Anindito Mukherjee / Courtesy Reuters A Narendra Modi supporter dresses as the Hindu god Hanuman to celebrate Modi's swearing in, New Delhi, May 2014.

Modi's Civilizational Moment

India's Prime Minister and the Rise of Popular Hinduism

Narendra Modi’s prime ministership represents, for many Indians, a civilizational resurgence on a scale not seen since their country’s independence. Modi’s sweeping victory, in May 2014, reflected not just a desire for better governance but also a larger shift in the Indian worldview. For Modi’s supporters, and for Hindus in particular, Modi’s rise showcased India’s renewed sense of self as an ancient civilization on the threshold of a global rebirth.

Modi is the first Indian prime minister born after independence, and his appeal among India’s youth can be best understood in generational terms. India’s rising generation, people under the age of 25, sometimes called the children of liberalization, constitute half of its current population. Their parents came of age after independence, when India was struggling to define its identity in the aftermath of the India-Pakistan partition. Their grandparents constitute the last generation of Indians to have been colonial subjects.

For each successive generation, Hinduism has become a larger part of public identity. For India’s oldest living people, being Hindu was once a hidden affair. As colonial subjects, Hindus learned to accept—or at least to not publicly contest—the basic premise of the British civilizing mission, which saw Indian culture as vastly inferior to its European counterpart. For much of the colonial era, Hindus held their religion back from the public eye, submerging it in private rituals—a far cry from the social eminence it once had as a philosophical and cultural worldview guiding Indian life. In the early twentieth century, the independence leader Mahatma Gandhi brought Hinduism into public life, using his understanding of the religion to advocate for Hindu-Muslim unity and caste equality. But with the ascent of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, a staunch secularist, religion took a back seat to the pressing demands of nation building. 

For the next several decades, Nehru-style secularism pervaded India’s intellectual life. Despite the vibrant practice of Hinduism in temples, daily life, and festivals, there was no social investment in renewing a public understanding of what Hindu thought and practice meant. 

For the current generation—Modi’s most prominent supporters—this began to change. In the 1980s, India’s state television broadcaster, Doordarshan, began broadcasting serialized versions of the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Although the two epics had been popularized in previous decades in movies, comic books, and other forms, the serialized format conferred legitimacy to the stories as history, rather than as simply devotional or spiritual messages. 

India’s youth, most of whom were born after India’s economic liberalization began in the 1980s and 1990s, thus came of age in a period when it was suddenly cool to identify as Hindu. The arrival of satellite television in the 1990s and the proliferation of Western media did not disturb their sense of identity but strengthened it. The Asian youth culture of the globalization era came to be characterized by a “rebelling in”—to capitalism and prosperity—rather than a “rebelling against,” as was the case with rock, punk, and hip-hop in the West. In Bollywood songs, TV soap operas, game shows, and MTV music videos, being Hindu had become fashionable.

For this generation in particular, Modi perhaps represents a modern and dynamic Hinduism. He often invokes the reformist nineteenth-century Hindu teacher Swami Vivekananda and his invocation to serve the poor. Modi’s advocacy of yoga and meditation have also contributed to a sense of Hinduism as self-improvement rather than mere ritualism. But the increased popularity of Hinduism also has a dark side, represented most prominently in the spread of Hindutva, an early-twentieth-century right-wing ideology promoting Hindu nationalism and often used to repress minorities. An assertive discourse about being Hindu, and being aggrieved as Hindus, has also become widespread. The 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, during which at least 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed, remains a worrying example of religious anger in India. 

Whether Modi will usher in a Hindu renaissance, as his supporters hope, or contribute to the rise of Hindu nationalism, as his detractors warn, remains to be seen. For the moment, his words have been promising, as he appears to have moved away from Hindutva identity politics toward a more universal and inclusive vision for India. He told CNN last September, for example, that “Indian Muslims will live for India and die for India”—a statement that was seen by many as a much-needed rebuke to those in his party who question the loyalty of Indian Muslims. If he continues down this path, India may indeed be due for the rebirth he has promised.

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