Why I Am A Hindu: Shashi Tharoor's sentiments are those of a liberal trying to reclaim the religion from the fringe

Shashi Tharoor’s is a familiar face in the public realm; over the years he has built up a distinct personality for himself, making us anticipate responses from him in his political or intellectual efforts, as in his speeches and books. There are few public intellectuals in India as suave, nimble and dapper. He emerges as pragmatic and charitable, and if he is with the Congress Party, he has voiced disagreement with its stance when he feels that the leadership has erred on fundamental issues. His speech is never less than elegant, as is his writing; if one still harbours doubts about his merit as potential statesman it is because his eloquence is the cultivated kind appropriate to a university orator. One misses the weightiness expected from a thoughtful person when he speaks or writes. Words flow too easily from him and it is sometimes as if thought has not kept pace. He is exceptionally erudite but erudition is not so great a virtue in the age of the internet when scholarship is easily outsourced. In Why I am a Hindu, which has just been published, Tharoor expresses just the correct sentiments about the religion (past and present) expected from a liberal trying to reclaim it from the fringe. The book is so predictable that merely judging it is tedious; more interesting will be to examine some un-articulated questions that the information revealed in it seem to provoke.

Why I am a Hindu is in three sections and in the first one Tharoor looks at various aspects about the religion. The term ‘Hindu’ itself merely specifies a geographic location (‘beyond the river Sindhu’) and if it is a ‘religion’ it is far too nebulously defined, perhaps because it has constantly transformed by accommodating the practices of those outside the pale. This naturally leaves one posing a question that Tharoor does not ask: If Hinduism is defined by its very nebulousness and its capacity for absorbing or accommodating other ways of life, if it is ultimately to be defined as the way(s) of life of a people beyond the river Sindhu, how can one choose to be Hindu, as Tharoor’s title suggests (‘Why I am a Hindu’)?

Cover for Shashi Tharoor's Why I Am A Hindu

Cover for Shashi Tharoor's Why I Am A Hindu

‘Hinduism’ accommodates contradictory beliefs and even unbelief and the first viable definition of the notion that offers itself is that ‘Hindus’ are all those who live in the designated space, and who do not exclude themselves on account of dogmas — like Judaism, Islam and Christianity. But that would still leave out people not attached to the space and there are Hindus elsewhere. It would hence seem that, since the Hindu ‘religion’ makes no demands of faith or knowledge of scripture, anyone who calls himself/herself Hindu with or without an idea of what the term means is justly ‘Hindu’. This logic may seem facetious but it nonetheless suggests a way forward for India, beset as it is by discord. Instead of making all Indians define themselves through a single religion, would it not help to allow every person a secondary affiliation (even atheism) and would this not go some distance in reducing religious conflict? A Muslim agnostic seems less threatening to a Hindu just as a Hindu admirer of Jesus seems more benign to a non-Hindu. In Japan, people can be both Buddhists and Shintoists and India could follow the model.

Shashi Tharoor in conversation with Firstpost: 'Part of the problem with the Hindutva brigade is that their notion of Hinduism is profoundly based on an inferiority complex'

Tharoor crowds the first section of the book with detail and anecdote to illustrate the tolerant and accepting nature of Hinduism — including sections from the Upanishads and an account of Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893; still, he declines to address, I think, a feature distinguishing Hindu from western thought, which has some bearing on Hindu/Indian attitudes. If one were to look at the term ‘materialist’ under both systems, one finds that where it signifies belief in an external world in western thought, which can be understood and/or speculated about, ‘materialism’ in the Hindu sense (as exemplified by the Charvakas) is more a way of life akin to hedonism. This suggests that rather than gaining knowledge of the world perceived by the senses, Hinduism is essentially about how to live one’s life, i.e: it is inward rather than outward looking.

A religious dogma is thrust down but it offers a proposition about the world, how it came into being and the relationship between man and the material universe that leads to inquiry and the different disciplines — ranging from theoretical physics to the law. The absence of dogma in Hindu belief is laudable but that (arguably) leaves it too indefinite to force an inquiry into the material world and engender the more solid disciplines. No heresies are recognised in Hinduism, but it may be recognition of the heresy that necessitates a Galileo. Here is Dr S Radhakrishnan on God as quoted by Tharoor: ‘God is more than the law that commands, the judge that condemns, the love that constrains, the father to whom we owe our being, or the mother with whom is bound up all that we can hope for or aspire to.” My argument here is that the proposition is so all-encompassing that it leads to no further inquiry. It disallows heresies since there is nothing in it that one might oppose or subvert.

Tharoor, after discussing various aspects of Hindu belief, moves on to Hindu social practice. As may be expected, this section dwells extensively on caste questions. These questions have been debated extensively, including the evidence that caste did not have such a rigid basis in early times. One familiar story pertains to Adi Shankara whose path was once blocked by an outcaste Chandala and who demonstrated Advaita wisdom which so shamed Shankara that the latter prostrated himself before the man.

But caste practice also presents us with an deeper question: Swami Vivekananda said that caste was not part of Hindu religion but social practice, and this is supported by Sikhs, Christians and Muslims in India being known to practise discrimination against ‘untouchables’ although the respective religions profess equality before God. But the issue is, given the indeterminate nature of Hinduism, metaphysics coalescing freely with ritual, how is one to differentiate between the religion and its social practices? The answer, it seems to me, is that describing Hinduism as a ‘way of life’ also identifies it with social practices (both good and bad) within the primary space corresponding to ‘beyond the river Sindhu’. Since Hindus have now come to believe that theirs is a ‘religion’, they must be allowed the comfort of believing so. At the same time the religion must distance itself from undesirable social practices, which are common to the other religions in India. I propose that when people are to be compensated for these practices the compensations (like job reservation for dalits) should stretch beyond the Hindu religion since confining it to Hindus identifies the undesirable practice with it. Compensatory measures such as job reservation as to non-Hindu dalits will help distance Hinduism from undesirable social practices which, in the world’s eyes, are intimately tied to the religion.

The second section of Why I am a Hindu is devoted to political Hinduism and is highly informative on the views and political philosophies of three key ideologues — VD Savarkar, MS Golwalkar and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. The primary goal of political Hinduism was to create a nation with Hinduism as its basis, instead of having ‘India’ defined as a territory. As may be anticipated the chief stumbling block faced by each of them was in defining who a ‘Hindu’ was since there were no beliefs of text which was conclusively and exclusively Hindu. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which ultimately became the Bharatiya Janata Party, arose out of the difficulty of associating Hinduism with any identifiable religious tenets.

It is in this section that Tharoor’s partisanship comes to the fore and it emerges that his book is a panegyric to the Congress Party’s secular rhetoric. While having some cautious praise for Deen Dayal Upadhyaya he points out a contradiction — Upadhyaya as a political thinker and ideologue not having to contend with the fact that given the support his party enjoyed, he would not have to implement his philosophy as an administrator: “It is possible to argue that the philosophy of Upadhyaya is the credo of a man who does not believe he can ever have an opportunity to implement it.”  My counter here is that the same charge can be made of Gandhi who died too early to see Nehru’s industrial India but who gave scant indication, when independence was imminent, that his anti-modern ideas should be implemented.

That a third of Tharoor’s book should be given to the deplorable aspects of Hindutva politics is disappointing but not unexpected — since he is trying essentially to reclaim Hinduism for the liberals. But an issue is this: since there is no way of persuading the rabid member of a Hindu lynch mob into becoming a well-meaning liberal through rational argument in English, why should a writer like Tharoor discuss it intellectually? It should be noted here that the NDA government is not faulted directly by Tharoor. The NDA has not pushed a Hindutva agenda demonstrably and its culpability (which is not small) rests only on its not ensuring law and order adequately in places like Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajastan, and not taking the cow issue to its only viable conclusion — which is to not ban beef anywhere. Narendra Modi’s problem, it seems, is being unable to govern as he should, because of the assorted elements that constitute his support base whose rash impulses can neither be pandered to nor contained. In other words, Hindutva as it is emerging today is not an intellectual problem but a law and order one. This being the case, the only purpose of Tharoor’s last two sections can be to demarcate his own identity as a liberal Hindu. The emphasis in the book’s title is apparently on the ‘I’ and not on the term ‘Hindu’.

This brings us to the fundamental problem afflicting liberals and radicals in India today who oppose the NDA government for what it represents rather than for its actions. Their radicalism is not directed towards workable political solutions since they cannot imagine themselves in positions where they might have to implement them; it is that ‘radicalism’ defines their political identities. Their activism is intended to show who they are rather than press for what they want done. They are as inward-looking as Hinduism makes them and their inwardness leaves them without a tangible objective. Hindutvawadis (and I don’t mean the NDA) are equally without an economic and political plan. Hindutva also does not concern itself with reform that might make the religion more pertinent to today and it seems to set great store only by a Ram temple in Ayodhya which is as antediluvian an urge as any.  The Hindu religion does not admit a single authority but there are influential organisations which could reform Hindu practice the way the reformers did in the 19th century. In summary, we could say that since both right and left are Hindu by temperament, the political struggle in India is between different political identities, between people who offer no workable alternative plans to choose from. Books such as Shashi Tharoor’s Why I am a Hindu simply take sides in this unproductive struggle without adding much of intellectual value to the socio-political issues confronting India today.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.

Updated Date: Feb 22, 2018 20:31 PM

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