CK Lal is a writer and columnist based in Kathmandu.

The past is not always something to be proud about. Deep down, we are all mongrels. There is always an element of shame hidden in history, and such is the case of the Hindu as well.

The first wave of Aryans, who invaded the Harappans of the plains of the Indus valley in about 1800 BC, learnt two lessons that had far-reaching consequences. First, that the Harappans had a clearly superior culture with advanced religion, refined art and a prosperous urban civilisation. Second, that despite their marked superiority, the Harappans ended up as the losers because they despised hierarchy and maintained an egalitarian society.

An inferiority complex arising from the first lesson prompted the Aryans to create a hierarchical social order. The Brahmins were to maintain purity to perform ritual sacrifices. Contamination of any kind was to be forbidden. The Kshatriyas were to be the warrior rulers. To facilitate their function, these protectors were allowed some measure of interaction with the artisan, the farmer, and the trader groups that were to be co-opted from the urban aboriginals. Together, they constituted the ruling triad in the first book of the Rig Veda.

The hierarchy grew with the addition of Shudras in the later hymns. They were to be integrated from the non-urban aboriginals on the pain of servitude. These Untouchables were kept outside the system, either because they refused to surrender to the invaders or because they weren't economically very important to the ruling classes. But they were to be feared nevertheless, because their numbers were significant. Manu then appeared with his iron-clad dictates of purity. The fact that Aryan men had started marrying aboriginal women may have prompted him in his work to lump women together with the dasas (slaves) and animals.

Around 800 BC, the Kshatriyas got restive and sought independence from Brahmin domination, prompting the mythological axe-wielding Brahmin sage Parshuram to rid the earth of all rulers who did not bow to Brahmin supremacy. Between 600 BC and 500 BC, egalitarian religions like Buddhism and Jainism raised their heads but failed to survive. The eclipse of Jainism and Buddhism in Bharatvarsha is ascribed by Brahmins to the pacifist, tolerant and accommodative nature of these Kshatriya religions. Resurgent Hinduism after the fall of Buddhism became puritanical, ritualistic, aggressive, and even more compartmentalised.

The Islam of the mendicants and the Christianity of the preachers were assimilated, but never accepted. Later, Buddha became an avatar of Vishnu, and Jainism a mere sect of highly disciplined Hindus. However, the phobia returned as soon as Islam rode in from the northwest on the horse of the invader. Hierarchy was then made even more exclusive to preserve purity. A vanguard community of Sikhs later emerged to protect this hierarchy, but even they were excluded when they started to grow as an independent power centre free of Brahmin domination. Fear of assimilation thus became rooted more firmly in the insecure Hindu mind.

Phony tolerance

Caste mark, sacred threads and Sanskrit chants are kept alive not by secular institutions, but by religious zealots. When the mlcchcha colonisers of Christiandom overthrew the Islamic rulers, the fear of oblivion forced the hierarchy to incite the Mutiny of 1857. But gunpowder proved superior to the sacrificial fire, and the shame of loss impelled the hierarchy to find solace in an idealised past. Anyone who did not conform to this construct was an alien, an enemy, and hence not tolerable.

When the British departed India, they left behind a partitioned Subcontinent. Two insecure groups, both equally fearful of each other, vented their bottled-up anger at each other as soon as the common enemy left. The ideals of the Westernised Hindu leaders made them choose a secular Indian state, thus denying an identity once again to a huge majority of the population. Frustration and blind rage consumed the seeds of tolerance sowed by Mahatma Gandhi, and he became the first victim of the failure of his own ideology.

The martyrdom of Gandhi succeeded in creating a sense of guilt, but it did not last long enough to prevent the massacres at the Moradabads and the Bhiwandis. The fear persisted. Afraid of the relative prosperity of the Sikhs, the hierarchy looked for an excuse to teach them a lesson and found a convenient one in the political assassination of the lady who rode a tiger.

Still later, frightened by a Muslim awakening and Islamic assertiveness boosted by petro-dollars, a symbolic attack was engineered on the whole community by demolishing the Babri Masjid. Shamed by Christian charity and service among the impoverished and downtrodden, now churches are set to light and missionaries (and their children) immolated.

Aggressiveness is rooted in fear. Nearly 4000 years after their arrival in the Subcontinent till this day the fear of assimilation that scared the Aryans continues to haunt Hindu society, even though it was the Aryans themselves who have been doing the assimilation all along. This is the reason why Hindus are the ones that harbour deep insecurities otherwise found in minority communities.

Will Hindus ever grow confident enough to be tolerant? VS. Naipaul, who finds a new awakening in a wounded civilisation, may be hopelessly optimistic. To a Hindu mind, it defies logic that anyone would be interested in being a non-Hindu and different, when (it is thought) he can very well keep his difference intact in the larger Hindu fold. Tolerance comes only when a difference is recognised. Ascribed differences, on the other hand, breed contempt. The much-touted Hindu tolerance is a myth carefully cultivated by the privileged Brahmin-Kshatriya-Vaishyas triad to maintain their hold over society. In reality, anyone who does not conform to the Hindu worldview is less than human—either a dasyu or a mlechcha.

To cultivate tolerance, one first has to recognise that the past is not made up of pure unmingled pride. Dig deep enough, and we are all mongrels. There is always an element of shame hidden in history. Descendants of Aryan invaders cannot undo what their ancestors did to the Subcontinent's aboriginals. But they can at least stop acting phony. The rhetoric of panchjanya, the idea of including non-caste tribals as the fifth category of Hindus (and which is also the name of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh mouthpiece), is merely another offer of assimilation, not of acceptance.

The breaking down of hierarchy, spread of equality and institutionalisation of social justice may bestow that dignity to the downtrodden which will one day lead to acceptance and respect for differences. But myths do have value. If the myth of Hindu tolerance causes the community to become tolerant, to behave the way it claims it has been behaving for centuries, then perhaps the distinction between myth and reality will blur and eventually disappear.

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