At the outset let me begin by saying my fascination to learn the fundamentals of Hinduism is not new nor out of place. I am a devout Seventh Day Adventist who apart from studying the Bible in detail by virtue of it being my own religion, have also completed my preliminary course in Islamic studies and the Quran. Apart from that one cannot deny that although I am a third generation practising Christian, my ancestors were Kshatriyas and their devotion to the Hindu faith back then was also unparalleled. Hence the faith of my ancestors has my curiosity piqued for some time now.
The first discussion I ever had on Hinduism was as a sixth grader studying in a Convent school under a staunch Hindu teacher who was teaching us Hindi. As a novice in the language, I heard with rapt attention as she explained about a religion which other than its name had until then been as alien to me as it had to my other non Hindu batchmates. This happened in reference to a poem that we had been studying in Hindi.
Over the years this has been my limited understanding of the faith: Hinduism is an exhaustive moral discourse built on the foundation of the “Fundamental Good” in human beings with freedom of choice as it’s core tenet.
Fast forward to 2018, I excitedly tell another friend (a non-Hindu herself) that I am waiting for a new book entitled “Why I am a Hindu?” And as I would have expected I receive a quick retort, WHY?
This article is an answer to my friend’s question which is shared equally by a lot of believers from my faith. It is aimed at understanding why this book is relevant today, not only to the Hindu majority in India but also the disconcerted minority (of which I am a part of) that has recently borne witness to the extremist activities of those who unfortunately claim to belong to the same Hindu faith that in principle teaches its believers to co-exist sans extremism much like all other major religions across the world.
Why I am a Hindu? By Shashi Tharoor lends a new perspective about Hinduism, one of the World’s Oldest Religions in 320 pages which took exactly 3 hours and 15 minutes (at least for me) of undivided attention to finish and cherish. The book acts as a compendium for any non-Hindu who wants to understand Hinduism in a concise format without missing the essentials.
The book is a personal account of the Author’s own understanding of his polycentric faith which distinctly propagates gender equality, freedom to choose your favourite god/s, beliefs, truth and the fact that there is no fundamental rule or Ultimate truth to bind the believer in this all – encompassing religion unlike other religions (including my own!) which commands the reader’s attention from the word, Go!
Why I am a Hindu? goes on to give a detailed understanding of the history of the various Hindu scriptures available along with their significance. It briefly describes the different schools of thought within the religion itself. One can learn about the Hinduism of habit and Hinduism of learning. The book poses some pertinent questions apart from probing the uncompromising nature of the Caste system with a contradiction that highlights how a low caste Ved Vyasa and Valmiki despite all modern day discriminations have gone on record as the greatest contributors to the religion itself. An interesting illustration on the sage Vararuchi even has a Muslim character making the book even more enjoyable. The book is replete with anecdotes and illustrations that make it a compelling page-turner.
Although he maintains his staunch adherence to the faith, the author laments on the downside of the religion intermittently and states that Caste won’t disappear from the Indian landscape owing to political and administrative benefits. He also takes a dig at the increasing number of false godmen, whose principles are divorced from the teachings of Hinduism which adds to the credibility of the book. Rarely does an author give an unbiased view especially in matters pertaining to his/ her own faith? In another part, the author considers the punishment for the misdeeds of the previous life unfair (This is with reference to the Hindu belief of re-birth)
The book goes on to describe various religious greats like Adi Shankara and his philosophy of “One Truth, Many Expositions.” The book covers the resilience of the faith that withstood invasions of a dual kind: the Mughals and the Missionaries. It highlights movements right from the Bhakti movement moving right up to the Not in my name movement in the last section.
The book quotes Swami Vivekananda, Deen Dayal Upadhayay and a few others extensively to give the reader a bird’s eye view of the changing perceptions of Hinduism.
Unlike the faith of Christians, Muslims, Jews even, Hinduism has no stringent dogmas attached to it. In fact, the beauty of Hinduism is its attachment to universalism. The commonality though between my own faith and Hinduism is in the existence of the Trinity and the virtues and vices of human life which I believe would be the underlying principle for all major religions. A phrase from the Bhagvad Gita, “Whosoever comes to me, through whatsoever form I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me,” reminds of John 14: 6 although their respective interpretations could hold different.
Section 2 and Section 3 is a must read for all Non- Hindus primarily because it is a revelation of how even the most ecumenical of faiths has become a political pawn in the hands of a few. It is this section that engages the reader completely because it recognises how the argument of the extremists today bears stark contradiction to the very basic tenets of the religion they are preaching. How extremism is slowly converting an otherwise personal religion to wield political power is shown in the drift from democracy to Dharmo-cracy. It also showcases the thoughts of those who are essentially anti-Islam because a narrow understanding of history has shaped their minds to embrace the idea of an India that must enter the future with the help of an exclusive Hindu populace.
Be it D. D Upadhyays somewhat skewed understanding of Western ideals of democracy, individualism, socialism etc., or Savarkar and Golwalkar’s understanding of what India should be, all of it has been carefully chronicled in a concise manner enough to prove to the reader that there is a stark difference between Hinduism and Hindutva. The careful discernment of these distortions is imperative especially for the believers of the minority faith who have all but fallen for the premise, Indian is no longer the open-minded democratic safe haven it once used to be. The truth is Hindus and Hinduism have never been the source of trouble, it is the religiously minded misled fringe that has slowly yet steadily encroached on the privacy and peaceful co-existence of people from all religions.
Section 3 entitled Taking Back Hinduism marks a beautiful end to the journey that encapsulates Hinduism from time immemorial to the present day, with Shashi Tharoor reclaiming the Hinduism he has known, upheld and shared with others. His persuasive argument reveals the sentiments of one who feels betrayed by his own brethren in the quest to share a faith whose very essence lies in the fact that it has always been independent of religious restrictions and rigidities.
The Hinduism that the Author wishes to convey to his readers can be summed up in a line from his own work: Hinduism has always acknowledged the existence of opposites and reconciled them.
My thoughts: It is the Author’s flexible, adaptable, tolerable Hinduism that is the sole prescription for the extreme and intolerant Hindutva. This book is a must read especially for those who have lost their way in the faith, are slowly succumbing to the thought that violence may be the answer to many questions and for the Non Hindu believers who like me are on an incessant quest for knowledge and a deeper understanding of how Faith works in the lives of others whose paths may be different but whose destination is always the same.
Some worthwhile quotes to take away,
“ In our country now, you can’t go forward unless you’re backward.” (not an unfamiliar quote for Tharoorians who have digested India: From Midnight to the Millenium and Beyond thoroughly )
“Is a religion responsible for the worst behaviour of its followers? Perhaps not.”
“It is wrong to suggest that everything is willed by Fate for the quiescent Hindu, that his destiny is decreed.”
“The distinction between religious and secular is an artificial one: there is no such compartmentalisation in Hinduism.”
What you have read is secularism at its best: A Christian writer whose first rendezvous with Hinduism happened in a Catholic school under a Punjabi teacher reviews a thoroughly well written seminal work on Hinduism two decades later and whose first reader (at NewsD) will be a Muslim.
This is Shashi Tharoor’s India. This is Our India.
(The writer has completed her MA, LLB MBA and is an Author, Photographer and Teacher for English. She is currently pursuing journalism from the British College of Journalism.)