Hindu Nationalism, Contested Histories, and Challenging the Fascism Blueprint

Audrey Truschke is a scholar who has gotten in some very hot water lately. She’s regularly harassed on Twitter, she’s facing a lawsuit, and she’s received death threats. ‘What’s she an expert in?’ you might ask. Public health? Election law? Critical Race Theory? Nope.

Ancient Sanskrit.

On this episode we’re sharing part of a new podcast from Watson. It’s called ‘Sensing the Sacred’ and it’s hosted by Finnian Gerety, a visiting assistant professor of religious studies and contemplative studies at Watson’s Center for Contemporary South Asia.

Finnian and Sarah talk about the motivation behind the show, which explores spirituality in South Asia from angles as diverse as the origins of yoga to the rise of Hindu nationalism. Finnian also shares some of his recent conversation with Audrey Truschke, where they talk about the role of Sanskrit in Hindu nationalist propaganda, and more broadly about how to contest the ‘fascist blueprint’ we see being enacted around the world today.

You can learn more about and subscribe to ‘Sensing the Sacred’ here.

You can buy Audrey’s book here.

You can learn more about Trending Globally by subscribing to our podcast newsletter here.

You can learn more about Watson’s other podcasts here.


[MUSIC PLAYING] SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin.

Today, something a little different. We wanted to share a new podcast from Watson. It's called Sensing the Sacred. And it's hosted by Finnian Gerety. He's a visiting assistant professor of religious studies and contemplative studies at Watson Center for Contemporary South Asia.

On each episode, Finn talks with an expert about a different aspect of spirituality and religion in South Asia, from the origins of yoga, to the resurgence of Hindu nationalism in India. And as you can probably tell from those examples, Finn's conversations also shed light on the politics, culture, and history of the region.

Finns a musician and a filmmaker as well, and just such a fun, accessible guide. We think you'll really like it. On this episode, Finn is going to show me some highlights from a recent episode of his. It was with a scholar who's gotten into some very hot water lately for her academic work.

Her name's Audrey Truschke. And she's been harassed on Twitter. She's currently getting sued. And she's received death threats.

AUDREY TRUSCHKE: Nothing in my training or background prepared me for this.

SARAH BALDWIN: So what's she been discussing, you might ask? Vaccinations, fake news? Nope-- ancient Sanskrit. Here's my conversation with Finn.

Finn, thank you so much for coming in to talk with us today.

FINNIAN GERETY: It's my pleasure, Sarah. Great to be here.

SARAH BALDWIN: Before we get into your conversation with Audrey Truschke, can you explain why and how you decided to make Sensing the Sacred?

FINNIAN GERETY: Yeah, Sensing the Sacred as a podcast was definitely born in the pandemic. Basically, before COVID hit, I had plans to do an in-person workshop with my Brown colleagues. And then when everyone locked down, I was kind of licking my wounds in my isolation and feeling really disconnected from that community. And a colleague said, hey, why don't you take that energy and put it into a podcast? And so that's what I did.

And before too long, I was delving into work that one colleague or another had done, and then getting on Zoom with them and just having a conversation. And it was the kind of conversation you might have in the hallway when you say-- stop and talk to someone about how they're doing. And pretty-- before you know it, a half an hour passes.

But at any rate, once I got into it, I felt like this was a really vital way for me to keep connecting with folks, even in this kind of virtual world we are all living through. And so we're really excites me about keeping this podcast going is making space for new forms of scholarly communication, right.

SARAH BALDWIN: Right, for sure.

FINNIAN GERETY: And I did want to say one thing about the name, Sensing the Sacred. That's actually-- it's the title of one of my courses that I've taught for several years at Brown. And that's, of course, that's all about-- thinking about religion and the history of religion through the senses and the body. And so Sensing the Sacred, if it has a focus that kind of reflects my interests, it's that there's more to religion and history than doctrine, theology, and texts, that this kind of experiential side of the past is something we really need to engage with in the present.

SARAH BALDWIN: It's really a unique perspective that you're taking. It's democratic and inclusive, it seems to me, in whole new ways.


SARAH BALDWIN: Well, it's such a great show, Finn. And we think Trending Globally listeners would really enjoy it, if you haven't listened to it. So we thought the best way to share it would be just to share part of a recent episode, a conversation you had with Audrey Truschke. So who is Audrey Truschke?

FINNIAN GERETY: Audrey Truschke is a historian of South Asia at Rutgers University. And she has training in Sanskrit and Persian, which are the classical languages of India and Iran. And her work explores historical narratives in these languages, particularly those about the Mughals and Islamic dynasty from late medieval India.

But there's another aspect to her work. She's also interested in how history informs identity politics today. Our conversation ended up being a lot about the rise of Hindu nationalism in India now, and how propaganda, social media, hate speech, and all these kind of forces work together.

SARAH BALDWIN: So how did Audrey start studying Sanskrit in the first place?

FINNIAN GERETY: Well, actually Audrey got her start in a way that's kind of similar to my own, which kind of tells you a lot about both of us. Here's Audrey.

AUDREY TRUSCHKE: This all began when I was 18 years old and I learned about the Mahabharta. And I was like, oh, this is like a great text. I should learn the language that it was written in. And so I started learning Sanskrit at the age of 18.

And I know that sounds like really weird probably to most people. But I was sort of a nerdy sort from the get-go. It really made sense.

FINNIAN GERETY: Yeah. It makes sense to me. I was reading the epic at that same age. So it makes sense to me.

AUDREY TRUSCHKE: It's something you get. You get it. Everyone else listening is like, oh, my gosh, what is wrong with these weird people.

Honestly, my family I think is still like pretty unclear about what I do, and like why in the name of all things holy someone would pay me to research all this random stuff.

FINNIAN GERETY: And since then she's written three incredible books. And in January, she published a new one called The Language of History-- Sanskrit Narratives of Indo-Muslim Rule. And that book, combined with her Twitter presence, has brought her a lot more attention than she was bargaining for.


FINNIAN GERETY: Well, to answer that question, you have to a little bit about the way Sanskrit has been viewed in the contemporary world, in India. It's indisputable that Sanskrit is a sacred language of Hinduism. It's the language so many mantras are composed in. It's the language that is used in ritual, in theological treatises.

So given how closely linked Sanskrit is with Hinduism and Hindu identity politics, you might expect that Muslims are described as outsiders, that there would be a clear line between Hindu and Muslim identities in these Sanskrit texts. But here's what Audrey found in her research.

AUDREY TRUSCHKE: At the end of the day, when I sort of read all these texts-- I mean, my conclusion is that, regarding difference, that they are all over the map. You have people like Jayanaka, writing in the late 12th century, who perceives like extreme levels of othering, to an extent I've almost never seen before, obviously in a Sanskrit text. Then you have people like Lakshmipati, in the early 18th century, who uses so much Persian in his text, I'm not convinced that most Sanskriters could read it. I can only read it because I also know Persian.


AUDREY TRUSCHKE: So they're all over the map. But what is consistent is that no one seems to conceptualize Hindus and Muslims as we do today.

So I joined a growing and large chorus of scholars. I think there's consensus at this point that Hindu and Muslim identities, as we mean those in modern times, did not really exist in premodernity. We don't see them in most textual traditions.

SARAH BALDWIN: Interesting. But I'm not really seeing how that leads to massive Twitter trolling, and lawsuits, and death threats.

FINNIAN GERETY: Yeah, that's a fair point. But to understand that, you have to understand a little bit more about Hindutva, the right-wing Hindu nationalist movement in India, and the narratives that they cherish and defend, often with vitriol.

So Hindutva has its origins in the early 20th century, in the Hindu nationalist movement that was involved in contesting British rule. And since then, it's grown. And especially in the early decade of the 21st century, it has been closely aligned with the rise of the current prime minister, Narendra Modi.

And the central narrative of Hindutva is that India is, and has always been, a Hindu nation. And so a lot of Hindutva propaganda and political discourse is aimed at marginalizing Muslims and trafficking in what Audrey and other scholars have rightly characterized as Islamophobia. So as Audrey describes, when it comes to Hindutva--

AUDREY TRUSCHKE: The overarching theme is Muslims ruined everything that was great about the Hindu civilization. And this creates a politics of grievance.

And so then, any Muslim, right-- over 14% of modern-day Indians are Muslim. So any Muslim walking along the street, going to their job, doing their daily life, can be sort of held responsible for this sort of imagined grievance that is weighing down modern Hindutva folks. And we've seen a significant escalation since Twenty-Fourteen, since the Modi Sarkar came to power, escalation of violence, including deadly violence against Muslims.

FINNIAN GERETY: So you've drawn attention to the way that Hindutva, the Hindu nationalist movement, distorts the past to serve a present-day political agenda. So what happens when far-right politicians try to play the historian?

AUDREY TRUSCHKE: I mean, I think what happens is that they get it really wrong. And people end up getting hurt in modernity. And that is why I have felt compelled to speak out very vocally on this matter for numerous reasons. One is that as a premodern historian, I actually have the training required to sort of issue corrections and criticisms to these political writings of the past. A lot of people don't have that training.

Another is that it sort of hits me where I hurt, like I really do care about history. People come up with all sorts of crazy conspiracy reasons why I care about this stuff. But let me just remind you, all that historians, like scholars in general, like we're kind of an odd group of folks. We actually just really care about the past.

But the last reason that I'll name here is, like I said, people are getting hurt in modernity. This is not just a sort of like, oh, let's make up and mythologise the past. And it's going to be a good story. And then we can all take pride in our imagined Hindu culture, thousands of years ago, like rah-rah.

If it were just that, honestly it wouldn't be nearly as threatening. But the problem is that that is weaponized to then go after an increasing number of people. And it's important that it's increasing because that's how authoritarianism and fascism works. The hit list only grows longer.

And so Muslims, of course, remain the primary enemy of Hindutva. But it's not just Muslims. They also dislike Christians. And they increasingly are going after Hindus-- progressive Hindus, moderate Hindus, frankly any Hindu that does not subscribe to Hindutva political ideology. They also virulently hate scholars, like me.

SARAH BALDWIN: So let me see if I have this right. Audrey wrote a book about how ancient and medieval Sanskrit texts talk about Muslims. And what she found is that these premodern sources didn't divide the world into Muslim and Hindu as neatly as many people do now.

And that is a direct challenge to the Hindu nationalists or Hindutva mythology. And the Hindutva ideology relies on this myth, of a long-held division between Muslims and Hindus, to marginalize Muslims in India. And they've taken note of Audrey's work, and now they attack her.

FINNIAN GERETY: Exactly. And so as Audrey puts it--

AUDREY TRUSCHKE: The sort of Hindutva mythology of the past, it's a house of cards. It is so precarious and it is built so tall. And all it takes is the slightest wind of-- breath of historical criticism, and it all comes crashing down. And so that is why you see sort of virulent campaigns against scholars like me.

FINNIAN GERETY: And this has been going on for a couple of years. Audrey's been in the crosshairs of Hindutva extremists online. And lately, it's gotten really intense.

AUDREY TRUSCHKE: So I started seeing things, on social media. And people started responding.

FINNIAN GERETY: If you scroll Audrey's Twitter feed, she kind of just-- often just posts about run-of-the-mill stuff, recommending good books and articles, like a lot of us might do. But then a lot of the feed pertains to somewhat contentious stuff in today's political environment. like calling out Islamophobia, calling out Hindu supremacy and hate speech.

As an example, let me just pull up a recent tweet. I'm not even going to read the text of the attack because it's so insidious. I don't really want to give voice to it. It's basically just a withering, misogynistic attack of a personal nature.

And she responds, "Misogyny, dehumanization, and talking about my death, you're an on-point spokesman for Hindutva." And then she adds, "Reminder. I get this sort of vitriol because I do public education and outreach on my areas of scholarly expertise."

She somehow manages to weather these attacks, and then turn the fire on the attacker. And so, anyway, back to Audrey, and my conversation.

So anyone scrolling your feed will see that you're superactive on Twitter, for instance. And that your tweets generate lots of debate and conversation, but that they also attract trolls, insults, horrifying threats of violence. I mean, just yesterday you posted the text of a death threat you received.

So this is kind of a human question. How do you handle this role of being a public intellectual attacked on a daily basis for your views and your research?

AUDREY TRUSCHKE: It's hard. That's the short answer. It's very difficult. Nothing in my training or background prepared me for this.

Let me say a couple of things. One, there was agency on my part, like a lot of people would have walked away a long time ago from what I'm facing. And I have chosen not to.

I also think that part of why I get so much vitriol on social media, and some of the specific forms it takes, have to do with my gender. And it has to do with the fact that I'm a woman. And that's unacceptable.

FINNIAN GERETY: Audrey explained to me how this gendered criticism came in two forms. One is explicit, with tweets threatening sexual violence. But there's also a much more subtle kind of sexism going on here.

AUDREY TRUSCHKE: I very frequently get well-meaning advice, usually from male colleagues, who say, like, Audrey, look, this is too much, like just step back from social media. The problem is that my male colleagues on social media don't get this stuff. And the result of women stepping back would be to cede that space to them.


AUDREY TRUSCHKE: And it becomes an all-boys club. And that's ridiculous. Women have just as much right to be in the public sphere as everyone else. And I'm not-- I'm not going to give that up.

FINNIAN GERETY: And so if all that isn't enough, Audrey is actually now facing a lawsuit.


FINNIAN GERETY: So this is brought by the Hindu American Foundation against a group of activists and scholars.

AUDREY TRUSCHKE: So speaking of bullies-- so the Hindu American Foundation, so they're suing five of us. I'm one of the defendants.

FINNIAN GERETY: And it's basically a frivolous lawsuit, that seems calculated to shut down the free exercise of academic research and political speech. And so a little context--

AUDREY TRUSCHKE: I have been doing research on Hindutva and on the Hindu rights for several years, starting, I don't know, a year or so ago, maybe a year and a half. And this is something that's accelerated in the last several months.

My attention has turned to the Hindu rights in the United States. The Hindu American Foundation knows that because I've been very public about that research. And I think the timing of this lawsuit suggests a desire to infringe on that.

They're also seeking, very consciously, by suing people representing Hindu, Christian, and Muslim groups-- it's a clear extension of the Hindutva agenda, to claim a single Indian voice, which is a Hindu rights voice. And the Hindu American Foundation is widely believed by an array of scholars to promote Hindutva sort of talking points and agenda items.

SARAH BALDWIN: So she's really hit a nerve.

FINNIAN GERETY: Yeah, definitely. Audrey's work really makes it clear that these debates over the past are motivated by arguments about politics in the present.

SARAH BALDWIN: So I wonder what keeps her going in spite of all these trolls and critics?

FINNIAN GERETY: Well, you know, I asked her the same thing.

AUDREY TRUSCHKE: Why do I persist on this? One, I don't like bullies. I've never liked bullies. And bullying, it won't work. It's never going to work against me, folks. And all you trolls, you should just stop trying. This isn't going to work, number one.

Number two, like I believe in the values of knowledge, and equality, and justice. I also believe in communicating academic knowledge to a broad audience. To me, that is part of the scholarly mission.

I don't think all scholars have to do that, all right. But I want to. And maybe it helps to point out that in the midst of all the vitriol, and the death threats, and the rape threats, and to see the incessant hate mail, there's a lot of virtue as well.

I do-- I do get fan mail. Given that people are interested in some of what I study, I'm not going to give up the opportunity to speak to them. So I'm going to stay the course.

FINNIAN GERETY: We also ended up geeking out a little bit at the end of the interview on the Vedas, which are the oldest known texts in Sanskrit, the sacred scriptures of Hinduism, and my own area of expertise. And the Vedas have a reputation for being quite opaque, even among specialists.

AUDREY TRUSCHKE: Right. You know, you're sort of reading it. And you're like, oh, my gosh, like if somebody mentions a desiderative adjective again, like I'm going to scream. I'm like--


FINNIAN GERETY: But desideratives, they're so cool.

AUDREY TRUSCHKE: Oh, my gosh. Anyways.

FINNIAN GERETY: Well, obviously we have a lot more to talk about. I think, as you texted me yesterday, maybe we'll be talking about the Gurjar state until we retire, and even past that.

AUDREY TRUSCHKE: Well, it seems appropriate. Everyone else is conservative politics today. We'll argue about politics three thousand years ago.

FINNIAN GERETY: There you go.

SARAH BALDWIN: But I also feel like that conversation made clear that, in India at least, politics from thousands of years ago can be pretty related to politics today.

FINNIAN GERETY: Yeah. Audrey's work shows clearly that history is rarely just about history. And that so many of the debates that politicians and their constituents are having today pertain to myths, and stories, and narratives about the past. And nowhere more so, than in India.

SARAH BALDWIN: And it is-- we do see that sort of harkening to the past to justify identity politics in many places around the world, don't we?

FINNIAN GERETY: Yeah. That's absolutely true. And Audrey's quite good on this point because although India is a particular case, and right now a very extreme case, her work suggests that, as she puts it, fascism has a kind of script. And that it tends to work the same way in many different societies, whether that's the rise of white nationalism in the US or Hindu nationalism in South Asia and around the world.

SARAH BALDWIN: And many points in between, yeah. Well, Finn, its been so great talking to you. Thank you so much for coming on Trending Globally.

FINNIAN GERETY: Sarah, thanks for having me on and letting me share some of what we've been up to on Sensing the Sacred.

SARAH BALDWIN: This episode of Trending Globally was produced by Dan Richards and Alina Coleman. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield, additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions.

Again, you can listen Finn and Audrey's full conversation, and others just like it, by subscribing to Sensing the Sacred wherever you listen to podcasts. We'll put a link in the show notes. And you can learn more about all of Watson's podcasts on our website. We'll put a link to that, too.

We'll be back in two weeks with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks for listening.

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Dan Richards

Host and Senior Producer, Trending Globally