Dev­dutt Pat­tanaik

Hin­duism thrives on di­ver­sity, tran­scends the equal­ity of Abra­hamic faiths or the monothe­ism of Hindutva


HHINDUS ARE AT ODDS with the world in terms of its un­der­ly­ing mythic struc­ture. By con­trast, Hindutva is very much aligned to the dom­i­nant global dis­course. We re­alise this if we med­i­tate on two myths: the myth of equal­ity and the myth of the wound.

Myth here does not mean fan­tasy, a 19th cen­tury mis­un­der­stand­ing that con­tin­ues among those who pre­fer bi­nary thought and can­not han­dle nu­ance. It means the sub­jec­tive truth of a com­mu­nity shaped by in­her­ited sto­ries, sym­bols and rit­u­als.

Myth of Equal­ity

In na­ture, there is di­ver­sity. There is also equal­ity in the sense that no crea­ture is na­ture’s favourite. Ev­ery liv­ing or­gan­ism has to fight for its sur­vival us­ing its strengths and over­com­ing its weak­nesses to find op­por­tu­ni­ties and fend off threats. The cul­tural idea of equal­ity is very dif­fer­ent: it is the myth that shapes the Abra­hamic faiths.

The God of Abra­hamic faiths loves all his fol­low­ers equally; he is a jeal­ous god who does not tol­er­ate other gods. There is no one high or low in god’s eyes. In his world, any at­tempt to high­light dif­fer­ence, hence unique­ness, is viewed as van­ity and chau­vin­ism. No one is bet­ter as god has no favourites. Hi­er­ar­chy in god’s world is the work of the devil. This is why Abra­hamic faiths seek uni­for­mity in be­lief and prac­tice and are highly in­tol­er­ant of de­vi­a­tions, con­stantly yearn­ing for the ho­mo­gene­ity of a sin­gle truth.

Hin­duism is very dif­fer­ent. It thrives on di­ver­sity. Ev­ery com­mu­nity is seen as unique, with its own gods, its own vo­ca­tion and its own be­liefs and prac­tices. As be­tween trees and an­i­mals in the for­est, there is ten­sion be­tween com­mu­ni­ties as they com­pete for re­sources, re­sult­ing in fluid hi­er­ar­chy. Some com­mu­ni­ties, hence some gods, be­come more im­por­tant than oth­ers, but not for­ever. There is al­ways some­one cen­tre stage, some­one at the pe­riph­ery, but it is dy­namic. Di­ver­sity breeds hi­er­ar­chy, but when it be­comes stag­nant, it in­sti­tu­tion­alises in­equal­ity. So it is that Hin­duism is full of di­verse com­mu­ni­ties, with thou­sands of jatis vy­ing for power, that ev­ery­one tries to force-fit into a the­o­ret­i­cal Vedic four-fold varna sys­tem. Equal­ity here comes from the doc­trine of atma, or soul, which is res­i­dent (dehi) within the body (deha), which in turn is es­tab­lished in a dy­namic di­verse so­ci­ety.


Con­tem­po­rary hu­man­is­tic doc­trine of the global vil­lage, with its doc­trine of hu­man rights, is de­rived from Abra­hamic faiths, ex­cept that god is re­placed by state, and faith is re­placed by pa­tri­o­tism. A good con­sti­tu­tion is a set of com­mand­ments that looks at all cit­i­zens equally and grants them equal rights and equal ac­cess to re­sources. This doc­trine of equal rights does not know how to deal with di­ver­sity: hence the cur­rent global cri­sis. For how does a state that grants equal­ity to all its cit­i­zens ac­com­mo­date re­li­gions whose god does not al­low them to treat women as equal to men, or whose cul­ture has never treated ho­mo­sex­u­als on par with het­ero­sex­u­als? How does such a state ac­com­mo­date tribes that will not let their women marry out­side the tribe, or men change their faith? How does such a state ac­com­mo­date castes that de­clare other castes as im­pure and un­wor­thy of hu­man dig­nity?

‘The Idea of India’ was de­signed around the doc­trine of equal­ity. While India has long strug­gled with its di­ver­sity, de­vel­oped na­tions are only now fac­ing the chal­lenge as they face an in­flux of im­mi­grants, a slow­ing econ­omy and wide­spread dis­com­fort with the ho­mo­gene­ity her­alded by the doc­trine of equal rights and so­cial jus­tice. It is but nat­u­ral that the Idea of India, as well as most na­tion states, pop­u­lated by fol­low­ers of Abra­hamic faiths, will be at odds with Hin­duism’s al­leged com­fort with caste, di­ver­sity and hi­er­ar­chy.

Myth of the Wound

In the be­gin­ning, the world was per­fect. Then came the wound. Fol­lowed by the heal­ing. This is the dom­i­nant myth of Abra­hamic faiths. The per­fect world is Eden. Dis­obe­di­ence of god’s law re­sults in a rup­ture of hu­man­ity’s re­la­tion­ship with him, hence the wound. Prophets help hu­man­ity heal the wound. In a more dra­matic retelling, hu­mans are not held re­spon­si­ble for dis­obey­ing god. They are vic­tims, en­chanted by the devil. The prophet then trans­forms into the saviour, who fights the devil-dragon, like a knight in shin­ing ar­mour, and res­cues hu­man­ity, the damsel in dis­tress.

This myth of the wound, and the re­sult­ing saviour com­plex de­ter­mines much of the mod­ern global dis­course. Ex­ile and Holo­caust are the wound of Ju­daism. Death of Ali is the wound of Shia Is­lam. The end of the Caliphate is the wound of ji­hadi Is­lamism. Caste is the wound of Dalit ac­tivism. Pa­tri­archy is the wound of fem­i­nism. Poverty is the wound of Com­mu­nism, and Cap­i­tal­ism. ‘Cen­tury of hu­mil­i­a­tion’ is the wound of China. All these world­views are pro­pelled by the no­tion of loss, in­jus­tice and a de­ter­mi­na­tion to re­mem­ber. They see for­get­ful­ness as the great­est tragedy, as do many 20th cen­tury in­tel­lec­tu­als who there­fore feel it is the duty of writ­ers and po­ets and artists to en­sure we ‘never for­get’ the many tragedies of the world so that we are morally


com­pelled to­wards so­cial jus­tice like the en­slaved tribes fol­low­ing the mes­siah to­wards the free­dom and dig­nity of­fered by the bib­li­cal Promised Land.

Hindutva is all about a wound. It will ‘never for­get’ the hu­mil­i­a­tion of the Hin­dus and the break­down of Indic civil­i­sa­tion, that be­gan a thou­sand years of ‘slav­ery’, at the hands of in­vaders, first the Mus­lims, then Chris­tian mis­sion­ar­ies and fi­nally the Bri­tish. Mod­ern aca­demi­cians, the in­tel­lec­tual elite of India, will re­ject this nar­ra­tive as fas­cist pro­pa­ganda, but that is true of all ‘wounds’. Ev­ery politi­cian knows that a cul­ture’s ob­ses­sive, strate­gic and ma­nip­u­la­tive at­tach­ment to an event suc­cess­fully drives so­cial be­hav­iour, ra­tio­nal­ity notwith­stand­ing.

This wound-based mythic struc­ture is to­tally at odds with Hin­duism where Shiva is smara-an­taka, the de­stroyer of mem­o­ries. He who seeks mukti, lib­er­a­tion from the cy­cle of re­births; he who seeks sad-chitta-ananda, the fet­ter­less tran­quil­ity of wis­dom, needs to learn to ‘let go’.

Misun­der­stood Hindu

A Hindu is ex­posed to two con­tra­dic­tory ideas from child­hood. First is the myth of tyaga, or let­ting go of all wounds, that are viewed es­sen­tially as delu­sions (maya). Sec­ond is the myth of jati, or di­verse caste iden­ti­ties, whereby he is bound to obli­ga­tions, be­liefs, prac­tices as well as re­sources and priv­i­leges of his caste, and si­mul­ta­ne­ously made aware of the dif­fer­ences of obli­ga­tions, be­liefs, prac­tices, re­sources and priv­i­leges of oth­ers castes. The myth of tyaga says that one must not be at­tached to any­thing, be it one’s so­cial sta­tus, or to one’s de­sires, and so love all crea­tures equally, if one seeks lib­er­a­tion (mukti). The myth of jati ei­ther makes him the op­pres­sor or the op­pressed in the caste hi­er­ar­chy of India.

WHILE THE HINDU STRUG­GLES with these two con­tra­dic­tory ideas, he also has to cope with be­ing misun­der­stood by the Western aca­demic, the Western­ised In­dian, and the Hin­dut­vavadi.

The Western aca­demic will in­sist that the doc­trine of tyaga is Hindu pro­pa­ganda at best, which seeks to ob­scure the ‘re­al­ity’ of caste op­pres­sion. The Western­ised In­dian will in­sist that true Hin­duism is all about tyaga, and that caste is a later-day cor­rup­tion that needs to be purged through re­form move­ments in­clud­ing ‘The Idea of India’ with its reser­va­tion poli­cies and its sec­u­lar value sys­tem. Both de­cide how a Hindu thinks or should be­have. He will be boxed as ‘savarna’ if he speaks in favour of tyaga, and shows any com­fort with his caste iden­tity. If he is ‘low’ caste, he is ex­pected to re­ject his caste, iden­tify him­self as ‘dalit’, a po­lit­i­cal ne­ol­o­gism, and he must never ever be heard re­fer­ring to

Brah­mini­cal con­cepts such as tyaga, atma, or maya.

Ad­di­tion­ally, adding to the mythic dis­so­nance, the ‘wounded’ Hin­dut­vavadi will also deny the fem­i­nine na­ture of Hin­duism, fur­ther con­found­ing the Hindu.

Hindutva is monothe­is­tic in spirit, as it prefers to fo­cus on one de­ity, Bharat Mata, the em­bod­i­ment of the na­tion-state. Like all wives and moth­ers, she is chaste. But while we are aware of her chil­dren, the peo­ple of this land, we don’t know who her hus­band is. This seems odd as mother god­desses of the Hindu pan­theon such as Saraswati, Lak­shmi and Durga have colour­ful and volatile re­la­tion­ships with their consorts, be it Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva. Hindutva posters show Kr­ishna with­out Radha, Ram with­out Sita, and Shiva with­out Par­vati. Their dis­courses val­orise celibacy of saf­fron-robed lead­ers such as the Shankarach­arya, who they claim es­tab­lished the or­der of mar­tial Na­gas over a thou­sand years ago to pro­tect the docile sad­hus of India from for­eign in­vaders, a claim that jus­ti­fies the ex­is­tence of Hindutva goons or ‘fringe groups’ as they are called. They will, how­ever, ig­nore the leg­end where the same Shankara, on the ad­vice of Man­dana Mishra’s wife, Ub­haya Bharati, ex­pe­ri­enced sex through the body of King Amaru us­ing his oc­cult pow­ers.

Hindutva re­jec­tion of the fem­i­nine, and of sen­su­al­ity, res­onates with Abra­hamic myths where God is avowedly mas­cu­line, where his mes­sen­gers are men, and where his son is con­ceived in a ‘vir­gin’ woman with­out sex, and where plea­sure is re­served only for the after­life, for those who live in their lives deny­ing them­selves plea­sure. As in Abra­hamic faiths, de­vo­tion in Hindutva is about obe­di­ence, dis­ci­pline and sub­mis­sion to an in­sti­tu­tion (RSS, VHP, BJP) and noth­ing to do with love (shringara), or af­fec­tion (mad­hurya) with the other (para-jiva) in the quest for the almighty (param-atma), which are hall­marks of Hindu bhakti. As the Hin­dut­vavadis rave and rant against Valen­tine’s Day, pub­lic dis­plays of af­fec­tion, fe­male agency and em­pow­er­ment, and Hin­duism’s erotic (kama) cul­ture in gen­eral, one re­alises that like all overzeal­ous saviours, they risk de­stroy­ing the very thing they seek to save.

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