What connects the murder of Mohammed Akhlaq (killed over beef in Dadri, UP), the lawyer violence against JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, the posters in Delhi to kill or maim the latter, the Godse worship of some Hindu leaders, or the intemperate language used by assorted Sadhvis against Muslims or anyone who is “othered”?
The dots connecting these separate incidents and the people involved could be Hindutva, communalism, hate speech, sectarianism, etc, etc.
What makes the murder of a Bajrang Dal cow protection activist in Karnataka, the murder of a Dalit in Agra, the Assam communal violence of 2012, the Left hero-worship of Stalin and Mao, and the targeting of one Kamlesh Tiwari (who allegedly insulted the Prophet) non-news?
The critics who call out the first set of bigotries would usually be grouped under the broad category of “left-liberal” or “secular” voices. The same set would also fall silent when the second category of bigotry comes to the fore. They will dismiss it with generic homilies that all such incidents must be condemned.
But none of the critics will be linked by the term “Hinduphobia”. It is a category that needs establishing, both in the west (where Islamophobia is recognised as real, but not Hinduphobia), and, sadly, in India, too, a supposedly Hindu majority country. The unusual thing about India is that its innate pluralism allows intemperate Hindu-baiters to be labelled as progressives, and not as Hinduphobes.
However, the problem lies not with the Hinduphobes, but with Hindus themselves. There is a fundamental reluctance to understand or accept where Hinduphobia comes from, and to develop the intellectual arsenal to combat subtle Hindu-baiting with sophisticated counters. Instead, what we see is Hindu rage surfacing in crude language that ultimately strengthens Hinduphobia.
Over the past few centuries of interaction and conflict with Islam, Christianity, racism and colonialism, Hindus often withdrew into a shell and refused to understand the adversary – and where he is coming from. Octavio Paz, the late Mexican Nobel laureate and ambassador to Delhi in the 1960s, wrote in his book (In Light of India) that Islam came to India fully formed and armed, and Hindus just could not understand what it was about. Hindus and Muslims in India, despite centuries of coexistence, merely “stared at one another in incomprehension.” Hindus knew only the Indic way of religious conflict, which was more about public disputation and ultimate coexistence, and not the binary good-bad approach of the Abrahamic religions. In Abrahamism, acceptance of one god automatically negates the other. In Hinduism, worship of Durga does not mean some people can’t mourn Mahishasura. There is, of course, a serious effort underway to make Hindus see this in binary terms, so that people are set against one another.
The Hindu rage – whether expressed in social media or by fringe elements in the extended parivar – comes from the sense of frustration and incomprehension of today’s realities with its inherent anti-Hindu biases. If they want to be taken seriously even by Hindus, they need to study what they are up against, and then work out a strategy to gain the upper hand. A successful rejuvenation of Hinduism needs not anger or violence, but an intelligent understanding of the big picture globally, the Indian context in which the culture and religious wars happen, and the super local social realities. It is only by looking at all three aspects that success is possible.
It is best to understand the overall scenario as a marketplace – a marketplace for religious products and consumers. In this market, Christianity is the market leader, Islam the challenger brand (Pepsi to Christian Coke), and Hinduism and other religions the niche players, even though Hindu numbers are not small enough to be called niche. It is niche only because Hindus are concentrated in a small geography in south Asia.
When Coke and Pepsi battle it out, it is the smaller players like Thums Up and Mangola that are squeezed out since market share for the big two can be grown only by focusing on winning converts from the smaller players.
India and China are the biggest markets for growth for Product Jesus and Product Mohammed (Or Allah, if you like). China is a closed market, and growth can happen only surreptitiously, and that leaves only India as the biggest market worth exploiting.
The other reality of the market place is segmentation. Religious products have to appeal to different segments of the market, the high end, the middle end and the low end.
Christianity and Islam, with their emphasis on the less fortunate and justice, appeal to the lowest end of the mass market, while Indic religions, by their high metaphysical content, tend to appeal to the upper end. In the 1980s, Hindustan Unilever’s Surf was detergent market leader, but it was too expensive for the masses. Karsanbhai Patel saw an opportunity for Nirma, and took away large market shares from Surf. To retain share, Hindustan Unilever had to launch a mass-market brand called Wheel, and has not looked back since.
On the other hand, the upper end market is also expanding, which is why the Ariels and Henkos are getting in. In the sphere of spirituality, there is also a growing market for upper-end metaphysics. The rich west is actually the best market for growing Brand Hinduism or Brand Buddha. Reason: it has less of poverty, and once humans are relieved of basic insecurities involving survival and safety, they have a greater need for intellectual stimulation that takes you beyond narrow religious dogma – which was what helped the Abrahamic faiths to spread fast among the masses. The west may be seeking an upgrade, and this is the market Hindu seers need to address.
It is not that Christian theologists don’t know this. This is why they are trying to “digest” Hindu-Buddhist-Dharmic ideas and call it Christianity. Hence you have Christian yoga, and a whole raft of Christian evangelists, theologists and ministers hawking new, improved versions of Christianity which are less dogmatic interpretations of the Bible. They draw a lot from Dharmic metaphysics. For example, Neale Donald Walsch’s various books on “Conversations with God” have none of the core Christian dogmas of virgin birth or the rubbishing of other spiritual traditions. Indians buy his books as though they are new revelations, when it is their own spiritual traditions they have lost touch with.
In order to tackle the “Surf” end of the religion market, new Christian evangelists (or even those like Walsch who are not stuck on Christianity as the only way) use the west’s latest knowledge in marketing, human psychology, sociology, and competitor products to reposition their faith, and target all ends of the market – from the top end to the bottom. For its home market, which has evolved beyond dogma, Christianity uses Indic and other ideas to develop products. For mass markets like India, where social tension and poverty are ever-present realities, the evangelists and even Islamic ulema have different strategies that are more radical, more aggressive, and more socially relevant.
In simple terms, the Indic spiritual/religious products are ideal for the western markets, and the Christian/Islamic products are easier to peddle in the Indian market.
If Hinduism has to hold its own in the home market and also explore new markets, it has to have at least two products – a sophisticated version for the western markets, which modern-day gurus like Sri Sri Ravishankar and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev are clearly delivering, and a Hinduism Lite for India, where the social content (strong anti-caste stand, social welfare, women’s emancipation, etc) is emphasised more than high metaphysics. In a sense, Hindutva is a move in this direction, and has even succeeded to some extent, given that it is now dominated by OBCs and not the upper castes, but it is simply not focused enough to deliver a big ticket mass market product as its prime focus is still on building a temple in Ayodhya or forcing people not to eat beef. These are not the real concerns of the mass market for Hinduism in India. And hence Hindutva in its current form is bound to fail.
If Hinduism Lite (or a new form of Hindutva) is to succeed, it needs to be more radical on the social messaging, and more simple in terms of the expected spirituality of its target audience, which is still at survival or basic needs stage.
Even more important, Hinduism Lite has to develop a sophisticated way of dealing with rivals, and not the attitude of a lynch mob.
Consider how the anti-Hindu lobby is dealing with the rise of Sri Sri Ravishankar. They are attacking his World Cultural Festival on the banks of the Yamuna by talking about environment damage, and not in the usual way the Hindutva crowd attacks rivals, with unparliamentary words and violent thoughts.
The Islamists of Kashmir Valley now oppose the Amarnath Yatra by saying too many people visiting that shrine is damaging to the environment. They would never say this about the millions of Muslims doing the Haj, which causes more environmental damage than almost any Hindu pilgrimage. So the next attack by Hinduphobes can easily be expected – the Kumbh Mela will be shown as against the environment, as Rajiv Malhotra has documented.
The Christian west masks its subtle Hinduphobia by generating and spreading horror stories about rapes, caste violence and other kinds of ‘atrocity” literature. They are as racist and Orientalist as they have always been, but they use new terms to achieve their old objective of dominance – by taking up issues related to environment, women’s empowerment, freedom of religion, free speech, and liberal values. Racism and colonialism is surfacing in a new garb, speaking a new modern language that is difficult to refute.
Meanwhile, the local Hinduphobic elite uses colonial era divide-and-rule tactics to achieve the same end. When Hinduphobes seek to demonise those who try to organise Hindus, they will talk about the ancient Hindu attitude of tolerance to show that real Hinduism is different from Hindutva. This Hinduphobic elite became so for the same reason why some others became part of the violent Hindutva fringe: by internalising colonial era anti-Hindu critiques and developing a sense of inferiority. Those who internalised this negativity about Hinduism became either Hinduphobic or violent Hindu fringe elements.
Consider also the sophisticated way in which the Romila Thapars and other Left historians end up saying two opposite things about Hinduism. First, they will say that Hinduism is a recent construct, a colonialist legacy that emerged only over the last 200 years. In short, there was no Hinduism before the Brits colonised India, with foreign “Orientalists” creating a new Hindu consciousness for their own purposes. In the Left view, there is no such thing as Hinduism, since diversity and local difference was what defined people living in India for centuries.
By this logic, all Hindu sub-groups should be considered minorities in independent India, since there is no over-arching identity called “Hindu.” But the Secular-Left brigade will also argue Hindus have an overwhelming majority in India, and because of that Hinduism is a threat to minorities. If Hindus are disparate groups with no common identity, how did they suddenly become a mythical majority?
There are two lessons for Hindus who do not want to either join the fringe or become Hinduphobic themselves.
First, they must study their adversaries and adopt tactics and strategy based on local, national and global conditions for the spread of Indic ideas. This means they have to become proselytising faiths themselves. A new, improved “Ghar Wapsi” product is needed back home. But even more important is the export of Indian faiths to the west, where the market is ripe for its growth. Hinduism is the true faith for people looking to move beyond the base camp of narrow dogma. Buddhism could be the religion of peace to export to Arabia. Jainism may be the right religion to promote with the growing band of “veganists” and animal right activists in the west.
Second, they must master the language of sophistication and modernity. Islam and Christianity became “universal” faiths by massacring and coercing their enemies and demonising the “other”. In the 21st century, this is not an option for any religion, including a more self-confident Hinduism that sees value in the past even while embracing new ideas. The problem is we want to see greatness only in our past, whereas greatness lies in what you do now.
The right way to look at our past is with pride, but with the future in focus. We have to tell ourselves: “We are proud of what we achieved in the past. But will our ancestors be proud of what we are doing now?” The past is over; Hindus have world to conquer by looking at the future.