Competing Notions of Communal Self-Identity in Hindu Narratives of the Origins of Non-Hindus (Part 2)

A. Martin Wainwright, Professor and Chair, Department of History, The University of Akron

(Cet article a été publié en français précédemment)

This apparent disdain or indifference of Hindus for non-Hindu ethnic groups may seem at odds with their doctrinal openness. However, this is easily explained through an understanding of dharma (custom/tradition) which varies from jati (birth-group/sub-caste) to jati. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna instructs the warrior, Arjuna, to “do thy duty, even if it be humble, rather than another’s, even if it be great. To die in one’s duty is life; to live in another’s is death.”1. Although modern interpreters of this verse often treat it as an instruction to follow one’s calling in life, for millennia this passage was seen as an endorsement of following the dharma of one’s caste and community. With this worldview, Hindus have traditionally understood that each group outside the varnasramadharma follows its own dharma, just as each group within does. Followers of Hindu gods do not need to deny the existence of foreign gods. Foreigners simply worship their own gods according to their own dharma. Seen from a pantheistic perspective, all gods, whether Hindu or foreign, are simply manifestations of Brahma, the universal deity.

The encounter with Enlightenment Europe elevated this strain of Hindu thought. From the late eighteenth century onward, Hindu pantheism became popular in Western societies and spread through intellectuals, such as the New England transcendentalists and G. W. F. Hegel, and religious organizations, such as the Theosophical Society. Meanwhile, British occupation stimulated the “Hindu Renaissance,” which saw a plethora of new religious and intellectual movements attempting to reclaim India’s past in forms that could argue against the superiority of Christianity.2 In doing so, both European and Indian intellectuals constructed Hinduism in the image of Christianity, attempting to create a scriptural canon and set of doctrines that could serve as a counterpart to those of the Abrahamic religions.

Efforts to reclaim the past also uncovered new information about it. Two discoveries were particularly important. One was the existence of the Indo-European language family and Sanskrit’s place in it. The other was the Indus Valley Civilization, which preceded the arrival of Sanskrit-speaking culture. These discoveries shifted the ground under Hindu intellectuals. No longer was India the sacred homeland of Hindu ritual, worship, and practice. Much of Hindu culture was either an ancient import, or an invention of Indian society since that time. Replacing traditional upper-caste concerns about ritual purity were European ideas about race, in which the Sanskrit ārya played a central role.

These discoveries resulted in arguments among Hindus regarding the origins of their society. Upper-caste Indians asserted that their Aryan ancestry entitled them to treatment on a par with people of European descent throughout the world. Perhaps the most famous case was that of Bhagat Singh Thind, who in 1923 argued before the United States Supreme Court that his Aryan ancestry entitled him to United States citizenship.3 By contrast, some southern Indian Dravidian language speakers argued that that Aryans in the north constituted an alien imperialist presence.4 They could point to limited evidence suggesting that the Indus Valley Civilization, which they and most early-twentieth-century Indologists presumed to have been a Dravidian-speaking culture, had some elements of Hinduism before the arrival of the Sanskrit-speaking culture. For instance, British archeologist John Marshall argued in 1931 that an Indus Valley seal depicting a human figure seated in the lotus position was a forerunner of the god Shiva.5

The Pashupati Seal, which Johhn Marschall identified as a representation of a precursor god of Shiva (Source Wikipedia, public domain)

As efforts to interpret new discoveries about India’s past continued, V. D. Savarkar coined the term “Hindutva” in 1923 to argue for an Indian identity shorn of Western and Islamic influence. In order to unite upper-caste Hindus, Shudras, Dalits, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs, behind this effort, he defined “Hindu” broadly as a term referring to all cultural groups and practices originating on the Indian subcontinent:

The religion of the majority of the Hindus could be best denoted by the ancient accepted appellation, the Sanatan dharma or the Shruti-smriti-puranokta Dharma or the Vaidik Dharma; while the religion of the remaining Hindus would continue to be denoted by their respective and accepted names Sikha Dharma or Arya Dharma or Jain Dharma or Buddha Dharma. Whenever the necessity of denoting these Dharmas as a whole arises then alone we may be justified in denoting them by the generic term Hindu Dharma or Hinduism. 6

This broad definition was politically practical, since upper-caste Hindus, who were the most enthusiastic about staying within the varnasramadharma, constituted a minority of the population. Moreover, the religious implications of an expansive meaning of “Hindu” did not trouble Savarkar, an atheist. The most important aspect of Savarkar’s definition of the term Hindu, however, was not so much whom it included, but whom it excluded: Muslims and Christians. It did so on cultural grounds:

Many a Mohammedan community . . . as well as the Christians . . . observe our caste rules to such an extent as to marry generally within the pale of their castes alone; yet, it is clear that though their original Hindu blood is thus almost unaffected by an alien adulteration, yet they cannot be called Hindus in the sense in which that term is actually understood, because, we Hindus are bound together . . . by the tie of the common homage we pay to our great civilization—our Hindu culture.7

This mix of racial and cultural distinction explains statements by RSS leaders from Golwalker to Bhagwat regarding the origins and fate of non-Hindus in India. Hindu nationalists regard Islam and Christianity as foreign interlopers into traditional Indian culture. However, they do not usually regard these faiths’ Indian adherents to be racially foreign themselves. Rather, they see Indian Muslims and Christians as descendants of Hindus whom Muslim and Christian rulers forced to convert to their religions. Because these descendants do not observe Hindu ritual and dietary practice, their current religious affiliation violates Hindu dharma. This view is evident in a 1999 RSS document used to recruit members for the task of going into Muslim and Christian communities to “reconvert” them to Hinduism. It claims:

Only a few thousands of years back, Hindus were holding a religious empire all over the world. It is for that reason that people from distant lands such as China, Japan, Vidalaksh (Europe), Patal (America), and Gandhar, etc. had participated in the war of Mahabharat. Dissemination of Dharma was our policy in those days. Various tribes like Shakas, Huns, Kushans, Tatars and Mongols came to Bharat and we assimilated them.8

In referring to the war of the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, this passage accepts as fact an account that no more historically reliable than the Iliad. Moreover, it asserts that participating factions named in the epic refer to Europe and America!

Such historical flights of fancy occur often in Hindutva-movement literature and have become a major concern in the debate over the content of textbooks in state schools. These textbooks claim that the Indus Valley Civilization spoke Sanskrit and that northern India is the homeland of the proto-Indo-European language.9 Such claims have garnered almost no support from professional linguists, archeologists, and historians.10 However, distortions of the past are necessary to maintain the fiction that all the crucial elements of Hindu culture are indigenous to India. To acknowledge that major elements of Hinduism are foreign imports, even from 3,500 years ago, is to undermine the argument that Islam and Western culture are distinctively other in origin and not deserving of inclusion in Indian society.

A sculpture of the god Rama in Ayoddhya, where a Hindu temple is under construction. (Source: Tariq Khan)11

Hindu nationalist assertions regarding the origins of non-Hindus result from a combination of ancient Hindu perceptions regarding the Other and modern knowledge of the distant past resulting from British colonial rule. From this mixture of influences, Hindu nationalists have selected components that are most useful to their vision of a Hindu India. From the Vedic era, they draw on ārya tribal othering. This othering originally referred to the indigenous population, most of which ultimately merged into Hindu society. However, the Hindutva movement has repurposed it to refer to what it regards as foreign influences, particularly from Islam and the West. From the period of increasing Indian contact with foreigners, particularly invaders from the northwest, the Hindutva movement inherits the understanding that non-Hindus are descendants of Hindus whose falling away from the varnasramadharma is a manifestation of the Kaliyuga, the current age of decline. British rule caused Hindu intellectuals to redefine their beliefs and practices in a more systematic way distinct from, but comparable to, Christianity and Islam. In doing so, they emphasized their doctrinal openness to other beliefs in contrast to the exclusionary tendencies of the Abrahamic religions. Britain’s occupation of India sparked the development of a modern Indian national identity, and its Hindu nationalist variant. It also led to discoveries about India’s past that shaped Hindu views regarding the origins of non-Hindus. However, most Hindu nationalists reject the academic consensus about the origins of early Hindu belief and practice, opting instead for assertions (reminiscent of their ancient ancestors’) that the Indo-European languages originated in India and that Hindu dharma was the natural state of humans at the dawn of civilization.

These views of the origins of other religious communities are distinct from those of the Abrahamic religions. Hinduism’s emphasis on dharma as relative across cultures leaves most Hindus feeling no compulsion to convert non-Hindus to their worldview. The exception arises among Hindu nationalists within India, because they regard the presence of Abrahamic religions and Western cultural influence as undermining Hindu dharma. Hindu nationalist beliefs regarding the origins of non-Hindus can, therefore, be simultaneously inclusive generally and intolerant domestically. While this attitude certainly does not characterize the view of all Hindus, or necessarily even a majority of them, it does represent the most vocal and powerful group to claim the mantle of “Hinduism” today.

1. Bhagavad Gita, Juan Mascaro trans., (London: Penguin, 1962), 3:35.

2. David Kopf, British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance : The Dynamics of Indian Modernization, 1773-1835 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).

3. Jennifer Snow, “The Civilization of White Men: The Race of the Hindu in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind,” in Race, Nation, and Religion in the Americas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 259–80.

4. Eugene F. Irschick, Politics and Social Conflict in South India; the Non-Brahman Movement and Tamil Separatism, 1916-1929 (University of California Press, 1969), 289–98.

5. John Hubert Marshall Sir, Mohenjo-Daro and the Indus Civilization (London: A. Probsthain, 1931), 52–57.

6. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu?, 5th ed. (Bombay: Veer Savarkar Prakashan, 1969), 107.

7. Savarkar, 91–92.

8. Raj Eshwar, Paravartan (Back to Hindusim) Why and How, in Christophe Jaffrelot, Hindu Nationalism: A Reader (Princeton, N.J.:Princeton University Press, 2007), 245.

9. Makkhan Lal, Ancient India: Textbook for Class XI (New Delhi: National Council of Educational Research and Training, 2002).

10. For instance, Sylvie Guichard, The Construction of History and Nationalism in India: Textbooks, Controversies and Politics, (London: Routledge, 2010); Irfan Habib, Suvira Jaiswal, and Aditya Mukherjee, History in the New NCERT Text Books for Class Vi, Ix, and Xi: –A Report and an Index of Errors (Kolkata: Executive Committee, Indian History Congress, 2003). A notable exception is Edwin Bryant, The Indo-Aryan Controversy: Evidence and Inference in Indian History (London: Routledge, 2005).

11.In 1992 the Hindu nationalists linked to the BJP destroyed the Babur mosque, which had been built in 1528 on the site of an ancient Hindu temple. The riots, orchestrated by the RSS, resulted in more than 900 deaths. The BJP and other nationalist groups claim that Ayodhya is the birthplace of the god Rama.

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mwainwright (2022, 17 octobre). Competing Notions of Communal Self-Identity in Hindu Narratives of the Origins of Non-Hindus (Part 2). ReLRace - Religions, lignages et « race ». Consulté le 24 avril 2024, à l’adresse


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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