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Hindu society and culture in 21st Century India and Britain

Mr Ranjit Sondhi CBE
Mr Ranjit Sondhi CBE

This is the text of a presentation delivered by Mr Ranjit Sondhi CBE, at the OCHS Board of Governors annual dinner, held in the Oxford Town Hall, on the 23rd June 2004. Mr Sondhi is a member of the BBC Board of Governors as the chairman of the English National Forum. He also serves as a member of the Patrons Council of the OCHS.

Since Shaunaka has very kindly given me an open brief, I thought I might share with you some thoughts about Hindu society and culture (past and present) both in India and Britain.
Let me make a strategic point at the outset. Perhaps nowhere more than in Hinduism do we experience traditions of thought, religious, and moral values that are so markedly different from the Judeo-Christian and classical traditions of 'western' culture. Hindu societies are in touch with cultures and languages that pre-date the West. The great challenge is to somehow capture the long, highly complex, and refined traditions of Hindu philosophy, art, science, music, and dance within the extraordinarily varied cultural history of the Indian sub-continent, which at this moment are beyond the reach of even the most well educated in all communities. Unless we all have access to these cultural repertoires, to understand and practise them, we will all lack the cultural capital to engage with each other.
Allow me to turn now to Hinduism and Indian civilisation - since the two are inextricably linked. Hinduism projects the great values of social justice, communal harmony, individual freedom, and human well-being. The idea of India, variously called Jambudwipa, Aryavarta, and more frequently Bharat, has exercised the Indian imagination for several millennia. Different writers have asked what defined and distinguished their land and its people, and what their central civilisational values were. For Tilak, Aurobindo, Bipan Chandra Pal, Savarkar, and others, it was a unique Hindu achievement, created and nurtured by the Hindus and reflective of the distinct Hindu sensibilities and historical experiences. Gokhale, Ranade, Gandhi, Tagore, and others took a different view. Although they disagreed among themselves, they were all convinced that the Indian civilization was spiritual rather than narrowly religious in its nature, open to the influences of others, synthetic rather than Hindu in its content, decentralised and rural in its orientation, and committed to the values of tolerance, self-restraint, and universality.
The third group of writers, such as Dadabhai Naoroji, Motilal, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the communists, took a very different view of the Indian civilization and its contemporary relevance. In their view it had, after a brilliant start, continued to decline and was no longer a living reality. It was basically sociocentric, apolitical, hierarchical, localised, and unworldly, and wholly at odds with the demands of modern life. The best thing to do was to make a clean break with the past and give India a wholly new and modern self-image.
But although India chose to define itself along modernist lines after independence, the Hindu view still prevails. Hindu civilisation lies at its core, and is enriched by such Hindu-derived currents of thought as Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. However, Indian civilisation is too rich, complex, and multistranded to be reduced to a single and homogeneous formula. Every attempt to abridge and abstract a part of it does it grave injustice. Its values are several and occasionally incompatible. These include equality and hierarchy, violence and non-violence, active engagement with the world and withdrawal from it, individualism and rationalism, monogamy and polygamy. It is up to us to decide which of these values to adopt and cherish. India certainly needs a common culture, but it cannot be the culture of any particular community. As Nehru, Gandhi, Tagore, and others had argued, Indian culture has drawn on many different sources including Islam and Christianity, and is plural and synthetic in nature. Only such a multiculturally constituted common culture, in which each of our major communities finds its reflection, and which it can therefore enthusiastically accept, can be the basis of Indian unity.
India has over the centuries been a home to many different peoples and cultures and has evolved a synthetic, composite, and multiculturally constituted common culture. The Hindu culture itself is a work of many hands and contains within it a large range of unhomogenisable diversity. It has no single owner, and that is its strength. And since all communities have contributed to it, they can see their own images in it and can happily accept it. It therefore provides an ideal framework within which to find both our commonalities and enjoy our differences.
And it is this desire to strike the right balance between unity and diversity that links us to the state of modern multi-cultural Britain. Let me first turn to the position of Hindus in this country. I want to resist the suggestion that Hindus and Hindu culture, whether on the Indian sub-continent, or in Britain, or elsewhere in the Western world, have somehow been preserved in aspic. There is, and always has been, in all cultures, a tension between tradition and modernity, between continuity and change. In this sense, cultural identities have always been dynamic, fluid, ambiguous, and elusive. At any given historic moment, a particular culture can never wholly be defined completely and accurately.
Nevertheless, there are tacit dimensions in Hindu society that are deep-rooted and resistant to change. These might be obvious to cultural anthropologists but for most of us they work so surreptitiously and unconsciously that we only become aware of them after a rigorous self-analysis. These might involve value systems, religious beliefs, language structures, child-rearing practices, family organisation, aspects of food and dress. Some of these influences go back to our childhood and are largely unknown to us. But they are nonetheless important determinants of our cultural expression and behaviour.
So, in a paradoxical sense, our Hindu culture is both given and constantly reconstituted. We might not like parts of it, and even when we do, we might feel that it needs to be changed to suit new circumstances. All such redefinitions and changes require both a deep historical knowledge of the cultural heritage and a feel for its past. Such redefinitions also require a rigorous and realistic assessment of present circumstances and future aspirations.
Thus in Britain, while traditional cultural practices are maintained and carry respect, the degrees and forms of attachment are fluid and changing - constantly negotiated, producing new, hybrid cultural forms of tremendous vitality and innovation. Such communities are in touch with their differences, without being saturated by tradition. They are actively involved in wider society without being assimilated. They are no longer wholly, or even primarily, defined by difference, by their otherness.
Perhaps it is important to acknowledge that 'Hinduism' in the British context is primarily perceived as an ethnic form. Ethnicity results from the interplay between two different forms of dialogue - the dialogue that an individual has with his/her cultural group, and the dialogue that he/she and her group have with the wider society. Hindus both locate themselves, and are located by others, in a culturally plural society.
Of late, ethnicity is now beginning to carry some other meanings, and to define a new space for identity. It insists on difference - on the fact that every identity is placed, positioned, in a culture, a language, a history. Every ethnic sentiment comes from somewhere, from somebody in particular. But it is no longer grounded in a set of fixed transcendental categories and which therefore has no guarantees in nature. It should not be seen as having an essentialist, primordial quality. Rather, as has been said, 'ethnicity is a process of invention which incorporates, adapts, and amplifies pre-existing communal solidarities, cultural attributes and historical memories'. Ethnicity therefore is an arte-fact not nature-fact.
What this brings into play is the instant recognition of the immense diversity and differentiation of the historical and cultural experience of ethnic subjects. That is to say, a recognition that we all speak from a particular place, out of a particular history, out of a particular experience, a particular culture, without being straight-jacketed by the binary oppositions of black and white, male and female, gay and straight. We are all ethnically located, but exist in the knowledge that our boundaries are being constantly crossed and recrossed by the categories of race, gender, sexuality, and class.
We know they are not forever, not totally universally true, not underpinned by any infinite guarantees. But for the moment, there is always a boundary, no matter how partial, temporary, or arbitrary. Otherwise, we would all flow into one another and there would be no political action, no cut and thrust of ideology, no positioning, no crossing of lines, no change. So there are other identities out there that do matter, that do bear some definite relationship to each other, that have to be dealt with somehow. Accepting the necessarily fictional nature of ethnicity does not stop the ethnic subject from engaging in the politics of difference. But it is an altogether gentler politics, a deeply non-violent encounter, in which ethnicity becomes, not a brutalising but a revitalising force.
When conceived and constructed in this way, ethnicity is transformed into something that is not doomed to survive forever, as Englishness has been, by marginalising, dispossessing, displacing, and forgetting other ethnicities. It becomes an ethnicity that has essentially lost its recruiting power, and is made attractive because of it. But I don't want to give the impression that this new concept of ethnicity as a powerless and perfect system. Like all other forms of identification, there will still be dimensions of power within it. But it isn't quite so framed by the extremities of power and aggression, violence and mobilisation, as the earlier forms of ethnic nationalism. I believe that the values and beliefs associated with Hinduism are implicit in this transformation - a transformation that moves us into a different discourse, a different world of ethnic relations in which diversity and equality are opposite sides of the same coin.