Swastikas of Both Sorts: Hindu Nationalism’s Fascist Nostalgia (Anwesh Satpathy, 30 Apr 2024, Quillette)

The earliest form of Hindu nationalism appeared in the nineteenth century, at a time when the British had clearly established their control over India. One key early proponent was Raja Ram Mohun Roy, a scholar and social reformer initially employed by the East India Company. At the time, evangelical missionaries like the Scottish clergyman Claudius Buchanan routinely portrayed Hinduism as a primitive, bloodthirsty religion devoid of any moral principles. In his writings, Buchanan exaggerates the sexuality and superstition of Hindu society and portrays Hindus as worshippers of the child-sacrifice-demanding Canaanite deity of Moloch. Yet, contemporary Indian society was ridden with regressive practices of which the most extreme was perhaps sati: i.e., widows being burned to death on their husbands’ funeral pyres.

Roy sought to reconcile Hindu scriptures with modernity. Through his tireless efforts, sati was finally outlawed in 1829. Roy’s view of Hinduism was heavily influenced by Christianity: insofar as he decried idol worship, while asserting the importance of a single book of scripture i.e., the Vedas. Roy argued that Hinduism in its original form was thoroughly monotheistic and egalitarian. He championed the reform of Hindu society, the freedom of the press and women’s rights. Arguing against the supposed intellectual inferiority of women, Roy writes:

when did you ever afford them a fair opportunity of exhibiting their natural capacity? How then can you accuse them of want of understanding? If, after instruction in knowledge and wisdom, a person cannot comprehend or retain what has been taught him, we may consider him as deficient; but as you keep women generally void of education and acquirements, you cannot therefore, in justice pronounce on their inferiority.

Roy was keen to make Hinduism a book religion, with a single line of interpretation. This was partly because he wanted Hindus to become a single, united community. Although Roy was staunchly opposed to the Christian missionaries, he shared their dislike of idol worship and polytheism, as well as of Hinduism’s more regressive practices. Roy dismissed these as later additions to Hinduism, appealing instead to a Vedic golden age in which the religion was free from superstition. Roy’s Hinduism, thus, was both a reaction to and a criticism of evangelical Christianity. But, crucially, it lacked the central element that came to define later forms of Hindu nationalism—a deep suspicion of Muslims.

In the early twentieth century, Hindu nationalism began to crystallise into its current form.

Met one Nationalist you’ve met them all.