Subverting the Myth of Liberal Hinduism: Why I am Not a Hindu

Hinduism is described as  the predominant and indigenous religious tradition of the Indian Subcontinent. It is often referred to as Sanatan Dharma (a Sanskrit phrase meaning “Eternal law”) by its adherents.  It is a religion that is claimed to be the oldest religion of the world. It has no single founder and consists of diverse traditions. Demographically Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion after Christianity and Islam. With more than a billion adherents, of whom approximately one  billion, live in the Republic of India. Other significant populations are found in Nepal (23 million), Bangladesh (14 million) and the Indonesian Island of Bali (3.3 million).

Hinduism is formed of diverse traditions and has no single founder. Among its roots is the Vedic religion of the Iron Age. It accommodates a variety of complex streams of faith including Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Smaratism and Shaktism.

Mc Daniel (2007) distinguishes six generic “types” of Hinduism, namely:

Folk Hinduism – As based on local traditions and that of local deities.

Vedic Hinduism – As still being practised by traditional Brahmins.

Vendantic Hinduism – As based in philosophical approach of Upanishads.

Yogic Hinduism – Based on Yoga sutras of Patanjali.

Dharmic Hinduism – Based on the notion of Karma.

Bhakti or Devotionalism – As in Vaishnavism.

Hinduism as an identifiable religious tradition qualifying as one of the world religions emerged only during the 9th century . Still it does not have a “Unified system of belief encoded in declaration of faith or a creed” but it is rather an umbrella term comprising the plurality of religious phenomenon originating and based on the Vedic Traditions.

Hinduism ,because of the variety and plurality of beliefs of its adherents, is said to have the characteristic of comprehensive tolerance to differences in beliefs. It is described as open, liberal and assimilative. Some Hindu philosophies postulate a theistic ontology of creation of sustenance, and of destruction of the Universe, yet some Hindus are atheists. Hinduism is sometimes characterised by the belief in reincarnation (Samsara), determined by the Law of Karma and the idea that salvation is freedom from this cycle of repeated birth and death. However, other religions like Buddhism, Jainism and Suphism also believe in Karma outside the scope of Hinduism.

Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, former President of India, and a brilliant theologian states that, Hinduism is not “just a faith”, but in itself is related to the union of reason and intuition. Radhakrishnan explicitly states that Hinduism cannot be defined, but it is only to be experienced.

There are innumerable definition and descriptions, which focus on the inclusive nature of Hinduism. To many of the scholars “Hinduism conceives the whole world as a single family that deifies the one truth, and therefore it accepts all forms of beliefs and dismisses labels of distinct religions which would imply a division of identity. Hence Hinduism is devoid of the concepts of apostasy, heresy and blasphemy.

Thus, Hinduism refers to a religious mainstream, which evolved organically and spread over a large territory marked by significant ethnic and cultural diversity. This mainstream evolved both by innovation from within, and by assimilation of external traditions or cults into the Hindu fold. The result is an enormous variety of religious traditions, ranging from innumerable small, unsophisticated cults to major religious movements with millions of adherents spread over different parts of the world.

While defining Hinduism one looks at the concept of God, Deities (Devta) and Incarnations (Avtaars), its rituals and festivals, scriptures and places of pilgrimage, food habits and the view of life. Among these parameters are those of Ashramas and the Varnas as well. While Ashramas divide the life into four stages of Brahmachraya, Grihastha, Vanprasth and Sanyas, Varnas divide the whole society into four Varnas which literally means “Colour, form or appearance”. The society is divided into the Brahmins (Teachers and priests) the Kshatriyas (Warriors, Nobles and Kings), the Vaishyas (Farmers, merchants and businessmen) and the Shudras (Servants and labourers).

Though the scholars debate whether Varna system is an integral part of Hinduism or is it a development outside the canon, there is little double that caste system which is a growth over centuries  is a reality in the contemporary Hindu Society.

Varna system was mentioned sparingly in the scriptures. There is only once mention of the varnas in the PurushSukta of the Rigveda. The rigid division  into Varnas  appears to be post Vedic, appearing in classical texts from the Maurya  period. The Bhagvad Gita (4.13) states that the four divisions are created by God. Though it also mentions that one’s Varna is to be understood from one’s personal qualities and one’s work, not one’s birth.

Many social reformers like Mahatma Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar criticized caste discrimination. Gandhiji described the practice of untouchability as the darkest blot on Hindu Society. Shri Ramkrishna Paramhans, the great ascetic, said:

“Lovers of God do not belong to any caste … A Brahmin without his love is no longer a Brahmin. And a pariah with the love of God is no longer a pariah. Through Bhakti (devotion to God) an untouchable becomes pure and elevated”.

These may be very noble thoughts but the reality is that Varna degenerated into caste and it got associated with the birth of an individual. The caste became an identity marker in Indian Society. In 1881 census 1929 castes were enumerated of these 1, 126 (58 percent) had a population of less than 1000; 556 (29 percent) less than 100 and 275 (14 percent) less than 10. The caste continued to have its influence in the politics of independent country as well. So much also that in spite of a heated debate caste is being recorded in 2011 census of India.

J.H. Hutton has dealt in details the issue of caste in his pioneering work Caste in India. He describes caste “as a social unit, and it is in accordance with its character as such that it is, generally speaking, the guardian of its own rules, that it disciplines its members, expels them from the community, or readmits them after penalties imposed and satisfaction excited”.

The caste structure is rigid and mobility between the castes is almost impossible. Of these, the lowest category of the Varna is the most subjugated. Its origin is from the feet of the mythic Virat Purush.

Rigved 10/10/12

In Bhagvad Gita Lord Krishna says that all the four Varnas  are his creation.

All the four Varanas are developed by me. According to their previous birth, I have fixed their duties and characteristics.

Thus the scriptures of Hinduism, on the one hand talk of vasudhaiv kutumbakam or Universal brotherhood, while on the other hand they have soon the seeds of division of society into Varanas which though initially were decided according to occupation, later became rigid and were fixed with an individuals birth taking the shape of a caste system. The literal Hinduism which has been cherished as an ideal found some champions in the twentieth century who narrowed it down to a Brahminical cult with little space for those sections of society which formed the lowest ladder of the Varna system.

J.H. Hutton named these castes as “Exterior castes” that is, these castes were outside the gamut of the Hindu Pantheon. The term “Exterior” was used as an alternative to “depressed” which very closely relates to the word “Dalit” in Hindi. Further elaboration of the term depressed makes it all the more explicit:

“I have explained depressed castes as castes, contact with whom entails purification on the part of high-caste Hindus. It is not intended that the term should have any reference to occupation as such but to those castes which by reason of their traditional position in Hindu Society are denied access to temples, for instance, or have to use separate wells or are not allowed to sit inside a school house but have to remain outside, or which suffer similar such social disabilities. …”

(Hutton 193)

Hinduism, as a political philosophy adopted by certain political and cultural organisations became more exclusive and regimented in the wake of the Somnath to Ayodhya Rath Yatra and the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. Every individual who was born in the castes included in the larger umbrella of Hindu religious tradition was being exhorted “to call himself A Hindu” ¼xoZ ls dgks ge fgUnw gSa!½ This created an apathy in the minds of those castes who always had to carry the stigma of uncleanness and impurity living in the Hindu fold.

The caste Hindus who occupied the centre became more vocal and pushed the Shudras who were at the periphery towards those cultural practices which were alien to them.Some of the voices at the periphery started echoing the concerns of the people at the margins.The polarisation was obvious and perhaps ,inevitable.A.K.Singh delineates this phenomenonand the rise of marginal voices in the preface to Indian English Literature:Marginal Voices:

The discourse pertaining to margin and certre attained significance in the light     of ugly social reality which marked polarisation of certain social forces that constructed social structures in different ways under different lables in such a way as would bring them in the center of these structures and serve their ends.The individuals or groups, other than these forces were marginalised either in the name of religion ,race,region,community,caste,gender,nationality or even ideology.To sustain this relationship or avoid subversion of these exploitative structures ,these forces constructed discourses in the form of the so-called shastra or ideology justifying the validity of their being in the center so that they can continue with their supprssive and exploitative practices…groups and individuals that were at the receiving end reacted against it and thought in terms of decentering the center at least in fictional terms if not in fact….(Singh,2003)

Kancha Ilaiah, a Professor of political science in Osmania University, Hyderabad, published a book Why I am not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy in 1996. This was four years after the frenzy of the demolition of Babri Mosque by those who claimed to be the biggest exponents of ‘Hindutva’. The book was hailed far and wide and was compared to the classic The wretched of The Earth by Frantz Fanon by no less an author than Susie Tharu in Economic and Political weekly. This book was listed as a millennium book along with Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste.

Written as a first person narrative the book is autobiographical and is grounded in the personal experiences of the author. Most of the examples are drawn from Andhra Pradesh where Prof. Kancha Ilaiah was born in a caste called Kurumaa, the sheep breeder’s community. The author uses the Marxian form of analysis comparing the social practices of the Dalit Bahujans, the communities described as the exterior castes by J.H. Hutton, with those of the upper caste Hindu practices specially the Brahmins. In the preface to the first edition of his book he clarifies the reasons for his choice of the term Dalit Bahujan saying that other expressions used by earlier writers like Mahatma Jyotirao Phule who described all those castes which were not Kshatriyas Brahmins or Vaishyas as Shudras and the untouchables as “Ati Shudras”. Kancha Ilaiah calls them productive castes since these are engaged in manual work, be it agriculture, construction or all other crafts. He does not prefer the use of the word “Shudra” because he finds that it lacks “a feeling of self-respect and political assertion”. (W INH, VIII)

Kancha Ilaiah finds the division of “Caste Hindus” and the “Scheduled Castes” a trap for those which are described as OBC’s. He himself belongs to the sheep-breeding castes and believes that OBC’s which are “as oppressed as are the scheduled castes by the upper castes” are separated from the scheduled castes and put in the category of caste Hindus, where they are not treated as equals. Ambedkar’s use of the term “Scheduled Castes” also excluded the OBC’s. The term Dalit also refers to the “Untouchable” castes only, therefore Kancha Ilaiah uses the term “Dalit Bahujan” to denote Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and the Other Backward Castes. He describes Dalit Bahujans as those ‘people and castes who form the exploited and suppressed majority’. The word ‘Bahujan’, he says, was used first by Lord Buddha and later by Mahatma Jyoti Rao Phule.

The book does not rely on the western models of empirical analysis based on surveys and collection of sample data. The data so collected sometimes prove misleading. Prof. Kancha Ilaiah chooses to record his personal experiences and observations as was done by Mahatma Phule, Dr. Ambedkar and Periyar Ramaswamy Naicker. This method of narrative and deconstructing experiences has been used by the feminists also. Kancha Ilaiah asserts that “This is the only possible and indeed the most authentic way in which the deconstruction and reconstruction of history can take place”. (WINH, XII)

Kancha Illaiah tries to look at the socio-cultural differences between the upper caste Hindus and the Dalit Bahujans by recounting the experiences in different stages of life-childhood, family life, market relations, power relations, Gods and Goodness that people respect and finally Death.

The book interrogates the sudden upsurge of “Hindutva” in 1990s when out of political necessity certain political parties and organisations including the governments at times became the exponents of aggressive “Hinduism”. The slogans like “Say with Pride, I am a Hindu” and “If you want to live in Hindustan, you have to be a Hindu” started echoing in the atmosphere. The purist and racialist thought of Hindu supremacy took the reigns and people who never cared to find out what their religion was, were suddenly told to identify themselves with this Saffron Hinduism in a secular state like India. Kancha Ilaiah in the introduction to the book describes this phenomenon as “not merely surprising but shocking” (WINH, XI). What is more disgusting is the fact that this sense of pride in Hindutva rests on hatred towards the Muslims and Christians. This type of Hinduism is a deviant of the one depicted in the scriptures, if properly understood. Ironically, the Shudras and Atishudras whom Kancha Ilaiah calls Dalit Bahujans also suffer the same kind of hatred at the hands of caste Hindus who are the leaders of this new surge of Hindutva.

“The question before me now is not whether I must treat Muslims or Christians or Sikhs as enemies, as the Hindutva School wants me to do. The question is what do we, the lower Shudras or Atishudras, have to do with Hinduism or Hindutva itself? I, indeed not only I, but all of us, the Dalit bahujans of India, have never heard the word ‘Hindu’ not as a word, nor as the name of a culture, nor as the name of a religion in our early childhood days”.

These people who never heard the word “Hindu” and who never felt to identify themselves as adherents of Hindu religion find it difficult to associate with the new Avtars of Hindutva. They realize that the upper caste Hindus kept them subjugated for centuries and forced them to live as their slaves. Manusmriti, which is revered as a sacred text by the Hindutva brigade assigns four duties to the Shudras:

1.         Dvijatisushrusha – Serving the Brahmins

2.         Varta – Production of wealth through manual work

3.         Kurukarma – Art

4.         Kusilavakarma – Crafts (Manusmriti, X: 75-76)

Ironically,the exponents of Hindutva still propagate the myth of Hinduism as the most liberal.

Prof. Kancha Ilaiah finds greater affinity with the Muslims and Christians of his village then the Upper Caste Hindus. In the introduction to his book itself he writes:

“We heard about Turukollu (Muslims), we heard about Kirastaanapoollu (Christians), we heard about Baapanoollu (Brahmins) and Koomatoollu (Baniyas) spoken of as people who were different from us. Among these four categories the most different were Baapanoollus and Koomatoollus. There are at least some aspects of life common to us and the Turukoollu and Kirastaanapoollu we all eat meat. We all touch each other. With the Turukoollu, we shared several other cultural relations we both celebrated the Peerila festival. … The only people with whom we had no relations, whatsoever were the Baapanoollus and the Koomatoollus.” (WINH, XI)

The distinction between caste Hindus and the Dalit Bahujans emerges primarily from the vocations they performed and  the resultant socio-economic status. The cultural practices also separate them. The stigma of being “Unclean” or “impure” attached to the Shudras created a gulf between the caste Hindus and the Dalit Bahujans. However liberal a Hindu might proclaim himself, the entry of Dalit Bahujans in his kitchen would be restricted, barring a few exceptions.

Kancha Ilaiah talks of the knowledge system of Dalits and that of Caste Hindus, particularly the Brahmins. He observes that the knowledge with the Dalit Bahujans is about production – it may be about agriculture, cattle breeding, construction of houses, digging of wells, making carts, arts and craft, herbal medicine, today-tapping and scores of skills required for the conduct of day-to-day activities of life. The Brahmins know the recitation of mantras and the names of Gods and goddess. Ironically, the Brahminical knowledge is defined as wisdom whereas knowing the language of production and the knowledge of productive tools and process is not recognized as knowledge. At the top of it, the upper Caste Hindus always exploit the knowledge of the Dalits for their comfort without even paying them for that. Kancha Ilaiah remarks that “the Brahmins have defined knowledge in their own image. (WINH, 6)

The same is true of languages. Since the upper castes had been in power, their languages were given prominence in governance and academics. The languages of the masses, the Dalit Bahujans were dubbed as rustic and not refined. Brahmins kept all sources of knowledge to themselves and did not like it to be passed on to  the Dalits. This was considered harmful for the ruling classes. The Dharam Shastras declared severe punishment for those Dalits who dared to learn any intellectual discipline. The writers of the Dharam Shastras threatened the monarchy by stating that a state in which Shudras (dalits) think, grieves like a cow stuck in mire.

Yasya shudrastu kuroote rajno dharma vivechacham

Tagya seedati tadrashtam panke gauriv pashyatah. 8.21

The Caste Hindus would not allow the Dalits, specially the Shudras to enter their temples or chant their prayers. As mentioned earlier, reading a book was taboo, hence no question of reading a religious book. Hindu scriptures could not be placed in a Dalit, specially Shudra household. Even today, it would be difficult to find one. Kancha Ilaiah remarks:

“Among all these castes what was unknown was reading the book, going to the temple, chanting prayers or doing the sandhyavandanam (evening worship). The Bhagvad Gita is said to be a Hindu religious text. But that book was not supposed to enter our homes. Not only that, the Hindu religion and its Brahmin wisdom prohibited literacy to all of us”. (WINH, 11)

The priest doest not come into contact with a Dalit Bahujan family except at the time of marriage or death. There too, his role is just to carry out certain rituals and to take away the gifts and offerings made to the Gods and other deities. He does not come to educate them. Not a word that the utters of the mantras is understood by those who are the people he has come to serve. He looks at them as aliens and does not care to teach them anything about divinity or their relationship with God. He does not treat them as children of the God that he too worships. It is a shoe or professional visit that ends up with collection of Dakshina or the honorarium that must be given irrespective of the economic condition of the family. Kancha Ilaiah makes a very acidic remark on this relationship:

“The subjects in this relationship are not treated as those whose ‘eyes must be opened to see the light of God’ but are treated as those whose eyes must be plucked out test they perceive the conspiracy between the man called priest and his God. To put in simple terms, the relationship between the priest and the people on all such occasions when he comes in contact with them, is the relationship between exploiter and exploited”. (WINH 23)

The relationship of the priest and the people is exploitative. So is the relationship between the families themselves. The upper caste families are patriarchal where the women, whether they are wives, daughters or daughters-in-law, have a subordinate position. They are supposed to obey the measles of the family of whatever age they are. This type of relationship does not exist in Dalit Bahujan families. The women  are comparatively more independent and have greater freedom to take their decisions. Kancha Ilaiah argues that this relationship is modeled on the relationship of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. It is designed on the leisure available to them. Procreation is also for the sake of fulfillment of certain religions and ritualistic ends. The desire to have a male child is primarily for continuing the name of the family, for carrying out the rituals in marriage, death and Shraddha after death. The man-woman relationship among Dalit Bahujans do not go beyond natural relationships. The objective is supporting agriculture and other productive activities. A non in their view is a relatively more productive force.

Kancha Ilaiah has treated several other issues in this text full of new interpretations of the texts and practices of the Hindus vis-à-vis their relationship with the Dalit Bahujans.An interesting analysis put forward by Kancha Ilaiah relates to the market in which he talks of trade related activities of Baniyas and non – Hindu traders.He says that a Baniya is a hefty and heavy person .He is distinctly different from his customers who are frail and weak-bodied.The masses are unclad simply because they do not have clothes but the Baniya remains semi-naked  because he must appear to be divine.But whatever he wears on his semi-naked body is worth thousands.There is a Hindu Baniya market and there is a market outside that fold.Selling and buying cattle and beef is non-Hindu, selling and buying sheep and mutton is non-Hindu, selling and buying toddy is non-Hindu and finally selling and buying leather related articles is non-Hindu. These markets operate outside the principle of divinity-they are secular markets. To some extent this analysis is true but in the twenty First century these boundary lines seem to be getting blurred.

The comparison of man –woman relationship in a Hindu and a Dalit Bahujan household also draws some attention. Though it is true that patriarchy is not so strong in Dalit Bahujan communities ,to say that the love relationship is determined only by natural instincts of sex and no other consideration ,is rather unconvincing. Kancha Ilaiah says:

Yet another big difference between the family life of the Hindus and Dalitbahujan castes is that the Hindus make sex a leisure-bound divine activity whereas among Dalit Bahujans ,family life is a part of production.(WINH,33)

In the afterward published in 2005 edition he has talked of the reactions that he has received through various media. He feels tormented at the way Hindu-fascists have threatened him with all types of vulgar and abusive language. The arguments put forward by him have been challenged by well known historians like Romilla Thapar as unhistorical. The book “Why I am not a Hindu” is a passionate out pouring of a Dalit writer and activist. It does put forward a new viewpoint but there are some portions of the book which require more rational treatment. The Hindu fascists cannot be replied in the tongue they are used to speak. It would be improper to rise a passionate and unreasoned approach even to set right the wrong done to the Dalit Bahujan by the ruling Hindu castes for centuries.

Works Cited

Hutton, J.H. Caste in India. New Delhi. OUP 1946 rep 1980.

Ilaiah, Kancha. Why I am not A Hind: A Sudra critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy, Calcutta: Samya, 1986 rep 2005.

Singh, A.K. Indian English Literature: Marginalized Voices, New Delhi: Creative Books, 2003.

Yadav, K.S., Amod Rai and Jyoti Yadav. Dalit Literature: Challenges and Potentialities, New Delhi: Creative Books, 2009.


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