The Co-Existence of Violence and Non-Violence in Hinduism
Anantanand Rambachan

The most famous Hindu of all times, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) is widely perceived, especially in the West, as embodying the Hindu worldview and ethos. Gandhi made ahimsa (non-violence) the cornerstone of his philosophy and practice and spoke of it as constituting the essence of Hinduism. In the light of Gandhi’s significance, many were surprised and bewildered when, on December 6, 1992, thousands of Hindu volunteers broke through police cordons and demolished the Babri mosque in the holy city of Ayodhya in North India. Many were armed with tridents, the traditional iconographic weapon of Shiva and were led by Hindu holy men chanting “Jai Shri Ram” (Victory to Ram). The mosque, it is argued, was constructed on the spot where Rama, one of the Hindu incarnations of God, was born. According to these militant Hindus, the Moghul Emperor, Babar, destroyed a Hindu temple and built the mosque on its ruins. Thousands lost their lives in the struggle over this site, and there is clamouring for the reclamation of other sacred sites, including one in the city of Mathura. More recently, we continue to witness the outbreak of violence between Hindus and Muslims in the state of Gujarat, precipitated by the tragedy at the Godhra railway station when Muslims set ablaze a train with Hindu passengers. Hindus reacted violently. Religious chanting and the invocation of the name of God accompanied many of the acts of violence perpetrated by Hindus upon their Muslim neighbours. Persons were selected and attacked because they were Muslims and their attackers claimed to be acting in the name of Hinduism.

In recent years, several Hindu organizations have become aggressive and militant in rhetoric and method, reminding us that while Gandhi championed the ethic of ahimsa, there are ancient traditions within Hinduism which sanction violence under certain circumstances and that ahuimsa and himsa (violence) have coexisted uneasily in Hinduism for centuries. The relationship between violence and non-violence is a complex one and Gandhi’s representation of Hinduism must be properly contextualized.

The Purusa Sukta hymn in the Rgveda, Hinduism’s most ancient scripture, describes metaphorically the origin of humankind from the primordial sacrifice of the cosmic Person (purusa). From his mouth came the brahmans (priest-teachers), from his arms the ksatriyas (warrior-kings), from his thighs the vaisyas (trader-craftsmen) and from his feet the sudras (manual labourers). The respective duties of each group are defined and are presented later on in the Bhagavadgita (18:45-47) as conducive to the attainment of liberation. The ksatriyas, the group from which the kings are rulers are supposedly drawn, are the physical protectors of the community. They are the custodians of justice and the defenders of social and ritual order (dharma), by the force of arms, if necessary. Society could not survive without the might of the ksatriyas and the Hindu tradition commends the ideal of the warrior who is prepared to fight in the defence of dharma. The ancient ideal of the ksatriya is one that is being invoked and reinterpreted by militant Hindus today.

Vedic society in ancient India did not scrupulously adhere to ahimsa as its highest value. Sacrificial rites involved the slaying of animals and Indra, one of most popular deities of the Vedic period has many warrior-like attributes. While Manu (ca.200 B.C.E.-100 C.E.), ancient India’s influential lawgiver, lists ahimsa among the general human virtues, the ksatriyas are exempt. He permits killing in self-defence and for implementing the injunctions of the Vedas. Two of the most popular epics in the Hindu tradition, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata culminate in lengthy and violent battles.

The Bhagavadgita, modern Hinduism’s most popular scripture, is revealed on a battlefield and advocates the position that participating in war may be viewed, for a ksatriya, as personal duty. We see quite clearly from the Bhagavadgita that while the tradition upholds the ultimacy of non-violence, exceptions are made for the use of violence. The Mahabharata war is referred to, in the Bhagavadgita, as a dharma yuddha. A dharma yuddha is a war fought in defence of justice and righteousness and for the security and well being of the community (lokasamgraha). Qualifying a war as a dharma yuddha distinguishes it from those forms of violence that are not sanctioned in Hinduism. One example of this would be violence for the sake of achieving power and wealth. A nation or a group may be motivated, by greed, to seize the assets and resources of another nation or community or to gain power through the conquest and control of others. We may refer to such a war as an artha yuddha. The Bhagavadgita identifies greed as the primary source of evil and the warrior, Arjuna, is repeatedly urged not to be motivated by greed. Another example of unjustified violence would be kama yuddha. Here violence is exercised because it brings personal pleasure to the perpetrator. It is used for self-gratification purposes and its exercise makes the perpetrator feel good. In the case of a dharma yuddha, however, violence is not used for personal profit or pleasure but in defence of justice. In a dharma yuddha, the opponent is not demonised and the rhetoric is not characterized by hate and contempt. Even though Arjuna must struggle against the Kauravas, he is still called upon by Krishna to see God in his opponents. Good does not belong exclusively to one side and evil to the other.

The final characteristic of a dharma yuddha that I want to mention is that violence is justified as a last resort and only after peaceful methods of conflict resolution are exhausted. The Mahabharata war is described in the Bhagavadgita as yadrcchaya (unsolicited), since it was not one that the Pandavas deliberately sought. They tried every means to arrive at an amicable settlement. Even after both armies had assembled, Krishna went to Hastinapur as an emissary of the Pandavas and tried to persuade Duryodhana to avoid the war. Duryodhana in response said, “So long as I am alive, the Pandavas can never expect to have the kingdom. I am not prepared to give them as much land as can be covered by the point of a needle.” It is at this point that the Pandavas decided to go to war.

It is clear, therefore, that there are influential traditions within Hinduism which justify the use of violence under certain circumstances and which understand the use of violence to be consistent with the Hindu world-view. While it is true that ancient texts, such as the Upanisads, refer frequently to ahimsa, these texts were traditionally meant for seekers of liberation (moksa) who had entered the last of the four stages of life (samnyasa). Such persons were ritually freed from social and familial obligations and dedicated to the quest for liberation. They were expected to scrupulously adhere to non-violence by not participating in wars and by non-resistance. In these circles, the value of the complex order of Vedic ritualism, including the sacrifice of animals, was questioned. The origin of Gandhi’s non-violence may be traced here, as well as in Jain and Buddhist ascetic teachings that shared a great deal with the teachers of the Upanisads.

While these historical precedents and justifications for the use of violence are important, the militant and aggressive policies of some Hindu organizations are of more recent origin. Ancient sources and examples are still a significant source of inspiration for these groups, but the ideology that undergirds their militancy is one that is best described as a form of religious nationalism. Although many commentators are fond of using the term, “Hindu fundamentalism” to describe the militancy of contemporary Hinduism organizations, the term is inappropriate and misleading. Hinduism is without the fundamentals that usually characterize such movements in other traditions. Hindu militancy is not scripturalist and does not emphasize the goal of liberation as set forth in the Upanisads. Hinduism does not have a central institutional structure, a single sacred book or required beliefs and rituals. The name “Hindu” is itself an inclusive one that describes the indigenous traditions of India, a compendium of doctrinal and ritual diversity. Hinduism has never been a monolith. Historically, those movements which have attempted to eliminate the pluralism of Hinduism by reducing it to the essentials of a single text, common doctrines and rituals have not been successful or gained widespread support.

The first major development in the rise of Hindu nationalism as modern movement was the establishment in 1915 of the All-India Hindu Maha Sabha.1 It was, at the time of its formation, an adjunct of the Indian National Congress. One of the leading members of the Maha Sabha was Pandit Mohan Malaviya, who later became first vice-chancellor of the Banaras Hindu University. The election manifesto of the Maha Sabha (1967) is worth quoting:

Hindustan is the land of the Hindus from time immemorial. The Hindu Maha Sabha believes that Hindus have a right to live in peace as Hindus, to legislate, to rule, to govern themselves in accordance with Hindu genius and ideals and establish by all lawful and legal means a Hindu state based on Hindu Culture and Tradition, so that Hindu ideology and way of life should have a homeland of its own. The cardinal creed of the Hindu Maha Sabha is:
  • Loyalty to the unity and integrity of Hindustan.

  • The Hindu Maha Sabha reiterates once again that it is pledged to the reestablishment of Akhand Bharat by all legitimate means.

  • The Hindu Maha Sabha again reiterates its clarion call as given by Vir Sarvarkar as far back as 1938: “Hinduize Politics and Militarize Hinduism.”
  • The single most important work in the rising Hindu nationalist movement was entitled Hindutva and authored by Vinayak Damodar Sarvakar (1883-1966). Sarvarkar was president of the Hindu Mahasabha from 1937-1942 and a radical opponent of British rule in India. This text, along with other writings of Sarvakar, constitute very important sources for comprehending the views of Hindu nationalists in contemporary India.

    Sarvarkar contended that Hindus were the original indigenous people of India and constituted a single nation (rashtra) as well as a single race (jati) with common origin and blood. Sarvarkar defined Hindus as those who consider India to be their holy land (punyabhumi) and the land of their ancestors (pitribhumi). “A Hindu means a person who regards this land of Bharatvarsha from the Indus to the Seas as his Fatherland and as his Holyland.”

    One of the important distinctions made by Sarvarkar is between “Hinduism” and “Hindutva (Hinduness).” In his understanding, “Hinduism” refers only to religious beliefs and practices. It comprises only a small part of the totality of “Hindutva.” “Hindutva” refers to the historical, racial, and cultural factors constituting the Hindu nation. It is the unifying socio-cultural background of all Hindus. In Sarvarkar’s view, Sikhs, Jains and South Asian Buddhists are Hindus. He uses the well-know term, Sanatan Dharma, to refer to the religious beliefs and practices of the majority of Hindus, but would include Sikhs and Jains in the community of Hindus since they share a common culture and, in his view, belong to the same race. By defining a Hindu as one who regards India as both fatherland and holyland, Sarvarkar potentially excludes East Asian Buddhists, Western converts to Hinduism and, most importantly, Indian Muslims and Christians. For Sarvarkar, Muslims and Christians were essentially alien communities in India. It is significant to note that the exclusivism of Sarvarkar and Hindu nationalists is not grounded in a common doctrine or ritual, but in the acknowledgement of India as one’s sacred land. Drawing on traditions of divine immanence, the land of India is represented as Mother India, the divine goddess, who must be protected and kept pure.

    While there are several militant organizations, such as the Shiva Sena and the Bajrang Dal, which are also the inheritors of Sarvarkar’s ideology, there is little doubt that the leading one is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) founded in 1925 by Keshavrao Baliram Hedgewar (1890-1940). Hedgewar was deeply influenced by the ideas of Sarvarkar and wanted to dedicate himself to the restoration of the unity of Hindutva. He was frustrated with Gandhi’s non-violent tactics and by the deep social, linguistic and regional differences in India, which he thought to be responsible for the conquest of India by the Muslims and the British. Hedgewar felt that the way forward was through a movement of inner transformation and the creation of an organization whose members were completely devoted to the Indian nation. Today, the RSS is the most powerful Hindu organization in India. While it has refused to become a political party it has increasingly developed ties to parties and organizations that support its aims. Its membership has grown steadily since independence, although it was twice outlawed. On the first occasion, the organization was implicated in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, again banned the RSS in 1975 for subversive activities during the state of emergency.

    After the assassination of Gandhi and the banning of the RSS, some of its members questioned its apolitical stance. They felt that a politically vibrant organization would not have suffered such a ban and perhaps, more importantly, could have prevented the partition of India. They blamed the Indian National Congress, under Nehru, for destroying the unity of India. After their release from jail in 1948-49, a few key RSS leaders discussed with Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the possibility of forming a new party. Mookerjee was a Hindu Maha Sabha representative in Parliament and a member of Nehru’s cabinet who eventually resigned from both the cabinet and the Maha Sabha. In 1951, Mookerjee, with the help of the RSS leadership, launched the Bharatiya Jana Sangh.

    Through the general elections of 1952, 1957 and 1962, the Jana Sangh built its political base, but did not emerge as a significant force to rival Nehru’s Congress. It pursued a militant path by clamouring for the reunification of India, Hindi as a national language, and the ban on cow slaughter. The Hindu nationalist movement grew in strength during the 1975-77 state of emergency and the Jana Sangh joined with opponents of Indira Gandhi to form the Janata party which won a landslide victory in the elections of 1977. The Janata coalition, led by Moraji Desai, had three Jana Sangh members: Atul Behari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani and Brij Lal Verma.

    The coalition was shaky. A major internal debate over the relationship between the Jana Sangh members and the RSS developed. Coalition partners were opposed to the holding of dual membership and loyalties. This controversy, as well as other infighting, contributed to its defeat in the elections of 1980 and the return to power of Mrs. Gandhi. In 1980, the party split and the Jana Sangh group formed a new party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under the leadership of A.B. Vajpayee. Vajpayee and others, including L.K. Advani, were all prominent members of the RSS.

    During the 1980’s a series of events created an atmosphere that made the ideas of militant Hindu nationalism increasingly attractive to many people. The rise of separatist movements in Kashmir, Assam and the Punjab raised new fears and concerns about the geographical and political unity of India. The Shah Bano case ignited a fervent debate about the rights of Muslims to be governed by religious rather than national laws. The efforts of the V.P. Singh administration to provide special affirmative action benefits to the so-called “backward classes” caused resentment. Many felt that such a measure would further divide the community. In 1984, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) an umbrella Hindu organization founded in 1964, with RSS support, launched a campaign to liberate the birthplace of Rama. The BJP has made the temple issue one of its central causes and the last decade has witnessed increasing cooperation between the BJP, RSS and VHP.

    Hindu militant nationalism thrives on a sharp distinction between “we” and “they.” It identifies and defines the other against which it struggles and in relation to which its identity is shaped. For a militant Hindu group, like the RSS, there are at least four groups which stand opposed to the ideal of Hindutva and which must be opposed. They are Indian converts to so-called foreign religions, the communist party, foreign powers, and westernised members of the educated classes in India. The sharp distinction made by nationalist theoreticians between Indic and non-Indic religions has not been without controversy. Sikhs, for example, contend that their inclusion in the Hindu category denies them the right of cultural and religious self-definition. Christians, Muslims and westernised Indians are represented as inheritors of a way of life, values, language and dress that separate them from the indigenous Hindu community.

    There is little doubt that the “other” against which Hindu nationalism primarily defines itself is the substantial Muslim minority. For many in the RSS, India was the homeland of the Hindus that was subdued by Muslim conquerors as a consequence of internal Hindu weakness and divisions. RSS leadership sees the creation of Pakistan as a tragedy that divided the motherland. Muslims are seen as practitioners of a foreign religion and holding loyalties outside of India. In more radical statement, RSS spokespersons deny a place in Hindu India, shaped according to RSS principles for Muslims, Christians and communists. One of the BJP’s most prominent spokespersons is Uma Bharati, a female renunciant. In 1992, at the height of the conflict over the Babri mosque she recalled the ancient battle in the Ramayana between Rama and Ravana and put the struggle in religious terms. “Announce it boldly to the world,” she proclaimed, “that anyone who opposes Ram cannot be an Indian. Muslims remember Rahim who longed for the dust of Lord Ram’s feet…Songs of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood were sung by Mahatma Gandhi. We got ready to hear the Azaan (muezzin) along with temple bells, but they can’t do this, nor does their heritage permit them to do… The two cultures are polar opposites. But we still preached brotherhood…We could teach them with words, now let us teach them with kicks…Let there be bloodshed once and for all.”2

    While one can understand the sense of marginalisation that the majority Hindu community in India feels in relation to the secular state and the need for renewed self-worth and dignity after centuries of colonial degradation, the philosophy of Hindutva may not be the best means for representing and addressing its concerns. For several reasons, it is necessary, therefore, for the Hindu tradition to disentangle itself from the ideology Hindutva. I will conclude by mentioning three of these.

    First, Hindutva is a philosophy of religious nationalism which grants the status of divinity to the land of India and which proposes the highest aim of life to be the service and defence of the motherland. While Hinduism affirms the immanence of the divine, it does not limit this geographically and speaks of the ultimate transcendence of God. Although it does not exclude love and service of one’s country, moksha (liberation) and not the deification of nation is its ultimate goal. Second, Hindutva makes a sharp distinction between Hindus and non-Hindus. Hinduism, on the other hand, calls attention to unity and oneness of all existence in God and to the necessity of being committed to well being of all creation. Hindutva overlooks the universalism of Hinduism as well as its human appeal and narrowly identifies it with nation (rashtra) and race (jati). Third, while the Hindu attitude to religious diversity is more complex than popularly represented, it is also true that there are ancient and powerful traditions of plurality in Hinduism that made it possible to accommodate a wide variety of religious beliefs and practices and to offer shelter to persecuted minorities. Hindutva champions a form of majority rule that appears to be intolerant of plural identities by asserting a definition of Hindu nationality that excludes large numbers of people for whom India is their home. By detaching themselves from Hindutva, Hindu traditions must again become eloquent champions of a pluralism that allows different groups the freedom of self-definition and which engages all in a search for a national identity that reflects the wealth of India’s diversity.

    Dr. Anantanand Rambachan is Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Saint Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, U.S.A.

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