The twinned self

Why is the idea of Indian culture always connected with religious identity?

Updated - November 09, 2014 08:24 am IST

Published - November 08, 2014 04:59 pm IST

Carnatic singer T M. Krishna. File Photo

Carnatic singer T M. Krishna. File Photo

As a ‘travelling’ musician I connect with ‘Indians’ across the country and around the world. Invariably, at some point of time, our conversations keep coming back to what we perceive as ‘our culture’ and about resurrecting, protecting and nurturing this ‘culture’. My identity as a ‘Classical’ musician leads those I am speaking with to perceive ‘my kind’ as a people from the hoary past, those who have taken the precious path of an ancient Indian art form. Whether this perception is accurate or not is not relevant. What is important is the larger question underlying the discussion: What is this ‘Indian culture’?

I have observed that the idea of ‘Indian culture’ is almost always connected to religious identity. Religion is complex. And, as God is supposed to be, it is just about everywhere and — in control! It touches us at the most personal level of relationships and extends up to how we look, what we wear and of course, how we think. Therefore when one says ‘religion’, we have to view it as that control system, which is ingrained in our socio-personal consciousness. This being the case, ‘culture’ cannot be separated from ‘religion’. Music and dance are only extensions of that very same belief system. To the majority of Indians who are Hindus, Indian culture actually means Hindu culture — or as quoted by many ‘the Hindu way of life’. I am not here to battle religion but to question the notion.

If we were to look at India over the last century, we have had some very interesting swings. I will be making some generalisations, while acknowledging the presence of counter movements at all times. From around the mid 19 century until the time of independence we had a resurgence in nationalism. This was accompanied by a re-assertion of Hindu thought, practice, religion, philosophy and art, bringing together the ‘majority’ and instilling in it cultural pride. This was not just digging into the past; it was a modern movement, flawed in many ways yet an act of its own time by a certain class of people. The movement, though predominantly upper-class did re-create ‘Hindu culture’ as the Indian way that critiqued the ‘rest’ but embraced them in a common purpose — independence.

But very soon in the ‘Nehruvian era’, politics moved this new social identity into the realms of secularism, plurality and equality. Now ‘the Indian’ became an embodiment of tolerance and ‘brotherhood’ — gender equality changing figures of speech was to come a little later! Re-working that very same Hindu religion to fit this narrative further emphasised these ideas. In most fascinating ways the specifics within the Hindu fabric metamorphosed into generalities of everyone irrespective of their own belief systems. While secularism and plurality are in general seen as counter movements to Hindu nationalism, were they really?

Was this a way of creating context-free interpretations of the Hindu? But one did not see this since it was subsumed in socialism compelling one to believe that polity and society moved away from religion. We need to ponder over whether the anglicised-modernist-Marxist positioning of secularism created an illusion of being a-religious while all the while at its core retaining a Hindu cultural equation. This of course paid its political dividends to the party then in power — the Congress.

Today we live in another phase, a reactionary one and another bout of Hindu nationalism. But the nature of this one seems different from its previous ‘avatar’. The previous manifestation engaged with the ‘rest’ in the common interest of independence, but today there seems no such imperative and hence no need to embrace. And, this is working to the advantage of the party now in power — the BJP.

This Hindu culture — 2.0 — is born from the ‘atheistic appearance’ of our immediate socio-political past but may also be a result of the over generalisation of the ‘Hindu’ leading to a loss of propriety for the Hindus over the Hindu-Indian identity. This loss of propriety is sub-conscious, creating an urgent need to say that the Hindu way of life is superior to everything else, an umbrella under which everything else exists. The discourse of the day is about attacking those who do not succumb.

In our essence we have always been a Hindu society. The movements have only been between Hindu specifics and its ‘universalism’.

When the Nehruvian Hindu ‘universalist’ appeared in a socialist garb, the traditional Hindu felt immediately insecure. And today that Hindu is re-surfacing — angry and even virulent — asserting his Hinduism as a new kind of ‘universalism’ in the sense of being an exemplar for the universe to adopt.

Where do we go from here?  We could, perhaps, look at this in a couple of weeks.


The views expressed in this column are that of the author’s and do not represent those of the newspaper.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.