The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) on 12 March, in which it expressed concern that “as the census year approaches, there are instances of inciting a group by propagating that ‘they are not Hindus’.”
The population of Hindus, according to the 2011 census of India, is close to a billion. This makes Hinduism the third largest religion in the world, behind Christianity and Islam. However, this number has not gone unchallenged.
In July 2021, journalist and writer Dilip Mandal, who has a large following on social media, in Hindi:
“If the Adivasis were Hindus, then among all the Shankaracharyas in the last thousands of years, at least one would have been an Adivasi. At least one Adivasi would have been a priest in one of the temples. Where are the Adivasis in the religious scriptures? Where are the Adivasis in the Ram Mandir Trust?”
The Challenge to the Label 'Hindu'
‘Who is a Hindu’ is not an easy question to answer. While the media and politicians have been using the term liberally and unquestioningly, the scholars of India’s history, sociology, and anthropology have spent the last two centuries trying to arrive at a workable definition, and without success.
A few communities, which have been labelled as Hindu in the census, too, have challenged this nomenclature and are fighting to get a separate status for themselves. The chief among them are the .
Mahendra Dhruva, a tribal activist from Bihar, told The Wire that the census form has only six options under the religion column – Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Jain, and Sikh. “If we do not consider ourselves followers of any of these religions, which option should we choose? Before 2011, a seventh option, ‘Others’ was provided and most of us used to opt for it. But now, even that has been removed,” he said.
The Lingayats in Karnataka also have a long-standing demand that their belief system be recognised as a separate religion. While the Karnataka government accepted the group’s plea in 2018, the final decision can only be taken by the central government as the decennial census comes under its jurisdiction.
The other strident and consistent challenge to the label Hindu has come from the Ambedkarite movement. B R Ambedkar himself ,
“The first and foremost thing that must be recognised is that Hindu Society is a myth. The name Hindu is itself a foreign name. It was given by the Mohammedans to the natives for the purpose of distinguishing themselves [from them]. It does not occur in any Sanskrit work prior to the Mohammedan invasion. They did not feel the necessity of a common name, because they had no conception of their having constituted a community. Hindu Society as such does not exist. It is only a collection of castes.”B R Ambedkar
The two more recent examples that can be cited in this tradition are Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd’s book Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture & Political Economy and Why I Am Not A Hindu Woman by Wandana Sonalkar. Bhanwar Meghwanshi’s I Could Not Be Hindu: The Story of a Dalit in the RSS can also be mentioned here.
However, the RSS is not very happy with these critiques of the terms Hindu and Hinduism.
The RSS, which is self-avowedly working towards a Hindu rashtra, wrote in its annual report last week,
“Today in Bharat, while on the one hand, the age-old cultural values, traditions, and the sense of identity, unity and integrity of the country are awakening, and, Hindu Shakti is standing up with self-respect, on the other hand, the inimical forces which do not tolerate this are also conspiring to create a vicious environment in the society. The challenge of increasing divisive elements in the country is also alarming. Efforts are also afoot to weaken the society by rising various fissiparous tendencies in the Hindu society itself. As the census year approaches, there are instances of inciting a group by propagating that ‘they are not Hindus.”RSS annual report
The report does not name the “fissiparous tendencies in the Hindu society,” nor does it tell us which group is being incited by these “tendencies”. However, the discussion above would have made it clear in the reader’s mind what “tendencies” the RSS is worried about.
The Origins of 'Hindu' and 'Hinduism'
While the term Hindu is ancient, the word Hinduism is not. This might seem a little perplexing and therefore, we need to dig a little into its etymology and history.
“The word (Hindu) is the Persian variant of Sanskrit sindhu, the Indus river, a word already applied in the Avesta both to the river and to the country through which the Indus flows. In the plural it denotes the population living in that region: the Indus people, the Indians,” writes Heinrich von Stietencron in his essay ‘Hinduism: On the Proper Use of a Deceptive Term.’
While the Sanskrit word sindhu denoted the Indus river specifically or a river/waterbody more generally, the Persian equivalent ‘Hindu’ also came to be used for people living along or beyond (from the point of view of Persians) the Indus river.
The word remained in circulation for centuries but since it was an exonym, it was used by outsiders for the Indian people.
“The term ‘Hinduism’, on the other hand, is truly modern. As such, it may be seen as a relatively recent invention… When the terms ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’ first began to come into vogue in modern times, these were simply convenient labels for describing all things in India, all things Indian, and any form of culture or system of religion arising within or uniquely peculiar to the continent,” says Robert Eric Frykenberg in his essay ‘The Emergence of Modern “Hinduism” as a Concept and as an Institution.’
Invention of Hinduism
In a sense, Hinduism is a gift of colonialism. The British government conducted its first pan-India census in 1871-72, in which the population was enumerated along religious lines, and one of the religions in the census list was Hinduism.
While one’s caste, language or region may have formed the identity of a person in the 19th-century India, the idea of religion in the Western sense was available only to a section of the population.
It’s not like Indians didn’t know of organised religions: the Abrahamic religions of Christianity and Islam were already well established in the Indian soil; Sikhism had recently sprung up; and Buddhism and Jainism had existed for millennia. However, the adherents of these religions were only a section of the population. A majority of the communities didn’t belong to any such organised religions, and hence these communities showed immense variation in their customs, beliefs, rituals, deities, sacrificial and worship practices and so on.
For the sake of convenience, Muslim rulers, Christian missionaries, and British government clubbed this diverse mass of people as Hindus and their ‘religion’ eventually came to be known as ‘Hinduism.’ This label was slowly adopted by Brahmin-Dvijas (the so-called twice born castes) too and became favoured by them by the early 20th century. In the changed circumstances of coloniality and modernity, numbers mattered and ‘Hindus’ offered those numbers.
However, the challenge remained as to how to define Hinduism. Here, the RSS has tried to imitate the Abrahamic religions. It aims to canonise a set of texts as Hinduism’s holy scripture, and the doctrine of Hinduism, its practices, rituals, way of worship, gods, etc, are supposed to be sourced from this canon.
The texts that are promoted for this purpose are the Vedas, Dharmashastras (especially the Manusmriti), epics (Mahabharata and Ramayana), and the Bhagavad Gita. This list may see an addition or subtraction of one or two texts from time to time since this is very much a work in progress, however, the only texts that will ever make it to the list are the Brahmanic Sanskrit texts, especially from the ancient period.
In his speech at the Ram Mandir inauguration ceremony in Ayodhya in 2020, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat the following verse from Manusmriti:
एतद् देशप्रसूतस्य सकाशादग्रजन्मनः । स्वं स्वं चरित्रं शिक्षेरन् पृथिव्यां सर्वमानवाः ॥ २० ॥
Translation: All the people on earth should learn their respective practices from a Brahmin born in that land.
This verse upholds the primacy of Brahmins in a caste society and the idea of varnashrama dharma, that is, a society divided hierarchically in four varnas.
The Hindu scripture – as proposed by the RSS – is exclusively derived from the corpus of the Sanskrit language, a language that was the prerogative of Brahmins, and the Shudras were explicitly forbidden from learning it. This scripture further endorses varna system, caste ideals, and subjugation of women.
The Hinduism as defined by the RSS is not just exclusionary but also discriminatory. But the truth is, this definition of Hinduism, or a variant of it, with its roots in ancient Sanskrit texts, has been propounded by most Brahmin-Dvija personalities of eminence – from Swami Vivekananda to Bal Gangadhar Tilak to MK Gandhi. Therefore, it is not surprising that many communities are actively resisting the imperialistic and homogenising label of Hinduism. The RSS needs to respect their agency instead of passing disparaging comments about them through its platforms and publications.