Note: This short piece was originally published on the website of Sadhana Coalition of Progressive Hindus, a grassroots organization I’m part of. When I use “we,” I am referring to Sadhana.
In the past few days, thousands of people across the world, both in India and abroad, have publicly taken a stand against the cow/beef-related mob violence, lynchings, and targeted killings of Muslims, Dalits, and other marginalized groups in India, under the slogan #NotInMyName. (If you want to read more about the protests and the violence that inspired them, you can Google “not in my name protests india”.) These protests have been widely praised, but also heavily critiqued by others.
Rajesh Rajamani argues that the #NotInMyName protests are “part of the problem,” and take focus away from “Brahmanism, which is at the core of the Hindu religion, and its scriptures that sanction social inequality and allow for violence to preserve its unequal structure.” He further states that any distinction made between Hinduism and Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) is “imaginary and false”.
Mr. Rajamani is correct in pointing out that any discussion of the violence perpetrated against Dalits and Muslims is incomplete if we do not also address the systemic violence that takes place through the institution of caste. Brahmanism refers specifically to the system of caste hierarchy which leads to entrenched social inequity.
However, we simply cannot agree with Mr. Rajamani’s claims that Brahmanism lies at the heart of Hinduism, and that Hindutva is no different from Hinduism.
Throughout history, dissent against orthodoxy, inequality, and injustice has been a part of the Hindu experience, whether or not Mr. Rajamani chooses to acknowledge that. Those who claim Hinduism is synonymous with social inequality are intentionally dishonoring the legacies of many, many Hindu voices who have spoken out for equality and justice, including Sulabha (from the Mahabharata), Tiruvalluvar (2nd century BCE), Tirumular (6th century CE), Akka Mahadevi and Basavanna (12th century CE), Ramananda, Namdev and Janabai (14th century CE), Chaitanya and Kabir (15th century CE), Eknath and Kanaka Dasa (16th century CE), Tukaram and Bahinabai (17th century CE), and Narayana Guru (19th century CE).
It is true that many poet-saints of the past argued for a spiritual equality, in which all humans are equal before God, but they may not have fought with the same vigor to extend those ideals of equality into the real world. So, it is often argued, caste hierarchies were maintained or strengthened even while these voices were calling out. Modern scholarship is pushing back against these claims, arguing instead that bhakti saints did in fact advocate for real-world equality, but these critiques are still important for us to keep in mind. We can still learn a lot from the thousands of poems and songs composed by these radical thinkers. The fact that their criticisms of caste and inequality still ring true today show that we as Hindus still have a lot of work to do.
In his masterwork Annihilation of Caste (1936), Dr. B.R. Ambedkar stated:
You [Hindus] must give a new doctrinal basis to your Religion—a basis that will be in consonance with Liberty, Equality and Fraternity; in short, with Democracy. I am no authority on the subject. But I am told that for such religious principles as will be in consonance with Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, it may not be necessary for you to borrow from foreign sources, and that you could draw for such principles on the Upanishads.
Around eighty years later, we at Sadhana are beginning to issue a Hindu response to Ambedkar’s challenge. We are clear in rejecting caste—and thus rejecting Brahmanism—as an essential component of our Hinduism. Like Sadhana advisory board member Prof. Anantanand Rambachan, we argue that there is a “theological vision at the heart of Hinduism”, based on ideals of ekatva (oneness), ahimsa (nonviolence), and seva (selfless service), “that invalidates the assumptions of inequality, impurity, and indignity that are the foundations of caste belief and practice.”
Similarly, we cannot accept that the violent right-wing Hindutva ideology, which was born during the colonial period and took inspiration from Mussolini and Hitler, is synonymous with Hinduism. In fact, Hindutva seeks to flatten Hinduism’s incredible diversity into a standardized set of beliefs that reinforce Islamophobia, homophobia, misogyny, and violence.
In his rebuttal of Rajamani’s article, Ashley Tellis writes that
“Brahminism is an ideology and it is in all of us, like structural sexism and structural homophobia. It has to be battled every day of our lives. That does not mean we have to belittle protests on other issues.”
We at Sadhana share this view, and will continue to fight against caste, Hindutva, and all other harmful ideologies. We will do so from a Hindu perspective, with the values of ekatva, ahimsa, and seva.