Indians love premature celebrations almost as much as they seem to like disappointment. Witness any cricket world cup in which India has been a contender: the victorious dances the moment a match begins, and then the familiar, subdued return to reality when it is lost.

Right now, as the Indian elections progress towards their finale, there’s a mood of celebration among the supporters of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The market decided some time ago that India will soon have a BJP government, and since then has stabilised and is now on an upswing.

For those who aren’t looking forward to a BJP reign, it is a time for nervousness. Those like me who have lived through a term of BJP government (1998-2004) know that Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate revered and reviled in almost equal measure is only part of the problem; the larger issue is the BJP itself and its disciplinarian, quasi-militant, extreme right-wing outfit, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The riots in Modi’s Gujarat that killed 2,000 Muslims took place while the BJP was in office. During that period the BJP education minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, proposed that astrology should be studied at university. Both these were expressions of the party’s robust, masculine Hinduism. We can’t be certain what might be on the agenda with an entrenched BJP.

The endlessly repeated criticisms of Modi don’t seem to have made the slightest difference. But an observation in the Times of India from a Muslim activist, Tanweer Alam, is worth noting for its directness: “India is secular, not because Muslims want it to be but because this country has evolved over millennia in [such] a way that religion and its practice have been left out of the domain of the state. This is reflected in India’s constitution. It is relevant to note that Europe did not become secular to accommodate Jews, Muslims or Buddhists, but to protect people from sectarian strife within Christianity. US secularism has similar origins. India too is secular because of Hindus, not Muslims, Sikhs, Christians or Parsis.”

This is important. But if Hinduism, rather than what Indians call “secularism”, is to be the dominant paradigm for the near future, what does it mean for politics today? Given that it was never an organised religion, and even its name has a Persian rather than indigenous provenance, Hinduism is hard to pin down. Its fluidity encompasses the caste system, mythology and austere philosophical positions including atheism. Even texts that are now associated with Brahminical Hinduism, such as the Bhagavad Gita, are really subtly anti-Brahminical given the influence on them of Buddhism.

It was also part of the immensely sophisticated cultural makeup of a certain kind of Hindu to treat the stories central to their beliefs as both sacred fact and metaphor. This was one of the characteristics of this faith that made it open up to secularism.

Asserting identity

The BJP’s contribution to the reshaping of Hinduism has been twofold. First, by turning metaphorical moments such as the birth of Rama into historic events to be fought over, it has made Hinduism a literal-minded, Europeanised, Semitic-style faith. By taking away from Hinduism its complexity and contradictoriness, both the BJP and the free-market “new India” in which it has flourished have produced a generation that knows little about Hinduism.

Second, the political, instrumental use of Hinduism to defend and assert identity while assailing other identities, and a general ignorance of religious experience on the part of the most active religionists, means that not only do we live in an age when to be Hindu is to constantly take offence, but the line separating obeisance from offence, the holy from the disgusting, religious pride from poor taste, is blurred. Indians are being schooled to defend the sacred, but have absolutely no idea how to recognise it.

Let me provide an example. “Prophylactic Hindu tiles”, as I’ll call them, have been proliferating in India for the past two decades. You see them on walls, the sides of urinals, and staircases. They have on them a Hindu deity Shiva, Parvati, Ganesh painted in the European style that is a cliche of kitsch Hindu iconography. Their function is to discourage urinating and spitting on public surfaces, both compulsive national masculine pastimes. The argument they embody never actually inscribed in either ancient scripture or even a municipal text is that no one would dare urinate or spit betel juice on a deity. I can think of no more tasteless use of the sacred, but the bizarre interpretation of religion in contemporary India means that hardly anybody thinks the tiles an outrage.

In its unintended strangeness it is both akin to and the very opposite of Marcel Duchamp’s “found object”. Duchamp placed a urinal in an art gallery in 1917, named it Fountain and so turned it into an art object. He not only inaugurated the artistic avant garde, but also created an aesthetic and political scandal, provoking his audience to reimagine how and why things become culturally sanctioned.

The prophylactic tile, too, performs a political role, if “political” means the instrumental use of religion in the “new India”. Here, the sacred is not meant to cause wonder, but to impose order and obedience and curb visceral urges.

And what of the astonishingly rich creative legacy of Hinduism in modernity? Its demise is hardly remarked on. Among the last artistic products of that legacy were the nude Hindu deities painted by M.F. Husain, for which he was hounded out of the country.

If modern Hindus wanted secularism primarily for themselves, it is worth noting that they also wanted their faith to be largely unprotected, a free and common cultural resource for everybody: atheist, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Sikh, Parsi and Hindu. When Husain, a Muslim, worked on those pictures, he believed we still lived in that world. It’s become clear in the past decade that we don’t, and pretty evident even if the BJP loses that we won’t any time soon.

— Guardian News & Media Limited


Amit Chaudhuri is a novelist and ­professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia. His latest book is Telling Tales, a collection of essays.