The term “nation” is defined differently by various sources. One definition is: “A people who share common customs, origins, history, and frequently language.”
Hindu nationalism can be defined as the tendency of Hindus to define themselves as a nation. It is often said that the late 1980’s and 90’s saw an upsurge of Hindu nationalism in India. Translated into the realm of politics, this resulted in an increased tendency for Hindus to define their political activity in terms of common Hindu interests.
Historically, strong nationalistic tendencies emerge amongst peoples during times of struggle or in the face of real or perceived threats. For example, Scottish nationalism emerged through struggle with the English, and draws its sustenance from the memories of this struggle. The same is the case with Hindu nationalism. The formation of a strong Hindu identity has its roots in the trials and tribulations of the struggles against the Muslim and European colonialisms.
In the late 80’s and 90’s the rise of Hindu nationalism was a product of many perceived challenges. There was a general sense of anxiety amongst Hindus about their collective future, as well as a feeling that the secular Indian state was not capable of safeguarding their collective interests, being neutral if not hostile to Hindu problems. For example, the secular Indian state allowed Hindus to be virtually totally expelled from the Kashmir valley and does not accept any form of moral responsibility for Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh, despite these countries having been part of India before partition. Gradually, this feeling of the secular Indian state being inimical to Hindus spread to sections of Hindus living in other countries too, particularly Hindus in the UK and USA.
It can be appreciated that the emergence of nationalism is a natural phenomenon, brought about by certain circumstances. It can sometimes be a constructive force, and sometimes destructive, depending on how it is harnessed.
There is a danger that nationalism can cloud clear thinking, leading the nation to forego its identification and responsibility towards humanity as a whole. This can lead to excesses, and even genocides, as has been witnessed on numerous occasions throughout history.
Today, Hindu nationalistic sentiments are quite strong, though perhaps not so much in the 1990s. Amongst the international Hindu community, information flow through the medium of the Internet has spawned a whole generation of Hindu nationalists in many parts of the world. The overall aim of Hindu nationalism appears to be safety and survival from challenges such as religious conversions, terrorism and armed separatism.
True Hinduism can never accept injustice lying down, but at the same time Hindu thought cannot sit comfortably with an overemphasis on nationalism unless the nationalism is informed by a greater spirit, by a spirit of dharma and universalism.
While it is natural for Hindus to develop a form of nationalism in response to historical and current challenges in order to secure continued survival, Hinduism itself views the world as a family, “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”. The eternal spirit (paramatman) is all encompassing and a spark of it is present in all creation.
As such, Hindus can have nationalism, and in some contexts this can be healthy. But to stay consistent to the true spirit underlying Hindu philosophy, Hindus cannot have an overemphasis on nationalism. It should be noted that in Hindu epics conflict is usually defined between dharma and adharma in people who outwardly profess the same religion (e.g. Ravana was a Hindu from priestly background, and Duryodhan was also a Hindu).
Hindu thought has a pluralistic and universal tendency, and its spiritual wisdom is of use to all humanity. Hindu pluralistic ideals and spiritual practices can help humanity emerge victorious from many contemporary struggles such as religious conflict, the effects of unrestrained materialism, the breakdown in family structure, and even the prevalence of mental illness, to name but a few.
A danger with an over emphasis on nationalism is that it will do a disservice to Hinduism itself. By an overemphasis on nationalism, universal Hindu ideas become associated with a narrow-nationalism, and therefore become limited in their appeal. To an extent this has already occurred. Due to a minority of overly vocal hyper-nationalist Hindus (mostly on the internet), sensible-minded Hindu groups often end up getting labelled as Hindu nationalists or even fanatics simply for speaking up for common sense Hindu issues such trying to increase their temple’s car parking space or teaching Hinduism in schools.
Although Hindu nationalism has for its aim the survival and safety of Hindus and Hinduism, paradoxically, a misguided Hindu nationalism can have the potential to hinder the potential for Hinduism to survive and thrive in the coming global age, by limiting the wider appeal of Hindu thought. The global age has increasingly seen struggles occurring less in the realm of physical struggle and more in the realm of different systems of thought vying to have their perspective listened to and respected. After all, this is the true marker of survival in a future in which the boundary between the various races, communities and even countries will inevitably dissolve. In the future, the most important factor for any system of thought or religion is for its actual ideas to be practiced, respected or better still, normative. An example of when an idea becomes normative is when acceptance of it is considered normal or automatic. To some extent, it is said that aspects of Hindu thought such as karma and reincarnation have become normative in the USA and this indeed represents a great achievement.
Striking a balance
The need of today are Hindus who have grasped the universal nature of Hinduism and who can implement constructive solutions for applying Hindu ideas into modern life, as well as to redress injustice against Hindus in a way that is in agreement with Hindu dharma. Hindu nationalism of sorts in an inevitable necessity to create identity, unity and common purpose, but it is essential that the nationalism does not lose its connection with the Vedic vision of the world as a single family.