An Atheist’s Defense of Hindutva

As I started to better understand the world around myself, I found myself drifting away from the realm of religion. First it was my parent’s faith, an interesting medley called Hinduism. Later it was the spiritual aspect of Hinduism. Then it was spirituality, and finally, when I realized that spirituality is nothing but the debris of religion, it was agnosticism bordering on atheism. Since nothing is certain, I cannot call myself a 100% atheist, because a claim such as that is self defeating, soI am 99.99% an atheist. However, after much introspection, I define myself as a Hindu atheist, because atheism is the lack of a personal God, not lack of a culture. Culture is never religion. Religion is a faith, and culture is educational or advancement of knowledge. Religion is static, but culture is dynamic.

There needs to be some clarification about the use of the words ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism.’ The fact is that true ‘Hinduism’ is based on Vedic knowledge, which is related to our spiritual identity. Many people do accept it to mean the same thing as Sanātana-dharma, which is a more accurate Sanskrit term for the Vedic path. Such an identity is beyond any temporary names as Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or even Hindu. After all, God never describes Himself as belonging to any such category, saying that He is only a Christian God, or a Muslim God, or a Hindu God. That is why some of the greatest spiritual masters from India have avoided identifying themselves only as Hindus. The Vedic path claims to be eternal, and therefore beyond all such temporary designations. So am I calling the name ‘Hindu’ a temporary designation?

Most scholars feel that the name ‘Hindu’ was developed by outsiders, invaders who could not pronounce the name of the Sindhu River properly. According to Sir Monier Williams, the Sanskrit lexicographer, you cannot find an indigenous root for the words Hindu or India. Neither are these words found in any Buddhist or Jain texts, nor any of the official 23 languages of India. Some sources report that it was Alexander the Great who first renamed the River Sindhu as the Indu, dropping the beginning ‘S’, thus making it easier for the Greeks to pronounce. This became known as the Indus (lit. of the Indu). This was when Alexander invaded India around 325 B.C.

Later, when the Muslim invaders arrived from places such as Afghanistan and Arabia, they called the Sindhu River the Hindu River. Thereafter, the name ‘Hindu’ was used to describe the inhabitants from that tract of land in the northwestern provinces of India where the Sindhu River is located, and the region itself was called ‘Hindustan’ from (Hindu+sthan, where sthan in Sanksrit and other Indic languages means place). Thereafter, even the Indians conformed to these standards as set by those in power and used the names Hindu and Hindustan. Otherwise, the word has no meaning except for those who place value on it or now use it out of convenience.

In this context, I’d like to define Hindutva as the character of Hindustan. As mentioned, how the etymology has transpired might very well be an accident of history, but it is too well entrenched to be changed now. I don’t see any difference between Hindutva and the more acceptable term ‘Bhartiyata’. I’ve never been to an RSS camp or read any book written by its ideological founders, something that is a common between me and all the RSS haters. Perhaps it would have been natural for me to hate the RSS as well and and be the perfect ‘secular’ Hindu. But I think of Hindutva otherwise. I think of it as the bond that holds what is left of India together in the 21st century, and as the reason that the Hindu civilization (now partly known as India) is the only surviving ancient civilization in the world, as corroborated by UNESCO and more interestingly by Mohammad Iqbal in the following couplet:

Yūnān-o-misr Romā sab mit gaye jahān se
Lekin ha ab tak bāki nām-o-nishān humarā

Veer Savarkar, who was a well-known proponent of Hindutva was an atheist. Hindutva is not about being a Sanātan Dharmi by faith. Hindutva is about being part of a ancient and continuously evolving value system that has stood the test of time like no other. Hindutva is about being proud of non-Hindus progressing in every sphere of life and affording them the opportunities to prosper in life, unlike Abhrahamic faiths, where even in the 21st century it is impossible for a person from minority faith to lead the country. Obama has to keep reminding the US that he is a Christian, because having a black president is big enough a jolt for most Americans. Hindutva is feeling proud to have a Sikh prime minister and Muslim president lead the Indian union. But there is a sub-clause to this; the Sikh prime minister and Muslim president themselves were Hindus (as per the Hindutva ideology). How dare I call AJP Abdul Kalam a Hindu? Because he considered himself one. A perfect example of he being a Hindu role model was when he addressed the European Union parliament beginning with a śhloka from the Tamil classic Purananuru and followed by a quote from the Upanishads rather than with a quote from the Quran, which he might privately practice and revere. That is Hindutva.

A proponent of Hindutva views the various religious denominations in India to be Hindus by virtue of being of Hindu ancestry and part of the Hindu value system. It does not seek to impose a Hindu way of worship on them. It is a different story that many minorities, most notably Muslims, have gone to great lengths to disassociate themselves with their Hindu identity or the Hinduness. The most famous example of them trying to do so is the creation of Pakistan, about which I have written separately. The constant hue and cry about the various RSS chief’s comments that India is Hindu country, and that all Indians are Hindus, is purely due to intellectual lethargy and false propaganda. He, and others from the RSS, have time and again clarified that he only means that the essence of India is the Hindu value system and everyone by virtue of being part of the Hindu value system is a Hindu, and that he does not imply the Hindu way of worship.

How can a Muslim be a Hindu? Isn’t there an inherent contradiction in the statement. No there isn’t. A Muslim or a Christian can be a Hindu just as a Christian can be a Polynesian Maori or a Muslim can be a Turk or a Kazakh or a Slav. In fact, only Muslims in India have a problem being called Hindus. They are called Hindus by people from all over the world, including in Arabia. The two aren’t mutually exclusive; you can be both at the same time. For doing so, you don’t need to teach your children the Gitā as the word of God, but you do need to acquaint them with Yoga, Ayurveda, and other ancient Indian traditions. You do need to give your child a Hindu name and not a Arab or Persian name, especially if it isn’t eponymous. For example, if you want to name your child Mohammad, that is fine, but if you want to name him after the sun, you can name him Surya or Bhaskar or the hundred other Hindu names for sun rather than name him Badruddin or Aftāb. Do Muslim Slavs of Eastern Europe or Kazakhi Muslims of central Asia name their children in Arabic? No. And that doesn’t make them any less Muslim. This infatuation with Arabic names is such a serious issue that Tajikistan, a Muslim country largely influenced by Persia (Iran) is debating whether to ban the use of Arabic names to preserve their identity.

The Christians of Konkan (west coast of India), and some Muslims of Kerala defy this infatuation of looking towards Arabia or Rome (depending on the faith). There are several Christians and Muslims who have Hindu names in these parts of India. By Hindu names, I don’t necessarily mean Sanskrit names. They can be names from any Indic language. To be honest, I’d say that they can be names from any language with the exception of the language of the proselytizers (Arabic, Hebrew, Portuguese, and Latin). That still gives you thousands of languages to choose from, but naming your child in one these languages conveys a deep sense of inferiority and glorifies our invaders. The important point here is that names are culture specific and not language specific. So, if you are an Indian by culture, your name cannot belong to the Arab culture. If it could, then Arabs would also have Iranian or Indian names, but they don’t. If your name does (belong to the Arab culture), it is because you reject the Indian culture and seek your roots elsewhere. For all those Muslims who keep trumpeting their love for India at every given opportunity, I say that name your children with names native to India (Hindu names) if you really love India.

What is this Hindu value system that I talk about as being the cornerstone of Hindutva? First and foremost, there is no prophet, and even the Hindu holy scriptures cannot be equated with the Abrahamic scriptures such as the Torah, Bible, or the Quran. I’ve often argued that comparing the Gitā with the Quran or the Bible, or Krishā with Mohammad or Jesus is a folly. The Hindu value system uniquely allows for scriptures (Smritis) to be amended with changing time. A great example is a recent statement made by the RSS chief (the good for nothing Rahul Gandhi once compared RSS to the banned terrorist organization SIMI 1), in which he said that unscientific Hindu values should be given up2.

It rejects the idea of conversions. In fact, there is formal way to convert to Hinduism. It is also not averse to changes brought about by science and technology, which fosters rational thinking and intellectual curiosity. Hindu rules of war were so civilized that despite being a numerical majority in a number of wars, the Hindus lost. For example, Prithviraj Chauhan forgave Muhammad Ghori after defeating him, because the Hindu rules of war demanded that the victor forgive the loser if the loser apologizes for his mistake, but when Ghori attacked and defeated Chauhan in the second attempt, he decapitated Chauhan and displayed his severed head outside his place.

Even at the peak of the Hindu-Buddhist conflict, not a single Buddhist scripture or temple 3 was destroyed by the Hindus, because of the basic belief that disagreements can be solved through dialogue. Even if you take the opposite position, there aren’t even two to three supposed incidents of Hindu-Buddhist violence. Perhaps the the most important element of Hindutva is that in believes in the notion of ‘Sarvo dharma sambhav‘, which roughly means that all religions can lead to God. This positions Sanātan Dharmā uniquely in a world of warring faiths, each claiming to be the only true path to God. Similarly, Hindutva as an ideology does not believe in proselytizing others. There are other differences between a Hindu society and western societies, such as respecting parents and elders and caring for the sick. Though it might sound that this is basic humanity, you’d be surprised to see that in the west, children or relatives are in no way morally bound to take care of their parents or other elderly relatives. Lastly, in a Hindu society, social status is not dependent on wealth, but on self-actualization and knowledge. This is why a dhoti clad, bare chested man called Gandhi led the country. It is almost impossible to imagine western political or religious leaders exercise such modesty and self-denial, and if they did, no one would follow them.

Often this sort of a discussion ends up with questions pertaining to the ills of Hinduism (Sanātan Dharmā) and Hindu society. As an atheist, I don’t care two cents about whether the Hindu faith is any good or not; its almost inconsequential to the inherent strength of Hindutva, which is not about the Hindu belief system alone. Of course, Hindu apologists can argue whether the ills in Hindu society truly represent the Hindu faith just as Muslim apologists argue everyday about how terror is committed in the name of Islam. Even the cursed caste system had a very interesting beginning as a way to divide power and prevent one person from wielding too much power (with knowledge, weapons, money, and land being identified as the sources of power and thus the need to separate them). How it has panned out and been abused is all too well known (to which the Muslims say that so have Islam and Islamic doctrines). But the crucial difference lies in the fact that the Hindu thought leaders are ready to completely do away with the caste system (varnā, which later got corrupted into jāti) in favor of a united Hindu society. Are Muslim thought leaders ready to do away with the doctrine of Jihād even if one makes the generous concession of considering it abused? Are the Arabs willing to consider Bangladeshis or Indonesians as their brothers? No.

So, even with the ills of Hindu society, what is important is that the Hindu civilization has given the world much of its mathematics, geometry, philosophy, medicine, metallurgy, and even town planning. Unlike some jingoists, I don’t say that we gave the world everything or that the Kābā was a Shiva temple. That is untrue and irrelevant, but we gave the world a lot, as did other ancient civilizations like Persia, Greece, and Egypt. But as noted earlier, all those are now extinct whereas we are extant, which is more than sufficient proof of Hindutva’s inherent strength. Interestingly, even in my defense of Hindutva, I am presenting a logical argument for the survival of the Hindu civilization, whereas others, for example the Israelites, would give the credit to God and to the fact that they are His chosen people (and by that virtue are indestructible).

The left leaning Indian media throws around words like ‘Hindutva is fascist’ or that the BJP/RSS are ‘right-wing ultra Hindu parties’. I must point out the irony in the Indian media, which is relatively free, being leftist. There is no freedom of expression or thought in any leftist society, and more interestingly there are no leftists in the Islamic world! But, coming to their use of stupid terms, it is such a misnomer and deserves a through analysis. Fascism is defined as right wing authoritarianism, and even though the BJP is to the right of the Congress, it falls well short of any possible demarcation of the right. On one hand, we have the Islamo-fascist regimes of the Arab world where even speaking against them or Islam is punishable by death and on the other, we have BJP, which is accused of being Hindu fascist for seeking the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya or even more funnily the implementation of a Uniform Civil Code (which is a cornerstone of secularism!). Now, they aren’t asking for the Gitā to be made into the constitution or the usage of Manusmriti as the basis of India law. Nevertheless, the barometer of fascism and right wing fundamentalism is very different for Hindus and Muslims. If BJP would have been a fascist party, would they go to the supreme court on the issue of building a Ram Temple in Ayodhya? When did Mussolini ever go to Italy’s courts to seek permission to do what he thought was correct?

However critical one is of the Hindu right-wingers and patriarchs (incidentally, my analysis shows that they are patriarchal because of Arab-Islamic influence in the first place), you simply cannot even compare them with the Islamic or Christian fundamentalists. I mean, just a few days ago, a white supremacist shot dead 9 black Christians in America for the crime of being black Christians. This is in one of the richest and most educated countries of the world, a democracy for 250 years, and despite that, one has to sift through all examples of right-wing violence in India to find something that even comes close to such violence and hatred. Whereas the Arab dictators and self-proclaimed Caliphs seek a return to the regressive 7th century, Hindu thought leaders have never expressed no such desire. To the contrary, Sri Aurobindo, Swami Vivekananda, and even Mahatma Gandhi in his own way, sought a renaissance in Hinduism and Hindu society and not a recrudesce to an earlier, ossified society.

A perfect example is this ‘inflammatory speech’ by right-wing Hindu leader Bal Thackeray. Here are some salient features of his speech:

  • Muslim demands due to vote bank politics are increasing at an alarming rate and in a way similar to demands that were made through the 30s and 40s which culminated into Pakistan. This is perfectly accurate, and if you have read my article on Pakistan, you’d know that separate electorates for Muslims was the last straw in the partition of India.
  • He says that we want Muslims. Muslims like Syed Kirmani and Mohammad Azharuddin who lead India to glory with pride.
  • He rhetorically asks whether the Indian Muslims were sleeping when their coreligionists kicked out Kashmiri Pandits from the valley?
  • Questioning the ‘Islam is in danger’ narrative, which was used before the instigate anti-national feelings that lead to the partition. He asserts that Hindus don’t do anything to make Islam or Muslims feel insecure.
  • Points out that Islam exhorts its followers to be loyal to their soil and questions the actions of Indian Muslims (backdrop of Bombay blasts and Dawood Ibrahim).
  • Refers to the Khalistani atrocities against Punjabi Hindus and reacts to some Sikhs calling him anti-Sikh by stating he only spoke against Sikhs who harbour Khalistani sentiments and aid militants.
  • States that Maharashtra will never accept polity based on religion. (How right wing is that!)
  • Talks about Hinduism’s ability to reconcile with modernity and its willingness to do away with ills, such as caste system, atrocities against women etc.
  • Tells the audience that the first diktat he gives to the auto rickshaw union (run by Shiv Sena) is that even if it is midnight, they should leave everything and attend to a woman in need of transport. He says that the woman should feel secure and happy to be riding in an auto owned and operated by a Shiv Sainik. Again, it doesn’t matter whether you like him or not. This is as ‘right wing’ you can get being a Hindu, and to my neutral mind, this is more or less secular and factual in nature!
    Can you imagine right-wing Islamists make such speeches about non-Muslims in their respective countries? There we have to choose between clerics promising virgins in heaven to the King of Saudi Arabia offering to build 200 mosques for Syrian refuges in Germany but not accepting any of them in his country (incidentally, they back the rebels that fuels the war in Syria). Recently, a prominent cleric in ‘moderate’ Malaysia advised the parliament to not use logic and intellect in matters of Islam and that intellectual desires were susceptible to the devil!4. The Hindu way of life is inherently secular. Hindustan is secular not because the minorities want it (some of them very well might and I have no qualms accepting that), but because the majority want it. In fact, secularism is a ‘no-brainer’ for most Hindus, who have a long tradition of welcoming oppressed minorities into their homeland.

    The Parsis fled Iran and came to India; they were given refuge and prospered in India. Not just that, in 1947, the British offered the Parsis reservation in the Indian parliament on the lines of the one for Anglo-Indians, but the Parsis rejected it by saying that the Hindus have looked after them for more than a millennium, that they didn’t need the British’s help, and that the British should just leave.The Jews came to India and the King of Kerala (that region at the time) built them a synagogue in Cochin. In fact, one of the first resolutions adopted by the Israeli parliament was to thank India for being the only country where Jews were not persecuted. Even the Arabs, so long as they were traders, were welcomed into India, specifically in Gujarat and Kerala. It is easy to miss, but the FIRST mosque outside Arabia was built in Kerala, on land granted by a Hindu king. Mohammad’s family, who were being chased down by the Ummayyads, were granted refuge in Multan by a Hindu king. It is only with the Islamic invasions and the Christian missionaries that the social fabric got strained. Bear in mind that I am only referring to the Hindu social fabric, and do not mean that India was some utopic land with no ills. But it was certainly one that every power on earth sought to find and rule. Is there any land in the world where the Mongols, Turks, Afghans, Arabs, Persians, Dutch, Portuguese, French, and British sought to establish their rule? Surely, there was and is something special about it. In fact Iqbal goes on to describe this peculiar phenomenon:

    Kuch bāt hai ki hasti mitti nahi humāri
    Sadiyon rahā hai dushman daur-e-zamān humarā

    India can only sustain as a secular democracy if it remains Hindu by character. In fact, it is easy to identify secessionist and subversive movements in India and link it to the loss of the Hindu character. Pakistan is the most obvious example, where the children of Sindhu butchered Hindus and made a separate country in their quest for a new identity. Once the Kashimiri Pandits were driven out of the Kashmir valley, the Kashmiri Muslims, on a daily basis, seek secession from India solely on the basis of an identity conflict (note that it is not only a religious conflict, but an identity conflict). Isn’t it strange that the Kashmiri Hindus think of Kashmir as part of India (and that it always was) where as the Kashmiri Muslims don’t? How and why should history be sharply different on the basis of the reader’s faith? Isn’t it strange that Dar-ul-Uloom, Deoband, says Kashmir is India and opposes Pakistan for everything it does, but Kashmiri Muslims disregard its views, even though it is one of the world’s largest Islamic seminary? Similarly, parts of north-east India, specifically Nagaland, strive for secession on the basis of their new found Christian identity. And what does becoming Christian invariably mean for the Nagas? Becoming Americanized.

    Now, it will be a little far fetched to say that Nagaland was part of Hindustan in the first place, but even if it wasn’t, one can be reasonably sure that if they wouldn’t have been lured for the last century by American Baptists, they wouldn’t be so violently subversive against the Indian state. Many Christians of Goa, inhabitants of which were brutally converted into Christianity by the overzealous Portuguese, fought against India and in favor of the Portuguese when India attempted to merge it with the Indian union. Even today, some of them think of themselves as being Portuguese! We see similar problems in pockets of Tamil Nadu and Kerala where Muslims and Christians are in a majority. My favorite example is that of Khalistan, a movement for a separate Sikh state that gained momentum when the Sikh identity, which is so closely tied with the Hindu identity, sought to create a sub-identity, much like the Muslims did in 1947. It is funny because the Sikh gurus are the most ‘Hindu’ you can get! Now, again, overzealous Sikhs can try and appropriate the Gurus teachings, but the fact is that they are loved and revered by every Hindu in India as their own. But once again in the case of Khalistan, the chain of Hindutva broke (in this case artificially), and the result was anti-India secessionist activity.

    Fabrication of history to distort India’s national character has also lead to fissures in the Hindu society, something that Hindutva activists are trying to bridge. Right from the time of Hebert Risley, Lord Macaulay, and Max Mueller, Indian history has been distorted to suit the designs of the British. A perfect example is the bogus Aryan-Dravidian theory, which for many decades, has been propagated throughout India as an infallible truth. Modern DNA research into the subject has shown that no such Aryan invasion ever occurred into northern India. In fact, DNA evidence shows that majority of Indian DNAs (ranging roughly from present Pakistan to Bangladesh with the exception of certain small regions and tribal communities) are essentially the same5,6. Research has also shown very limited racial differences between the various castes of India, which were also portrayed smartly by the British as an instrument of Aryan dominance. Of course, the caste system is not a British creation, but they did exploit it rather well.

    Similarly, very little of Indian history focuses on the Hindu resistance to the endless waves of Islamic invasion. Islamic armies conquered Persia, Egypt, Mesopotamia etc. within an average time frame of 20 years each, where as they couldn’t capture and convert 75% of India even after 800 years of rule. Does this mean that they were specifically benevolent towards the Hindus? Evidence7 points to the contrary and their own historical records present a gory picture of conversion and subjugation across India. Why then did they fail? The answer lies in Hindutva and the inherent strength of the Hindu value system. There are endless examples of falsification and negationism in Indian history, for more on which I recommend reading Rajiv Malhotra’s Breaking India, Koenraad Elst’s Negationsim in India – Concealing the Record of Islam, and A.L. Basham’s seminal work The Wonder That Was India.

    In summary, Hindutva is a concept that even a staunch non-believer like me can reconcile with. It is a like a large tree, under whose canopy, everyone can find shade. I implore you to take efforts to examine Hindutva critically, which it is not averse to, especially in the light of the consolidation of Islamic and Christian forces elsewhere.

    I’ll conclude with one of my favorite quotes about India. “One stream of feeling permeates our national consciousness from the Himalayas to Kanyakumari. Conversion or different form of worship does not obstruct our national feeling. Muslims or Christians are not outsiders. All of them are an integral part of our society. They were converted because of various reasons. As countless rivers become one when they reach the ocean, so different sects become one when they merge in the ocean of nationality. It is essential for a religion to consider itself part and parcel of that land. Difference in religion does not change culture but various sects have their share in the development of national culture. It is ridiculous to talk of separate culture and history because of difference in forms of worship.”- Mahadevi Verma

    This stream, my friends, is Hindutva.

    Notes and Bibliography:


3 thoughts on “An Atheist’s Defense of Hindutva

  1. Reblogged this on Tejas Gokhale | Thoughts Have Mass and commented:
    Aviram has put to words what most Indians think of Hinduism and what the media wants us to forget.

    The most powerful lines in this blog are:
    “Hindustan is secular not because the minorities want it (some of them very well might and I have no qualms accepting that), but because the majority want it. In fact, secularism is a ‘no-brainer’ for most Hindus, who have a long tradition of welcoming oppressed minorities into their homeland.”

    I hope you can give it an unbiased read in these times of bombardment of propaganda by the media.

    P.S. I am a big-time atheist

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