Hinduism and politics

The somewhat romantic notion of Hinduism as a path which turns its back on the material world in a spiritual quest for realisation of one’s true self, God or ultimate truth would suggest a tradition ‘above’ such worldly concerns as politics. However, this is indeed a stereotype (see Preconceptions). The concept of Dharma, the eternal law (for more on Dharma see section on A Good Life), refers not only to the ultimate truth underpinning the universe (what is) but also to the order and harmony that ought to reflect this reality in the realm of human morality and society (what should be). Thus it is not a contradiction that Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, the philosopher whom as an Advaitin upheld the one ultimate reality of Brahman, could also stress the need for ethical action in the relative reality of the social and political world and become the first Vice-President (1952-62) and Second President (1962-67) of India instead of (say) an ascetic renouncer. He also thought that being a teacher was one of the most important roles anyone could have because education was the key to India’s problems, and asked for his birthday (September 5th) to be celebrated instead as Teachers’ Day in India.

In earlier times, the role of kings, and the kshatriya varna (class of rulers and warriors) more generally, was vital since only they could ensure the security of the people and establish order in society, and thereby uphold dharma. Sacred texts may have a social and political resonance, such as the moral teaching of the Dharmashastra that, in the Laws of Manu, includes a section on rajadharma (the duty of the king). The king is counselled to cultivate virtue and avoid vice and reminded that to protect the people is the calling of the kshatriya. He is informed that in military matters some methods are unacceptable such as the use of concealed or poisoned weapons and that enemies should not be attacked if injured or disarmed. Memorably, he is urged to plan with the patience of a heron and fight like a lion and a wolf (if necessary, retreating with the speed of a hare).

The most famous ancient Indian treatise on statecraft, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, dating from the centuries immediately before and after the start of the Common Era, is addressed to the king and offers advice and guidance on a range of subjects such as the appointment and roles of ministers and officials, law and justice, economics and trade, foreign policy and military strategy. Asserting the primacy of artha (wealth, power) as necessary to the performance of dharma and the acquisition of kama (pleasure, aesthetics), opinions are sharply divided on the moral quality of the work and it is perhaps best understood as realist or pragmatic in approach. While the political landscape of the text has long ceased to exist, not least under Mughal rule, its very existence can be taken as evidence that India did not lack for political theory as was sometimes claimed in defence of British imperialism.

Religion has been an important factor in more recent Indian politics. The British as India’s imperial rulers saw religion as the foundation of Indian society and religious affiliation as a basic variable in the government and administration of the subcontinent. This had the effect of creating greater emphasis on ‘Hindus’, ‘Muslims’ and ‘Sikhs’ as separate exclusive ‘religious communities’ with potentially competing interests (see What is Hinduism? and When did Hinduism begin? for the argument that colonialism created the very concept of Indian ‘religions’ in the Western sense). The sense of socially exclusive groups with strong external boundaries, essentialised characteristics and competing interests led to the formation of religion-based political parties such as the Hindu Mahasabha, the (All India) Muslim League and, for Sikhs, the Shiromani Akali Dal. Political parties with distinct religious constituencies and programmes have continued to feature in independent India with a resurgence in the Hindu radical right in recent decades.

There was also a renewed stress upon activism in the modern era as different groups and organisations pursued the social and political implications of their religious values. Movements of reform and revival in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries campaigned for change in respect of the caste system and the position of women but were countered by other movements seeking to defend orthodoxy. Similarly, Hindus involved themselves in the Indian nationalist cause seeking independence from Britain and later with party politics in independent India, sometimes with an overtly Hindu agenda.

Certainly, campaigns for Indian independence from Britain were influenced by different senses of religious and national identity. Among many factions and approaches was that of

Gandhi (1869-1948) who attempted to promote Hindu-Muslim unity, as well as non-violent resistance as the way to persuade the British to leave India. His use of Hindu symbols and ideals, adopting the appearance of a traditional Hindu holy man and invoking Ramrajya (Rama’s rule) as a state of perfection inaugurated by Rama’s divine kingship, won much popular support among Hindus. This, however, differentiated him from colleagues like Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), later the first Prime Minister of independent India, whose socialist principles made him uncomfortable with Gandhi’s overtly religious appeal to the masses despite the close personal relationship of the two men. Other nationalists like Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920) took a different approach. His appeal to Hindu practice and history, promotion of the Ganapati festival dedicated to Ganesh for political purposes and championing of Shivaji (a seventeenth-century Maratha ruler and hero of anti-Muslim resistance) as a role model, was intended to unite Hindus at the cost of community relations with Muslims and did not exclude violence in the service of Swaraj (self-rule).

Political struggles over independence led in the end to Gandhi failing to prevent Partition (the division of British India into two countries, India and Pakistan) which involved extreme communal violence, though Gandhi was to meet his death at the hands of Nathuram Godse, a Hindu who, like other Hindu nationalists, believed that Gandhi had made too many concessions to Pakistan.

That independent India is a secular state was made clear in the 1976 Forty-Second Amendment to the Constitution, something that was implicit in the original 1950 Constitution’s commitment to freedom of religion, equality, non-discrimination and protection of minorities. What was meant was not a non-religious or anti-religious position but a version of secularism that accepts all religions as valid that in fact owes much to the Hindu philosophy of neo-Vedanta.

However, Hindu nationalism (the aim for a Hindu state) has become more influential in recent decades. V.D. Savarkar (1883-1966), a major ideologue of Hindu nationalism, put forward the hugely influential concept of Hindutva (Hinduness) in the 1920s. Hindutva, in his view, was cultural, not religious, in character, being based on a connection to India and common ethnicity. Accordingly, his vision of a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu state) drew a distinction between Hindus (in the religious sense), together with Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists (members of traditions indigenous to India) as its citizens, and Christians and Muslims (associated with traditions of foreign origin) whose status as citizens was marginal at best. This ideology has informed the aims and activities of the Hindu radical right, spearheaded by the Sangh Parivar, including its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in power in India since 2014, having previously led a coalition government 1998-2004. In spite of the cultural emphasis of Hindutva, it does not exclude espousing causes with a strong Hindu religious rather than more broadly cultural nature. Notably, successive leaders of the BJP have taken up the cause of Ayodhya as Rama’s capital city and supported the building of a temple to mark his birthplace on a bitterly contested sacred site occupied by a mosque until 1992 when it was destroyed by Hindu activists chanting ‘Victory to Rama’. In August 2020, Narendra Modi, BJP Prime Minister of India, performed a bhumi pujan (ritual to propitiate Mother Earth preparatory to construction), laying a silver foundation stone for a new Hindu temple on the site, scheduled for completion in the next three or four years.

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Hindu Worldview Traditions


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