Savarkar and the incoherence of his Hindutva argument

Savarkar’s indiscriminate reference to certain terms, without understanding what they meant in the original literature, undermines the credibility of his narrative.
VD Savarkar
VD Savarkar
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The academic conference on Dismantling Global Hindutva: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, which ended on September 12, had the objective of bringing scholars from different areas to deliberate on the “complex and multi-faceted phenomenon of Hindutva”. Claiming that Hinduism is distinct from Hindutva, the official website of the conference notes that the earliest articulation of Hindutva can be found in the work of VD Savarkar. Apart from the fact that it is distinct from Hinduism, the narrow bigoted viewpoint of Hindutva, as presented by Savarkar, is also an incoherent narrative.

Savarkar, the ideologue of right-wing Hindu nationalism, wrote a book titled Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?, which was originally published as Essentials of Hindutva. Given that this book is the genesis of the idea of Hindutva, it would be pertinent to assess his arguments (if at all there are any) on this point.

In the first seven sections of the book, Savarkar’s focus is on names and he attempts to drive home their importance. Hindu, for him, is a name that is a marker of identity for the inhabitants of this country derived from the name Sindhu (Hindu being the linguistic adaptation of Sindhu). In these initial sections, he goes on to provide a declamatory account of the name Hindu or Sindhu and displays more exuberance but a complete lack of factual and conceptual coherence in his characterisation of the term ‘Hindu’. It is apparent that the agenda of this discourse was to project Hindutva as central to the idea of India or the Hindu Rashtra.

Savarkar primarily draws upon texts like the Vedas and the Puranas to establish his point about Hindutva. These texts, for him, captured the spirit of national and cultural unity that prevailed in the past and one that continues to the present. The Hindu fondly invokes those symbols considered sacred by these texts and these “refresh or purify his soul”.

Leaving aside whether and to what extent these texts can be considered the basis of such unity – which is itself debatable – it would be noteworthy to address the following question: how does he make an internal argument for his case from these texts? Even if one goes by these texts, it is important to see how the meanings of these names and terms are reflected in and referred to in these texts. Instead, it appears that Savarkar is carried away by the excitement and a feeling of pride for the ancient inhabitants of this land. This land, according to him, is denoted by the term Sapta Sindhu (seven rivers).

Selective clubbing of names

Emphasising the importance of names, Savarkar’s claim is that whatever the objects of names are, they are irreplaceable by any other name. For names have “a subtle source of life and inspiration” transmitted by mankind over a period of history. His claim is that the word Hindutva is one such name that comes with profound and varied insights and thoughts that have been moulded over a period of “forty centuries, if not more”. “The word itself is a history” for him. He then proceeds to present a narrative to show how there is a certain essence to Hindutva that needs to be distinguished from the term Hinduism.

By a selective clumping of the names and terms that can be traced to these texts, he argues for the idea of Hindutva. The names he refers to are Sindhu, Sapta Sindhu, Hindu, Bharatavarssha, Bharatakhanda, Rashtra. Of course, these terms have been used in the present times differently (words do acquire different meaning with time) and he transposes the present understanding to the past. A lack of cohesion in the way the ideas are related makes his arguments incongruous and unintelligible.

Drawing upon some authoritative sources, one can discern how Savarkar presents a flawed connection of these names to establish his notion of Hindutva in his narrative. Some of the important sources are the works of Macdonell and Keith’s Vedic Index of Names and Subjects (Vedic Index), Vettam Mani’s Puranic Encyclopaedia and Monier Williams’ Sanskrit-English dictionary.

Aryans, Savarkar says, made this land of the river Indus i.e., the Sindhu, their home, and then immediately makes an unsupported claim that these Aryans developed a sense of nationality as they penetrated gradually to the farthest regions of what he calls Sapta Sindhu, “an epithet that they applied to whole of Vedic India”. These seven rivers became the symbol of nationality and culture because of the respect and love they held for them, particularly the Sindhu. His claim that Sapta Sindhu refers to the territory of the whole of India with the sense of nationhood attached to it is based on the Rigveda. But none of his claims are supported by the sources mentioned above and he does not say on what basis he makes his claims.

The ‘Sindhu became Hindu’ claim

Savarkar further claims that even the other nations knew this nation as Sapta Sindhu. He then gets into the familiar point, on which much has been written, about the change of the letters ‘S’ in Sanskrit to ‘H’ in certain dialects due to which Sindhu becomes Hindu in Prakrit and also non-Indian languages. What “welds” the ancient inhabitants of this land into a nation was the respect they had for the Sapta Sindhus. Since he mentions Sindhu in the plural one can assume that he is referring to the seven rivers. But there is no clear identification of these rivers in the Vedas and they could very well have been some mythical rivers, as some have opined (in Vedic Index). The adulatory phrases that he uses, such as “spiritual fervour”, “adventurous valour” and the “sublimity of the thoughts”, in the context of describing Aryans is what marks them as people laying the foundations of a great civilisation.

After elaborating on this point for some time Savarkar suddenly shifts to how the Aryans moved on to other regions where the scattered tribes welcomed them. In such cases, he claims, in all probability the Aryans would have adopted the “names and nature of new scenes” and adapted to a Sanskritised form. Here he makes a big probable guess based on a very flimsy ground – that the original inhabitants would have known the Indus as Hindu and the Aryans could later have changed it to Sindhu. His conjecture is that the word Hindu is perhaps much older than the Sanskrit Sindhu. Further, he makes another sweeping conclusion at this point that there existed a nation and a country. This conclusion does not follow from the previous discussion on the point of linguistic transformation from ‘S’ to ‘H’ and is, therefore, incompatible with the premise.

Citing Bharatakhanda to denote nationhood

Next, he invokes the expression of Bharatakhanda in the context of his discussion on the expansion of Aryans beyond the Vindhyas toward the south. The name Bharatakhanda, for him, captures the expansive thought of an Indian nation.

Here one needs to note that Bharatakhanda is not a Vedic term though we find the term Bharata in the Vedic corpus. His invoking of these names from different periods according to his convenience reveals his anxiety to prove a point that there existed a nation and a country within well-defined boundaries. But his indiscriminate reference to these terms, without understanding what they meant in the original literature, undermines the credibility of his narrative. Without any argument, he makes a hasty claim that the expression Bharatakhanda includes within its sweep the territory between the Himalayas and the seas and also contains the sense of nationhood within it. He fails to distinguish between the Vedic Bharata from the Puranic one. In Vedic literature, they are tribes occupying a specific region winning over the other tribes like the Kasis (according to Vedic Index). Savarkar’s claim that the word Bharatakhanda captures the idea of nationhood encompassing all that lay between the Himalayas and the seas seems to be absent in the Vedas.

The Puranic idea of Bharatavarsha is ambiguous. Sometimes it is said to be the same as Jambudvipa and sometimes it is said to be a part of it. This confusion clearly comes out in the Puranic Encyclopaedia compiled by Vettam Mani, where he states at one place that Jambudvipa comprises Bhartavarsha and at another place he refers to Bharatvarsha as an island group constituted of nine islands of which Bharatvarsha itself is one.

However, for Savarkar, the word Sindhu or Hindu is the “cradle name” that is more significant than the names Bharatavarsha, Bharatakhanda, Aryawarta and Brahmawarta. Sindhu or Hindu Rashtra fully captures the sense of nationhood. The term Rashtra as it is currently used in Hindi and other Indian languages means nation. This was not the case in ancient literature. Little does he realise that Rashtra in the Vedas does not mean nation. In the Rigveda, it denotes a kingdom or a royal territory (according to Vedic Index and Monier-Williams’ dictionary). It meant the realm, dominion or jurisdiction where the command holds.

The word Hindutva, for him, contains all the ideals that it stands for in all the realms of life, and he goes on to eulogise the greatness and glory of the people – a greatness that, he says, is derived from their respect towards the river Sindhu. In short, this river then becomes the symbol and seat of Hindu culture and national unity. Savarkar thus engages only in hyperbole and, as the historian Janaki Bakhle critically observes in her well-argued essay, “piles assertion on assertion” with no “clear chronology, no clear narrative”. She notes: “Indeed, as we shall see, history does not matter very much to Savarkar.” Not only history but it appears neither does the compatibility of conclusion with premises matters for Savarkar, i.e., he lacks a clear argument.

Dr SK Arun Murthi taught Philosophy in the Humanities and the Social Sciences Department, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Mohali. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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