Among Indologists, it is now advised to avoid or at least problematize the word “Hindu”. Among the reasons for this wariness: Hindus themselves have only been using it for a few centuries, it is not mentioned in scripture but was tagged onto them by outsiders, it blurs important inter-Hindu distinctions and conflicts, and most objectionably, it is now the badge claimed by Hindu nationalists. Retired Delhi University historian Dwijendra Narayan Jha has continued the process of “Deconstructing Hindu identity” in an essay for the general public with that title, and it has now been published in a booklet, Rethinking Hindu Identity, along with essays on the “myth” of Hindu tolerance and on the sacred cow.
Regarding the latter point, his case is convincing enough. A good handful of passages in ancient texts are shown to confirm that the Vedic cattle-herders considered beef a normal part of their diet. In the pre-Buddhist age, the cow’s (like the horse’s) very aura of sacredness sometimes caused it to be ritually eaten. Her inviolability is among the sclerotic-eccentric traits typical only of the Puranic-Shastric phase of Hinduism crystallized from the Shunga era (2nd BCE) onwards.
On Hindu identity too, he doesn’t find it difficult to show that the term “Hindu” is fairly recent and introduced by Muslims in the catch-all sense of “any Indian non-Muslim”. Even in modern legislation, “Hindu” is only a “negative appellation” comprising “all non-Abrahamic religions” of India (p.65). The term Sanâtana Dharma, by contrast, is already “mentioned frequently in the Brahmanical texts”, though in varied meanings, but it too only acquired its value of indigenous synonym for the exonym “Hinduism” in the 19th century (p.20-21). Likewise, the notion of Bhâratvarsha, far from being eternal in its classical sense of “the Subcontinent”, is documented to have originally referred to smaller territories, not including Magadha and the Deccan. Alas, this paper is marred by an unsubstantiated accusation against colleague Prof. B.B. Lal, dean of Indian archaeology, for “systematic abuse of archaeology” (p.14), viz. for seeing continuities between Harappan and Hindu material culture.
Prof. Jha’s bias is showing badly in his paper on tolerance, which attacks the received wisdom that Hinduism is comparatively tolerant of other religions and of dissent in its own ranks. Here, he casts his net for instances of “Hindu intolerance” very wide. Mere doctrinal disputes, the very life-blood of intellectual culture, are cited as proving “inherent intolerance”, e.g. the denunciation of the Buddha as a false prophet incarnated merely to “brainwash” the demons (p.45). So is the principle that non-Hindus were welcome to convert, and ex-Hindus to reconvert, to Hinduism (p.47); or that the Virashaivas “engaged in conversion activities in a systematic manner” (p.44). Perhaps he doesn’t realize the implication of his own position, viz. that by these standards, proselytising religions like Christianity and Islam, even without counting crusades and jihad, are ipso facto intrinsically “intolerant”. That point has indeed been made often enough by apostate Christians and Muslims, but in India it is usually vetoed as “Hindu communalist propaganda”.
His eagerness to accumulate incriminating testimony makes him include allegations made by modern and arguably partisan sources as if they were actual evidence, e.g. a colleague is cited as claiming a Tibetan chronicle Pag-sam-jon-zang for “the burning of the library of Nalanda by some ‘Hindu fanatics’, not by Bakhtiyar Khilji as is commonly believed” (p.35). This Tibetan chronicle can be consulted online, and we haven’t found anything about “Hindu fanatics” there. This allegation is a 20th-century “interpretation” at best, far from the primary testimony a historian should prefer. It is also highly implausible.
It says, after all, that mostly Hindu kings of the Ganga plain had patronized Buddhist institutions for 16 centuries (-5th to +12th), letting them flourish mightily according to Chinese and Tibetan visitors, then suddenly destroyed them in the nick of time before the arrival of the Muslim conquerors, who boast in their records of having destroyed the Buddhist institutions of which they had only found the smoking ruins. Khilji’s starring role in the destruction of Indian Buddhism is well-documented in contemporaneous Muslim sources and cannot be shifted to unnamed Hindu bogeys so cavalierly.
During the Government-sponsored scholars’ debate on the evidence for the demolished Ayodhya temple in 1990-91, Jha was a member of the Babri Masjid Action Committee’s delegation against the Vishva Hindu Parishad. Like then, his intervention now in the debate on the purported tolerance and the very existence of “Hinduism” is not an impartisan source from which debaters could borrow authoritative arguments; it is itself one side of the polemic. Which is permitted, but should be kept in mind by the reader.
Review of D.N. Jha: Rethinking Hindu Identity, London/Oakville: Equinox, 2009. 100 pp., $85 HB, $28,95 PB. Published in Journal of Asian Studies, Cambridge University Press, August 2011, p.872-874.