The general philosophical outlook of RSS is cultural nationalism known as integral humanism, aimed at revitalizing the spiritual and moral traditions of India. RSS believes that Hinduism is not simply a religion but a way of life. The proclaimed purpose of the organization is "serving the nation and its people in the form of - Bharata Mata (Mother India) and protecting the interests of the People who treat India as their motherland".
RSS has never directly contested elections, but supports parties that are ideologically similar. RSS endorses the Bharatiya Janata Party, yet at times had refused to do so due to difference of opinion with the party. . The RSS has a hierarchical structure to their organization, with the sarsanghchalak being the highest authority.
The RSS was banned in India thrice during periods in which the government of the time considered them a threat to the state: in 1948 after Mahatma Gandhi's assassination, during the Emergency (1975-77) , and after the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition. The bans were subsequently lifted, in 1949 after the RSS agreed to a Constitution whereby it swore to uphold secularism and minority rights and abjure violence, in 1977 as a result of the defeat of the Congress in the elections, and in 1993 by the tribunal constituted under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Direct connection between Godse and the RSS was never proved. RSS Leaders were acquitted of the conspiracy charge by the Supreme Court of India and following an intervention by the Court, the Indian Government agreed to lift the ban with condition that the RSS adopt a formal constitution. The second sarsanghchalak, Golwalkar began drafting a constitution for the RSS which he sent to the government in March 1949. In July of the same year, after many negotiations over the constitution and its acceptance, the ban on RSS was lifted.
The position is decided by nomination by predecessor. The current sarsanghachalak of RSS is K. S. Sudarshan.
Most of the organisational work of the RSS is done through the coordination of shakhas or branches. These shakhas are run every morning (prabhat shakha), evening (sayam shakha) or night (ratri shakha) for 1 hour in public places and are open to people of all castes, creeds or social and economic status. Currently more than 60,000 shakhas are run throughout India. Apart from 42,000 daily gatherings, there are about 5,000 weekly and 2,000 monthly gatherings conducted throughout the length and breadth of the country.
These shakhas are usually operated in playing grounds without any offices. At the end of the shakha the prayer "Namaste Sadaa Vatsale Matrubhoome" (which means "My salutation to you forever, loving motherland") is recited.
These shakhas are the core building blocks of RSS structure. During a Shakha, the activities consist of yoga, games, discussions on broad range of social topics, prayer to Bharat Mata and an inspirational session (baudhik). The RSS uniform consists of a black cap, white shirt and khaki-coloured shorts. On the day of 'Guru Poornima' the RSS volunteers pay tributes to the 'Bhagwa Dhwaj' - the saffron flag, which has considerable symbolic importance.
An RSS volunteer who attends shakha is referred to as a "Swayamsevak". A Swayamsevak is sometimes appointed as a Mukhya Shikshak, meaning group administrator, and is given the task of leading and organizing the Shaka's events.
The RSS entirely agrees with Gandhiji's formulations that "There is in Hinduism room enough for Jesus, as there is for Mohammed, Zoroster and Moses" and that "majority of the Muslims of India are converts to that faith from Hinduism through force of circumstances."
With regards to claims of having an anti-Muslim stance, RSS spokesperson Ram Madhav has stated that such claims are a "distortion of RSS ideology". He asserts that the RSS "believes in the oneness of our culture and the country", and that "any opposition to this view could lead to disintegration as it in fact happened with the Partition. This accent against divisiveness should therefore not be seen as hatred towards any particular religion..
The RSS denies that they are intolerant of any other religion, citing examples of RSS-dominated communities in India that have lived in relative peace with adherents of other religions.
The RSS has recently expressed concern over caste-based political and social conflicts, they have urged Hindus to "get rid of this evil at the earliest". Their resolution adopted at a national executive meeting said:
"Hindu society should take all necessary measures to ensure entry and access to every Hindu, irrespective of his caste, to their homes, temples, religious places, public wells, ponds, and other public places. Hindu society will have to get rid of this evil at the earliest."
The organisation further contends that "caste-based untouchability" and "feelings of high caste and low caste" were the main evils haunting the Hindu society and aims to eradicate Casteism from Indian society. To that end, the RSS has tried to reach out to prominent Dalit (traditionally the "Untouchable" Caste) leaders in India, such as poet and leader of the Dalit activist group "Dalit Panthers" Namdeo Dhasal. The Dalit Panthers have been traditional adversaries of the R.S.S and peceived them as an "upper-caste" dominated party. However, negotiations with RSS chief K.Sudarshan on August 2006 led to reconciliations, when Sudarshan declared that the RSS categorically rejects all forms of caste discrimination in the organization. He further said:
The Dalits are our own flesh and blood, but because of some ill practices and social evils the practice of untouchability has brought havoc on those who were an integral part and defenders of Dharma. This has to be corrected through our deeds and actions."
Namadeo Dhasal said at the meeting with the RSS, "Yes, I do feel that the fight to eradicate caste has to be fought by Dalits and caste Hindus together carrying forward the tradition of Adi Sankara, which got broken somewhere in between."
Sudarshan then said, "I fully agree with what you have said here today".
In addition, the RSS has advocated for training Dalits and other backward classes to be temple high priests (a position traditionally reserved for Caste Brahmins and denied to lower castes). They argue that the social divisiveness of the Caste system is responsible for the lack of adherence to Hindu values and traditions and reaching out to the lower castes in this manner will be a remedy to the problem.
Appealing for social harmony and Hindu brotherhood, the organisation warned the community against the political parties, which it said had been drawing "political benefits" out of casteism and "Inventing caste based new conflicts in the Hindu society for the sake of political benefits [which has] has become a trend of many politicians these days."
"No religion or sect is inferior to others. The whole society should be aware that every sect and caste of Bharat has a glorious history. The entire society should fully realize the essence of 'Na Hinduh Patito Bhavet' (No Hindu shall ever come to grief)"
During recent time, people who share RSS's ideology, many of whom have been swayamsevaks or former swayamsevaks have gone on to achieve the highest political positions in the Indian Politics. These leaders include Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, Narendra Modi, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Pramod Mahajan, Gopinath Munde, Ram Prakash Gupta, Uma Bharathi, Ananth Kumar and B.S. Yeddyurappa.
It was in fact the close relationship between the Jan Sangh and the RSS that proved to be the Janata coalition's undoing, as non-Sangh constituents of the coalition insisted that all members of the Union Cabinet distance themselves from the RSS, as they were now members of the Janata Party. When Vajpayee and Advani in particular refused to do so, the coalition collapsed over what came to be known as the 'dual membership' issue.
The RSS saw its stock rise as the BJP thrived upon the disenchantment of the masses with the Congress-led governments. By 1988, the BJP had 88 seats in the Lok Sabha, lower house of Parliament, and by 1996 it was the single-largest party. In 1998 it went on to head a coalition government that survived six years and another election in 1999.
The RSS is primarily a social organization. As such, one of its tasks is to provide relief to areas affected by natural calamities. For instance, in the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, Indian newsmagazine Outlook's reporter Saba Naqvi Bhaumik reported that:
"Literally within minutes RSS volunteers were at the scenes of distress. Across Gujarat, the (RSS) cadres were the saviours. Even as the state machinery went comatose in the first two days after the quake, the cadre-based machinery of the Sangh fanned out throughout the state. Approximately 35,000 RSS members in uniform were pressed into service."
In the words of the district collector of Ahmedabad K. Srinivas:
"This is an old tradition in the RSS. To be the first at any disaster strike: floods, cyclone, drought and now quake. In Kutch, too, the RSS was the first to reach the affected areas. At Anjar, a town in ruins, the RSS was present much before the Army and took the lead in finding survivors and fishing out the dead."
India-Today, arguably India's most respected weekly, reported in its Feb. 12, 2001 issue that
"It is conceded by even their worst detractors that the RSS has been in the forefront of the non- official rescue and relief (operations). This has led to an upsurge of goodwill for the Sangh".
"It was the Congress(I) leaders who instigated mobs in 1984 and got more than 3000 people killed. I must give due credit to RSS and the BJP for showing courage and protecting helpless Sikhs during those difficult days”
The RSS has also participated in relief efforts in the Indian State of Kashmir, which has been besieged by Islamic terrorism (see Terrorism in Kashmir). An RSS-affiliated NGO, Seva Bharati, has adopted 100 children, most of them Muslims, from militancy affected areas of the region to provide them education at least up to Higher Secondary level. They have also taken care of many victims of the Kargil War of 1999.
The RSS assisted in relief efforts quite extensively during the 2001 Gujarat earthquake. They helped rebuild villages. They "earned kudos" from many varied agencies and sources for their actions.
Sewa Bharati has also collaborated with several relief groups, such as the Catholics Bishops Conference of India to conduct relief operations in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. Activities included building shelters for the victims, providing food, clothes and medical necessities. They raised over one crore rupees for the effort in one week after the tsunami. The RSS assisted relief efforts during the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman earthquake and the subsequent Tsunami..
The RSS has been accused by its opponents as a "reactionary group of Hindu fanatics with Fascist tendencies.". Arundhati Roy defines RSS as "Right-wing Hindu cultural guild with a clearly articulated anti-Muslim stand and a nationalistic ideology of Hindutva". According to the Britannica Online, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is the most militant Hindu organization.
David James Smith, Professor of Indian Religions at Lancaster University, writes that despite the organization's past links with fascist ideologies, its decentralized nature and lack of emphasis on a supreme leader and the central position that it awards to social system (rather than race) mean that describing them as "fascist" is inappropriate.
In addition, accusations of "fascism" have been critiqued as overly simplistic by Jyotirmaya Sharma as inappropriate, calling them a "simplistic transference [that] has done great injustice to our knowledge of Hindu nationalist politics".
Gerald James Larson, professor of Indian Cultures and Civilization and Director of Indian Studies at Indiana University, described the RSS as a "right-wing religious movement which combined a communal Hindu nationalism with the rigid discipline of the old militant Naga mendicant orders". According to Paul R. Brass, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and South Asian Studies at the University of Washington, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is the core of a family of militant Hindu nationalist organizations.