Religion and cultural nationalism

The historical fact that cultural nationalism is not native to India, but an early 20th century import from war-demented Europe, has ceased to bother us.

Published: 04th September 2018 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th September 2018 06:42 AM   |  A+A-

The historical fact that cultural nationalism is not native to India, but an early 20th century import from war-demented Europe, has ceased to bother us. We are inured to it in the garb of patriotism and majoritarian religious revivalism. Even a decade ago, the distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva mattered to most Hindus. That seems no longer the case. The factitious admixture of cultural nationalism and Hindu religious revivalism is now a crucial issue for Indian democracy. It helps, hence, to be clear about what it involves and entails.

The Hindutva-Hinduism coalescence overlooks the irreconcilable tension between religion and culture that widens, intensifies and turns malignant as time goes on. In the early phase of their partnership, cultures are enriched by the spiritual resources of religions. At this stage cultures seem like plants flowering on the soil of religions. The spiritual core of religions nourishes cultures with universal ideals and ethical robustness. The aim religion and culture share at this stage is the improvement of the human species. Art forms, nourished initially by religion, symbolise this human thirst for perfection. But religion and culture diverge through time into incompatibility. But the glorious past of their reciprocal enrichment leaves the door open to those who wish to invoke and abuse religions for anti-spiritual cultural projects. Its initiation is attended by a barrage of propaganda. The more irreligious a cultural project is, the heavier its dependence on propagandist deflections.

The primary value of religion, as Gandhi said, lies in its capacity to empower our ethical sense. Spiritual ideals and ethical imperatives rest on the premise of our universal kinship, the insight embedded in vasudhaiva kutumbakam. The spiritual vision penetrates the veil of surface diversities and discerns the deep, irreducible oneness of humankind. Culture takes the opposite route. It delinks itself from the depth of life and situates itself on the surface of things, where ethical demand seems dispensable. Diversity begins to offend and homogenisation seems the desired state. So even when  violations of ethical norms are perpetrated against ‘the other’, people’s sense of righteousness is suppressed. Culture lends itself readily to nationalism; but religion cannot, since religion is nothing if not ethical.

The second point of growing divergence between religion and culture pertains to the cult of violence. What love is to religion, violence is to culture. Culture, by definition, is rooted in violence. The confrontation between the British Raj and Gandhi is its classic, near-mythological illustration. The Raj represented the genius of culture at its materialistic, violent invincibility. Gandhi encountered it with the resources of spirituality, especially truth-directed ahimsa. At the root of our struggle for freedom, the freedom of humankind everywhere, is a rejection of violence. Freedom, as Swami Vivekananda insisted, is essentially spiritual. The genius of culture, on the other hand, is inhospitable to freedom.

Slavery, in one form or another, has been a feature of all ‘high cultures’. At the zenith of its cultural expansion, there were more slaves than citizens in Rome. While cultures of the past enslaved specific sections of society, modern culture enslaves a people as a whole. Hindutva, a cultural project in the garb of religion, is bound to be inimical to freedom: the freedom not merely of certain minority communities but also of citizens as a whole, though it may now seem to be otherwise behind the smokescreen of majoritarian triumphalism.

The violence embedded in culture, by which cultures have risen and fallen, undermines social cohesion and dissipates the energies of a nation. The core spiritual concern in religion is, or should be: “What kind and quality of human beings do we nurture?” This is the essence of dharma. Culture, in its invasive pursuit of hegemonic control, feels vexed by, and flouts, dharmic restraints and consequently, precipitates social disarray. It is naive to label acts of gratuitous violence—like mob-lynchings—as accidental aberrations perpetrated by lunatic fringes. They have the air and aura of an orgy, and appeal to an instinct unhinged from ethical restraints. They appeal to a psyche devoid of the sense of fellow humanity. Humanity turns malignant without a sense of fellow humanity. Mob-lynching as a symbolic cult, if akin to the spirit of cultural nationalism, could well presage the sort of holocaust over which Hitler presided.  

While cultural nationalism may begin, as it did in Germany, with an air of religious partisanship—Hitler was a Jew-hater also because he was a Christian bigot—it is inevitable that it effects the desecration not only of the religions it abuses but also of the religion it uses. Such use is, in itself, an abuse. History testifies that attempts to stitch alliances between religion and culture are preposterous. It is bound to work to the detriment of religion.

The Ram Janmabhoomi movement was not a religious project. That religious symbols and sevaks were co-opted into it does not prove the contrary. So, while tearing down a mosque excited hysteria, building a temple did not. The underlying political doctrine of the movement presumes that polytheism is a hindrance to homogenising and mobilising a people. The merit of polytheism is that diverse aspects of the Divine are intuited through different manifestations. Tolstoy, in A Letter to a Hindu, which had a profound influence on Gandhi, quotes profusely from the teachings of Lord Krishna for the reason that he revered Krishna as an exemplar of ‘love’. Love inspires truth. 

Truth is the guard and guarantor of freedom. Cultural nationalism, which stayed tangential to our freedom struggle, has no use for love. It projects a martial remake of Lord Ram, who is, otherwise, an embodiment of righteousness. Lord Krishna as a Hindutva icon is unthinkable! The contrast between Gandhi’s Ram and Hindutva’s Ram measures the distance between religion and culture,and its political avatar of cultural nationalism.

Valson Thampu

Former principal of St Stephen’s College, New Delhi



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  • Kane

    Would be interesting to know Mr. Thampu's opinion on the repeal of 377
    3 years ago reply

    what should hindus do when another proselytising religion encourages its neo-converts to keep their original names and hide their new identity so that they may continue to claim minority status and the benefits of reservation and for other reasons best known to them? i was not alive to such issues until
    3 years ago reply
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