When a great tradition Hinduises: ‘The God Market’ by Meera Nanda

Vijay Prashad is a historian, author and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, an inter-movement research organisation based in Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, New Delhi and São Paulo. He is also the Chief Editor of LeftWord Books and a fellow at the Independent Media Institute. As a journalist, he writes for Frontline, the Hindu, and Turkey’s BirGün. He has been associated with Himal Southasian since its inception.

Meera Nanda has conducted a valiant fight over the past decade. A special part of my bookshelf is reserved for her important works, all appeared over the past decade: Breaking the Spell of Dharma (2002), Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern critiques of science and Hindu nationalism in India (2004), The Wrongs of the Religious Right (2005) and now, The God Market. A trained microbiologist, Nanda first came to the attention of many  in 1997. At that time, the US academy had been rattled by a hoax played on the journal Social Text by the scientist Alan Sokal. Frustrated by the nostrums of postmodernism, which purported to dismiss the idea of verifiable 'truth', Sokal submitted a jargon-laden essay on physics that went along the grain of what he understood to be postmodernism.

That year, Nanda joined Sokal and Stephen Jay Gould at a well-attended session of the Socialist Scholars conference, and published substantially the same points in a Dissent article entitled "Science Wars in India". Nanda revolted against the tendency to substitute verifiable science with Vedic science, for the replacement of calculus by shlokas. "In the name of national pride", she wrote, "students are being deprived of conceptual tools that are crucial in solving the real-world mathematical problems they will encounter as scientists and engineers." This has been the basic point of each of Nanda's major books: to sound the alarm against the substitution of science by religion – and, in the case of India, of a Nehruvian scientific temper for blind Hindutva.

This new work is Nanda's first major 'mainstream' attempt. It repeats many of the formulations from Prophets Facing Backward, but now in a much more approachable way. There is still the warning about the demotion of the scientific temper, but here the argument shifts. In Prophets Facing Backward, Nanda explored her view that the increased "technological modernization is serving to further an equally aggressive cultural re-traditionalization, visible in the growing influence of religious nationalist ideas on the institutions of civil society and the state." Globalisation has made Hindutva acceptable. In the new book, she warms to the theme, and puts it at the centre of things.

In The God Market, however, the problem is not simply Hindutva. Rather, it is the social ground that has enabled Hindutva, namely neo-Hinduism. Neo-Hinduism, for Nanda, is the brand of soft spirituality pervaded by Deepak Chopra, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and their ilk. And it is not so much merely the growth of neo-Hinduism, but rather the symbiotic relationship between this neo-Hinduism, Hindutva and globalisation, that is the issue here. The problem of causality is essential, as Nanda, being a devout scientist, would recognise. At a few points, she makes the rigid claim that globalisation produces neo-Hinduism, upon which grows Hindutva (this is evident in the subtitle of the book). At other times, Nanda points out that the social processes of globalisation and neo-Hinduism/Hindutva feed off each other. The second is more believable, although not particularly startling.

The book attains its charge by claiming the first argument, but this is not sufficiently developed to be plausible. The introductory chapter on globalisation is somewhat weak, and could have been replaced by an assessment of the way in which globalisation and the revival of Tradition operate. Anything along these lines would have been an advance on the generally vacuous argument in Benjamin Barber's Jihad versus McWorld (1995). At any rate, the general thrust is that there is some kind of intimate relationship between neo-Hinduism, Hindutva and globalisation, and indeed these social processes can be identified as a "state-temple-corporate complex."

Nebulous nexus
Neo-Hinduism is not a recent phenomenon, but it has its roots in the 19th century. If we take Hinduism to be the compact forged by Shankaracharya, with temples, puja and pilgrimages; and with the assorted ideas of darshan and bhakti, karma and moksha, then we can see neo-Hinduism as the revival of these elements in the post-1857 period when the subjugated Hindu emergent classes regained confidence in their traditions – with central figures being Vivekananda, Dayananda and others. This tradition stands on its own feet. Many of its propositions were a novelty for the emergent classes; for many among the working class and peasantry, the link to earlier forms of devotionalism remains relatively unbroken. This reviewer can recall being at Khajuraho during Shivratri, and watching thousands of people appear in the evening to conduct puja at the Matangeshwar mandir. The pujari said that these bhaktas would come each year to a site that had become utterly absorbed in the tourism circuit. Neo-Hinduism had little impact on them, it seems.

What Nanda has in mind is the dynamic that opened up in the 1970s with the Jai Santoshi Ma craze. Her book assembles the details of this guru and that, as well as the air-conditioned sadhus and their well-heeled devotees. Temples have valet parking – religion without tears. For Nanda, the "rush hour of the Gods" is depicted as the innovations within Hinduism to align spirituality with neo-liberalism. Certainly neo-Hinduism is innovative, but it is also a ploy of a certain kind from above. There is a vast difference between the bhaktas of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and that of Radha Soami Satsang Beas. The former is given over programmatically to the kind of neo-Hinduism that dovetails into Hindutva; the latter operates as the "sign of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world". The Calcutta cultural critic Rustom Bharucha has developed a distinction between faith and religion in his works In the Name of the Secular (1998) and The Question of Faith (1993), yet the dichotomy has not held. There are problems here as well, but at least it sees the dialectical nature of modern religion. One cannot paint the entire gamut of religious movements with the same brush.

So, is there a "state-temple-corporate" complex? Here Nanda seems to be decidedly off the mark. Certainly the Hindutva push during the 1990s and early 2000s weakened the pillars of the secular institutions in New Delhi, and certainly in the states where it has been able to establish itself in government and in society (in Gujarat, for instance). But the Hindutva push has faced problems, not the least from those sections unwilling to make the transit from their own beliefs to the programme of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and from those political forces (the left, the anti-communal sections in the Congress, the Dravidian parties, the Dalit parties) that have no investment in Hindutva or its toxicity.

Nanda takes the examples of education and tourism, and provides a valuable précis of the communalisation of these arenas. (On education she draws on the exemplary work of the historian Nalini Taneja.) Yet other domains are not so easily given over to neo-Hinduism and Hindutva. What the author misses is that secularism is not a condition of a state, but a site of struggle – not over it, as a fixed doctrine, but to shape it, as a doctrine and practice in process. The Indian state is not a secular state in the Kantian sense; but the contradiction between and within the Indian state and society is certainly joined by the struggle between secularism and communalism, between an understanding of faith and life. The state continues to be a battleground, as its institutions are not fully given over to Hindutva's aims.

Corporate India is far too pragmatic to make a full disclosure one way or the other on any ideology. It hedges its bets, putting as much money into Narendra Modi's stock as into the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coffers. There is no singular line on the part of the chambers of commerce vis-à-vis Hindutva; and indeed, there was a sign of relief from many of the captains of industry when the Congress under Manmohan Singh returned victorious to New Delhi in 2004. The Gujarat pogrom was not only an embarrassing sign of barbarism – such episodes also disrupt business. Nanda overreaches in her assertion that "the neo-liberal state has entered into a partnership with the private sector" to create a "cosy triangular relationship" between the "state, the corporate sector, and the Hindu establishment". Her summary of globalisation apart, Nanda cannot show that it produces neo-Hinduism. After all, globalisation equally produces the grounds for consumerism. In a sense, neo-Hinduism has adjusted to the hyper-consumerist society, as her examples show very well. But the gap between a consumerist kind of neo-Hinduism and Hindutva is wide.

Hindutva's political backers do not have free range of the field. Other traditions exist. Nanda drew on these for her earlier books, notably B R Ambedkar's writings and the Dalit critique of Brahmanic epistemology. Some of these traditions are powerful, including ancient traditions of rationalism and modern traditions of socialist secularism. Lacking an analysis of these other traditions, however, Nanda's book seems somehow schizophrenic: on the one hand alarmist about the rise of neo-Hinduism and Hindutva; and on the other hand overly optimistic about the emergence of some kind of counter-force, as if from nowhere. "We have to create more spaces where Hindus and Muslims and everyone else can live as co-workers, neighbors and friends," Nanda writes. But who exactly is this we, and how will we engage if the social space is non-contradictory and crowded out by neo-Hinduism and Hindutva? The reader is left with empty hope, not the makings of a platform for secularisation.

~ Vijay Prashad is a Contributing Editor to this Magazine.

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