Shashi Tharoor’s “Why I Am A Hindu” A Review by Dr. A. I. Khan

Name of the book: Why I Am a Hindu
Author: Shashi Tharoor
Publisher: Aleph Book Company, New Delhi
Year of publication: 2018

Reviewer: Dr A. I. Khan

“Hindutva, as belief and practice, is a political ideology that negates genuine Hinduism as faith and practice”.

The book under review deals elaborately with origin, history, religiosity, spirituality and divinity of Hinduism in terms of its concept, form, text and patterns which constitute a narrative contradictory to the narrative of ‘political Hinduism’ that is ‘Hindutva’ and so formulates that Hindutva is bent upon to transgress all the tenants of Hinduism and Indian ethos as value system developed in the course of historical social process.

“To show that the intolerant and often violent forms of Hindutva that began to impose themselves on the public consciousness of Indians in 1980s, went against the spirit of Hinduism, that most plural, inclusive, eclectic and expansive of faith “. (from Author’s note)

The author further opines that:

“My narrative weaves between personal witness and alternative reading of the relevant scriptures and academic texts”. (from Author’s note)

In the course of development of his narrative, the author takes into account the views and thoughts of a number of scholars, to name a few, A. L. Basham and R. C. Zaehner, Raimon Panikkar, Dr. Kran Singh, Swami Vivekananda, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, Ram Krishna Paramhans, Anand Coomaraswamy, Paramhansa Yogananda and others. The author also tries to understand Hinduism as living experience of his own and family traditions and so comes out with a new sense and meaning of faith, religiosity, spirituality and divinity.

“My Hinduism was a livid faith; it was a Hinduism of experience and upbringing, a Hinduism of observation and conversation, not one anchored in deep religious study (though of course the two are not mutually exclusive)”.

So, the author emphasises that his Hinduism is solidly based on inherent faith and belief system tested on consciousness and reality of his own time. His Hinduism can only be visualised in relation to life and personal experiences and convictions by a person acquired in quest of values of being and believing. And he tries to seek meanings in his actions in the context of his religious beliefs. Even then he perceives Hinduism as a civilisation, not dogma and stresses on its relative values and accordingly his psyche is shaped in due course that is always susceptible to transform in light of inquisition and reason. So he perceives Hinduism in its vastness, flexibility and acceptance.

“There are simply no binding requirements to being Hindu. Not even a belief in God…. Hinduism, in other words, incorporates almost all forms of belief and worship within it; there is no need to choose some or reject others “. (from My Hinduism)

Many great persons, like Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, have viewed Hinduism in different way, even then these views don’t prompt for confrontation. It’s only due to its diverse appeal and universal acceptability. In view of Gandhi- “Its freedom from dogma makes a forcible appeal to me, he wrote, in as much as it gives the votary the largest scope for self expression …. Hindus are people who believe the Vedas, the Upanishads, the multiple Hindu scriptures, the various incarnation of God, rebirth or reincarnation, Varna(Caste) and Ashrama, and veneration and protection of cow and don’t express disbelief in idol worship “.

In Tilak’s view- “A Hindu is he who believes that Vedas contain self- evident and axiomatic truths, thus seeking to create a religious identity based on sacred texts…. “. (from My Hinduism)

Both views may appear to be different but not divergent. Most probably, they seem to be coherent. On the contrary V. D. Savarkar’s view of Hindu is quite different.

“One could be Hindu even if one didn’t recognize the religious authority of Vedas….” (from My Hinduism)

In fact is more concerned with political aspect of Hinduism rather than its spirituality and divinity.

Savarkar’s view totally contradicts the view of Swami Vivekanand and stands in opposition to his view.

“I am proud to belong a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal tolerance, but we accept all religions true”. (from My Hinduism)   

Vivekanand’s view is also substantiated by Gita in its message as – “Whosoever comes to me, through whatsoever form, I reach to him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me”. (from My Hinduism)

This affirmation of practice of acceptance of difference and the idea that other ways of being and believing are equally valid is central to Hinduism and the basis for Indian democratic culture which provides substance and meaning to our national life and it’s genuine aspirations. This concept of divinity can be traced back to the dictum of Upanishads-” Ekam sat vipra  bahudha vadanti”- that which exists is one; the sages call it various names… The acknowledgement of multiple paths to the ultimate truth of creation is implicit in the philosophical disputes and arguments that have marked the faith for millennia… We respect your truth, the Brahmins were saying; please accept ours”. (from My Hinduism)

So, Hinduism, in its basic characteristics, is flexible, accommodative, pluralistic, diversified and takes into account multi-facet view of life and divinity. Its distinction lies in not being of divine origin but of perpetual quest for self-acknowledgement, self-realisation and self-attainment. In contrast to revealed truth of the religions of Semitic origin, it lays emphasis on self-revelation and enlightenment. In this way, religious experience becomes personal experience and varies from individual to individual. Though Hindus trust the Vedas but don’t see them as immune to critical analysis. Moreover, Hindus understand that all Scriptures require interpretation and can’t be taken literally and the purpose of the religious text is to enter into the mind of the reader and help constitute the self. In the words of Radhakrishnan – “Hindu tolerance is not indifference “. These are basic features of Hinduism which make it different and unique. Here intellect is subordinated to intuition, dogma to experience, outer experience to inner realisation… It’s insight into the nature of reality (dharma) or experience of reality (anubhava). There is also conceptual difference in terms of soul, body and time.

“Whereas in Christianity the body has a soul, in Hinduism the soul has a body… the idea of reincarnation, emerging from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth is basic to Hinduism”. (from My Hinduism)

The book also traces different philosophical aspects and schools of Hinduism- Dvaita, advaita and many others.

“Reasoning is essential to clarify the truth, according to Advaita School. Advaita Vedanta ,of Adi Shakarchara, accepted the idea of prusharths, the four goal of human life. Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha. This last involves a state of full awareness of ultimate oneness of the soul, atman, and Brahman; the Hindu realizes the Divine within himself, perceives the Divine in other beings, and accepts that Brahman is in everything, and everything is Brahman… Madhavacharya upheld dualism, in his theology. The atman didn’t merge with Brahman but dwelt in close proximity to it”.

 We can see here the ultimate truth in paradoxical relationship. This paradoxical relationship is not unique to Hinduism only, we can observe such philosophical paradoxes in other faiths as well. The concept of God in every particle and all revealing in His light is common to almost all religion. In fact it’s legacy of Bhakti Movement and School of Sufism.

The book also traces historical perspective of Hinduism, Bhakti Movement, Reform Movement and various features of Hinduism through Indian Renaissance. Ramanujan (1017- 1137), Parmananda, Kabir (1440- 1510), Lalleshwari or Lalla Rukh of Kashmir (1317- 1372), Mirabai (1498- 1597), Surdas (1478- 1583), Tulsidas (1533- 1623), all of them contributed in shaping and reshaping of collective consciousness and Psyche of Indian People. In fact much of what we have today can trace its root to Bhakti Movement. Reform movement, such as Bodhism and Jainism, are another dimension which overshadowed Hinduism in popularity and acceptance in its time. It unleashes another aspect of  tolerance and acceptance that these traits are preserved only unless these hold supremacy and are dominant otherwise the world is also witness to Dharmyudh, Holy war, Jihad and Khalsa Raj. All kind of orthodoxy and cruelness derive their legacy and strength from religious scriptures. The simple prescription is – either assimilate or subjugate or annihilate. However on unique feature of Hinduism is it’s capacity to accommodate the acknowledgement of worldly desires within the quest for the eternal.  Its doctrinal openness and flexibility of practice is advantage in itself for its resilience and survival against several attacks.

“The historical evolution of Hinduism testifies to its adaptability”. (from My Hinduism)

The book also traces the remarkable contribution of reformers, such as Ram Mohan Roy, Keshav Chandra Sen, Dayanand Saraswati, Guru Narayan Guru (1856- 1928), Mahatma Ayyankali (1863- 1941), Chattampi Swami (1853- 1924), Ramana Maharishi (1879- 1950), Sri Aurobindo (1872- 1950), Swami Vivekanand (1863- 1902) to give it multi-facet character to make it’s outreach to common people. In its course of religious discourse, the author also raises the issues of gender equality and Caste hierarchy but doesn’t go long in dealing these aspects of Hinduism in historical context. It’s in complete contrast of views of Dr. Baba Sahab Ambedkar’s view as enumerated in ‘Annihilation Of Vaste and ‘Riddles Of Hinduism’. Baba Sahab’s  views are more modern and progressive with rational and critical approach. On the other hand, the author’s views are confined within traditional concept of Devi and self renunciation of Caste. It’s is really disappointing.

Another important aspect of the book is the Political Hinduism – a conservative, narrow and divisive version of religion. These can be traced into thought process of T. M. Madan, V. D. Savarkar and ideologue of R. S. S. In this context Savarkar’s book ‘Essential of Hindutva’ published in1923 which was republished in 1928 with the title ‘Hindutva: Wo Is a Hindu?’ is worth mentioning which describes Hindu in specific term.

“A Hindu is one who considers India to be his motherland (Matrabhoomi), the land of his ancestors (Pitrabhoomi) and his holy land (Punyabhoomi) Hinduism… India is the land of the Hindus since their ethnicity is Indian and since Hindu faith originated in India-Hinduism is only a derivative, a fraction, a part of Hindutva – the religion was therefore a subset of the political idea, rather than synonymous with it… (from Political Hinduism)

 Savarkar further elaborates his idea of Hindutva as a common nation (rashtra), a common race (jati) and a common civilisation (sanskriti). It’s quite clear that the Hindutva is an exclusionary political concept in the land of multi faith, multi race, and of multi-layered diverse social cultural identity. The concept of Hindutva was further clarified and explained by M. S. Gwalkar (1906- 1973) in a R. S. S. Publication titled ‘Sri Guru Ji, The man and his Mission’, ‘We or Our Nationhood Refined'(1939 and third edition in 1945) and ‘Bunch Of Thoughts’ (1968).

“It became evident that Hindus were nation in Bharat and Hindutva was Rashtriyata (nationalism)… Hindusthan is the land of Hinduism and is the terrace firma for the Hindu nation alone to flourish upon… He rejected the concept of what he called territorial nationalism and advocated Cultural nationalism… A nation is not mere a bundle of political and economic rights but an embodiment of national culture – in India, an ancient and sublime Hinduism (Bunch Of Thoughts)… The alternative to territorial nationalism, to Gowalkar, was a nationalism based on race… To remain in India, Muslims would have to submit themselves to Hindus… Gowalkar acknowledged the reality of diversity within Hinduism”. (from political Hinduism)

Other ideologues are Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Deen Dayal Upadhyay and many others. Their perception of nationalism is the extension of above mentioned ideas and Bhartiya Jansangh and later Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) became flag bearer of these political thought. The present political scenario in our country appears to be basically divided in two opposite kind – the politics of division and the politics of unity. In this context, it will be wise to recall Nehru’s Statement.

“The communalism of the majority was especially dangerous because it could represent itself as nationalist”. ( from political Hinduism)

Nehru’s thoughts are further advanced in author’s text without suffering from any ambiguity. “Yet Hindu nationalism is not Indian nationalism. And it has nothing to do with genuine Hinduism either. The matter of fact is that no non-violence activity, however provocative, can ever legitimise violence. Surely freedom of belief is any Indian’s fundamental right under our democratic Constitution, however ill founded his belief might be. Freedom of conscience is not a negotiable right. An India where an individual is not free to change his or her faith would be inconceivable. The fact is that many faiths do tend to see theirs as the only true faith to salvation and their religious heads feel a duty to spread the light of a supposedly superior understanding of God to those less fortunate… Of course, the debate is not a religious one – it is profoundly political. The central tenet of tolerance is that tolerant society accepts that which it doesn’t understand and even that which it doesn’t like, so long as it’s not sought to be imposed upon the unwilling. The Hindutvavadis are therefore being untrue both to Hinduism and to Indian Nationalism. The nationalist movement rejected the belief that religion was the most important element in shaping political identity”. (from political Hinduism)

In the course of political discourse, the phenomena of mob lynching in the name of cow protection, harassment of couples in the name of protection and preservation of Indian culture, love jihad, ghar wapsi, claim to correct history and important monuments, and harassment of particular category of people for hurting the religious sentiments and many other such incidents find mention in the book and are critically analysed. But the missing link is the relationship between Hindutva and neo-liberal policies adopted by the ruling class. It’s really surprising.

Here comes the question of alternative – policy and alternative narrative.

The author has tried to set an alternative narrative whether in terms of religion, politics, culture and nationalism.

“The real alternatives in our country are between those who believe in an India where difference arising from your birth, language, social status, mode of worship or dietary practices, should not determine your Indianness, and those who define Indianness along one or more of these divisions”. ( from political Hinduism)

And how to achieve this objective?

“Indian democracy is all about the management of diversity, and if we don’t respect our diversity we will no longer be the India that Mahatma Gandhi fought to free… I reject the presumption that purveyors of hatred speak for all or most Hindus. The Hindutva ideology is in fact a malign distortion of Hinduism”. (from taking back Hinduism)

So, a vital shift in our national politics from a politics of identity to a politics of performance is demand of time. It’s also the most appropriate time to free Hinduism from fundamentalists under the political garb of Hindutva. In fact Hinduism is a life-religion of joy and play (leela) and let it be so. India is a country of composite culture, shared vision, common heritage, shared inheritance, martyrdom and shared civil space. It’s also true in case of Hinduism, Islam and other religions of the country.

“Hinduism and Islam are inter-twined in India; both religions, after all, have shared the same history in the same space, and theirs is a cohabitation of necessity as well as facts”. (from Taking Back Hinduism)

 It’s again time to reclaim Hinduism from the forces of market and finance capital. The expression is fluid, impressive and interesting. Despite being a book of nonfiction, it’s worth reading.  

(c) All Rights Reserved, 2020

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