Karen Armstrong’s 2019 book, The Lost Art of Scripture, explains how Hinduism developed in colonial India as Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims vied for political and economic resources. In dealing with the British, she writes, they discovered the colonialists were more receptive when they adopted the British understanding of religion. This, in turn, led to new reform movements that sought to embrace contemporaneous Protestant Reforms while distorting their own traditions.
A key proponent of this, per Armstrong, was the Arya Samaj (Society of Aryans) movement, which was founded in 1875 by Swami Dayanand (1824-83), aiming to revive ancient Vedic orthodoxy and create an authoritative scriptural canon on the Western model. Dayanand and his successors went on to create a network of schools and colleges in north India, steadily growing in numbers, achieving a million followers at the time of Partition in 1947.
Returning to fundamentals
As Armstrong recalls, Hindus had long been subjected to foreign imperialism, first by the Mughals and then by the British. Since the late 18th century, they had also been harassed by aggressively proselytizing Christian missionaries, contributing to a self-conscious Hinduism clearly distinct from other “religions” in India. In this context, Arya Samaj’s attempt to return to “fundamentals” was, like Protestant fundamentalism, a departure. Prior to this, Hindus revered the Vedas, but the ancient texts had little meaning for most people: the hymns of the Rig Veda, for example, were chiefly experienced in mantras, divorced from original context, while the Upanishads were read, but had no single message.
In the mid-19th century, the elite Hindu Brahmo Samaj movement rose up in Calcutta to accommodate Western ideas. Its founder, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, believed the Upanishads were compatible with the rational ethos of Christian Unitarianism. However, the diversity of Upanishadic ideas split the movement into rival groups, each convinced it alone had the true message. When Dayananda encountered the disarray of the Brahmo Samaj, he realized that he must return to the original Vedas.
Most Hindus would agree the Vedas contain all truth, but they regard the Vedic truth as a seed from which the philosophies and spiritualties that emerged later had germinated. American scholar Brian K. Smith notes ‘the great paradox’ of modern Hinduism is that ‘the subject matter of Veda was and is largely unknown by those who define themselves in relation to it … and in many cases, appear[s] to be totally irrelevant for Hindu doctrine and practice.” Dayananda, however, encountered a teacher who gave him an entirely different perspective. He argued that the Great Battle of the Mahabharata was a turning point in history, marking the beginning of the Kali Yuga, the current Dark Age, and as such, everything written since was inherently corrupt. Thus, scriptures composed before the Great Battle were nars (‘of the rishis’), while those that came later were anars (‘not of rishis’) and must be discarded.
Rise of Arya Samaj
This theory provided Dayananda with both a scriptural canon and an index of Forbidden Books, which he took to the people. Hitherto Hindu scriptures had always marched resolutely forwards, but Arya Samaj chimed beautifully with the now-ascendant Protestant ideas, providing Hindus with a rational theism, a literal mindset in a canon of ancient sacred texts. The first three tenets of Arya’s Rules simply asserted that God was the source of all knowledge, and that knowledge was contained in the Vedic scriptures that all Aryans were adjured to study. Traditional Hindu ideas were updated, reformulated rationally and literally: the devas were presented as wise and learned men, and the asmas, their divine rivals, as ignorant people. Vedic references to kings and battles were interpreted as military and political directives. Like the Protestant reformers, the Arya Samaj discarded medieval accretions such as bhakti and the ritualized worship of images that were central to the lives of most Hindus but were regarded as primitive “idol worship” by Protestant missionaries and colonialists.
Key to understanding is this realizing that Dayananda was not slavishly flattering his colonial masters, but rather was defiantly asserting the superiority of Indian tradition even as he distorted it. He regarded the maxim of the vedas containing ‘all knowledge’ quite literally, insisting that all knowledge that is extant in the world had originated in Arya Varta (Golden Land), the ancient Aryan heartland. Vedic sacrifice, for example, had a scientific basis: when butter and ghee are thrown into the sacred fire, they purify the air, rain and water [and] thereby promote happiness on this earth. Similarly, he argued that all geographical and botanical references in the Vedas had universal application. Arya Varta’s kings, he claimed, had ruled the whole world and taught Aryan wisdom to all peoples; their extraordinary science enabled them to build terrifying weapons described in epics, but this was all lost. Arya Samaj, he maintained, would revive this ancient glory.
But while he exalted traditions, the humiliation of the colonial experience impelled Dayananda to distort the same in a way that verged on the absurd, but assuaged the bruised confidence of many Hindus. Dayananda was a modernizer: he proposed ritual reforms that preserved traditional ceremonies in a simpler form more suitable for modern life. He also made the scriptures available to all castes and held widely publicized purification rites for low-caste groups that would become increasingly popular in the 1920s and ‘30s after his death. During the early 20th century, Arya Samaj also served the needs of the Hindu diaspora who wanted to maintain a distinctly Hindu identity.
As violence between Muslims and Hindus escalated during the 1920s, the Arya Samaj became more militant. It urged Aryans to develop the ancient virtues of the Kshatriya and founded military cadre. The Arya Vir Dal (Troop of Aryan Horses), like its rival Rashtriya Svayamsevak Sangh (RSS) fell prey to the sin of modern nationalism, an intolerance of ethnic, religious and cultural minorities. In his book, Light of Truth, Dayananda derided Christian theology, was vitriolic in his abuse of Islam’s Prophet (PBUH) and dismissed Guru Nanak as a well-meaning ignoramus with no understanding of Vedic ritual.
Insulting to the Sikhs
Prior to the Arya Samaj, Sikhs were persecuted by the Muslim ruling class but enjoyed good relations with the Hindu majority. After Dayananda’s book, however, the Arya ramped up their abuse of Sikhism, regularly deriding the Gurus, and triggering an aggressive assertion of Sikh identity. By the end of the 19th century, there were around a hundred radical Sikh Sabha groups all over Punjab, dedicated to asserting Sikh distinctiveness through schools and colleges and issuing polemical literature calling for separatism that subverted Guru Nanak’s original vision. This, in turn, led to the development of Sikh fundamentalism that emphasized the more martial teachings of the Tenth Guru and ignored the more peaceful ethos of his predecessors. A tradition originally open to all now feared Hindus, heretics, modernizers, secularists and any form of political dominance.
As seen in the West, modern fundamentalism is fueled by a fear of annihilation, a conviction that the religious and secular majority want to eradicate the tradition of a minority. The Sikh case shows this cannot be considered irrational paranoia. In 1919, a British general ordered the machine-gunning of a peaceful crowd, most of them Sikhs, at Golden Temple, killing 309 and injuring over 1,000 others. After Partition in 1947, Hindu abuse against the Sikh minority escalated, with peasants in Punjab subjected to extreme economic hardship that encouraged a turn to extremism and demands for a separate Sikh state. In 1984, the Indian army stormed the Golden Temple to dislodge militants there, highlighting the vulnerability of the community at the very site that houses the Guru Granth Sahib, scripture that embodies the spirit of the Gurus.
At the same time, the rise of new elites in the Indian state fired by the new ‘Hindu’ nationalism meant that Sikhs who did not fall obediently in line were increasingly marginalized. As Sikh scholar Harjot S. Oberoi explained, they were required “to speak and dream through one language,” that of the Hindu leaders. Older forms of Sikhism were replaced by exclusivist innovations.
Guru Nanak and Granth Sahib
As Armstrong notes, Guru Nanak was not interested in scripture, but Sikhs have since developed a deep and visceral protectiveness towards the Guru Granth Sahib. Like Christian fundamentalists who denounce the Higher Criticism, Sikh fundamentalists have zero tolerance for any historical-critical interpretation of their scripture, with any Sikh who dares to practice such scholarship likely to come under fire. This was seen in February 1984, when Sumeet Singh, editor of Punjab’s oldest literary journal, was shot outside Amritsar for his independent reading of Sikh ideology. Singh Bhindranwale (1947-84), a major figure in Sikh fundamentalism, urged audiences to tolerate no insult to scriptures, emphasizing a moral obligation to kill anyone who showed disrespect for the Guru Granth Sahib.
Fundamentalist views hold that a scripture, once revealed, is infallible and any effort to historicize or interpret it innovatively is blasphemous. This intransigence, which countermands centuries of native interpretation, is the result of an assault that, for Sikhs involved bloodshed and mass murder. The clashes weren’t limited to India. On Feb. 14, 1989, five years after the murder of Sumeet, the Iranian government issued a fatwa against British-Indian author Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses, highlighting how years of suppression and denigration had scarred Muslim sensibilities. British Muslim Zaki Badawi explained that any assault on the Quran was “like a knife being dug into you or being raped yourself.”
Humanity or God?
Some Western secularists and liberals felt their most sacred values were violated by the Iranian fatwa. For them, humanity—not God—was the measure of all things, and freedom of speech was a sacred value and an inalienable right. But they tarnished their cause by denouncing Islam in the British press as an evil, bloodthirsty religion and Muslim society as repulsive. Neither side could understand the other.
Anthropologist Ernest Gellner has suggested that the modern period has seen the rise of rationalist fundamentalism alongside its religious counterpart, refusing to take seriously the transcendence that was hitherto a fact of human life. It permits “no saviors, no sacred characters or sacramental communities” and precludes “the miraculous, the sacred occasion, the intrusion of the Other into the Mundane” rationalism.