Difficult, but important.
Talking about complex political, historical, and religious issues may seem intimidating, especially for those of us who have grown up outside India. Nevertheless, it is our responsibility to speak up. This guide is intended for Hindu-Americans who may want to talk to their parents, relatives, friends, or colleagues about Hindu nationalism but don’t know where to start. It will give an overview of Hindutva from a Hindu perspective and then provide some links we have collected that address the issue thoughtfully.
Hindutva is not simply “Hindu-ness.”
Hindutva, also called Hindu nationalism, is a right-wing political ideology that guides the current ruling party in India, the BJP, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Sometimes, people will argue that Hindutva is “a way of life,” or that Hindutva simply means “Hindu-ness,” synonymous with Hinduism. However, Hindutva is a modern, political ideology that is barely more than a hundred years old.
In some ways, Hindutva resembles right-wing nationalist movements around the world, advocating for economic protectionism and increased border security. Its distinguishing factor, though, is its core belief that India’s national identity should be synonymous with a Hindu identity.
The word “Hindutva” wasn’t even used until 1923, when it was first mentioned in V.D. Savarkar’s book Hindutva, which “articulates criteria for Indian identity based on citizenship, common ancestry, common culture and regard for India as fatherland (pitrbhu) and sacred land (puṇyabhu).” For Savarkar, Christians and Muslims could never be true Indians, despite the presence of both religions in India for centuries.
Hindu nationalist groups in India like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) were inspired not by Hindu teachings, but by Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s fascists in Italy.
“The idea of fascism vividly brings out the conception of unity amongst people… India and particularly Hindu India need some such institution for the military regeneration of the Hindus… Our institution of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh of Nagpur under Dr. Hedgewar is of this kind.”
– B. S. Moonje, Hindu nationalist leader who met fascist Italian dictator Mussolini in 1931
Hindutva violates the core teachings of Hinduism.
Some of the core teachings of Hindu scriptures include ekatva (oneness) and ahimsa (nonviolence). Hindutva promotes division and exploitation on the basis of religion. In a country where one fifth of the population is not Hindu, Hindutva advocates argue that India should be a country that privileges Hindus and openly incite violence against minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians. This is a majoritarian vision no different from the ugliness of white nationalism or conservative politicians who argue that the United States is a Christian country.
Hindutva is an American problem too.
Hindutva groups have a significant presence in the United States. This past September, 50,000 Indian-Americans attended a rally in Houston organized by Hindutva political activists that featured Narendra Modi and Donald Trump. Last year, in Chicago, leaders of India’s largest Hindu nationalist group spoke in Chicago to an audience of thousands of people at the World Hindu Congress.
Hindutva groups are active in the United States — they might be active at your local temple, on your college campus, or elsewhere in your community. These groups include the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (the American counterpart of the RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHP-A), and the Hindu Students Council.
Several Hindu American politicians and elected officials have displayed admirable leadership in opposing Hindutva as Hindus. These include U.S. Congressman Ro Khanna (D-CA), Illinois state senator Ram Villavalam (D), and former Chicago alderman Ameya Pawar (D).
Unfortunately, other Hindu American politicians have covertly and overtly supported Hindutva. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), the first Hindu in Congress, has received significant donations from Hindu nationalist leaders in the US, and was initially named chairwoman of the 2018 World Hindu Congress in Chicago. Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) spoke at the 2018 World Hindu Congress and also spoke this past October at an event in Chicago celebrating the founding of the RSS.
More Hindus need to speak out against Hindutva.
It is important to listen to and amplify the voices of groups who are most directly affected by Hindutva: Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis, and other marginalized groups. However, as Hindus, we have a special responsibility to speak out against Hindutva.
For years, some Hindu voices have been publicly opposing Hindutva, but now the time is more urgent than ever. Hindu scholar and pandit, Dr. Anantanand Rambachan, tells us that “The rise of populist nationalism, and especially those versions that clothe themselves in religious colors, requires a critique from the same religious traditions.”
No ancient Hindu texts or traditions call us to the service of a nation. However, they repeatedly suggest that we commit ourselves to supporting the welfare of all beings (sarva bhuta hite ratah). Our highest calling is not identity with a nation, but identity with fellow beings in joy and suffering. The Bhagavadgita commends a concern for the universal common good (lokasamgraha) in all actions. The implication is that a nationalism that advances the interests of a nation by the exploitation of other nations or which ignores the suffering of other nations violates the Gita’s call for commitment to a universal common good. Our prayer as spiritual and religious people should be for the happiness of all (loka samasta sukhino bhavantu).
It’s on us to have these conversations: we need to confront bigoted views in our family WhatsApp groups, question why they may be liberal when it comes to US politics but support a right-wing agenda in India, and work to continuously uplift spiritual, progressive, and humane values.
Scaachi Koul, “The Crisis In Kashmir Has Started A Conversation I Don’t Know How To Have” (Buzzfeed News, December 18, 2019)
In this article, Koul writes about the difficulty (and importance) of discussing the Indian government’s actions in Kashmir with her Kashmiri Pandit family. She asks, “If Hindus who live comfortably around the world, who don’t worry about being oppressed by other brown people, aren’t going to speak publicly about the harm their own community is doing, who will?
Dr. Balmurli Natrajan, “Searching for a Progressive Hindu/ism” (Tikkun, October 2009)
In this article, Dr. Natrajan provides an overview of the history of Hindutva, and how Hindutva-affiliated groups have been able to claim to be the public representatives of Hinduism. He also outlines some possibilities for Hindus to take back their religion from Hindutva.
Dr. Anantanand Rambachan, “Populist Nationalism and the Kena Upanishad” (Sadhana, September 13, 2018)
In this article, Dr. Rambachan draws upon the teachings of the Kena Upanishad to argue that “Any version of nationalism and national identity that undermines the dignity of others or that justifies and instigates violence is contrary to the fundamental teachings of the Hindu tradition.”
Ramesh Venkataraman, “Hindu way to resist Hindutva” (Indian Express, December 31, 2015)
Hinduism’s great diversity is one of its strengths—there is no one way to be Hindu. In this article, Venkataraman argues that advocates of Hindutva are trying to homogenize Hinduism, erasing its diversity of perspectives and practices. He calls on liberal Hindus to “engage seriously with Hinduism’s history, texts and living practices to articulate from within it an ethic of pluralism and tolerance that resonates in today’s India.”
Nivedita Menon, “Bharat Mata And Her Unruly Daughters” (Buzzfeed News, July 18, 2017)
In this article, Menon shows that the Hindutva “project of homogenizing Hinduism … remains an incomplete project to this day.” She outlines many fascinating examples of “the refusal of Hindu practices to be tamed into the pallid, rigid North Indian, upper caste version that is the basis of the Hindu nationalist project.”
Dr. Stanley Thangaraj, “Sipping on the Indian Haterade: Hindu American Whiteness and Support for Trump” (Tropics of Meta, January 30, 2017)
In this article, Dr. Thangaraj points out that “the Hindu fundamentalist community aligns perfectly with the anti-poor, anti-black, and anti-Muslim rhetoric of Donald Trump.” He goes on to say that “History is not on the side of Hindu fundamentalists in the United States. Rather, history has shown that Aryan myths of lighter skin tones, religious identification, caste status, or financial wealth will not stave off white supremacy. Let us stop sipping on this concoction that Modi and Trump share and rather jump into the waters of civil rights organizing with BlackLivesMatter, TransLivesMatter, Dreamers, Muslim civil rights activists, and immigration and refugee rights activists for a taste of democratic living.”
Valay Singh, “Ayodhya’s Forgotten Mahant and His Message of Peace” (The Wire, November 13, 2019)
This article discusses the life of Baba Lal Das, a Hindu priest who opposed Hindu nationalist groups like the RSS in their efforts to target Muslims and demolish Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid to build a temple for Lord Ram. He was assassinated in 1993.
Shivani Parikh, “Howdy Modi? The Case for a New Indian American Resistance Movement” (Hyphen, November 26, 2019)
In this article, Shivani Parikh outlines the ways that progressive Hindus and South Asians in the United States can look to other South Asian diasporas in order to combat Hindutva and other conservative ideologies.
Looking for more resources? You can find dozens of articles on Hindutva and other topics on our Sadhana Syllabus.
Last updated December 2019.