Hollow Hinduism


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Hollow Hinduism: The VHP's Self-Defeating Vision

From: Times of India, Thursday 18 February 1999

TO speak of the death of Hinduism at the very moment at which those who
claim to speak on its behalf have acquired new assertiveness and zeal seems
like an act of hubris. Yet the successes and assertiveness of organisations
like the RSS, Shiv Sena, VHP, Bajrang Dal and their protector, the BJP,
exemplifies an unprecedented crisis in Hinduism. Never before has its
political articulation and moral agenda been hijacked by organisations
whose aim is nothing less than the reconfiguring of Hinduism in a manner
that distorts its central aims and tenets. And never before has articulate
resistance to this distortion been so feeble.

The VHP, in particular, has, through its work of cultural dissemination,
attempted to produce a version of Hinduism that is an unappealing and
dangerous caricature of the tradition it claims to represent. The VHP's
coarsening effects on Indian politics have been much remarked upon. Its
reconfiguring of Hinduism is no less insidious. While these organisations
cannot rightfully claim to represent even a majority of Hindus, their
reconfiguring of the way Hinduism has come to understand its own heritage
enacts a deep crisis within Hinduism.

For the VHP, Hinduism simply embraces all those whose values evolved in
Bharat. This seemingly expansive definition of Hinduism as the way of life
of the people of India is insidious in more ways than one can list. It has
replaced the aspiration for self realisation -- in the highest sense of the
term -- with the loveless idolatry of a tribe. This collapse of Hinduism
into an identity represents an alarming shrinking of possibilities for a
tradition whose best intimations seek to transcend the quotidian and often
dubious particularities of our present existence, whose most resourceful
exponents have sought to expand the range of our identifications in the
service of maintaining the whole of creation. The VHP's identification of
Hinduism with the ``way of life'' of a particular people is debilitating.
For it implies that Hinduism is to be valued because it is an ascribed and
inherited identity.

Culture Distorted

Formally, the VHP's definition of Hinduism might include adherents of
Christianity and Islam; but they can be so included when they realise that
they are Hindus and return to its fold. Hence, the VHP's insistence on the
foreignness of Islam and Christianity, its obsession with the origins of
practices rather than their meaning and its insidious attempts at
reconversion. Rather than acknowledging that the indignities, coercion and
resource deprivation that Hinduism has brought to its adherents often makes
them a propitious target for conversion, it raises the false spectre of a
nation overrun by missionaries.

In a manner far worse than those secular distortions it claims to oppose,
the VHP is obsessed with history. It is backward-looking in more ways than
one can list. It defines a community not by the possibilities that its
members may realise together in future, but solely by its supposed past; it
enacts and perpetuates those resentments that it claims are grounded in
history and it holds our present and future hostage to those resentments.
This seriously distorts a culture for whom itihas was never a genuine

Great Conspiracy

A sign of the VHP's reduction of Hinduism to its outward totems is the
fact that one searches only in vain among its adherents for any genuinely
creative articulation of India's traditions. It, and those inspired by it,
have produced no half decent public philosophy, no insights into India's
traditions, no inspiring examples of scholarship. If the VHP seems to shout
vigorously, it is not because it has anything profound to say, but only so
that it can disguise its own insincerities. In its hands, India's complex
philosophical heritage sounds vacuous.

The VHP seems to look upon most of the world as engaged in a vast
conspiracy to weaken Hinduism. It presents the threat to Hinduism as
largely external. This view is doubly self-defeating. This paranoia betrays
an astounding lack of confidence in Hinduism, and impedes serious
reflection on the challenges it faces.

The VHP is a religious movement founded on a deep internalised inferiority
complex. Its obsession with pride and self esteem are sign of the fact that
it is not animated by sacred and redemptory values, but by the pettiest of
resentments. Its conception of pride has rickety foundations, never mind
the fact that it is seriously at cross purposes with a tradition in which
the cardinal sin was ahamkara and in which the surest road to spiritual
downfall was lack of humility.

Vision of Life

The VHP is thoroughly embedded in the matrix of modernity. It not only
derives all its resources from it, but seeks to cast Hinduism in its mould.
For the VHP, Hinduism's raison d'etre is no longer its distinctive outlook
but the extent to which it can supposedly measure up to the VHP's index of
modernity; the extent to which it can possess what the VHP thinks the West
has: power and wealth. The VHP cannot, therefore, have anything of interest
to say on the profound social transformations we are witnessing and the
challenges they pose. Indeed, it has nothing to say about the world at all,
except pick out enemies.

For all these reasons, and many more, the VHP, rather than representing
Hinduism constitutes a serious threat to the highest aspirations and values
of Indian culture. All the challenges that Hinduism faces are internal to
it. The delicate task of transcending the horrendous inequities sanctioned
in its name without making the whole tradition despicable remains
unfinished. Hinduism's ability meaningfully to reappropriate the abundant
vision of life and much else beyond that has animated its best moments
seems like a distant gleam. The VHP is an enactment of Hinduism's shrinking
horizons, not a vehicle for the fulfilment of its possibilities. But the
lack of an articulate resistance to it, one that can draw on the deepest
wellsprings of India's traditions makes one wonder: Is Hinduism now simply
a hollow shell?

* (The author is Associate Professor of Government and of Social Studies at
Harvard University)

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Last updated: February 23, 2000 .