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Believers need to reclaim what it means to be Hindu

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Dr Devi Moodley-Rajab trained as a counselling psychologist and is a former dean of student development at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She is Chairperson of the Democracy Development Programme.

What does it mean to be a Hindu today? In India, the regressive nationalist Hindutva project has hijacked the very essence of a free and open-thinking society. Believers in India and the diaspora need to reclaim the essence of their faith to preserve the beauty of a universal sense.

On a daily basis, one is smothered with a deluge of information. For every opinion, there is a counter opinion. For every view, there is another view. Now more than ever, we are bombarded on all sides with news that is embedded in narrow truth, half-truths and downright lies. How do we as average citizens in a constant state of business with little time to sift fact from fiction, arrive at something approaching the truth?

According to Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, in their book Freakonomics, “the modern world, despite a surfeit of obfuscation, complication and downright deceit, is not impenetrable”. If we ask the right questions and are prepared to listen and to think, they assure us that it is still possible to get to the kernel of truth in any controversial issue.

But this is easier said than done. Too often we are influenced by what we are being told, or by our allegiance to our cultural, or religious socialisation. I recall as a child watching, in shock, my newly converted cousins who refrained from performing the last Hindu religious rites for our grandfather’s burial. Religion is a natural divisive force, says Freud. We’ve watched throughout history how wars were waged in the name of this or that religion.

So how does one rise above our self-imposed identities? Narendra Modi’s India – once, the proudest and largest democracy in the world – is being ravaged by religious fanaticism. Non-Hindus are being targeted as marginalised people who have to prove their indigenous status in subtle and blatant ways. 

The controversial Citizens Amendment Act (CAA) is the most divisive and alienating attempt to lacerate the human topography of a once-rich heritage. Can you imagine an India bereft of its rich Mogul influence in art, architecture, delectable cuisine, exotic dress and music? Can you imagine no Taj Mahal, no mosques, no classical musicians of the Vilayat Khan Gharana? Can you imagine no kofta kabaabs and Hyderabadi biryani? As Modi’s majoritarian state takes over, will it eradicate all traces of its rich and diverse minorities one by one? And become another Pakistan? Or a Saudi Arabia where no one is allowed to sport any non-Muslim religious symbols like dots and crosses? 

In incantations, the 14th-century sage, Kabir ponders:

If you say you’re a Brahmin,
Born of a mother who is Brahmin,
Was there a special canal through which you were born?
If you say you’re a Turk and your mother’s a Turk,
Why weren’t you circumcised before Birth?

As a secularist, I cherish the diversity of religious experiences outside of my given designation. Born and raised a Hindu, married to a Muslim, with Jewish and Christian sons and daughters-in-law, for me, life is a rich tapestry of variegated truths.

A swami once said: “Be wary of those who claim to be a very good Hindu, Muslim or Christian … because they are dangerous in their bigotry … and they can never find truth that may lie beyond their self-imposed boundaries. Besides, they tend to build walls around themselves instead of opening pastures for knowledge to seep through.”

What does it mean to be a Hindu today, as the very essence of the faith, which stands for tolerance and acceptance of other faiths, is under siege today from Hinduvites who see their religion as a singular force to be defended and protected against an invasion of outside forces? The Hindutva project is one which has hijacked the very essence of a free and open thinking society.

Believers all claim that there is one creator of humankind, and yet they often seem prepared to fight and die for their own personal God. India, a once-proud example of the greatest and largest democracy in the world, is under strain today over the very issues of religion and culture over which it practised plurality. 

In wanting to build a so-called majoritarian state of Hinduvites, they have declared a significant sector of their Indian nationals as persona non grata. Using religion as a divisive factor, they are constructing barriers between the people who have lived on Indian soil for hundreds of years.

There is a compelling argument in history for religion and national identity. The Muslims in India, unlike their Arab counterparts, are Indians, and their culture and traditions are deeply rooted in India. They have existed in India for a thousand years. 

Yet in small, but significant ways, the Modi administration is slowly tightening the noose around the necks of beef eaters and tannery factories run by Muslim tanners. History is being rewritten to portray a new image of a non-secular India. Odious comparisons are being made with Pakistan, on account of its insular religious practices. So, why should there be a strategy to duplicate their policies when they are not worthy of emulation?

As Indians in the diaspora, we can truly pride ourselves as being a united community of Hindu, Muslim and Christian people. I always felt, as I was growing up in a Hindu home, that the greatness of my religious teachings lay in its unequivocal acceptance of all. There was never an emphasis on the other. Unlike revealed religions, there was no injunction to keep away from others or to let them in or out. There are no conversion rites and rituals for Hindus. That is why Mahatma Gandhi said: “Yes I am, I am also a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, and a Jew.”

This world view resonates well with me. As a child growing up on the Berea in Durban where there was every racial hue, we visited the Badsha Peer for blessings, walked alongside Muslim believers of Muharram, went to Catholic schools and learnt to sing their beautiful hymns, came home and learnt to sing bhajans, all in total harmony in the essence of oneness. Following what I hope to be the first of many solidarity marches in Durban recently, I was happy to have been quoted as saying that I would walk to the end of the Earth to preserve the beauty of a universal sense of who I am. DM

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