Reawakening to a secular Hindu Nation – Book Review

published on November 14, 2009

Reawakening to a secular Hindu Nation by Dr. Shrinivas Tilak (Booksurge, 2008)

Review by Dr. Vijaya Rajiva

This scholarly work is an original contribution to the Hindu Nation debate of the last few years. The author is well versed both in Hindu and Western thought and therefore brings to bear on the subject both authenticity and comparative insights. The book aims to investigate the question of the uniqueness of the concept of Hindu Nation (Rashtra) in the life and work of Madhav Golwalkar , the second leader of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh) and known to the Sangh as Guruji. The author provides the Vedic origins of Golwalkar’s reflections on the subject of a secular Hindu Nation, by showing that the latter is a cultural concept rather than a religious one, and needs to be extricated from its confusion with the concept of ‘state’ (rajya). In this way as the author  explains that the aim of the book is to  examine the claim that  “ (1) since the ancient past the state in India has always been secular, functioning within the parameters of a Hindu nation (Hindurashtra) and  (2) Indians inherit a civilization imbued with common life – ideals stemming out  of a comprehensive life- philosophy based on values that today may be described as inclusive and pluralistic “ ( Preface, p.xvii).

The Hindu Nation thus has been a continuously unifying idea and practice (pragatan) in the life of the peoples of the subcontinent. This process got submerged, though not destroyed, during the various conquests, invasions and occupations (vighatan). The way out is reawakening to this idea (sanghatan). This  will also be a universalizing project (not merely a particularizing one limited to India)that will impact and benefit the world, not just India. The  principle here is is an indigenous operating principle of Dharma. It is a priniciple of symbiotic interdependence, secularism , reciprocal and reasonable accommodation and fraternal interaction.

Hence, the book is divided into an Introduction, and  five  erudite lengthy sections each on pragatan (flowering of the Hindu nation), vighatan (decline of the Hindu nation) , sanghatan ( awakening ) paryatan  (viswa Hindu nation) and chapter 5 (the Hindu nation, poised and shining).

The reader would do well to come to grips with the lengthy Introduction that lays out the parameters of discussion and debate around the topic of the Golwalkar-Vedic connection of Hindu Nation. In his approach Dr. Tilak is obviously not only sympathetic to the Golwalkar world view but differs significantly from some of the more recent work on Golwalkar by authors such as Jyotirmaya Sharma whose short book Terrifying Vision presents an unflattering account of the Golwalkar world view. Here, it must be pointed out that Sharma’s work, apart from being self consciously partisan, i.e. liberal, is also hampered by his lack of knowledge of  Marathi and Sanskrit . Both are pre requisites for a proper understanding of Golwalkar, especially since an insider’s knowledge of the Veda (in Sanskrit) and Marathi ( Golwalkar’s language) gives Dr. Tilak the requisite tools for interpreting the Vedic component of Golwalkar’s message and familiarity with Golwalkar’s idioms.

Sharma,  on the other hand, relies solely on his knowledge of Western political thought (he teaches Political Science at the University of Hyderabad, India) in dealing with such topics as Nation, State etc. Deen Dayal Upadhyaya  also pointed out the difference between Nation and State in his Four Lectures on Integral Humanism (1965)

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 laws that gave every member of the population a set of civic rights enforceable by the state. In India, on the other hand, the idea of nation was not derived from ethnicity or tribal loyalties but by the idea of Dharma. This Dharma was the binding factor, the overarching factor that did not eliminate the exercise of civic rights in society. The distinction between Sarva and Viswa illustrates this well.

Sarva is a condition of universal homogeneity in which all individual identities are dissolved, whereas Viswa is the condition where the universal bond is inclusive of individual identities. This Viswa is a Vedic contribution and as Golwalkar would have it, is the specific contribution of Hinduism to the world. The implications of this is that Hindu Rashtra is both an overarching ideal and a geographically grounded entity, grounded in the landmass of the Indian subcontinent.  This understanding of what constitutes a nation is  derived from the Veda.

In the narrower sense of nation,  i.e.,  the shared culture and experiences of a people within a territorial boundary, that idea is already there  in the Atharva Veda. And as well, the state as administrator of civic rights or as rajya existed from earliest times. In chapter one, the flowering of this Dharmic nation is traced by Dr. Tilak from earliest times to
the arrival of the Muslims in the eighth and tenth centuries of the Christian era and the subsequent conquest of India by the British .

Until that time India had been a secular Hindu nation. Why secular ? Because the Hindu religion is by its very nature, not dogmatic, unlike the religions of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. There, religion and the state had to be separated, whereas in India Hindutva was a cultural concept which permeated the entire subcontinent. Hence,  pluralism, inclusivity, tolerance, etc. were already built into society and did not need additional emphasis.

This golden period of prosperity and goodwill was possible because the nation consciously and otherwise adhered to Dharma. Once the Muslim conquest took place this society and its norms were not allowed to flourish and especially after the British conquest of India, there was a serious attempt to destroy the philosophical foundations of this society. This was accomplished by the Orientalist project, a two pronged effort to downgrade Hindu religion and philosophy and to project ancient India as a despotic power without any economic clout.

Dr. Tilak shows that both these assumptions are entirely wrong. He goes on to show how modern Indians still under the influence of this Orientalism continue to ignore the real evidence on the ground, the historical facts that India was not only a flourishing, prosperous country, a nation with civic ideals , culture, sophistication and tremendous achievement in sciences, mathematics and the various arts. Contemporary critics of this history are unable to explain this achievement ( they do not deny that it existed) or link it with their theory of an inferior people with no civil order or a national government (Orientalism).

The book goes on to describe how the Hindu Nation can revive its ancient glories and power and still take its place in the comity of nations as a unique entity which has much to offer the world community. In this latter section of the book Dr. Tilak shifts from the Hindu Nation within the geographical limits of India to the Hindu diaspora where it is kept alive, but within the context of the particular societies that they live in.

The book is enormously erudite and deeply argued and is the first of its kind in the Hindutva literature. The author is well versed in both Indian and Western thought and brings to bear many comparative insights. It is a densely packed book and both the general reader and the specialist will need to read it with attention. The accompanying bibliography which brings the book to approximately 400 pages, is updated and lists many of the relevant works on the subject.

It is hoped that the book will go into a second edition and it is hoped that some of the loose ends will be tied up before that happens. One example and perhaps the only one is the question of varna and caste which has not been dealt with satisfactorily by the author. Varna originated with the Vedas and is a general division of society into four classes : the scholars/priests, the military, commercial and service activity. This fourfold division later expanded into the caste system as the economy expanded. The latter, i.e. service activity still remained an economic classification.

Therefore both varna and caste can be explained and defended. However, it is the Outcaste component that needs to be explained and how it arose. Scholars are divided on its exact origins, with some putting it as far back as the time of the Buddha and some bringing it forward to the seventh and eight centuries of the Christian era. This question of origins and dating, in itself, is of interest. It can explained , but cannot be justified. The scavenging of night soil is clearly not an Occupation.

Hence, today’s enlightened Hindutva leaders such as the Rashtrya Swayam Sangh, the Viswa Hindu Parishad and sister organisations completely reject the Outcaste system and rightly so. Their many social servive projects aim to do that. Whereas, the caste system per se, as occupational activity and varna as a general division of society were not rejected even by Mahatma Gandhi,  who as is well known,  rejected Untouchabiltiy (Outcaste system). Gandhiji’s logic is linked to his view of small industries and village industries being hereditary if the individual wishes to perfect his/her crafts and serve society. He did not emphasise that hereditary occupation alone is good. An individual can choose his or her occupation. Gandhiji put forward his ideas in his idea of the village republic.

Despite this lack of clarification in the text, Reawakening to a secular Hindu Nation , remains a work of formidable scope. It will gain in importance in the months and years to come as the debate over the Hindu Nation continues to gain momentum.

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

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