Challenging Hinduphobia: Unveiling the complex realities in India

In the run-up to India’s impending elections, the political arena is once again becoming a battleground, where the age-old strategy of consolidating minority votes while dividing the majority has taken center stage. This tactic, deeply ingrained in India’s political history since its hard-fought independence in 1947, has set the stage for a highly charged political climate.

On September 2nd, 2023, the nation was jolted by Tamil Nadu’s Sports and Youth Affairs Minister, Udhayanidhi Stalin, who took the stage at a conference provocatively titled the “Forum to Eradicate Sanatana Dharma.” In his incendiary speech, he likened Sanatana Dharma, commonly known as Hinduism worldwide, to dengue, malaria, and mosquitoes, while calling for its eradication. This inflammatory rhetoric deliberately targeted the majority population.

The very existence of this conference, dedicated to discussing the eradication of Sanatana Dharma, the predominant faith in India with approximately 80% of the population adhering to its ancient traditions, highlights the tolerance of the Hindu community. But it also raises critical questions about the limits of freedom of expression. India does not grant absolute freedom of speech; it disallows religious disrespect under the law.

However, disrespect toward the majority religion often goes unchecked. Even quoting minority religious scripture verbatim during a heated debate, while enduring constant taunts and disrespect toward one’s own faith, can lead to international outrage, party expulsions, Supreme Court interventions, and calls for violence, as seen in the recent Nupur Sharma case. While Nupur Sharma remains confined to her home, the individual who insulted the symbolic representation of Lord Shiva, the Shivalinga, walks free without any repercussions.

A deeply worrying aspect of the conference is the presence of Mr. Sekar Babu, the HR&CE Minister of Tamil Nadu. The fact that the man responsible for running temples in the state is participating in a forum to end Sanatana Dharma should ring alarm bells regarding the huge conflict of interest evident here. The minister has no moral right to continue in his position; he not only continues in his post, but also justifies the forum as necessary, and drawing a false distinction between Sanatana Dharma and Hinduism.

Udhayanidhi Stalin, a follower of Dravidian ideologue EV Ramasamy Naicker (EVR), is the son of Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister. EVR is infamous for calling for the genocide of Brahmins, a mere 3% of Tamil Nadu’s population. He even referred to Sita, a revered figure in Hindu culture, as a “prostitute.”

His provocative actions extended to garlanding Hindu idols with footwear and advocating for the cutting of sacred threads (janeu) and tufts of hair (shikha) worn by various Hindu castes, including some Shudra castes—an act of violence perpetuated by the Dravida Kazhagam (DK) and its political successor, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), to which Udhayanidhi Stalin belongs, well into the late 1980s.

EVR’s vehement opposition to the Indian freedom movement and his self-proclaimed atheism which resulted in severe criticisms of Hindu gods while being absolutely silent on gods revered by people of other religions are well-known and are well-emulated by parties espousing the Dravidian ideology. These antics are even considered par for the course in Tamil Nadu.

Among all Dravidian parties, it is the DMK which has perpetuated this policy of Hindu hatred under the guise of anti-casteism most fanatically. Through media outlets they own, they have painted the picture that casteism is an exclusively Hindu issue, disregarding casteism and caste-based violence against Pasmanda Muslims by the Ashraf class and against Dalit Christians by upper caste Christians.

They have successfully misled the world into equating casteism exclusively with Hinduism, even though it is a social ill present across religions and lacks scriptural sanction in Hinduism.

While the DK claimed to be against caste discrimination, critics argue that it was, in practice, a group of landed non-Brahmins who often oppressed both landless Brahmins and Dalits.

Despite the DMK’s claims of advocating anti-caste politics, Tamil Nadu struggles with intercaste marriage rates ranking among the lowest and an alarming rise in caste-based violence. Notably, in June, 2022, R. Rajiv Gandhi, the official spokesperson of the DMK reiterated EVR’s call for the extermination of the miniscule minority Brahmin community.

As this political drama unfolds, India stands at a pivotal juncture where rhetoric and ideals clash, and the essence of Indian identity hangs in the balance. Udhayanidhi Stalin’s remarks have not only polarized public opinion but have also fractured the opposition alliance. Leaders like Uddhav Thackeray, Arvind Kejriwal, and Mamata Banerjee have distanced themselves from his controversial statements, recognizing the need for restraint and the potential consequences of inflaming religious sentiments.

However, there are those within the alliance, such as Priyank Kharge of the Congress and A Raja of the DMK, who have chosen to further ignite the fire. These leaders not only endorse Udhayanidhi Stalin’s divisive rhetoric but also spew venom against the majority religion themselves, with A Raja going as far as to label all Hindu women as prostitutes.

Amidst this recent surge in incidents of Hinduphobia in India, encompassing prejudice, discrimination, derogatory comments, caricatures, and the desecration of Hindu symbols and places of worship, what is extremely concerning is the tendency of a certain section of the country’s intelligentsia to downplay or disregard these incidents under the pretext that the majority cannot be subjected to threats. They argue that, since Hindus make up the majority, they cannot possibly be victims of discrimination or hatred.

This perspective is not only flawed but also dangerous, as it disregards the principles of equality, respect, and religious freedom enshrined in India’s constitution. It not only ignores the gravity of the issue but also risks perpetuating a cycle of intolerance and division within the nation.

Hinduism, one of the world’s oldest religions, has been a foundational element of Indian society for millennia, with approximately 80% of the population adhering to its diverse beliefs. However, this majority status has made Hindus susceptible to instances of discrimination and prejudice, often rooted in a distorted narrative of ‘majoritarianism.’

Discrimination and hatred should never be tolerated, regardless of one’s religious or cultural identity. By sweeping these incidents under the rug, we risk normalizing prejudice and allowing it to fester, potentially exacerbating social divisions and tensions.

Moreover, it is crucial to understand that the term ‘majority’ does not imply homogeneity. Hinduism is a diverse and complex religion, encompassing a wide range of beliefs, practices, and traditions. Discrimination against Hindus is not solely an attack on their religious identity but also on the rich tapestry of cultural and philosophical diversity that Hinduism represents.

The role of the intelligentsia in society is to uphold principles of justice, tolerance, and inclusivity. By dismissing instances of Hinduphobia, this section of society fails in its duty to protect the rights and dignity of all citizens, regardless of their religious background. This multifaceted challenge necessitates a nuanced and empathetic approach to safeguard the values of a pluralistic and harmonious India.

In response to the backlash from Hindus, Udhayanidhi Stalin’s father attempted damage control. But, instead of a straightforward apology, he claimed that his son intended to eradicate the caste system and not Hinduism itself. However, Udhayanidhi’s words were unambiguous; he made no mention of caste, expressing his desire to eradicate Sanatana Dharma. Despite this, the DMK cadre embarked on a campaign to portray it as anti-caste rhetoric, framing anyone opposing Udhayanidhi Stalin as a supporter of the caste system and an oppressor of Dalits.

They also attempted to regionalize the issue, erroneously suggesting that Sanatana Dharma referred to the North Indian religion, while Tamilians were Hindus. When the DMK spokesperson, Constantine Ravindran, was asked if these statements will have electoral repercussions, he went on to say that only illiterate people will follow a religion like Sanatana Dharma and such illiterates are only found in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar—adding regional hatred to the already problematic stand.

These distortions confuse the DMK cadre, who have been indoctrinated to believe that their religion differs from what their leaders disparage. It is crucial to dispel misconceptions surrounding Sanatana Dharma and clarify that it is the same as Hinduism.

Addressing a common misconception propagated by the DMK, they claim that women, Shudras and Dalits were denied education under Sanatana Dharma. However, this assertion is unfounded as some of the greatest works of Hinduism were authored by individuals from these backgrounds.

Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana, was a hunter, while Vyasa, who composed the Mahabharata, was raised by a single mother who was a fisherwoman. Shabari, a tribal woman who encounters Lord Rama during his quest for Sita, was a disciple of Sage Matanga, who himself hailed from the Shudra varna.

Opponents of Hinduism claim that caste discrimination is rampant in the Mahabharata because Ekalavya, a tribal, was refused the knowledge of archery. This is a concocted story; the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata mentions that Drona, the teacher employed by Hastinapura, refused to teach Ekalavya because he is a Nishada prince owing allegiance to Magadha, a sworn enemy of Hastinapura.

It is akin to asking why a scientist employed by Apple is not sharing company secrets with a Google employee! Another example they give is that of Karna, saying Karna was refused an education because he was a Shudra. This is again a figment of imagination; the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata mentions that Karna learned archery from Drona along with other children in Hastinapura, but when he wanted to learn how to use the Brahmastra, a celestial weapon, Drona refused to teach him as he considered him unfit for this knowledge.

Importantly, Drona also refused to teach the Kuru princes Duryodhana and Vikarna this very same knowledge. There were minimum eligibility criteria for learning the use of celestial weapons, just like we set minimum entry criteria for students who want to study Medicine or Engineering, which these individuals did not fulfil.

Misconceptions about caste discrimination in the Mahabharata have unfortunately been propagated through pop culture; therefore, these lies have become entrenched in the minds of most Hindus as well.

In more recent history, during periods when the caste system and untouchability were purportedly at their height, prominent figures like Saint Tukaram, who extensively wrote about Vitthala and Krishna, and Dhanurdasa, a Tamil Shudra disciple of Ramanuja, made significant spiritual and intellectual contributions.

These individuals, and others like Saint Namdev, Dhoyi, Narayana Guru, and Ayya Vaikundar, initially from Shudra backgrounds, eventually assumed Brahmin status through their dedication to spiritual and intellectual pursuits.

Until the introduction of caste-based reservations in British India, historical records demonstrate that individuals could change their caste, and caste groups often transitioned to different varnas. For a more detailed exploration of caste and varna mobility in recent times, readers are encouraged to refer to Arun Shourie’s “Falling Over Backwards: An Essay Against the Reservation and Judicial Populism.”

This historical perspective highlights the complexity of caste dynamics in India and challenges the oversimplified narratives perpetuated by certain political groups.

Some DMK members mistakenly believe that “Sanatana Dharma” is a book published in 1919 by the Central Hindu College, Varanasi under the aegis of George Arundale. They frequently reference a verse from the Purusha Sukta in the Rig Veda, which has been translated in this book, to disparage Sanatana Dharma.

The verse, Brahmanosya mukhamaseet, bahu rajanya kritah, Uru tadasya yad vaishyah, Padbhyam Shudro ajaayata, has been translated in this book as “The Brahmin arose from his mouth, from his arms, the Kshatriya was born. His thighs became the Vaishya, and feet produced the Shudra,” and is often cited out of context, leading to misunderstandings.

In its proper context, the verses of the Purusha Sukta describe the cosmos as a person. The verse in question means that the brahmins are like the mind of this cosmic person, because they are the intellectuals of society; the kshatriyas are like the arms of this cosmic person, because they are tasked with protection and vested with power, and in Hindu iconography, strong arms depict power; the vaishyas are like the thighs of this cosmic person, because they are tasked with trading and wealth generation, and thick thighs depict prosperity in Hindu iconography; and the shudras are like the feet of this cosmic person, because they are tasked with producing goods and services which is a key driver of progress, and in Hindu iconography, feet depict progress.

Brahmin, kshatriya, Vaishya, shudra are the four varnas of individuals as per hindu scripture. The Rig Veda, Bhagavad Gita, and even the much-maligned Manusmriti are clear that varna is not assigned by birth; it is assigned by the work one chooses to do. Just like all parts of the body are important to a person, all varnas are important to the cosmic person.

The misconceptions, especially among the DMK cadre who are practicing Hindus, make one thing abundantly clear—it is imperative to define Sanatana Dharma clearly. Sanatana Dharma, the name by which Indians knew Hinduism before the term Hinduism was coined, espouses a belief in the Brahman, divinity that manifests in various forms as needed. Every atom, living being, and non-living entity is a manifestation of this divinity and thus deserves respect.

The second tenet of Sanatana Dharma is the concept of Karma, which has been well-explained elsewhere. The third core tenet is the concept of Pitr Rina or debt to ancestors, which can be paid off through ancestor worship, good conduct, certain duties like marrying and bearing children, and the understanding that all life is interconnected.

While different schools of thought exist within Hinduism, some revering the Vedas (Saiva, Vaishnava, Shakta, and other Astika and Vaidika schools) and others rejecting them (Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and other Nastika schools), and some even rejecting the concept of God altogether and considering the physical universe as the ultimate reality worthy of worship/respect (Charvaka school), these three core principles remain constant. As long as you believe and follow these three core principles, you are a Sanatani/Hindu.

As the political landscape intensifies and divisive rhetoric escalates in the lead-up to the 2024 general election, Hindus across various philosophical schools must recognize that the attacks are directed at them, regardless of the terminology used—be it Vedic religion, Sanatana Dharma, Brahminism, or Hinduism. Just like attacking the arm of a person is akin to attacking the person, attacking one school of Hinduism is most definitely an attack on Hinduism as a whole.

It is my hope that the courts take note of the hate speech directed at Sanatana Dharma, ensuring that justice prevails. Armed with a clear understanding of what Sanatana Dharma represents, I hope Hindus can stand united in the face of divisive forces and misinformation.

I also hope that a better understanding of the scripture surrounding caste rectifies the global misconception that synonymizes Hinduism with casteism, as Hinduism’s rich tapestry of beliefs and practices extends far beyond this stereotype.

kryptonite: Public Health Scientist, Hindustani Singer, Kuchipudi Dancer, Ardent Traveller, Polyglot. Badly needs a break!
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