Taking back Hinduism

Shashi Tharoor’s Why I am a Hindu is a book that goes much beyond answering the question its title asks. This is not just one person contemplating about his faith; it also describes Hinduism’s glorious tradition of acceptance and spirit of enquiry and how Hindutvawadis, followers of the political ideology (Hindutva) that pretends to be derived from Hinduism but is actually quite foreign to it, are bastardising it to gain votes and power.

This is a very readable book, but I feel all the arguments that Tharoor puts forward could have been summarised in a long-form piece. There is a lot of repetition and paraphrasing, especially in regards to Hinduism’s assertion that all religions are merely different pathways to the same God, embodied by Gita’s “Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me.”

shashi tharoor at jlf

I clicked this photo during the closing debate of JLF 2017.

Be that as it may, this is an important book. We have often read and heard of how Hindutva is not Hinduism from liberal Hindus, but the how and why has never been explained in a comprehensive way. This book fills this gap fairly eloquently. It is also written in remarkably simple English and you would not be able to tell that writer is the same person who is not able to tweet without his farragos and his rodomontades (you will come across ‘farrago’ a couple of times in the book). Clearly, Tharoor’s books are easier to read than his tweets.

Why I am a Hindu taught me little I did not know already about Hinduism (or Sanatana Dharma) or Hindutva, but it did put many things in perspective. It should serve as a crucial reminder to people that the BJP-RSS, the current ruling dispensation at the centre, has roots in people like ‘Veer’ Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar, complete bigots who were more inspired by Nazi Germany and Benito Mussolini’s fascistic policies in Italy than anything from Hinduism with its inherent openness and diversity. The Hindutva ideology is more Abrahamic than Dharmic.

In the latter part of the book, Tharoor exhorts liberal Hindus to take their faith back from those who seek to monopolise it. By this, he, of course, means the proponents of Hindutva and this is where the books may seem a little political because of obvious reasons (one being that Tharoor belongs to the opposition party). To be fair, though, he says nothing in the book that a liberal Hindu would in good conscience disagree with at all. I, for one, do not think Rahul Gandhi is the answer to the Hindtuva (the Congress party has its own set of problems) of BJP-RSS, but this ideology, whose ultimate aim is to make India monocultural, with its propaganda and state machinery may have a lasting or even permanent impact on Indian politics and society. It need not be said that the said impact would not be the good kind.

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Believer

I recently watched the first episode of new CNN series ‘Believer’, hosted by religious scholar Reza Aslan. If you’re not particularly active on Facebook and Twitter, you might be unaware of the intense controversy that has engulfed ‘Believer’ even before it was released. The outrage culture that prevails on social media, especially Twitter, ensured that for many merely the fact that Reza Aslan, an alleged ‘Hinduphobe’, is the narrator has been enough to brand the show as anti-Hindu.

I would go on to hazard that at least some of those whose ‘sensitivities’ have been hurt by the show have not really watched it. The reason I can say that pretty confidently is because their views on the show mostly revolve around the promo clips that were tweeted out by CNN and Aslan. If they had actually seen the episode, I think many of them would be less sure of Believer’s anti-Hinduness.

It’s not that I am guilt-free of doing this TV version of judging a book from its cover. I gormlessly retweeted the dozens of tweet threads that sprang up after the show was announced along with short promotional clips. The promotional clips are supposed to scandalise and shock you to arouse the viewer’s curiosity – that’s their very purpose. You just have to take a cursory look at movie trailers to comprehend what I’m talking about.reza-aslan-press

That being said, what about genuine grievances coming from those who have seen it? I totally understand that. There are plenty of reasons why a practicing Hindu might be put off by the show as I will enumerate later. While my knowledge or indeed intellect is not wide enough to encompass the wider implications the show may have on American Hindus in Donald Trump-led America as Tulsi Gabbard, an American Hindu politician, has pointed out in a series of tweets, I can and I will judge the show purely on its merit.

So here are some of my thoughts:

First, there is nothing anti-Hindu about ‘Believer’. Yes, Reza Aslan doesn’t have even a basic understanding of not just Hinduism but also about Varanasi, and he betrays his ignorance several times during the course of the episode. Zero marks for homework. Second, Azlan sees Hinduism through an Abrahamic point of view, and that’s understandable because Reza is an expert on Abrahamic faiths. But what he doesn’t realise is that Hinduism and indeed other Dharmic religions like Sikhism and Jainism as faith and a set of beliefs are entirely different from what he’s used to. I would think any self-professed scholar of religions would know that.

So while I do wish he’d done his research before the production, Aslan, to his credit, does try to be as fair as possible and for the most part succeeds. Both good and bad (read caste-system) aspects of Hinduism are highlighted and despite his superficial understanding, Reza Aslan comes across as a largely sympathetic, if not terribly sophisticated, ‘spiritual adventurer’.

Sorry, conspiracy theorists. Your concerns appear entirely without credit.