"Narendra Modi" by World Economic Forum / CC BY-SA 2.0

How Hinduism Became a Political Weapon in India

May 24, 2019

By Jonah Blank

VARANASI, India—The seven pandits draped in cloth of gold are clearly competing against the five in saffron. In front of thousands of assembled pilgrims, each bevy of priests furiously recites Sanskrit chants, deftly swinging pyramids of flaming oil lamps, banging on bells and blowing on conch shells, wafting thick clouds of incense over the moonlit waters of the limpid, unlistening Ganges. The celebration of Ganga Aarti has taken place daily at this spot for hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of years.

This is Hinduism. But it is not Hindutva, the creed of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). And the difference between them—between the practices of faith and politics—may determine the future of what will soon be the largest nation on Earth.

Here in Varanasi, posters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi are slapped on crumbly ancient walls, splintery doorjambs, a tangle of electrical wires draped perilously over a traffic circle. Orange-and-green flags bearing the lotus leaf of the BJP flutter on bicycle rickshaws, rooftops, and rowboats plowing their way along the holy Ganges. In much of the city, these are the only election signs one can see: You generally have to dive into the twisty alleyways near a mosque to find a few timid banners for the Indian National Congress or any other BJP rival.

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