“Geographizing” Vedic Hinduism
Forcing Vedic Hindu mythology into the geographic and historic memory of South Asia has always been an important Hindutva strategy. From the military occupation and siege of Kashmir to countless examples within India itself — the idea of (ever-changing) myth as available historic, scientific and legal justification for atrocities has become a well-worn policy. Perhaps one of the most important examples of this claim is the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya city. A belief that the deity Rama was born at the Babri Masjid site was reason enough to burn down homes, kill thousands of people (mostly Muslims) and destroy a 500 year old mosque. In the years since then, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) – the primary Hindu mob responsible for Babri Masjid’s destruction – has used the violence to cement the idea of Muslims as foreign invaders on “Hindu” land. It was a group of VHP devotees (called kar sevaks) traveling from Ayodhya that triggered and fueled the Gujarat ethnic-cleansing of Muslims in 2002, under Narendra Modi’s leadership and support.1 The VHP has been historically instrumental in providing the fodder that feeds mob revenge fantasies against poor Dalit and Muslim minorities. In recent years, the group has started marking the demolition of Babri Masjid by celebrating ‘Shaurya Diwas’ (or Bravery Day) – the primary purpose of which is to incite violence. Founded by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leaders in the sixties, the VHP has since spawned countless variations of this militarized and vengeful Hindu identity.
Over ten years after the Ayodhya tragedy, the VHP took up another fight in Ram’s name – the mass protest against building the Tehri Dam on the Ganges River. The Sangh re-framed the dam’s purpose as a Congress-led ploy for Muslim appeasement and votes (an argument that would be repeated for decades, across issues). The actual environmental conditions of the river mattered less. The VHP’s involvement came fairly late, and they lost interest once the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gained control and continued its pro-dam policies. However, they did their damage and affiliated with progressive social movements. One of the protest’s most well-known leaders, Sunderlal Bahuguna – renowned Gandhian environmentalist – shared his platform and allied with the VHP. The VHP’s language of purity and Hindutva resonated with movement leaders. The VHP used Vedic scriptures to tie together metaphors of land, water and nationalism, reinforcing the Ganges River as a “Hindu river” – the river’s pollution was akin to polluting Hinduism.
Today, an ashram near Haridwar (a major site of resistance actions) is widely known for Swamis who have fasted themselves to death for the Ganges River. In October of 2018, a famous Swami named GD Agarwal died after 111 days of fasting. Prior to his death, he had written several letters to “brother Modi”, appealing for the immediate end to several industrial projects. He was ignored (until after his death when Modi tweeted his condolences.) Movements based on glorifying individual Swamis – dismisses the value and history of broader collective action and ultimately ignores the communal and ecological violence of Hindu nationalist political structures. The fight for the Ganges River is popularly understood as a “Hindu environmental movement” for the ways it has centralized the (Hindu) spirituality and personhood of the river. In doing so, many have ignored the much older and larger movement in the area against ecologically destructive industrial projects with participation from a range of interwoven social movements – peasants, women, tribal people.
The Eco-Hindutva movement values an intense internality guided by Vedic scriptures, one which equates indigeneity with an ancient, Brahminized Hindu identity. It advocates for a worldview that understands nature as pristine or “clean”, which is now polluted by humanity. It has seeded an approach where environmental science and knowledge could be re-shaped according to Hindu mythology and spirituality. Notably, it ignores forest dwellers and tribal knowledge, generational guardianship and sovereignty – while dismissing significant Adivasi environmental struggles and fights for justice in South Asia. Eco-hindutva shifts focus on what counts as environmental issues – it directs concern towards environmental cleanliness and a highly individualized focus on vegetarianism and cow protection. At the same time, it literalizes tropes of “invasion” on “Hindu land” and uses Vedic mythology as the basis for ecological preservation. These foundational ideologies find legitimacy in environmental platforms and is part of how the diaspora both amplifies and justifies Hindutva violence.
An early diasporic example of eco-hindutva is the Save Ram Sethu Campaign – which inspired a massive, global Hindu response. The Ram Sethu (also called Adam’s Bridge) refers to a series of oceanic rock formations that link South India to Sri Lanka’s northwestern regions. The claim being made is that the deity Rama both built and used this bridge to cross over to Sri Lanka. A proposed canal (Sethu Samudram Shipping Canal Project) meant to increase navigational ease would have destroyed these rock formations. The previous Congress government had made it explicitly clear that Hindu mythology could not be submitted as scientific evidence (deeply angering Hindu nationalists). LK Advani, a senior BJP leader at the time, called the proclamation “sadist-secularism”. In a remarkable reversal of the BJP’s long-standing policy of disregarding environmental protections for development projects, in 2018 the Modi government promised to protect the Ram Sethu rock formations. This dramatic policy change paves the way for mythology to be presented as factual evidence, when considering decisions about the nation state.
Diasporic Hindutva cannot mobilize through hate speeches as their counterparts regularly do in India. Instead, it mimics Hindutva’s core values through more progressive platforms and messages. In the US, the VHP is one of the oldest Hindu right-wing organizations in the country – established in New York as VHP-America in 1970. According to its website, while VHP-A is “independent” from the Indian counterpart, it is “inspired by the same ideals as those followed by VHP of Bharat”. Over the decades, VHP-A has inserted these violent ideals into a mainstreamed public discourse as part of an earnest multicultural nationalism. During the 80s and 90s, VHP popularized the ‘Ram Shila Pujan’ in the US and the UK – a ceremonial blessing of bricks (shilas) which was then sent back to India to build the Ayodhya temple.2 The ceremony ritualized the violent erasure of Muslim presence from India’s public sphere. Decontextualized from its origins and meanings, these practices sanitize and re-position sociopathic brutality. In 2018, both the VHP and the RSS were listed as “militant religious outfits” by the Central Intelligence Agency in the United States. The VHP has the distinction of being the only group on a CIA watchlist, whose most recent cultural initiative – Hindu Heritage Day – was officiated by a sitting US Governor (Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker) as part of the state’s cultural diversity work. Disconnected from its violence in India, these formations seem benign or an organic part of an immigrant minority collectivization. Hindu right-wing ideas also sometimes find legibility in more mainstreamed critiques of anti-colonialism. And they resonant with the Islamophobia and ease with occupation found in much of modern American nationalism and its national security logic. Within these ideologies, the very real, ongoing and brutal occupation of Kashmir by Indian military forces is obsessively re-imagined as a demographic threat against Kashmiri Pandits (Kashmiri Brahmins) by the Muslim majority population of Kashmir.
Over time, the Sangh has provided an influential and stable set of beliefs that are borrowed and re-purposed to understand South Asian history and politics by generations of Americans, including Hindu Americans. Arguably, the most critical one is a call to attention for a disappearing Hindu culture that demands “Hindu unity” – currently fractured by caste, conversions, and the “foreign” influence of Islam and Christianity (frequently referred to as ‘Abrahamic’ religions). Entangled with the urgency of “Hindu unity” is another key tenet – the supremacy of Vedic Brahminical scriptures. It’s a proposition that finds wide appeal in the Hindu Indian diaspora which is overwhelmingly made up of Savarna and Brahmin Indians (in stark contrast to the rest of the South Asian population which is both regionally and religiously diverse). Caste upholds and solidifies Hindutva’s core beliefs.
Eco-hindutva: Cows and Vegetarianism
“There is only one way to protect Indian culture: to protect gau (cows), Ganga, and (goddess) Gayatri…Only the community that can protect this heritage will survive. Otherwise there will be a huge crisis of identity, and this crisis of identity will endanger our existence.”
– Yogi Adityanath, BJP chief minister, Uttar Pradesh state, 2017 3
“One cow is equal to a 1000 humans.”
– Cow Culture Conference participant in California, 2018 during an anti-RSS protest
In 2002, five Dalit men accused of killing a cow were publicly lynched, and their bodies mutilated by a mob in Jhajjar, Haryana.The murders made national news and was debated in the Indian parliament, where one official speculated that the mob did not know that the men killed were not Muslim. No one was ever arrested. In fact, the perpetrators were paraded in a victorious yatra organized by the VHP. The VHP also put out statements declaring that a cow’s life was worth more than human life. Since then, under Modi, these gruesome murders related to cow killings (or for consuming beef) has accelerated at a terrifying rate. Many of these incidents have been recorded in viral videos, underlying the impunity provided to the killers. According to a 2019 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, in the past 3 years at least 44 people (mostly Muslims) were killed across 12 states related to cow lynchings alone. Furthermore, 280 have been injured in 100 different instances across 20 states. In the past few years, there have been mass protests both in India and its diaspora condemning these mob lynchings and demanding justice.
In the meantime, diasporic eco-hindutva has been busy highlighting the sanctity of a cow’s life and condemning beef consumption. ‘The Bhumi Project’ (the land project) brought together by the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies (OCHS) and the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) launched the ‘Hindu Environment Week” in 2014. Part of their launch activities was to include a cow protection exhibition in Maharashtra (India) a few months later. The Bhumi Project’s main promotional environmental strategy is called ‘Compassionate Living’ – which advocates 5 different steps, 4 of which involve being “kind to cows” and becoming vegetarian.
Brahminical frameworks for nutrition are about caste and ritualized ideas of polluting foods (like all meats, especially beef) – and less about cruelty to animals. However as with so many other eco-hindutva shifts, vegetarian practice is promoted as compassion which is distinctively Hindu in its nature. The Hindu diaspora is invested in producing Hinduism as always and uniquely peaceful. Sometimes this is contrasted with the colonial violence and “extremism” found in Christianity and Islam respectively. Such a framing is aided along by western imaginations of an ancient, spiritual wellness culture. (American RSS – HSS – dedicates a lot of its programming to Vedic Yoga, a wildly popular exercise routine that has gone through a complicated mesh of public political analysis centered on cultural appropriation. ‘Take Back Yoga’ – a Hindu rightwing campaign – was hugely successful in making in-roads with people from across the political spectrum.) However, ignoring the violent context of cow-related lynchings and discussing the value of a cow disregards human life and shields the hate that mobilized the murderers in the first place.
The Bhumi Project’s “Hindu Environment Week” is marked by community clean-up events all over the US. In a lot of ways, it mimics Modi’s popular Swachh Bharat in India – a mission associated with ending open defecation, but which is also heavily promoted as a cleaning exercise of public spaces. Since 2014, eco-hindutva has also uplifted specific initiatives associated with Narendra Modi (and including Modi himself): green technology, recycling plastics and cleaning. Diasporic Hindutva is often times the global public relations wing of the Sangh Pariwar.
In 2012, the Bhumi Project along with HAF drafted a statement called the “Hindu Declaration of Climate Change” that says among other things that
Eco-Hindutva and Climate Change
“Climate has not changed. We have changed…our tolerance and habits have changed. If we change then God has built the system in such a way that it can balance on its own.”
— Narendra Modi (2015, National Address)
After the United States and China, India is the third largest greenhouse gas polluter in the world and faces much international pressure to reduce carbon emissions. It is also one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to climate change impacts. According to a 2018 government report, India is currently facing the worst water crisis in its history. Despite this, the Indian government has been fairly ambivalent on climate change for decades – a policy that continues under Narendra Modi. In spite of its obvious significance to key election issues like the agrarian crisis, the recent 2019 Indian elections barely mentioned climate change. “This is a problem that wealthy nations are responsible for solving.” India’s primary climate change policy has always been that any regulations must prioritize economic development. In other words, no regulations on major industries like mining, fossil fuel production or deforestation will be considered if it is understood as economically unfavorable.
In 2018 Modi was awarded the United Nation’s highest environmental prize, ‘Champions of the Earth’ largely for his embrace of green energy investments. The BJP’s embrace of green technology is seen as a “radical shift” in Indian climate change policy. (India continues to be the third largest producer of coal in the world.) Under Modi’s direction – there has been a noted shift in language (if not substance) in how a decades old Indian policy has continued. He has infused the policy language with a folk myth character, perceived as innovative and unique. During the award ceremony, the UN Environment Executive Director Erik Solheim attributed Modi’s extreme humility to a Gandhian ascetism that stemmed from an “Indian value system” and love for “Mother Earth”. In his speech, Modi continued the refrain for “Mother Earth” and added the following, “Adivasis in India love forests more than their own lives.” It was received with thunderous applause. This callous disregard for Adivasi lives is part of a familiar history and ongoing violence.
In the name of conservation, in Feb 2019 – a stunning Supreme Court (SC) decision evicted a million tribal people across 16 states in India from their forest homes. The SC decision notably eroded the Forest Rights Law – Indian constitutional law that recognizes the importance of tribal sovereignty in the conservation of forests. Almost immediately after Modi came into power in 2014, the BJP government began the process of diluting critical environmental laws – (the Forest Rights Act, wildlife and coastal regulatory laws) – to ease clearances for industrial and mining companies. Under Modi, India’s forests, mountains and wildlife sanctuaries have been destroyed at an unprecedented rate and handed over to foreign industrial investors.23 India has also slipped further down to 177 (out of 180) in the Environment Performance Index rankings (the record for Environmental Health for the same measure is even lower at 178).
What does it mean for Modi to win such a prestigious award in the face of such a shameful and destructive environmental record? For Modi and his international supporters, environmental justice is a matter of a mythical balance which can be achieved through neoliberal development investments. It need not be real or have any material meaning. As long as corporations profit, the BJP government’s aggressive privatization of public goods and infrastructure need not benefit people or achieve any goals in order to be applauded. As South Asia faces a brutal summer and a terrifyingly dry monsoon season, climate change is amplifing existing vulnerabilities of poverty, caste and violence. Our work must recognize farce and performance that claim to be solutions in the face of ongoing and future catastrophe.