Is there still racism in India today?

The roots of the Indian Hindutva ideologyReligion and nation

Last August in Ayodhya: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shouted into the crowd: "Siyawar Ramachandra ki!" The crowd replies: "Yeah! Hail, Lord Rama!" This is repeated several times. And then Modi says: "The great task that the Sindhus undertook to establish a nation and a country achieved its goal when the brave prince of Ayodhya triumphantly marched into Ceylon.

And thus brought the whole land from the mountains of the Himalayas to the oceans under his rule. May Mother Sita and Lord Rama continue to bless us all. I hereby congratulate all residents of this country. Hail Lord Rama. "

Politician or preacher?

It is the day the foundation stone was laid for the construction of a temple for the Hindu god Ram or Rama, the "brave prince of Ayodhya". The head of government does not act like a politician here. More like a preacher who repeatedly implores Rama's blessing.

Rama is the protagonist of the Ramayana, next to the Mahabharata the most important Indian epic. It tells the heroic story of the Prince of Ayodhya, whose wife is kidnapped by the demon king Ravana to Ceylon, today's Sri Lanka. With the help of the god Hanuman, Rama can defeat the demon and they return to Ayodhya.

The mosque on the disputed site in Ayodhya, which was destroyed by extremist Hindus in 1992 (AP / dpa / Barbara Walton)

This story is the basis for a religious-political dispute that is supposed to come to an end on this day in August: the dispute over the temple complex of Ayodhya. Hindu nationalists believe that there was once a Rama temple there. But it was destroyed by invading Muslims who then built a mosque there. The Babri Mosque, which actually stood there, was razed to the ground by radical Hindu nationalists in the early 1990s.

(imago images / Hindustan Times / Deepak Gupta) Temple dispute in Ayodhya, India: jubilation among Hindus - protest among Muslims
India is a secular democracy, but it is also shaken by religious conflicts: for example because of a controversial site in Ayodhya. A temple can now be built there. How do Muslims and Hindus react to the judgment?

An aggressive, racist ideology

Narendra Modi has headed the secular Indian republic since 2014, and his government has changed the country. Modi and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, pursue an often aggressive, often racist ideology that emerged in the 1920s. The name of this ideology: Hindutva.

Abroad, Hindutva is mostly translated as religious nationalism or Hindu nationalism. But what is the Hindutva actually? What are their roots, what are their ideological principles?

"This land of ours, which stretches along the course of the Indus, is our Punyabhumi, our Holy Land. This was the land where the founders of our faith, our prophets, our gurus and saints, to whom the Veda, the sacred, were conceived and born Teaching that was revealed. "

This is what the Indian politician Vinayak Damodar Savarkar once wrote. He ended up in prison at the beginning of the 20th century because of his connections to revolutionary groups in the Indian subcontinent, which was still under British rule. During his imprisonment he wrote his work, which still shapes Hindu nationalist ideology today, the "Essentials of Hindutva" published in 1923, the foundations of Hindutva.

Today Savarkar is considered to be the inventor of Indian religious nationalism. But the roots of the Hindutva go back further. Your most important impulse comes from a man who wanted to reform Hinduism from the ground up, who wanted to bring pure, true Hinduism back to the light of day. His name: Dayananda Saraswati. In 1875 Swami Dayananda Saraswati wrote his major work, Satyarth Prakash, the Light of Truth:

"The Vedas alone are of divine origin. If something is found in other scriptures that contradicts the teachings of the Vedas, they are to be condemned, since only the Vedas are free from errors, they are self-evident."

Hinduism - a Constructed Religion?

The Vedas, the four collections of scriptures, Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda are considered to be the most important texts of Indian culture. The religious currents of Hinduism know countless other scriptures, of different ages, originally only passed down orally and only later written down, regionally of different significance: a barely comprehensible amount of text.

Dayananda, a Hindu philosopher and scholar, unceremoniously removed much of this legacy from the canon.

"Dayananda is important because he was the first in a line of scholars who followed this Vedic fundamentalism. That everything, all the solutions to all problems already exist in the Vedas. That is a Lutheran approach."

A Protestant version of Hinduism, says the Indian philosopher Jyotirmaya Sharma, who explored the ideological roots of Hindutva. Dayananda paved the way for a central idea: that Hinduism is a coherent religion at all.

"What is your belief?"
"Vedic. We believe that the Vedas alone represent the highest authority in the search for true religion. Whatever the Vedas admonish, we consider true, whatever they condemn, we consider false."

In Dayananda's eyes, the Indian people had a glorious past, a millennia-old religious tradition, the oldest of all. For him, the Vedas were proof of the former cultural superiority of the Hindus. How - that was the central question now - could it come to foreign rule by the British colonial rulers and, before that, by the Mughals, the Muslim rulers?

"The reasons for foreign rule in India are mutual feuds, differences in religious interpretation, lack of purity, faults in upbringing, child marriage, insincerity, lack of study of the Vedas and other offenses."

Constructed from nationalist needs?

Former greatness, tainted by moral decline, especially by disregarding the Vedas and following superstitious texts - Dayananda did not invent this narrative himself, but it was created under European influence, says the philosopher Jyotirmaya Sharma:

"That India is an ancient and great culture, that it has the oldest of all religions, that was something that German Indologists told the Indians. They were people like Schlegel or Max Müller, these people made the Indians believe that their religion was special Glorifying the past was, in a way, the result of a civilization fatigue, an alienation with modernity in the West. The problem with this modern conception of Hinduism, which is not older than 150 years, is that it emerges from nationalistic needs was constructed. "

Without a doubt, India has a rich religious culture that goes back thousands of years. The canonization of the Vedas as supposedly the oldest evidence of divine origin was the attempt to bring these partly contradicting traditions to a common denominator. But Dayananda went far beyond mere religion. Because he linked the tradition of the Vedas with a folk-tinged myth about the origins of India, which is still very influential today.

"Were all people the same or were there different classes at the time of creation?"
"All belonged to one class, the humans. Later, however, there were two classes: the good and the bad. The good were called Aryans, the bad were called Dasysus or Asuras. This is what the Rigveda says. The Aryans colonized this country for this reason it is called Aryavarta, the home of the Aryans. The peoples beyond the borders of Aryavarta were called Dasyus, Asuras or Mllechhas, or Rakshashas. "

"India for the Hindus"?

The names Dayananda used for the non-Aryans came from the Vedas. They meant: opponents, barbarians, but also, like the Rakshasas, demons. In this way, the religious scholar combined terms from Indian mythology with a clearly defined geographical reference. It was the hour of birth of Punyabhumi, the idea of ​​a holy land, which Savarkar, the father of the Hindutva, would later take up.

Religion and soil were thus linked to one another. In other words: India to the Hindus.

But Dayananda has also done ideological preparatory work on another point. Dealing with other religions, above all: Islam. He opposed the monotheistic God of Christianity and Islam with a universalistic - but also monotheistic understanding of God, which he derived argumentatively from the Vedas.

The philosopher and Hindu scholar Aurobindo Ghose, who called himself Sri Aurobindo, was also inspired by Dayananda. He was born in 1872, around ten years before Dayananda's death, in what is now West Bengal. Growing up for a while in England, he came into contact with Western political philosophy and transferred these ideas to India:

"I have already said elsewhere: Nationalism is not a policy, it is a religion, a belief. I will say it again today, but in other words: The Sanathan Dharma, the divine order, our religion, is our nationalism."

This parallel setting is significant for the thinking of Hindutva followers to this day, because it is indissolubly linked to religion and the striving for an independent India. This could not be reconciled with the secular understanding of the state of the founders of the Republic of India around Jawaharlal Nehru and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.

Aurobindo also worked on Islam, but went beyond Dayananda's ideas by increasingly constructing an enemy image from the religion of the others. At first he was open to the idea that Hindus and Muslims could live together in an independent India. But in his 1906 work "On Nationalism" he developed the idea that Muslims do not belong in India:

"The fact that the Mohammedans remain isolated, that they refuse to see themselves first of all as Indians and only then as Mohammedans, is due to the existence of large Islamic nations to which they feel closer than us."

The accusation that Muslims are not loyal to the Indian nation because their loyalty first belongs to their own religion and thus to other Islamic nations is still in force today. It is the basis for conspiracy narratives that are circulating in the 21st century, according to which Muslims supposedly infiltrate the Indian nation and want to turn India into a Muslim state of God. Politicians like Yogi Adityanath, head of government of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous Indian state, spread this myth:

"The government will pass a law to stop this love jihad. If you don't change your behavior, the journey of Ram Naam Satya Hai will begin."

Love Jihad refers to the accusation that Muslim men tried to marry Hindu women so that they would become Muslims and give birth to Muslim children.

Violence as a male ideal

For Aurobindo, the Muslims marked a historical injustice, even more than for Dayananda; they were symbols of centuries of foreign rule. From his admiration for the Kshatriya, the caste of warriors and kings, he deduced that violence was not only a legitimate means of atoning for this injustice, but a masculine ideal that the Hindus should strive for. He rejected the principle of non-violence, Ahimsa, which is still important in many religions on the Indian subcontinent today.

Sharma: "The thought that violence will get you there goes back to Aurobindo. He is not the first to formulate this thought, but he has the most intellectual argument."

And this argument relates not least to the Ramayana, the story of Prince Rama, who kills demons and bravely wages war against his enemies.

Sharma: "Today the demons are the British or the Muslims, so let's kill the British demon or the Muslim demon, so that our people may get justice."

Image of tolerant Hinduism in the West

The Hindu scholar Narendranath Datta, known as Swami Vivekananda, seemed to see it differently. Vivekananda achieved worldwide fame when he appeared in front of representatives of Western religious communities at the first meeting of the World Parliament of Religions in 1893. In his address he drew the picture of a tolerant, integrative Hinduism, a picture that is still widespread in the West today.

But Vivekananda was not interested in interreligious understanding: he was convinced that Hinduism was superior to other religions because of its tolerance:

"I thank you on behalf of the Mother of All Religions. I am proud to belong to a religion that has taught the world tolerance and universal acceptance."

And for Vivekananda, too, the Muslims who had lived in India for centuries were primarily invaders, and even more: barbarians.

There are many differences in the thinking of Dayananda, Aurobindo and Vivekananda. And yet a line leads from Dayananda via Aurobindo and Vivekananda to Vinayak Savarkar, the spiritual father of the Hindutva.

With his Essentials of Hindutva at the latest, Vinayak Savarkar had distilled a political, revolutionary program from the ideological preparatory work of his predecessors. The crucial aspects of this agenda were:

  • Hinduism as a connecting, identity-forming element.
    Hinduism as a religion that is superior to all other religions due to its age and wisdom,
  • the union of religion and soil, according to which the Hindus are the rightful inhabitants of the land.
  • the exclusion of all other religions, especially the Muslims, for whom India cannot be a Punyabhumi or a holy land.
  • the idea, born of an anti-colonial and partly anti-Muslim reflex, of a former greatness of the Hindu nation that was under foreign rule - a historical injustice that had to be corrected. Even with the help of force.

Violence potential of the Hindutva ideology

The Hindutva ideology soon got an organizational framework. In 1925 the doctor Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, who shortly before had read Savarkar's writing enthusiastically, founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the RSS. Banned in the meantime, this cadre forge still forms the ideological and personal backbone of the Hindutva to this day. At the latest with the murder of Mahatma Gandhi by Hindutva supporters and RSS member Nathuram Godse, the considerable potential for violence of this ideology became clear.

Meanwhile, through the RSS, the Hindutva is firmly anchored in the middle of Indian society; not least in the person of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself.

The Hindutva ideology has accompanied India since independence. The original promise of the Republic of India was and is: to be a secular state for members of all religions, all ethnic groups, all castes. The Hindutva ideology contradicts this promise - for more than 70 years.

Jyotirmaya Sharma: Hindutva. Exploring the Idea of ​​Hindu Nationalism, published by HarperCollinsPublishers India, 240 pages.