The Myth of the Hindu Right
By David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastri)
In media accounts today, any group that identifies itself as Hindu or tries to promote any Hindu cause is immediately and uncritically defined as ‘right-winged’. In the leftist accounts that commonly come from the Indian press, Hindu organizations are also routinely called militants and fascists. However, if we look at their actual views, Hindu groups have a very different ideology and practices than the political right in other countries. In fact many Hindu causes are more at home in the left in the West than in the right.
The whole idea of the ‘Hindu right’ is a ploy to discredit the Hindu movement as backward and prevent people from really examining it. The truth is that the Hindu movement is a revival of a native spiritual tradition that has nothing to do with the political right-wing of any western country. Its ideas are spiritually evolutionary, not politically regressive, though such revivals do have a few extremists. Let us examine the different aspects of the Hindu movement and where they would fall in the political spectrum of left and right as usually defined in the West.
Hinduism and Native Traditions
The Hindu cause is similar to the causes of native and tribal peoples all over the world, like native American and African groups. Even Hindu concerns about cultural encroachment by western religious and commercial interests mirrors those of other traditional peoples who want to preserve their cultures. Yet while the left has taken up the concerns of native peoples worldwide, the same concerns of Hindus are styled right-wing or communal, particularly in India!
When native Americans ask for a return of their sacred sites, the left in America supports them. When Hindus ask for a similar return of their sacred sites, the left in India opposes them and brands them as intolerant for their actions! When native peoples in America or Africa protest against the missionaries for interfering with their culture, the left supports them. Yet when Hindus express the same sentiments, the left attacks them. Even the Hindu demand for rewriting the history of India to better express the value of their indigenous traditions is the same as what native Africans and Americans are asking for. Yet the left opposes this Hindu effort, while supporting African and American efforts of a similar nature.
In countries like America, native traditions are minorities and thereby afforded a special sympathy. Leftists in general tend to support minority causes and often lump together black African and native American causes as examples of the damage caused by racism and colonialism. In India, a native tradition has survived the colonial period but as the tradition of the majority of the people. Unfortunately, the intellectual elite of India, though following largely a leftist orientation, has no sympathy for the country’s own native tradition. They identify it as right-wing in order to express their hostility towards it. They try to portray it as a majority oppression of minorities, when it is the movement of a suppressed majority to regain its dignity.
Not surprisingly, the same leftists in India, who have long been allied to communist China, similarly style the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause as right-wing and regressive, though the Dalai Lama is honored by the American left. This should tell the reader about the meaning of right and left as political terms in India. When one looks at the Hindu movement as the assertion of a native tradition with a profound spiritual heritage, the whole perspective on it changes.
The Hindu movement in India in its most typical form follows a Swadeshi (own-country) movement like the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch. It emphasizes protecting the villages and local economies, building economic independence and self-reliance for the country. It resists corporate interference and challenges multinational interests, whether the bringing of fast food chains to India, western pharmaceuticals or terminator seeds.
Such an economic policy was supported by Mahatma Gandhi with his emphasis on the villages, reflected in his characteristic usage of the spinning wheel. Its counterparts in the West are the groups that protest the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). However, these protest groups are generally classified as ‘left-wing’ by the international press.
The international press considers the economic right-wing to be the powers of the multinational corporations, particularly, the oil industry, which certainly are not the allies of Hindu economics. Clearly Hindu economics is more connected with the New Left in the West and has little in common with the right. The Republican right in America, with its corporate interests, would hardly take up the cause of Hindu economics either.
Meanwhile the BJP, the so-called Hindu nationalist party in India, has been responsible for much the economic liberalization if the country, sometimes even to the dismay of some votaries of Hindu economics. It has been the main opponent of the socialist policies of the previous Congress and left governments that had communist leanings. While such a movement is to the right in the political spectrum, the policies of the BJP are a movement towards western capitalism from the left, they are not a movement from it to the right. At most they emulate a more open capitalist society as in the West but one that retains a dharmic background.
Hindu Ecology and Nature Concerns
Hindu groups are well known for promoting vegetarianism and animal rights, particularly the protection of cows. The Hindu religion as a whole honors the Divine in animals and recognizes that animals have a soul and will eventually achieve liberation. Hindu groups have tried to keep fast food franchises, which emphasize meat consumption, out of India. Such a movement would be part of consumer advocacy movements that are generally leftist or liberal causes in the West. Again it is hardly an agenda of the right-wing in America, which has a special connection to the beef industry; or to the right-wing worldwide, which has no real concern for animal rights and is certainly not interesting in spreading vegetarianism.
Hindus look upon nature as sacred, honoring the rivers and mountains as homes of deities. They stress the protection of Mother Earth, which they worship in the form of the cow. They have a natural affinity with the western ecology movement and efforts to protect animals, forests and wilderness areas. This is also hardly a right-wing agenda.
Hindu Religious Pluralism
The Hindu religion is a pluralistic tradition that accepts many paths, teachers, scriptures and teachings. One cannot be a Christian without accepting Christ or a Buddhist without accepting Buddha, but one can be a Hindu without accepting any single figure. In fact there are Hindus who may not follow Krishna, Rama, Shiva, Vishnu or other Hindu sages or deities and still count as Hindu.
Hindus have been at the forefront in arguing for the cause of religious diversity and the acceptance of pluralism in religion, rejecting the idea that any single religion alone can be true.
This Hindu idea of religion—which is also subscribed to by so-called right wing Hindu groups like RSS—is obviously not part of the agenda of the religious right in the West. The American Christian right is still sending missionaries to the entire world in order to convert all people to Christianity, the only true religion. It is firmly fixed on one savior, one scripture and a rather literal interpretation of these. Yet when Hindus ask the pope to make a statement that truth can be found outside of any particular church or religion they are called right-wing and backwards, while the pope, who refuses to acknowledge the validity of Hindu, Buddhist or other Indic traditions, is regarded as liberal! Such pluralism in religious views is hardly a cause for any right-wing movement in the world, but is also considered progressive, liberal, if not leftist (except in India).
Hinduism and Science
Unlike the religious right in the West, the Hindu movement is not against science or opposed to teaching evolution in the schools. Hinduism does promote occult and spiritual subjects like astrology, Ayurvedic medicine, Yoga or Vedanta, but these are the same basic teachings found in the New Age in the West, generally regarded as a liberal or leftist movement, not those of the religious right in the West. Many leaders of the Hindu movement are in fact scientists. For example, RSS leaders like former chief Rajinder Singh, or BJP leaders like Murli Manohar Joshi have also been professors of modern physics.
In fact we could compare Hinduism as a whole with the case of Ayurveda. Ayurveda as a form of mind-body medicine emphasizing the role of consciousness in health and disease is part of the alternative medicine movement in the West and considered to be progressive, while the medical establishment that emphasizes allopathy is regarded as conservative, if not right-wing. However, in India it is Ayurveda, because it is a tradition of the country, which is regarded as backwards, while modern medicine is regarded as progressive.
The Hindu Movement and Caste
The Hindu right is often defined in the media in terms of caste, as favoring the upper castes over the lower castes. This is another distortion that is often intentional. Modern Hindu teachers have been at the forefront of removing caste. This includes great figures like Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and Aurobindo. It includes major Hindu movements like the Arya Samaj, the largest Vedic movement in modern India, and the Swadhyaya movement.
The RSS, the largest so-called Hindu right wing group, rejects caste and works to remove it from Hindu society, giving prominence to leaders from lower classes and working to open the Hindu priesthood to members of all castes. While caste continues to be a problem in certain segments of Hindu society, it is generally not because of these current Hindu social, religious and political movements, but because their reform efforts are resisted.
The Hindu Movement and Women’s Rights
Generally, the right wing in the West is defined as opposed to women’s rights. However, there are many women’s groups and active women leaders in the Hindu movement and in the Hindu religion. Being a woman is no bar for being a political or religious leader in India as it often is in the West. Hinduism has the worlds’ largest and oldest tradition of the worship of the Divine as Mother, including as India itself. Great female Hindu gurus like Ammachi (Mata Amritanandamayi) travel and teach all over the world. The Hindu movement worships India on a spiritual level as a manifestation of the Divine Mother (Shakti).
Hindus were very protective of their women during the period foreign and kept them sequestered, which was often for their own safety. Unfortunately, this trend has continued among some Hindus in the modern world when it is no longer necessary. So while there is poor treatment of women in some parts of Hindu society, this has not been by modern Hindu teachers or movements that have tried to raise the status of women as Shakti.
The Hindu Bomb
Perhaps the main thing in recent years used to define Hindus in India as right-winged is India’s testing of the nuclear bomb in 1998. Yet India’s concern for its military welfare and need for a nuclear deterrent is certainly no more than what the democratic party in the United States has asked for. The Indian government has at the same time argued for complete nuclear disarmament, which it would be happy to comply with. Note that the Dalai Lama supported India’s nuclear testing. He can hardly regarded as a right-wing leader (except by the Chinese communists and their Indian counterparts).
The Indian Left: The Old Left
In India, the political terminology of right and left is defined by Marxists, who like to call anyone that opposes them right-wing or fascists, which they used to do even with socialists. In their view anything traditionally Hindu would have to be right-wing on principle, just as their views are always deemed progressive, even if supporting Stalinist tactics. This means that in India such subjects as Yoga, natural healing, vegetarianism and animal rights are all automatically right-wing because they are causes of the Hindu mind, with antecedents in ancient Indian culture. Great Hindu yogis and sages from Shankaracharya to Sri Aurobindo are classified by modern Marxists as right-wing, if not fascist.
However, the Indian left is mainly the Old Left, emphasizing a failed communist ideology and state economic planning such as dominated Eastern Europe in the decades following World War II and took it nowhere. It wreaked the same havoc with the economy and educational systems of India and kept the country backward. Indian communists are among the few in the world that still proudly honor Stalin and Mao (while warning of the danger of Hindu fundamentalism)! Communist ruled Bengal still teaches the glory of the Russian revolution for all humanity, though Russia gave up communism ten years ago! The Old Left was itself intolerant, oppressive and dictatorial, sponsoring state terrorism and genocide wherever it came to power. Indian leftists have never rejected these policies and look back with nostalgia on the Soviet Union!
Therefore, we must remember that the leftist criticism of Hinduism coming from the Indian left is that of the Old Left. This old left in India does not take up many of the causes of the new left like ecology or native rights. It even sides with the policies of the political right-wing in western cultures upholding the rights of missionaries to convert native peoples and continuing colonial accounts of Indic civilization.
The communist inspired left in India has tried to demonize the Hindu movement as a right-wing phenomenon in order to discredit its spiritual orientation. The aim of the Indian left is to keep the Hindu movement isolated from any potential allies. After all, no one likes fascists, which is a good term of denigration that evokes negative emotions for both communists and capitalists.
Hinduism and the Left
The causes taken up by the Hindu movement are more at home in the New Left than in right wing parties of the West. Some of these resemble the concerns of the Green Party. The Hindu movement offers a long-standing tradition of environmental protection, economic simplicity, and protection of religious and cultural diversity. There is little in the so-called Hindu right that is shared by the religious or political right-wing in western countries, which reflect military, corporate and missionary concerns. The Hindu movement has much in common with the New Age movement in the West and its seeking of occult and spiritual knowledge, not with the right wing in the West, which rejects these things. Clearly, the western right would never embrace the Hindu movement as its ally. Right-winged labels have been cast on the Hindu movement in an uncritical way. Usually it has been little more than a casting of labels or stereotypes.
To counter this distortion, some Hindus are now arguing for a new ‘Hindu Left’ to better express the concerns of Hindu Dharma in modern terms. They would see the New Left as more in harmony with Hindu concerns and a possible ally. Hindu thought has always been progressive and evolutionary, seeking to aid in the unfoldment of consciousness in humanity and not resting content with material or political gains as sufficient. Hindu Dharma should be reexamined by the New Left and the distortions of by the Old Left discarded. The New Left will find much in Hindu Dharma that is relevant to its concerns.The Hindu movement can be a great ally to many social movements throughout the world. It has a base of nearly a billion people and the world’s largest non-biblical religious tradition, with a long tradition of spiritual thought and practice. The Hindu movement can be an ally for any native causes, environmental concerns, women’s spiritual issues and movements toward economic simplicity and global responsibility, to mention but a few.
Groups espousing such causes may have looked upon Hinduism as an enemy, being taken in by leftist propaganda. They must question these distortions of the Old Left. They should look to the Hindu view for insight, even if they may not agree with it on all points. They should not trust the anti-Hindu stereotypes of the Old Left, any more than they trust the views of the now defunct Soviet Union.
Towards a Non-Political Social Order
However, the entire right-left division reflects the conditions of western politics and is inaccurate in the Indian context. We must give up such concepts in examining Indic civilization, which in its core is spiritually based, not politically driven. It reflects older and deeper concerns that precede and transcend the West’s outer vision. As long as we define ourselves through politics our social order will contain conflict and confusion. Democracy may be the more benign face of a political order, but it still hides the lack of any true spiritual order. We must employ the vision of dharma and subordinate politics to it, which should be a form of Karma Yoga.
The New Left also contains various distortions from a Hindu perspective. True liberalism requires a responsibility to the entire universe, not just an assertion of individual human rights, which can be to the detriment of larger social groups or to the natural environment. It looks to the spiritual human being, our immortal consciousness, and not to the bodily-based ego as the real human being. It helps preserve organic social orders and avoids interference with natural cultural development.
We cannot look to politics to change the world, but to spirituality to change politics. Hindus should not try to remake Hinduism according to current images of political correctness, but should connect the world to a greater idea of humanity than political concerns. These follow the vision of the great yogis and sages who have stood outside of western political concerns and viewpoints.
What is said to be ‘politically correct’ is often ‘spiritually incorrect’. It consists of simplistic outer solutions that do not go to the root of the human problem, which is one of consciousness, not only social or material equality. We must look back to an organic and spiritual order to society that cannot be defined by either the left or the right of western politics, and which will hopefully set both aside. This is what Hindu Dharma can offer.