Friday, July 24, 2015


Of Neo-Hinduism and Hindutva

Dr. Shrinivas Tilak

In Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History (2010), American Indologist and student of Hinduism Andrew Nicholson collects and presents evidence in order to argue that there was no single understanding of what it meant to be a Hindu in medieval India. Hindu unity was not a structure created in the late medieval period that has existed unchanged from that point to the present day. Unifying Hinduism, for Nicholson, is a process, not an entity. Indian intellectuals have been engaged in this process for at least seven hundred years (Nicholson 2010: 201-202). As part of this quest Nicholson discusses two key Hinduism-related terms that figure frequently in any Western scholarly discussion of Hinduism in modern times: Neo-Hinduism and Hindutva.

Nicholson’s approach reminded me of the ‘Good Cop’ as well as ‘Bad Cop’ role that Rajiv Malhotra has discussed at length in various fora (see below). As a rhetorical technique, the expression ‘Good Cop Bad Cop’ refers, in the American context, to the joint effort to gain compliance from a community over an issue that may be unpalatable at first glance. The Bad Cop, who may be a politician or an academic, first may make statements regarding an issue that are deemed to be unpopular. The Good Cop then poses a moderate offering a compromising solution that seems preferable in comparison. When engaging with a reader, an academic might similarly use the statements of another academic with an opposite view to inflame a reader prior to proposing a more modest verdict.

In the traditional context of India, the Arthaśāstra of Kauţilya (1992) discusses four ways of dealing with the other (1:13.22-25):

Sāma: the process of attracting and converting others to your side with sweet words and friendly demeanor,
Dāma: the process of giving gifts (or bribes) to impress others and render them off-guard,
Bheda: the principle of dividing the opponents among themselves, creating divisiveness,
Daņḑa: the principle of punishment or attack in order to ‘persuade’ the other to accept your line of argument.

Malhotra aligns the first two provisions of Kauţilya with the Good Cop and the last two with the Bad Cop in the American context.

It appears that Nicholson employs a modified form of the ‘Good Cop Bad Cop’ rhetoric in order to ‘persuade’ his potential Hindu readers to accept his own explanation and understanding of Hinduism. He also promises to be with them in their desire to recognize and present a unified form of Hinduism. So far so good. But like most modern scholars of Hinduism, Nicholson is also committed to the protection of the version of Hinduism they have generated from ‘Hindu communalists’ like V. D. Savarkar who coined the concept of Hindutva discussing it in a short monograph bearing the same title (Savarkar 1923).

To dissuade his Hindu readers from the lure of Hindutva Nicholson undertakes analysis of Neo-Hinduism rejecting some of its tenets while endorsing the universalizing dimension associated with Neo-Vedanta and its modern exponents like Swami Vivekananda and S. Radhakrishnan (former president of India) (Nicholson 2010: 204).

Playing a Good Cop Nicholson’s immediate concern is to appeal to his potential Hindu readers and draw them into his camp (use of sāma). He points out to his readers that Paul Hacker (1913-1979), a scholar of Vedanta and apologist for Roman Catholicism, coined the problematic term Neo-Hinduism to distinguish thinkers such as Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, S. Radhakrishnan, and Mahatma Gandhi from surviving traditional Hinduism. Hacker clearly disliked Neo-Hinduism describing it as ‘stillborn’ and as having lost all continuity with earlier forms of Hinduism (Nicholson 2010: 187-188; End note #16).
In thus depicting Hindus by default Hacker used, Nicholson argues, the familiar ideas from European scholars centuries ago that opposed traditional Hinduism with Neo-Hinduism.  The first betrayed the authentic mindset of pre-modern Hindus, the second the Westernized consciousness of modern ersatz Hindus. Nicholson finds both of Hacker’s assumptions problematic: (1) that there was a single traditional way of being Indian or Hindu, and (2) that, due to the shock of colonialism, the traditional way of being is no longer available to Westernized Indians (Nicholson 2010: 19-20; End note # 49).).

A Hindu reader might find solace in Nicholson’s conclusion that Hacker’s label of ‘Neo-Hinduism’ is doubly misleading if as Hacker insists, Hinduism is an invention of modern scholars without any pre-modern equivalent. While ‘Neo-Vedanta’ may be useful to call attention to important differences between modern Vedanta thinkers such as Vivekananda and Radhakrishnan and their pre-modern precursors, ‘Neo-Hindu’ serves as little more than a pejorative (Nicholson 2010: 187-188)(use of sāma).


While Nicholson’s discussion of Neo-Hinduism is substantial and circumspective, he refers to the term Hindutva only twice and that too in a cursory manner: While partly accepting David Lorenzen’s claim that Hinduism was invented or constructed by European colonizers, mostly British, sometime after 1800 is false, Nicholson reminds us that Hindutva is modern neologism (Nicholson 2010: 198, # 67). He next faults the founder of the Hindutva ideology V. D. Savarkar for arguing that Jainas, Buddhists, and Sikhs are Hindus, insofar as their religions are native to India (Nicholson 2010: 204, 235 end note # 15, 237 end note # 67)(use of bheda to alienate Hindus from other Indians).

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines neologism as (1) a new word, usage, or expression and (2)
a new word that is coined especially by a person affected with schizophrenia and is meaningless except to the coiner. In declaring Hindutva to be mere modern neologism Nicholson, the Bad Cop, (1) presumes that new words cannot be coined in a language from the past such as Sanskrit  and/or (2) because the term Hindutva was coined by an ideologue--Savarkar, it has no value except to the coiner and to those in his circle.

Nicholson’s dislike of Savarkar originates in his apprehension that (1) the thesis of Unifying Hinduism might be taken out of context to support a Hindu communalist political agenda and (2) evidence of the presence of a Hindu self-identity or a unified Hindu theological voice in the medieval period such as he has demonstrated in his book can be co-opted by Hindu communalist political actors of today (Nicholson 2010: 201).

Nicholson therefore suspects that a part of the motivation of Heinrich von Stietencron (1995) and others to assert that Hindu identity is purely a nineteenth-century colonial construction is to weaken what Nicholson calls ‘Hindu communalism.’ For if ‘Hinduism’ is demonstrated to be merely an artificial construction that outsiders imposed on Indians in the nineteenth century, simplistic historical narratives of medieval Hindu unity (such as propounded by Savarkar and others) in the face of Muslim oppression would be proved false (Nicholson 2010: 201).

Since I have discussed at length the question of what Hindutva meant to Savarkar and to his followers elsewhere (see Tilak 2013), let me briefly outline here what Hindutva may mean to a typical Hindu who is deeply attached and committed to his/her Dharma.

Translated as Hinduness Hindutva refers to a cluster of values whose kinship is based on the distinctive characteristic of being Hindu. ‘Hinduness’ accordingly connotes a particular orientation in the world or a specific way of being. As per Sanskrit grammar a word such as Hindutva may be formed by the application of a rule in Pāņini’s Aşţādhyāyī concerning the [taddhita] suffix –tva (5:1.119). Pāņini rules that the abstract noun formed when tva is added to a nominal stem denotes a state or condition as identified by that nominal stem. The abstract noun thus formed denotes a particular property (see also Lipner 2005). 

Bhartŗihari in his Vairāgya śatakam uses the term vŗddhatva (literally ‘old-agedness’) of an aging person (see verse # 49). To speak of old-agedness here is to say that the aging person exists and lives in a certain way because he/she is characteristically affected by the biological process of aging. To speak of Hindutva is similarly to refer to a way of being, to an orientation or stance in the world as evidenced in the definition of the term Hindu as Hindus understand and acknowledge it. Hindutva of an average Hindu, accordingly, is reflected in everyday events of human life--when one is born and is given a name on the twelfth day, marries, undertakes a pilgrimage, starts a venture or enterprise, and is cremated at death.

In his role of the ‘Bad Cop’ Nicholson is concerned to warn Hindus of the dangers of following the narrow-minded nationalism of Savarkar as against the universalizing dimension of Hinduism that is discernible in the thought of S. Radhakrishnan and Swami Vivekananda (use of bheda).

The fact is Savarkar exhorts his fellow Hindus to strive for the universalizing dimension of being human once they have securely found their Hindu identity. I would therefore urge modern Hindus to read Savarkar’s Hindutva, which ends with the following sentence, in order to formulate their own opinion:

A Hindu is most intensely so, when he ceases to be Hindu; and with a Shankar claims the whole earth for a Benares 'Waranasi Medini !' or with a Tukaram exclaims 'my country! Oh brothers, 'the limits of the Universe — there the frontiers of my country lie!’


The Arthashastra / Kautilya. 1992. Edited, rearranged, translated, and introduced by L.N. Rangarajan. New Delhi: Penguin Books India.

Lipner, Julius J. 2005. Ancient Banyan: An Inquiry into the Meaning of “Hinduness.” In Defining Hinduism: A Reader, 30-49. London: Equinox.

Nicholson, Andrew J. 2010. Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Savarkar, V. D. 2003 [1923]. Hindutva. Delhi: Hindi Sahitya Sadan.

Stietencron, Heinrich von. 1995. "Religious Configurations in Pre-Muslim India and the Modern Concept of Hinduism.’’ In Representing Hinduism: The Construction of Religious Traditions and National Identity, edited by Vasudha Dalmia and Heinrich von Stietencron, 51~81. New Delhi: Sage.

Swami Madhavanada. The Vairagya-Śatakam or The Hundred Verses on Renunciation of Bhartŗhari, Calcultta: Advaita Ashram. 1976 7th ed. 

Tilak, Shrinivas. 2013 Vinayak niti: Veer Savarkar’s socio-political ethics

1 comment:

  1. R. Venkatanarayanan said:

    Dr Sreenivas Tilak has brought fresh insights in and better understanding of this petty-minded controversy contrived by Fox and Nicholson to discredit if not destroy the excellent work done by Rajiv Malhotra. How vicious Christian preachers and evangelists with respectable academic degrees can be!

    I also like much the Panini-based explanation Dr Tilak has given for the much maligned term "Hindutva". Leftists, pseudo-secularists and academics/intellectuals who do not lay much store with even genuine concerns or arguments of Hindus and Hindu scholars, use the term "Hindutva" to dismiss these concerns and arguments. This labelling technique provides a shield for not joining the debate on merit."