At a time, in the world, and in Mauritius, when some extremists are trying to impose their truncated vision of religion on us, Shashi Tharoor’s book is a breath of fresh air. A must-read for some of us.
Only Shashi Tharoor can attack a subject of such monumental scope, ‘why am I a Hindu’. I picked the book at Mumbai airport recently with some minor trepidations as I knew that once one dived into Tharoor, one is really not able to escape the lure of Tharoor. One would get dragged on a ride and one will have to come out of it wholly ‘converted’. I had read him in the past, and his ‘Great Indian Novel’, to me at least, remained a beautiful lasting memory of the majestic Mahabharata retold in modern Nehruvian times, that left me begging for more. But now, how would he tackle a subject such as ‘Hindu Identity’. What is ‘Hinduism’? Is it just a vast illusory pompous label, or like he says, a metaphorical banyan tree that has spread its wide branches, over millennia, everywhere. Similarly, he asks, what is Hindutva? What would in effect be its driving forces, and what would be gained at the end? Is there really an end to such a debate?
Great writers like him, knew how to weave a plot to circle the prey. Tharoor, as confessed by himself, is not by any means a Hinduism scholar, he is no Wendy Doniger or Radhakrishna, he is the quintessential raconteur politician. So he starts with several disclaimers, proposing to stick to, and re-look at Hinduism from his own perspective and narrative, not as a historian, but as an Indian of Hindu faith (he loves Ganesh) liberally recounting his experiences living under this ‘banyan tree’ (can it even be called religion, or is it just a cultural praxis), and then bringing it face to face with the current Hindutva protocol. It was going to be a juicy clash between likes of Yoga Adityanath and his heirs vs. a liberal Hindu like Tharoor.
His analysis of Hinduism is the one of his very childhood. Early in his childhood, he recalled being taken to tours of temples in far off Indian villages, doing pujas, each he observed, being a variant of each other, depending where one was, as his family crisscrossed multiple states. There is not one (there never was) Hinduism that fitted a set template and he grew up to experience this. From the philosophical inquiries of the Upanishads, to the Vedas, to the Mahabharata, to Ramayana, to the absorption into Hinduism of such a high variety of local tribal practices, to rituals, to Brahmins and to the caste system, Hinduism was to any rational thinking man a hotchpotch of ideas assembled, reviewed, rejected, reassembled and adopted through several millennia of cultural metissage. In a culture that proclaimed these words in its Rig Veda (please see right below), how can there be such a thing as a Hindu heretic. It in fact welcomed heretics, is more like it. There is no ‘driving manual’ in Hinduism, the level of tolerance in such a culture is (or was) so highly pronounced that one could reject parts of it or absorb parts of it as one’s own’s inclinations.
“I am appalled, after reading this memorable book, to recall the visit of Yogi Adityanath to Mauritius and to see his racist quotes on Facebook celebrated as the new ‘strong’ way to build a nation. Which nation?”
Who knows whence this creation had its origin? He, whether he fashioned it, or whether he did not He, who surveys it all from the highest heaven He knows – Or may be he does not even know.
And it is from this same cultural matrix that grew the Charvakas, who flatly believed there was no God, that all that mattered was living life stoically, accumulating wealth with no karma attached and no dharma attached. And yes, the Charvakas were very much accepted as Hindus and were not excommunicated and fleeced or called infidels. The point he makes here, is that Hindus do not have a Koran, Bible or Torah that dictated to them how to live life per set commandments. In the absence of commandments, the religio-spiritual vistas are widely opened to forge new ideas, new branches and new monoliths for men to lift their hands towards the absolute. No wonder that out of this womb emerged Jainism, Buddhism, Sikkhism, the crucial Bhakti movement (the mystical lovers of the absolute like Mira, Kabir, Ramanand, Pir Farid) who were themselves fused with specific forms of Islam, to give us the Indian Sufis, likes of Nizamudin Auliya and friends and the constellations of mystical Muslim poets of India (Khusrau, Ghalib being the crown jewels !).
Hindus seem to pick and choose their scriptures depending on their personal, private and ancestral inclinations. There are those who loved rituals to the letter, loved the idealism of Ram, or Krishna, or Shiva, or who loved the formality of grand family Pujas, and priests and there are some, like followers of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Ramanan Maharishi and the Upanishads, who believed God was impossible to decipher via the mind, an absolute reached by pure love, they rejected all elaborations, and assumed He or She was nivritti (internal in men), or pravritti (felt whilst living an active life), but in any case permanently with us, inside or out.
It was to them (simply put) a matter of slicing the onion of virtual existence to see, feel, and play with the absolute. So we get the message of the book: there were no lighting strikes from some old father in the heavens that dictated how we should live, there were ‘srutis’ (or revealed texts) and ‘smritis’ (written texts). The srutis like the Vedas, are, and to be, absolutely precise, written by Rishis, under divine yogic trances, just like the contents of the Upanishads today seem to us as Taj Mahals of metaphysical literature.
So how did it all come to this neo-Hindu right wing backlash Tharoor asks himself?
The anti-Muslim bias by the right-wing ideologists, piloted in the 50s by the right-wing Hindu ideologue, Savarkar and later taken by RSS thinkers, such as Upadhyay, despite the fact that Muslims in India have contributed to so much of the cultural and material richness of the country (the list of personalities is too long to quote). As a reminder, when Pakistan declared war on Hindu infidels, it was an Indian Muslim Air Force Marshal who had the command of the Indian air force, a Sikh general of the land invasion force marching into Bangladesh and a Jewish General who was tasked to sign the peace treaty. Such was open liberal India!
Now we seem to be in reverse mode. An open oppression against cow eaters is heating up because it just does not fit into a new right wing Hindu ‘identity’ box. We have wild protests against semi-historical movies, as some who may not even have watched the film or understood the plot, railed that a Rajput princess had been made to sleep with an invading Muslim general. They forgot that Emperor Ackbar had Hindu generals in his army, that the ‘Ganga Jamuna Tehzeed’ saw the greatest flowering of culture, cuisine, art, Literature, and economic stability prior to the depilating advance of the British into India. The very British, Tharoor argues, who were only interested in siphoning funds off to England and Europe, as the Indian Muslims and minorities galore, those children of the soil, gave their lives to the building of the nation many times over.
So what is the real plot of the right wing ideologues? Do they really understand Hinduism, its complexities, its aged history? Or are they forcing us to fit into their view of the ‘new Hindu man and woman’ without looking at 5000 years of an open, free, albeit fragmented, but vastly tolerant society? Why would they want us to become boxed as ‘this’ and ‘that’, to create a ‘super Hindu race’ maybe? But any rational thinking Indian Hindu already knows there is no basis for any super race, the glorious past was actually at its vintage, when it celebrated differences, accepted debates, and had a love and passion for inquiry.
I am appalled, after reading this memorable book, to recall the visit of Yogi Adityanath to Mauritius, and to see his racist quotes on Facebook celebrated, as the new ‘strong’ way to build a nation. Which nation? Specifically, his rhetoric against Muslims, was seen as ‘reality du jour’…mais passons…. Appalled also to see Mauritius also turning into a vast intolerant right wing field where even saying that bhang, gandia or alcohol were consumed at GrandBassin, becomes an affront to some illusory Hindu image. Shiva or his son Ganesh, in Tharoor`s views, would in fact love a good debate. They should know that Hindu culture has an inbuilt knack to change, to adapt, to morph itself. No one does ‘sati’ anymore. In many quarters many have rejected the caste system for its abject oppressiveness, many have fused parts of different creeds into their Hindu Pujas. We at home have Père Laval in our Puja for example ! So what is really the big fuss about?
Tharoor in his book seems to be saying to us that the potency of this culture remains its vast array of respect for differences, inclusive of creed and culture, not a blind focus on the actual ‘differences’ that some are even prepared to kill or burn themselves for !