Book Review: Shashi Tharoor’s ‘Why I am a Hindu’ is an emphatic denunciation of Hindutva

A biography of Hinduism that is an exposition of a primordial and polymorphic lived faith, and also an emphatic denunciation of Hindutva.

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A biography of Hinduism that is an exposition of a primordial and polymorphic lived faith, and also an emphatic denunciation of Hindutva.

“Truth is one. The wise speak of it in many ways”, thus speaks Shashi Tharoor, arguably India’s finest public intellectual, in Why I am A Hindu. Celebrating pilgrimic self-assertion of his religious identity, he unpacks layer by layer the myriad manifestations of a sacral, spiritual and secular Hinduism, leaving the believers and non-believers with a seductive invocation of ambiguity and incompleteness that often defines a Hindu. Characterised by his vintage scholarly, conversational, and lyrical prose, Why I am a Hindu is Tharoor’s most daring, most insightful and perhaps most provocative trail-blazing work of political non-fiction. This cathartic, double-edged, subliminal biography of Hinduism is an intimate, meditative, first-person exposition of a primordial and polymorphic lived faith and an emphatic, energetic denunciation of Hindutva, a virulent politics of prejudice in contemporary India. I won’t be surprised if this book is fiercely debated, quoted, misquoted and misrepresented by all shades of liberals, radicals and rascals (so-called bhakts). Literary-minded readers also won’t be disappointed, as every page of the book dazzles with Promethean literary brilliance. Unapologetically writing about his faith and reconfirming his atavistic allegiance to Wikipedia-like Hinduism despite egregious flaws in some of its practices, Tharoor confesses at the very outset of the book that “I am a believer. And I am happy to describe myself as believing Hindu: not just because it is the faith into which I was born, but for a string of other reasons” that include cultural moorings, intellectual fit and liberal temperaments, among others. He also contends that his claims of being a Hindu are mediated by political contestations and experiences of being called ‘anti-Hindu’ by Hindutva forces whom Bakunin would have called ‘the epidemic of our age’.

Privileging neither classical Hinduism (Santanis) nor doctrinal Hinduism (Manuvadis), and also rejecting orientalist imagery of exotic and erotic Hinduism, Tharoor explores a uniquely home-grown idea of ‘Hinduism of habit’ practised by ordinary believers (Astika) and non-believers (Nastika). Before you decide to quarrel with Tharoor’s addictive post-molecular, neo-Vedantic interpretation of popular Hinduism, consider this when he says: “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. There is no Hindu Pope, no Hindu Vatican, no Hindu catechism, not even a Hindu Sunday…Our gods crowd the streets, smile or frown on us from the skies, as intimate and personal as the towels in which we wrap ourselves after a bath”. With oratorical flourish, something he claims to have borrowed from Swami Vivekananda during his formative years, Tharoor, rather instinctively, defends non-elitist and non-Sanskritised Hinduism. Though the text resembles multiple streams of rivers flowing unsheathed and unbridled into the fathomless sacred ocean, for the benefit of the literati and bibliophiles, it has been arranged in three sections, like improvised cadenzas in a musical performance. And Tharoor runs up and down his scales in virtuoso patterns, weaving a magical web of tellings and re-tellings of Hinduism. The first section, My Hinduism, explores Hinduism’s major philosophical schools, tenets and great souls of Hinduism such as Adi Shankara, Patanjali, Ramanuja, Swami Vivekananda, Ramkrishna Paramhamsa, Mahatma Gandhi and the teachings of Bhakti—saint poets and social reformers. Let’s not forget that Hindus don’t inhabit a primal garden of perfection and beauty. While explaining major concepts of Hindu philosophy like the Purusharthas and lessons of Gita and Vivekananda’s ecumenism, Tharoor is unsparing of the horrendous caste practices in Hindu society. Following both Gandhi and Ambedkar, he attempts to relegitimise unclean, untouchable Hindus and delegitimise clean, touchable Hindus.

In this section, he also questions ethically dubious concepts of karma and rebirth and challenges the phenomena of ‘god market’ and fake spiritual gurus presiding over an illusory world of “lies, more lies” that has nothing to do with the Hindu’s eternal search for spiritual truth. In the second section, Tharoor exposes the darker side of Hindutva and their political thinkers, leaders and the strategies to turn India into a majoritarian Hindu rashtra. Since most of us are familiar with the genealogies of Hindutva (‘Hinduness’) through the writings of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and MS Golwalkar, Tharoor has reversed the gaze on Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya, the most significant ideologue of the contemporary Hindutva movement, and also the mascot of the BJP-RSS combine in power. Though Tharoor appreciates the fact that Upadhyaya was not opposed to the Muslim and Christian modes of worship, and like Gandhi he believed in the synthesis of the material and the spiritual—and he also rejected the notion that a Hindu rashtra would have to mean “a theocratic state propagating the Hindu religion”—Upadhyaya conceptualised the national culture of India largely in terms of the monolithic Hindu rashtra. Following his ideological mentors Savarkar and Golwalkar, Upadhyaya claimed that “there exists only culture. There are no separate cultures here for Muslims and Christians”. Combining the primitive ferocity of eclectic Hinduism and the angst of a Nehruvian liberal humanist, Tharoor argues how using the language of surrogate inclusiveness, Upadhyaya’s ‘integral humanism’ masks the patriarchal, racist, and exclusivist politics of Hindu rashtra. No wonder, the politics of Hindutva justifies a deeply narcissistic and violent semitisation of Hinduism and Hindus. In the third and final section, Taking Back Hinduism, Tharoor explores how we might free Hinduism from its internal excesses and also external manipulations through restoring the fuzziness of religious identities in quotidian affairs and rejecting hierarchy of faiths. Again, in a fit of confessional declamation, Tharoor controversially conflates Hinduism with Vedanta and concludes that “I take pride in the openness, the diversity, the range, the sublime philosophical aspirations of the Vedanta.

I cherish the diversity, the lack of compulsion, and the richness of the various ways in which Hinduism is practised eclectically…And Hinduism’s suitability to modern world lies in its recognition of uncertainty and its pragmatic non-dogmatism”. True, Vedantic sublimation might be a rapturous union of self (atman) and Brahman (supreme soul) for some Hindus, especially reflective ones, but the majority of Hindus have multiple identities and follow diverse sectarian practices in secular and sacred affairs. Thus, Vedanta alone can’t become Kantian ‘categorical imperative’ for all Hindus. And certainly, there are Hindus who would like to agree with Kancha llaiah’s anti-Brahmanical assertion that “the Dalit-bahujans of India never heard the word ‘Hindu’—not as a word, nor as the name of a culture, nor as the name of the religion”. We know that all Dalits speak up and some even change the religion they were born into. We also know Adivasis are no Hindus, yet Bhils, Mundas and Santhals have their own tellings of the Ramayana. Through most of its long history, India has been a diverse, pluralist and tolerant civilisation, I doubt it can be called a Hindu civilisation. In the end, I am a bit nervous and flustered reading Why I am a Hindu because, unlike Tharoor, I am not an attached Hindu. And I don’t subscribe to the binary of believer or non-believer, but I am neither faithless nor godless. Being religious means living with open-ended interpretations of our ambiguities and contradictions. That’s why I became a pagan again and live without any distinctions of social and religious boundaries. What would you call it if I see poetry and promise in god; the most beautiful, most tolerant and most loving—the prophet of freedom and dissent. Wondering now, why I am a Hindu?

Ashwani Kumar is a poet, author, and senior fellow at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. His latest anthology is Banaras and the Other

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