Understanding the paradoxes of Hinduism and Hindutva

Depiction of sexual motifs was never a taboo among ancient Hindus as the presence of erotic sculptures at Khajuraho and Konark testify

An erotic sculpture carved on the outside wall of a temple in Khajuraho, MP; (right) Hindutva activists erect a Bhagwa flag atop a mosque in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur on Ram Navami day
An erotic sculpture carved on the outside wall of a temple in Khajuraho, MP; (right) Hindutva activists erect a Bhagwa flag atop a mosque in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur on Ram Navami day
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Arun Sharma

The rise of the aggressive and at times violent manifestation of Hinduism that we witness today does not reflect its inherent spirit. The display of overt religiosity marked by dancing with swords and waving saffron flags in front of mosques, was never a part of the Hindu religion.

Hinduism has always been diverse, tolerant and free besides being enigmatic. It allowed its adherents to accept and assimilate many streams of thought, some contradictory to each other. Hinduism is not a revealed religion as Christianity and Islam are.

There is no particular Holy Book or for that matter, any book to which a Hindu is mandated to owe his allegiance. There is no unified religious authority or brotherhood like the Church or the Ummah among Hindus. As there is no institutional authority in Hinduism, there is no designated titular Head either, like the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope or the Grand Mufti.

A child born to Hindu parents is not required to be initiated into the Hindu religion as children born to Christians, Muslims, Jews and even Sikh children are through rituals or pronouncements known as Baptism, Shahada, Bat mitzvah and Amrit Samskara respectively. Therefore, while Mohan Bhagwat says, ‘Sab Hindu hain’ (they are all Hindus), it would be logical to argue that none of them is in fact a Hindu.

In the 70-odd years of my life, I have rarely prayed or visited a temple on my own, except on a few occasions to accompany my wife, who is a devout Hindu, but fortunately without any streak of Hindutva in her. No one ever upbraided me for this lack of religiosity. Religion for Hindus has always been an individual preoccupation rather than a social phenomenon. The ancient rishis meditated all by themselves sitting in a cave or a jungle beyond human habitation. Social celebration of festivals became popular only after Bal Gangadhar Tilak started the Ganesh festival celebration at public level in Pune in 1893.

The name Sanatana Dharma is also of recent origin coined to counter the claim that the word Hindu from which the name Hinduism is derived is of Arabic origin. While there were the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Puranas and the two Epics, Hinduism as a unified body of thought had not been visualised. Hence, nearly all the authors who composed sacred texts of Hindus are nameless. They did not give their names to the works they composed. This can be interpreted as absence of any ego in them or of any desire on their part to leave their legacy behind for posterity. It can also be seen as indifference to the world.

A Hindu’s concern has been with the other world, the ultimate aim of a Hindu being the attainment of Moksha, that is freeing oneself from the cycle of birth and death. As organised religion, including a temple is part of this world, Hindus did not have much interest in the social expressions of religion.

Temple-going was not a popular habit nearly 50 years ago. In the village where I spent my childhood, hardly anyone visited the temple. My elder cousin, who has lived near the Siddhivinayak temple in Mumbai told me that not many devotees visited the famous temple in the 1960s and that the devotees could go into the sanctum sanctorum without waiting in a queue and actually sit there for some time.

Western thinkers have been often puzzled by certain concepts of Hinduism. VS Naipaul saw a paradox in the worship of the Shivling. “Between the worship of the phallus and the concept of the world as illusion, there was no link,” he wrote in ‘Area of Darkness’.


In the 19th century, Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman were attracted to the Vedanta philosophy but a majority of Westerners, having grown up on the teachings of the Gospels, found Krishna’s advice to prince Arjuna to fight against his cousins unpalatable.

Hinduism has also been devoid of Western prudery. The depiction of sexual motifs was never a taboo among ancient Hindus as the presence of erotic sculptures at Khajuraho and Konark testify. In the Brahmavai-varta Purana, dalliance of Radha and Krishna has been rendered in explicitly sensual shlokas. The following shlokas describe the beauty of Radha:

..At the same time, a girl emerged out of the left side/ Of Lord Krishna. She rushed at once and brought flowers/ And started offering them at every step of the Lord.

O best of sage, she was given the name of Radha…./ She was youthful and of sixteen years of age.

She was clad in the garment of the colour of gold / She was beautiful and youthful with smile on her face.

She had extremely tender limbs. She was the best/ Of all beauties. She had developed breasts and pelvis/ Her face was the flower and her lips were red… (Brahmavaivart Purana, BrahmaKhanda, Chapter 5, shlokas, 28-32)

If you wrote something like this about the Consort of Krishna today, you might be hauled up before the court of law for hurting the sentiments of Hindus. Hindus, however, have had no qualms in coining idioms using names of Hindu gods in a pejorative sense, like ‘Gobar Ganesh’, used for a gullible person, ‘Mitti ka Madho’, again used for a simpleton

Names of Hindu gods have been also used in cheap Bollywood numbers in total disregard of their exalted place in the Hindu Pantheon. For example, ‘Jai Jai Shiv Shankar, kanta lage na kankar… ke pyala tere nam ka piya’ in a Rajesh Khanna hit and ‘Ganpati Bappa Morya, pareshan kare mujhe chhoriyan’ in a recent Varun Dhawan movie.

UP Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath used the solemn phrase ‘Ram naam satya hai’ with utter profanity to threaten Muslim men against allegedly ‘luring’ Hindu girls, saying, ‘Agar nahin sudhare, to samajho ram naam satya hai ki yatra nikalane wali hai’, meaning, they should be ready for their funeral processions.

This liberal, inclusive and pluralistic Hinduism is anathema to the Hindutva groups, unsuitable as it is to their political agenda. This has made them reinvent this great religion into an aggressive and militaristic entity. Unfortunately, in doing so, those who swear by Hinduism have brought it to the streets.

It is a pity that they are also using the sacred names of Hindu gods in political meetings and mockingly chanting Jai Shree Ram while walking to the podium in Parliament to take oath. One may recall that when Dr Manmohan Singh deplored the using of Lord Ram’s name for a political war cry, Modi had mockingly retorted, ‘Ab inko Ram ke naam se bhi takleef hai’.

(The writer is an independent commentator. Views are personal)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

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