Hindutva is Indian woke culture. This may seem like an odd statement to make because a) woke-ism has specific post-War American civil rights antecedents and some have argued for a deeper causal link with Puritan Protestantism which roots it even further back, and b) it is a movement decidedly of the self-avowed Left Liberal. But if you are willing to look past the superficial differences, I don’t think there’s much separating them at all.
The word Hindutva is morphologically of Sanskrit but was never used in that language by anyone. It is a very modern Sanskritised neologism, formed by suffixing -tva (denoting quality of) to the borrowed Hindi noun “hindu”. The word “hindu” is a Persian borrowing, a reflex of Old Persian hi(n)duš as attested in the Achaemenid inscriptions, which is in turn a likely borrowing from Sanskrit sindhuḥ. Therefore, the word “hindutva” literally implies “hinduness”.
Like the word, Hindutva is a relatively modern movement with pretensions of classical vintage. There is a kernel of the Hindu reformist thought that goes back to the Maratha state, that in turn owes some debt to the Bhakti Movement of the 14th-17th centuries. Bhakti Movement was a near pan-Indian attempt at Hindu reform that was triggered as C Asian Muslims consolidated political power in India and its ideologues range from Lalla Dĕd in Kashmir, Mirabai in Rajasthan, Ramdas and Tukaram in Maharashtra, “Sikh” Gurus in Punjab, Guru Gorakhnath in Terai/Nepal, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in Bengal, Bhakt Kabir in Uttar Pradesh, etc. The role of Tukaram (a low caste Kunbi, i.e. petty peasant) is especially noteworthy in imbuing a sense of cultural nationhood among Maratha Kunbis who formed the bulk of guerrilla troops of the nascent Maratha state under Shivaji.
The Bhakti movement was a proto-Reformation of Hinduism strengthening its hold in the masses and anti-Caste as many of the Bhakti ideologues were non-Brahmins opposed to old Hindu orthodoxy. The overall result of the movement was to strengthen the devotional, personal-God aspect of Hinduism, popularisation of epic narratives (Ramayana, Mahabharata, Hanuman Chalisa, etc.) and a departure from the norm that authorities on local religious thought/philosophy had to be Brahmin born.
Bhakti movement had an aspect of competition with Islam, in trying to absorb it within a broader Indic tradition (cf. Sikhism). It also had a proselytising role in converting heterodox (“pagan”) peoples to Hinduism (cf. conversions to gauḍīya vaiśnavism in Bengal, Tripura, Hinduisation of Gorkhas, Axom, etc.). A significant part of what we know of Hinduism today is a result of the Bhakti reform that happened right under the noses of the Moghals. Indeed the Mughals were not completely oblivious to these cults of Hindus and fear of conversion of Muslims loomed large (cf. Tuzk-i Jahangiri on the execution of “Sikh” Guru Arjan). I say “Sikh” within quotes because the real bifurcation of Sikhism as a confessional creed separate from Hinduism happened only in the lifetime of the last Guru.
There are obvious parallels of the Bhakti movement with European Protestantism, in terms of preaching religion in local languages, emphasis on proselytisation of the faith and rejection of orthodox priesthood. There are key differences too, chiefly that the monarchies of Europe were Roman Catholic as opposed to professing a separate religion (i.e. Islam) in India, and the ruling elite certainly were not beholden to Brahmin priestly class to legitimise their rule.
Like the European Protestant movement, Bhakti reform was not peaceful nor were the Muslim ruling/military elite well disposed to it, especially if the new-age Hindu Gurus were seen as politically active, had Muslim followers or tried to incorporate/comment on Islamic canon. The seeds of social/political resentment are, therefore, embedded deep within Hindutva’s kernel, and the struggle is against caste orthodoxy as much against the Muslim political elite. Even though the poor Mughals eclipsed, that resentment never did. The same sort of resentment fuelled Hindu political thought in peak colonial period. This is evidenced in how Indian literature of the time spins the Hindu view of British rule. Example: Anandamath used the failed Sanyasi (Ascetic) Rebellion against the British as a plot device to underscore political subjugation of the Hindu subaltern.
The generation of upper-middle class Westernised elite which arose among Hindus in the half century between the Indian Sepoy Mutiny and the beginning of the 20th century were a reformed (and deracinated) subject people. They were in awe of the Empire they were subjects of and acutely aware of their subordinate political status in it. The Congress party represented the consensus of this pan-Indian Hindu elite, implicitly carrying over that reforming/civilising role into independent India. The irony of Indian independence, however, is that it represents the independence of the Indian subaltern from their traditional sahibs far more than the independence of the sahibs from the exogenous Empire. People who used to know their place now no longer did. It was a matter of time before the votaries of Hindu politics reasserted their supernumerary will against the elite.
The devotional strand of Hinduism prevalent in the masses also explains the obsession with mythological figures like rāma or kṛṣṇa and the mass-mobilisation of lower caste Hindus and Other Backward Castes who now form the bench-strength of the Hindutva movement. All the tell-tale signs of Western woke-ism: deep victimhood complex, tearing down symbols of oppression, ban/cancel culture, virtue-signalling and nativism (aboriginal vs colonial debates, of which Aryan Invasion Theory-denialism is a corollary) have exact analogies in Hindutva.
While upper castes (especially Brahmins) continue to play an important ideological role in Hindu politics and will do for a long time, their power on the direction of the Hindu project has evapourated. As a case in point, the RSS chose its first non-Brahmin head right after the Babri mosque demolition in December 1992. The same can be seen in politics too, as the likes of Atal Bihari Vajpeyee gave way to Narendra Modi on account of the latter’s sheer rabble-rousing skills as opposed to former’s propensity for highfalutin Hindi poetry. Calls for smashing “brahminical patriarchy” by the Indian liberals totally miss the point because Hindutva project is tempered by its Brahmins. It is the de-Brahminification of Hindutva that the “liberals” should be really afraid of because that taps into all kinds of old and raw resentments.
Modern Hindutva is a pathology and little good comes of it. The liberal sense to wish it away or denigrate the people who hold such views won’t work. What will work are institutional controls to limit/correct the bad effects of this worldview. The evolution of Hindutva politics will be a bumpy ride in India with lots of culture wars, occassional events looking like retrogressions and reverses to one party or another and like a general pig’s breakfast to outsiders. The answer to how Indian politics will cope in the era of Hindutva lies in India’s institutional fine print. May seem like mere technicalities now but it’s little things like seat-belts and helmets that make the difference between life and death when road meets rubber.
This article first appeared on Brown Pundits.
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