A Hindu Renaissance : Its Critics

via Dr Vijaya Rajiva published on January 3, 2010

There is no doubt that M.S.Golwalkar, the second chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, continued the tradition of Hindu nationalism which  he inherited  in part from the stalwarts of Hindu nationalism in the 19th century such as Vivekananda and Aurobindo, themselves heirs to the Vedic legacy. This legacy is universal in its appeal and is the central inspiration of all Hindu thought, political , philosophical and social.

In the last two decades , in particular , there have been critics of this legacy and their agendas are not always uniform. Some are simply intellectuals with a curious and questioning mind and certain moral convictions. Others are motivated by a desire to strike at the heart of Hinduism, its Vedic centre. It is not clear where Jyotirmaya Sharma  is , in terms of motivations.  However, his book Terrifying Vision (2007) is clearly an attack on Guruji Golwalkar , with the language turning quite savage,  and needs to be examined closely for its arguments, no matter how muddled they are, and no matter what his own motivations are .

As an academic exercise the book Terrifying Vision is disappointingly light weight. The author Jyotirmaya Sharma is a trained political scientist who teaches at the Department of Political Science, Hyderabad University (India).  One therefore expects from Dr. Sharma more rigour in his thinking than one would from some other writers on the subject of Hindu nationalism. As it is, he has set up an inflexible framework of his own creation, poorly thought  out and borrowed  selectively from Western political thought, chiefly Western liberalism, derived from the writings of Isaiah Berlin, the dean of British liberal thought.  That framework itself has been questioned by many scholars and Berlin himself is somewhat ambiguous in his statements about liberalism. I shall return to this question later.

Neverthless, Sharma uses this framework in a loose and ready manner in his Introduction, to his book on Golwalkar and thus lays the foundation for his  criticism of German Romanticism (and also following Berlin, of Immanuel Kant). After which he uses this rather  shaky foundation to attack the substance of Golwalkar’s thoughts on Hindu nationalism.  What he is saying is that German Romanticism  with its idea of the German Nation  led to fascism ( a highly controversial argument ) and ergo the Hindu concept of Punya Bhumi (sacred land) is also likely to produce fascism. To quote him :  “Golwalkar’s idea of the Hindu Rashtra drew sustenance from this dark and fraught set of ideas “ (Introduction to Terrifying Vision, p. xxxi9).

The remaining 4 chapters of the book are free wheeling and do not fully connect philosophically to the Introduction, although the personal biases are coloured by it. He has convinced himself that his erroneous theory outlined in the Introduction  is sufficient to indict Golwalkar in an arbitrary fashion, ignoring both what Golwalkar said in its entirety, cherry picking certain passages and ofcourse ignoring  the facts of  Indian history. They are merely expressions of his own bias against Golwalkar’s Hindu nationalism. He sets up a straw man and then attacks him. The title itself says it all. The inconsistencies derive both from his ill digested liberalism as well as his resultant distortions of Hinduism.

The central dilemma of Western liberalism is that while the goods of liberty such as progress, democracy , civic rights and the  autonomy of the individual are now accepted all over the world, there has been a loss of community and as well a loss of the bonding to the earth and the entire universe.  The Vedic world view on the other hand is environmentally conscious. The 1008 plus hymns of the Rig Veda are a tribute to to the earth and to the universe at large. It also seeks bonding amongst all beings and the nation is a community of individuals rather than only a state with a constitution.  As early as the Atharva Veda there is mention of a nation.

Sarve sukhinah bhavantu (May all beings be happy) was a universal call by the Vedic sages to the world of humans. This is indeed politics at its best. The German Romantics such as Herder (whom Sharma criticizes) invoked only the German soil for the devotion of Germans. Sharma sees this romanticism as the precursor of fascism (Ofcourse, this is too simplistic a view and has been circulated by opponents of Herder. Herder has been defended by his followers).

The Hindu concept of Punya Bhumi (sacred land) derives from the worship of cosmic powers and the worship of these powers as being localized in the land with its many cosmic centers of power and the worship of these powers as a personification in the form of Bharata Matha (shown as a woman). This was and still is unique to Hinduism. This conjunction of the cosmic and the earthly provided the context in which Hindus would call their land Punya Bhumi or sacred land. Down the millennia this has been a powerful cohesive force for Hindus all over the subcontinent. This is not a latter day invention of Golwalkar or Aurobindo or Vivekananda or Savarkar , as Dr. Sharma tries to make out.

It is also the basis of Hindu nationalism and of Golwalkar’s idea of the Hindu nation. The women’s wing of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh(RSS) does the Bhoomi Matha Pooja on their land in Nagpur. It is worship of the land in humility and gratitude and has nothing in common with the Brown Shirts of Hitler ! The sterling work done by the Sangh to help farmers is exemplary and is the result of Vedic environmentalism unlike the exploitative profiteering of the Western democracies. It is also the inspiration for the Gandhian vision of the village republic, where environmentally friendly agriculture is the main occupation. If  Dr. Sharma is to be taken seriously then Gandhiji and RSS and Golwalkar are all equally guilty of fascistic tendencies !

The second problem with western liberalism is that it does not fully recognize the tension between negative liberty and positive liberty . Isaiah Berlin whom Sharma seems to follow in his formulations wrote the well known work Two Concepts of Liberty.

Berlin defined negative liberty as the autonomy of the individual. Positive liberty is the means or the political means to achieve freedom of the individual and his/her prosperity.This latter liberty is provided by government. Both liberties are in constant tension with each other. In authoritarian and totalitarian forms of government the individual is crushed while in liberal democracy the individual attains freedom for personal civic rights while ignoring the rest of society.

The Western world experienced both extremes, totalitarian government and unbridled individualism. The dilemma has never been resolved in the West. This is why Isaiah Berlin mistakenly criticizes Immanuel Kant the great German philosopher for being a possible source for  extreme nationalism. Kant’s moral reasoning, his Categorical Imperative, is seen by Berlin as a possible source of authoritarian rule. Berlin argues for a plurality of experiences, rather than a monistic imposition of morality (His later work The Sense of Reality).

Needless to say this is a serious misunderstanding of Kant’s ethical philosophy, but for our purposes, it is important to point out that Sharma’s naïve and uncritical acceptance and superimposition of  Berlin on Golwalkar and Hindu thought is equally disastrous.

For our purposes the point made by Dr. Shrinivas Tilak in his book Reawakening to a secular Hindu Nation (2008) is the more accurate and relevant one. There is a distinction in Hindu thought between Sarva and Vishwa . Sarva is that condition of universal homogeneity  in which all individual identities are dissolved. Vishwa is that condition where the universal bond is inclusive of individual identities. This is the genuine pluralism that avoids the dilemmas of Western thought. Unity in diversity.

The West collapsed the two ideas of nation and state to form the nation state because the many ethnicities and tribal affinities of what constituted a nation were dissolved (or seen to be dissolved) in the unifying principle of the geographically bounded state with a set of civic rights enforceable by the state.

In his Introduction Dr. Sharma observes that in borrowing  19th century Western concepts of nationalism M.S. Golwalkar was following somebody else’s project ( Introduction p.xxxi3 ) .  As explained above, Golwalkar is in the Vedic tradition and his nationalism is significantly different from the Western project. Ironically, Sharma’s own dependence on Berlin and the other Western sources he quotes in his book can be thrown back at him as following somebody else’s project !

A further point is that Berlin  admires Aristotle’s phronesis (practical political wisdom). Since ancient Greece was heavily influenced by Indian thought, there is ample room for thinking that  Aristotelian wisdom  was also borrowed from Hindu thought. The exchange of ideas was prevalent in the ancient world and continues to this day. Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya pointed out in his Four Lectures on Integral Humanism that there is nothing wrong in borrowing Western ideas provided they are not inimical to the Hindu way of life or thought. And certainly Aristotelian prudence is not hostile to Hindu thought or unkown to it.

Golwalkar’s  project is a Hindu project in the best sense of the word. He accepted the norms of constitutional government and saw that its limitations could be avoided by the Hindu project. Dr. Sharma’s fears are groundless.  

Saarve sukinah bhavantu (May all beings be happy) is the Vedic message of  Golwalkar’s Hindu Rashtra.

( The writer taught Political  Philosophy at a Canadian university).

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