Let’s Talk Hindutva — Essay 1: What’s in a name?
Essay 0 was about the motivation behind studying the book Hindutva, by Veer Savarkar. If one wants to counter an idea, one has to know about it. I don’t know for sure, but I certainly get a strong sense that the opponents of Hindutva have not read the book itself. In this essay, I intend to write about the first chapter in the book Hindutva.
The chapter is named “Naavat Kay Aahe?” meaning “What’s in a name?” Veer Savarkar cites the words of Juliet from the immortal Shakespearean play, where Juliet asks Romeo to change his name so that they can be together, unvexed by their feuding families. She says this because she understands that things mean more than their names. If we were to call a rose anything else, it would still smell the same.
In this context, Veer Savarkar says, when faced with a choice between the name and the essence of a thing, the latter matters more, especially when the relation between the two is simplistic or novel.
“That there is an unbreakable relationship between the name and the thing itself is disproved by the very fact that the same thing may be known by different names in different languages.”
But, as the relationship between the two strengthens over time, the flow of ideas from one to the other grows natural till the point that they are inseparable. And, as more and more secondary ideas get attached to the thing subtly, then the name of the thing becomes as important as the thing itself. Such names live longer than people, even generations of people. Veer Savarkar says, “Jesus died but Christ outlasted the Roman Emperor and the Empire itself.”
One thing I observe nowadays is that several words are losing meaning. Certain expressions have quite contextual connotations or some even take on completely different meanings in colloquial usage. In order to get a better understand of Veer Savarkar’s point, let me briefly go over a few concepts in semantics or the study of meanings of words.
Semantic drift is when the meanings of words or phrases change over time. Now, I am not a formal student of semantics or philosophy in general. But a search on the internet can reveal that such drifts occur due to multiple reasons, primarily socio-cultural and linguistic reasons.
Semantic widening and narrowing
Let me take an example to explain these concepts. First-wave feminism was about women’s right to vote. The second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s spoke about workplace equality, reproductive rights, and sexual revolution. The third wave of the 2000s focussed on social justice feminism, transgender rights, ecofeminism, vegan feminism, anti-racist feminism. All this was clubbed under one big umbrella term called intersectionality. By now, the scope of feminism was much beyond equal rights for men and women. This broadening of the scope of a word is called semantic widening.
This widening took quite an interesting, although unsettling, turn. J K Rowling had gotten into some controversy when she tweeted that biological sex was real, and not a performance like some of the transgender rights activists claimed. If one wanted to be called a feminist, and not a TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist, who could be a transphobe), then one had to embrace every movement that went along with intersectional feminism. In short, you were not really a feminist unless you were an intersectional feminist. This is the opposite of semantic widening, where the definition gets more and more specific, which is called semantic narrowing.
Same game, closer to home
Now let us come one step closer to home, something else that has a considerable quotient of social justice attached to it. The word Brahmanism (Brahminism) was first used to describe a branch of the ancient Vedic religion, which was believed to have been synonymous with Hinduism, closer in association to the “Brahman”, meaning the universal consciousness.
How the definition of Brahminism evolved
But, then, in the 20th century, scholars like Dr. Ambedkar and irreverent iconoclasts like EVR Periyar, redefined and popularized Brahminism as a social order that puts the Brahmins at the top and discriminates against every other community based on caste. This view of Brahminism essentially views it as a corruption of the Vedic religion. This is already a huge semantic drift.
And now, in the 21st century, Brahminism is a completely different monster. Anything that is done predominantly, no, even commonly by Brahmins, is Brahminism, which is unquestionably evil and only deserves denunciation and condemnation. It does not seem palatable to any sane person.
People who pretend to study these concepts, academically or professionally, seemed to have flipped one aspect of the Ambedkarite definition. According to the Ambedkarite definition, Brahminism is a system that puts Brahmins at the top and others below them, in a hierarchical order. According to the 21st-century definition, whatever Brahmins do is Brahminism. So, that makes Brahmins, not the beneficiaries of a system, but the dictators or hegemons of a billion people in the world.
What consists Brahminism
And I am not just talking out of my hat. There have been articles upon articles on Brahminism, how it is the big evil in India, and now, thanks to the Dismantling Global Hindutva conference, even an international phenomenon. And items just get added to the list of “red flags”. Even the most innocuous things like Sambhar, Bharatnatyam, and even sarees are examples of things that feed into the idea of Brahminism. Even cleanliness is Brahminical. It does not seem to end. And all of this, to me, is just one big semantic game. These words have ceased to carry real meaning, because they are being thrown around so flippantly, all the time.
Even mugging something up, or learning something by heart, is being called a Brahminical practice, in a recent talk by one Suraj Yengde, a professor in a renowned university in the US. Watch the video to know exactly what he said.
Mugging up is a deeply Brahminical practice because Brahmins are used to rote learning as they learn the Vedas and other scriptures by heart so that they can officiate ceremonies without requiring notes.
And as education was exclusively a Brahmin thing, the same system has been carried over into it. Also, it benefits the Brahmins as they enjoy an advantage in this as they are used to mugging up things. This is exactly what one would call semantic widening. The most trivial and inconsequential things are being added to the list of the symptoms of Brahminism.
The sleight of hand
This is just another reinforcement of the idea that Brahminism is anything that Brahmins do or practise and that it is by definition unfair and discriminatory. I mean, even in this example, the education system is Brahminical not because Brahmins considered their exclusive domain what ought to have been shared among all and democratized, but because Brahmins today seem to be benefitting more from it than others, in his view. It is these subtle sleights of hand that make these semantic drifts appear so innocuous while actually being pernicious.
What’s in a name, eh?
Associating such behavior or such a system with a community of people has other, more far-reaching consequences. The entire community runs a risk of being demonized and maligned. These associations were explained by Veer Savarkar in quite a relatable and powerful manner by using an example.
He said if one were to take a painting of Madonna (as in the Virgin Mary and not the pop artist) and change the painting’s name to Fatima and show it to a Catholic, they would look at it as they would at any other skillfully painted picture, that is, with a critical eye.
But if you were to then restore its original name, you would see a miracle. The Catholic would immediately get weak in the knees and drop on them. All the imperfections they noticed with their eyes would disappear and their eyes would glisten with devotion. They would turn from an art critic to a humble person of God in a matter of moments. Dare anyone say “What’s in a name?”
Veer Savarkar further reinforces this point by mocking this notion by asking the reader to consider calling Ayodhya Honolulu or to rename George Washington as Genghis Khan or ask a Muslim to identify as a Jew. He then ends the essay by saying that one must not live under the impression that all words are replaceable, that “Open Sesame” is not a one-of-a-kind phrase.
Certain words are not mere descriptions of things.
“The name of a man is not his arm or his leg or any other part of his body but his very soul.”
That should be the key takeaway. One must always be careful about how any idea is defined. Often, in discussions and arguments with people who have points of view different from our own, we must first agree upon the premise of the argument and then, agree upon definitions. This helps us talk to each other and not past each other, and the general throughput of the discussion increases.
I’ll leave you, the reader, with this little exercise you should do. Think of the terms we use daily in our own discussions on political issues, left-wing, right-wing, secularism, liberalism, or even nationalism. How many of these terms are understood by the different hues in our politics in the same manner? Do all agree on the same definitions? Or have these words devolved and become pejorative? It is our responsibility to be clear in our speech and writing. That is what one must understand from this essay.
The next chapter in the book is entitled “Hindutva is different from Hinduism”. The title itself should clarify whatever doubts people may have in their minds about what Veer Savarkar meant by Hindutva. This essay promises to be a key one, in changing people’s opinions about Hindutva, provided they are open-minded about it.