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India’s Right to Cultural Self-Determination

Hindu revivalism has sparked fear in the West---but it shouldn’t. Here’s why.

Countries are not just economic administrative spaces—they are homes to unique cultures and societies, which justify their existences separate from other nations. It is not unreasonable for a nation to seek to protect and promote its perceived cultural values: this is why there has been a worldwide backlash against globalization and post-national attitudes.

Though India is not the ethnostate of the Hindu people in the way that Israel is of the Jewish people, there is obviously a special connection between Hindu-majority India and the religions that originate from Indian civilization: Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and the closely related Zoroastrianism. (Islam, which now represents about 14 percent of the population, did not come to India until the seventh century.)

Why? First, this is the ancient culture that roots modern India and its civilization, despite subsequent influences. Latin, Greco-Roman symbolism, and Christian religious motifs still play roles in Western cultural life, so naturally Sanskrit and Hindu and Buddhist symbolism occupy similar positions in India.

Second, the Indian religions, especially Hinduism, are Indo-centric in their sacred geography in a way that Islam and Christianity are not, and in a way that Judaism is for Israel. It is natural that the Indian state reflects this to an extent. Virtually all the holy sites of Hinduism, places mentioned in the ancient Hindu epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and locations of importance to classical Indian literature, are in or near modern India.  

Third, while there are dozens of Christian- and Muslim-majority states, India and Nepal are the only Hindu-majority countries in the world. Naturally, then, India is better placed than other nations to defend and advocate for Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists. As Sadanand Dhume asks at The Wall Street Journal, “if India won’t throw these people a lifeline, who will?” There is no contradiction between this sort of civilization-based advocacy and respecting the rights of people to believe and live freely at the individual level.

When these points are taken into consideration, along with the fact that Hindus are the majority of India’s population—around 80 percent—and that secular liberalism never penetrated deeply into the Indian population beyond the Western-educated elite, the reasons for the growth of populism and Hindu nationalism (across all political parties) become clear. These are not as deviations from a multicultural norm, but the culmination of various trends.

As social scientists studying early modern Europe have pointed out, modernization, mass media, and increased literacy led to the consolidation of larger ethnic, religious, and national identities. This is happening in India. But states also need mass national identities to maintain their coherence, and in India, for better or for worse, this is Hinduism. The BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), led by recently re-elected prime minister Narendra Modi, is in many ways a non-traditionalist Hindu party.

Furthermore, as I’ve written at The Diplomat, the BJP has tried to erode differences between castes in order to consolidate a common Hindu identity. This would also be electorally advantageous: that is, if people vote as Hindus for the BJP instead of as members of their castes for caste-based political parties. The perpetuation of rural-based, discriminatory attitudes of caste discrimination is thus to the party’s disadvantage.

India, and Hinduism especially, is coming out of a long period of cultural dormancy that has lasted almost 1,000 years. From the end of the 12th century onward, most of India came under the political domination, via conquest, of Muslim Turks, Afghans, and Mughals, and then the Christian British. Though the majority of Hindus did not convert, royal patronage dried up, and a more superstitious folk Hinduism took hold. Much of the continuity, including those of the kingdoms, universities, temples, and religious institutions that characterized classical Indian history, came to an end during this period. Many major temples were razed—imagine if Notre Dame and St. Peter’s were demolished—and important Hindu sites such as Prayaga were given names like Allahabad. Except for a liberal period from 1579 to 1679 during a portion of the Mughal Empire, Hindus theoretically had to pay the jizya, a special tax for being non-Muslim, in order to remain “protected.”

Of course, the Muslim era was full of its accomplishments and wonders, such as the Taj Mahal, the development of new cuisines, linguistic borrowings from Persian and Arabic into modern Indian languages, and some religious syncretism, and these have also become a part of India’s history. But it wasn’t all roses. The conflict between Islam and Hinduism merits a book in itself. Suffice to say that, in many ways, the religions are like oil and water: they have theological and aesthetic perspectives that are diametric opposites. For example, compare the elaborate, carved sculptures that ubiquitously adorn Hindu temples with the total Islamic prohibition on graven images.  

Oddly, the restoration of ancient temples and original Hindu names for cities is often portrayed as a sort of fanaticism and extremism dangerous for minorities, though such activities place no compulsions and burdens upon non-Hindus. Traditionalists and patriots from around the world ought to sympathize with the sentiments of Hindu revivalism. (Where I part ways with Hindu nationalists is in my opposition to imposing on the personal habits of individuals.)

The modern project that seeks to revive Hinduism, and the Hindu nationalism that has grown out of it, is a function of the fact that Hindus are empowered politically in large parts of their own country for the first time in over 800 years (though some Hindu states such as Vijayanagara and the Maratha Empire did manage to flourish during this period). Like the European Renaissance, it is a sort of conscious rebirth from the ruins of a bygone age. India is in the midst of a great intellectual ferment and reawakening, and lovers of civilization all over the world should support this. Conversely, it is very important to push back against the skewed view of Hinduism and India that has emerged in the West. (This, of course, doesn’t excuse the murderous actions of some Hindus, but it does seem that major Western publications are going out of their way to attack Hinduism politically.)

Finally, by no means is Hindu revivalism the only political ideology in India, and it is far from certain whether it will be triumphant. Many political parties in India have caste or regional agendas, while the main opposition party to the BJP, the center-left Congress Party, has a vision of civic nationalism similar to that of many leftist parties in the West.

It is important to remember that while it has learned a lot from the West and from the Islamic world, India also has its own identity and path to pursue. Modern India can strive to be both a democratic, developed, and free nation, and also one that honors its identity.

Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an international relations analyst, and an expert on Indian history, culture, and politics. Follow him at Twitter @AkhiPill.



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