It is a truism to say that Hinduism is a way of life. What this essentially means is, that unlike many other religions, Hinduism does not lay down an inflexible code of do’s and don’ts for its followers. It does not have only one God, nor only one book of faith, nor one Pope, nor a single place of paramount pilgrimage, nor only one presiding temple. Such diversity in practice often leads some uninformed observers to believe that Hinduism is not a cohesive religion: it is not one but many faiths. Such an assessment is wide off the mark. Hindus allow for differences of opinion, within and without, and variations in practice, dictated by choice not diktat, without diluting the core fealties of their faith.
But there are some people now who want to convert this remarkably eclectic religion, that has evolved from centuries of cerebration and philosophical insight, into a prescriptive faith. They want to dictate to its followers what they should wear, what they should drink, what they should eat, how they should practise their religion, what constitutes “correct” Hindu behaviour, what morality is, and who is a “good” Hindu as against a “bad” one. This, of course, is anathema for most Hindus. Hindus have been used to being Hindus in a self-assured way without being told that there is a higher “authority” that will judge them on how good or bad they are. What makes it worse is that those who believe that they are “better” Hindus, and therefore the “authority” to judge the conduct of “lesser” Hindus, are woefully ignorant of what Hinduism is really about.
Inexplicably, Hindus never took this threat seriously, but they should have been alerted to its dangers long before. The Shri Ram Sena was founded in the 1960s by Kalki Maharaj, close to the Shiv Sena, and a former member of the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. On January 24, 2009, members of the Shri Ram Sena barged into a pub—Amnesia—in Mangalore, and beat up a group of young men and women, on the grounds that the women were violating traditional Indian—read Hindu—values. Two of the women had to be hospitalised. Pramod Muthalik, the leader of the Sena said: “Whoever had done this has done a good job. Girls going to pubs is not acceptable. So whatever the Sena members did was right. You are highlighting this small incident to malign the BJP government in the state.”
In January 2009, Muthalik announced a plan to target couples dating on February 14, Valentine’s Day. “Our activists will go around with a priest, turmeric, and a mangalsutra on February 14. If we come across couples together in public and expressing their love, we will take them to the nearest temple and conduct their marriage.” Such incidents need to be recalled, because what then seemed to be a fringe trend, is increasingly becoming mainstream. The Love Jihad law passed by the UP government, and being emulated now by other BJP ruled states, may ostensibly be aimed at preventing fraudulent conversions of Hindu women through the ruse of marriage, but its real intent is to infantilise adult Hindu women and take away from them their constitutional right to marry whomsoever they wish.
Now, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, has announced a “samman” programme, where employed women can register at the local police station for their own safety. Ostensibly meant to protect women, what such a programme is likely to do in a patriarchal society is to empower policemen in the thana to keep a watch on where employed women go, who they meet, what they do, and why they don’t return home at a “respectable” time. Women must become appropriately “chaste” in conformity with the limited vision of these self-anointed protectors of Hinduism, and Hindus in general must bow before their brittle and distorted notions of Hindu fidelity. Our memories are short-lived but we should not forget that some years ago, Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Gauri Lankesh, were shot dead allegedly by members of the Sanatan Sanstha and Hindu Janajagruti Samiti. The horrific murders were reportedly inspired by a book published by the Sanatan Sanstha, which argues that those who don’t conform to prefixed ideas of Hindu spirituality and religion are villains of society and must be eliminated.
Hinduism has no 10 commandments. It has consciously chosen not to be prescriptive, and that is the key too for its survival and being a sanatan or eternal dharma. Its concept of dharma, while outlining a framework for ethics, leaves a great deal to the conscious choice that individuals make in given situations. With progress, education and modernity, a vast number of Hindus want to have the freedom of being Hindus in accordance with their own vision of what that means. They are emerging as confident citizens of a globalised world, and do not wish to be straitjacketed in the narrow vision of some blindly orthodox, patriarchal and largely upper-caste Hindus. In the eighth century CE, the great Adi Shankaracharya could say: Na mantro, na teertham, na vedo na yagna, chidananda roopah, Shivo ham, Shivo ham: There is no mantra, no pilgrimage, no Veda, no ritual, all that matters is Bliss and Awareness that makes each one of us Shiva. If Hindus want to preserve this real Hinduism, they must learn to resist the new usurpers of their great legacy.