfortable with the belief structure of Hinduism than I would be with those of the other faiths of which I know. As a Hindu, I claim adherence to a religion without an established church or priestly papacy, a religion whose rituals and customs I am free to reject, a religion that does not oblige me to demonstrate my faith by any visible sign, by assuming my identity in any collectively, not even by a specific day or time of frequency of worship. As a Hindu, I subscribe to a creed that is free of the restrictive dogmas of holy write, that refuses to be shackled to the limitations of a single holy book.
Above all, as a Hindu I belong to the only major religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion. I find it immensely congenial to be able to face my fellow human beings of other faiths without being burdened by the conviction that I am embarked upon a “true path” that they have missed. This dogma lies at the core of Christianity, Islam and Judaism – “I am the Way, the truth and the Life; no man cometh unto the Father (God), but me” says Bible; “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet,” declares the Koran – denying unbelievers all possibility of redemption, let alone of salvation of paradise. Hinduism however asserts that all ways of belief are equally valid, and Hindus readily venerate the saints, and the sacred objects, of other faiths.
How can such a religion lend itself to fundamentalism? That devotees of this essentially tolerant faith have desecrated a shrine and assaulted Muslims in its name is a source of shame and sorrow. India has survived the Aryans, the Mughals, the British; it has taken from each – language, art, food, learning – and grown with all of them. To be Indian is to be part of an elusive dream we all share, a dream that fills our minds with sounds, words, flavours from many sources that we cannot easily identify. Muslim invaders may indeed have destroyed Hindu temples, putting mosques in their place, but this did not – could not destroy the Indian dream. Nor did Hinduism suffer a fatal blow.
Large, electric, agglomerative, the Hinduism that I know understands that faith is a matter of hearts and minds, not of bricks and stone.
“Build Ram in your heart,” the Hindu is enjoined; and if Ram is in your heart, it will little matter where else he is, or is not.
But the twentieth-century politics of deprivation has eroded the culture’s confidence. Hindu chauvinism has emerged from the competition for resources in a contentious democracy. Politicians of all faiths across India seek to mobilize voters by appealing to narrow identities; by seeking votes in the name of religion, caste, and region, they have urged voters to define themselves on these lines. Indians have been made more conscious than ever before of what divides us.
The Mandal commission set up just after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 proposed 27 percent of all government jobs be reserved for the politically influential “backward castes,” in addition to the 22.5 percent already reserved for the “scheduled castes and tribes”, this posted ethical dilemmas even to the underprivileged. The notion that government employment is an end in itself, unrelated to educational attainment or ability, is troubling for two reasons. First, because efficient and effective administration are seen as less important than granting access to the leavers of government to some admittedly underrepresented communities: one “backward caste” friend acidly told me, “after all, if efficiency is more important than representation, we should never have asked the British to leave.” Second, because it perpetuates a culture of overbureaucratized governance, where government jobs are seen as a means of wielding power in a state, and a society, where the government already intrudes in far too many areas of economic activity. Our politics have created a discourse in which the clamour goes up for Assam for the Assamese, Jharkhand for Jharkhandis, Maharashtra for Maharashtrians – but who, my father would ask, believes in an India for Indians?
Identities thus formed are asserted, sometimes through violence, I am prepared to concede that Hindu fanaticism – which ought to be a contradiction in terms, since we have no dogmas to be fanatical about – is partly a reaction to other chauvinisms. I am not along the Indian secularists whose opposition to any communal incident is based on meticulously researched rejection of the historicity claims. Because to me what matters is what most people believe, for their beliefs offer a sounder basis for public policy than the historians’ footnotes.
I also accept the reproach of those Hindus who see a double standard at work here. Muslims say they are proud to be Muslim, Sikhs say they are proud to be Sikh, Christians say they are proud to be Christian, and Hindus say they are proud to be … Secular. It is easy to see why this sequence should provoke the scorn of those Hindus who declaim, “Say with pride that we are Hindus.” But is what precisely are we to take pride? Hinduism is no monolith; its strength is found within each Hindu, not in the collectively. As a Hindu I take no pride in destroying other people’s symbol, in hitting others on the head because of the cut of their beard or the cuts of their foreskins. I am proud of my Hinduism. I take pride in its diversity, in its openness, in religious freedom.
(Idea is drawn from the book, India – from Midnight to Millennium by Shashi Tharoor)