We are activist-scholars: precisely the kind who are criticised by the Hindu right. As members of the Feminist Critical Hindu Studies Collective, we are committed to examining how the religion called “Hinduism” has been constructed, both in academic research and in Hindu communities. We write both as religious studies scholars and as savarna women of Hindu heritage. We hope that we can share insights that our field brings to an understanding of global Hindutva.
As scholars of religion, we are acutely aware of the ways that colonialism and racism have played a role in shaping academic perspectives on the world. We know that knowledge is never neutral, and that what we study and how we teach has real consequences – sometimes dangerous and violent ones.
Thus, we must always consider what is at stake for others when we do our work. As teachers of Hindu traditions, we think it is vital that we learn how to think critically about what we ourselves have been taught – both in universities and in our communities, while also recognising how caste and social power continue to shape Hindu traditions.
As scholars of religion, we see how Hinduism is deeply intertwined with Hindutva. At the Dismantling Global Hindutva conference, we have repeatedly heard that “Hindutva is not Hinduism”. We assert that although not all Hinduism is Hindutva, Hindutva is in fact Hinduism. We believe strongly that we must begin not by denying the Hinduness of Hindutva but by realising that Hindutva is a powerful, vocal, and insidious form of Hinduism.
When we assert that they are separate, Hindutva continues unnamed in the guise of “Hinduism”. That is why it is necessary for all of us who research Hinduism or who live in Hindu communities to reflect deeply on what elements of Hindu tradition and practice are so easily co-opted by Hindutva’s Hinduism.
Hindus who insist on parsing words by arguing that in Sanskrit “Hindutva” simply means Hinduness forget that words take on different meanings over time, depending upon how they have been used. People who insist that Hindutva means “Hinduness” seek to hide their politics through appeals to ancient etymologies and grammar as opposed to historical and political realities.
As scholars of religion, we do not see religious traditions as having essential qualities, or as acting on their own. When people try to “combat” Hindutva by saying Hinduism is a religion of peace or non-violence, they contribute to the problem by suggesting that Hinduism is a universal entity, an agent that does something.
Ironically, a universal Hinduism is precisely what Hindutva seeks to promote. Hindutva is always, no matter the context – explicit or inexplicit – drawing upon and taking power from Hinduism. And that, therefore, has implications for everyone who identifies as a Hindu or who practices Hinduism.
Hindutva works in multiple ways – it can look or feel differently in various settings. We may all be familiar with the images of Hindutvavadis in India rioting and waving flags. But the nationalist, identity-centred ideology of Hindutva is also at work in the diaspora in more subtle ways, when for example the Indian Students Council on a North American college campus only sponsors Hindu festivals and rituals, obscuring the distinction between Hindu and Indian.
It is also present when children in the diaspora are taught about Hinduism. The way in which children learn today in temples and bala vihar classes tends to present Hinduism in a homogeneous, monolithic way. Each of us has conducted research in Hindu educational spaces where we have found that curricula often conflate India with Hinduism and promote the notion that being a good Hindu means not just learning about traditions and deities, but being loyal to the Indian nation.
These lessons often uncritically plant the seeds for the forms of exclusivist ways of thinking about nation and community that are at the core of Hindutva. Even when they are not explicitly Hindutva-oriented, many of the global institutions and organisations that seek to foster Hindu identity bolster Hindutva’s aims.
In “secular” democracies, it has become common practice for people to claim religious identities alongside national ones. Such identity-politics have become a way to participate in civil society and multiculturalism. Claiming a Hindu identity looks and functions differently in India, the UK, Canada, the US, or Trinidad.
However, the very notion of a collective Hindu identity that transcends various sectarian, regional, and cultural differences is often leveraged in the service of Hindutva. Indeed, the idea of Hindu as a personal identity is a fairly recent construction that has been shaped by colonialism and nationalism.
To claim any religious identity is politically fraught. To claim religious identity is to engage in a politics of belonging that necessarily involves forms of inclusion and exclusion. To say one is a Hindu is to signal that one is not something else. And while that very experience of belonging can involve powerful affective experiences and feelings of love, it is also the same kind of thing that produces the hate that we see in Hindutva’s many forms. This is one of the greatest threats and challenges that Hindutva’s Hinduism poses to other forms of Hinduism.
Hindutva’s Hinduism is rapacious: it professes radical inclusivity, desiring to subsume all other Hindus and Hinduisms throughout the globe into its fold. In doing this, the rhetoric employed by Hindutva leaders often belies reality. It not only seeks to include those who identify as Hindu but also all “dharmic religions” and those who it argues have been “converted” out – Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Dalit Christians.
Its deceptive double-speak claims to be “blind to caste,” but, as has been illustrated by many scholars, Hindutva’s Hinduism continually retrenches caste.
A person’s identification with Hinduism can easily become an entryway into participation in Hindutva. In the diaspora, in particular, Hindu identity has become an important way of naming and comfortably inhabiting one’s difference. Finding community in this identity can be a very positive and affirming experience for many. Hinduism is seen as inseparable from traditions and family, foodways, languages, art forms, and rituals.
Recognising the power of identity can help us to understand the strong pull of Hindutva’s organisational offerings, be they camps, school programmes, or opportunities for civic participation. What moves people to support Hindutva is often more about emotion than politics.
Hindutva organisations play on emotion and religious sentiment when they use the language of “Hinduphobia” or speak about how Hindus and Hindu ways of life are under threat. The power to instill fear is a useful weapon. When people are repeatedly told that what is being threatened is their religion, and that the things that they hold most dear – their family customs, sacred sites, image of the divine, children’s relationship to their heritage – are in danger, it is not surprising that they jump to its defense.
In stoking fear, Hindutva leaders also need to identify an “other,” a threat. In the case of the Dismantling Global Hindutva conference, the “other” is academics. But on the ground, those “others” whose bodies and lives are at stake are primarily members of Muslim and Dalit communities.
Hindutva leaders actively seek to control the production of knowledge about “Hinduism” both in the academy and in various public contexts. They often frame this in terms of wanting to wrest control of scholarship about Hinduism away from white colonial professors and back into the hands of “real” Hindus.
But despite being scholars of Hindu heritage, we are among the people that Hindutva forces do not want as producers of knowledge – because we do not support their understanding of Hinduism. This is also why Hindutva leaders find diaspora groups like Sadhana and Hindus for Human Rights so threatening. These other perspectives on Hinduism challenge the vision of a unitary Hinduism that is so important to Hindutva ideology.
When violence is enacted in the name of Hinduism, it is tempting for progressive Hindus to denounce and distance themselves from these forms of tradition as an aberration. But hateful forms of religion are still iterations of the tradition, and they are powerful precisely because they speak in the language of religion.
We know that the tools of religion, the symbols, the language, the rituals of religion, theology have been wrapped up in Hindutva formations from very early on. When Hindutva violence is sanctioned by appeals to religion, the divine, or sacred texts, it becomes more easily justifiable than other forms of violence.
When those who identify as Hindu want to denounce Hindutva, it requires a denouncement of these forms of Hinduism. It requires a critical analysis of how the same texts that one group may use to call for love are being deployed to call for hate. It also requires naming, actively rejecting, and undoing aspects of the tradition – such as caste supremacy – that have historically been and continue to be used as justification for oppression, marginalisation, and violence.
In this vein, parsing out Hindutva’s rhetoric can be particularly complicated because it is often contradictory. In recent days, we have seen Hindu advocacy groups say, on the one hand, that Hindutva is not Hinduism, and, on the other hand, that any attack on Hindutva is a direct attack on Hinduism.
A unitary Hinduism
When we say that Hindutva is a form of Hinduism, we are told we are Hinduphobic, attacked on social media, and sent death threats. But to call us Hinduphobic for making this claim suggests that there is only one way to be a Hindu and only one kind of Hinduism. But as scholars we approach Hinduism as a tradition that can be used to wage war or peace, and which has rituals and sacred texts that can be interpreted in a variety of ways.
We must also address the way that Hinduphobia is now being used by the Hindu right. It is essential to acknowledge how religion and race are intertwined. Hindus in the diaspora experience discrimination and violence for two main reasons: first because they are brown, viewed as “others,” in a white Christian society. Often, they are targeted because they are misidentified as Muslim, and thus, are actually victims of Islamophobia.
Second, because of colonial perceptions and misperceptions of Hindu traditions, they may be seen as idolatrous or even dangerous. In both cases, anti-Hindu sentiment emerges in the context of white Christian supremacy. We do not, therefore, wish to suggest that Hindus in the US, or elsewhere, do not ever experience violence or discrimination. However, we believe that it is critical to locate its origins, which are undeniably linked to Islamophobia and white supremacy, rather than to critiques of Hindutva.
In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, we wrote that the use of “Hinduphobia” is little more than a smokescreen for Hindu nationalism. The term co-opts the language of social justice activists and explicitly tries to make an equivalency between Islamophobia and the experiences of Hindus.
We want to close by reiterating that to truly challenge Hindutva, we must start by acknowledging that Hindutva is in fact Hinduism. Hinduism is not unique. Almost every religion has political iterations that are not separate from and are deeply informed by tradition. In turn, these forms of political, ideological religion change the face of traditions in profound and often disturbing ways.
The challenge before Hindus who do not want Hindutva to own Hinduism is no small thing. It requires a serious reckoning with the perniciousness of casteism, Islamophobia, racism and misogyny in our communities.
This conference was organised in a way that centres savarna scholars of South Asia, including ourselves. It has not centered the voices of Dalits and Muslims who have experienced the impact of Hindutva most acutely and whose perspectives must be heard. The conversation thus far has been primarily among Hindus themselves – both religious and secular – who continue to reap the benefits of Hindu identity and caste status in all kinds of ways.
To move forward, we must ask whether we are asking the right questions about Hindutva. Are we creating meaningful spaces for dialogue if those most affected cannot feel safe at the table?
Sailaja Krishnamurti is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Women & Gender Studies at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, in Canada.
Shana Sippy is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, in the United States.
This is the text of the speech of the Feminist Critical Hindu Studies Collective at the Dismantling Global Hindutva Conference on September 12. It has been lightly edited.