Can Hinduism Accept Plurality, Human Dignity and Social Justice?
Ancient Hindu Temple Complex, Angkor Wat, Cambodia
I am a Hindu. And I am a conservative. An essential aspect of conservatism, one might say, is cultural rootedness. As an individual, thus, I am rooted in Hinduism. It defines me in terms of certain fundamental principles and outlooks. But exactly how? Let me try and explain.
Hinduism is inherently plural. Being a Hindu, thus, I naturally accept the plurality that characterises my coreligionists. As I understand, Hinduism is an enormous conglomerate of subjectivities which express themselves as a myriad of spiritual outlooks, cultural practices, and social identities (varṇas/jātis/sampradāyas). No, this does not mean that, as ‘left-liberal’ and Marxist academics commonly say, Hinduism ‘does not exist’ from the spiritual, cultural, and social points of view (due to its seeming incoherence) and the Hindu identity is some kind of a con act by a ‘syndicate’ of vested elites (Romila Thapar insinuates as much in her paper ‘Syndicated Hinduism’). Hinduism does exist and the subjectivities that comprise it are but modulations upon a civilizational paradigm – they, for instance, deploy the same conceptual resources (in the form of a pantheon of Deities and ethical and metaphysical ideas). The multifarious subjectivities comprising Hinduism are, in this sense, very clearly interreferential.
Unfortunately, I notice that it is a common sight on social media for ‘Indic’ and ‘Dharmic’ votaries to be quarrelling over some nuance concerning Hinduism – the legitimacy of ‘paśubali’, or whether the varṇa and jāti ascriptions were originally birth or ‘guṇa’ based. Sometimes, these quarrels escalate and people block each other. I find this so utterly pointless and unnecessary. My suggestion to fellow Hindus is thus as much – whatever your own social and spiritual subjectivity might be regarding your varṇa or jāti identity (if it is birth or ‘guṇa’ based), or the correctness or otherwise of a devotion (the ‘paśubali’ issue), be secure in it. There is no need to convert other Hindus to these subjectivities. If you try, that would only result in bickering and rancour. As I understand, this constant pedantic wrangling between a number of vocal protagonists of Hinduism on social media is rooted in a certain anxiety – a subliminal urge to retrieve or return to a ‘pure’ Hinduism, one that was shorn of all contradictions and thoroughly systematized. But let me tell you the following as a student of history – such a Hinduism is unlikely to have ever existed. Hinduism has always been what I termed it above – a mélange of interreferential subjectivities. Hence, for me, this striving after a ‘pure’, bereft of contradictions, systematized Hinduism is pointlessly dogmatic and, in the long run, very detrimental to Hindu society. What makes Hinduism so hard to efface is that, in essence, it is so empowering from the cultural and spiritual points of view. It can integrate virtually any number of spiritual positions, devotions, and social identities within a broad semiotic and conceptual framework. A further strength of Hinduism is its capacity to carry on regardless of (occasionally) irreconcilable contradictions, because no clergy or church coerce Hindus to fall in line after a rigid orthopraxis or orthodoxy. Look at me here. I come from the North East – a Sylheti-Hindu born in the Gauḍiya Vaiśnava tradition. I eat meat. As a matter of fact, all the Vaiśnava ‘laity’ in my part of India – be they Sylhetis, Meiteis, Bishnupriyas, or Assamese – regularly consume meat, fowl, and fish. But they are devout Vaiśnavas too. And the North East has an extremely rich and refined Vaiśnava culture – you would know if you have ever watched a Manipuri Raas performance. Now, if you ask me, allegiance to Vaiśnavism and meat eating are doubtlessly irreconcilable. But, then, if Hinduism did not have the magnanimity or practical sense to accommodate this contradiction, perhaps that part of India would be entirely alienated from Hinduism today. So, all online Hindu votaries may please relax. Observe what you understand as Hinduism and let other Hindus be. Please accept and revel in Hinduism’s magnificent plurality.
Secondly, I believe that every Hindu, irrespective of varṇa, jāti, and gender, is entitled to seek dignity, spiritual solace, and a framework of social justice within Hindu values and mores. This is because, in my understanding, this seeking is intrinsic to Hinduism. I, thus, fully respect every Hindu who chooses to question primordial birth-based entitlements to varieties of orthopraxis or rituals. Skepticism with regard to putative birth-based entitlements is, as I see, quite characteristic of the history of Hinduism. Time and again, these have been questioned by Hindu saints and reformers. And, to an extent, the enormous diversity of spiritual practices in Hinduism is the outcome of this questioning. As Hindu saints and reformers questioned the supposed birth-based exclusivity of certain orthopraxis or rituals, they also devised inclusive alternatives to them. In the process, they made Hinduism this remarkably multifarious belief system and strengthened it.
I urge every twice-born Hindu male out there to respect Hindu heritage and avoid reacting with pique if their putative birth-based entitlements are questioned. Please remember that the basis to your exclusive claims (in case you make them) to particular orthopraxis or rituals is not knowledge derived at first hand from the Śri Mukha of Śri Hari, but some Smṛti text composed a thousand or fifteen hundred years ago. Yes, scriptures matter and so do the spiritual regimens prescribed by them. I do not disregard the Smṛti tradition; it is a very vital part of the intellectual heritage of Dharma. But, as a student of history, I would see the Smṛti texts in a certain context. They were composed at a time of enormous transitions, when the Indian social and political frameworks we term ‘ancient’ were giving way to the ‘early medieval’. It must have been a time of great dislocations, hence their uber conservative and, might I say, anxiety ridden tone. Adhere to any text or spiritual prescriptions you wish; you have the right to it. Just do not make dogmatic claims to ritual status based on this adherence, you will only end up fracturing Hindu society by alienating large numbers of Hindus. Also, be mindful that the ‘Hindu sphere’ currently conspicuous on social media probably would not exist if large numbers women and ‘socially marginals’ had not voted the current central government into power. In other words, you might not be abroad on social media as a confident Hindu votary if not for a political choice made by people who are not male and twice-born.
Thirdly, as a Hindu I consider it an imperative that feminine agency, aspirations, and points of view find the fullest social expressions. Come to think of it, from the perspective of cultural anthropology, the Hindu ‘lifeworld’, or lebenswelt, is deeply feminine. There is a profound femininity to the semiotics of Hindu spiritual and cultural practices. Again, if we Hindus, despite all vicissitudes, have survived into the twenty-first century, it is perhaps to a great extent because of Hindu women. Call to your mind the history of medieval North India where the formal, institutional aspects of Hindu social life often received major jolts following the extinction of imperial Hindu polities. I am inclined to think that, to a great extent, Hinduism survived in this region by retreating into the domestic spaces where it was upheld by Hindu women. Today, Hindu women continue to be the pivot securing Hinduism in the domestic realm. Yet, there are but a handful of women in Hindu advocacy. Why so? It is because all bright, intelligent Hindu women with university degrees find the crude machismo frequently obtaining in the ‘Hindu sphere’ repulsive. Please desist from this machismo. It is ugly and reeks of misogyny, especially when it expresses itself in the way of birth-based entitlements.
To conclude, deriving from my Hinduism, my Hindutva (meant as a self-aware social and political deployment of the Hindu identity) is about an acceptance of plurality, a quest for human dignity, spiritual solace, and social justice, and respect for the feminine.
– Prof. Saumya Dey
The author is professor of history at the Rashtram School of Public Leadership, Rishihood University, Sonipat, Haryana.