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Political Hinduism Goes Beyond Politics
A scene for Rajkumar Santoshi's 2002 film, The Legend of Bhagat Singh. Singh becomes a martyr for his country.

Political Hinduism Goes Beyond Politics

A two-day conference at UCLA explores the way the Hindu right in politics affects the practice of Hinduism in cultures.

By Angilee Shah
Staff Writer

Vinay Lal says that there is one thing his conference, called "Political Hinduism," was not designed to examine: the rise of the Hindu right and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, commonly known as the BJP. That phenomenon, he says, has been widely discussed since its beginnings in the 1980s.

Conference organizer Lal, who is also director of the Colloquium on South Asian History and Cultural Studies and a UCLA History professor, says that the May 6 and 7, 2005, event was instead arranged to find out how Hindutva, the idea that Hinduism is a special possession of India, and Hindu militancy affect Hinduism on the ground, as it is practiced. Thus Lal chose speakers who come from cultural studies backgrounds -- linguistics, religious studies, anthropology and history -- rather than political science. "The best work on the rise of political Hinduism has been done by historians," Lal says. "Political scientists tend to focus on Hindu-Muslim conflict."

Julius Lipner (right), professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, for example, explained the origins of "Vande Mataram" (I revere the Mother), India's National Song. The hymn was written by Bankimchandra Chatterji at the end of the nineteenth century and published as part of his novel, Anandamath. In the song, India is "divinised" as the Mother Goddess, said Lipner, and this symbolism took on a political life of its own. Its nationalistic symbols engendered a Hindu tone, even though India is a very plural place and despite the fact that Chatterji wrote of the image of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi as an idea rather than a theological entity, said Lipner.

"Many," Lipner said, "heard the song as a Hindu iconic representation of the nation." The first two verses of "Vande Mataram" comprise the National Song; however, the Hindu cultural organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) continues to sing the entire song in its original form, which includes religious iconography and the pre-partition concept of "akhand Bharat," or united India.

Other insights into the practice of Hinduism come from stories and ancient texts. Paula Richman, professor of Religion at Oberlin College, discussed the life and work of Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, popularly known as Rajaji. Though Rajaji was a statesman and founder of the Swatantra Party in the fifties, he also wrote an iconic English translation of the Ramayana, published by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in 1957. Richman said the retelling was a "sanitized" version of the epic, first done in Tamil then translated. "Rajaji said that the epics can unite Indians," said Richman, "but he tended to have slippage between Indians and Hindus." Richman then asked if discomfort with Rajaji's political innuendo with the Ramayana is perhaps because of the last decade of Hindutva, or if it was actually problematic at the time.

Ron Inden, History and South Asian Languages and Civilizations professor at the University of Chicago, challenged the idea that popular culture follows the trends of Hinduism in politics in his analysis of Mumbai films from the last fifty years. He uses the term "popular patriotism" to distinguish between political movement and cultural trends, which is to say that the two do not always fall in line. Patriotism in Hindi films, said Inden, draws from Hinduism, but also from Islam and Sikhism. "Time and again we find an elderly Muslim gentleman as the good sense of the nation," Inden said after showing a clip from Sholay (Ramesh Sippy, 1975). Inden also showed clips from The Legend of Bhagat Singh (Rajkumar Santoshi, 2002) in which a Sikh is the martyr hero of the nation.

Inden argued, "It's not as if we have a situation where we have the idea of a secular nation under the threat of Hindutva [which tries] to fill the void. In order for Hindutva to take this position, it would have to displace the popular patriotism."

In opening the conference Lal said that political Hinduism "generally refers to nothing more than the Hindu nationalism of the last two decades." The phenomenon, he said, actually existed much earlier, from the Maratha leader Shivaji in the 1600s to the creation of the RSS in 1925. Indeed, Mohandas Gandhi wrote in his 1927 autobiography, "I can say without the slightest hesitation, and yet in all humility, that those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means."

Presenter Madhav Deshpande, professor of Sanskrit and Linguistics at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, offered a profile of the colorful turn-of-the-century philosopher Lokmanya Tilak. Tilak came to believe in the Arctic beginnings of the Vedas, Hindu spiritual texts. While he used astrological and geological evidence within the texts to date them at 10,000 to 8,000 B.C., Tilak's beliefs were also rooted in the influential teachings of his professors at Deccan College, Pune, during British rule. Deshpande says that Tilak's theories were widely debated and are still at issue today; many scholars believed that the Vedas' beginnings were rooted in the Indian subcontinent and thus belong to the nation.

Italian-born Sonia Gandhi was elected Prime Minister -- a position she declined -- in the summer of 2004. Later that year, the guru of the prominent religious institution Kanchi matha was arrested for being involved in a murder. Events like these, said professor of Religion at Syracuse University Joanne Waghorne, bring Hinduism into focus as a choice for Indians, rather than a religion naturally associated with the nation. Her paper questions the position of "new guru-oriented religious movements" in the scheme of Hindutva. These movements, such as the Shirdi Sai Baba and Satya Sai Baba organizations and the Mata Amritanandamayi Mission, are rooted in Hinduism but also have global popularity, and thus create the "sense that Hinduism can be a world religion," said Waghorne, in the same way that an Italian-born woman can be India's leader.

Writer, professor of Anthropology and Visual Culture at University College London, and, recently, documentarian Christopher Pinney described Hinduism from the Dalit, or untouchable, point-of-view. He studied a village in which Dalits had the sole ownership over the ability to be possessed and one man in particular who makes his livelihood from this ability.

Unlike conferences with panel formats, each of the nine speakers was allowed forty-five minutes to an hour to present his paper, and was then given forty-five minutes to take questions and comments. At times, eighty to 100 people were in the audience.

"Political Hinduism" was sponsored by the UCLA Asia Institute, Department of History, Center for the Study of Religion, Center for Modern and Contemporary Studies, and Colloquium on South Asian History and Cultural Studies.

Vinay Lal is working to put together a volume about Political Hinduism which will include, but not be limited to, the papers presented at this conference.

Asia Institute