Hindutva: Narendra Modi, Varanasi, and Lord Shiva – Oopali Operajita

Modi doing Shiva puja in Kashi.

Oopali OperajitaHindutva has given back a voice to the hundreds of millions of Hindus stripped of their agency and rendered voiceless by centuries of brutal rule by invaders. – Oopali Operajita

Varanasi (Banaras/Kashi) is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities: it is about 2500 years old. It also happens to be Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency. He has certain profound obligations to this most sacred city. Woke journalists and activists, and members of the opposition are losing their marbles each day about the prime minister’s visit to … the newly constructed and refurbished Kashi Vishwanath Temple and Corridor.

As someone who has been called “Banaras ki Beti” (daughter of Banaras), since 1978, by the late Pandit Kishan Maharaj, a Varanasi icon, and a great tabla maestro, I have made frequent visits to Varanasi over four decades, for darshan of Lord Shiva, Baba Vishwanath, accompanied on occasion by Pandit Kishan Maharaj, and, on others, by a leading Hindustani vocalist, the late Pandit Jasraj and his guru and brother, Pandit Pratap Narain.

In the past, we made it through the bylanes and alleys—crowded and congested, but imbued with a constant awareness of the divine that pervades space and time, and transcends both. The very air in Varanasi has a serene and almost tangible otherworldliness: it is as if we are in the lap of the gods, and they let us embrace ourselves, and our lives, without a care, and with hope and faith, because they protect and love us. We often wished that the route to the temple was less crowded; now, our decades-long wishes have been fulfilled, first, by Modi, and then, by Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. A cousin of mine, a long-time resident of Varanasi and a doctor at BHU, said that the temple now looked and felt “magnificent” and that her recent visit was both easy and thrilling.

Modi is a practising Hindu. A leader cannot be expected to abdicate his faith just because he becomes head of government. US President Joe Biden is a Christian, and a proud, practising Catholic; Queen Elizabeth, in her role as a constitutional monarch, as well as head of the Church of England, recently broadcast her Christmas message on the BBC as she has been for the last many decades. (Where is the BBC’s much-vaunted secularism and neutrality, you wonder, in this blatant display of partisanship for the practice of religion by leaders of its own country, and the USA?) Islamic leaders quite conspicuously worship Allah at their mosques and holy sites during all their religious festivals (the BBC remains mute as a mouse about them too: it had better). You don’t hear cacophony about President Joe Biden, or the Queen, or Islamic leaders. The screeching and virulence are quite exclusively reserved for Modi.

Varanasi/Kashi is dear to every Hindu’s heart; most Hindus will try making at least one pilgrimage during their lifetime to Kashi. In the city which the god Shiva never leaves, and where he never sleeps, out of love for his devotees, there is an air of transcendence: in the speech of the pan vendor, the average Banarasiya, and the kewats, or humble boatmen, who say to me, with unstinted pride: “Prabhu Ram hamare pas utare the,” (the god Ram alighted in front of us: it was to us that he came, and not to anybody else). There is the all-pervading sacred River Ganga, called Ganga Maiya (Mother Ganga); and, above all, there is a sense of life lived to the fullest and deepest. I recall Adi Shankaracharya’s beautiful hymn Vishwanathashtakam:

Gangataranga ramaniya jatakalapam
Gouri nirantara vibhushita vamabhagam
Narayanapriyam Ananga madapaharam
Varanasi purapate bhaja Vishwanatham

I wonder about the Woke lot’s state of joblessness once Modi demits office: working themselves up into a state of hysteria will not be a choice offered to them each morning, with their tea or coffee and newspaper. Modi has been the person to hate du jour, day after day, month after month, and year after year. The elitist “Wokes” from India have counterparts in the West, and they are, to a significant extent, poorly tutored and audacious counterparts: their lack of knowledge and tastelessness is in direct proportion to their temerity.

The Woke conclave is also flipping all over the place with multiple mental haemorrhages about the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor—so devastating is its fear of united Hindus. A thousand years of brutalization, of unspeakable horrors perpetrated on the Hindus by invading dynasties—thousands of their temples desecrated (the Kashi Vishwanath Temple was one)—their idols smashed, tens of millions of them massacred, and their faith, all but obliterated: now they have finally mustered the courage to speak, write and unite.

For the activists and the media, creating division is the savour of the day, and puerile name-calling is the flavour of the day: “nationalist”, “hyper-nationalist”, “bhakt”, “sanghi”—the slurs are endless; but they are water off a duck’s back for the Hindus. Sticks and stones.

There are hundreds of millions of Hindus in India’s villages, towns and smaller cities, who aren’t aware of this manufactured and spurious debate in Indian megapolises, the world media, among activists, and in noisome newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, The Guardian and The Economist, which have scant knowledge of how the simple, unpretentious dharmic life is lived across India, and how deeply embedded it is in daily life. There is a cultural hegemony from the West which is trying to reassert itself, but, to its disbelief and chagrin, it now meets with mammoth resistance in India. This, then, is the root of the hysteria in the Western media: India will just not listen anymore. (The flow of culture moved from the West to the rest, is a manifestation of cultural imperialism: that has changed, and the tide has turned. This does not mean that India will not learn from/engage with/partner with the West: it always has—especially as a significant and remarkably strong partner in the knowledge economy with the US, for many decades but the West needs to learn from India too.)

Any twenty-something-year-old or other “Wokeist” in the US or Europe—white, brown, yellow, pink or grey—believes she/he has the right to trash India, Modi, his distinguished cabinet, the Indian government, and the Hindus (think of Rihanna, John Oliver, Greta Thunberg); and there are, dear lord, Woke-folk hollering all the way from Newfoundland, Canada, too. The tentacles of this insane and morally reprehensible barrage of hate and falsification, and of raucous, bardically bereft mobs baying for India’s blood, are disturbingly ubiquitous, and currently threaten the safety of Hindu students on American university campuses.

Deliriously lacking in taste

A well known Supreme Court advocate drew, and continues to draw, attention to Modi’s change of attire during his trip to Varanasi, indulging in degoutante and picayune name-calling: “Fakeer”, “Fakeera” (he cannot even make up his mind which one it is)—the language is embarrassing, debasing and grotesque: it does nothing to diminish Modi in the eyes of India, or the world, or, worse for them, world leaders; it only tarnishes those who indulge in name-calling. People normally change their clothes twice a day, which is what Modi did.

He also had to wear traditional vastra (clothes) for the puja, and another set to offer prayers while taking a ritualistic bath in the River Ganga. If people were expecting him to attend the rest of the prayer ceremony in wet clothes, they are either plain unhinged, or confirmed acolytes of wet clothing, in which case they might want to take up residence in the middle of any ocean of their choice, and stay perennially dampened and dampening.

Hate certainly generates a tragic and unsavoury blurring of vision and decorum. Also, as we have observed, it causes the discourse of even Supreme Court attorneys and Modi-haters to hit rock bottom.

Hindutva is conscious, engaged Hinduism: It seeks to ascertain that the #HinduHolocaust is never repeated

Hindutva is a form of resistance that takes into account and counters the thousand years of barbaric repression and concomitant erasure of the Hindus. They have been the colonised, who had no control over their own representation, but were “represented in accordance with a hegemonic impulse by which they were constructed as a stable (read: primitive and backward) and unitary entity.” (Hamer) The Hindus have been through a holocaust which, in terms of ferocity and barbarism, is many, many times larger than The Holocaust, spread over a thousand years, witnessing the sustained massacre of tens of millions of Hindus, just because they were Hindu. Hindutva seeks to ascertain that the #HinduHolocaust is never repeated. Thus, “resistance, far from being merely a reaction to imperialism, is an alternative way of conceiving human history.” Hindus do not wish to be prisoners in their own land.

Hindutva has given back a voice to the hundreds of millions of Hindus stripped of their agency and rendered voiceless by centuries of brutal rule by invaders. There are no rules Hindus need to follow in their personal connection with their faith: there have never been any. Hindus will naturally ally with whoever consistently speaks up for them and protects them, and not the occasional, opportunistic “Hindus” and “janeudharis” who leap out of the woodwork once it’s electioneering time, run frantically from one temple to another and deceive Hindus without a hint of compunction.

The current debate … veers around Hinduism versus Hindutva. Rahul Gandhi has been at pains to explain the distinction, but each time I listen to him and his painstaking and incomprehensible explanations, I say: “Forgive him, for he knows not what he thinks.” The Congress Party indulges in its habitual trompe l’oeil act come election time: Masquerading as Hindus Only to Win Elections, when Rahul gleefully morphs into a Brahmin “janeudhari” and his party colleagues jostle against one another to grant themselves the “I-am-the-most-devout-Hindu” certificate. The rest of the year the Congress Party cries itself shrill denouncing imagined Brahmin patriarchy, and, pretty much, anything Hindu: it is quite noticeably on a sledgehammer-like and morally sinister campaign against Hinduism. The flat-out fabricating and hypocrisy is ruthless if expected. Matching up squarely now with the Congress is the Trinamool Congress. It is election time, and the Trinamool Congress is newly awash with Hindu-love, while its leader has been ruthless about banning/amputating the Durga Puja and other major Hindu festivals in past years.

Hindus have reclaimed their dharma, and refuse to be victims of barbarism, proselytizing, demeaning, and badgering. What is rather interesting, is how senior Trinamool Congress leaders such as Yashwant Sinha are in a scramble to offer up certificates to themselves as authentic Hindus, even as his party serially brutalizes Hindus in West Bengal.

For Hindus, knowing Brahman, “the foundational, impersonal Divine Reality”—not to be confused with Brahmin—is the most significant knowledge of all: “That verily, whence all beings are born, that by which when born they live, that into which on deceasing they enter, that she/he is desirous of understanding, O pupil. That is Brahman.” (Taittiriya Upanishad, 3.1). The German philosopher Schopenhauer called the Upanishads, “the most elevating reading the world has to offer.” Hindus experience this sense of Brahman in Varanasi/Kashi, and in other timeless and sacred sites of pilgrimage across India. (This is not something the mavens at The New York Times, The Guardian or The Washington Post will comprehend: it takes humility to acknowledge that you don’t merely know, but that you don’t possess the faintest clue). For making the ordinary seeker’s experience of Varanasi/Kashi easier, more aesthetic, open—and, therefore, in a sense, more fulfilling—it is Modi Indians will feel beholden to, for many generations to come. – Firstpost, 28 Decemeber 2021

Oopalee Operajita is a Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University since 1990. She advises world leaders on public policy, communication and international relations.