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Hindus Have Choices: Identity, PM Modi, and American Hindus

by Anantanand Rambachan

Guest Editorial

Supporters of Shri Narendra Modi, the recently elected Prime Minister of India, are looking to him to replicate nationally the hospitality to business investment and the infrastructure expansion that have fueled the growth in his home state of Gujarat. His economic track record was a major factor accounting for his electoral success.

Throughout the electoral campaign, however, concerns about Shri Modi’s leadership were focused, not so much on economic theory and policy, but significantly on the nature of his Hindu identity and the potential implications of his religious self-understanding for a multi-religious India. Discussions about religion and politics have a long and intense history in India, but the current anxiety about a leader’s religious worldview seems unprecedented. The attention on Shri Modi personalizes this anxiety, but there is a sense in which what it means to be Hindu is under scrutiny.

Shri Narendra Modi, 15th Prime Minister of India – Photo: WikipediaShri Modi’s opponents identify him with the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu organization founded in 1925 to serve and unite the Hindu community. Modi has a long association with and has held various positions in the RSS. The RSS, in its turn, is identified with the ideology of Hindutva (“Hinduness”), a doctrine of Indian identity espoused by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), in his well-know work with the same title (Hindutva). Savarkar’s definition of Indian identity has many elements, too complex to be discussed here.

Although he was concerned with defining a wider Indian identity, and not a specifically religious one, his use of the term “Hindutva” linked his ideology, in a special way, with what it means to be Hindu. It became controversial for the linking of Hindu identity with the nation of India and a regard for India as a sacred land. Underlining his broader project, Savarkar included Jains, Sikhs and Indian Buddhists in his category of “Hindu,” a move that causes unease to many in these traditions. He excludes Indian Muslims and Christians, representing them as being unable to affirm the geographical sanctity of India.

To search for the unifying elements in a diverse nation is not inherently problematic. This is an ongoing project in many countries. It is dangerous, however, if any proposed definition becomes the basis for representing some communities as alien, for hostility, and for mistrust about national loyalties. It is problematic if it makes demands that may violate their religious self-understanding. The uncritical identification of the Hindu religious tradition with Sarvarkar’s broader ideology of “Hindutva” causes anxiety to many within and outside the Hindu tradition.

Shri Modi’s election makes him the Prime Minister of India, a nation of ancient and enduring religious diversity. It is misleading and mischievous to label him singularly as a Hindu leader and to look to him alone for a clarification of the meaning of commitment to the Hindu tradition. De facto, however, he leads the country with the largest Hindu population and he has become the most visible political symbol of the Hindu tradition in our world. His words and actions will be analyzed for clues about the policy implications of his religious identity.

Shri Modi, like all Hindus and persons of other faiths, is challenged to exercise a choice among the many meanings of his tradition. Admitting that I know nothing of PM Modi’s deep religious convictions, I hope that he proves his critics, political and academic, wrong by championing the vision and practices of the Hindu tradition that exemplify hospitality and respect for religious diversity.

Modi at the inauguration of a new hospital in his home-state of Gujarat – Photo: WikipediaThe Hindu tradition offers a theological understanding of religious diversity that complements diversity in the civic sphere and which counters the tendency of religious exclusivists, across traditions, to use state power to enforce the teachings of a particular religion. There are teachings in the Hindu tradition that offer solid grounds for diversity, justice, dignity and the equal worth of all human beings. Savarkar’s definition of Indian identity should not be equated with Hindu identity. Hindus have choices and must exercise these in faithfulness to the Bhagavadgita’s call for commitment to the public good.

Hindu Americans know well the fears and the challenges of being a religious minority. We have participated in many legal and lobbying efforts to ensure that federal, state, and city policies are not partial to the interests of the religious majority or a single tradition. We affirm the right to self-definition and resist coercion to have the religious beliefs of others imposed on us. We contest monolithic definitions of American identity that would marginalize and exclude us. The continuing growth of Hindu and other Asian traditions on American soil is made possible by the framework of America’s pluralistic democracy and the constitutional provision that the state does not regulate religion.

Although the challenge of being a religious minority is new for most Hindu Americans, the experience is also an opportunity for understanding the predicament of religious minorities in many parts of our world. We must lift our voices in concern against ideologies that are intolerant of plural religious identities or make demands that violate religious freedom. Looking with hope to the flourishing of generations of Hindu Americans, we can affirm a Hindu tradition that is not narrowly identified with a particular nation, but that speaks to human beings across the boundaries of nationality, race, and ethnicity. This will be a great gift of American Hindus to their tradition.