Hinduism And Judaism

By Tsvi Bisk

Hindu and Jewish identity are similar. Judaism is the religion of Jewish civilization; Hinduism is the religion of Hindu civilization.

At first glance Hindus and Jews do not seem have much in common (even though the so-called Star of David is probably of Hindu origin). Yet in many ways Hindu identity and Jewish identity are mirror images of one another. Hinduism like Judaism relates to the religious tradition of the Hindu peoplehood. The technical linguistic term for this is Synecdoche. It is a figure of speech in which a term for a part of something is used to refer to the whole of something, or vice-versa. Judaism as the religion of Jewish peoplehood is a part of Jewish civilization; while Hinduism as the religion of Hindu peoplehood is part of Hindu civilization. One can be a part of Jewish peoplehood without being a religiously observant Jew, just as one can be part of Hindu peoplehood without being a religiously observant Hindu. In fact one can be a Jewish atheist (Einstein, Freud and Marx) or a Hindu atheist (Savarkar, Sen, and Sivayogi).  One cannot be a Christian or Muslim atheist – that would be a contradiction in terms.

 Up until the 18th and 19th centuries the word Hindu (of Persian origin) referred to the peoples that inhabited the Indus valley, not to a particular faith tradition. It was first used in the 14th century by Persians and Arabs. Hinduism, understood as a religious or faith tradition, became common in the 19th century under British rule. Many modern researchers (western and Indian) have claimed that Hinduism as a ‘religion’ in the western sense of the word was ‘created’ by English colonialism in the 1800s to make it easier to rule India. Categorizing the numerous folk traditions and spiritual expressions of the Hindu peoples under one religious classification in order to contrast it with Islam and other religions made things less complicated and facilitated Britain’s ability to rule. This is not to say that the word Hinduism does not convey a rich and intricate spiritual attitude towards life that is unique to the people called Hindus; only to say that it cannot be related to only as a religion – just as the term Judaism cannot be related to only as a religion. In fact, traditional Hindu hostility to Islam before the English was not religious; it stemmed from the Hindus’ perception that the Muslims were foreigninvaders. In other words it was more a ‘national’ objection than a ‘religious’ one.

 Hinduism, after the English invasion, became the ‘religion’ of the Hindu people just as Judaism, after the European Enlightenment became the ‘religion’ of the Jewish people.  The variety of ethnic groups, cultural traditions and variations of religious or non-religious observance amongst the Hindus was just as diverse (if not more so) than amongst the Jews.

 The mixture of Hindu nationalism and spiritual uniqueness that characterized the reaction to English rule was at the outset humanist, cosmopolitan, universalist, and liberal. Pioneers of this mixture included Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Dayananda, and the renowned Sri Aurobindo. Like the early Socialist Zionists these figures called for a radical reconstruction of Hindu society. They opposed the caste system and called for equality for women as well as openness to the world. They wanted to reconstruct Hindu life totally.  Hindu nationalism calling for autonomous sovereignty and statehood for this diverse peoplehood can be seen as being analogous to Zionism.

 Aurobindo’s views were reminiscent of the Italian nationalism of Mazzini and similar to early progressive Zionism. In the essay “Enlightenment-Idea of India” Peter Heehs quoted him:

Political freedom is the life-breath of a nation; to attempt social reform, educational reform, industrial expansion, the moral improvement of the race without aiming first and foremost at political freedom, is the very height of ignorance and futility. . . The primary requisite for national progress, national reform, is the free habit of free and healthy national thought and action which is impossible in a state of servitude.[1]

Heehs further observed in Religious Nationalism and Beyond:

His (Aurobindo’s) models of political transformation were the French and American revolutions and the Italian Risorgimento. The language of his political writings echoes Jefferson’s and Rousseau’s: India based its claim to freedom on “the inalienable right of the nation to independence”.[2]

 These political philosophies were accompanied by what one might term a Hindu Spiritual Nationalism; a feeling that Hindu spiritualism had a special contribution to make to all of humanity. These views were similar to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook – the dominant figure in the rise of religious Zionism and the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine. Aurobindo felt that Hindus were ‘chosen’ “instruments of God to save the light, to save the spirit of India from lasting obscuration and abasement”[3]. Rabbi Kook also felt that the Jews had a special spiritual spark in their souls and his arguments were also redolent with metaphors of light.

 Modern Hindu nationalism strove to unite Hindu society by breaking down the boundaries of caste, language and ethnic group; just as Zionism wished to unite Jewish society by breaking down the boundaries of class, language and ethnic group. Similar to Zionism, in its best and worst manifestations, was the Indian national movement called Hindutva which literally means Hinduness (an analogue to Jewishness). Vinavak Savarkar coined the term in a 1923 pamphlet entitled Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?

 For Savarkar liberty was the highest ideal. Like Theodor Herzl – the founder of modern political Zionism – he was a writer and playwright as well as a progressive modernizer. As with Zionism Sarvakar’s philosophy incorporated many western concepts such as utilitarianism, rationalism, positivism, humanism, universalism, and pragmatism. For him Hinduness was distinct from Hinduism, just as many Jewish secularists (especially the early Zionists) saw Jewishness as distinct from Judaism. He wanted to create an inclusive collective identity that gave coherence to all the disparate parts of Hindu civilization.

 Like Zionism Hindutva was attacked by Marxists and academic leftists as being inherently fascistic. This was not surprising as Marxists have always had trouble dealing with classifications not reflective of the vocabulary they use to describe their rather tidy philosophy of history. Yet in certain stages of the development of both movements some factions did become fascistic. Just as Gandhi was assassinated by a radical rightwing Hindutva so was Rabin assassinated by a radical rightwing Zionist; and for the same reason – trying to find a civilized Modus Vivendi with Muslims and other minorities.

 Hinduness then is a way of life, a state of mind that reflects a certain temperament, just as Jewishness refers to the temperament, culture and ethos of the Jewish people. It is an outlook that views India as a Hindu Nation(Hindu Rashtra). Hinduness is an inclusive term reflective of everything Indian. In The Essentials of Hindutva Savarkar wrote:

 …Hindutva (Hinduness) is not a word but a history. Not only the spiritual or religious history of our people as at times it is mistaken to be (italics mine)…., but a history in full….Hindutva embraces all the departments of thought and activity of the whole being of (being) Hindu.

 Similar to many Zionists Savarkar was an atheist and regarded Hinduness as a cultural and political identity. Hindus were “that People who live as children of a common motherland, adoring a common holy land”. Other proponents of Hindutva believe that the Hindus with all their racial and religious diversity, share “the same philosophy of life”, “the same values” and “the same aspirations” which formed a strong cultural and a civilizational basis for a nation. This is a view similar to Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan’s view of Jewish identity; for Kaplan Judaism is an all inclusive civilization of which the Jewish religion is but a part.

 Some progressive and even militant advocates of Hindutva also reached out to Muslims, viewing them as part of modern India – much as Theodore Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky envisioned the Arabs as part and parcel of the Jewish State’s democracy.

 One of the significant comparisons between Israel and India has to do with demographics. After partition almost all Hindus in Pakistan were eventually driven out while at the same time the Muslim population of India more than trebled. After Israel’s establishment almost all the Jews in Muslim lands were driven out while the Muslim population of Israel more than sextupled. For the past several decades Muslims as a percentage of the overall population in India have been growing while the percentage of Hindus has been decreasing. Muslims as a percentage of the overall population of Israel have also been growing while the percentage of Jews has been decreasing. Both countries are bordered by hostile Muslim countries trying to enlist local Muslim populations as fifth columns. Yet both countries are constitutional democracies trying to treat their Muslim populations fairly in the face of severe security threats.