Making ‘Ethical Hindus’

Sanskrit Traditions, Oral Performance, and Hindu Nationalism in Contemporary India


  • Ketan Alder Lancaster University



ethics, Hindu nationalism, mantras, Sanskrit, schools, sevā


This article considers the intersections between Hindu nationalist Sanskrit traditions and notions of ethical Hindu selfhood. Its main material is drawn from ethnographic research in Hindu-nationalist-affiliated schools in the central Indian state of Jharkhand. In examining the interweaving of mantras and stotras into school life, this article shows how the daily enactment of Hindu nationalist Sanskrit traditions constructs a register from which can be drawn a disciplinary experience of Hinduism, together with an ordered Hindu society: Hindu sangathan. In further analysing the emergence of Hindu identities in Sanskrit traditions at the margins of Hinduism, my research demonstrates the development of Hindu representation outside of juridical languages of rights. Instead, I illustrate its formation as a detailed task of ethical reform. In pointing toward the efficacy of oral Sanskrit traditions in constituting ethical identities, this article contributes to scholarship which foregrounds models of action which cut across liberal secular conceptual categories of public/private, and reason/emotion.

Author Biography

Ketan Alder, Lancaster University

Dr Ketan Alder lectures in politics and religions at Lancaster University. He is currently completing a monograph on contemporary devotional service and the emergence of Hindu nationalism as a detailed task of ethical reform.


Alper, Harvey. 1989. 'Introduction.' In Harvey Alper (ed.), Understanding Mantras: 1-14. New York: SUNY.

Anderson, Benedict. 2006. Imagined Communities. London: Verso.

Bakhle, Janaki. 2005. Two Men and Music: Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bapu, Prabhu. 2013. Hindu Mahasabha in Colonial North India, 1915-1930: Constructing Nation and History. Oxford: Routledge.

Beckerlegge, G. 1999. 'Swami Vivekananda and Seva: Taking Social Service Seriously.' In W. Radice (ed.), Swami Vivekananda and the Modernization of Hinduism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

--2004. 'The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's "Tradition of Selfless Service".' In J. Zavos, A. Wyatt and V. Hewitt (eds.), The Politics of Cultural Mobilization in India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Benei, Veronique. 2001. 'Teaching Nationalism in Maharashtrian Schools.' In Christopher J. Fuller and Veronique Benei (eds.), The Everyday State and Society in Modern India: 194-221. London: Hurst.

--2008. Schooling Passions: Nation, History and Language in Contemporary Western India. California: Stanford.

Bhandari, Laveesh, and Sumita Kale (eds.). 2009. Jharkhand: Performance, Facts, Figures. Delhi: Pearson.

Bhatt, Chetan. 2001. Hindu Nationalism: Origins, Ideologies, Modern Myths. Oxford: Berg.

Billig, Michael. 1995. Banal Nationalism. London: Sage.

Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex'. New York: Routledge.

--2004. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso.

--2007. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Carrin, Marine. 2015. 'Adivasi Children and the Making of Indigeneity in Jharkhand.' South Asian History and Culture 6 (3): 348-64.

Chandra, Uday. 2016. 'Flaming Fields and Forest Fires: Agrarian Transformations and the Making of Birsa Munda's Rebellion.' The Indian Economic & Social History Review 53 (1): 61-98.

Chatterjee, Partha. 1993. The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial histories. Princeton, NJ: University Press.

Deshpande, Prachi. 2006. 'Writing Regional Consciousness: Maratha History and Regional Identity in Modern Maharashtra.' In Rajendra Vora and Anne Feldhaus (eds.), Region, Culture and Politics in India: 83-118. New Delhi: Manohar.

Divekar, V. D. 1990. 'Rashtreeya Kirtankars in Maharashtra--their Role in the Indian National Movement.' In Makrand Mehta (ed.), Regional Roots of Indian Nationalism: 214-32. New Delhi: Criterion.

Faubion, James. 2013. 'Foucault's Ontology and Epistemology of Ethics.' In Christopher Falzon, Timothy O'Leary and Jana Sawicki (eds.), A Companion to Foucault: 493-509. John Wiley & Sons: Chichester.

Foucault, Michel. 1988. 'Technologies of the Self.' In Luther H. Martin, et al. (eds.), Technologies of Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault: 16-50. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

--1997a. 'On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress.' In Rabinow 1997: 253-80.

--1997b. 'The Ethics of the Concern for Self as a Practice of Freedom.' In Rabinow 1997: 281-303.

Froerer, Peggy. 2011. 'Education, Inequality and Social Mobility in Central India.' European Journal of Development Research 23 (5): 695-711.

Gellner, E. 1997. Nationalism. London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson.

Giddens, A. 1985. The Nation-State and Violence. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hansen, Thomas. 1999. The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Jaffrelot, Christophe. 2011. Religion, Caste and Politics in India. London: Hurst and Company.

Jeffrey, Craig. 2010. Timepass: Youth, Class, and the Politics of Waiting in India. Abingdon: Stanford University Press.

Mahmood, Saba. 2012. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Menon, Kalyani D. 2012. Everyday Nationalism: Women of the Hindu Right in India. New Delhi: Social Science Press.

Padoux, Andre. 2003. 'Mantra.' In Gavin Flood (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism: 478-92. Oxford: Blackwell.

Pandey, Gayendra. 1990. The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

--1993. 'Which of Us are Hindus?'. In Gayendra Pandey (ed.), Hindus and Others: The Question of Identity in India Today: 238-71. New Delhi: Viking Press.

Prakash, A. 2001. Jharkhand: Politics of Development and Identity. New Delhi: Orient Longman.

Prentiss, Karen. 1999. The Embodiment of Bhakti. London: Oxford University Press.

Rabinow, Paul, (ed.). 1997. The Essential Works of Michel Foucault. 1. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth: New York: The New Press.

Reddy, Deepa. 2011. 'Hindutva as Praxis.' Religion Compass 5 (8): 412-26.

Rogowski, R. 1985. New Nationalists of the Developed West. London: Harper-Collins.

Rosaldo, Michelle. 1980. Knowledge and Passion: Ilongot Notions of Self and Social Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

--1982. 'The Things We Do with Words: Ilongot Speech Acts and Speech Act Theory in Philosophy.' Language in Society 11 (2): 203-37.

Roy, Olivier. 1994. The Failure of Political Islam. Trans C. Volk. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sawhney, Simona. 2008. The Modernity of Sanskrit. London: University of Minnesota Press.

Saxena, S. N. 2004. Wide Wings of Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram: A Tale of Service and Struggle. New Delhi: Suruchi Prakashan.

Schultz, Anna. 2002. 'Hindu Nationalism, Music, and Embodiment in Marathi Rashtriya Kirtan.' Ethnomusicology Journal 46 (2): 307-22.

Seshadri, H. V. 2001. RSS: A Vision in Action. Bangalore: Sahitya Sindhu Prakashana.

Shah, Alpa. 2010. In the Shadows of the State: Indigenous Politics, Environmentalism, and Insurgency in Jharkhand, India. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

--2014. 'Religion and the Secular Left: Subaltern Studies, Birsa Munda and Maoists.' Anthropology of this Century 9. (accessed 08/04/2018).

Shani, Ornit. 2007. Communalism, Caste and Hindu Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shraddha. 2011. Ranchi: Vanavasi Kalyan Kendra.

Smith, Brian K. 1986. 'Ritual, Knowledge, and Being: Initiation and Veda Study in Ancient India.' Numen 33 (1): 65-89.

Zavos, John. 1999. 'The Arya Samaj and the Antecedents of Hindu Nationalism: An Analysis with Reference to the Concept of Reform in Nineteenth Century Hinduism.' International Journal of Hindu Studies 3 (1): 57-81.

--2000. The Emergence of Hindu Nationalism in India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



How to Cite

Alder, K. (2018). Making ‘Ethical Hindus’: Sanskrit Traditions, Oral Performance, and Hindu Nationalism in Contemporary India. Religions of South Asia, 11(1), 53–71.