In 2019, Anantanand Rambachan, a scholar of Advaita Vedanta, wrote: “The rise of populist nationalism, and especially those versions that clothe themselves in religious colours, requires a critique from the same religious traditions.”
Throughout history, there have been moments in which religious leaders have spoken out against hate and violence originating from within their own religious traditions – sometimes risking their lives in the process.
In Nazi Germany, there was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor and theologian who belonged to Germany’s largest Protestant denomination. Bonhoeffer was outspoken against the Nazi regime’s takeover of his religious tradition and its persecution of Jews, and was eventually imprisoned and executed in 1945. In the United States in the 1960s, there was James Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist minister and civil rights activist who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was murdered at the age of 38 by white racists.
In the context of modern India, there was Lal Das, the mahant of Ayodhya’s Ram Janmabhoomi temple and a strident opponent of Hindu nationalist groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad. He was mysteriously murdered in 1993. Most recently, there was Agnivesh (1939-2020), an outspoken critic of Hindu nationalism and caste who fought for the rights of many marginalised communities in India and was physically attacked by Hindu nationalist mobs on several occasions.
But what about today? In Hindus for Human Rights, a US-based organisation, we have often asked ourselves this question: among India’s nearly one billion Hindus, where are the voices of fearless religious leaders such as those of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, James Reeb, Baba Lal Das, and Swami Agnivesh?
From the calls for genocide issued at the Haridwar “dharam sansad” in 2021 to the bigoted statements of spiritual leaders like Sadhguru and Ravi Shankar, India’s Hindu religious leaders and institutions seem to have, en masse, largely agreed to promote the political ideology of Hindu nationalism. Last year, we published a statement condemning Hindu nationalism and Islamophobia, signed by dozens of Hindu religious leaders and temples across the diaspora. Very few Hindu religious leaders in India agreed to endorse the statement.
My colleague Sunita Viswanath and myself decided to investigate this for ourselves. In February and March, we embarked on a prema yatra – a pilgrimage of love – searching for Hindu religious leaders who were concerned about the state of affairs in India today.
What we found, as summarised in our newly-released report, was both deeply concerning, but also incredibly inspiring.
A journey long
In our yatra, we traveled across nine Indian states, visiting 12 cities and several villages, where we met nearly 30 Hindu religious leaders who had been recommended to us by our partner organisations and contacts. We visited major pilgrimage sites, such as Haridwar, Varanasi, and Ayodhya, as well as major cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Thiruvananthapuram.
This yatra was difficult for many reasons. In our conversations, we encountered a pervasive sense of victimhood or resentment among Indian Hindus, deeply intertwined with hatred towards India’s Muslim minority. In fact, throughout our trip, we saw the extent to which Indian Muslims have been dehumanised in the minds of many Indian Hindus and their religious leaders.
One swami we met insisted that Indian Hindus face much more discrimination than Indian Muslims and Christians. Descriptions of Indian Muslims as insular, violent, and hostile were repeated by other religious leaders. Another swami we met in Uttar Pradesh declared that Muslims do not know the concept of humanity (insaniyat in Hindi) and are intent on converting all Hindus.
And yet, we also found many reasons for hope. We ended up meeting many religious leaders across the country who were deeply worried about the state of affairs in India today.
Some of these leaders grounded their opposition to Hindu nationalism in explicitly religious terms. For example, a temple priest in Varanasi told us that his idea of dharma is inseparable from humanity (manavta), which is the opposite of Hindu nationalism. A leader of a math or monastic institution spoke about being inspired by bhakti poet-saints, who spoke up for the rights of marginalised communities. One swami in Haryana simply stated to us, “India has never had only one religion. This is a pluralistic land.” To this swami, religious diversity was at the heart of what it means to be Indian.
Many Hindu religious leaders we met are opposed to the ways that Hindu nationalists are trying to stop age-old religious traditions and reshape Hindu sacred sites. Several priests and mahants in Varanasi were deeply upset by the renovations that the Bharatiya Janata Party government executed in the city in order to transform Varanasi into a global tourist destination. While traveling in Karnataka, we learned about the ways in which some temples have pushed back against Hindu nationalist groups who have called for Muslim vendors to be excluded from temple festivals.
We also encountered a pervasive sense of fear among the Hindu religious leaders we met. Some of the Hindu religious leaders we met have already faced violence from Hindutva supporters. In some cases, outspoken religious leaders have faced accusations of being Naxalities or Maoists. These leaders, and others, are reluctant to put their ashrams, temples, or devotees at additional risk. They also feel a deep sense of loneliness and isolation – until now, they have lacked a network of like-minded peers.
Despite this, some of these leaders are committed to fighting, and raising their voices even more now. One swami told us very bluntly: “If I surrender to the RSS, there is no life.”
In today’s India, calls for violence against religious minorities are undoubtedly terrifying. But what is more dangerous is the near-absolute silence of the Hindu majority. Hindu nationalism may be the dominant expression of Hindu identity today, but it doesn’t have to be this way. The Hindu religious leaders we met on our prema yatra showed us that there is another path forward: grounded in shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) satya (truth) and ahimsa (non-injury).
Nikhil Mandalaparthy is Deputy Executive Director of Hindus for Human Rights. You can find more of his work at nikhilmandala.com and @voicesofbhakti on Instagram.
A version of the piece first appeared on Religion News Service.