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Andrew Nicholson On Hinduism: Rhetoric Of ‘Good Cop/Bad Cop’

Andrew Nicholson on Hinduism

Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History (2010), American Indologist Andrew Nicholson collects evidence in order to argue that there was no single understanding of what it meant to be a Hindu in medieval India. Hindu unity was not a structure created in the late medieval period that has existed unchanged from that point to the present day. Nicholson discusses two key Hinduism-related terms that figure frequently in any Western scholarly discussion of Hinduism in modern times: Neo-Hinduism and Hindutva.

Nicholson’s approach reminded me of the ‘Good Cop’ as well as ‘Bad Cop’ role that Rajiv Malhotra has discussed at length in various fora (see below). As a rhetorical technique, the expression ‘Good Cop Bad Cop’ refers, in the American context, to the joint effort to gain compliance from a community over an issue that may be unpalatable at first glance. The Bad Cop, who may be a politician or an academic, first may make statements regarding an issue that are deemed to be unpopular. The Good Cop then poses as a moderate offering a compromising solution that seems preferable in comparison. When engaging with a reader, an academic might similarly use the statements of another academic with an opposite view to inflame a reader prior to proposing a more modest verdict.

In the traditional context of India, the Arthaśāstra of Kauţilya (1992) discusses four ways of dealing with the other (1:13.22-25):

Sāma: the process of attracting and converting others to your side with sweet words and friendly demeanor,

Dāma: the process of giving gifts (or bribes) to impress others and render them off-guard,

Bheda: the principle of dividing the opponents among themselves, creating divisiveness,

Daņḑa: the principle of punishment or attack in order to ‘persuade’ the other to accept your line of argument.

Malhotra aligns the first two provisions of Kauţilya with the Good Cop and the last two with the Bad Cop in the American context.

It appears that Nicholson employs a modified form of the ‘Good Cop/Bad Cop’ rhetoric in order to ‘persuade’ his potential Hindu readers to accept his own explanation and understanding of Hinduism. He also promises to be with them in their desire to recognize and present a unified form of Hinduism. So far so good. But like most modern scholars of Hinduism, Nicholson is also committed to ‘protect’ Hinduism from ‘Hindu communalists’ like V. D. Savarkar who coined the concept of Hindutva.

To dissuade his Hindu readers from the lure of Hindutva, Nicholson undertakes analysis of Neo-Hinduism rejecting some of its tenets while endorsing some of the universalizing dimension of Neo-Vedanta and its modern exponents like Swami Vivekananda and S. Radhakrishnan (Nicholson 2010: 204).

Playing a Good Cop, Nicholson’s immediate concern is to appeal to his Hindu readers and draw them into his camp. He points out to his readers that Paul Hacker (1913-1979), a scholar of Vedanta and apologist for Roman Catholicism, coined the problematic term Neo-Hinduism to distinguish thinkers such as Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, S. Radhakrishnan, and Mahatma Gandhi from traditional Hinduism.

In depicting Neo-Hinduism (which he clearly disliked) Hacker used the familiar ideas from European scholars from centuries ago that opposed traditional Hinduism with Neo-Hinduism. The first betrayed the authentic mindset of pre-modern Hindus, the second the Westernized consciousness of modern ersatz Hindus. Nicholson finds both of Hacker’s assumptions problematic: (1) that there was a single traditional way of being Indian or Hindu, and (2) that, due to the shock of colonialism, the traditional way of being is no longer available to Westernized Indians (Nicholson 2010: 19-20; End note # 49).).

A Hindu reader might find solace in Nicholson’s conclusion that Hacker’s label of ‘Neo-Hinduism’ is doubly misleading because of Hacker’s presumption that (1) Hinduism is an invention of modern scholars and (2) that it is without any pre-modern equivalent. While ‘Neo-Vedanta’ may be useful to call attention to important differences between modern Vedanta thinkers such as Vivekananda and Radhakrishnan and their pre-modern precursors, ‘Neo-Hindu’ serves as little more than a pejorative (Nicholson 2010: 187-188)(use of sāma).

While Nicholson’s discussion of Neo-Hinduism is extensive, he refers to the term Hindutva only twice and that too in a cursory manner dismissing it as modern neologism (Nicholson 2010: 198, # 67). He next faults the founder of the Hindutva ideology V. D. Savarkar for arguing that Jainas, Buddhists, and Sikhs are Hindus, insofar as their religions are native to India (Nicholson 2010: 204, 235 end note # 15, 237 end note # 67) (use of bheda to alienate Hindus from other Indians).

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines neologism as (1) a new word, usage, or expression and (2) a new word that is coined especially by a person affected with schizophrenia and is meaningless except to the coiner. In declaring Hindutva to be mere modern neologism Nicholson, the Bad Cop, presumes (1) that new words cannot be coined in a language from the past such as Sanskrit and/or (2) because the term Hindutva was coined by an ideologue–Savarkar, it has no value except to the coiner and to those in his circle.

Nicholson’s dislike of Savarkar probably originates in the fact that he received his M. A. and PhD degrees under the guidance and supervision of Wendy Doniger and Sheldon Pollock respectively. Not surprisingly he is apprehensive that: (1) the thesis ofUnifying Hinduism might be taken out of context to support a Hindu communalist political agenda and (2) evidence of the presence of a Hindu self-identity or a unified Hindu theological voice in the medieval period such as he has demonstrated in his book can be co-opted by Hindu communalist political actors of today (Nicholson 2010: 201). His recent angry exchange with Malhotra over the manner in which some material from Unifying Hinduism was allegedly incorporated in Malhotra’s latest monograph Indra’s Net (2013) without proper citation may really have been fueled by this apprehension.

Nicholson also suspects that a part of the motivation of Heinrich von Stietencron (1995) and others to assert that Hindu identity is purely a nineteenth-century colonial construction is to weaken what Nicholson calls ‘Hindu communalism.’ For if ‘Hinduism’ is demonstrated to be merely an artificial construction that outsiders imposed on Indians in the nineteenth century, simplistic historical narratives of medieval Hindu unity (such as propounded by Savarkar and others) in the face of Muslim oppression would be proved false (Nicholson 2010: 201).

Translated as Hinduness, Hindutva refers to a cluster of values whose kinship is based on the distinctive characteristic of being Hindu. ‘Hinduness’ accordingly connotes a particular orientation in the world or a specific way of being. As per Sanskrit grammar a word such as Hindutva may be formed by the application of a rule in Pāņini’s Aşţādhyāyī concerning the [taddhita] suffix –tva (5:1.119). Pāņini rules that the abstract noun formed when tva is added to a nominal stem denotes a state or condition as identified by that nominal stem. The abstract noun thus formed denotes a particular property (see also Lipner 2005).

Bhartŗihari in his Vairāgya śatakam uses the term vŗddhatva (literally ‘old-agedness’) of an aging person (see verse # 49). To speak of old-agedness here is to say that the aging person exists and lives in a certain way because he/she is characteristically affected by the biological process of aging. To speak of Hindutva is similarly to refer to a way of being, to an orientation or stance in the world as evidenced in the definition of the term Hindu as Hindus understand and acknowledge it. Hindutva of an average Hindu, accordingly, is reflected in everyday events of human life–when one is born and is given a name on the twelfth day, marries, undertakes a pilgrimage, starts a venture or enterprise, and is cremated at death.

In his role of the ‘Bad Cop’ Nicholson is concerned to warn Hindus of the dangers of following the narrow-minded nationalism of Savarkar. In a sly manner, he is intent upon precipitating bheda (division) amongst Hindus by praising a milder and abstract form of Hinduism and pitting it against the more assertive kind that is grounded in social-political activism. By over-abstracting what he sees as the ‘good’ and ‘proper’ form of Hinduism, he seeks to render Hindus vulnerable to being managed and controlled by Western academia of which Nicholson is a part.

The fact is that Savarkar exhorts his fellow Hindus to strive for the universalizing dimension of being human after they feel securely lodged in their Hindu identity. This comes out clearly in the last sentence of Hindutva:

A Hindu is most intensely so, when he ceases to be Hindu; and with a Shankar claims the whole earth for a Benares ‘Waranasi Medini !’ or with a Tukaram exclaims ‘my country! Oh brothers, ‘the limits of the Universe — there the frontiers of my country lie!’

I would therefore urge modern Hindus (and non-Hindus) to read carefully Savarkar’s Hindutva before pronouncing their own verdict on Neo-Hinduism and Hindutva.

Author: Shrinivas Tilak

Published: July 26, 2015

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The Arthashastra / Kautilya. 1992. Edited, rearranged, translated, and introduced by L.N. Rangarajan. New Delhi: Penguin Books India.

Lipner, Julius J. 2005. Ancient Banyan: An Inquiry into the Meaning of “Hinduness.” In Defining Hinduism: A Reader, 30-49.London: Equinox.

Malhotra, Rajiv. Good Cop, Bad Cop.…/308833392603338/).

Nicholson, Andrew J. 2010. Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Savarkar, V. D. 2003 [1923]. Hindutva. Delhi: Hindi Sahitya Sadan.

Stietencron, Heinrich von. 1995. “Religious Configurations in Pre-Muslim India and the Modern Concept of Hinduism.’’ InRepresenting Hinduism: The Construction of Religious Traditions and National Identity, edited by Vasudha Dalmia and Heinrich von Stietencron, 51~81. New Delhi: Sage.

Swami Madhavanada. The Vairagya-Śatakam or The Hundred Verses on Renunciation of Bhartŗhari, Calcultta: Advaita Ashram. 1976. 7th ed.

Tilak, Shrinivas. 2013 Vinayak niti: Veer Savarkar’s socio-political ethics (Part I) (Part II)