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'Hinduism is under threat from those in power'

Last updated on: July 09, 2018 08:37 IST

'There is absolutely no question that the Hinduism of the mob-lynchers, the people who have actually gone and killed others because of what they are eating or how they are worshipping or the faith they belong to or what they're doing professionally, those are, to my mind, not Hindus at all.'
'Hinduism needs to be reclaimed for the Hindus who are not bigots.'

Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

For most of us, the question 'Why I am a Hindu?' would merit a simple answer: Because we were born into the faith.

But if you are Shashi Tharoor, the Twitterati's own Thesaurus, the answer cannot be so simple. You will be impelled, then, to write a full book examining and explaining why you are a Hindu.

Which is how one suspects Why I Am a Hindu came about.

Of course, that it was released on the eve of an important state election, or that the release matched his party president's temple run across India could be explained in the uncharacteristic (for Dr Tharoor) one word: Coincidence.

Nevertheless, his book number 17 -- no mean achievement, when you consider Dr Tharoor's long list of accomplishments -- is special.

For it not only enabled him to explore the nebulous faith he was born into, but also offer it as part of the counter-narrative to the Bharatiya Janata Party which has cleverly taken over the 'Hindu' space in the polity.

Dr Tharoor's book attempts to sift the wheat from the chaff, or the 'good' Hindu -- of the liberal, broad-minded, all-accepting kind -- from the 'bad' ones who are today ensconced in the seat of power and are twisting about a most malleable faith.

"There is an unease nowadays when it comes to Hindus identifying themselves as such in public, and this to me is mainly down to the mischaracterisation in the current political landscape of Hindutva," Dr Tharoor says by way of explanation.

From the literary perspective, the book is a tour de force.

Unlike others that offer a bland presentation on the origins and spread of one of the world's ancient faiths, Dr Tharoor's book is a religio-political take on a faith that is currently undergoing a manthan, churned as it is by counter-currents of modernity, divisions, rituals, tradition and belief, and topped by large dollops of political empowerment.

"I feel given the way in which popular Hinduism has entered our public discourse, it is almost impossible for the citizens of our country to ignore the topic any further," Dr Tharoor tells Rediff.com's Saisuresh Sivaswamy.

The first of a multi-part interview.

 

On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the highest), how difficult do you rate Why I Am A Hindu when compared to your 15 other books, and why have you given this rating?

I have actually written 17 books, not 16! But it would still be difficult for me to, in fact, go ahead and rank them on a scale as you are suggesting.

Each one of my previous books has been equally challenging in its own way -- but also equally rewarding experiences for me in my journey as an author, and I hope for the reader.

Ultimately, I write to be read and I am glad that my writings seem to have a struck a chord with readers around the world.

Like my other books, Why I Am A Hindu would reward the committed reader, one who wants a book to stimulate his or her own reflections. I would think no serious reader would find it 'difficult' in the sense of 'hard to read'.

I pride myself on my readability!

For someone who wasn't deeply exposed to the religion's history or philosophy, like most of us are, this is a remarkably scholastic piece of work on the faith. You must have had a robust research team, not to mention a sharp editor who knew her astras from her shastras?

I have been very fortunate, as I have acknowledged in the preface of Why I Am A Hindu, to have had the support of a number of individuals whose invaluable contributions have been crucial towards the development of some of the arguments in this book.

From scholars, fellow historians and friends, to my own family, many of whom are formidable writers in their own regard and, of course, a terrific publisher in David Davidar and the team at Aleph.

I could not have written this book without the help of each and every one of them. But the 'robust research team' only finds and assembles material for me -- I do my own reading and decide what to use.

So I alone am responsible for the contents of the book, its analysis, conclusions and judgements.

Somehow the first part of the book where you have laid the foundation for what is to follow, is a bit heavy, even academic one can say; and it seems that you are basically trying to establish your credentials as someone knowledgeable about the religion before the main act. Would you agree? It is like reading two books, Part 1, and then Parts 2 and 3.

My reason for dividing the book in that fashion was to present a detailed, factual foundation which allows the reader to distinguish between what I see Hinduism as being all about, and the misrepresentations of the faith they see every day in our public life.

In my book, I have extensively quoted (Vinayak Damodar) Savarkar and (Madhav Sadashiv) Golwalkar in their own words, precisely so that that people don't accuse me of misrepresenting or distorting them.

Everything that they have stood for I've tried to summarise very fairly and comprehensively in order to draw distinctions between their beliefs and that of the Hinduisim I believe in.

By doing so, I wish to present the reader with a clear contrast between the conflicting ideologies of Hindutva and Hinduism, and follow that with my own interpretation of both.

Is Hinduism today under threat? And is your book a self-proclaimed attempt at identifying, spelling out, this threat? Does your party have a view on, well, your views, spoken, outspoken, and written?

Under threat? -- I am afraid so.

I think Hinduism today is under threat due to the false narratives being spun around its nature by those in power, through their brand of divisive politics.

There is an unease nowadays when it comes to Hindus identifying themselves as such in public, and this to me is mainly down to the mischaracterisation in the current political landscape of Hindutva, a political ideology propounded by the likes of Savarkar and (Deen Dayal) Upadhyay, as Hinduism, and in that the BJP and its affiliate organisations have without a doubt played a central role.

To be clear, Savarkar, who is the first man who came up with the concept of Hindutva, said Hindutva is not Hinduism, and it shouldn't be confused as such.

He said Hinduism is religion, while Hindutva, as he theorised it, is much more than religion.

So it's a different argument. But, there is absolutely no question that the Hinduism of the mob-lynchers, the people who have actually gone and killed others because of what they are eating or how they are worshipping or the faith they belong to or what they're doing professionally, those are, to my mind, not Hindus at all.

To my mind, they have not even understood the first thing about Hinduism, the basics that I have described in the first part of the book.

Therefore, I believe this threat needs to be recognised, and Hinduism needs to be reclaimed for the Hindus who are not bigots, who are not the kind of people who destroyed the Babri Masjid.

The fact is that Hinduism is indeed the faith of a majority of Indians, approximately 80 per cent.

Why should we play into the BJP's hands by allowing them to portray the debate around the nature of this country -- the debate over the idea of India -- as a debate between Hindus and secularists?

For me, the debate is not actually between Hindus and secularists alone, but rather between two different kinds of Hindus in the first place -- those Hindus who sincerely believe in an India that belongs to everybody and believe in Swami Vivekananda's view of Hinduism, as opposed to those Hindus who have a much more narrow, petty, bigoted, sectarian view of the faith.

Therefore, through this book, I am not only attempting to identify and recognise this threat, but also attempt to provide the fodder for informed discourse and debate around it.

I feel it is high time that the first kind of Hindus stood up against the second and reclaimed their faith for what it is, and that is what led me to write Why I Am A Hindu.

As for my party, they leave me to speak for myself.

My writings are my personal views, not party manifestoes.

You have outlined in the book the various threats over millennia that Hinduism has faced, and overcome. How is the current threat different from those?

The faith of most Hindus I know is a self-confident Hinduism.

We can embrace our past, including defeats and failures, and move on: our resilience is our strength.

The history of Hinduism is a history of resilience; a history of reinvention; a history of reform.

So many different reform movements have come up over the course of our history, all of which Hinduism has openly embraced, transforming itself in the process.

Buddhism started as a reform movement in Hinduism; Jainism came that way too.

Many Hindus embraced Sikhism because they felt its fraternal spirit and martial culture was actually an improvement in some ways.

The whole Bhakti cult, roughly from the 11th to the 16th centuries, completely transformed and revived the faith.

Even in reaction to British colonialism, we found ways of reinventing Hinduism; the Arya Samaj and the Brahmo Samaj are clear examples of this.

However, Hinduism is now facing new challenges in the form of the radicalisation and misrepresentation of its teachings by those currently in power.

Unlike past threats, which challenged the very existence of the faith, they seek to redefine it to be something it isn't -- intolerant and regressive.

The advent of the Internet, and the age of social media, has made it much easier for modern trolls and mongers of false information to spread their lies simply because the people believing them want to believe them, and don't bother to fact-check -- a phenomenon prevalent not only in India, but worldwide.

But, if one were to honestly look through the ancient Hindu scriptures and texts -- the Vedas, the epics or Itihasas, the Upanishads, the writings of Adi Sankara, or even Swami Vivekananda's voluminous works and speeches on the subject -- they would realise that the Hindutva being peddled and misrepresented by some forces as modern-day Hinduism, one which constantly seeks to create an 'us-versus-them' battle, goes against the very essence of the welcoming, all-embracing and accepting nature of the faith that everyday Hindus like me seek to practice.

The first part of your book is about Hinduism while the second is about Hindutva, which seems like an unfortunate bracketing together of two distinct philosophies. Is that a case of separating the good Hindu from the bad Hindu?

That's precisely the point; this misconception of Hinduism and Hindutva being alike, as is propagated by those in power, is a very different interpretation of Hinduism from that which I believe is sustained by our scriptures, by our great teachers and by the lived experience of most Indian Hindus.

Now I've grown up as a Hindu but I've also grown up in Nehruvian India. In an India where those values and assumptions seemed secure but are now being hotly contested.

More than contested, one would argue that, for some people, those values and assumptions are being discarded.

The reference, for example, to 'pseudo-seculars' is a way of saying that there is nothing authentic about the ruling ethos of India in the past. And that, really, not only is this a Hindu country but that only a certain kind of Hindu can dominate.

I feel given the way in which popular Hinduism has entered our public discourse, it is almost impossible for the citizens of our country to ignore the topic any further.

We have now got ourselves a ruling party which has officially propounded Hindutva as its doctrine.

What is more, the way in which that doctrine has been politically articulated has brought it, if you like, in your face.

When a minister in the council of ministers says the country can be divided into 'Ramzade and haramzade', you have a clear-cut view of what the ruling party believes is the place of the Hindu religion in the national discourse.

So, if before there was a conflict between Hindutva and being a Hindu due to a lack of understanding of Hinduism, I hope that my book can help contribute to a renewed interest and understanding in the core beliefs of the faith.

The Hinduism/Hindutva dichotomy you mention can spur a new sort of alternative -- as I've said, one that pits those Hindus who sincerely believe in an India that belongs to everybody and believe in Swami Vivekananda's view of Hinduism, against those Hindus who have a much more narrow, petty, bigoted, sectarian view of the faith.

The third part of your book is Taking back Hinduism. But that is easier said than done, isn't it?
Would too much harping on the Hindu aspect run the risk of alienating your other voters?
How do you hope to strike a balance such that, as they say in north India, saanp bhi maare aur lathi bhi na toote?

See that is a risk I have to take as a politician. But I think that my constituents have also seen me around for the last nine years in my constituency, and they understand that they are better off with a genuine Hindu who respects them, respects their faith, and respects their way of life, as opposed to somebody who perhaps claims not to be religious but shows other sorts of biases.

They know I'm not a prejudiced person and that I represent them fairly and well. Therefore, the fact that I have sort of come out and said things that were always implicit in my behaviour, will I hope not affect their trust in me.

I'm not saying it will easy to strike the same balance everywhere, but we must try.

The elections are not about religion, but about the government's economic and political failures.

The role of what I am doing on religion is to neutralise the Hindu argument: if you say you are Hindu, I am Hindu too, though of a different kind; now let's talk about development.

Where are the Achhe Din you promised us?

Finally, on a lighter note, your book didn't drive me to a dictionary/thesaurus, thank you. Sesquipedalianism is only for Twitter, not for your books, I presume?

Ha! But, to clarify, despite the furore (and farrago of misrepresentations) over my tweets in the past, I have always maintained that I choose the words I do because they are the best ones for the idea I want to convey.

After all, the purpose of speaking or writing is to communicate with precision! That being said, I will admit, that in the past month or so, I have occasionally thrown in a word here or there just to get the Twittersphere all worked up again!

Saisuresh Sivaswamy / Rediff.com