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Hinduism is India's defining religion

Hinduism is India's defining religion

Meenakshi Jain
The Weekend Observer
March 18, 2000
Title: Hinduism is India's defining religion
Author: Meenakshi Jain
Publication: The Weekend Observer
Date: March 18, 2000

The recent Hindu assertiveness as witnessed in the resistance to conversions, the challenge to left attempts to re-write the history of the freedom movement, and the scuttling of shooting of the film, Water, has deeply alarmed secular intellectuals. Unable to question the intrinsic merits of the Hindu case, they are now trying to fudge issues by insisting that as forbearance is the essence of Hinduism, it ill-becomes Hindus to engage in contests with other faiths. They are emphasising that India has been a haven for persecuted creeds throughout its history, in addition to being the birthplace of countless faiths. As a consequence of this dual heritage, they argue, a strong multi-religious and multi-cultural tradition has undergrid Indian civilization since its inception, and this legacy is now being endangered by saffron zealots.

The time has now come to confront these untruths, and acknowledge that Indian civilization, centred around Hinduism, was well and truly developed and had attained its greatest heights long before non-Indian faiths entered the land. The debate on the apparent differences between Hinduism, Vedism, Sanatana Dharma, Buddhism and Jainism, does not concern us here, for our purposes, what is relevant is that it was the religions of this soil - to the exclusion of all other - that determined the contours of its culture.

Even Nirad Chaudhari recognised, the Hindu religion created "what must be regarded as the true nationalism of the country. It is this which gives appropriateness to the name of Hinduism..." He added since the inhabitants could never in any aspect of their life be separated from their religion, the word 'Hindu' became religious, and the national identity became the same as adherence to a religion. The fusion is the only real guarantee behind the national identity of Indians."

What also needs to be admitted in this context, is that it was the predominance of Hinduism that made India a libertarian paradise, and not the presence in it of assorted foreign faiths. Hinduism's breadth of vision and liberal disposition ensured that India became the world sanctuary of the beaten and hounded. But that in no way implied a two way exchange between the refugees and their protectors. Indian, i.e. Hindu civilization, evolved wholly as a result of the interaction between its own people. Foreign dynasties that participated in this enterprise in the pre-Muslim period did so as players of this soil. The Indo-Greeks, Shakas, Indo-Parthians and Kushans were either staunch Buddhists or devotees of the great gods of the Hindu pantheon. India's first rock inscription in Sanskrit, for example, was the handiwork of the 'foreigner' Rudradaman Shaka.

Hindu theology was so comprehensive and encompassing that there is no record of it over having in any way modified itself as a result of non-Indian influence. All schools of Indian philosophy also developed from debates within Hindu tradition, without external stimulation, Hinduism's first serious and sustained encounter with another faith was with Islam, beginning around the seventh century AD. It should be noted that by this time 'Hindu India' had already attained world renown for its accomplishments in the realms of art, literature and philosophy, and it is surely nobody's case that its achievements under the Muslim rulers outdid its previous performance.

Hindus, in fact, had always exhibited a remarkable disinclination to engage in dialogues with other faiths, a trait adversely commented upon by many foreigners who wished to understand or experience Hinduism : The Muslim scholar al-Biruni complained bitterly of the self-contained world-view of the Hindus in the tenth century. It is hard to find instances of shastris and pandits in the medieval period having undertaken detailed study of Muslim religious scriptures with a view to making the necessary correctives in their own faith. They may have been down and out, but that, they felt, was no reason to dilute their inheritance.

It is misleading to represent the bhakti movement as a meeting ground between Hinduism and Islam. In the Hindu tradition, bhakti, i.e. devotion, was an essential constituent of sadhana, i.e. religious pursuit, and was mentioned as far back as in the Svetasvatara Upanishad. The Bhagavad Gita was also a paean to bhakti. And several centuries before Meera and Kabir, the Alvars and Nayananars in the South had been fervent practitioners of the yoga of devotion.

The Hindu neglect of outsiders was not directed at Muslims alone. Hindus displayed equal reluctance to comprehend Christianity, the Jewish tradition, and the Parsi creed. The adherents of these faiths were free to reside in this country and follow their distinctive ways, but Hindus and Hinduism had simply no interest in, or interaction with them.

Several Europeans attested to this attitude as late as the twentieth century. The Austrian citizen and later monk of the Dashnami sanyasi order, Agehananda Bharti, and the French monk, Fr H le Saux, better known as Swami Abhishiktananda, wrote on the basis of their personal experience that Hindus did not feel the need to reach out to other faiths as they considered that their own tradition provided everything necessary for the highest spiritual attainment. To nevertheless insist that religions external to India played a role equal to that of Hinduism in the civilizational process is to ignore and distort the overwhelming evidence from history.

Ironically, it was the non-persecution of foreign faiths, coupled with the total absence of Hindu attempts to convert their adherents, that allowed the propagation of the false notion that India was a multi-religious entity. It was multi-religious only in the sense that a number of outside religions settled here of their own volition. Also, Hinduism never displayed any arrogance vis-a-vis the foreign faiths or claimed that they were in any way inferior or wrong. But generosity of spirit does not alter the fundamental fact that Hinduism was always the defining religion of this land, its culture and ethos, the claims of secular intellectuals notwithstanding.

This primacy of Hinduism, indeed, even the Hindu lineage of Indian nationalism, is now being accepted by some western scholars. A study recently published by the Cambridge University Press, that re-examines the origins of nationality in South Asia, concedes the role played by ancient identities, memories, and aspirations in the formation of the modern Indian identity. Undoubtedly, Hinduism has been pivotal to the creation of the Indian identity in the past and remains so today, no matter the strenuous attempts being made to deny this.

(The author is a Reader, Delhi University)

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