By Hindol Sengupta:
There is little understanding on how Hindus see themselves and their role in this world. What are the unique virtues, if any, that India’s Hindu civilization has to offer in the twenty-first century? What are the values, systems and ideas that this civilization can hold forth for the future? In centuries of assimilation and alteration, how has Hinduism’s own perception of itself transformed, and how does it see itself and the world today? If India, where a majority of people are Hindus—though the state by the constitution is secular—is to be a determining pillar of global polity in the twenty-first century, answers to these questions are critical, not just for Indians but also the world. A nuanced understanding of what it means to be Hindu and how to handle the Hindu identity in the twenty-first century is critical in India’s comprehension of its role in the modern world.
Progress cannot transpire unless Hindus first understand who they are, where they come from and where they are going; to comprehensively and cohesively explain what the worldview of our faith, so often intertwined in our moral and geopolitical belief systems, really is. There has been a myth in India that Hindus do not, ever, place their moral and political superstructures and points of view in the philosophies of their faith. This is untrue, and one of the people who really understood this reality was Gandhi. His infusion of Hindu belief systems, idioms, iconography and commitment to plurality, which came Being Hindu directly from the core principle of the Rig Veda—ekam satviprah bahuda vedanti (truth is one, the sages manifest it variously)—lifted the moribund Indian National Congress from a tepid, elite debating society to a fervent national movement.
At every step of his life, in every decision, Gandhi declared that his guiding principles came from the Bhagavadgita, the moral lessons embedded in the epic Mahabharata given by the god Krishna to the warrior Arjun on the meaning of life, God-realization and the essence of conflict on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Gandhi called the book his spiritual dictionary’.
So unapologetically sanguine was Gandhi on his (and his faith’s) commitment to plurality—and especially in India’s case, the equanimity between Hindus and Muslims—that he was murdered by a Hindu bigot who believed that Gandhi had orchestrated the partition of India at the end of the British Raj to create Pakistan, a homeland for Muslims, even though nearly 15 per cent of India remained Muslim and therefore, was never in correlation a homeland for Hindus alone. Gandhi’s faith in this communal cohesion even after the partition brought with it a massacre of a million people in sectarian riots—largely between Hindus and Muslims—and a complete disregard to his own personal safety finally felled him to an assassin’s bullet in 1948 barely a year after independence.
And here is the unique twist that only the inherent, genetic plurality of Hinduism could have given to this tale: Gandhi’s murderer Nathuram Godse proclaimed his own belief in plurality and the right of Hindus and Muslims to coexist in India! In his infamous speech in court, before he was tried and hung—a fact that was banned from publication in India till 1968—Godse declared that he had killed Gandhi because of the division of the land between the two countries, and because he believed Gandhi had allowed it to happen to make the Muslims happy. But it is almost never noted that Godse did not make the claim, nor expressed a desire, that the Hindus and Muslims should not share a homeland after the British left India. As an Being Hindu avowed ‘Hindu nationalist’ as he is often declared to be, it is curious to read that he made no declarations demanding the creation of a Hindu nation as one would presume, since death row statements of the cause receive such wide attention. On the contrary, Godse said in court, ‘In my speeches and writings, I have always advocated that the religious and communal consideration should be entirely eschewed in the public affairs of the country; at elections, inside and outside the legislatures and in the making and unmaking of Cabinets. I have throughout stood for a secular state with joint electorates. To my mind this is the only sensible thing to do.’
Here are two men doomed by the nefarious force of history to be martyr and assassin, and thus define the soul of an old yet modern nation. Both of them declare their faith in plurality; Gandhi through his martyrdom, Godse even through his last words when he could have cried out for a Hindu nation if he had so wished. Both have never been anything but Hindu. The story of Gandhi’s death (and life) is so ubiquitous that it has become, in some ways, almost blasé. But as I discovered and pondered on this commonality, it threw me off-guard. Here were the saint and the sinner both vouching to the end for the plurality of Hinduism.