This piece by Amit Chaudhuri, an acclaimed Indian author, provides an excellent look at the current political and social situation in India, and the consequences that the current rise in Hindu fundamentalism (aided by the ruling party, the BJP) may have on Hinduism as a whole. Here are two passages that stood out to me (emphasis mine):
“Despite the disgraceful legacies and realities of Hindu society, such as the caste system, there was once an open-ended confusion about the matter of what constitutes it as a religion. Hinduism had no central book, it was reiterated; you could be a Hindu even if you were an atheist or had never stepped into a temple; you could absorb the stories of Hindu mythology without believing in them literally.
This definition of Hinduism arose from an awareness in modern Hindus of the aspects privileged by other world religions, in response to which they seemed to have decided to make a case for Hinduism’s anomalousness, to turn the fact that it wasn’t a ‘proper’ religion into a kind of legitimacy… it made for an oddly Indian interpretation of religion, in which it served as a sort of figurative language, a non-assertive truth, and there was a strange, occasional overlap, for the Indian, between everyday living and religious experience.
Anyone who was once exposed to even a residue of that ethos will feel alienated by the BJP’s project of salvaging Hinduism from its provisionality, and making it a ‘proper’ religion. It’s doing this through minatory edicts and actions, and by eliminating grey areas. ‘Intolerance’ is the Indian press’s term for this regime of threats and violence towards beef-eaters, writers, ‘foreigners’ and ‘foreign’ organisations (like Greenpeace), and minorities; though, as Arundhati Roy pointed out recently, ‘“intolerance” is the wrong word to use for the lynching, shooting, burning and mass murder of fellow human beings.’
The BJP insists on a form of Hinduism that is wholly new: it accords a deep respect to science and the verifiable, and is tone deaf to figurative language. Soon after it came to power, one BJP minister proclaimed that ancient Indians must have possessed the technology to build aeroplanes since the epics mention flying chariots. Modi then added that the elephant-headed god Ganesh was proof that plastic surgery existed in ancient India. Both remarks made people shake their heads and laugh, but all Modi was saying was that Hindu mythology as a domain of poetry, irreverence, humour and symbolism (‘Only an incredibly sophisticated culture could have produced a figure like Ganesh,’ Allen Ginsberg once said) made far less sense to him than the Renaissance and Enlightenment realism which, in a weirdly distorted form, has shaped the BJP as well as its secretive cultural-militant wing, the RSS.”
“I was in the UK when Modi arrived on his state visit, to be greeted by euphoric crowds… During his Wembley speech, he made one direct reference to Islam: ‘Had Islam embraced Sufism, it would not have had to resort to the gun.’ (In one of the chilling coincidences that now seem to make up our world, gunmen in Paris were shooting down people out for the night at around the same time Modi said these words.)
It was a stunning statement: the BJP has been busily suppressing Hindu pluralism – the legacy of the bhakti movement – just as Wahhabi Islam has suppressed heterodox forms such as Sufism. You could call the BJP’s project a kind of Wahhabi Hinduism: it is intent on defining a single power centre, where before there was none, and one interpretation, where before there were many. It took a few decades of funding and support from Saudi Arabia for Wahhabi Islam to become the minatory force it is today, and something similar could plausibly be achieved with Hinduism.
At the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi, women were recently denied entry unless they were wearing that ‘ancient’ Hindu apparel, the sari – a sign that the BJP’s influence might turn a secular form of dress into a religious one, like the hijab. The party has already appropriated the colour of renunciation, saffron, as a ubiquitous political signifier.
On 30 August the literary scholar M.M. Kalburgi was shot by two young men pretending to be students, after he had allegedly made offensive remarks about idol worship. Men like his killers are now in abundant supply in India. They manufacture abuse on social media against anyone faintly critical of Modi; they instruct those who disagree with them to migrate to Pakistan; they issue death threats; they kill.”