A short while ago, a very dear friend told me that he goes to temples. Taken aback is an understatement for what I felt in reaction to it. None of my close friends go to religious places of any sort and I had come to expect that as a norm for "rational" people.
The friend in question is no less rational himself — a very well-read, erudite and extremely ethical professional of long-form journalism, he has a great sense of humour and is as irreverent as anyone of us when it comes to ripping apart nonsensical doctrinal notions. And to think that he goes to spaces that are representative of oppressive and unequal beliefs to "experience peace" was difficult to digest. He said he overlooks the bare-chested priests in the temples who subscribe to the belief that women's breasts are obscene, and simply reclaims that space for his own spiritual needs. It did not sink in very well.
I remembered this exchange when a discussion regarding "reclaiming Hinduism from Hindutva" came up on Facebook in the light of the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh and other rationalists. Someone suggested that it is time that we tell the Hindutva organisations that "we" and not "they" represent our religion; that their grotesque majoritarian ideology is "not ours", and that they have no right to decide who or what should offend us.
Noble as the idea sounded, it was more rhetorical than cogent - the very strength of the fascist groups. I felt it was important that we break this idea down and reassemble it with a modern disposition and see how it works.
People who reject Hinduism do so as it is synonymous with "Brahminism" - a patriarchal doctrine of inequality that has oppressed and suppressed people historically through both, hegemony, and blatant violence. Many also argue that Hinduism as a religion is a contrived, colonial idea. We know how Hindusim, thanks to its incompatibility with the definition of "religion" based on an Abrahamic paradigm, had been difficult for western classification and therefore has been defined from the outside.
People who reject Hinduism do so as it is synonymous with Brahminism.
The idea that these extremely fractured, complicated and hierarchical jatis (castes) could even be counted under the umbrella of a single religion is very recent. And in spite of the vedic figures of Maitreyi and Gargi being the RSS favourites to counter arguments of gender inequality, we all know how women and the Dalits had it in the jati paddhati (caste system).
It is common knowledge that the Congress is largely to blame for abandoning the modernist project of rationalisation and development of the immediate post-independence euphoria to eventually pander to vote-bank populism, and turning secularism into a dirty word that helped strengthen the fascist forces.
Countering caste-based discrimination
But it looks like our vehement rejection of Hinduism owing to these reasons, rather than solve its problems, has allowed the breeding of divisive, violent, hate-mongering, and polarising forces. It has been easy for the privileged intellectual to dissociate herself from Hinduism owing to its chequered history but that has only made it easier for the RSS to convince the common man or woman on the street with its demagoguery. It is apparent that progressive positions that disavow Hinduism have not been successful in countering caste-based discrimination or the advancement of fascism.
Perhaps the way forward now is to exploit its amorphous quality and reinvent a space that rejects Brahmanism and retains the syncreticity of its pre-religious identity to reinvent a Hinduism that the fascists cannot hold sway over.
But how does one reclaim Hindusim when there is nothing completely benign to reach back to? Mahatma Gandhi, who had attempted a reformist movement, had sought the retention of the varnashram system while getting the upper castes to repent over their overt sins towards the lower castes and turn more compassionate. Such condescension is unacceptable, and wishing to retain such an inherent inequality is wrong today.
What we must do is reach back to the syncretism of the small towns that existed not too long ago before the Hindutva agenda began polarising people - where people ate in each other's homes, joined in each other's festivals, durgahs and temples were accessible and accessed by all; where Kabir and Shishunala Sharif and Shirdi Sai Baba came to be revered - and build upon people's inherent kindness and camaraderie to accept the idea of equality and create a space where women and Dalits are respected.
However, in a country where "scientists" insist upon Brahmin cooks to work in their kitchens, this is easier said than done. But that only shows how dismal our education system is - how inadequate and ill-equipped it is in creating free-thinking, critical and rational people.
Hence, reinventing Hinduism must begin with the overhaul of our education system.
Several of us, in spite of our lack of faith, continue to participate in "Hindu" cultural performances (even if just to please the elders - or to simply shut them up) without much resistance. Many of us carry names derived from the multitudinous pantheon of deities that we don't exactly revere.
On the other hand, being non-ritualistic or atheist or critical of our "religion", breaking food and conjugal taboos without fear of repercussions is also afforded by its very flexible nature. And that, I think, is its strength. We must build on it to create an egalitarian space; one that is the essence of secularism (not as rejection of religion but as tolerance of difference) and instate that as the true Hinduism.
It is easier for the privileged to take any theoretical or political position based on their understanding of social (in)justice - leftist/feminist/Marxist/liberal/Ambedkarite - and follow it in practice to any degree they choose, whereas identity politics is not a matter of choice for many who have experienced caste and gender violence closely.
But I wonder, thanks to the free space that the Indian Republic provides - even if in principle - if it is possible to forgive and move on. (Forgiveness to be considered only if there is tangible promise of equality, of course) We have two examples before us: Israel, the nation of victims that has turned into a violent state that victimises its neighbour, and Germany where the great-grandchildren of Nazi goons and those of the persecuted Jews can be friends even as they study their painful history together that their education system doesn't shy away from keeping alive. Perhaps we can learn a lesson or two from these instances.
It is only when we reinvent such a Hindusim - where no eyebrows are raised if one goes to temples or if a dalit woman is the priest there - before we reclaim it and say 'I am Hindu' with prudence rather than pride can the Hindutva project be rendered redundant.