How long can a people go on believing themselves to be and calling themselves Hindus and yet knot know what it means and takes to be Hindus? Well into the digital epoch of cyber-revelry and global consumerist chummery, perhaps. However, it is still not too late to take up the Hindu amnesia about its own origin, history, role and flight. For this loss of self-awareness, paradoxically, Hinduism itself is often held responsible, giving rise to the theory which sums up its present scattered state, that there are as many Hinduisms as there are Hindus. But this obfuscation arises when Hinduism is classified in every conceivable way except as what it ultimately is: The Eternal Religion.
How this fact has eluded common grasp must be understood since in the process what may come to light are the shortcomings with the Hindus themselves, as with Hinduism's famous lack of locus. Hinduism addresses a large socio-spiritual canvass, larger and more pervasive than any other religious tradition, a fact which explains why, unlike other religions, it resists a definition. There exists in Hinduism no benchmark such as, say, in Christianity and Islam. Therefore, the common perception of Hinduism as a nebulous, transcendental ethos, with a tenuous hold over the people it purports to govern, both temporally and spiritually, is an unavoidable conclusion.
Lack of a discernible locus and an eclectic ethos have no doubt crowned Hinduism with a clear universalism. But Hinduism through history has often found itself at the receiving end of its own universalism: There is a constant struggle between its polity - only an unselfconscious fraction of which is in practice - and universal spiritual yearning, which in turn has made it rarefied, opaque and unreal to all excepting a few. For its such originality, Hinduism is unjustly berated: How good is a religion which has made itself impossible to be understood? Are we, then, faced with a situation where we have to find ways to increase Hinduism's intelligibility?
Now, consider for a while these questions. What can lend coherence to Hinduism's diversity. What possibly can unite the ideational with the apparent and the real, making Hinduism what it has been - the consummate achievement that mankind will be looking to again and again. However, the recognition implicit in these questions, together with the recognition of gnostic excellence of the Vedas and Vedantas, does not in any significant way take care of the gap between Hinduism's ambition and promise on the one hand, and its wispy, impaired adherence with the Hindu on the other. The gap stares us in the face and asks, Which is "that" Hinduism?
This but means that Hinduism, both as a set of tenets and religion, is in an emergent need of reclamation. For the meaning of Hinduism to be grasped and its implications to be lived, it has to resurge from the sodden lifestyles and carcass of erroneous mindsets that it has become. Hinduism's disuse, just as its age and universalism, has become a reason behind its stasis and wane. A Hindu today is no better than a welter of odd atavistic drives ad clutter of thought habits which do zilch to represent his religion's lofty yet attainable conception of life. He has taken it for granted that he remains a Hindu no matter to what dwindling degree what he practices what he himself and other non-adherents uncomprehendingly call a way of life. Because of the non practicing Hindu, the individual is scrimpy and the religion devoid of the vital energy it needs to thrive.
Who is a Hindu?
The irony is this ignorance exists while the effete Hindu sits atop a veritable mine of gold: How else is he to galvanise his destiny and improve the lot of his fellow beings if his religion is not practiced? All our teachers have emphasised this, all of us have deified them for this, and yet, all of use are, after our perfunctory salutations to them, guilty of banishing them to the corners. The tragedy of Hinduism is that after its masters have given the call for its renewal, the Hindus have slipped into civilisational entropy.
That Hinduism is facing the crisis of its existence may not be readily conceded. But another couple of decades from now and nobody will need to concede: It will be patent. The BJP, which never fails to harp on Hindutva, as it understands it, has done nothing for this erosion of awareness in Hindus about Hinduism. In fact, with its lack of focus about the religion whose cause it claims to be championing, the BJP has ended up giving it a colour that Hinduism has never had in its history. The BJP's approach to Hinduism has only heightened the ignorance about Hinduism. This is unfortunate because a party which is capable of taking up a host of issues of national relevance, instead of letting Hindu statesmanship rise, is indulging in a petty variant of "Centrist" politics.
Is it a wonder a Hindu does not know who he is today? Consider this for illumination. When a Hindu from Bangladesh was arrested for entering Canada posing as a Muslim, for political reasons, he revealed to the Canada immigration officials his true religion. On the refusal by the authorities to entertain his changed version from what was mentioned on the passport, and on being asked to provide proof, this Hindu gave a few. One, he got another Hindu to vouch that he was a Hindu. Two, he obtained a doctor's certificate to the effect that he had not undergone circumcision. Three, he got a temple priest in Montreal to confirm that he had attended temple services and received prasada. He was deported.
Professor Arvind Sharma, who has recounted this incident in his marvellous book, "Our Religions", says, "Each successive step reveals it is easier to recognise, identify, certify or observe who is a Hindu than to define one." Then he makes a crucial point: "Had this Hindu arrived from India rather than Bangladesh, he would have been readily identified as a Hindu, since 95 [per cent of Hindus live in India, over 80 per cent of whose population is Hindu. A person coming from India is presumed to be a Hindu just as a person coming from Israel is presumed to be a Jew. In other words, Hinduism is an ethnic religion.
An ethnic religion with a universal aim, that is. We come back to the point of conflict between the two situations that obtain with Hinduism. While its ethnicity prevents it from exposing to a wider acceptance its transcendental yearning, Hinduism's universality transcends the nation's own physical, racial, and religious boundary. Then how can this religion be defined? It can be defined only if the Hindus do two things. One, they take up practising Hinduism: and two, they try and restrict Hinduism's ambit within its ethnicity; the factor that differentiates it from other religions. What this means is from extending the "all-included" Hindu embrace to other religionists, a gesture which renders it diffused, it must concentrate its efforts for a "universal" attainment within its own ethnic diversity.
A lamentable fact in today's India is any scholastic point on Hinduism is quickly misunderstood as a political point. Unless this mindset is replaced with a spirit of free debate, true Hinduism will not flourish. This is imperative because otherwise the Eternal Religion stands to lose its race against time.
COMMENT by Shri Ashok Chowgule
This article reflects a typical move in the media/intellectuals in their continuing campaign to denigrate Hindutva and Hinduism. They keep saying that the approach of the RSS towards Hinduism does not bring out the sublimity. This line of attack has started after the Supreme Court judgement on Hindutva. However, what is not told is what is the sublime Hindutva/Hinduism, and who is propagating this version, if it is not the RSS. The 'progressives' have had nothing positive to offer to society. The present tirade is a continuation of their destructive programme. It would be a good exercise if we took up the challenge thrown by the author.