The Bharatiya Janata Party is often called a Hindu fundamentalist party, but I resisted using that label for past administrations because little in the speeches of leaders like Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani suggested they believed in the literal veracity of Hindu religious texts. There was a group within those BJP governments that held fundamentalist views, but they never gained dominance. The balance has changed drastically under Narendra Modi. It is now possible, for the first time in India’s independent history, to talk of a fundamentalist central government. I’ve written about the tendency in past columns, which can be read here, here, and here.
The latest step in the Modi administration’s fundamentalist march was revealed in an investigative story published by Reuters on Tuesday. The writers, Rupam Jain and Tom Lasseter, gained access to minutes of a committee appointed by the Ministry of Culture tasked with finding archaeological and linguistic evidence to bolster literal readings of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Jain and Lasseter interviewed a number of people associated with the panel, including the Minister of Culture Mahesh Sharma, who boasted of seminars and workshops his ministry had conducted, “to prove the supremacy of our glorious past.” Sharma asked, rhetorically, “If the Koran and Bible are considered as part of history, then what is the problem in accepting our Hindu religious texts as the history of India?” His framing of the issue contained a false dichotomy. Being “part of history” is not the same thing as being history.
Few independent scholars take the Bible or the Quran to be literally accurate, any more than they take the Ramayana and Mahabharata to describe actual events. Since the Quran was composed at a much later date than the Mahabharata, there is more independent evidence about the existence of some of the persons mentioned within it. By the same token, we have more independent evidence of the existence of the Sikh gurus than we do about anybody mentioned in the Quran. However, to state that the historicity of Caliph Uthman is on firmer ground than that of Shakuni is not the same as claiming the Quran’s view of the creation of the earth to be more rational or valid than any Hindu text’s account of the same. From an evidentiary perspective, they are equally false, and no well-respected scientist has suggested otherwise.
Hindutva feeds off such imagined wounds in creating its paranoid narrative about Hindu truth being buried by foreign conspirators and their local collaborators. Hindutva fundamentalism is born of a marriage of religious literalism and paranoid history, and is far more dangerous than either of those in isolation. Consider the case of Hindus who believe Hanuman lived as described in the Ramayana and, presumably, continues to walk the earth since he is immortal (perhaps he wandered off to Africa, to be worshipped by the Jabaris of Black Panther. Too bad our censors muted that bit. Maybe they weren’t fundamentalist enough). These Hanuman bhakts, who can correctly be described as religious fundamentalists, worship their god and gain the succour that faith provides without troubling anybody else, and nobody grudges them their beliefs. Hindutvavadi bhakts, on the other hand, aren’t satisfied with inner faith. They feel the need to validate it by stuffing their religious belief down the throat of every school kid in India. To do this they need to prove the scientific accuracy of religious texts, since the Indian constitution provides some ground rules. Sadly for them, science provides none of the evidence they desire. As a consequence, they condemn science as a product of an imperialist conspiracy. That conspiracy involves strange partners, like governments of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations colluding with Indian Marxists, for example.
Having gained political power, Hindutvavdi bhakts try to bend historical, archaeological and linguistic evidence to their will by appointing people to committees and academic positions based on their political orientation, irrespective of their qualifications. They damage institutions of higher learning, and eventually corrupt the history and science taught in schools across the nation in an attempt to raise a generation indoctrinated with their ideology.
Before that indoctrination can proceed full-steam, however, the BJP will require to produce a comprehensive counter to the established account of India’s history which places the roots of Sanskrit and of Vedic civilisation outside India’s borders. Even with a committee composed mainly of pliant academics, Mahesh Sharma will be hard pressed to evolve a history that squares with Hindu myth. One of the panellists, the Sanskrit scholar Santosh Kumar Shukla of Jawaharlal Nehru University, told Reuters that Hindu culture is millions of years old. He is correct if one bases oneself on internal evidence alone. The Ramayana takes place in the Treta Yuga, which is followed by the Dvapara Yuga lasting 864,000 years and then by our present Age of Kali. Any archaeologists on the panel who admit to seeking a million-year-old civilisation will make themselves an instant laughing stock among their peers, given that the first societies complex enough and technologically advanced enough to be called civilisations appeared less than 10,000 years ago. Maybe that’s why the committee’s brief is the, “holistic study of origin and evolution of Indian culture since 12,000 years before present and its interface with other cultures of the world.” For Hindutva fundamentalists, what matters most is proving their culture is the oldest of them all, the issue of whether it goes back 10,000 years or a million is trivial.