Dharma Files | An alternative Marxist interpretation of Hinduism and Hindutva

A very different application of Marxism to Hinduism and Hindutva is possible, although it has been largely ignored

The Marxist analysis can be applied to Hindutva

There is a common Marxist interpretation of Hindutva that goes something like this. All of human history is the history of the class struggle. However, if we contextualize this dictum in the Indian context, caste replaces class. But that poses a problem.

The classical formulation of the caste system speaks of the four (and not just two) Varnas because it speaks of (1) Brahmins, (2) Kshatriyas, (3) Vaishyas and (4) Shudras. The Marxist paradigm operates with the binary opposition of bourgeoisie and proletariat or exploiter and exploited. However, these four can be reduced to a binary opposition in two ways. The first three classes, called Dvijas in classical literature, can be contrasted with the Shudras, who, unlike the first three classes, were denied the right to Vedic initiation. This is one way of applying Marxist analysis to Hindutva, which is identified as an upper-class or Dvija phenomenon.

The other way the fourfold classification can be reduced to binary is to pit all these four varnas against the former untouchables. Classical Hinduism considers the former untouchables to be included in the category of Shudras. Marxists who reject this view can derive another binary opposition by pitting all four varnas against the former untouchables.


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Thus, Hindutva is routinely castigated as oppressive in Marxist discourse in India both the Shudras and the former untouchables. A third dichotomy can be postulated between men and women throughout Varnas and also the former untouchables. Therefore, Hindutva forces are also scourged for oppressing women. This explains the lumping together of the Shudras, the former untouchables, and women as victims of Hindutva in Marxist analysis.

A very different application of Marxism to Hindutva is also possible, although it has been largely ignored. Curiously, this follows from the context in which Marx famously referred to religion as the “opium of the people.” In the same context, Marx also says that religion is the “sigh of the oppressed creature.” The heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless states”. Hindutva sees Hindus as representing the “sigh of the oppressed creature” in his self-perception.

Hindus are the oppressed creature here. This may come as a surprise to some readers and many Marxists, because Marxists view Hindus as oppressors rather than oppressed, typically viewing Hindus as internally caste-dominated. They fail or refuse to recognize that the entire Hindu community can see itself as an entity externally oppressed by Muslims, Christians and secular rulers.

That seems a bit strange.

While the Marxists are willing to see that story of Hinduism as internally oppressed by caste, they are unwilling to consider the same story as the oppression – this time external – of the entire community by non-Hindus.

This is threefold surprising. First, Marxists take history seriously, but in this case they don’t seem inclined to. One could say that Hinduism has no sense of history. Possibly. But Hindutva does. Second, Marxism is very sensitive to oppression, but not in this case. One could say that this is because Marxism regards religion as an epiphenomenon. It could be that Hindus suffer from a “false consciousness”, but it is perhaps worth considering that they feel they have suffered and are suffering, if only in their imagination. Then there is a third point to consider. Marxists operate in binary, and the Hindu/non-Hindu binary stares you in the face.

One final point: Marxists also like to present Hindutva as a disease. So if they were to just ask the “patient,” where is your pain?, as doctors do, then in this case the patient is likely to reply, “In history.” . History is a home game for Marxists, but once again they choose to ignore it.

Perhaps an increased dose of opium for the patient?

The author, formerly of the IAS, is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where he has taught for over thirty years. He has also taught in Australia and the United States and at Nalanda University in India. He has published numerous publications in the fields of Indian religions and world religions. The views expressed are personal.

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