Book review

Shashi Tharoor’s ‘Why I Am A Hindu’ is a timely reminder of why Hinduism must retain its pluralism

Reading this book is a handy way to reacquaint oneself in 2018 with what Hinduism was and is, and what it wasn’t meant to be.

As one of India’s most adored intellectuals and public figures, Shashi Tharoor is subject to much scrutiny by the media and the junta alike. His erudition, coupled with his attractive public persona, makes him an easy and constant talking point. Indeed, people have even coined the term “Tharoorism” to refer to the words that emerge when his supercalifragilisticexpialidocious vocabulary gets too much for normal language skills. So when his latest book turns out to be called Why I Am A Hindu, the choice of title appears a little, well, un-Tharoorian.

But what’s in a name?

Of course, “Why I Am…” is a title format that has been used by many an author. Why I Am Not A Communist, by Karel Čapek (1924), Why I Am Not A Christian, an essay by Bertrand Russell (1927), Why I Am Still A Christian, by Hans Küng (1987), Why I Am Not A Muslim, by Ibn Warraq (1995) are well known globally. Closer home, we have Bhagat Singh’s Why I Am An Atheist (1930), and the explosive Why I Am Not A Hindu by Kancha Illiah (1995). In fact, the title of Tharoor’s book seems like a purposeful inversion of the last one, and consequently perhaps, even of the subject.

That said, the choice of such a title is important in our current context, given how we’ve acquired a penchant for the literal. It is too much to expect any appreciation of subtlety or metaphor at a time when our leaders defiantly offer instances from Indian mythology as proof of concept in conferences of science. A book like Tharoor’s, with an affirmative title, is what is required to state what most liberal Hindus like him think this religion truly represents, and in no uncertain terms.

A brief history of Hinduism

The current state of brazen religious politics led by a chest-thumping menagerie of leaders has been a cause of mortification for many Indians, Hindu and otherwise. When Hindutva is often mistaken for or sold as Hinduism, it is time to set the record straight.

Why I Am A Hindu, running close to 300 pages, is divided into two sections, the first of which offers a brief history of Hinduism. The first chapter is titled “My Hinduism”, presented in what can be called the Devdutt Pattanaik mode. It is a clever and necessary disclaimer underscoring subjectivity – especially useful for times when religious sentiments are easily hurt. Tharoor acquaints us with the kind of Hinduism he was raised with, and, along with a sprinkling of anecdotes, gives an overview of the religion.

The writer touches upon the ideas of many Indian gods and their multifarious Puranic stories, but also how they are united by the principle of the supreme Brahman. He stresses on the fact that Hinduism has no doctrinal absolutism, which is what makes it such a delightfully democratic faith. He impresses upon his reader that Hinduism is – and can only be – experienced and interpreted subjectively, using this lovely metaphor: “Hindu thought is like a vast library in which no book ever goes out of print; even if the religious ideas a specific volume contains have not been read, enunciated or followed in centuries, the book remains available to be dipped into, to be revised and reprinted with new annotations or a new commentary whenever a reader feels the need for it…”

The second chapter, titled “The Hindu Way”, deals with common Hindu concepts such as paramatma, brahman, dharma, karma, maya, mukti, varna, ashrama and yugas. Tharoor describes the six philosophical traditions of Hinduism (shad darshanas) and its textual tradition, starting from the Vedas, Upanishads and Puranas, to the Agamas, Sutras and Shastras. Moving on from the esoteric to the ritualistic, he briefly explains the ideas of utsavas, yatras, pujas and even the relevance – or the lack of them – to vegetarianism and alcohol in the Hindu way of life.

The chapter offers a comprehensive yet succinct view of Hinduism, and could serve as a great starting point for anyone interested in knowing more about this religion. It helps that he peppers it with easy and recent references from real life, which makes it immediately relatable for a lay reader. Even as he curates portions from Hinduism’s extensive theoretical base, the author remains aware that not all, indeed very few, are familiar with the many faces of Hinduism. He writes”

“Every Hindu may not be conscious of the finer points of his faith, but he has been raised in the tradition of its assumptions and doctrines, even when these have not been explained to him. His Hinduism may be a Hinduism of habit rather than a Hinduism of learning, but it is a lived Hinduism for all that.”

The third chapter, titled “Questioning Hindu Customs”, gets into the sticky territories of caste, superstition, and “godmen”. Tharoor’s career as a politician enriches his perspective on these subjects, for nowhere else do the three converge so vividly. He posits that this largely unjust social system of classification, an undue dependence on gurus, and excessive belief in signs and omens, are not just rooted in the Hindu religion but are also unfortunate corollaries of a poverty-ridden and directionless society. A classic example, says Tharoor, is the recent Dera Sacha Sauda movement, where one can see all the elements at work.

In the fourth and last chapter of section one, titled “Great Souls of Hinduism”, Tharoor profiles some of the greatest spiritual personalities, who either created, challenged or transformed the religion. From the sages Vyasa, Yagnavalkya and Patanjali to Mahavir Jain and Gautama Buddha; from Adi Shankaracharya and Ramanuja to the Bhakti saints; from Kabir, Nanak and Mirabai to Raja Ram Mohun Roy and Osho, the author tells the stories of many of the major religions of India in the process. As an adherent of Swami Vivekananda’s teachings, Tharoor affords a special place for him in this chapter.

For those unacquainted with the subject, the story of the evolution of Hinduism is particularly fascinating. The reader will get to know how it went from ritualistic “Vedism” to becoming an “idol-worshipping” religion, how it responded to the challenge of Buddhism and practically subsumed it, and how it faced Islamic and Christian waves. The insecurities and failings of the faith are also chronicled here.

Religion and politics

The second part of the book is titled “Political Hinduism”. This is where Tharoor’s meticulous context-building through the history of Hinduism is particularly useful. He starts building his case with the idea of secularism, which becomes a moot point when viewed through the prism of Western political theory. The right term in the Indian context, he argues, is “pluralism”, for India is and has long been a land of many religions. Further, he says, religion when defined as “dharma” is impossible to divorce from the Hindu way of life.

Tharoor contrasts this with the idea of Hindutva as first suggested by VD Savarkar and perpetuated by his RSS counterparts and successors like MS Golwalkar and Deendayal Upadhyay. Tharoor takes his time to critique Upadhyay’s ideas of “Integral Humanism” (thinly-veiled Hindutvavaad) in the light of the fact that the current ruling party in New Delhi upholds this as its formal party ideology. That he does it ever so gently despite belonging to the Opposition is worth noticing.

The author explains the BJP’s brand of Hindutva politics as being based on a victim-turned-avenger complex, a narrative of failure and defeat, and hatred for the Muslim community. Even if one were to turn a blind eye to the clear lack of Muslim representation (at least in the Lok Sabha) in this government, one can hardly ignore visible and worrying trends such as lynching and cow vigilantism. Ideas like ghar waapsi and love jihad, and groups like gau rakshaks and “Anti Romeo squads” operate and thrive under the aegis of the ruling party, and Tharoor correctly echoes the alarm of peace-loving Indians in this context.

He also critiques the “cultural project” of Hindutva, which aims to “nationalise and spiritualise”. By all means acknowledge the great accomplishments of ancient Indian science, but keep fact and fiction separate, he enjoins.

“We should take pride in what our forefathers did but resolve to be inspired by them rather than rest on their laurels. We need to use the past as a springboard, not as a battlefield. Only then we can rise above it to create for ourselves a future worthy of our remarkable past.”

He also strongly condemns the whitewashing, or saffronising, of India’s cultural past vis-à-vis the actions of vigilante groups such as the Bajrang Dal and, most recently, Karni Sena. Not just tolerance, but acceptance, is the hallmark of Hinduism, he reminds the reader again and again.

Tharoor’s voice is firm and gentle, in equal parts. He alternates between reminding the reader of Hinduism’s pluralistic glory and warning her of the perils of confusing it with the narrow and bigoted notion of Hindutva. Notwithstanding the last chapter, titled “Taking Back Hinduism” which reads as though it was written in a hurry, Why I Am A Hindu is as balanced a book on religion as one can hope to write in these tumultuous times. It is also a necessary reminder to all Hindus that plural is the way they were, and plural is what they should continue to be.

Why I Am A Hindu, Shashi Tharoor, Aleph Book Company.

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