- Vijay Simha
Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s description of himself as a Hindu nationalist, and the outrage it has provoked, has made me think about the two terms.
What does it mean to be Hindu? Who is nationalist?
Religion and human beings
We are born human. As far as I know, no human being has ever been asked before birth about the religion he or she wants to be born into.
The origins of our existence, therefore, take religion out of the equation. The first years of human life are religion-neutral in the sense that we have nothing to do with religion.
The only concern in our initial years is whether we are healthy. All else comes later.
Thus, it is clear that no one can be born Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Jew, Buddhist, and so on. You can only be born human. Hence, Modi’s statement that he is born Hindu is flawed; even incorrect. Modi refers to a label that he has chosen as his identity.
Humans have no control over the religion they are first introduced to. It is always the religion practiced by parents that they are assimilated into.
Modi, or any of us, could easily have been born into religions other than the one we assume as our identity. For instance, Modi could’ve been born to Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, or anyone else.
In that sense, all religions are synonymous. In the initial years of life – when the faculty of thought and reason has not yet formed functionally – we could be anyone. Hindu, Muslim, Christian, whatever. We couldn’t care less.
As we grow, we begin to notice and understand the practices at home. From this point we start to see ourselves in the parameters of the labels we are given. For instance, diet, clothes, festivals and language start to shape us. A Muslim family might eat, dress, speak and celebrate differently from a Hindu or Christian family.
At times, these different ways of life tend to create hostile thoughts. Children and teenagers might taunt peers from other religions, which creates stress.
Put under stress, humans begin to seek safety.
The first sense of safety they feel is with those who raise them – the parents. When parents and communities protect children on the basis of religion or even caste, it creates a powerful sense of belonging.
I was born into a Brahmin family in Secunderabad. When I was eight or nine, if I remember correctly, my grandparents put me through the sacred thread ceremony. It was a sort of coming of age ritual that allowed me to chant the mantras.
But some boys in the locality and at school began to insult me. I was confused and scared. I didn’t know anything about religion and I was deeply upset at being targeted for religious reasons.
Weeks later, I broke the sacred thread and threw it away. My grandparents were shocked. In due course I began to eat eggs. My diet had changed.
Since then I have been agnostic. I don’t recognise religion as identity. I choose company by thought and deed, not by religion, caste, region, gender or wealth.
It was a choice I made. Modi might have chosen to be Hindu. He is free to do so. But at some point we evolve.
If you wish to be prime minister of India, which means you wish to influence the growth and evolution of a vast and ancient nation, you cannot claim to be Hindu in a manner that excludes those who don’t see themselves as Hindu.
Life is inherent. Religion is incidental.
Image: Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi waves on his arrival at party headquarters for the BJP's Parliamentary Board meeting in New Delhi on July 8, 2013. (AFP)