Competing Notions of Communal Self-Identity in Hindu Narratives of the Origins of Non-Hindus (Part 1)

(Martin Wainwright, Professor of history, U. of Akron)

(Cet article a été publié en français précédemment)

In his 1939 publication, We Or Our Nationhood Defined, M. S. Golwalker, leader of the Rashtriya Svayemsavak Sangh (RSS – National Volunteer Society) declared:

The foreign races in Hindusthan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment -not even citizen’s rights.1

Madhavrao Sadashivrao Golwalkar , he succeeded Keshav BaliramHedgewar as head of the RSS in 1940. (source wikipedia, public domain)

This and similar passages in Golwalker’s book have garnered much criticism from opponents of the RSS. Congress Party leaders have cited this book as emblematic of a Hindu nationalist stance that is antithetical to the secular Indian constitution’s tolerance of religious plurality and diversity. Academics have faulted the RSS’s approach to Hindu identity as inaccurate and simplistic, relying on a distorted view of history.2 Meanwhile, the RSS’s fortunes have declined and revived. After undergoing a ban in the late 1940s, due to its connections with Mohandas K. Gandhi’s assassin, it became a major force in Indian politics from the 1990s onward. One of whose members, Narendra Modi, is currently prime minister of India. As it has gained influence, the RSS’s official position has moderated slightly. In 2006 it officially distanced itself from We Or Our Nationhood Defined. In order to appear more inclusive, its current leader, Mohan Bhagwat, recently argued that all Indians are Hindus, “Some people know they are Hindus but they are not willing to accept it because of political correctness.”3

Volunteers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), during a so-called “Path Sanchalan” parade in Bhopal in 2016. (Source: Suyash Dwivedi)

Defining hindouism

Such statements underscore the difficulty of defining the boundaries of Hinduism as a religion and therefore its behavior toward non-Hindu religious communities. Central to modern notions of Hinduness or “Hindutva” (the term Hindu nationalists use to describe their argument that Indian and Hindu culture are, or should be, identical) are underlying beliefs regarding the origins of Hindus and non-Hindus. While Hindutva attitudes toward non-Hindus have been the focus of considerable study, scholars have paid less attention to underlying Hindu beliefs regarding the origins of non-Hindus, probably because Hindu texts have little to say about the subject.

Such beliefs have changed over time in response to the contexts of encounters between them. This paper explores the evolution of Hindu attitudes toward non-Hindus, from the Vedic period to the present, focusing on four approaches: tribal othering, doctrinal inclusivity, Western emulation, and ethno-nationalism. It argues that ambiguities in the meaning of the term “Hindu” have rendered the origins of non-Hindus similarly ambiguous in the worldview of Hindus, culminating in modern Hindutva beliefs that choose selectively from ancient Hindu texts and the last 250 years of archeological and linguistic discoveries about India’s distant past.

Any attempt to explore Hindu attitudes toward non-Hindus raises the question of whether the term, “Hinduism,” refers to a people (the inhabitants of India) or a religion (the worship of Hindu gods and the adherence to Hindu teachings). Decades of scholarship have questioned whether Hinduism exists as a cohesive religion, or whether it is, in fact, a foreign construct.4The term “Hindu” originated in ancient Persia referring to the Sindhu (Indus) River, and eventually came into Western parlance in both its Greek form, as “Hindu,” and Latin form, as “India.” As such, it referred to a large cultural zone rather than a specific set of religious beliefs. This usage predated the arrival of Islam in India in the eighth century. From the eighth century onward, the presence of an Abrahamic religion, with a founder and core sacred scripture, created a distinction between it and the vast array of indigenous beliefs and practices, one that was more pronounced than those among various Hindu sects or between these sects and those of Buddhism and Jainism. Since Muslims referred to Hindus collectively (often including Buddhists and Jains), followers of indigenous religions appropriated the term to refer to themselves in contrast to Muslims. However, Muslims and Europeans applied the term “Hindu” (in various spellings and pronunciations) loosely, sometimes even including Muslims inhabiting the Indian subcontinent. It was not until the British East India Company governed Bengal, and imposed Enlightenment tendencies toward social taxonomy, that the term “Hinduism” was coined, and used to describe the indigenous beliefs, practices, and philosophies of India (at least those not peculiar to Buddhism, Jainism, or Sikhism) as a cohesive religion.

Although this “invention” of Hinduism occurred in the context of British rule, Indians had considerable agency in bringing it about. Important in this process was the Indian orientalist, Ram Mohun Roy, who worked for the British East India Company, and later served as the Mughal Emperor’s ambassador to Britain. His is the first recorded use of the term “Hinduism,” which through his Brahmo-Samaj (Society of Brahma) he portrayed as a monotheistic religion on a par with Christianity.5 Subsequent cultural and intellectual movements emphasized supposedly unitary doctrines within Hinduism, such as karma, reincarnation, and transcendence over individuality. In reality, none of these doctrines is universal to all Hindu sects, and all of them appear in other traditions, such as Buddhism and Jainism, that Western scholars usually regard as separate religions distinct from Hinduism. Moreover, the fluidity of Hindu doctrine is such that it is possible to identify as a Hindu and an adherent of some other religion, such as Jainism, simultaneously.

It is with this fluid concept of Hinduism in mind that we must consider Hindu beliefs regarding the origins of non-Hindus. The earliest Sanskrit literature, the Vedas, dates back to the late second millennium BCE, a period when Indo-European-speaking tribes were settling in northern India and encountering its indigenous inhabitants. This literature identifies the society of its authors as ārya (pure and/or noble) or mānusa (descendants of Manu, the ārya progenitor).6 By contrast, the Vedas identify the indigenous population as dāsa, which they portray as antagonistic to the Vedic gods. Textual evidence indicates that during the early first millennium BCE, as Vedic society acquired more transcendent beliefs, it incorporated these indigenous dāsa into the social hierarchy known as varnasramadharma.This hierarchy was (and is) based on the four varna,7 the ideal divisions within Hindu society that colonial-era and some post-colonial scholars have reified as immutable social categories.8 Scholarship of the last fifty years suggests that this hierarchy was far more fluid than earlier supposed.9 Although many of the former dāsa eventually formed the sudra (laboring caste),the lowest of the varna, a significant number likely joined the upper echelons of the varnasramadharma, social hierarchy.

Representation of the caste system as it has been reified by Westerners. The four castes (varnas), priests, warriors, merchants and servants, and the outcastes, or pariahs or harijan (Source: Indianetzone)

As many (but not all) indigenous populations merged into the varnasramadharma, Hindu elites used other terms todescribe foreigners. The Brahmanas (early first millennium BCE explanatory instructions attached to the Vedas) and the Laws of Manu (late first millennium BCE) refer to members outside the varnasramadharma as yavana or mleccha. The former term (derived from the Greek “Ionia”) referred originally to Greek invaders from the northwest. According to Wilhelm Halbfass, the latter term “implies a much stronger value judgement, a religious-tabooistic exclusion.”10 However, Romila Thapar points out that “mleccha,” which originally referred to “those who could not speak Sanskrit correctly,” occurred most frequently among upper-caste Hindus in order to maintain ritual social distance from those outside the social hierarchy of varnasramadharma. The term mleccha therefore served as the external complement to the internal sudra.

Since Vedic and early Hindu culture did not distinguish between religion and ethnicity, neither did these terms for identifying non-Hindus. Rather, they denoted either a loosely understood geographic origin or a sense of alienation from the varnasramadharma, not of adherence to or rejection of a specific set of religious doctrines. Those in the varnasramadharma adhered to a common set of rituals and worshipped gods in a common pantheon, but these activities were simply a part of a more general identity of those who observed proper social behavior.

That these terms of otherness referred to ethnicity rather than belief is evident in the near absence of discussion regarding the origins of non-Hindus in early Hindu texts. One of the most famous Hindu creation stories, the myth of Purusa attributes the origins of diversity in nature to the sacrifice and division of the primordial divine body. Regarding humans, it focuses exclusively on their creation within the varnasramadharma: “The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rājanya made. His thighs became the Vaiśya, from his feet the Śūdra was produced.”11 These divisions say nothing of what lies outside this social order. However, as encounters between India and the outside world increased, particularly when foreigners came as conquerors, a few Hindu texts began to wrestle with the origins of non-Hindus. The Dharmasutras (from the period of Achaemenid Persian and Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom rule in northwest India) disagree over whether the inhabitants of these “yavana” kingdoms descended from kshatriya (warrior caste)fathers and sudra mothers or simply from sudra ancestors alone.12 Either case would make these (and by implication, all) foreigners descendants of Purusa and former members of the varnasramadharma, who had drifted away from it and lost caste status in doing so. Some sources frame the origins of such people in terms of the present age being the Kaliyuga, an age of decline, beginning c. 3100 BCE, in which people outside India drifted away from the varnasramadharma.13

However, ancient Hindu references to the origins of non-Hindus are too sparse and inconsistent to form a position that we can characterize as a Hindu view. Rather, before the British occupation of India, Hindu texts treated non-Hindus with a remarkable lack of curiosity, even when those non-Hindus were ruling parts of India. In his survey of Hindu depictions of Muslims from the eighth through fourteenth centuries, Brajadulal Chattophadhyaya notes that Hindu sources from this period rarely discuss Muslims as a cohesive group, or umma, as Muslims would regard themselves. Rather, these sources either lump Muslims into an undifferentiated mass with other non-Hindu groups, under the derogatory term “mleccha,” or they describe them by their ethnic identities, such as Turks, Tadjiks, or Pathans. These sources appear to have little or no concept of Islam as a religion with a founder, a holy book, and a common set of practices.14

1. Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, We or Our Nationhood Defined, 3rd edition (Bharat Prakashan], 1945), 104–5.

2. For instance, Dibyesh Anand, Hindu Nationalism in India and the Politics of Fear, 1st ed (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); Chetan Bhatt, Hindu Nationalism: Origins, Ideologies and Modern Myths (Oxford ; New York: Berg, 2001); François Gautier, Rewriting Indian History (New Delhi: India Research, 2003); Martin E. Marty, R. Scott Appleby, and American Academy of Arts and Sciences, eds., Daniel Gold, “Organized Hinduisms: From Vedic Truth to Hindu Nation,” in Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appelby, eds, Fundamentalisms Observed, The Fundamentalism Project, v. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); Meera Nanda, Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India (New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2003); Romila Thapar, “Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the Modern Search for a Hindu Identity,” Modern Asian Studies 23, no. 2 (March 1989): 209–31; Romila Thapar, The Past as Present (New Delhi: Aleph Book Company, 2014).

3. “At RSS Conclave, Mohan Bhagwat’s Pitch for Hindu Rashtra as Symbol of Unity Disregards Principles of Diversity-India News , Firstpost,” Firstpost, September 20, 2018, Today the term “kshatrya” is normally used for “rājanya”.

4. For instance, Robert Eric Frykenberg, “Constructions of Hinduism at the Nexus of History and Religion,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23, no. 3 (1993): 523–50; Günther-Dietz Sontheimer and Hermann Kulke, Hinduism Reconsidered, 2nd enl. ed., (New Delhi: Manohar, 2005); Richard King, “Orientalism and the Modern Myth of ‘Hinduism,’” Numen 46, no. 2 (1999): 146–85; Sharada Sugirtharajah, Imagining Hinduism : A Postcolonial Perspective (London: Routledge, 2003).

5. Wilhelm Halbfass, India and Europe : An Essay in Understanding (Albany, N.Y: SUNY Press, 1988), 197–216.

6. Halbfass, 175–76.

7. Romila Thapar, “The Tyranny of Labels,” Jos Pereira, Subordinate and Marginal Groups in Early India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 361.

8. Louis Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus, Essai Sur Le Système Des Castes, Bibliothèque Des Sciences Humaines (Paris: Gallimard, 1966) has garnered the most criticism.

9. For instance, Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2001); Bernard S. Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1996).

10. Halbfass, India and Europe, 176.

11. Rig Veda: Book 10: Hymn 90, “Puruṣa.,” Ralph T. H. Griffith, trans, 1896, verses 11-12.

12. Halbfass, India and Europe, 177.

13. Halbfass, 194–95; Pereira, Subordinate and Marginal Groups, 15–16.

14. Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya, “Representing the Other? Sanskrit Sources and the Muslims (Eighth to Fourth Century),” Pereira, Subordinate and Marginal Groups, 374–97.

Citer cet article : mwainwright, "Competing Notions of Communal Self-Identity in Hindu Narratives of the Origins of Non-Hindus (Part 1)", Publié sur ReLRace - Religions, lignages et « race » le 03/10/2022, consulté le 06/06/2023,


Un spécialiste de la Grande-Bretagne contemporaine et de l'Inde contemporaine, les recherches de Martin Wainwright portent sur la rencontre entre ces deux pays et son impact sur l'Empire britannique dans son ensemble. Son premier livre, Inheritance of Empire: Britain, India, and the Balance of Power in Asia, 1938-1955 (Praeger, 1994) examine le transfert de technologie de défense et son rôle dans le développement de l'Inde indépendante. Son deuxième livre, "The Better Class" of Indians: Social Rank, Imperial Identity, and South Asians in Britain, 1858-1914 (Manchester University Press, 2008), examine l’idée des rangs sociaux des Sud-Asiatiques habitant en GB pendant les époques victorienne et édouardienne aussi bien que lel l’impact de ce processus sur le développement des'identités nationale et impériale. Le professeur Wainwright étudie actuellement l'impact de l'empire sur la préservation de la monarchie britannique. Il donne des cours d'histoire britannique et indienne ainsi que d'impérialisme et d'histoire mondiale. Il enseigne également un cours sur la présentation de thèmes historiques dans les jeux vidéo et il est l'auteur d'un livre sur le sujet, Virtual History: How Videogames Portray the Past (Routledge, 2019). Depuis 2012, le professeur Wainwright est directeur du Département d'histoire.

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