The Conservatism of Culture
The dust-up over Mr. Muthalik’s acceptance into the BJP served fresh grist into the mills of the culture-and-politics debate. With the BJP poised to make a comeback the talk, raging in clubs and canteens alike, is expectedly getting heated and will likely stay that way until May’s answer to this Umm al-electoral Maarik. After which, interest might vane awhile; but make no mistake, the argumentation has at long last found firm ground and is here to stay. For, there is a larger something at the nub of it; something that transcends politics – the recognition of the right to own and express cultural identity by Hindu Indians without being dubbed fascist or fundamentalist.
In everyday parlance, culture wars pit conservatives and liberals against each other on either side of a fence. Often, that is a doubly reinforced electric fence with poison tipped spikes for backup. Seriousness aside; try transposing common understanding of these terms to the Indian context and the cognitive dissonance becomes obvious when, suddenly, Left, Right, their Wings, Conservatives, Progressives, etc., all morph into un-unravelable skeins of woolly definition.
The terms translate this way here: Indian Left is the motley bunch of usual culprits; Indian Right is Right Wing loony; Indian Liberals only get their rosettes if they belong to the upper echelons of one (just one) political party and/or circumnavigate the concentric whorls of the literary sphere and Indian Conservatives are the indescribable NOTA group. Leaving aside ‘Left’ and ‘Liberal’ which play somewhat true to righteous type; it is ‘Right’, ‘Right-Wing’ and ‘Conservative’ that consistently enmesh to belie definition.
Conservatives and Liberals split fundamentally on economics and culture. While the arguments over economics have had their fair share of the Sun; considered debate on culture is near absent. What stands in its stead is the noise of outrage. Over freedom of speech, Khaps, marriage and family values, moral policing and patriarchy. In recent years the field of Political Physiology has ensured that the divide gets more evolved company. Biology now finds its place alongside culture and economics as a credible separator of political preference. There are defined psychological and biological explanations for behavioral differences (twin studies ascribe as much as 40% to DNA) between the two and it is possible that evolution might have selected for that variance to exist.
The more traditional socio-religious conservatism has two broad divisions – cultural conservatism and social conservatism; Right and Right-Wing respectively. While there are overlapping areas of interest; in the Indian context the distinctions are more defined (but underreported) than the overlap which typically, is generalized and overplayed. The two preeminent issues that social conservatism in India is pre-occupied with are – freedom of expression (often demonstrated as aggressive protest over published word or art) and moral policing or vigilantism. Ugly demonstrations of muscle power are indeed more media worthy than critical thinking but, that is not the only reason social conservatism finds pre-eminence in the debate. It is also, artfully deployed as a whipping boy to muzzle conservative thought and voice.
More egregious than this however, is the canard that secularism reposes safe only in the cocooned custody of Left and/or Liberal. This unfounded argument of calculated convenience is used to daub the entire mass on the other side of the fence as fascist and communal. It is more than a worrying possibility that the rise in social conservatism is a reactionary response to the relentless ridicule of Hindu customs, belief and thought.
Matters get more interesting when contemplating conservatism from a cultural context. As the term implies, culture and traditional orders of life and living inform the ideology to a great extent and, it is therefore a natural next step to ask: what is the culture in question that is in play here. In the modern context; cultural and religious identity might not be directly interchangeable. Yet, religion is a major feeder of cultural identity and group culture is often rooted in religious affiliation even if individuals are at personal liberty to transcend these definitions. Being thus identified as a prime driver of identity; the principles of Hinduism merit scrutiny.
Attempts to do so have immediately raised the clamour that the sum of creeds that rest under the classified banner of Hinduism can’t be corralled similarly under the ideological. Such pronouncements are not just self-indulgent celebrations of ignorance (the subject of texts is addressed, here); they raise suspicion of ulterior motive because of the stubborn refusal to educate and engage. Here verily is a case fit for the dictum: Suppressio veri; suggestio falsi.
There is a commonly held belief that monotheistic religions that have a single codex to follow are more ‘religions’ than those that aren’t. This is only one perspective (a human one at that) and not a supernatural decree or diktat for how or what a religion is. Yet, that this narrow view spread and took root is hardly surprising given that it is both studied and propagated as such. The most celebratory characteristic of Hinduism is its immense and extraordinary diversity that is yet tethered firmly to a nodal commonality. Features of Hinduism that I describe hereunder are not interpretations but direct transmissions of learning from texts of Hinduism and which any practitioner or seer will attest to.
Hinduism does not see man as separate and apart from nature and his surroundings. An equal respect for all manner of life-forms whether elemental or complex; human or animal is reiterated in every text.
It is not dogmatic and does not seek to be organized into a fixed creed.
The two fundamental and distinctive features of Hinduism are Dharma and tolerance. Dharma can be variously construed as duty, law or morality. It is best understood when described as, ‘the law that governs the conduct of man’.
Rather than insisting on a credo to experience God and living; Hinduism through its numerous texts directs the seeker to realize the supremacy of the Self over all else. Such thought has an immense capacity for the tolerant acceptance of all belief; even the belief of doubt. It neither preaches violent defence of its principles and/or faith nor, equally, does it believe in asserting its supremacy over other creeds as the sole and only path to Divinity. Rather than occupy itself with converting others to its point of view; it has ever been absorbed with – in the words of the great philosopher, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan – ‘an eternal quest of the mind’.
With this understanding, Hindu cultural conservatism starts to morph, Maya-like, into a Liberal Humanism and the reasons for the confusion with terms becomes clear. From an evolutionary perspective, political liberalism is the new kid on the block; but it has stayed long enough to find itself a permanent seat at the political table. In a scenario where some of our political beliefs might be chromosomally entrenched; the obvious path forward is to embrace diversity rather than attempt to change it – a common characteristic that Hindu cultural conservatives share with liberals.
Hinduism preaches a conservatism for the Self and/or micro-group and a detached liberalism for the community at large. Cultural conservatives in the Hindu context are concerned with preserving this ethic and philosophy of living. As for the economics, for a country like India that has 840 million living under two dollars a day; it is naïve to envisage a development that doesn’t include the active participation of government. Cultural conservatism would ensure the coexistence of the practiced principle of responsibility alongside the morality of a right.
Culture is a living breathing organism that directly influences and moulds the lives of millions. It is not a curio to be exhibited behind glass panes, in galleries, that seems to say: “Look and admire. But don’t touch; don’t feel; don’t practice or participate. I am not you anymore; I am the other”. Finally and perhaps most pertinent of all, culture and cognition feed into and off each other in a virtuous cycle. The effort to divide and isolate us from our own culture has predictably boomeranged and we are now faced with the problem of an unthinking and exploitable social conservatism that has found its voice on the streets.
This is a hymn from the concluding SUktham of the RigVeda which, according to the Paramacharya of Kanchi, – one of the greatest seers of Hinduism in recent times – is the prime dictum for all Hindus and one that should have greater significance than the national anthem of any country:
“May mankind be of one mind; May it have a common goal; May all hearts be united in love. And with the mind and the goal being one may all of us live in happiness”
It can be read in Sanskrit, here: “Sangacchadhvam Samvadadhvam..“