Divine Enterprise, the Intimate Relationship between New Hindu Religious Organizations, Hindu Nationalism and Power élites
By Daniela Bevilacqua
Based on a literature review, this article discusses briefly on the relationship between religion and groups of power in the contemporary India, analysing its influence on social life in order to deal with socio-economic realities from a wider perspective. Without taking into account methodology elements, I adopt a historical perspective with reference to anthropological, political and economic literature.
Furthermore, the purpose of this paper is to analyse the role of some Hindu organizations raised during the 19th-20th century in India in the process to transform the traditional bond between rajas and Brahmanic castes in economic support by businessmen and power élites.
Hence, I will consider two topics:
- a briefly description of the origin of reformist Hindu organisations and Hindu nationalism at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries (Arya Samaj, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Hindu Mahasabha);
- an analysis of those organizations specifically created during the 20th century, as the Sivananda’s Divine Life Society and the Vishva Hindu Parishad. These two realities stem from different background and have different purposes, however they collaborate to spread and maintain peculiar aspects of Hindu society supported by power groups and long distance nationalism.
Origins of Hindu organisations and Hindu nationalism
With the rise of English Raj, Indians were submitted to a close English check and a classificatory analysis that led to steady critics on Indian societyand religions. From these critics emerged the need to modify those Indian traditions and habits considered superstitious by colonialists and to substitute them with a philosophy closer to the original Vedic thought. Thus, these efforts tried to make Hinduism (a purposeful word just for the English minds and invented by them) more similar to monotheistic religions. As a result, this need generated different reformist movements and supported the rise of religious leaders, as Ram Mohan Roy, Dayanand Saraswati and Vivekananda, who became critical to the formation of the 20th century Indian thought. In particular, Swami Vivekananda introduced a picture of India emphasizing its oneness and superiority in spiritual realm against the corrupt and material Western world using passionate and strong tones. This idea of India combined with the nationalist appeal of westernized Indian intellectuals fed the sense of mother country, along with the national pride and the cultural (and thereby leading) might leading to the foundation of Indian National Congress at the end of the 19th century. However, the dream of a united India, able to govern itself, was shattered by the rise of Muslim League that causes concern among Indian intelligentsia. In fact, those members of this intelligentsia who were educated within the Hindu-Muslim dichotomy of English historiography, blamed Muslims for Indian underdevelopment.
Stimulated by these circumstances, V. Savarkar conceived the Hindutva ideology which was to found the RSS in 1925. This organization was arranged to promote a Hindu renaissance, through which Hindu majority would have governed with justice and democracy. Indeed only Hinduism could have guaranteed peace and freedom to all. Indian spirituality, dharma and svadharma became focal subjects, ethic and moral fundamental themes, violence a necessity.
In this context, on the one hand, there was the research for a renewed Hindu spirituality, which found in Vedas the source of its prestige and a Truth able to save modern man from ills of the society grown during Muslim dominance and developed under the colonial rule. On the other hand, there was the insight of nationalist movement with two branches, the liberal and the right-wing . During the first decade of 20th century, the rightwing could take advantages from the rise of the RSS (intended as a cultural organization) and the Hindu Mahasabha, a political party that grouped the most conservative minds opposed to Congress secularism and Muslim separatism. This party was to evolve in the Jana Sang and in the 80s in the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The new political and religious bonds between tradition and modernity
Since ancient times, the relationship between religion and power was very close because social hierarchy established the superiority of Brahmanic caste over the Kshatrya. Hence, the latter needed Brahmans support in order to legitimize its own power and to maintain it through annuals rituals. Indeed, it was not the king to be divinized but its royal role that aimed to protect dharma. Political power existed inasmuch as social controller; traditionally king had power and authority because of this role, otherwise he was meaningless. His main duty was moral and social, and he needed advises of his raja-guru for its fulfilment. During the colonial period, relationship between religion and politics acquired nationalist nuances: members of Indian intelligentsia used it to mobilize masses. The appeal for Indian independence, demanded with the use of traditional themes connected to religiosity and higher moral values, was able to gather Indian masses against the British rule. An example of such a kind is given by Gandhi. However, not only political leaders turned to Indian people: a numbers of modern sadhus tried to bypass sect hierarchies, to set up their own religious spaces and to get power and success.
It’s about to consider the Divine Life Society as an example of such new religious space. Ideated by Swami Sivananda, guru grown up following Shankara’s teachings, it attracted many disciples becoming one of the most spread organizations on Indian soil and abroad. Its structure is well rooted in social life thanks to the building of schools, hospitals, and ashrams. It gives support to poor people, but in its ashrams and among its disciples there are mostly rich members of Indian society. Indeed, the ideology sponsored by Sivananda addresses to individuals tired by the modern life style, who can find benefice in his sadhana. According to his philosophy, people should put themselves in the full service of the others, especially in the service of Divine Life Society. This service can be fulfilled by helping the Society in its several activities, as doctors for example, or just by giving donations.
Moreover, a really famous Sivananda’s disciple was Swami Chinmayananda, president of the RSS, deviser and head of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP hereafter). This organization was founded to bring together the representatives of Indian religious sects, considering also those from Sikhism and Buddhism. Its aim is to make a united religious front in order to spread a new Hindu morality and fight against Muslim and Christian conversions. To reach this purpose, it organised several religious events of national echo (e.g., Ekatmata Yatra, Yath Ratra, Ramjanmabhumi Movement) reaching visibility and political support. Thus, the bonds with the RSS and with the Bhartiya Janata Party strongly politicize VHP’s activities and, the most important, define them in nationalistic and communal terms.
Furthermore, despite their different background and characteristics these two organizations share the same kind of social activities and especially they are supported by specific groups. Indeed, one of the main reasons why elites support such organisations is to legitimize their economic power, their social position and sustain a social frame adapted to their peculiar interests. Consequently, it is not unusual for the VHP and Divine Life Society to assist the poor, but they do not address the core causes of poverty, leaving behind the economic and social injustices that determine their status. Sometimes the poor are considered according to opposite perspectives: their condition can be evaluated as the best way to be close to God, because having nothing makes faster the detachment from material world; or their low condition is considered as consequence of their own laziness and origin of problems that affect the rest of society. Hence, the change they strive for is at the moral level rather than at the economic and social one. The lack of a critic on the inequalities inside the Indian society quite suits the business class developed after the Independence and especially during the neo-liberal period since the 80s and keeps holding privileges justifying them with religious assumptions.
In conclusion, the more these religious organizations get funds, the more their lobbing relevance increases as well as their visibility and opportunities for religious leaders to meddle in Indian political life, engendering that respect lies to the traditional role the guru had in the past.
 Divine Life Society is linked to a specific guru and it is based on a specific sadhana, while VHP has a all-including aspect without a peculiar religious orientation