In this excerpt from his book ‘Why I Am A Hindu’, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor explains Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s vision of Hindutva and how it was closely linked with nationalism.
India’s current ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, officially adopted Hindutva as its defining credo in 1989. It is the doctrine assiduously promoted by the Hindu nationalist volunteer organization the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), founded in 1925, and its affiliated family of organizations in the ‘Sangh Parivar’, notably the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP, World Hindu Council), set up in 1964 with an avowed intention of protecting and promoting the Hindu religion. The word Hindutva is widely used by all of them, but what does the term actually mean?
The man largely credited with the invention of the concept of Hindutva—literally ‘Hinduness’—is Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883–1966), whose Essentials Of Hindutva (Bombay: Veer Savarkar Prakashan, 1st edition 1923) laid out the concept in 1923. Republished in 1928 as ‘Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu?’, it is in many ways the foundational text of the Hindu nationalist creed.
Savarkar chose the term ‘Hindutva’ to describe the ‘quality of being a Hindu’ in ethnic, cultural and political terms. He argued that a Hindu is one who considers India to be his motherland (matrbhumi), the land of his ancestors (pitrbhumi), and his holy land (punya bhumi). India is the land of the Hindus since their ethnicity is Indian and since the Hindu faith originated in India. (Other faiths that were born in India, like Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism also qualified, in Savarkar’s terms, as variants of Hinduism since they fulfilled the same three criteria; but Islam and Christianity, born outside India, did not). Thus a Hindu is someone born of Hindu parents, who regards India—‘this land of Bharatvarsha, from the Indus to the Seas’—as his motherland as well as his holy land, ‘that is the cradle-land of his religion.’
In keeping with the race doctrines of the times, Savarkar conceived Hindutva as an indefinable quality inherent in the Hindu ‘race’, which could not be identified directly with the specific tenets of Hinduism. Hindutva, he declared, ‘is so varied and so rich, so powerful and so subtle, so elusive and yet so vivid that it defied such definition’. But of course the concept of Hindutva would have made no sense unless it was explained in relation to the religion of Hinduism. So Savarkar asserted: ‘Hinduism is only a derivative, a fraction, a part of Hindutva’. To him, the religion was therefore a subset of the political idea, rather than synonymous with it—something many of its proponents today would be surprised to hear. Savarkar, however, argued that: ‘Failure to distinguish between Hindutva and Hinduism has given rise to much misunderstanding and mutual suspicion between some of those sister communities that have inherited this inestimable and common treasure of our Hindu civilization… It is enough to point out that Hindutva is not identical with what is vaguely indicated by the term Hinduism. By an “ism” it is generally meant a theory or a code more or less based on spiritual or religious dogma or system. But when we attempt to investigate into the essential significance of Hindutva, we do not primarily—and certainly not mainly—concern ourselves with any particular theocratic or religious dogma or creed…’
In other words, Hindutva is more than the Hindu religion, and as a political philosophy it does not confine itself to adherents of the Hindu faith. Despite this distinction, Hindutva would help achieve the political consolidation of the Hindu people, since Savarkar also argued that a Muslim or a Christian, even if born in India, could not claim allegiance to the three essentials of Hindutva: ‘a common nation (rashtra), a common race (jati) and a common civilization (sanskriti), as represented in a common history, common heroes, a common literature, a common art, a common law and a common jurisprudence, common fairs and festivals, rites and rituals, ceremonies and sacraments.’
Hindus, thus defined, constituted the Indian nation—a nation that had existed since antiquity, since Savarkar was explicitly rejecting the British view that India was just, in Churchill’s notorious phrase, ‘a geographical expression…. No more a single country than the Equator.’ Savarkar’s vision of Hindutva saw it as the animating principle of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ (Hindu Nation) that extended across the entire Indian subcontinent, and was rooted in an undivided India (‘Akhand Bharat‘) corresponding to the territorial aspirations of ancient dynasties like the Mauryas (320 bce–180 bce), who under Chandragupta and Ashoka had managed to knit most of the subcontinent under their territorial control. In the words of a later RSS publication, Sri Guruji, the Man and his Mission, ‘It became evident that Hindus were the nation in Bharat and that Hindutva was Rashtriyatva [nationalism].’
For Savarkar, Hinduness was synonymous with Indianness, properly understood. Savarkar’s idea of Hindutva was so expansive that it covered everything that a scholar today would call ‘Indic’: ‘Hindutva is not a word but a history. Not only the spiritual or religious history of our people as at times it is mistaken to be by being confounded with the other cognate term Hinduism, but a history in full… Hindutva embraces all the departments of thought and activity of the whole Being of our Hindu race.’
In turn, the Hindu ‘race’ was inextricably bound to the idea of the nation. As Savarkar put it, ‘We Hindus are bound together not only by the tie of the love we bear to a common fatherland and by the common blood that courses through our veins and keeps our hearts throbbing and our affections warm, but also by the tie of the common homage we pay to our great civilization—our Hindu culture’. By definition, however, his idea of Hindutva excluded those whose ancestors came from elsewhere or whose lands lay outside India—thereby eliminating Muslim and Christians, India’s two most significant minorities, from his frame of reference. What their place would be in Savarkar’s Hindu Rashtra was not made explicitly clear, but the best they could hope for was a sort of second-class citizenship in which they could live in India only on sufferance.
In 1939, Savarkar wrote the foreword to a book by the Nazi sympathiser and European-born Hindu revivalist who called herself Savitri Devi. Savitri Devi (1905–1982), born Maximiani Portas of mixed Greek, French and English parentage, was a remarkable figure who, among other idiosyncratic beliefs, considered Adolf Hitler an avatar of Vishnu. Her book, prophetically titled ‘A Warning to the Hindus’, is a passionate polemic about the need for Hindu reassertion. Savitri Devi asserted that ‘Hinduism is the national religion of India, and there is no real India besides Hindu India’. Savarkar joined the author in arguing that ‘In all walks of life, for a long time, the Hindus have been fed on inertia-producing thoughts which disabled them to act energetically for any purpose in life, other than “moksha,” that is to say escape from this world where to? God knows. And this is one of the causes of the continuous enslavement of our Hindu Rashtra for centuries altogether’. Not for Savarkar the abstruse metaphysics of Advaita; what he and Savitri Devi were interested in was political power, here and now. For Savitri Devi, political power, defined as ‘the power of law with organised military force’ is ‘everything in the world… We would like the Hindus to remember this, and to strive to acquire political power at any cost. Social reforms are necessary, not because they will bring more “humanity” among the Hindus, as many think, but because they will bring unity, that is to say power.’
‘Why I am a Hindu’ has been published by Aleph Book Company. Excerpted with permission from the publisher.