The creeping rise of Hindu nationalism

A prerequisite of nationalism is to find a common definition that justifies the unity of the nation. Thus, Hindu nationalists in India had a very difficult time in this attempt to find a common denominator. Hence, in trying to define what that Hindu identity would be, they often became entangled in hair-raising contradictions.

In the relationship between Swami Vivekananda and his guru Sri Ramakrishna, an ideologization of spirituality can be observed, which finally led to the construction of a ‘Hindu’ identity. While Sri Ramakrishna was still lightheartedly and undogmatic in his mystical devotion. Swami Vivekananda was already working on a dogmatization and standardization of what he interpreted as the basis of the ‘Hindu’ religion. This process, which went hand in hand with the building of the nation, was increasingly instrumentalizing spirituality in order to create the basis for a new national consciousness.

How to create a state-‘religion’?

Needless to say, all ‘Hindu‘ nationalists naturally agreed that theirreligion‘ should be this common denominator. But the Hindu-Nationalists had at first to construct a ‘religion’ from the many beliefs and philosophies subsumed under the collective term ‘Hinduism‘.

The term Hinduism originated from the British colonial masters, who subsumed several, sometimes extremely contrary religions under it. This standardization of the term was subsequently of benefit to Indian nationalists, who redefined the so-called ‘Hindu traditions’ in the interest of national identity.1

‘Hinduism’: ‘mother’ of all religions?

Furthermore, they had to make clear that this new ‘national religion‘ was ‘superior‘ to all other creeds. Moreover, they could include them all within themselves. Monotheistic religions like Christianity and Islam had an easier time in this endeavor to transform their religions into state religions. The ‘masterminds’ of Hindu nationalism, therefore, sought to reduce the complexity of their ‘religion‘.

Swami Vivekananda was one of the first ‘prophets’ of this reformulated ‘national religion’. Hence, he took pride in comparing himself to the evangelist Paul. As he was distorting the philosophy of his guru Ramakrishna with his polemical politicization. Similar to the evangelists, who distorted the apolitical message of their spiritual teacher.

Vivekananda as evangelist?

The Indian historian Jyotirmaya Sharma shows in his essay ‘Cosmic Love And Human Apathy: Swami Vivekananda’s Restatement of Religion‘, how Vivekananda came to his abstract version of Hinduism. Obviously, ‘Hinduism‘ had never been a single ‘religion’, but a confusing variety of religious currents. Hence, in their attempts to find laws that are appropriate to their ‘subjects’, the British colonial rulers generalized the very restrictive ritual laws of the Brahmins to all ‘Hindus‘. Vivekananda’s reformulation of ‘Hinduism‘ was, therefore, on the one hand, a reaction to the pejorative orientalist discourse. On the other hand, his polemic targeted Christian missionaries, who were quite active in India at that time.

The dogmatic establishment of Hinduism as a ‘religion’ with a single ‘holy scripture‘ was a reaction to the monotheistic ‘threats’. But instead of reversing the devaluation of the religious diversity of ‘Hinduism‘ into its affirmation, Swami Vivekananda and Swami Dayananda Saraswati tried to ‘purify’ Hinduism from ‘heterodox‘ currents. Until only the Upanishads could survive this selection.

Advaita instead of dualism

In this perspective, ‘Hinduism‘ became a Vedic ‘religion’. Hence, the Advaita philosophy – with its abstract, formless, and nameless idea of divine consciousness (Brahman) – rose to the only legitimate religious authority. In the interpretation of Vivekananda, it became a holy scripture like the Bible or the Koran. According to Vivekananda, only the Veda is of divine origin. Consequently, it provides the philosophical foundation for all religions – indeed, for ‘religion‘ per se. For this reason, Hinduism is, according to Swami Vivekananda, superior to all other religions.

[…] for Vivekananda Hinduism was the mother of all religions. It could also teach other faiths tolerance and universal brotherhood. Unlike most other faiths, Hinduism was never persecuted and never conquered. In the evolutionary schema of religions, it had already perfected itself. Most other faiths were given to dogmatism, bigotry, violence, and fanaticism. Only Hinduism believed that despite their failings, all religions were but many ways to reach the ultimate truth.”2

Islamic tolerance

The fact that Islam in India could also be very tolerant towards other faiths was demonstrated in the 17th century by the Islamic ruler Akbar. As early as 1600 (simultaneously with the Inquisition in Europe) Akbar generously practiced religious tolerance in India:

Not only did Akbar insist that it was the duty of the state to ensure that no one is impeded in the practice of his religion and that every one may convert to any religion at will‘. […] He also made systematic dialogue between Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jainists, Parsis, Jews, and others, even agnostics and atheists, rule in his capital Agra. Akbar, conscious of the religious diversity of his people, laid the foundations for secularisation and religious neutrality of the state; the secular constitution that India adopted in 1949 after independence […] bears many of the features that Akbar had advocated as early as 1590.”3

Virile resistance?

Now that the first two conditions of a ‘state religion’, namely unity and superiority, were fulfilled, the next step was to strengthen national consciousness. Indeed, the Hindu nationalists perceived the British colonization – like the Mughal invasion – as a traumatic defeat. Consequently, Swami Vivekananda argued, that such threats could only be countered by a similarly aggressive, ‘virile‘ attitude. Otherwise, the superior Indian culture and spirituality would be ‘doomed‘.

Strengthening of the ‘Hindu’-mentality

In the effort to strengthen the ‘Hindu‘ mentality, the attitude of non-violence (‘Ahimsa‘), the feminine role of the mystic in his devotion, and the ideal of the spiritual retreat had become obstacles. According to the argument of the Hindu nationalists, the invaders had an easy time conquering India, because the Buddhist reformation had weakened the fighting forces. Therefore, the ideal of compassion and non-violence did not fit into the mobilization in the name of the nation.

Rajas instead of peaceableness

It was, therefore, necessary to revive these virile, active forces that had existed during the ‘Golden Age‘, immortalized in the Mahabharata. Hence, the ‘fatalism’ prevalent among Vivekananda’s Indian contemporaries was to be balanced by fiery activity: ‘Rajas‘. However, this was also a reaction to the colonial discourse, since the colonial ‘masters’ conceived this very ‘fatalism’ as the reason for their superiority.

Fight escapism

The emotional worship of personal deities of form and name, practiced by Vivekananda’s Guru, was to give way to the superior Vedantic philosophy of Advaita: The awareness of the unity of ‘Atman‘ and ‘Brahman‘. The ideal of asceticism and escapism was to give way to modern society. With its scientific foundations, it should be able to compete with European society.

Education to prophethood

The Hindu ‘religion‘ – for Vivekananda synonymous with ‘practical Vedanta‘ – was to become a ‘training for prophethood‘. Consequently, at some point, there would be no need for priests. Hence, everyone should become his/her own prophet, and thus realize the unity of Atman and Brahman. For these reasons, Swami Vivekananda was suspicious of the Bhakti cult of his guru Ramakrishna and his unorthodox Tantric techniques.


An almost categorical rejection of Dualism also amounts to Vivekananda’s denial of everything that Ramakrishna’s faith signified: the place of the divine in this world, the idea of ecstatic, sensual love of God, the primacy of emotions, […] and the centrality of the feminine in matters of faith. All these characteristic features of Ramakrishna’s faith were derived in one way or the other from Dualism and not Vivekananda’s ideal of Advaita Vedanta’s transcendent abstraction.”4

However, Ramakrishna’s ‘dualism‘ led to a generous tolerance of other faiths. Contrary to Vivekananda’s claim that this emotional religiosity could degenerate into fanaticism. In contrast to Vivekananda, Ramakrishna did not consider differences in religious rituals to be important. Vivekananda’s Guru never devalued other religions and faiths. Precisely because he lived his spirituality on all levels and did not instrumentalize it for political purposes.

Mystic syncretism

I see people who talk about religion constantly quarreling with one another. Hindus, Mussalmans, Brahmos, Saktas, Vaishnavas, and Saivas, are all quarreling with one another. They haven’t the intelligence to understand that He who is called Krishna is also Siva and the Primal Sakti and that it is He, again, who is called Jesus and Allah.”5

Ramakrishna even let himself initiate spiritual techniques by Islamic mystics. He found that the goal of all these spiritual paths was the same: the dissolution of boundaries. Therefore, the absurdity of Vivekananda’s absolutization of Advaita-Vedanta philosophy as the ‘state religion’ lies in the fact, that he has made the consciousness of the unity of Atman and Brahman into a distinguishing and differentiating feature of Hinduism, which must now be aggressively defended.


Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who coined the term ‘Hindutva‘, went so far as to declare the Muslim minority to be the antagonist par excellence of ‘Hindudom‘ in the aggressive rhetoric that had been a characteristic of Hindu nationalism from the beginning. Even though, Savarkar was more inclusive than Vivekananda on the question of who was a Hindu:

For Savarkar, ‘Hindus‘ were not only followers of Advaita Vedanta, but all currents of Hinduism, as well as Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists. When the Aryans began to settle India, Savarkar said they called it ‘Sapta Sindhu‘ (‘the land between the seven rivers‘). Through a language shift, it became ‘Hapta Hindu‘. As the land that the Aryans had settled, was eventually called ‘Hindustan‘, its inhabitants became ‘Hindus‘.

Islam as ‘antithesis’

Savarkar considered Islam as a foreign, non-integrable (Semitic) element in the Aryan heritage. Moreover, Savarkar saw it as the antithesis to the Aryan self and the Mughal invasion as an unforgivable provocation – topical as if it had happened only yesterday.

As president of the Hindu Mahasaba (1937), created in response to Muhammad Ali Jinnah‘s Muslim League, Savarkar followed the strategic line of ‘militarisation of Hinduism‘.

Militarization of Hindu-nationalism

Savarkar cited the case of the Muslim League threatening to play the part of the Sudeten Germans if their demand were not met. […] But if Hindus grew stronger […] they would ensure that Muslims of the League type would have to ‘play the part of German-Jews instead‘.”6

Savarkar also believed that Hitler was preferable to a weak democratic government. His rhetoric left behind the philosophical quibbles that Swami Vivekananda had racked his brains over in his reformulation of Hinduism as a religion.

Constants of the Hindutva ideology

In comparison to Vivekananda and Aurobindo, some constants in the Hindu nationalist line of argumentation become clear. Savarkar, for example, also blames the abolition of the caste system through the Buddhist reform and its ideal of non-violence for having opened India to invaders. Since, according to Savarkar, the caste system originally had the purpose of keeping the ‘Aryan race‘ pure from foreign races. It separated them from those who were already residents before the Aryan immigration or those who immigrated later.

Aversion against the term ‘Ahimsa’

In conclusion, the Hindu nationalists’ aversion to the term Ahimsa has run from the beginning, at the end of the nineteenth century, until today. From the extreme rhetoric of a Savarkar, it is only a small step to excessive violence against Muslims as in Gujarat in 2002.

Although today’s Hindu nationalists highly value Yoga, they consistently ignore the first Yama (Ahimsa). By all means, in their aggressive ‘defense’ of Hinduism, postmodern right-wing Hindu nationalists do not shy away from deliberate provocations and falsifications of history and fake news.

Ramas transformation

Indeed, the Indian historian Romila Thapar and author Anuradha Kapur showed how, in order to mobilize Hindus against the ‘threat’ of Indian Muslims, the image of Rama had mutated from an androgynous being to a muscular Rambo-fighter for Hinduism.

It’s a matter of some sensitivity to Hindu-nationalists that the tradition of martial vigor within Hinduism has been lost, swamped by the Gandhian interpretation.”7

Tempel or mosque?

In 1993, Hindu nationalists, members ‘Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh‘ of a radical Hindu nationalist paramilitary cadre organization, destroyed the ‘Babri Masjid Mosque in Ayodhya. The reason for this act of destruction was, that this mosque was allegedly built on the foundations of a Rama temple that had been destroyed by the Muslim conquerors.

The struggle for this religious place began as early as 1949. According to Hindu nationalists, 900,000 years ago Rama had been born at this place. 1949 followers of the ‘Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha‘ had placed a statue of Rama and Sita in the Babri Masjid Mosque. Their aim was, to ban Muslims from entering the mosque.

Ayodhya and the consequences

Following the destruction of the mosque in 1993, riots broke out between Hindus and Muslims at various locations throughout India. As a result of the destruction of the mosque, a train was set on fire in Godhra in 2002. On this train, Hindu fundamentalist pilgrims had just returned from Ayodhya, where they wanted to celebrate their ‘success’. Subsequently, the bodies of the 59 dead were taken to Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat, and laid out in public.

Gujarat 2002

In the state of Gujarat, this led to pogroms against Muslims. The police watched almost inactively as defenseless Muslims were lynched, and women raped and burned alive with their children. Up to two thousand people, mostly Muslims, died during the pogroms in Gujarat in 2002. Moreover, 150,000 Muslims were driven into refugee camps and 205 mosques were destroyed.

The current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, was Prime Minister of Gujarat at the time. He has his political roots in the RSS and has been a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party since 1988. To this day, Modi refuses to critically reflect on his own role in relation to the violent excesses in Gujarat in 2002. He breaks off interviews in which he is asked to comment on the situation.

In November 2019, the controversial Ayodhya site was awarded to Rama ‘in person’ in a ruling by the Supreme Court.

The role of nonviolence in the independence struggle

The question of what role non-violence should play in India’s struggle for independence polarised the camps from the very beginning. Nonviolent resistance was preferred by the moderate leaders of the Congress movement. Since they wanted to counteract the British policy of division. The nationalists, however, propagated active, an armed rebellion against the British colonial power.

Sri Aurobindo Ghose‘s nationalist polemics were (at least in the beginning) not directed against the Muslim minority. Many of his writings were rather responses to the ‘orientalist‘ discourse of the British colonial power. Aurobindo took a very different stance on the relationship between politics and spirituality than M. K. Gandhi. Like Swami Vivekananda, he was convinced of India’s leading spiritual position. Above all, for him, liberation from the oppression of the British colonial power was the first step towards the spiritual liberation of India, and subsequently of the whole planet.

He did not agree with Gandhi and his Civil Disobedience Movement on the way to liberation. Aurobindo considered boycotts and non-cooperation as suitable means in the political struggle for freedom. But one should not limit oneself to these means alone.

The wolf and the lamb

Conflict is indeed not the final and ideal stage […]. But as long as the principle of struggle prevails, one must face the lower law; it is fatal if one disarms in the middle of battle. The culture that abandons its living separateness, the civilization that neglects active self-defense, will be swallowed up, and the nation that lived through it will lose its soul and perish.8

Consequently, for Sri Aurobindo, there was one goal above all: Liberation from foreign rule and the autonomy of India – ‘Swaraj‘ at all costs. Aurobindo was concerned with nothing less than the survival of India’s spiritual tradition. He saw it endangered by the leveling power of Western capitalist civilization.


Aurobindo points to the common exception from non-violence: ‘Self-defense‘. But this is, according to Judith Butler, a highly ambiguous term. Who is part of this self? Who is belonging to the realm of those, who are worth defending?

To be killed like the lamb attacked by the wolf does not bring growth, does not promote development, does not ensure spiritual merit. To lay down one’s arms in a state of war is to invite destruction, and that cannot serve any compensatory spiritual purpose.”9

Gendered violence

The nature of the resistance was irrelevant to Sri Aurobindo. Therefore, he had no qualms about using open armed revolt. If necessary, India should be defended violently against the colonial power and its corrosive effect on Indian culture. Nonviolent resistance seemed to be too weak, not ‘virile‘ enough, and therefore inappropriate to the great Indian heritage.

The prejudice against non-violence as passive and useless implicitly depends upon a gender division of attributes by which masculinity stands for activity and feminity for passivity. No transvaluation of those values will defeat the falsehood of that binary opposition. […]

To link practice of non-violence with a force or strength that is distinguished from destructive violence, one that is manifest in solidarity alliances of resistance and persistence, is to refute the characterization of nonviolence as a weak and useless passivity.10

Ahimsa: means of the second choice?

Although in Gandhi’s Satyagraha attitude the first Yama Ahimsa already became the means to realize truth and justice. Sri Aurobindo – author of ‘Synthesis of Yoga‘ and ‘Light on Yoga‘ – considered Ahimsa merely as a means of the second choice to achieve spiritual liberation. Isn’t it possible to detect a hint of the schizo-trend in Aurobindo’s polemics, that points towards post-modern, radical Hindutva politics?

According to the motto:

Goal: spirituality, means: violence?

The further one moves away from the spiritual path toward political power struggles, the more spiritual integrity suffers.

Humanity is not ready yet

Indeed, Sri Aurobindo Ghose recognized this. Nevertheless, he argued that humanity was not yet ready for peaceful unity.

Immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center on 11th September and before the start of the Iraq war, Georg Feuerstein, author of numerous yoga books – including one on Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra – wrote an article on ‘Terrorism and Yoga‘. In this essay, which oscillates between pro and contra violence, Feuerstein cites Aurobindo’s arguments:

In his essay on the Bhagavad Gita, he [Aurobindo] argued that we should take appropriate physical activity, including war because otherwise our ‘neutrality’ only helps the dark and destructive forces in the world. This would be necessary until we are able to transform negative and unfavorable situations with more subtle possibilities, which Aurobindo calls ‘soul power’.11

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar

Frighteningly similar, though rhetorically far more radical, was the argument of the Hindu fundamentalist Vinayak Damodar Savarkar:

A massacre […] is a terrible thing. It happens, however, because humankind has failed to approximate the lofty ideals of natural justice, peace, parity, and universal brotherhood. In this day and age, untruth rules over Satya, truth. We can only wait for an era to dawn when the truth will rule every heart.12

But how can this future come, if it does not begin in the present?

Can a mixture of these two very different spheres of the spiritual and the political succeed at all? What would be the prerequisites for this? Should it not at least be the determination of confessing yogis to keep the vow of non-violence? Even more, when the aim is to save the spiritual tradition of India?

Author: Eva Pudill


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