Hinduism’s Human Face : Resisting Theocratic Pressure

M.L. Sondhi

The Statesman, October 9, 1987

The theocratic threat and the monstrous dimensions of de-humanization manifest in the sati in Sikar district in Rajasthan will not be answered by the legal process in establishing the guilt or innocence of those who have belatedly been placed under arrest. That a fellow human being should be burnt alive and that this should have a hypnotic attraction on so large a scale is not only blasphemy and indignity, but also highlights the activities of religious extremists and cultists to regain influence and impose their intolerance and misunderstanding of the spiritual tradition of Hinduism.

With Sri Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharshi and others who brought about a change in self-awareness, Hinduism acquired an environmental framework which is both spiritually creative and humanistic. The revolution in thought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries provided Hinduism with a liberating force which arose from both the individual and social intellectual planes. Now, 40 years after freedom, the theocratic threat has materialized as a dangerous and retrogressive development which seeks to combine nostalgia for lost privilege and the abuse of the democratic system to create special positions and exploitative roles in society.


It is, therefore, not enough to talk of the true self in Vedanta and remain a passive onlooker while the democratic gains of reformist Hinduism are undermined. Hinduism can only build a society with a human face if it energetically combats all forms of doctrine and action which obstruct the progressive advancement of Indian society and the contemporary world. Hindus must learn to impose public accountability on their religious institutions and organizations.

Much of the malaise of our times stems from the way in which Hindu reformist institutions have railed to make their values explicit, and have instead allowed themselves to be pushed towards obscurantism. These institutions need to rekindle the reformist ethos and show that they are alive and alert to the present-day problems of Hindu society.

It is not only in academic circles that human rights should be discussed; Hindu religious organizations need to survey human rights policies on a more general level and thus participate in a worldwide movement to create a humanist society.

Raja Rammohun Roy, Swami Vivekananda and Dayanand Saraswati were one on the investigation of inalienable human rights, and those who put faith in their legacies should find the capacity to renew the original inspirations. If the act of sati has provided an outlet for negative emotions, the creative imagination of reformist Hinduism in matters of human choice and on issues of common interest can also unite militant social concerns and undertake the transformative task necessary for a humanist society.

In identifying the sources from which the theocratic threat emanates, it is necessary to avoid the elitist tendency to undermine the very idea of a religious society in the name of secularism. The enormous potential of Hinduism in the service of mankind can be tapped by a constructive programme which utilizes the life-giving creativity of religion and the democratic ethos in social relations. The dilemmas of Hindu identity cannot be solved by an effort to denigrate religiously oriented self-perceptions as was attempted by many emancipated and westernized intellectuals.

Many so-called secularists forgot that it is through the enrichment of human identity, and not through its impoverishment that the higher expressions of human creativity can be reached. They often played an elitist game and brought about an unholy alliance between those who favoured the erosion of India’s cultural uniqueness and those elements which enjoyed no mass base in any community. It is one thing to be incensed about religious shortcomings but quite another to regard religion as an obstacle in the way of an advanced society.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the secularists got entangled in a web of contradictions between their political attitudes and religious predispositions. The attack on the ethos of social responsibility, which a humane Hinduism could have fostered, led only to a large scale destruction of social and spiritual values. The frequent invocation of an anti-religious spirit by the secularists only made the fanaticism of some religious sects more attractive. Behind the smoke screen of secularist terminology, many turned to godmen and messiahs who, in turn, encouraged political irresponsibility and exonerated corruption.

The sati incident has served to sharpen as well as clarify the crucial differences between the conflicting forces in contemporary Hinduism. Those who promised to take us into the 21st century have shown that they lack confidence in their ability to create a better society; those who, till yesterday, stressed the universality of Indian culture have singularly failed to unite their sense of faith and national destiny on this urgent issue. The deafening silence, from the Prime Minister to several leaders of the Opposition in the first few weeks following the incident, almost suggests that their conscience was slumbering.

It is this departure from the values and insights of their predecessors that casts an ominous shadow of moral tragedy on the entire political system. The philistine and narrow-minded character of some Hindu clerics could be ignored but for the fact that the modern media and the communication network of present-day India enables them to contribute to the deterioration of the social climate. If the country is not to fall into an abysmal mess of medievalism, the legitimacy given to the misguided actions of religious extremists and cultists must be challenged by those who have the courage and conviction to uphold a humane Hinduism.

The theocratic threat cannot be successfully met by the secularists who hardly understand the meaning of the history of Hinduism as inscribed in the spirit of the people of this land. The theocratic hegemony can become irrelevant and lose its power to shape the future of Hinduism if every practising Hindu asserts his or her capacity to influence events. To win back the redemptive vision of Raja Rammohun Roy, Dayananda Saraswati, Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, Ramana Maharshi and Sri Aurobindo, men and women who are an integral part of Hindu religiosity must express themselves fearlessly on ethical and moral issues.


Many political analysts seem to imply that the electoral factor creates a mobilization of castes which induces passive responses in politicians on issues like sati. This merely points to the breakdown of the social balances which, in turn, maintain political equilibrium. The pathological phenomenon on political leaders participating in the “chunri utsav” is inevitable where the contest for State power lacks any concrete base in an ethos of social responsibility.

There are, however, reasonable grounds for optimism that humane and democratic-minded Hindus can develop an organized response to theocratic pressures. The pseudo-legitimacy of fanatics and zealots can be challenged firmly while maintaining the integrity of the humane values of Hinduism. The anti-sati agitation can become the nucleus of a Hindu ecumenical movement which can unite Hindu reformist organizations on a common platform. The specific contours of Hinduism with a human face will derive from both the social humanism of the reforms of the past and enlightened and democratic action against contemporary theocracy. A new vision of socio-religious change is the only authentic answer to religious extremism.
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