The differences of the two leaders on how to deal with the tricky question of Hindu–Muslim conflict were deep enough. On the point of how to take Hindu society forward, the chasm was even greater. Savarkar attacked Gandhi’s relentless focus on his rules for daily living which included hours at the spinning wheel, enemas, a dogged insistence on vegetarianism and debates on whose milk – a cow’s or a goat’s – was more beneficial to human health. (Some of these rules, however, were meant for Gandhi’s ashramites and not for his followers elsewhere or the general public.)

These, for Savarkar, were non-issues with no bearing on either moral fibre or health. Their sole effect, he felt, was to fritter away people’s energies and direct public debate down the wrong path. Far more crucial were attributes such as courage, Savarkar said, voicing the apprehension that India’s “Kshatriya spirit” could be in danger of dying if the Mahatma, with his insistence on absolute non-violence, continued to delegitimise the application of force essentially for self-defensive acts like the repulsing of invaders, oppressors and plunderers.

Yet Savarkar’s personality was truly as complex as Gandhi’s. A devout Hindu, the Mahatma sincerely believed in prayer, ritual and ritual cleansing and made much use of traditional and religious idioms in public life, holding up Ram Rajya as his ideal and the protection of the cow, a sacrosanct figure for most Hindus, as a sacred duty. For all that, and for all his glorification of village life, rejection of modern machinery and unwillingness to unequivocally condemn the varnashrama, the system of four castes, he was vigorously opposed to Shuddhi or reconversions.

Savarkar was, in contrast, hardly a practising Hindu in the religious sense. He followed no rituals and thought that god, if indeed god existed, wasn’t really in the habit of responding to prayer.

He was all for demolition of the caste system, albeit for the purpose of Hindu sangathan or unification. He genuinely loved his fish – which he must have got a consistently rich haul of in coastal Ratnagiri – and disliked all his fellow Brahmans who looked askance at those who relished non-vegetarian food. He was keen that Hindus and Indians in general should embrace the urban life and modern scientific advances, even if they ran counter to their cherished religious beliefs. And he held, at the same time, the very strong conviction that there was no alternative to the campaign for shuddhi if Hindu society were to retain its identity and character in the face of what he saw as Islamic aggression.

On the position of the cow Savarkar deviated sharply not just from Gandhi but from the majority of his co-religionists. During his forced stay in Ratnagiri, he came across an article in the Marathi daily Bhaala in which the editor had posed the question “Who is a Hindu?” and answered it himself by declaring that a Hindu was “one who regards the cow as his mother”. Savarkar felt compelled to react. “If the cow’s a mother to anyone at all, it’s the bullock,” he wrote in a piece for the Marathi journal Kirloskar. ‘Not the Hindus. If Hindutva is to sustain itself on a cow’s legs, it’ll come crashing down at the slightest hint of a crisis.’

The cow was a highly useful animal but its worship made no sense, he said, arguing that humans could possibly consider as a divine being someone with superhuman qualities but certainly not an “out-and-out animal” inferior to humankind.

It was time to abandon the “naive practice” of “gau-poojan” also because it was nothing short of “buddhi hatya” or “murder of the intellect”. He was not against the nurturing of cows and in fact promoted the principle of nurture as a “national duty”, but only as long as it was predicated on broader economic and scientific principles – as it was, he said, in America – that heightened bovine usefulness.

In short, Savarkar pronounced himself in favour of “cow care, not poojan” and abhorred the idea of consuming the animal’s urine and, in some cases, cow dung. Such consumption, he believed, may have actually started out in ancient India as a form of punishment in order to allow a person to “expiate his sins”. And to those orthodox Hindus who would cry blasphemy on reading these radical views of his, he had a sardonic response ready: “Your blasphemy’s far, far greater, just see how you’ve crammed 33 crore deities into a cow’s belly.”

The approach, undoubtedly strictly utilitarian, nevertheless could not be divorced from the theory of Hindutva. As a matter of fact, Hindutva was at the core of it. Unlike, say, a Nehru who spoke of India’s “composite culture”, Savarkar was not convinced that India had been subjugated only by the British. He viewed the many hundred years of Islamic rule as an era of shackles, submission, suppression and slavery. And one of his big problems with cow worship was that it had “ensured” many Hindu defeats in the past.

Muslim armies had, according to Savarkar, used cows often as a shield in critical battles against the Hindus.

He cited two examples of the Hindus shying away from a much-needed assault after they were threatened with defilement of the cow: the march to Multan and the eighteenth-century Maratha chieftain Malharrao Holkar’s campaign to “liberate” Kashi. Rather than backtracking at moments like these for fear of being criminally responsible for cow slaughter and the razing of temples, Hindus needed to chart a different course, he suggested.

If ever the “Hindu Rashtra” was hemmed in by non-Hindu forces and there was no other way to lift the siege and procure food, cow slaughter would have to be exercised as an option, he said. Hindus had hugely damaged their own cause by trying to save a few cows during battle; the survival of the animals had forced an ignominious retreat for their forces and ultimately led to the destruction of more Hindu shrines and ‘setting up of abattoirs across the land’.

The strong reprimand for Hindus was not a go-ahead for non-Hindus who regarded cow killing as their religious duty, however. Savarkar wrote that Hindus might be naive, but they weren’t cruel. In contrast, those who cut down the animal as part of their “dharma” were brutal in their religious zealotry and had “no right to ridicule cow worshippers for their beliefs”. In all the deliberate slaughter Savarkar saw “excessive barbarism, ingratitude and an asuric [demonic] instinct” and urged those indulging in it to give up their hate and take up “cow care” instead.


Excerpted with permission from Savarkar: The True Story of the Father of Hindutva, Vaibhav Purandare, Juggernaut.