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POLITICS OF THE SACRED

- The BJP’s contribution to the reshaping of Hinduism

Indians love premature celebrations almost as much as they seem to like disappointment. Any world cup final in cricket in which India has been a contender will suffice as a case study: the victorious dances the moment the match begins, and, then, when it is lost, the familiar, subdued return to reality to which, too, Indians are addicted. Right now, as the Indian elections progress towards their finale, there’s a mood of celebration among the supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party, though results are still some way from being declared. The market decided some time ago that India will have a BJP government in a month’s time, and has, since then, stabilized, and is on an upswing.

For those who aren’t, for any number of reasons, looking forward to the BJP’s purported reign, it’s a time for nervousness. Muslims are understandably nervous. Those who’ve lived, like me, through a term of a BJP government (1998-2004) know that Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate, revered and reviled in almost equal measure, is only part of the problem: the larger problem is the BJP itself, and its disciplinarian, quasi-militant, extreme right-wing outfit, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The riots in Modi’s Gujarat that killed, at unofficial estimates, two thousand Muslims took place in that period; the BJP minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, proposed that astrology should be studied at university. Both these were expressions of the party’s robust, masculine Hinduism. You can never be certain what might be on the agenda with an entrenched BJP.

The endlessly repeated critiques of Modi don’t seem to have made the slightest difference. An observation a couple of months from a Muslim activist, Tanweer Alam, in the Times of India, is, however, worth noting for its directness: “[T]here is a misunderstanding among some people, mainly Muslims, that [the] preservation of secularism is the exclusive responsibility of Muslims. This certainly is not the case. India is secular not because Muslims want it to be so, but because this country has evolved over millennia in a way that religion and its practice have been left out of the domain of the state. This is reflected in India’s Constitution. It is relevant to note that Europe did not become secular to accommodate Jews, Muslims or Buddhists, but to protect people from sectarian strife within Christianity. US secularism has similar origins. India too is secular because of Hindus, not Muslims, Sikhs, Christians or Parsis.”

This is an important thought. But if Hinduism, rather than what Indians call ‘secularism’, is to be the dominant paradigm for Indians in the near future, it’s worth reflecting on what it means to politics today. Given it was never an organized religion, and even its name has a Persian, rather than an indigenous, provenance, Hinduism is hard to pin down. Its fluidity encompasses the caste system, mythology, and austere philosophical positions including atheism. Even texts that are now associated with Brahminical Hinduism, such as the Bhagavad Gita, are subtly anti- Brahminical, full of admonitions about the uselessness of the Vedas — probably a consequence of the influence on them of Buddhism. It was also part of the immensely sophisticated cultural make-up of a certain kind of Hindu to treat the stories central to Hindu belief — such as, say, the birth of Lord Rama — as both sacred event and metaphor. This was one of the characteristics of this faith that made it open up to secularism. The process through which that opening up and radical transformation took place is too complex to attend to here. But to reduce it by saying that within Indian secularism lurks a brahminical world-view glosses over the complexity of the impulses that led to that transformation, as well as the ways in which sacred ‘Hindu’ resources, from the late 19th century onwards, became available to the imaginations of modern writers and artists, whatever their ethnicity; equally to, say, Tagore and to Qurratulain Hyder, who both made personal, idiosyncratically secular use of these resources.

The BJP’s contribution to the reshaping of Hinduism has been twofold. Firstly, by turning metaphorical moments like the birth of Lord Rama into historic events to be signposted and fought over, it has, as commentators like Ashis Nandy have observed, turned Hinduism into a literal-minded, Europeanized, Semitic faith. By taking away from Hinduism its complexity and contradictoriness, both the BJP and the free-market ‘new India’ in which its politics has flourished have produced a generation that, whether it’s vociferously Hindu or secular, knows very little about Hinduism. Second, the political, instrumental use of Hinduism to defend and assert identity while assailing other identities, and a general ignorance of religious experience on part of the most active religionists, means that we not only live in an age when to be Hindu is to constantly take offence, but also when the lines separating obeisance from offence, the holy from the disgusting, religious pride from poor taste, are blurred. A generation of new Indians is being schooled to defend the sacred, but has absolutely no idea how to recognize it.

Let me provide an example. For convenience’s sake, I’ll call the objects I have in mind ‘prophylactic Hindu tiles’. They’ve been proliferating in India in the last two decades. You see them on walls, sides of urinals, and on building staircases. They have on them a Hindu god — Shiva, Parvati, Ganesh — painted in the European style that’s a stock of kitsch Hindu iconography. Their function is to repulse urinating and spitting on public surfaces: both compulsive national masculine pastimes. The argument they embody — never actually inscribed in either an ancient scripture or even a municipal text — is that no one would dare urinate or spit betel juice on a god. I can think of few more tasteless uses of the sacred, but the bizarre interpretations of religion in contemporary India means that hardly anybody thinks the tile an outrage. In its unintended strangeness, it’s both akin to and the very opposite of Marcel Duchamp’s ‘found object’. Duchamp placed a urinal in an art-gallery in 1917, naming it Fountain, and turning it into an art-object. In doing so, he not only inaugurated the artistic avant garde, but created an aesthetic and political scandal, in that he was provoking his audience to re-imagine how and why things have cultural sanction. The prophylactic tile, too, performs a political role, if ‘political’ means the instrumental use of religion in the ‘new India’. Here, the sacred is not meant to cause wonder, but impose order and obedience, and curb the visceral urges.

If the tile, in its farcical solemnity, represents the cultural and social uses of Hinduism in present-day India, what of the astonishing creative legacy of Hinduism in modernity? Its demise is hardly remarked on since Hinduism was appropriated by the BJP’s Hindutva. One of the last artistic products of that legacy were the ‘nude’ Hindu goddesses painted by M.F. Hussain, for which he was banished from the country. Why, and in what context, did he choose such a theme? If modern Hindus wanted secularism primarily for themselves, it’s worth noting that they also chose Hinduism to be largely unprotected, a free and common cultural resource for everybody: atheist, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Sikh, Parsi, and Hindu. When Hussain, a Muslim, worked on those pictures, he believed we still lived in that world, of a relatively unfenced Hinduism. It’s become clear in the past decade that we don’t, and pretty evident — even if the BJP loses — that we won’t be any time soon.