Recently, I came across a provocatively-titled blog piece by Maria Wirth – a German settled in India – called ‘Are Christian and Muslim Nations OK and Hindu Nations Not?‘, Originally published on 21 April 2017 in Wirth’s personal blog, the piece gained traction in the days to come through a steady stream of social media reposts. One friend of mine even sent it to me on private chat to have a discussion.
Wirth’s assertive rant drew fervent reactions from those who shared it, either by complete or partial agreement. Her (apparently) incisive condemnation of what she refers to as the “wrongly called ‘liberal’ media” for its visible distaste of a ‘Hindu Nation’ was well-received by many, particularly those who identify themselves on the right or centre-right of the political spectrum. Arguably, Wirth – through her blog pieces – has already entered a small group of vocal Westerners who actively vouch for a Hindu Rashtra, and have begun to influence like-minded Indians in a decisive way.
In accusing foreign newspapers of unjustly subverting the Hindu nation discourse, the author intends to expose the so-called hypocrisy of the ‘liberal’ media and its overtly critical opinion of a Hindu state-building project vis-a-vis the Muslim and Christian models.
But, Wirth’s arguments are as uncritical and lackluster as the very media discourse she hounds up on. In fact, a large part of them are based on blatantly false premises.
I don’t wish to defend the New York Times or The Washington Post of their reporting on India (or its Hindu right wing), because some of their views are indeed uncritical and devoid of context. But, truth remains that Wirth’s tirade against these western media houses is grossly generalised and hands down inconsistent with reality.
For example, Wirth says:
A Hindu nation is projected as the worst possible scenario by the wrongly called ‘liberal’ media. Yet, the same media don’t react when America or most other western countries are referred to as Christian nations. Nor do they get agitated about the numerous Muslim nations; not even about those which still have harsh blasphemy laws. Why are these ok, and a Hindu nation is not ok?
Wirth’s whataboutery might sound fierce and blunt. But, what is she even talking about here? The ‘fake liberal media’ that she refers to has indeed expressed horror at the idea of a ‘Christian nation’ and Islamic regimes that impose blasphemy. Following are a few glaring instances:
- ‘A Christian Nation? Since When?‘, New York Times, 14 March 2015
- “Stop repeating the heresy of declaring the United States a ‘Christian nation’“, The Washington Post, 9 February 2017
- “Islam’s Problem With Blasphemy“, New York Times, 15 January 2015
- ‘How Muslim Governments Impose Ignorance‘, New York Times, 13 January 2015
- ‘Blasphemy and the law of fanatics‘, The Washington Post, 8 January 2015
I am certain there are other such pieces carried by liberal media houses in the west. I am also certain that there exist, in abundance, liberal media houses that deliberately take an apologist editorial line when it comes to minority societies (particularly Islamic societies). But, the point here is that Wirth uses a strawman to make a case, and peddles generalisations with startling candour.
Funnily enough, she goes on to deconstruct her false accusations, only to make even more false accusations. While musing over why liberal media houses do not apprehend Muslim/Christian nations for their theocratic state-building project, she reaches the following conclusion:
Maybe they came to this conclusion because minorities like Jews or Hindus suffer in certain Christian or Muslim nations though the media hardly pulls those countries up for it.
Once again, Wirth is just taking the easy way out by making a case based on an outright falsity. Following are some pieces from New York Times that fly in the face of Wirth’s bizarre conclusion:
- ‘Attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh‘, The New York Times, 16 November 2016
- ‘Hindu temples and homes in Bangladesh are attacked by Muslim crowds‘, The New York Times, 2 November 2016
- ‘Iraq’s Imperiled Minorities‘, The New York Times, 23 July 2014
[Two post-scripts to be made here: one, Bangladesh is not really an “Islamic country”, but a Muslim-dominated one. Interestingly, it also hangs in a perennial limbo of a secular and fundamentalist state, and hence, is fairly representative of my counterargument; and two, I have kept my focus on NYT here because Wirth herself cherry-picks it to make her own case.]
Wirth, in making her case for a Hindu nation, projects a utopian vision that entirely obfuscates structural realities of the religious tradition. This becomes relevant particularly because she is propping the case for a new ‘nation’, and not merely a new theological sect. Her arguments can be basically summarised as:
If there can be a Muslim or Christian nation, why can’t there be a Hindu nation? After all, Hinduism is far more tolerant than its dogmatic counterparts, and hence, a Hindu nation will be a la-la land where people would spend their days in bliss, basking under the glory of ancient knowledge.
Why then are the media worldwide so worried about a nation where the Hindu roots are fostered? Where Sanskrit is taught, which is the most perfect, dignified, powerful language on earth and which is useful even for NASA? Where yoga is practised in schools, which is an ideal means for all-round development and which, on a deeper level, helps to find fulfilment in live? Where Vedic philosophy is studied, which inspired the new scientific discoveries for example in nuclear physics? Where the amazing wisdom of Mahabharata and Ramayana becomes common knowledge, which is already taught in business seminars abroad? Where children chant “Loka samastha sukhino bhavantu” (let all be happy) instead of Humpey dumpey, which happens already in certain schools in the west?
It is amply clear that in Wirth’s conception, the ‘Hindu identity’ – and hence, the Hindu nation – is nothing more than a textual derivative of a broad philosophy of metaphysical transcendence. Mired in some sort of a cosmic tradition of cross-cultural accommodation and ancient knowledge, her Hinduism is starkly divorced from the social and political structures that have come about to buttress it (or piggyback on it). In other words, Wirth simply invokes the epistemological history of Hinduism and completely ignores the sociological part of it.
What then is the ‘sociological history’ of Hinduism?
Every belief system, however discrepant they might be, requires self-sustaining structures for survival and continuity. Hinduism is no exception. It found its sustenance in top-down modules of social organisation and later, strategic modules of political organisation. In today’s date, both exist in full glory and will continue to exist in a Hindu nation. To look back, these ‘structures’ are aptly manifest in the material narratives of Hinduism that are as broad and chequered as the boundaries of the belief system itself. Wirth conveniently ignores these, perhaps because they upend her blissful utopia of benign Hinduism.
The most glaring example of Hinduism’s organisational foundations are the Brahmanical social structures through which the belief system has realised itself, or at some level, ensured its own survival. The caste hierarchies under the broader varna system are one of the more visible forms of underlying sociocultural structures that have found legitimate propagation under the loose umbrella of ‘Hinduism’. These latent yet pervasive structures not only find credence in the textual part of the belief system, but also in centuries of isolation, otherisation, oppression, and forced organisation. While many argue that these were flexible structures that allowed for vertical mobility, the material history before us speaks otherwise.
Wirth is not entirely wrong when she says that “Hindus cannot be put into one single box.” As opined by many Indologists and theologists, Hinduism is a disparate belief system, encapsulated in a broad ecosystem. In fact, a favourite trope amongst many commentators is the term “way of life”, denoting the nonexistence of a single, dogmatic tradition. But, does ‘non-dogmatic’ automatically translate to ‘unorganised’? Not really.
The Hindu belief system’s organisational, material existence becomes even more effervescent in the postcolonial period that saw the rise of a politicised variant of traditional meta-narratives, as a reaction to the Nehruvian project of liberal nation-building. There is no better waypoint to identify this modern-day institutionalisation of Hinduism than the Babri Masjid demolition (1992), which put to naked display the collective mobilisation capacities of the Hindu belief system. Somewhere down the line, performative Hinduism, practiced through syncretic rituals and transcendental ways of life, transformed into a ‘project’, meted out through political mass communication and targeted opinion-building. It is a process that only forms the sub-set of a larger tradition but nonetheless, cannot be overlooked while outlining the contours of Hinduism.
Why then would Wirth leave them aside in her eclectic imagination of a Hindu nation? Does she believes that these social hierarchies and political maneuverings existed in absolute isolation to the Hindu belief system? If yes, then she owes us all an explanation. After all, it would be highly unwise and ignorant of anyone to posit the vision of a nation without delving into the underlying structural components of it, for a nation is not a text but an everyday performance, involving real people and real social dynamics.
Hindus are the exemplary role model for ‘how not to exclude others’? Where else have religious minorities flourished and grown like in India? Is not the relative harmony in this amazing diversity in India generally admired abroad?
Wirth forgets that while Hinduism might have done well to not exclude others (in the modern context, even that is questionable), it has done tremendously well to exclude its own. Hence, we do see a long tradition of acceptance in the inter-cultural domain, but little in the intra-cultural. In other words, the ‘amazing diversity’ that Wirth talks about is also not excluding those myriad reactive sub-sects that emerged out of the broader ‘Hindu’ belief system, for reasons that Wirth, I believe, would hate to recall: non-acceptance and marginalisation of the proscribed lower rungs of the Brahmanical society.
Thus, when Wirth, so dreamily evokes the ancient philosophies of the Hindu belief system, she trips over the lived experiences of so many who were born into it but never found a voice within. When she says that in Hinduism, “the many personal gods help the devotee to realise the Absolute”, she only refers to Gods who serve the entitled devotee and nothing more. Her overemphasis on the illusory text is hypnotising: it ushers the reader into a world that barely ever existed or can exist in the future, thanks to centuries of (d)evolution.
Perhaps to our great misfortune, the Atman (human consciousness) and the Brahman (cosmic consciousness) remain poles apart in popular thought, and certainly in the strategic political thought that wants to control the consciousness itself! There is little doubt that this variance in philosophy and practice will go on to serve as the bedrock of any ‘Hindu nation’ in the future, unless a radical cultural revolution (a ‘leap backwards’?) takes place.
Not-so-surprisingly, some of my friends were pleasantly surprised at the fact that a German was making the case for a Hindu nation. This, in itself, was somehow sufficient to lend Wirth some sort of ‘exotic credibility’ in this subject (not unlike the left that often ends up mesmerised by whatever western newspapers sell about the orient). But, is she any different from those foreign left-liberal commentators who are routinely accused by the right of drawing blanket conclusions about the Indian society? Sadly, not.
Dear Ms Wirth, if you wish to peddle the case for a theocratic state, then do it elsewhere, for the greatest gift of India’s postcolonial project has been the essential separation of the state and the religion. Hence, we need not move towards a theocracy, simply because there exists other theocracies around the world where the quotidian popular imagination is put under the chokehold of doctrinal texts and dogmatic beliefs. By that same logic, one could daringly inquire: “If there can be a totalitarian North Korea, why can’t we have a totalitarian India?” (I am confident someone would already be hawking a basket of justifications for a totalitarian India)
As far as western left-liberal commentators who jump at the idea of slamming the Hindu right are concerned, we have enough vanguards of Bharat Mata in our country to suffice for the ‘lack of context’ with their own overbearing, self-appropriated ‘contexts’. So, you need not worry, not for now at least.
To end, here is a masterpiece from Wirth:
[Why can’t there be a Hindu India] where children chant “Loka samastha sukhino bhavantu” (let all be happy) instead of Humpey dumpey, which happens already in certain schools in the west?