Why Hindutva is Like Dog Breeding

January 31, 2014

I have had an insight. Admittedly it was one of those insights which you get at 1 am when you can’t sleep because you had the last cappuccino of the day a little too late in the day; but despite the circumstances in which it arose, I think it is a valuable insight. And it is basically this: the two extreme views of what Hinduism actually is correspond exactly to the two extreme views dog lovers have about how you should go about getting a dog as a pet.

Explaining the analogy means I will have to first provide context.

For many years, I was mystified by the fact that Hindutvawadis could hold these two beliefs simultaneously:

  1. Hinduism is really awesome
  2. Hinduism is under grave, horrible threat and must be preserved at all costs from any combination of:
    1. Sickular Media
    2. CONgis
    3. Love Jihad
    4. Vatican Missionaries
    5. The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty
    6. Ramachandra Guha
    7. Twitter Secret Santa

These simultaneous beliefs would manifest into calls for legal and illegal action against anybody who criticised or denigrated Hinduism in any way, no matter their actual intent.

I, and other likeminded people would be bewildered and say things like “If Hinduism is so great, surely it can withstand these very minor criticisms.” In fact, it was really polite people like Salil Tripathi who would say such things. I used to say much more outrageous things like “Boss if Hinduism is this vulnerable to criticism, why are you even bothering with something so weak? Start practicing a more robust religion like Islam or Thor-worship or some such. Persisting with Hinduism can only lead to tears and misery as you watch it collapse around you.”

It was not until this month that I realised that this argument was totally pointless because it assumes that we were thinking of Hinduism in the same way. We weren’t. I was thinking of Hinduism in the way that Gautam John and Anoopa Anand think of Indian Pi Dogs. They were thinking of Hinduism in the way that pug owners regard their pugs1 (or actually, any purebreed dog, but pugs are fashionable these days, so the analogy becomes clearer – and actually more forceful, as we’ll see later on). In fact, considering how loaded the terms Hindutvawadi and liberal have become these days, using the terms Pug view of Hinduism and Pi View of Hinduism might actually be more enlightening in the general discourse2. More so if you consider that Hindutvawadi could refer to actual behaviour or actions, while Pug View and Pi View very clearly refer to mindsets.

If you are Good Guy Gautam, or somebody similar, then resilience, health, and being robust are necessary conditions of being awesome. You think pi dogs make great pets and companions because they’re healthy, active, and friendly. A wide genetic stock, you feel, allows for a pleasing variety of very resilient specimens. Extending the analogy to religion, what you like most about Hinduism are the practices or beliefs that are easy to live with and carry on, and its ability to absorb influences from other religions if they’re good ideas. 

But if you’re on the other extreme, you’re not bothered about health and resilience at all. What you’re concerned about is pure breeding, even if the result of this breeding creates an animal that is so strangely shaped that more than two out of every three of its kind have diseases that are directly traceable to its weird shape. The strange, disease prone, almost nonviable form of the pug (which, along with the modern bulldog, exemplifies selective breeding run amok) is a feature, not a bug, because it makes the pug look so cute and distinctive.

Extending this to religion, the weirdest parts of Hinduism, that make it so difficult and cumbersome to practice, and which also seem so totally pointless to the disinterested observer, are precisely what the devoted but threatened promoter of Hinduism thinks are the whole point. It is irrelevant that fasting for your husbands’ good health, letting your own or other peoples’ gotra or caste influence your decisions, practicing a sattvik diet, or going through elaborate rituals to qualify as a proper Hindu have not made them happier, more prosperous, or more productive than the rest of the world that has happily gotten along without all these.  It is because it is difficult to maintain, easy to go wrong, and serves little purpose, that this sort of Hinduism is so valuable – it shows that for hundreds of years, you’ve managed to keep something largely unviable going in its pure form.

Actually, an obsession with purity is the kinder interpretation of why the Pug View of Hinduism likes the bizarre bits of Hinduism so much. I could be more conspiracy minded (like the Pughindus themselves) and suggest that they want Hinduism to be this unsustainable so that, like a pug, it is completely dependent on the owner and in its power. But this would be mean. Besides, there’s some other support for the hypothesis that it’s driven by an obsession with purity: their insistence that Hinduism is a way of life and not a religion and so you can only be born a Hindu and can’t become one through practice.

It also is supported by how horrified Pughindus are at the thought of other Hindus doing anything that is not found within Pughinduism, no matter whether this activity is good or bad. A Pughindu is appalled at people playing Twitter Secret Santa because it might be a covert attempt to spread Christianity. It doesn’t matter that by playing secret Santa you have successfully detached the gift giving part of Christmas from the accepting Jesus Christ as your saviour part of Christianity. It also doesn’t matter that the more people who aren’t practicing Christians go around wishing others a merry Christmas in a spirit of goodwill and warmth, the more it actually changes Christianity from the violent and genocidal religion that Hindutvawadis say they hate, to an actual religion of brotherhood and love that can’t threaten Hinduism with genocide. It doesn’t even matter that prosocial behaviour like gifting is correlated with an increase in happiness for the gifter and not just the giftee. The suggestion of cross breeding and tainting the bloodline is enough to horrify them.

Tragically, this obsession with purity puts Pughindus makes the suffer from dreadful envy and a Catch 22 situation. By keeping their vision of Hinduism pure, they have made it either impossible, unappealing, or too time-consuming to practice; and thus people keep deserting it in favour of Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, Buddhism, or secular humanism. Worse is when these people keep mocking Pughinduism for being so odd; which then leads to them crying up and down3 about how Hinduism is threatened; much as pug owners keep crying up and down about veterinary bills.

Which means that Pughindus see Islam in particular the way pug-owners see Indian street dogs. Pug owners look at pi dogs, and envy their robust good health, and wish that their pug were as healthy and capable, but are horrified at the thought of breeding their pug with it, or even letting it into their houses. The Pughindus are miserable when they see the united front that Muslims appear to present, and wish that Hinduism itself had it4, without realising that it is the type of Hinduism they practice that makes it impossible to present that united front.

Also, if you agree that the Pug View of Hinduism looks at Islam the way posh people think of street dogs –  healthier, gregarious, but also dirty and not something they want around – you will suddenly understand why a certain analogy that compared massacre victims to a puppy under the wheels of a car makes perfect sense.

Meanwhile, Pihindus, who are quite happy to practice a mongrel Hinduism with lots of cross breeding in its pedigree are not concerned about the health of their Hinduism at all, and don’t suffer this agonising envy. About religion, anyway. They might feel envious about other things like smartphones or whatnot.

But the upshot is that while they share a religion, Pughindus and Pihindus see it in completely different ways. And until this fundamental disagreement over what it is they are actually talking about is resolved, nothing useful can ever  come out when they talk about their own religion. There will be only noise and no light, until we have a reformer who can talk to the two sides, explain the difference they have that must be reconciled, and perhaps, bring about the end of the religious equivalent of puppy mills. Until then, we will keep struggling on, talking but not understanding. It is very sad, but there it is.



1: Full Disclosure: Some months ago, I had a highly unpleasant meeting with somebody who, over the course of the meeting, whined about not enjoying their holiday in the Philippines because it was so third world, about how they didn’t want to take up their only job offer because it was in Mumbai which was unsafe compared to living in the Delhi family home, and how their undergraduate class in Delhi was full of uncool students from small town India and Delhi University should reserve seats for people from Delhi who otherwise wouldn’t even be able to get in with high marks (which I found a particularly staggering demand considering that this person had gone to America for their MBA). The person in question also had a pug, which was paralysed, and in a heart rending display of the problems only the very rich face, kept slipping while attempting to walk, because the floors in the house were of marble. It is possible that I am now contemptuous towards pug owners as a class, based only on my animosity towards this one spilling over.

2: This may seem like a really arrogant expectation, but ‘Sainath Fallacy‘ has now slowly started being used by a wide variety of people on Twitter, two years after I coined it. So it may soon make the jump to mainstream media; and Pi View and Pug View may follow a similar trajectory. I can dream.

3: The phrase ‘crying up and down’ is of course one that was much beloved by HIM. It is used in a spirit of focusing the mind on the divine, but should not be allowed to degenerate into mere idol worship. Even after HIS departure, we have found HIM in other manifestations.

4: When Pughindus wish that Hindus were united, the subtext is that other Hindus should become more Pughindu and do the hard work of changing their lifestyle by, for instance, going vegetarian or spending money and time on elaborate rituals or pilgrimages. Pughindus never consider working for Hindu unity by becoming like other Hindus who, when they hear Radha, dance instead of entering an outraged frenzy. This insistence on other people doing all the hard work has a parallel in the way it’s usually Indian pug owners’ domestic servants who have to clean up the pug’s poop.

Residence Proof

January 30, 2014

In recent weeks, at the Khanna family breakfast table, we have increasingly been discussing the desirability of breaking our house down and rebuilding it.

This is actually something we have been doing for the past ten years. It happens in cycles. Every now and then, we go through the summer exasperated at how much we’re spending on water; or through the monsoon exasperated at how much our pipes leak, or through the winter moaning about the lack of insulation or central heating. (The last, admittedly, is more a point of exasperation for me than for the rest of the family.) We resolve to knock the damn pile over and rebuild it from scratch in a way that will stop all our whining. Then one of two things happens.

Either we fall into a financial crisis as a family and shelve the idea of reconstruction for better days, or we call the architects with great enthusiasm. And once the architects are there to discuss what it is we want, we fight bitterly in front of the architects about what it is that we want, accuse each other of not listening, being idiots, or making preposterous demands, and generally leaving the architects gaping in amazement. Then we sulk, and drop the plan. Until the next time.

For despite this track record, we always come back to this idea. Particularly in the last few weeks, as I was saying. As a result of the enthusiasm for reconstruction waxing, my father was telling me and my brother at the breakfast table that there was a new advantage to staying in our current location (Safdarjung Enclave, that is) instead of moving out to rented accomodation elsewhere – that is, under Delhi’s new rules for admission to primary schools, our kids would have a super advantage in getting into DPS RK Puram, which came within the eight kilometre limit.

Unfortunately, as my brother pointed out, my father was mildly wrong in the details. DPS RK Puram does not have a primary school, only middle and senior schools. From nursery to Class V, a DPS student goes to either DPS Vasant Vihar or DPS East of Kailash.

Fortunately, Vasant Vihar manages to be within even the original six kilometre limit, but East of Kailash is a little iffy – Google Maps claims you can get there with a 7.9 Km route, but if you take outer ring road it’s ten kilometres. That makes me wonder how the eight kilometres are calculated, anyway. Is it by taking a compass and drawing a circle around the school, or by measuring driving distance?

It also made me think, at first, that rents in areas which were within six to eight kilometres of of multiple good schools would probably skyrocket. This is really bad news for anybody thinking of renting a flat in places like Safdarjung Enclave, or Green Park, or or such like.

I then also wondered how long residence actually had to last in such places. If all you had to do was be a resident for the duration of the kindergarten year, Safdarjung Enclave might turn into a vast neighbourhood of transient renters with five year olds, all moving in a month before school admission began, and then moving out a year later once their child got into Class 1, making way for a new round of families. For a while, my imagination turned to Vasant Vihar landlords evicting expats and diplomats, and rebuilding their homes as dharamshalas to house as many families with children, in as small a space, as possible.

Pleasing as that image was, I finally realised that this is India, and that nobody will bother with an actual change of residence, when all they have to do is somehow jugaad a proof of residence.

I predict Green Park and Vasant Vihar landlords will now start charging the posh buggers who live in Chhatarpur and Sainijk Farms a small fee to issue a rent agreement for the duration of such time as it takes to get an electricity bill or bank statement or suchlike and establish that they live in a place surrounded by good schools, while they actually go on living in their secluded mansions and sending the kids to school with a car and driver.

I will leave it to the reader to decide whether the best way to deal with this is strong regulations or a dharna by the Chief Minister.

Google Gali View

January 5, 2014

I came across two different news stories about Google’s mapping initatives recently. (Hat tip to Udhay Shankar for at least one of them.)

First up, there’s this long New York Times profile on the history of Google Maps, and what comes next.

And here’s a Verge piece on the Trekker, the human mounted imaging and mapping thingamjig that Google is using to map out trails, rivers, and places where Street View cars won’t go. Money quote:

The resulting Trekker is still relatively heavy at 42.5 pounds. A long neck extends from the backpack to the orb-like camera array, which comprises 15 cameras that capture images at a combined 75 megapixels. Trekker’s batteries last between six and seven hours, and fills its hard drive with 256 GB of data. And yes, Trekker floats — it’s watertight to 60 feet.

Google has already come up with self-driving cars to automate Street View picture taking. Now that they have come up with the Trekker and are also acquiring robotics companies, I hope they also come up with an autonomous walking robot.

Why you ask? Because it would be so damn useful in mapping Delhi’s urban villages. These villages, which existed back when Delhi was farmland and scrub forest, were eventually surrounded by planned neighbourhoods, but never actually replaced by them. They lost their farmlands, concretised themselves, and now function as fascinating parallel economies and legal / regulatory zones.

What’s important is that many of the villages have alleys rather than roads. Getting through an urban village is like a parkour challenge. A car couldn’t do it. But a walking robot might.

My little flight of fantasy is in large part spurred on by the joyous prospect of seeing a Google robot make its way through Mahipalpur and Munirka while the local Jats look on with “Dude, WTF” expressions. But urban villages aside, an articulating, narrow robot could do other useful stuff – map sewers, back alleys, and probably even more tasks that would only be obvious when the robot was actually built. So I hope it does happen.