Vande Mataram : Hindu Dharma and Hindu Rashtra (Nation)

published on April 26, 2010
By Dr. Vijaya Rajiva

This famous phrase Vande Mataram, which occurs  in  the novel Anandamath(1882) by Bankim Chandra Chatterji ,simply  means Hail to the Mother. It is the title of  India’s national song and much loved by the majority of Indians. There  have been  some Muslim objections, coming mainly from  orthodox maulvis and mullahs that it was anti Islamic since Islam does not hail /worship any entity other than Allah. Not all Muslims agreed with this interpretation, nevertheless, the controversy continued and still continues. The present writer has said on many occasions that Bharat is the last of the great civilisational defences against the twin evils of excessive modernization and excessive industrialization. It is time now for Indians to bring to consciousness the full implications of Vande Mataram, before it is too late. Enemies both internal and external are ever present, but the task must be undertaken. The Motherland is in danger in more ways than one.

Bankim Chandra Chatterji’s formulation was most certainly political since the novel is about the Sannyasi revolt against British rule in the 18th century, and Bankim himself, writing in the 19th century was a nationalist who aspired to create a national revolt against British rule. Vivekananda, Aurobindo and scores of other Bengali luminaries followed this precedent. Hundreds went to the gallows singing Vande Mataram. Heroes such as Bhagat Singh are part of the annals of the freedom struggle. In his own way, Mahatma Gandhi also embarked on his mission of national struggle against colonial rule. Indeed, it could be said that the entire subcontinent rose up against colonial rule. Presently, the struggle is against both external threats and internal
colonization simultaneously.

There was another significant dimension to Vande Mataram. The mother invoked by Bankim is Mother India personified as Goddess Durga and commentators cite this as a relevant chapter on Saktism, the movement that worshipped the female goddess as the creative principle of the universe.

What is of interest is that this movement is also part of the Vedic inheritance. The Rig Veda, in particular ,invokes goddesses several times, and the overall worship of celestial deities, atmospheric deities and terrestrial deities as a combination of divine forces in the universe, constitutes the unique nature of Vedic cosmology. This cannot be overemphasized.

Western scholars have not recognized this aspect of the Rig Veda and in tune with the state of scholarship of the early 19th and most of the twentieth centuries, have identified the Rig Vedic cosmology with the worship of dominant male deities such as are found in the Greek pantheon. This trait is seen by them as characteristic of all Aryan/Indo Aryan cosmologies and the subsequent importance given to female deities in Hinduism being  seen as  the result of the reassertion of pre Aryan goddess worship found in the pre Vedic civilizations such as the Indus Valley civilization(now called the Sarasvati-Sindhu Civilisation) centred around Harappa and Mohendo Daro.

In the last twenty years Indian scholars have challenged this thesis owing to the discovery of the ancient river Sarasvati, mentioned in the Rig Veda some 72 times in prayerful and worshipful ways and which disappeared after the early Vedic period, circa 1,800 B.C. owing to techtonic shifts and other natural causes. This discovery has been made possible by satellite photography, advances in archeological work and other natural science disciplines.

The reader is referred to the article ‘Sarasvati Regained’ (in Haindava Keralam) by the present writer and which cites the important publications brought together at a Conference held in New Delhi,in 2008 (Vedic Sarasvati and Hindu Civilisation , 2008). The most recent work on the subject is Michael Danino’s The Lost River Sarasvati (Penguin, 2009).
The major significance of the discovery has been to establish  that the links between what was called the Indus Valley civilization and the Vedic civilization are close and continuous. It also establishes that  the Rig Veda  was certainly composed prior to 1,800 B.C. Other implications are that the old fashioned theory of the Aryan invasion
of India, has gone overboard. The indigenous origin of the Vedic tradition and its
intimate connection with the Sarasvati Sindhu civilization (formerly called The Indus
Valley Civilisation) is the work of the new theorists, both Indian and foreign.

The Vedic inheritance of the worship of the Goddess can be seen in the Puranas,
especially Markandaya Purana, where the  worship of the Supreme Goddess,  becomes evident. By the turn of the Christian era the  famous Devi Mahatmyam (authorship unknown) brings to the fore the worship of the Supreme Goddess.

From there it is a short stretch to the 8th to 9th century (Christian era)  when Adi Sankara composed his Saundarya Lahiri, extolling the Supreme Goddess(788-820). The 59 centers of Goddess worship that are located all over India, north, south, east and west, are the silent background where worship of Devi (Supreme Goddess) transforms the land into a Punya Bhumi or sacred land, in a focused and concentrated way , a process which began on the banks of the Sindhu Sarasvati civilization, more than 5,000 years ago.

India, ofcourse, is still the land where the mystery of  Rishis ,holy figures, gods and goddesses is present in a manner that only the comparable ancestral lands of the native Indians of the Americas and the native tribes of Australia/Africa can present.

But the special characteristic of the Supreme Goddess is that she can be invoked in a political manner. The twin processes of the religious/mystical dimension of existence and as well the existential compulsions of society and politics, called Rashtra(Nation) in Sanskrit, have become central to the Hindu ethos. An additional feature is the
invocation of the landmass of the Indian subcontinent as sacred land.

It is never far from the consciousness of the Hindu and is well captured in Damodar Savarkar’s treatise Essentials of Hindutva(1923). In what way does this complex  consciousness mesh with the ideals of a modern secular democracy ? Scholar Dr. Shrinivas Tilak has answered one aspect of the conundrum in a remarkably accurate way. His book
ReAwakening to a secular Hindu Nation (2008) , a study of the political thought of M.S. Golwalkar , explains the nexus between secularism and Hindu thought(See the book review by the present writer in Haindava Keralam).

What of the remaining factors ? The primacy of the supreme Goddess and the attachment to the land.

One can begin with the historical dimension and look at  Rig Vedic cosmology. Its continuance throughout the centuries as it wove in and out of the evolution of Hinduism as a practice in the subcontinent, is accompanied by the growth of state institutions (these are not present in the tribal cultures of the native peoples of the Americas and Australia). These state institutions existed as national institutions working for the defence of state and polity, as happened in other parts of the world. Hence, one has the treatise Arthasastra of Kautilya, who is often referred to as the Indian Machiavelli, to give one example.

Here, the emphasis shifts to the state as the upholder of Hindu Dharma. Dharma has been interpreted in the narrower sense of all values pertaining to Hindu society and its cultural practices. It has also been interpreted in the ethical sense of universal moral values,as seen in the Bhagavad Gita, a struggle between good and evil. Mahatma Gandhi has given his own unique interpretation of the Gita, namely, that the battle of Kurukshetra is a struggle between good and evil in the human soul.

The Rig Vedic meaning of Dharma is related to its cosmology, referred to above. The divine order (Rta) exists in the universe and Hindu dharma should reflect in society this universal order, whose principal energizer is the female creative principle of the universe.  Vande Mataram, then, is the  invocation of  the creative principle of the universe. IT IS  THE CRYSTALLISED EXPRESSION OF HINDU DHARMA.

This principle is all pervasive and exists in all aspects of the created universe. Hence, the Rig Vedic belief system can be described as pantheism. There is no contradiction in describing it also as polytheism, since the various gods and goddesses are manifestations of the creative principle of the universe.

All beings are equal, and all life is sacred. This noble belief system did give rise in practice to the Varna system, where the division of labour was segmented into people who were of the intellectual class, the warrior class , the economic class and the service class. As time went on, the Varna system changed into the Caste system, with its innumerable sub castes based on occupation. And those who did not belong to this fourfold caste system became the Untouchables, who performed the lowliest of tasks in society. The iniquities and injustices of this aspect of the caste system have been condemned and at present both the Indian Constitution and the efforts of conscientious Hindus are being directed to their eradication. In the Hindu domain the Sangh Parivar is currently undertaking sterling work in that direction.

Hindu India or the Hindu Rashtra(Nation) underwent further historical changes with  
the arrival of  colonial rulers from Britain (Islam did not impact Hindu India in a comparably significant way). It was not the railways nor Western education that
impacted India, but the Christian notion of the equality of all human beings, which  revived the Vedic notion of the equality of all living beings  in the Hindu consciousness.

The Vedic notion of equality goes beyond the Christian one because it is not limited only to humans. It encompasses all beings, in the universe.

Hence it is that Hindus have taken easily to what is called a secular Constitution. All humans are equal, regardless of gender, creed or race, in the Indian Constitution. These are Dharmic values. And today, the sanctity of all life as upheld in the Veda, can be extended to modern environmentalism.

But once again, in practice, a notion of hierarchy which extends beyond the division of labour (varna) and even the occupation based caste system, still colours the Hindu’s daily life. Hierarchical differences get dissolved unambiguously only when Hindus gather in large masses such as the Kumbh Mela, where some 50 million Hindus congregate over a period of two or three months.

What is now needed is to spell out the unique features of  the Hindu/Vedic Dharma and make explicit  the Hindu component in the Indian Constitution and the Hindu polity. The second related task is to make explicit the presence of the female creative principle of the universe in the Hindu  nation. The third related task is to make explicit the need to defend this Hindu Dharma. This defence, needless to say,is a manifold task.

Here, we are not speaking only about specific Hindu practices such as lighting lamps at public functions, because these are   the outward symbols of a polity that is and must continue to be girded by Vedic Dharma which hails the equality of all living beings and the intimate place they occupy in the entire universe. It is undoubtedly a complex task, but one that cannot be shirked. As scholar Shrinivas Tilak has put it, in paraphrasing Guru Golwalkar:

“ All human beings are partners in making this universe a better place    to live in, but the primary responsibility rests upon India and its civilization” (Re Awakening to a secular Hindu Nation, p.42).

(Dr. Rajiva taught Political Philosophy at a Canadian university).

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