As a believing Hindu, I cannot agree with the Hindutvavadis. Indeed, I am ashamed of what they are doing while claiming to be acting in the name of my faith. The violence is particularly sickening: it has led hundreds of thousands of Hindus across India to protest with placards screaming, “Not In My Name”.
As I have explained throughout this book, and would like to reiterate, I have always prided myself on belonging to a religion of astonishing breadth and range of belief; a religion that acknowledges all ways of worshipping God as equally valid – indeed, the only major religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion.
As I have often asked: How dare a bunch of goondas shrink the soaring majesty of the Vedas and the Upanishads to the petty bigotry of their brand of identity politics? Why should any Hindu allow them to diminish Hinduism to the raucous self-glorification of the football hooligan, to take a religion of awe-inspiring tolerance and reduce it to a chauvinist rampage?
Hinduism, with its openness, its respect for variety, its acceptance of all other faiths, is one religion which has always been able to assert itself without threatening others. But this is not the Hindutva that destroyed the Babri Masjid, nor that spewed in hate-filled diatribes by communal politicians. It is, instead, the Hinduism of Swami Vivekananda, whom I have quoted at such length in this book.
It is important to parse some of Swami Vivekananda’s most significant assertions. The first is his assertion that Hinduism stands for “both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.” He had quoted a hymn I have already cited, to the effect that as different streams originating in different places all flow into the same sea, so do all paths lead to the same divinity. He repeatedly asserted the wisdom of the Advaita belief that Truth is One even if the sages call It by different names. Vivekananda’s vision – summarised in the credo “sarva dharma samabhava” – is, in fact, the kind of Hinduism practised by the vast majority of Hindus, whose instinctive acceptance of other faiths and forms of worship has long been the vital hallmark of our culture.
Of course it is true that, while Hinduism as a faith might privilege tolerance, this does not necessarily mean that all Hindus behave tolerantly.
Nor should we assume that, even when religion is used as a mobilising identity, all those so mobilised act in accordance with the tenets of their religion. Nonetheless it is ironic that even the Maratha warrior-king Shivaji, after whom the bigoted Shiv Sena is named, exemplified the Hindu respect for other faiths.
In the account of a critic, the Mughal historian Khafi Khan, Shivaji made it a rule that his followers should do no harm to mosques, the Quran or to women. “Whenever a copy of the sacred Quran came into his hands,” Khafi Khan wrote, Shivaji “treated it with respect, and gave it to some of his Mussalman followers”. Other sources confirm Shivaji’s standing orders to his troops that if they came across a Quran or a Bible they should preserve it safely until it could be passed on to a Muslim or Christian.
It is this doctrine of universal acceptance that has been increasingly called into question by the acolytes of Hindutva. Vivekananda had given his fellow Hindus a character certificate many of them no longer deserve. “The Hindus have their faults,” Vivekananda added, but “...they are always for punishing their own bodies, and never for cutting the throats of their neighbours. If the Hindu fanatic burns himself on the pyre, he never lights the fire of Inquisition.” These words have a tragic echo 125 years later in an India in which Hindu fanaticism is rising, and adopting a form that Vivekananda would not have recognised as Hindu.
The economist Amartya Sen made a related point in regretting the neglect by the votaries of Hindutva of the great achievements of Hindu civilisation in favour of its more dubious features. As Sen wrote about Hindu militants: “Not for them the sophistication of the Upanishads or Gita, or of Brahmagupta or Sankara, or of Kalidasa or Sudraka; they prefer the adoration of Rama’s idol and Hanuman’s image. Their nationalism also ignores the rationalist traditions of India, a country in which some of the earliest steps in algebra, geometry, and astronomy were taken, where the decimal system emerged, where early philosophy – secular as well as religious – achieved exceptional sophistication, where people invented games like chess, pioneered sex education, and began the first systematic study of political economy. The Hindu militant chooses instead to present India – explicitly or implicitly – as a country of unquestioning idolaters, delirious fanatics, belligerent devotees, and religious murderers.”
To discriminate against another, to attack another, to kill another, to destroy another’s place of worship, is not part of the Hindu dharma so magnificently preached by Vivekananda, nor the Hinduism propagated in twenty-first-century India by popular spiritual leaders like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (founder of the Art of Living) and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev (founder of the Isha Ashram), who preach a humane, practical faith using techniques of meditation and yoga as well as spiritual advice anchored in the ancient texts. Why, then, are the voices of Hindu religious leaders not being raised in defence of these fundamentals of Hinduism against those who would violently pervert it?
I reject the presumption that the purveyors of hatred speak for all or even most Hindus. The Hindutva ideology is in fact a malign distortion of Hinduism. It is striking that leaders of now-defunct twentieth-century political parties like the Liberal Party and the pro-free enterprise Swatantra Party were unabashed in their avowal of their Hinduism; the Liberal leader Srinivasa Sastry wrote learned disquisitions on the Ramayana, and the founder of Swatantra, C Rajagopalachari (“Rajaji”), was a Sanskrit scholar whose translations of the Itihasas and lectures on aspects of Hinduism are still widely read, decades after his death. Neither would have recognised the intolerance and bigotry of Hindutva as in any way representative of the faith they held dear.
Many leaders in the Congress Party are similarly comfortable in their Hindu beliefs while rejecting the political construct of Hindutva. It suits the purveyors of Hindutva to imply that the choice is between their belligerent interpretation of Hinduism and the godless Westernisation of the “pseudo-seculars”. Rajaji and Sastry proved that you could wear your Hinduism on your sleeve and still be a political liberal. But that choice is elided by the identification of Hindutva with political Hinduism, as if such a conflation is the only possible approach open to practising Hindus.
I reject that idea. I not only consider myself both a Hindu and a liberal, but find that liberalism is the political ideology that most corresponds to the wide-ranging and open-minded nature of my faith.
Excerpted with permission from Why I Am a Hindu, Shashi Tharoor, Aleph Book Company.