Intolerance debate: The single-source theory of Indian civilisation

Intolerance debate: The single-source theory of Indian civilisation
Photo Credit: File photos: Golwalkar and Savarkar
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This is the third of a three-part article.

Part I: Why the ‘intolerance debate’ is far from over
Part II: Intolerance debate: How some historical brutalities are more special than others

We come to the last of the three legs on which the Hindutva stool is constructed: a veneration of the Sanskrit or Vedic civilisation as the singular fountainhead of Indian culture, and the subjugation of every other part of our heritage to it. This is faithfully reflected in the statement of the 47, in the form of an accusation against the protesters:

A denial of the continuity and originality of India’s Hindu-Buddhist-Jain-Sikh culture, ignoring the work of generations of Indian and Western Indologists. Hindu identity, especially, has been a pet aversion of this School, which has variously portrayed it as being disconnected from Vedic antecedents, irrational, superstitious, regressive, barbaric – ultimately “imagined” and, by implication, illegitimate

Take a minute to read that, and see if you can identify the hidden assumptions. It talks about the “continuity and originality of India’s Hindu-Buddhist-Jain-Sikh culture”, taking care to group together some religions and exclude others just as Savarkar would have wanted.

In the process, it ignores the fact that such watertight segmentation is bogus, since all religions that exist today in India have been influenced and shaped by each other. Sufi Islam has borrowed much from Hinduism while Sikhism interacted with and knew enough about Islam for its founder to be revered by both Muslims and Hindus.

Buddhism and Jainism rejected Vedic rituals and the authority of priests while formulating new philosophic concepts, while the impact of the arrival of British caused the re-definition and re-evaluation of many Hindu practices such as child marriage and Sati. It also started a process of intellectual churn in Bengal, leading first to the creation of Brahmo Samaj and later, Arya Samaj which went on to seed the thoughts that lie at the root of Hindutva.

From Dayananda to Vivekananda

The cardinal book, Satyarth Prakash, written by Arya Samaj founder, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, attacked Jainism which he described as “the most dreadful religion” the followers and founders of which “are in dense ignorance” and “introduced idolatry in India”. He also attacked Shaivism, not to mention Christianity and Islam, with equal vehemence. But his ideological inheritors like Savarkar have taken a different line, re-juggling the religions and putting them together in a different manner, with Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism in one friendly bucket, Christianity and Islam in another inimical bucket, and perhaps Zoroastrianism and Judaism in a third inconsequential bucket!

Therefore, when the 47 insists on grouping religions just as Savarkar would have done, it reveals an underlying and contemporary agenda more than the reality of India’s history as it was lived. Also, the accusation that Hindu identity has been portrayed as irrational, superstitious, regressive and barbaric by the liberals is unsupported. If anything, it is some of the statements of those whom Hindutva considers its heroes that could be interpreted in that manner, as the paragraph below will show.

Here’s a direct quote from a distraught Vivekananda commenting on Indian society:

“Centuries and centuries, a thousand years of crushing tyranny of castes, and kings and foreigners and your own people have taken out all your strength, my brethren. Your backbone is broken, you are like downtrodden worms.”

(Note that Vivekananda’s brilliant mind was more open and enquiring than those of the 47: he pins the blame for the degradation that occurred not just on the ‘foreigners’, but on the tyranny of castes and kings and “your own people”.)

And here’s more of Vivekananda on Buddhism:

“The most hideous ceremonies, the most horrible, the most obscene books that human hands ever wrote or the human brain ever conceived, the most bestial forms that ever passed under the name of religion, have all been the creation of degraded Buddhism.”

So the charge of depicting the Hindu-Buddhist-Jain-Sikh culture poorly can be more justifiably laid at the doors of Swami Dayananda Saraswati and Swami Vivekananda (if at all it is to be laid) than at the doorsteps of the protesters.

Hindutva hardline

Then again, in the paragraph quoted from the statement of the 47 above, there is a clever juxtaposing of the Hindu-Sikh-Jain-Buddhist culture with “Vedic antecedents”.  The barely concealed intent is to suggest that all of our cultural heritage flows from a single source, and any suggestion that Indian civilisation as it exists today is the result of the interaction, exchange and co-evolution involving at least four major traditions  and languages – Aryan, Dravidian, Munda/Tribal and Sino-Tibetan – not to mention exchanges with religions such as Islam and Christianity – is heresy, and amounts to “disconnecting” the Indian civilisation from its “Vedic antecedents”.

Why is it important for the 47 to insist that all of Indian civilisation and culture has a singular source and thus deny its plurality, the very essence of its being through the millennia? That follows naturally from the flawed idea of nationhood as defined by the ideologues of Hindutva who borrowed it in turn from Europe at a time when it was discovering a rabid brand of nationalism. Here’s a quotation from Golwalkar, one of the founding fathers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the man who shaped it more than anyone else:

“National existence is entirely dependent upon the co-ordinated existence of the five elements constituting the Nation idea – country, race, religion, culture and language. That is the final incontrovertible verdict of the theoretical discussions and their practical application to the world conditions past and present…. Living in this country since pre-historic times is the ancient race – the Hindu Race, united together by common traditions, by memories of common glory and disaster, by similar historical political, social religious and other experiences, living under the same influences, and evolving a common culture, a common mother language, common customs, common aspirations.”

Golwalkar, in fact, goes much farther, against the entire theory and practice of the science of Linguistics, and says this:

“There is but one language, Sanskrit, of which these many languages are mere offshoots, the children of the mother language, Sanskrit, the dialect of the Gods, is common to all from the Himalayas to the ocean in the South, from East to West and all the modern sister languages are through it so much inter-related as to be practically one”!

In the peculiar and idiosyncratic world-view of the Hindutva brigade, which once came up with the slogan of “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan” before being forced to backtrack after language agitations threatened to break apart the country, the nation of India is liable to cease if it is not forcibly yoked to uniform cultural standards claiming common origin.  That is why it is important for Hindutva to insist that all of Indian culture flows from the Vedic or Sanskrit civilisation. This old European or rather German concept of nationhood has been thoroughly disproven by history and exposed to be a destructive idea, but neither the leaders of Hindutva, nor the 47 seem to have noticed.

Ancient achievements

The 47 academicians make another complaint and it is as follows:

A near-complete erasure of India’s knowledge systems in every field –philosophical, linguistic, literary, scientific, medical, technological or artistic – and a general underemphasis of India’s important contributions to other cultures and civilisations .

This, of course, is yet another trope of the Hindutva right-wing that the 47 academicians are echoing, that the ancient glories of the Indian civilisation have not been fully appreciated.  This statement is both unsupported and unverifiable by nature because no amount of emphasis on the achievements of Indian civilisation can be considered enough by those who are determined not to be satisfied.

The astronomical and mathematical brilliance of Aryabhatta  after whom the first satellite of India was named, the linguistic genius of Panini, the literary wizardry of Kalidasa, the philosophical sophistication of Sankara, Nagarjuna, Nagasena…  none of these had to wait for discovery by Hindutva social scientists. The fact is that the sheer scope, integrity and robustness of India’s philosophical systems, the beauty of its literature and the arts, and its mastery over mathematics, astronomy and medicine in ancient times are all well-documented and well-accepted.

And so is the fact that very few societies in ancient times developed such a robust culture of intense intellectual debates and discussions over issues of human existence and goals (an irony, considering the narrow definitions of nationhood that the right-wing today wants to propagate).

But then one can always point to some other “miraculous” achievements such as the Vedic discovery of genetics, head transplantation, aeroplanes and atomic bombs (with each of these assertions being made by leading members of the Hindutva movement, some of them at meetings of the Indian Council of Historical Research as reconstituted by the new government in power) and complain that they don’t get enough applause.

Summing up

To put what we have discussed so far in a nutshell, the statement of the 47 academicians dovetails neatly with the three fundamental ideological positions taken by the Hindutva ideologues. One, that the caste system with its Brahminic superiority should be accorded primacy, with sufficient emphasis on its positive aspects; two, that nationhood should be redefined and history rewritten to see India’s evolution through the prism of religious conflicts; and three, that the Sanskrit or Vedic civilisation should be acknowledged as the  singular source of Indian culture and language with everything else being subordinate to it.

Each and every one of the conflicts that have riven the country apart in recent months can be traced to one of these objectives that a right-wing in ascendance is trying to push. Rationalists have to be murdered because they question this agenda and suspected beef-eaters have to be lynched because they derail the goal of a monolithic culture that everyone pays obeisance to.

That similar majoritarian attempts to define nationhood exclusively have led to horrific damage to the social fabric in every country that went down that path – Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Germany – seems to have made no difference to the ideologues of Hindutva, or their camp followers.

When the original protesters wrote in their statement that the “regime seems to want a kind of legislated history, a manufactured image of the past, glorifying certain aspects of it and denigrating others,” they could not have imagined that 47 learned academicians of the opposite camp would soon, and very clearly, confirm every one of those words.

Therefore, the next time someone tells you that what we have before us is a “lifestyle difference over cuisine” or a “discord over the English accent”, know those arguments for what they are: Wordplay to deflect attention from  the real effort of deconstructing Indian nationhood, and Hinduism itself, in order to put it together again in a manner that is narrower, vicious and more reverential towards the caste system. As long as this effort continues, the debate is unlikely to go away for long.