Breaking away from Hinduism

The status of a ‘religious minority’ confers benefits upon groups in areas like education, and the success of the Lingayats could point a way to others. (DH file photo)

With the separate religion status pushed for by a section of the Lingayat sect in Karnataka with political support, the Hindu religion should be prepared for more such demands from other groups hitherto under the Hindu banner.

The status of a ‘religious minority’ confers benefits upon groups in areas like education, and the success of the Lingayats could point a way to others. But before we get carried away by the enormous publicity generated in the public space – especially the argument distinguishing Lingayats from Veerashaivas – we should examine whether the move is logically tenable. 

The present argument goes like this: Unlike Veerashaivas, who respect the supremacy of the Vedas, the Lingayats are a sect founded by a 12th Century reformer (Basavanna) which questions their authority. 

They should, therefore, be treated on par with Buddhism and Jainism which were also rebellions against Brahmin supremacy. Stated like this, the argument sounds reasonable, but let us look at what ‘Hinduism’ means. To do this, we need not rely on esoteric facts about the religion, but only on what everyone knows.

First, all those deemed ‘Hindu’ do not respect the Vedas and we may be sure that many Adivasis do not even know of their existence, but they are still ‘Hindus’.

Buddhism and Jainism were rebellions against Brahminism and not against Hinduism, and Brahminism (embodied in the Vedas) cannot be equated with Hinduism. If we take the Manusmriti as embodying the authoritative text once representing Hindu orthodoxy, it is more recent than Buddhism and Jainism.

Dr BR Ambedkar convincingly argued that the Bhagavad Gita was also post-Buddhist and post-Jaina and a reaction to the pacifism preached by these religions. If the Varna system (generally attributed to Manu) is the essence of Hinduism, it is post-Buddhist. In the time of the Manusmriti, those outside the Varnas could not be ‘Hindus.’ But Hinduism has redefined itself. Today, Hindus are all those in the geographical space corresponding to India not included by the other recognised religions – Islam, Christianity, Jainism,  Sikhism etc.

The ideologues of the Hindu right wing (like Savarkar) even acknowledged Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists as ‘Hindus’ though Christians and Muslims were not, since their religions originated outside India. Demographic demands make it necessary for Hinduism to gather people into the fold and the Vedas, the Manusmriti or the Bhagavad Gita cannot become reasons for exclusion.

But the pertinent issue is that while all these other religions have laid down rules which exclude non-practitioners, there is no code of conduct or behaviour which can be termed ‘un-Hindu’ since the religion excludes no practice. Even an atheist or a materialist can be a Hindu, as is widely
recognised.

If there are no texts that all Hindus accept as embodying the tenets of their religion neither are any religious leaders universally accepted as with authority over all Hindus, and no one can claim acquaintance with every Hindu god.

This being the case, what is the ‘un-Hindu’ practice which justifies allowing a sect to leave Hinduism? The reality is that while one may want to leave the religion, the religion will not let go – unless one enters another recognised religion to which Hindu practices are blasphemy.

Coming lastly to the contentious issue of caste, there is a clear way by which Hinduism can disavow caste as a specifically ‘Hindu’ practice. It is well known that every other religion in its Indian avatar is divided along caste lines and, regardless of the original tenets of the Lingayat sect, convincing evidence is still to be provided that the community is free from jati discrimination in matters like marriage etc.

As a gesture towards disavowing caste as essentially a ‘Hindu’ religious practice, the Government of India only needs to make an announcement (perhaps backed by a court verdict) saying that since caste is a social practice and not religious, all Dalits and OBCs regardless of the religion to which they belong, will be eligible for due reservation in jobs and education.

Such an act, I propose, will successfully decouple caste practice and the Hindu religion, now inextricably linked. It will also make the distancing of oneself from Hinduism by Hindus on the issue of caste an irrelevant gesture.

If this does not happen and Lingayats also become non-Hindus by definition, we must consider if ‘their’ Dalits or OBCs will be eligible for reservation since they will be on par with Muslims and Christians.

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