Seth j. Frantzman
In a recent book entitled The Hindus: Alternative History, Wendy Doniger claims that Hinduism was invented by the British. Doniger is a scholar of Indian religions at the University of Chicago. She argues that Hinduism’s unity and its holy Vedas are primarily a myth created by Protestants who sought a “unified Hinduism.”
She further argues that upper-caste Brahmins and other elites in India collaborated with the British and invented a “British-Brahmin version of Hinduism – one of the many invented traditions born around the world in the 18th and 19th centuries.” These “bad Hindus” are accused of having an inferiority complex. She claims that the Hindu nationalism (Hindutva) of today thus uses a fake Hinduism for its own historiography and that she seeks to tell an “alternative to the narrative of Hindu history that they [the nationalists] tell.”
When it comes to classic Hindu texts such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, she condemns them for their violence. The Mughal Muslim emperors who colonized India for Islam for 300 years were, according to a reviewer, “motivated by realpolitik rather than religious fundamentalism” when they destroyed thousands of Hindu temples and sold hundreds of thousands of Hindus into slavery.
According to Pankaj Mishra, an author who has praised the book, Doniger should be admired for striding “intrepidly into a polemical arena almost as treacherous as Israel-Arab relations.” Mishra calls Hindu nationalists the “Indian heirs to British imperialists who invented ‘Hinduism'” and accuses them of wanting to create a “culturally-homogenous and militant nation-state.”
Reading this virulent condemnation of Hinduism and Hindu nationalism, one is reminded of European-Jewish intellectual Tony Judt’s condemnation of Israel: “The very idea of a Jewish state [is] rooted in another time and place… in a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle and intermarry… [it is] dysfunctional… an anachronism.” Doniger’s claim that Hinduism was invented in the 19th century bares a striking resemblance to Tel Aviv University Prof. Shlomo Sand’s claim in his book When and How the Jewish People Was Invented (2008) that Jews are not a “nation-race” but rather a colorful amalgam of converts.
ALMOST EVERY BOOK on modern India is full of condemnations for Hindu nationalism, which is seen as the antithesis of Gandhi’s “good” pacifism. Professors in the West are full of attempts to rewrite Hindu claims that their temples were destroyed by the Muslims and either declare there were no Hindu temples or excuse the mass destruction of them and the building of mosques atop them. Excusing the imposition of slavery on Hindus by Islamic invaders who arrived in large numbers in the 11th century under Mahmoud of Ghazna is a little harder, but even it is excused.
Hindu nationalism, like Zionism, is condemned for having a “nationalist archeology.” Critiquing Israeli archeology Nachman Ben-Yehuda has described the myth of Masada and Nadia Abu el-Haj has written on “reflections on archeology and Israeli settler-nationhood.” Ramachandra Guha in his India After Gandhi writes that the Hindu temple at Ayodha that was destroyed in the 16th century by the Mughal Emperor Babur to build the Babri Mosque was merely the site of “Hindu sentiment and myth” and not the historical birthplace of the Hindu god Ram.
There is a connection between the contempt for Hindu nationalism and the disdain for Zionism that exists in many circles. They are widely condemned for similar things. Both are accused of inventing a history for their people and religion. Both are accused of inventing and perverting archeology. Both are accused of being anachronisms in a world that is supposedly multicultural. Both are seen as militant and anti-Muslim.
But there is another connection that is often overlooked. Both were unlikely victims of Gandhi’s sometimes misplaced pacifism. Gandhi condemned not only Zionism but also encouraged the Jews of Europe to voluntarily submit to Nazism and throw “themselves into the sea from cliffs” to please Hitler. Gandhi, a Hindu, penned an introduction to the Koran, a book that is deeply prejudiced against pagan Hinduism, and during the partition of India he excused the ethnic cleansing of Sikhs and Hindus in Pakistan, while encouraging India to protect her Muslim minority.
WHAT TRULY unites Zionism and Hindu nationalism, however, is the fact that both represent the aspirations of unique peoples and states. There is only one Hindu state and one Jewish state. Both are accused of daring to declare themselves Jewish and Hindu and thus seek “homogeneity.” This accusation is made in a world with some 48 countries with a Muslim majority and 169 Christian majority countries. India and Israel, far from being homogeneous anachronisms are tiny drops of diversity in a world that is increasingly homogeneous.
Hindu nationalism is not a result of a British imperialism anymore than Zionism is; both grew out of a long suppressed and colonized peoples’ dreams for their own country free from foreign rule. Those who want to expose themselves to Hindu nationalism and its true underpinnings should pick up Lal K. Advani’s My Country My Life. Absent of that, people should at least give Hinduism, like Judaism, the benefit of the doubt. They are based on real religions and real texts, not myths conjured up in the 19th century.
The writer is a PhD student in geography at the Hebrew University and runs the Terra Incognita Journal blog. firstname.lastname@example.org