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Whatever Happened to the Hindu Left

Whatever Happened to the Hindu Left?
by Ruth Vanita
Published in Seminar, 2002

Have you ever heard of such a thing as the Hindu Left? Many books and essays have been written about the Hindu Right and this term has become a commonplace. No one seems surprised that Hinduism is perhaps the only religion in the world today that is supposed to have a Right but not a Left. In Europe, the US, Canada, and in South American countries, there is a secular Right and Left, and also a Christian Right and Left. While the Catholic orthodoxy opposes abortion and homosexuality, there are many vociferous Catholic groups that support both. There is an organization of gay Catholics called Dignity. Almost every major Protestant sect has a left wing and a right wing. The tradition of organized Christian feminism dates back to the nineteenth century and many earlier Christian writers are clearly proto-feminist. Today, the secular, that is, atheist or agnostic, left routinely works and organizes in cooperation with the religious left.1 Both constitute a visible presence in left-wing demonstrations. Gay Pride parades, for instance, always have substantial contingents of gay Christians and Jews. Similarly, in most Islamic countries, there is a Muslim Right and a Muslim Left.

In India, however, there is almost no Hindu organized Left.2 What does this mean and why is it so? Does it mean that there are no leftists who are practising Hindus? Not at all. It is well known that even in their most militant days, Calcutta’s communists migrated en masse to Durga Puja celebrations, and I personally know Marxist academics at Delhi University who are pious Hindus at home, regularly fasting and performing puja. But at the level of public theorizing and organizing, this aspect of their lives remains invisible and unspeakable. The number of Indian thinkers today who try to integrate religious and leftist thinking can be counted on the fingers of one hand – Ashis Nandy and Ramchandra Gandhi are among the very few who make this attempt with Hinduism. So, while some Indian leftists are atheists or agnostics, many others are not. Yet almost all of them on the surface appear to be so. Why?

Indian culture is of the type that some anthropologists have classified as a shame culture – in contrast to Christian culture, which is a guilt culture. This means that many behaviors that are not considered immoral in Indian society are considered shameful. For example, it is not considered immoral for a married couple to have sex but in most parts of the country it would be shameful for them to be physically affectionate in public or to discuss their sex life in public. Many behaviors that may be practised may not be talked about. What is considered shameful varies widely from community to community and region to region. Communities are not necessarily based on birth; they may also be based on shared world-views. Religious behavior is not widely considered a shameful behavior. But by the mid-twentieth century, it had become so within the community of Indian leftists. How did this happen?

To answer this question, one has to go back to the nineteenth century, when the Right and the Left in their modern forms began to take shape in India. This was also the time when Indian Hinduism and Islam began to reshape themselves in response to the attack launched on them by British rulers and missionaries. Despite their long history of hostility in Europe, Christianity and Islam had in common some very important features which Christianity and Hinduism did not. Many Britishers remarked that they found it easier to understand Islam than Hinduism – Islam, like Christianity, was monotheistic and based on one text. Hinduism, on the other hand, with its polytheism, idol worship and plurality of texts, was much more like the ancient Greek and Roman religions that Christianity had wiped out centuries earlier. Yet Hinduism refused to be wiped out. It had survived many precolonial physical onslaughts on its temples and idols, yet it still appeared to be flourishing.

The modern attack on polytheism and idol worship was much more insidious than the cruder medieval attacks. The modern attack took the form of a shaming process. Ashis Nandy, among others, has brilliantly described the way English-educated Indians were made to feel embarrassed and ashamed of practices such as idol worship that were labelled primitive, backward and barbarous by the self-styled modern and enlightened rulers. The best evidence of this shaming is the way new Hindu organizations, such as the Arya Samaj, who rightly embraced such causes as women’s education and the eradication of untouchability, felt compelled to also renounce polytheism and idol-worship.

This process, which Nandy has called “Christianizing Hinduism,” was not widely successful. Precisely because of its flexibility, lived Hinduism has a way of resisting theories generated by its leaders.3 Most Arya Samaji families quietly reverted to having pictures and images of deities in their homes and shops. Many Hindu leaders argued in public that Hinduism is monotheistic and advocated a return to Vedantic “pure” Hinduism free from idolatrous ritual. However, in private very few were willing to give up the pleasures of collectively celebrating and worshipping regional deities. Who would be so foolish as to stay away from the festivities of Durga Puja or Dassehra or Ganesh Chaturthi? Those groups, like the Brahmo Samaj, who insisted on sticking to a Christianized Hinduism, dwindled or died a natural death. Those, like the Arya Samaj, who accommodated older forms of worship, flourished.

This had important consequences for the characterization of these groups as Right or Left. In the nineteenth century, the social agendas of Hindu organizations like the Ramakrishna Mission and the Arya Samaj were definitely left of center. (It would be interesting to survey how many north Indian leftists today are from Arya Samaji families). For instance, when Hindu social reform organizations fought child marriage and supported widow remarriage, they were opposed by other more rightwing Hindus such as Tilak. This represented a healthy debate within Hinduism, which, in modern terms, could be called a debate between leftwing and rightwing Hinduism. Even within each organization, for example, within the Arya Samaj, there was a left wing and a right wing with regard to such issues as the content and extent of women’s education.

This continued in the national movement when Gandhi, representing leftwing Hinduism, was opposed by the Hindu Mahasabha, representing rightwing Hinduism. A similar debate was evident amongst Muslim nationalists too. The shot that killed Gandhi in a sense killed leftwing Hinduism too, at least for the time being. Leftwing Hinduism went underground in part as a result of rightwing Hinduism’s aggressiveness. However, secular leftism also contributed to the process of reconstructing all things Hindu as inherently backward and regressive. The secular left’s attitude to Gandhi, until very recently, was negatively colored by Gandhi’s being an unashamed Hindu. This was only one example of the secular left’s almost paranoid public stance on anything that savored of Hinduism.

English-educated Indians’ feelings of embarrassment regarding Hinduism by no means disappeared with the gaining of Independence. If anything, they were heightened. During my seventeen years of teaching at Miranda House, Delhi University, I often performed the experiment of asking a fresh batch of students whether they thought monotheism or polytheism was a better system. Invariably, the overwhelming majority (almost all of them Hindus) spontaneously said monotheism was better. In the course of discussion they often changed their minds or at least questioned this position. But what is significant is the degree to which they were almost programmed to value monotheism over polytheism, uniformity over diversity, without having really thought the question through.

Here, the position of Muslim, Christian and Sikh leftists is somewhat different. Because these happen to be minorities in India, the left has to support their rights, hence there is somewhat less embarrassment attached to acknowledging these identities as a modern Indian leftist. Secondly, they do not have to carry the burden of being called backward polytheistic idol-worshipers. Secular feminist organizations and Christian women’s organizations, such as the YWCA, often work in coalition in urban women’s movements. Complete agreement on all issues is not required in such coalitions; basic agreement on the issue at hand is sufficient. However, anyone who theorizes positively about Hinduism is almost invariably labelled “communalist” by the Indian left. Again, this is anomalous in a world context. Christian and Muslim leftists are taken seriously as thinkers in most parts of the world by atheist and agnostic leftists. In the U.S., where Hinduism is a late-comer, and does not have the particular history it does in modern India, many followers of Hindu gurus, such as Gurumayi, are active around liberal and leftwing causes, without perceiving any contradiction between these stances.

The consequence of this rigid positioning and labelling process in twentieth-century India was to push Hindu organizations such as the Arya Samaj and the Ramakrishna Mission into a defensive stance, and, in some cases, into the arms of the Hindu right. The more such groups refused to disown Hinduism, the less seriously the English-educated secularists treated their social and political reform agendas, while the Hindu rightwing also was convinced that such groups were basically on its side. The irony here is that the social agenda of the secular left and the Hindu one-time left was in large part the same, despite the use of very different theories, language and terminology. To a considerable extent, it continues to be the same even today. On ground level, for example, women’s wings of different parties and organizations deal with the same issues of dowry, domestic violence, and rape. Except for those that advocate violent revolution, most other organizations working with the poor work on health and literacy, and set up employment generation programs and childcare centers. While they differ on many issues, they do not differ on all issues, yet they find it almost impossible to acknowledge this commonalty in public.

On more contentious issues, there were and are major differences between the secular left and the Hindu left, but there are as often major similarities.4 Everyone knows about the differences but the similarities are less often examined. In the last decade, censorship of sexually explicit materials has emerged as an issue on which not just the secular and religious left but also the secular left and the religious right, although they may be theoretically in disagreement, are practically in almost complete agreement. The controversy around the Miss World contest and around such songs as “Choli ke peeche kya hai” saw several rightwing and leftwing women’s organizations using different language but taking very similar positions, demanding that the State use its powers of censorship to ban such phenomena, characterized as “capitalist” by the left and “permissive” by the right.5

These paradoxes are connected with another unexamined difference – that between authoritarianism and libertarianism, which cuts across the lines of Right and Left. There are authoritarian Rightists and Leftists who have major differences but also a lot in common with each other and there are libertarian Rightists and Leftists who have differences but also much in common.

In many societies, differences between authoritarians and libertarians have emerged around particular issues. Pornography is such an issue in the US and many European countries, where some religious and non-religious leftists, including some feminists, and rightists (such as libertarians), oppose a state ban on pornography on the grounds of safeguarding freedom of speech while other religious and non-religious leftists, including some feminists, and rightists (such as conservative Christians), seek such a ban. The political/philosophical question at issue here is one of authority versus liberty – should an individual adult have the liberty to choose his or her own reading and viewing materials or should the state or the majority in society make this decision for the individual?

When the question comes really close in a personal way to the living body of the individual in the family, people are forced to take positions, individually and collectively, which may change their public alignments in significant ways. It is possible that homosexuality will become this kind of fruitfully divisive issue in India today. It is the one question on which both Right and Left, including most women’s organizations, had, until the controversy around Fire, maintained a near-complete silence. The Indian academy, which talks freely about everything else, did not talk about it. It was another one of those embarrassing, “shameful,” hence silent aspects of many people’s lives and families.6

Deepa Mehta’s Fire, while it takes some unnecessary and uninformed potshots at Hinduism, certainly does not connect Hinduism to homosexuality in any causal way. Therefore the Shiv Sena’s attack on the homosexuality depicted in the film was unrelated to Hinduism. It was an expression of authoritarianism plain and simple. The Shiv Sena Mahila Aghadi’s absurd statement that if women are allowed to explore lesbianism, the marriage institution will collapse and reproduction will cease, is important despite its absurdity. What the Shiv Sena wants to deny is the individual’s right to freely choose a sexual partner. It wants to assert the authority of the heterosexual majority over the homosexual minority. And it wants to claim that this authoritarian position is “Hindu.”

As against their claim, one may quote the views of Srinivasa Raghavachariar, Sanskrit scholar and priest of a Vaishnavite temple at Sri Rangam, happily married with thirteen children, in an interview with mathematical wizard Shakuntala Devi. After arguing that homosexuality is the result of reincarnation, that is, same-sex lovers were opposite-sex lovers in previous births, he went on to say: “Homosexuality is also a design of Nature. Earth is overpopulated by the human species and the Earth Mother – Bhooma Devi – is no longer able to carry the burden. So this is one of Mother Nature’s way of combating the population explosion.” He pointed out
that overpopulation is eliminating other species, that increased longevity of humans is creating an imbalance, and that the planet will soon be incapable of producing enough food for so many humans. According to him, human desire to travel to other planets, like homosexuality, is part of Nature’s plan to control overpopulation: “All we can do is sit back and wonder at the divine tricks of the Almighty!”7

So what we have here are two Hindu positions – one authoritarian, the other libertarian. In the recent controversy, gay activist Ashok Row Kavi supported Fire and opposed the Shiv Sena, and did so as a Hindu. Similarly, while many Marxist individuals and organizations supported Fire, it was only a few years ago that Vimla Faruqi, of the National Federation of Indian Women, the CPI women’s wing, opposed a gay conference in Bombay, stating that homosexuality was a western capitalist import.8 As recently as 1996, a Marxist called H. Srikanth argued at length that homosexuality is a decadent bourgeois perversion that Marxists would proscribe, try to reform by psychiatric treatment, and if these failed, would “not hesitate to use force against such homosexual activism.”9 So here again, we have two leftist positions, one libertarian, the other authoritarian.10

Instead of trying to deny or cover up such differences, the occasion to explore, debate and research them should be welcomed as a sign of life. If more liberal and leftist Hindus begin to acknowledge their Hindu identity and speak in defense of Hindu heritage, this can only strengthen, not weaken, the secular left. Hindu tradition is not the monopoly of the Shiv Sena, the RSS or indeed any group. It belongs in a specific sense to all Hindus; in a larger sense, to all Indians (Ashis Nandy has convincingly argued that many Indians have a dual identity, and that one can be, for example, both Hindu and Christian, as I am); and, in a still larger sense, to the world, as does the Christian or Muslim heritage. It is time to stop allowing the Shiv Sena type of Hindus to be the only ones defining and interpreting Hindu heritage. In fact, the Thackeray type of Hindu knows little about that heritage – he has probably never read the Kamasutra, otherwise he would not claim that homosexuality was unknown in ancient India. Other types of Hindus, including more knowledgeable Hindus, and liberal and leftist Hindus, have an equal right and perhaps even an obligation now to claim that heritage before it gets further eroded and destroyed by its self-styled champions.


1. The deeply institutionalized nature of the Christian left in the U.S. became apparent to me recently when a lesbian couple’s house in the small town of Missoula, Montana, where I now live, was set on fire on February 8, because they are plaintiffs in a lawsuit demanding equal health benefits for same-sex partners of university employees. A vociferous response in support of the couple and of equal rights for gay people was immediately organized by a wide spectrum of individuals and organizations. Seven churches were actively involved in the effort, ranging from the Society of Friends (Quakers) to the local Catholic church. The huge town rally was held at the United Methodist Church, which also focused its next Sunday’s service on the issue.

2. The honorable exception is Swami Agnihotri who has functioned as a one-man Hindu left but is not perceived by the secular left as a representative of any larger body of people.

3. The Intimate Enemy (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983; 1994)

4. Even on economic and political issues, the stated differences often seem greater than the practice of right-identified and left-identified centrist parties actually is. The BJP, which has been using the term “socialist” for quite some time, now espouses in theory an anti-multinational, anti-world trade, protectionist economic policy very similar to that of the Left. That its practical support for capitalism is not altogether different from that of the CPI(M) in West Bengal is another matter. According to one report, the RSS now has a Marxist cell within it, called Vivek Prakash and headed by a Dalit woman!

5. For a detailed account and analysis of these campaigns, see Shohini Ghosh, “The Troubled Existence of Sex and Sexuality,” in Image Journeys: Audio-Visual Media and Cultural Change in India (ed. Christiane Brosius and Melissa Butcher (New Delhi: Sage, 1999).

6. For a more detailed analysis of this silence as it developed in the colonial period and of the precolonial textual heritage, see Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History edited Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai (NY, 2000; New Delhi: Macmillan, 2001).

7. Shakuntala Devi, The World of Homosexuals (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1977), pp. 146-47.

8. The Pioneer, November 1, 1994.

9. “Natural is not always Rational,” Economic & Political Weekly, April 13, 1996.

10. For a more detailed analysis of the right-wing and left-wing responses to Fire, see Geeta Patel’s and Monica Bachmann’s essays in Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society edited Ruth Vanita (New York: Routledge, 2002).