Shashi Tharoor on his book Why I am a Hindu, and why he believes Hinduism is inherently liberal
In a conversation with Firstpost, Shashi Tharoor said that in India, secularism is intended to mean respect for all faiths, where the government doesn't privilege any one of them. | #FirstCulture
In his latest book, Why I am a Hindu, Shashi Tharoor confronts the many questions facing liberal and Hindu India. In an interview with Firstpost he talks about his love for the faith, its recent weaponisation in the form of Hindutva, the Congress' secularist stance, and why religious history has become war-footing in the modern age.
You mention in the author’s note that Hinduism is “an almost ideal faith for the twenty-first-century world”. Could you please elaborate?
To me, the Hinduism that I believe in, and the Hinduism that I have described in the book, offers the world a perfect religion for the 21st century, because like the world today, a world full of doubt and incertitude with legitimate questions to be asked about everything, Hinduism is a faith that doesn't prescribe any answers, but instead helps one think about the right questions. After all, Hinduism is a religion that, in the Rig Veda's Creation Hymn says, "Where has all this come from? Who made this world in the Heaven's universe? Only He in the Heaven knows — or maybe He does not know." Maybe He does not know! So, even in our oldest scriptures, Hinduism as a faith has been comfortable and accepting of a certain level of doubt and incertitude even about the Creator itself. To my mind, a religion that respects different points of view, and is open to the possibility of finding the truth in various, often contrasting ways, is the perfect religion for our times. Of course, most Hindus have never been brought up to believe, as unfortunately, members of the Sangh Parivar do, that Hinduism is the best faith and that anyone who disagrees should be hit on the head — that’s not our belief. However, I do think that the faith in itself is open and accepting enough to embrace and accommodate those who practice different religions and faiths within the same society, and given the melting pot of nationalities, backgrounds, traditions, customs, cultures and indeed even experiences that communities in the modern world are coming to represent, that is exactly the kind of religion we need.
You mention in the book the ‘pseudo-secular’ tag that you and the Congress party is criticised for. You say ‘pluralism’ is required instead. Can you explain?
See, the 'pseudo-secular' tag that members of other political organisations levy against the Congress, is just a term of abuse. Indian secularism doesn't say that you should be anti-Hindu or anti any other religion for that matter. For one, as I and a number of my colleagues in the party have repeatedly explained, the vast majority of us within the Congress party have always been practicing Hindus in private, but we were brought up to believe that flaunting it would be unseemly, and so we kept it out of our public life and our politics. To us, religion is your private business; it’s been you and your idea of the divine.
But the political consequence of that behaviour is that we have been portrayed as non-believers or non-followers of the faith, and have unintentionally ceded the “Hindu space” completely to those who claim to be the only "true Hindus", which in my view, they're absolutely not. Indeed, as I discuss in great detail in my book, the kind of Hinduism practised and extolled by many in the Sangh Parivar is not in any way reflective of the tenets, teachings, precepts and values of Hinduism. And yet, they go around preaching "We are the only Hindus, these guys are pseudo-secular" and all that sort of nonsense. So we, as Hindus, said, "Why should we appear to surrender our Hinduism to others? Let's now just admit publicly what we have always been doing privately, and neutralise this constant us-versus-them scenario that they continue to employ to sow the seeds of religious bigotry".
Coming to your other point — to clarify, I believe that in the Indian context, secularism just means pluralism. A Western dictionary will tell you secularism is the absence of religion, but in India, with our profusion of religions, such a definition would never work. In India, therefore, secularism is intended to mean respect for all faiths, where the government doesn't privilege any one of them. The Congress' attitude has been, and remains, that all religions are equally valid to their believers. So if you wish to follow a different kind of worship from me, it was not my place to judge it. In any case, Hinduism says to seek the Truth within; seek within yourself. You are finding your own way of worship, your own way of belief, and I respect that. In my own constituency, as a Congress politician now having won two elections, I go to mosques, I go to temples, I go to churches. If there was a Synagogue in my constituency, I'd go there too! Because ultimately, it is not being untrue to my faith; it is just a way of showing respect for the beliefs of others. It is not, in any way, less Hindu to respect a Muslim worshipper at his mosque on Eid. It is a way of saying I respect you for who you are, but it's not my belief. That is the kind of sincere pluralism the Congress party aspires and works towards.
“Hinduism is a civilisation, not a dogma” you write in the book. The current socio-political scenario in the country would suggest that the inverse is a popular view. How do we then ask the right questions about faith and religion, find the Hinduism we deserve? How do we make sure we read right? Is it as important to read Gowalkar and Savarkar?
I think the answer is implicit in the way you have asked the question — the key to asking the right questions, be it for faith and religion, or for any other topic really, lies in reading extensively about that topic and exploring what its thought leaders have had to say about it. And yes, this includes reading and making a concerted effort to understand the thoughts of even those intellectuals whom you do not necessarily agree with, for that is the only way one can truly understand and then perhaps dispute the ideologies propagated by those who you are not in agreement with. How can I criticise Hindutva without digesting the thoughts of its ideologues? So yes, in researching for Why I Am A Hindu, I extensively read the works of Upadhyay, Gowalkar and Savarkar, in addition to those of Swami Vivekananda, Dr Radhakrishnan and Dr Karan Singh to name a few!
So, in this case, I would say that if anyone wants to understand the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva, or even ask the relevant questions that would help make their own distinction, not only should they read my book, but they are welcome to also read Gowalkar's and Savarkar's writings themselves!
You write about an intimate episode at the very young age of 11 that educated you about caste. India will be largely young by 2020. Will there be a fresh re-interpretation of Hinduism by this largely young population? Will it be caste-sensitive? And how does your interpretation of Hinduism deal with this issue?
Hinduism is fairly dynamic in nature, as I've argued over the course of my book and mentioned in my previous answers. Therefore, there is bound to be a fresh interpretation of the faith over the coming years, just as there has been in the past. Religion, I believe, is a constantly evolving system that reflects and responds to – and therefore changes along with – the prevailing socio-political and economic undercurrents at any given time. My hope is that the youth of this country are able to reinvigorate and reinvent Hinduism by incorporating their own values and ideals into it, just as leaders and intellectuals of the past have.
However, in a society like India's, I find it hard to really see how any interpretation can not have a "caste-sensitive/conscious" side to it. As the son of a Malayali newspaper executive who dropped his caste name (Nair) in response to Mahatma Gandhi’s exhortations to do so, moved to London and brought his children up in westernised Bombay, I am a product of a nationalist generation that was consciously raised to be oblivious of caste. I grew up thinking of caste as an irrelevance, married outside my caste and brought up two children to be utterly indifferent to caste, indeed largely unconscious of it. Even after I entered the hothouse of Indian politics, I did not consciously seek to find out the caste of anyone I met or worked with. For a long time, I assumed this was the modern Indian ideal—the egalitarian spirit in which one judged people not by their caste but (to borrow from Martin Luther King Jr) by the content of their character. However, over time I have come to the realisation that to be born in a privileged caste is not anyone’s fault but to refuse to even acknowledge the ‘unearned benefits’ accruing due to one’s caste is not right.
My original response, to be oblivious to caste and indifferent to the caste associations of friends, employees and associates, is no longer enough in today’s politically caste-conscious India. Caste blindness, it is argued, is itself an affectation available only to the privileged; the “lower” castes cannot afford to be indifferent to caste.
Parallels are sought to be drawn to debates over race-blind policies in the west, but these are inexact. Race, after all, is visible, whereas caste is not, which makes it genuinely possible to be caste-blind in one’s social and personal relations in a way that is not feasible in multi-race contexts. Still, the temper of the times demands consciousness of caste and positive compensatory action for its disabilities, rather than blindness to it.
A large reason behind the rise of Hindutva, especially its modern version since the 80s is its repudiation of the "evil other" – Islam. Why this siege on our history? What does it say about the psychology of those pushing for it?
Part of the problem with the Hindutva brigade, I am sorry to say, is that their notion of Hinduism is profoundly based on an inferiority complex. They see Hindus as having been invaded, oppressed, defeated, and humiliated for a thousand years. So, from their point of view, this is now a chance to hit back and assert themselves. I believe that is a very un-Hindu way of looking at our history and the past. Moreover, as a Hindu, I don't want to be some sort of oppressed, humiliated, inferior species. I consider myself as someone who belongs to a very self-confident faith; one that has been very resilient throughout history. So many different reform movements have come up over the course of our history, all of which Hinduism has openly embraced, transforming itself in the process. Buddhism started as a reform movement in Hinduism, Jainism came that way too. Many Hindus embraced Sikhism because they felt it was actually an improvement in some ways. The whole Bhakti cult, roughly from the 11th to the 16th centuries, completely transformed and revived the faith. Even in reaction to British colonialism, we found ways of reinventing Hinduism.
Why should we see ourselves in this pathetic, humiliated sort of way that the Hindutvavaadis see, and they want thereafter to reassert themselves; against whom? They attack Islam and in the process they act against the helpless members of their own religion, condemning Hindu children to ignorance by rewriting history to make Hindus heroes when they lost wars or battle. I think it's foolish and pathetic.
In the last section of the book you mention the abuse of Hindu symbolism, and instead ‘using the past as a springboard, not as a battlefield’. Why has this abuse, according to you, become so easy? What can we learn instead from Hinduism’s past that can help silence provocations of today?
This abuse, so prevalent in our country today, stems from the challenge of authenticity, which cuts across a wide intellectual terrain. It emerges from those Hindus who share VS Naipaul’s view of their being a ‘wounded civilisation’ — a pristine Hindu land that was subjected to repeated defeats and conquests over the centuries at the hands of rapacious Muslim invaders and was enfeebled and subjugated in the process. To such people, Independence is not merely freedom from British rule, but an opportunity to restore the glory of their culture and religion, wounded and disturbed by Muslim conquerors. Historians like Audrey Truschke, author of a sympathetic biography of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, have argued that these accounts of Muslims despoiling the Hindu homeland is neither a continuous historical memory nor based on accurate records of the past. (For instance, it was a pious Hindu, Raja Jai Singh of Jaipur, who led Aurangzeb’s armies against the Hindu warrior-hero Rana Pratap, whose own principal General was a Muslim, Hakim Khan Sur!). However, there is no gainsaying the emotional content of the Hindutva view of the past. For them, it is a matter of faith that India is a Hindu nation, which Muslim rulers attacked, looted and sought to destroy, and documented historical facts that refute this view are at best an inconvenience, and at worst an irrelevance.
The fact of the matter is that history is a complex affair. The advent of the Internet, and the age of social media, however, has made it much easier for modern trolls and mongers of false information to spread their lies simply because the people believing them want to believe them, and don't bother to fact-check — a phenomenon prevalent not only in India, but worldwide. But, if one were to honestly look through the ancient Hindu scriptures and texts — the Vedas, the writings of Adi Shankara, or even Swami Vivekananda's voluminous works on the subject, all three of which I quote extensively in my book — they would realise that the Hindutva being peddled and mischaracterised by some forces as modern-day Hinduism, one which constantly seeks to create an "us-versus-them" battle, goes against the very essence of the welcoming, all-embracing and accepting nature of the faith that everyday Hindus like me seek to practice.
You are a liberal and your opinions resonate with a large part of the young urban India. But the very word ‘liberal’ has come under attack of late. How do you respond to this criticism? And where do you see your liberality and your faith in Hinduism interact, agree and disagree?
One of the things that has really got my goat is being repeatedly trolled and abused as an "anti-Hindu". So many have chosen to stereotype liberals as 'godless sick-ularists', 'anti-Hindu' figures, without really understanding the term, liberal, or the meaning behind it. I would argue that today's India is not conservative, it's confused — and the attitudes of the masses reflect to a great extent what they are told they ought to believe. Whereas the Indian Republic’s earliest years were marked by the leadership of a liberal generation that urged a bitterly divided India to rise above its religious and communal passions despite Partition, we now have a government at the helm that caters to and reinforces the biases inherent in the worst aspects of our society. In a rather illiberal country, one in which increasingly illiberal tendencies are receiving active encouragement from the powers-that-be, a liberal leadership should set aspirational standards for the nation, and work in their society to share those aspirations, in keeping with the values enshrined in the Constitution.
In fact, one of the reasons for my belief in Hinduism, for the lack of a better phrase, is its intellectual 'fit' with my liberality, for it comes closest to the values I espouse. I have long thought of myself as liberal, not merely in the political sense of the term, or even in relation to principles of economics, but as an attitude to life. To accept people as one finds them, to allow them to be and become what they choose, and to encourage them to do whatever they like (so long as it does not harm others) is my natural instinct. I found these liberal instincts reinforced by the faith in which I was brought up. Hinduism is, in many ways, predicated on the idea that the eternal wisdom of the ages and of divinity cannot be confined to a single sacred book; we have many, and we can delve into each to find our own truth (or truths). As a Hindu I can claim adherence to a religion without an established church or priestly papacy, a religion whose rituals and customs I am free to reject, a religion that does not oblige me to demonstrate my faith by any visible sign, by subsuming my identity in any collectivity, not even by a specific day or time or frequency of worship. What could be more liberal than that?
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