Essay for civil service exam on Nationalism and the Hindu Identity

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India did not exist as a single polity foot the people of the landmass. His idea of India as a nation-state is born out of its later history as a single colony.

While Indian nationalism in general was perhaps engendered by the very imposition for a rule that for the first time planted the notion of an integrated identity, the ensuing nation-state has been shaped and structured by its intelligentsia.

The task of the nationalists was to wrest their new subjectivity from colonial control, to question orient list constructions and authority, to judge its adequacies or rather inadequacies, for representing reality, and in turn offer more self-sufficient and compensatory alternatives.

For instance, the 1857 revolt in North India had always been regarded as a “, mutiny” since it was an insurrection of soldiers; it was not until 1909 that Vinayak Damodar legitimized the mutiny by calling it national revolt. The underlying strain of an essentialist and undivided entity and a commitment to the idea of Indian nationalism, necessary for revisionist history were provided by the intelligentsia.

It is interesting to witness the construction of particular historical consciousness I Indian politics. The motivation of course, comes from the prevailing political milieu, and the agency consists of the nationalist intelligentsia. The tradition of writing pan-Indian narratives in the production of nationalist ideology, however, takes off from far older traditions.

Surendranath Banarjee appeals to the Hindu sentiments of his audience in his rhetoric. He asks what Hindu is there who does not feel himself a nobler being altogether, as he results to mind the proud of his illustrious countrymen, graced by the thrice-immortal names of Valmiki and Vyasa, Panini and Patanjali Gautama and Shankaracharya. He asks what Hindu is there whose patriotism is not stimulated, whose self-respect is not increased, as he contemplates, the past history of his country? For ours was a most glorious past. We were great in literature, in science, in war, but above all, great in morals.

Banarjee, who had been dismissed from the Indian Civil Service at the very outset of his career, was convinced that the inadequacy of his people was the cause of this treatment at the hands of the British. Hence, his failure to secure advancement within the colonial regime resulted in his radicalization. His rejection simultaneously raised questions of cultural identity which had to be rediscovered to compensate for the humiliation of being rebuffed by his European peers with by the Indian intelligentsia who suffered, in many ways, from a sense of inferiority in the face of European views on free initiative, personal responsibility and moral autonomy.

Consequently, they entered the Western education system to camouflage the social, economic, and political void the Western colonial had created. Nationalism was among the ideas imbedded from this education. Being products of Western education, they were caught between the traditions for two different cultures alienated from the Western through discrimination, and from their own by forsaking it for the adoption of the foreign.

In some instances, such as that of Bipin Chandra Pal, the alienation experienced in the native land equaled that of the European residents. Whether their “recovery” resulted from being rebuffed by the West or from the plain fact of being colonized the nationalists’ appeal was made primarily to the “”glorious past”.

The return to indigenous gods and rituals, to a communal past, and to ethnic histories was means of restoring both their injured identities and evoking a patriotic response from within themselves and their countrymen.

Bankimchandra Chatterjee also drew from the past to compensate for the dark night of Bangali history. His Endeavour to link the present moment with the past was shaped in Anandamath, an early novel in which nationalism acquires political legitimacy with in the religious overtones of an insurrection by Sanyasi.

Anandamath was later translated into Marathi, Telugu and English and the battle cry “vande mataram” became tremendously evocative in the struggle to free the enslaved “Mother”. It is significant that the “Sanyasi rebellion” of the late eighteenth century was not ideologically motivated by the perils of the “motherland”, and that, as Bankim himself admitted, the consciousness of nationalism was, in fact, the legacy of English education.

This kind of appeal to the past resembles Herder’s, who believed that men should be, above all members of their national communities in order to be really creative. Folk songs, folk language and folklore entirely neglected until then, were regarded by Herder as true expressions of the untrained creative spirit.

The relationship between nationalism and tradition received its strongest manifestation in German romanticism, which emphasized that human civilization lives boot not in its universal but in its national had peculiar manifestations.

But primarily, nationalists have discovered religion as a blinding factor, one that creates solidarity and a sees of community essential for generating a sense of “nationhood”. Although essentially a passive and internalized feeling, religion has the potential to move people beyond dormancy to display active political energy even to the extent of sacrificing their lives.

The inevitability of violence can then be legalized just as the peace-loving God; Rama has been depicted by Hindu fundamentalists as a militant god even though the warrior aspect forms a very small part of the classical iconography of Maryada Purushottoam.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak had mobilized nationalist energy through a revival of the Gajapati festival which popularized an anachronistic “Mahatma” sense of greatness among the champaran Maharashtra. Tilak’s intention had been to forge a Hindu identity that was readily recognizable.

Another instance is these of the Bhagavad gita as a text recommending the virtues of action as a religious injunction against British rule. The Gita, Tilak analyzed, was full of the merits of austerity as well as action in attaining salvation:

“Perform thy allotted work,” Krishna advises Arjuna, “for action is superior to inaction.”

A tactical interpretation of the Gita thus swayed its believers to submit to the religious legitimacy of terrorism. It is significant that tradition, regarded in general terms to be a fixed entity, is disfigured from outside by the literary or historical imagination in the interests of power or manipulation.

Even though tradition identifiably belongs to a fixed past, what happens infact is a translation of its supposed qualities of homogeneity a conformity in different political climates. The masses, says Bipin Chandra Pal, have always believed in Krishna:

“They sought a practical application of that faith, not as a mere religious or spiritual force, but as a social, and perhaps, even as a political, inspiration. Krishna stood too far away from e present. As God, he is no doubt present inspirit always and everywhere. What they crave for was his manifestation in the flesh….. A fresh crow went up from the heart of his chosen people for a fresh advent of the Savior”.

It is worthy of speculation whether the “fresh cry” went up from the masses or was a fabrication of the minority of the Western-educated intelligentsia of India who rapidly grasped the hegemonic principles of European political thought.

Bipin Chandra Pal, in fact reveals the role of traditions religion and its commonly known relics in urging the masses into political activism. He uses the examples of Swaraj to explain the original religious connotation of a political phenomenon.

The word originally symbolized self-rule or restraint, embodying austere, inactive living that held out the promise of deliverance from eh evil cycle of successive reincarnations. The term was borrowed, for politics from the Vedas, indicating how an individual attains oneness with the Universal, and in turn establishes harmony with every being, he comes in contract with.

This concept is modified by historians like Bipin Chandra Pal to embody no merely universal federation but national freedom as well. By the time, we approach Gandhi; the concept for Swaraj evolves into a symbol having a very definite political edge, alloyed somewhat with another- worldly sanctity to consolidate public appeal.

Bipin Chandra Pal also encouraged Indians to revive the cult of Kali, the goddess for destruction, and recommended the sacrifice for 108 white goats at every new moon.

Keeping his Western education in view, the appeal o the draconian image of Kali, complete with her garland of human heads dripping with blood licked by jackals, is obliviously a deliberate appeal to primitive ritual.

The fascination of antiquity reveals the seduction of ancient in engendering nationalism. What is also strikingly apparent is the crossing of boundaries between fiction and history of images that issue from the accepted repository of non-truth into the construction of nationalist thought.

Within the colonial situation, the figuration of a common identity leads to unitary nationalism for it is only through collective religious or linguistic sentiments that political ends can be reached. These strategies are motivated by the desire to dominate; and this is achieved through the imposition of the idea of ethnic superiority of a social group.

For instance, the rhetoric of nationalism in Indian has always been built on Hindu iconography since Hindus are in the majority.

It is interesting to dismantle the notion of the monolithic Hindu identity, and examine the various communities and segmented identities distinguished by Language, caste, occupation and geographical location as indicated in historical accounts. The urge to construct a homogeneous Hindu heartland came at a later stage and was legitimized by the expedient twisting of available historical evidence.

Romila Thaper has explained the homogenizing tendency of Hinduism:

The new Hinduism, which is now sought to be projected as the religion of this community, is in many ways a departure from the earlier religious sects. It seeks historicity for the incarnations of its deities, encourages the idea of a centrally sacred book, claims monotheism as significant to the worship of deity acknowledges the authority of the ecclesiastical organization of certain sects as prevailing over all and has supported large scale missionary work and conversion. These hangs allow it to transcend caste identities and reach out to larger numbers.

Hence, religions outside Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism have been carefully absorbed into the mainstream of Hinduism by sweeping aside their distinctiveness.

In actual fact, what we know to be Hinduism was possibly and fixture of a large number of sects and cults which observed common symbols, yet followed diverse customs and rituals. The final idea that we get from such a religious community is its lack of uniformity.

This raises questions about the etymological beginning of the term “Hindu” as a geographical nomenclature. For it has been discovered. And as Professor Thaper points out, the region around the river Indus was referred to as Hindus, implying that it had neither religious nor cultural connotations.

It was rather an all-embracing term for the people of the idiom subcontinent which spanned the river Indus or Sindh. AI-Hind, therefore, referred to a geographical area, and Hindus were those who lived in it. In the eyes of the new arrivals, Hindus, thus essentially came to mean “the other”. Imperceptibly, however, the meaning shifted to those who were inhabitants of India but embraced a belief that was neither Christian nor Islamic.

Interestingly, therefore, “Hindu” came to comprise the Brahmins as well as the other cults including the lower castes. This contradicted the exclusive premises of Brahmins who found themselves clubbed with a host of pagan elements infringing upon their community.

As for the large number of non-Brahmin sects, the all embracing term “Hindu” must have been equally perplexing, since they lost their distinctiveness and stood assimilated into Hinduism.


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