The Hindu Way: An Introduction to Hinduism, the latest book by eminent author and Lok Sabha MP, Dr Shashi Tharoor, is an examination of the fundamentals of Hinduism. In this exclusive interview which was published in The Assam Tribune, January 2 and 3, 2020, Dr Tharoor talks to senior journalist, author and award-winning translator Partha Pratim Hazarika on a range of issues revolving around the book. Excerpts from the interview
As I had gone through your Why I am a Hindu, I feel The Hindu Way is a furtherance of a continuous process. Your comments.
Indeed, The Hindu Way is a reflection of my previous book Why I am a Hindu. But there is a key distinction between the two. While Why I am a Hindu presents my personal idea of Hinduism as well as a political argument that criticises the Hindutva project, The Hindu Way is explicitly non-political;it engages mainly with the philosophy of the religion and the philosophers whose seminal works contributed to its richness over the millennia. In the latter, I have attempted to present to the reader an introduction to the key concepts in Hinduism and its underpinning ideologies. On a personal level, I discover more about my faith every day. Its richness—both spiritually and culturally—propels me to share it with my readers.
As the book aims to attract the young adults also, may I presume that Shashi Tharoor, who was taken on an extensive tour covering temples across Tamil Nadu and Kerala when he was 14 years old, wants to relive that remarkable journey through The Hindu Way?
The Hindu Way was, as I mentioned before, a means for me to present a preliminary guide to readers interested in exploring the philosophy of Hinduism. Why I am a Hindu was a more personal-political journey where I had the opportunity to put forth my own beliefs about Hinduism and contrast it with Hindutva, but this book explores only the underpinning philosophies of Hinduism — Hindutva barely rates a mention.
You say you are “a product of a nationalist generation that was consciously raised to be oblivious of caste”. Even the so-called Next Gen is aware of caste in today’s again so-called New India. Is the idea of caste as a badge of identity here to stay forever among the Indians?
Caste is not intrinsic to Hinduism, although I will concede that this practice was allowed to grow within the umbrella of the religion. It can also not be disputed that caste became deeply entrenched in our society and, in the form of caste discrimination, has left an indelible mark of damage upon it. However, as our Constituent Assembly was drafting our constitution under the guidance of Dr Ambedkar, it was careful to create a system through which caste would eventually be eradicated from our society. Their project had started to take shape and influenced that generation that came of age during Independence. My father, for example, dropped his caste surname in College at that time. As a child, I was brought up to be unaware of caste differences.
Caste discrimination and religious discrimination are not all that different from each other. The resurgence of caste is many ways another form of identity politics, which has come to the fore amid rising communal differences. The political use of caste and another badges of identity will have to be combatted as we fight against the rise of Hindutva.
You are of the opinion that Hinduism has all the ingredients to be a universal religion. Then what are the obstacles, or drawbacks, that the same is not happening?
Hinduism, as a religion, is both personal and individualistic. It is in sync with the contemporary era where the individual is privileged over a collective and his/her identity is not subordinated to a collective social identity. It is in keeping with these principles that Hinduism offers itself as a universal religion that grants and respects complete freedom to the believer to find his or her own answers to the true meaning of life.
This openness and flexibility has, however, been on the decline because of some societal elements who, posing as the guardians of Hinduism, actually propound a communitarian idea of Hinduism. This has coloured the global image of Hinduism—and by extension, of India—as restrictive and somewhat backward. Before Hinduism can be offered to the world in its glorious liberalism, its openness and acceptance, its eclecticism and universalism, it must be revived and reasserted and made to rid itself of all bigotry and narrow-mindedness. Only then can Hinduism become a truly universal religion.
The most striking aspect of your deliberations on Hinduism is that you have kept away from comparing it with other religions. Is it because as a Hindu you are taught to be tolerant towards other religions?
Hinduism is indeed unlike other religions. Abrahamic faiths, for instance, have an inherent desire to universalise. Their origins rest strongly in proselytisation. That element is absent from Hinduism because it is not a religion that claims to be the only true religion. As Swami Vivekananda put it, Hinduism teaches not just tolerance but acceptance. Hinduism acknowledges there are multiple ways to reach out to the divine. It has multiple sacred books, multiple ways of worship, multiple names for God and multiple forms in which God can be worshipped. The core principle of Hinduism, unlike most other faiths, is the acceptance of difference.
As a corollary, is the assumption that India is basically secular because we are a Hindu majority nation tenable?
I do want to point out that ‘secularism’ is a word that is often misunderstood, particularly what it means within the Indian perspective. Traditionally, Western dictionaries have defined secularism essentially as the absence of religion and a distancing from religion, but in reality, Indian secularism has always meant a profusion of religions; the state engaged with all of them but privileged none. Secularism in India did not mean irreligiousness, which even avowedly atheist parties like the Communists or the DMK found unpopular amongst their voters; indeed, in Calcutta’s annual Durga Puja, the Communist parties compete with each other to put up the most lavish Puja pandalsto the goddess Durga. Rather, secularism meant, in the Indian tradition, multi-religiousness. We respected each other’s faiths and left others alone to practice their beliefs in their own way. To that degree it is true that our secularism emerged from the nature of Hinduism rather than in distancing the state from it.
Throughout the decades after Independence, the political culture of the country reflected these ‘secular’ assumptions and attitudes. That has started to change in recent times, where, under the present ruling dispensation, insidious (and often overt) attempts have been made to differentiate and divide on the basis of religion, which stands completely antithetical to the idea of India that our forefathers fought for and worked to instil in our country since Independence.
There have been covert and overt attempts at assaulting the basic ethos of Hinduism in India in recent times. Who are to be blamed?
The political project of Hindutva is to be blamed for the corruption of the tenets of Hinduism. It presents an agenda which is at odds with everything that the religion has sought to stand for. The Hindutva project seeks to assert a monolithic uniformity over Hinduism, which has never been uniform in any respect. Contemporary understanding of elements constituting a religion are strongly influenced by Abrahamic faiths that are epistemologically embedded in one religious book and preach monotheism. Hinduism, on the other hand, does neither. It is an accumulation of ideas and philosophies which took generations to perfect and millennia to be written down. Unlike western philosophy, Indian thought is rarely ascribed to an individual but to a collection of books to which many sages and philosophers contributed. Hindutva seeks to refashion Hinduism as something it has never been and to reinvent the Hindu identity with a new belief structure and a new vocabulary, rather like the Abrahamic faiths they resent!
Since the beginning, India has striven to accommodate the aspirations of different groups in the national dream. The ethos of Hinduism—inclusive, flexible and agglomerative—has helped the nation meet this challenge. If the people spewing hatred through Hindutva are allowed to continue undeterred, we will see a more rapid erosion of all the values that India, its people and its constitution have stood for. So the biggest threat to the ethos of Hinduism comes from its own self-proclaimed defenders.
Surviving for nearly 4,000 years because of its adaptability and flexibility, as you said, how do you see the growth of Hinduism in the coming days?
Hinduism, as I mentioned before, is unlike most major world religions. It does not claim to offer the only true path to salvation; therefore, Hindus are never led to believe that they have to inspire people of other faiths to accept the Hindu way as the one true path. Therefore, they are also not encumbered with the responsibility to spread Hinduism and help it “grow.” Hinduism will accept whosoever wants to understand it and follow its tenets—to whatever degree they should desire. “Growth of a religion” strictly speaking is not a concept within Hinduism. It just is.
As a parent of a school-going daughter, I find that there is no systematic effort to make teachings on Hinduism available in the school curricula in India, while that is the opposite for other religions (madrassa for Islamic education, catechism in Christian missionary schools). Is not it questionable?
That is not necessarily true. There are schools in India that certainly teach some aspects of Hinduism or recall tales from various texts within the classroom, either in the form of dedicated classes or perhaps through subjects like ‘value education’. I have no objection to Hinduism being taught alongside other religions where apropriate, and Hindu culture being taught to everyone. The great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, are an indispensable part of Indic civilization and every Indian school student should have some familiarity with them, whatever their religious affiliation may be.
While Hinduism is a way of life, we in India are now after realizing Hindutva, mostly a tool for gaining political mileage. What is the remedy?
Hinduism is more than the sum of its parts and, now more than ever, we need to remind ourselves of the strength of this ancient culture. The ludicrous assertions by the Hindutva brigade ought to remind us that within Hinduism, even those who go astray are greeted and accepted with open arms. I do believe there are enough Hindus like me, who do not subscribe to this distorted ideology and will continue to do everything we can to resist the advances of those who try and promote such chauvinistic doctrines. But Hindutva gains in popularity through the political advances of the party that serves as its vehicle. So the only way to reverse that political mileage is to fight politically for the alternative vision of a liberal, inclusive Hinduism of acceptance, thriving in a liberal, inclusive India.