by Dr. Charles Hoole, Principal, Baldaeus Theological College, February 2003
Summary: In many parts of South Asia Hindu extremism is on the rise. At the end of last year, following a visit to Tamil Nadu, the Sri Lankan minister of Hindu Religious Affairs, Mr. T. Maheswaran publicly stated in his address to a Saiva Mahasaba that he would be presenting an anti-conversion bill in the parliament in February 2003. The bill if it is passed would make religious conversion a punishable offense in this land as it has been done recently in Tamil Nadu. Such legislation would directly violate the fundamental right of each individual to choose his or her own faith, that necessarily includes a particular way of life. Indeed the legislation would in effect condemn the low caste and untouchable Hindus to live without human dignity in servile obedience to the high castes.
In many parts of South Asia Hindu extremism is on the rise. At the end of last year, following a visit to Tamil Nadu, the Sri Lankan minister of Hindu Religious Affairs, Mr. T. Maheswaran publicly stated in his address to a Saiva Mahasaba that he would be presenting an anti-conversion bill in the parliament in February 2003. The bill if it is passed would make religious conversion a punishable offence in this land as it has been done recently in Tamil Nadu. Such legislation would directly violate the fundamental right of each individual to choose his or her own faith, that necessarily includes a particular way of life. Indeed the legislation would in effect condemn the low caste and untouchable Hindus to live without human dignity in servile obedience to the high castes.
According to the speech reported in the Tamil daily, Sudar Oli (Nov. 18) the major motive for the minister’s campaign seems to come from the missionary activities of the medieval Saivite saints, nayanmars, whose attacks on the Buddhists and Jains contributed to their virtual disappearance from the Tamil scene between the seventh and the thirteenth centuries. Their missionary activities were shaped by the puranic view of evildoers. The Hindu saints contemptuously denounced their opponents as nastikas (heretics), and mlecchas (barbarians) followed by a confident assertion that they would all be exterminated at the end of the Kali Age when dharma would again be restored. In their campaign the saints did not hesitate to use religious violence. The Saivite saint, Campantar was responsible for the persecution of thousands of Jains. The most savage cruelty was inflicted on them when no less than eight thousand Jains suffered a horrible death by impalement. The event is celebrated in an annual festival at the Minaksi temple at Madurai, where it commemorates the impalement at the young saint’s urging. In reviewing this track record the well known Indian historian Romila Thapar has cogently argued that the Saivites in particular have been prone to persecuting their competitors. Hence it is not surprising that the Hindu zealots of today should continue to draw their main inspiration from the triumphal missionary activities of the medieval saints.
The evidence from the activities of BJP, VHP and RSS show that the goal of this Hindu crusade is to establish a form of Hindudom or Hindutva. The medieval saints, the nayanmars and alvars, succeeded in creating their own caste-based Hindu social order by exterminating or banishing the Buddhists and the Jains who had previously occupied a dominant position in Tamilakam. It is noteworthy that these crusaders were composed of brahmans and vellalars; and it is the brahman-vellalar alliance that first created a Hindudom in the tenth century. The order was based on the hierarchical principal of purity and impurity. It was a continuously graded status order whose extremes are the Brahman at the top – the most pure of humanity – and the untouchable at the bottom – the least pure of humanity.
It is this same medievalist crusade for Hindutva that is presently being re-enacted in Gujarat under the leadership of Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, who has fashioned himself as a Hindutva hero, a saviour of Hindus. Driven by Modi’s brand of politics of hate Hindu mobs slaughtered over a thousand Muslims and Christians, while destroying many places of worship. It is an irony that Gujarat, the traditional base of Jains and the land which gave birth to Mahatma Gandhi, the Apostle of Non-violence should be generating so much violence against religious minorities.
Architects of Terror
Modi belongs to the ruling BJP, Bharatiya Janata Party. He had previously served for several years as a high ranking RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh) official. RSS is a para-military organization. These and other Hindu revivalist parties that have played an important role in politics in the second half of the twentieth century had their antecedents in the thought of B. G. Tilak (1856 – 1920), Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1824 – 83) and V. D. Savarkar (1883 – 1966). Tilak served six years’ rigorous imprisonment in Burma after being arrested on terrorist charges by the British. His magnum opus written in prison was a commentary on the Bhagavard Gita, in which he argued that violence in defence of the dharma, particularly caste dharma, was morally justifiable. Like Tilak, Savarkar was a Chitpavan Brahman. He grew up steeped in the martial traditions of the Maratha regions and the militant nationalism of Tilak, to which he added the skills in bomb-making and assassination. He too was convicted of terrorism and banished to the Andaman islands.
Savarkar called for the establishment of ‘Hindutva’, the making of India into a religious state in which laws on Hindu religious practices would be enforced on Hindus as well as non-Hindus. The slogan of Vinayak Savarkar, "Hinduize India and militarize Hinduism", became popular among extremists. One of them, a devoted lieutenant of Savarkar felled Gandhi with three pistol shots in early 1948 to avenge what he felt was his betrayal of the Hindu cause.
Hindutva in Lanka
It is this militant tradition of Hinduism that is now being introduced to Sri Lanka. The Minister of Hindu Affairs would have the support of organizations like VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), which are committed to spreading Hindutva outside India. These organizations receive millions of US dollars from corporates in the US to instigate violence against religious minorities and propagate Hindutva. The Maryland based charity organization, India Development and Relief Fund (IDRF) is a key fundraiser for VHP and RSS initiated projects in India and abroad. These projects have little to do with ‘relief and development’, instead they relate to reconversion programmes and efforts to Hinduise society. This is precisely what VHP is already doing in Sri Lanka. VHP has an office in Colombo, and its agents are reported to move freely in the LTTE controlled regions, which would not be possible without Tiger consent.
Christians for Hindutva
The Minister of Hindu Religious Affairs can also count on the support of influential bishops and priests from the mainline churches who openly deny that Christianity alone is the one true faith. Many of them are actively involved in redefining the Christian faith to make it theologically more inclusive. To this end new liturgies are being produced incorporating Hindu chants (mystical syllable OM), calendrical rituals and sacred texts. These syncretists and pluralists, being so committed to Hinduising the Church, would have a mutual interest in calling for a moratorium on evangelism and conversion. However many ordinary Christians will refuse to compromise by supporting the Hindutva crusade, choosing instead to remain faithful to their Lord. They prefer to live by Peter’s dictum, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ (Acts 5:29); and so, irrespective of legal consequences these Christians continue to share the Gospel of ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins’ (Lk.24:47) with their non-Christian neighbours.
The Way Ahead
In some respects the new crusade against minority religions is to be expected. The tolerance of the minority religions that has prevailed until now is largely based on the secular ideal imported from the West. For instance the policy of the previously dominant Congress and Federal parties led by Nehru and Chelvanayagam respectively, was religious neutrality. But during the last three decades there has been a reassertion of traditional Hindu, as opposed to Western as well as Christian values. Militant Hindus want a specifically Hindu state; as an Eelamist leader, Satyendra asserted a couple of decades ago, ‘Tamilum Saivamum, Saivmu Tamilum" implying that the Tamil and Saivite identities are identical and therefore inseparable. For this reason militant Hindus advocate Hinduization of government and politics.
All this reveals an important truth about Hinduism. It may be amazingly tolerant of every kind of belief within its own fold, but has real difficulty in extending the same tolerance to divergent beliefs outside the Hindu fold. This is because of Hinduism’s tendency to encompass every faith, finding a niche for each in the vast hierarchical scheme of things. This is precisely what happened to the Syrian (Thomas) Christians of Malabar. For centuries this church has been encapsulated within caste society, regarded by Hindus as a caste, occupying a recognized (and high) place within the caste hierarchy, and distinguished from other castes primarily by the peculiarity of their cult. The Syrian community itself is internally divided into sects closely corresponding to subcastes. Until the advent of Protestant missions, the Syrians were quite content to accept and operate the caste system without any egalitarian protest.
The Syrian example shows that tolerance is conditioned upon a basic acceptance of a Hindu view of life and Hinduism’s peculiar genius for absorption. What would be difficult to tolerate is the claim on the part of Christian faith that it alone is the one true faith. On this basis Christians proclaim that Jesus is ‘the way and the truth and the life’; no-one therefore can come to God except through him (Jn.14:6-7). They freely invite everyone to come to Jesus Christ in faith and repentance and to take part in the new life he gives by his grace towards sinners. Coming to Jesus in faith and repentance in this way is conversion – which is clearly unacceptable to Mr. Maheswaran. The traditional as well as new militant Hindu stance is: ‘You may believe anything you choose, worship in any way you see fit, have any code of ethics you like. But you must acknowledge that there are many paths (margas) toward God and that your way is merely yours, that Jesus is merely your ‘ishta deva’. To the orthodox Christian this kind of distinctly Hindu approach to reality goes against the grain. Acceptance of this approach is tantamount to conversion to Hinduism. Hence it is vital that at this crucial juncture we resist the Hindutva pressures coming from inside and outside the church and at the same time defend the rights and freedoms enjoined by the present constitution.