Being Hindu: Old Faith, New World and You
GIVEN THE current political milieu in the country, it is perhaps more important than before to define what being Hindu means. With attempts to place Hindutva, the hard-nosed version of what some call Sanatana Dharma, as the only interpretation of ‘being Hindu’, one would have thought Hindol Sengupta’s new book, Being Hindu: Old Faith, New World and You, would offer an insightful take. While Sengupta gathers enough research to talk authoritatively on the subject, at the very start of the book, he lapses into a common habit of those who want to defend their faith uncritically—that of juxtaposing it rather speciously against other major world religions, to situate it as superior in the backdrop of contemporary socio-political mores. That said, one has to acknowledge that Sengupta’s book is far from being a facile examination (or defence?) of the world’s third-largest religion—but only so because of the very difficult questions it poses for some controversial beliefs held about the history of the subcontinent, especially the redundant ‘Aryan question’.
After citing scholarly observations on the history of science and mathematics in the subcontinent—one wonders, though, if it is evidence-based to treat this as a substrate of the Sanatana Dharma—Sengupta begins the book with a long rant (this part is an essay he claims to have written much before he wrote the book) about how western academic work on Hinduism predominantly distorts history. This reversing of the lens, while seminal to an informed understanding of subcontinental history, has to be an academic process and, here, the book delivers little. It is one thing to rightly criticise the irritating exoticisation or sinister demonisation of Hinduism by colonial writers and historians, but is quite a different matter to conflate the faith with India itself, in its present form and being, saying, “The Vedic period in our history gives us the soul of our civilizational intelligence.” It is especially dangerous because it helps a reader settle comfortably into the notion that our “civilizational intelligence” received meagre inputs, if it wasn’t starved, in the period after. The nesting of such notions in the Indian polity perhaps manifests, ridiculously, as #RemoveMughalsFromBooks, and dangerously, as a defeat of the Constitutional ideal of a secular nation.
Sengupta also stresses on the need to put mythology on a par with history. While oral histories do enrich our understanding, how far lores can become canonical and can conform to the rigorous standards of methodology and evidence-gathering that historiography requires, determines if Hindu mythologies are to be treated as part of a cultural understanding of Hinduism or a historical one.
There are bits in the book that would sound appropriate from the mouth of mystics, but then there are also those that would persuade historians to attempt further research. Sengupta, on the question of Vedic-age nationhood, draws from Harvard professor of religion Diana Eck’s India: A Sacred Geography to show that dismissing the absence of a ‘nation’, outside the framework of geographical boundaries (by some reckoning, also within this framework), is not an easy proposition. And thus, along with the underpinnings of linguistics and culture, all that is seen to constitute Hinduism has to be examined for relevance. However, pushing for it to be central to India’s history will not just be fallacious, but also a denial of Hinduism’s plural tradition, espoused so very strongly by Sengupta, rather than a reaffirmation of the same.
It is also interesting to note that while it is claimed in the book that conflicting philosophies have co-existed within Hinduism, little attention has been paid by Sengupta to ‘Hinduism from below’, an understanding of the faith emanating from a Dalit or tribal, or even a feminist, line of enquiry. On what the author makes of, say, a Kancha Ilaiah writing Why I am not a Hindu, the reader is left uninformed. Missing such understanding, a Hindu runs the risk of a very stunted comprehension of her ‘being’. Also curiously absent are discussions (there is a token acknowledgement of the broader philosophy, though) on lines of thought like the Charvaka materialism.
Thinking of The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger—whose psycho-analytical interpretation of Hindu gods is perhaps the subject of Sengupta’s derision in the chapter How to Write About Hindus?—as a guide to understanding Hinduism and being Hindu surely doesn’t suffice. But taking Sengupta’s Being Hindu as anything more than an addition to the debate will be just as futile.