Hindu Revivalism as cause of Extremism and Cultural Nationalism

Hindu Revivalism as cause of Extremism and Cultural Nationalism

This article deals with ‘ Hindu Revivalism as cause of Extremism and Cultural Nationalism – UPSC.’ This is part of our series on ‘Modern History’ which is important pillar of GS-1 syllabus . For more articles , you can click here


  • Political extremism that started at end of  19th century was not just a reaction to moderate failures but it drew inspiration & ideology from a cultural & intellectual movement that developed simultaneously with & parallel to moderate politics.  This movement is vaguely referred to as HINDU REVIVALISM
  • It was an attempt to define Indian nation primarily in terms of Hindu Religious symbols, myths & history

Hindu Revivalism vs Reformism – How Hindu revivalism was born

  • Reform movements in India attempted to bring changes in Hindu social organisation & practices from within to bring them in conformity with new rationalist ideas of west . They were influenced by Western post enlightenment rationalist ideas. It was response to challenge of westernising forces & their critique of Hindu Civilization
  • Second response to critique led to REVIVALISM . It was conceptualization of a glorious Hindu past believed to have been degenerated under Muslim rule & threatened by the British
  • Late 19th century witnessed the gradual weakening of the reformist trend & the strengthening of revivalist forces

Swami Vivekanand & Revivalism

  • Among reformist organisations, the Brahmo Samaj was more modernist in its approach . But it was weakened after 1870s by internal dissent . It was followed by Ramakrishna – Vivekananda movement . Ramakrishna was not a revivalist per se because he inculcated a form of religious eclecticism which later was followed by Vivekananda
  • Vivekananda had a missionary zeal . He condemned other reform movements as elitist & invoked the idea of social service . According to Vivekananda , best way to serve the god is to serve poor people & founded Ramakrishna Mission in 1897 as philanthropic organisation . To describe him as revivalist would be to ignore his Universalist aspects of teaching.
  • Neverthless he begun to draw inspirations from Vedantic Traditions , exhibited faith in the glories of Hindu civilisation & nurtured faith that  it was degenerated in recent times
  • He evoked Hindu glory & mixed it with patriotism . He sought to restore the masculinity of the Indian nation denied to them by their colonial masters which had tremendous impact on popular minds
  • His evocation of the glories of Hindu past was popularised but  his trenchant condemnation of the evils of Hinduism was conveniently forgotten. His criticism of Brahmanical & gender oppression was never taken seriously & he became patron prophet for whole generation of extremist leaders & military revolutionaries

Other Aspects

  • At more obscurantist level ,Sasadhar Tarkachudamoni (editor of paper Bangabhashi) began to invent precedents in ancient India for every modern scientific discovery of the west & tried to show that everything modern west claimed to have invented was already known to Indians
  • Bankim Chandra Chatterjee portrayed Krishna as modern politician & a nation builder & in Anandamatha , he invented the Mother Goddess ie Bharat Mata & the song Vande Mataram( Hail mother), song in praise of once beautiful mother became anthem of national movement
  • Even moderate such as RC Dutt wrote about the martial valour  of the Hindus in response to Britishers assigning position of martial inferiority to Indians .

Reformist Acts & Hindu Revivalist forces

  • Numerous acts were passed  & with passing of Age of Consent Bill, 1891(10 to 12) , voice against interfering with the personal affairs of people was raised . Conservative & obscurantist sentiments now converged with nationalist argument that foreign rulers had no right to interfere with the religious & social customs of the Indians
  • Age was raised after intense debate due to Ramabhai’s case in which Ramabhai was married as an infant and after eleven years of separate living, she argued, that unconsummated marriage was no longer binding on her . After long campaign of Behramji Malabari, Government raised age by 2 years. First act against child marriage had been passed in 1860 and it prohibited consummation of marriage for a Hindu girl below ten years of age; the new act only proposed to raise that age of consent from ten to twelve. The earlier act had been passed without much opposition, but the new one provoked a powerful orthodox Hindu backlash, which had a much wider mass base than the reformist movement. Conservative and obscurantist sentiments now converged with the nationalist argument that foreign rulers had no right to interfere with the religious and social customs of the Indians. However, just government intervention was not the issue, as during the same period, Hindu orthodox opinion seldom hesitated to accept government legislation against cow slaughter.
  • Family & household which Hindu society had always regarded as impermeable or inviolate , a sovereign space that couldn’t be colonised . But now the  Hindu males were about to lose even the last solitary sphere of autonomy . Response to these reforms were intense & violent

Bal Gangadhar Tilak & Revivalism

  • In Maharashtra , movement was led by Tilak & his Poona Sarvajanik Sabha . They frequently invoked Hindu , Brahman & Maratha glory . He proposed that education rather than legislation was the most legitimate way of eradicating the evil
  • But all this was propaganda according to Prof RG Bhandarkar because   Tilak was arguing against increasing age of consent from 10 to 12 & that marriage should be done before puberty according to Hindu tradition but his own girl was single till 14 . These men were hardly ever obstructionist in their personal life.  But in this debate they found powerful self confident rhetoric against foreign rule. Hinduism now became a useful rhetoric for organising a more articulate & sometimes even militant opposition to foreign rule

Cow Politics

  • Took militant form in North India through Arya Samaj & its cow protection movement .
  • In Ancient Time , Cow was not regarded as sacred or inviolable . Veneration of cow increased during medieval period when rate of cow slaughter increased  but it was never a cause of communal conflict
  • In 19th Century, communities started to organise and most of communities did around their holy books but Hindus didn’t had  a single holy book. They started to mobilise around symbol of cow because it was acceptable across regional, linguistic or denominational barriers
  • First used by Kuka (reformist sect of Sikhs) in 1871 in order to galvanise & win more support . Rapidly spread to North West province, Awadh & Rohilkhand. Arya Samaj converted this to all India movement & Gaurakshini Sabhas were established
  • 1893 : first riot around this issue happened in Azamgarh & spread to 31 riots. Although these movements were against Muslims , the spirit of discontent was definitely Anti-British & cow question was merely a war cry to arouse lethargic hindus. COW ITSELF WASN’T IMPORTANT , IT WAS BEING USED AS A SYMBOL FOR COMMUNITY MOBILISATION
  • Congress  was not directly involved in this but it remained silent & even patronised it.  After Nagpur session of 1891 , Gaurakhsini Sabha was held within Congress pavilion & attended by many congress delegates.  This alienated Muslims from Congress as Muslim participation gradually decreased after 1893

Note – Gyanendra Pandey (1983) has shown that the cow-protection movement did not yet indicate a complete communal polarisation of Indian society. The construction and articulation of the communal category was entirely in the interest of the elites, while various other groups participated with various other motives. The zamindars by leading the gaurakshini sabhas tried to reassert their social power that had been slipping away from their hands because of the various changes instituted by colonial rule. The peasant participants came mainly from the Ahir community, who had been socially mobile and, therefore, had to legitimise their new status by projecting their Hinduness. This did not mean that the barriers of class had been dismantled or permanently effaced. On other occasions they fought against their Hindu zamindars along with other Muslim peasants. And apart from that, there were many regions, which were not at all affected by the cow-protection sentiment. But the movement put an unmistakable Hindu stamp on the nationalist agitation.

Hindi – Urdu  Controversy

  • Began in 1860s in NW provinces & Awadh but was revived in 1882 with great enthusiasm & spread to other Hindi speaking areas like Punjab & Central provinces .
  • Hindi & Urdu is same language written in two scripts but problem was Hindi was identified as language of Hindus & Urdu as language brought by Muslims . But since Urdu was officially recognised , there was a concerted campaign to get Hindi recognised for all official purposes as well although many Hindu communities like Kayastha were in favour of Urdu
  • Association of leaders like MM Malviya with campaign gave it political colour. In 1900, they passed resolution giving Hindi equal official status in NWP & Awadh
  • Protagonists of Urdu to offer an emotional defence to Urdu formed Anjuman Taraqqi e Urdu

Ganpati & Shivaji Festivals

  • Ever since the days of Peshwas , God Ganpati enjoyed official patronage & was a deity equally respected by Brahmins & non Brahman lower castes. But it was always a domestic affair
  • 1893 : Cow Riots in Bombay & Tilak & Chitpavan Brahmins of Poona decided to organise an annual public festival to bridge gap between  Brahmins & non-Brahmin masses.  Alleging the government’s  partiality for Muslims he urged Hindus of Poona to boycott their Muharram & participate in Pooja of Lord Ganpati . Hindus which previously used to participate in Muharram now largely boycotted & flocked to Ganpati festivals . After 1895, it spread to every other part of Deccan
  • 1897Tilak  introduced Shivaji festival  to commemorate the coronation of Shivaji who upheld self respect of Hindus & who gave particular direction to religion
  • Although Bombay government didn’t view immediately these festivals as direct threat to British rule , it did inspired number of revolutionaries . Eg Chapekar Bros who killed Lt Ayerst (although attack was against Rand , the hated Superintendent of Plague commission)  were associated to Ganapati festival & Tilak
  • But all these events alienated Muslims although had very little impact on Non Brahmins

Problems with concept of Hinduism & Revivalism

  • Revivalist ideas has certain problems .  First is idea of Syndicated Hinduism to large extend is construction of 19th century western hermeneutics . Term Hinduism was historically to convey wide variety of meanings : in general it meant anything native or Indian (living in land beyond Sindhu aka Indus or Hindu( as pronounced by Persians) ) . In 1881 when census data came ,  Hinduism was not recognizable as religion . Instead of Hindu , people mentioned their sect or caste & this problem continued to haunt Census authorities till 1901 . Hindu therefore appears to be a colonial construct & idea of homogeneous Hinduism was constructed by post Enlightenment Europe who sought to define not only true west but also true east .
  • Term Revivalism remained problematic too .  Not all social customs were being revived & only selective absorption of specific aspects of the past & adapting them to present day needs was done . It  was called by many as IMAGINARY HISTORY

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