Elite Responses: Constructing 'Hinduism'

by Gail Omvedt

( An excerpt from the chapter 'Colonial Challenges, Indian Responses and Buddhist Revival' from the book 'Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste')

The response of the Brahmanic elite to colonial challenges was to emphasise the question of foreign rule and regain independence. The challenge of industrialisation and India's material backwardness was seen as the result of imperialism and proposed to be met first by an emphasis on 'swadeshi' and autonomy and then with proposals for a state-guided industrialisation (defined as 'socialism') once India gained independence. And the intellectual and moral challenges were sought to be deflated by a reconstruction and redefinition of a 'Hindu' identity.

Almost all intellectual histories of colonialism, written as they are either by the British or by the Indian elite, have stressed the role of imperialism and the development of the independence movement and the formation of an independent nation-state as the important processes of the colonial period. Even the 'subaltern studies' school recently has emphasised only the actions of the peasantry and other exploited classes in this process, without seeing them making any contribution to the ideas and ideals of the times. (It has also defined 'class' in neo-Marxist terms and ignored the caste/gender aspects of subaltern identity). Only recently have a few studies from within the 'non-Brahman' tradition (Aloysius 1997; Geetha and Rajadurai 1998) and a few more well-known scholars (Chakravarty 1996; Sarkar 1997) begun to dissect the way in which non-elites dealt, at the intellectual level, with the challenges of colonialism, industrialisation, new ideas of equality and rationality, and national identity.

Recent studies, though, have provided many insights about the elites. Partha Chatterjee, for instance, has made the important point that Indians (meaning the elite) came to define their 'national' identity in terms of the inner, spiritual world that was their own, whereas in the outer, material realm they remained backward, exploited and discriminated against by the powers of colonial industrialism (Chatterjee 1993). This required both—protecting the inner world from the assaults of new ideas but at the same time reinterpreting it in ways that would be conducive to 'modernisation'.

Some European ideas proved useful. Thus, whereas 'science' seemed to challenge the notion of the divine origin of the social system of Brahmanism, the racism that was inherent in early theories of 'Aryan origin' could be turned around to justify it. The very classification of 'Indo-European' resulted from the linguistic similarities between Sanskrit and European languages, which in turn led to the postulation of early bands of heroic, pastoral Aryans coming into the subcontinent, giving birth to the Vedas, subjugating original dark-skinned inhabitants, and eventually developing a caste system in which the three 'twice-born' varnas were seen as of Aryan (i.e., 'European' descent) and the lower Shudras, untouchables and 'tribals' as descendants of the conquered natives. The British developed this racially-oriented 'Aryan theory' as an explanation of caste; and it initially served the 19th century upper-caste intellectuals, providing a 'scientific' basis to argue for the superiority of Brahmanic elites and their model of society. The admiration of many Europeans for early Aryan or Vedic society was welcomed, and aided in the idealisation of this society as a 'golden age' of relative simplicity and heroism. The varna system was re-theorised as representing a basically stable, cooperative and harmonious society which had only degenerated with Muslim rule.

Nationalism was seen in cultural terms—as unity derived from a special religious and spiritual identity, and religion was seen as its essence. It was admitted that India was a racially and culturally diverse country, but the core of this diversity and its essential unity was embodied in a cultural stream which had its fountainhead in the Vedas and the Vedantic belief in a universal soul underlying all. 'Hindu'—a word which had originally had a geographical connotation (an Iranian mispronunciation of the river 'Sind' and the area beyond it) but which was gradually applied to the non-Muslim inhabitants of the subcontinent, and then used by the British to designate all who were not Muslims or Christians—was appropriated by the Brahmanic elite to identify their religion. It was given a national interpretation: 'Hinduism' was the religion of all the people, who may worship god in diverse images and ways, but all were now said to have in common 'national' deities such as Ram and an ultimate allegiance to a Vedantic supreme being.

It was within this framework that the debates over social reform developed. As historians like Sudhir Chandra have shown, there were strange overlaps between those characterised as 'orthodox' and those characterised as 'reformers' (Chandra 1994: 71–115). Both appealed to the same traditionally sacred texts; both sought to justify their position with reference to the ancient Vedic religion. Names such as the Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj illustrated this. Some of this emerging elite appealed to the emotionalism of bhakti movements (Brahmans in the Prarthana Samaj in Pune, for instance, played the instruments and sought to work themselves into a trance). Reformers argued that bans on widow remarriage, sati and other apparently obnoxious customs were not really part of Vedic society but had developed as later 'excrescences', deriving from conditions of the time, for example the need to veil women and keep them protected from marauding Turks. This view became all-pervasive.

Even the low castes were urged to view Hinduism as 'theirs', to refuse conversion to an alien religion but instead try to reform their own degraded customs and fight the disabilities they suffered under.

The fact that the new ideology of 'Hindu nationalism' had spread so widely among the elite, that it formed the unquestioned framework of thinking of 'orthodox' and 'conservative' alike, of nationalists and social reformers, can be seen in the writings of a man considered practically the father of 'Indian secularism'— Jawaharlal Nehru. In his influential Discovery of India, written while in prison, Nehru undertakes a vast interpretive survey of his country (see also Aloysius 1997: 155–62). He refuses to accept the 'conquest' aspect of the Aryan incursion and instead sees the 'great cultural synthesis and fusion...between the incoming Aryans and Dravidians' which produced the basic Indian culture, but he sees a 'wide gulf between the two' with the Aryans considering themselves 'vastly superior'. He cites the Rig Veda as the origin from which 'flow out the rivers of Indian thought and philosophy, of Indian life and culture.' Caste, to him, is a solution to the problem of organising the coexistence of different races (Nehru 1959: 39–47). In fact, he sees it as so central to Indian social life that its annihilation 'may well lead to a complete disruption of social life, resulting in the absence of cohesion, mass suffering and the development on a vast scale of abnormalities in individual behaviour, unless some other social structure, more suited to the times and the genius of the people, takes its place' (ibid.: 149).

This is indeed a warning against social reform! Caste is part of 'the genius of the Indian people', where the emphasis is on group life as opposed to western individualism. It has stood through the ages, and its power and cohesiveness derive from its functions! Brahmans, he argues, retain their prestige because of their learning. The idea of dharma, the basis of social order, 'stands out in marked contrast to the modern assertion of rights, rights of individuals, of groups, of nations' (ibid.: 52–53). In spite of wars and conquest, nationalism was an underlying theme of Indian history—from Chanakya and Chandragupta Maurya onwards, and Brahmanism was at the heart of it:

in the ages since the Aryans had come down to what they called Aryavarta...the problem that faced India was to produce a synthesis between this new race and culture and the old race and civilization of the land. To that the mind of India devoted itself, and it produced an enduring solution built on the strong foundations of a joint Indo-Aryan culture. Other foreign elements came and were absorbed... [after periodic invasions] The reaction was essentially a nationalist one.... That mixture of religion and philosophy, history and tradition, custom and social structure, which in its wide fold included almost every aspect of the life of India then, and which might be called Brahmanism or (to use a later word) Hinduism, became the symbol of nationalism. It was indeed a national religion with its appeal to all those deep instincts, racial and cultural, which form the basis of nationalism today. Buddhism...was essentially international, a world religion, and as it developed and spread it became increasingly so. Thus it was natural for the old Brahmanic faith to become the symbol, again and again, of nationalist revivals (ibid.: 91–92).

Proclaiming Hinduism, or Brahmanism, as nationalism was the underlying theme of the 19th and 20th century development of the Indian nationalist movement. 

[Note:You'll find a scribd version of the book here]