From his criticism of the caste system to disapproval of Mahatma Gandhi’s views, Savarkar was far ahead of his times.
Everyone knows Vinayak Damodar Savarkar as the man who popularised the term ‘Hindutva’ through his treatise on the subject in 1923 while being lodged in the Ratnagiri prison, but few know about his thoughts and writings that were far ahead of his times.
Other than the historical bias against him, the fact that most of these are in Marathi and not translated has made them inaccessible to contemporary scholars and readers.
Despite being born in an orthodox and religious Chitpawan Brahmin community, right from childhood Savarkar despised the caste system. He developed close kinship with children from various castes and strata of society and also dined at their homes. He was among the few Brahmins of the time who took to sea-travel to London for his education, at a time when most members of his community forbade it due to the fear of a loss of caste.
Savarkar had no qualms about vegetarianism like several Brahmins of the time. In October 1906, he met young Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi for the first time when the latter came to the India House in London where Savarkar and other revolutionaries lived. Savarkar was busy cooking his meals when Gandhi joined him to engage in a political discussion. Cutting him short, Savarkar asked him to first eat. Gandhi was quite horrified to see the Chitpawan Brahmin cooking prawns, and being a staunch vegetarian, he refused to partake.
Savarkar apparently mocked him and retorted, “Well, if you can not eat with us, how on earth are you going to work with us? Moreover…this is just boiled fish…while we want people who are ready to eat the British alive.” This was obviously not a great first meeting and their differences only widened with time.
As Savarkar’s political thoughts matured during his long years of incarceration, he penned poetic essays on the abhorrent practice of the caste system and untouchability and how these sapped into the very vitals of the nation.
Advocating a strong case for their total, complete and unconditional eradication at a time when these ideas were not yet a part of the political discourse popularised by either Gandhi or Ambedkar, he was the pioneer of a vision of a casteless India.
In his 1931 essay titled Seven Shackles of the Hindu Society, Savarkar said that heredity as a determinant of talent and intellect was erroneous and an individual’s environment was what shapes his character and conduct. Taking a radical stand against those scriptural injunctions, including the Manusmriti, that advocated caste, he said fossilising oneself to them was idiocy.
These scriptures that were often self-contradicting according to Savarkar were created by human beings and were relevant in a particular context and in a particular society. They need to evolve or be discarded as society moves ahead, he said. He viewed the caste system as an evil that splintered and disunited Hindu society, making it susceptible to attacks and conversions by other groups.
The seven fetters that he advocated a complete dismantling of were:
1. Vedoktabandi: Exclusivity of access to Vedic literature and rituals to only the Brahmin community.
2. Vyavasaayabandi: Choice of a profession an individual chooses must be entirely his and based on his aptitude and capability and not on one’s birth.
3. Sparshabandi: Untouchability that he considered a sin and a blot on society.
4. Samudrabandi: Loss of caste on foreign travel or crossing the seas.
5. Shuddhibandi: Disallowing reconversions to Hinduism. “I have nothing,” he said, “against those who convert to another faith by sheer conviction. But such examples are rare. Why should we not allow the enhancement of our (Hindu) numbers due to some antiquated idea that does not even have any scriptural sanction that we cannot convert to Hinduism?”
6. Rotibandi: Prohibition on inter-caste dining.
7. Betibandi: Prohibition on inter-caste marriage.
Calling for a reinterpretation of the chaturvarna or four varna system based on Lord Krishna’s assertion in the Bhagwad Gita that it was He who created the four varnas, Savarkar writes, “Different human beings have different qualities and virtues. All that Lord Krishna is saying is I create human beings who are different in nature, character, virtues and values — yet, good or bad, they are all my creation alone. Nowhere in this declaration does he state that I also make those virtues hereditary for the person’s successive generations… We are all shudras at birth. As life progresses, we attain qualities, education, and virtues to graduate to various levels of consciousness and thinking — that is the fundamental concept behind the four varna system.” Savarkar asserted strongly that the varna system was not part of Sanatan Dharma. “Sanatan are those lofty ideals and beliefs.” he said, “that predate time and are indestructible…whereas social practices such as caste system, opposition to widow remarriage or vegetarianism are man-made social practices and rituals that can easily be dismantled depending on the needs of the society.”
To further these beliefs, Savarkar advocated social reforms on a large scale during his incarceration in Ratnagiri from 1924 to 1937. Among his measures that earned the ire of the local Brahmin community were the advocacy of large scale inter-caste dining and the establishment of a Patit Pavan (literally meaning the protector of the fallen) temple that allowed entry to members of all castes for community prayers.
Savarkar held radical views even on matters such as cow-worship. He wrote, “Animals such as the cow and buffalo and trees such as banyan and peepal are useful to man, hence we are fond of them; to that extent we might even consider them worthy of worship. Their protection, sustenance and well-being is our duty, in that sense alone it is also our dharma!”
At the same time, he cautioned that if the “animal or tree becomes a source of trouble to mankind, it ceases to be worthy of sustenance or protection and as such its destruction is in humanitarian or national interests and becomes a human or national dharma. When humanitarian interests are not served and in fact harmed by the cow and when humanism is shamed, self-defeating extreme cow protection should be rejected.”
An appropriate advice in these times of cow-vigilantism leading to instant mob-justice and lynching.
He also asserted that while he held the cow as a “beautiful creature”, protecting it and not worshipping it as a goddess was his belief. Elevating an animal that eats garbage and sits in its own excreta to the position of a goddess, even as society disrespected scholars like Ambedkar and Chokha Mela due to their supposed low-caste, was “insulting both humanity and divinity”, Savarkar said.
We become the God we worship and hence Hindutva’s icon should be the Narasimha or fierce man-lion and not the docile cow, wrote Savarkar.
Savarkar concludes the essay saying, “I am no enemy of the cow. I have only criticized the false notions and tendencies involved in cow worship with the aim of removing the chaff and preserving the essence so that genuine cow protection may be better achieved. Without spreading religious superstition, let the movement for cow protection be based and popularized on clear-cut economic and scientific principles. A worshipful attitude is undoubtedly necessary for protection. But it is improper to forget the duty of cow protection and indulge only in worship.”
Just like he gave a call to the Hindu community to give up these superstitions, he exhorted the Muslims too to reform themselves with time and “abandon the belief that not even a word in the Quran can be questioned because it is the eternal message of God, even as you maintain respect for the Quran.”
Elaborating, Savarkar said that the norms that seemed feasible to an oppressed but backward people in Arabia at a time of civil strife could not be accepted as an eternal way of life. The Muslims must “accept the habit of sticking to only that, which is relevant in the modern age,” he said.
An undying rationalist who relied on logic and scientific temper, Savarkar decried Gandhi’s attempt to attribute the devastating earthquake in Bihar in 1934 to God’s curse on Indians for practicing untouchability.
“It is our misfortune in India,” he said, “that even someone as influential as Gandhi ji invokes his “inner voice” to attribute the recent massive Bihar earthquake as God’s punishment for the barbaric caste system! I still wait to hear what the Mahatma’s inner voice will tell us about why Quetta was rocked by an earthquake!”
A staunch advocate of a capitalist, market-driven, mechanised society, Savarkar wrote as early as in the 1930s about scientific temper alone being the foundation of a modern and prosperous India.
“It is through science, modern thoughts and industrialization and not by spinning wheels,” he held, “that we can ensure that every man and woman in India will have a job to do, food to eat, clothes to wear and a happy life to lead.”
His views that were radical and far ahead of his times caused friction even within members of the Hindutva fold, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that held more orthodox views on such matters. This was possibly why Savarkar stayed away from the RSS, even though his elder brother Ganesh Damodar was among the founding members of the Sangh, along with K.B. Hedgewar.
A retrospective unbiased and clinical analysis of Savarkar’s writings on society, science, economy and foreign affairs show how so many of his predictions eventually turned out to be true. If the timelessness and relevance of a leader’s thoughts are the litmus of his greatness, Savarkar certainly was one.
This is the second part of a two-part series on Veer Savarkar. You can read the first part here. For this article, he has researched the writings compiled in the “Savarkar Samagra Wangmay”.
The author is a writer/historian and Senior Research Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, and has an upcoming biography of Savarkar.