Why I Am A Hindu review: The power of politics as religion

Does Hinduism’s incompatible strands make it difficult to find an authentic tradition that can hold up a mirror to Hindutva?

Published - February 17, 2018 07:12 pm IST

Why I Am A Hindu
Shashi Tharoor

Why I Am A Hindu Shashi Tharoor Aleph ₹699

At one point in Orhan Pamuk’s perceptive novel Snow, the protagonist Ka highlights the supreme paradox of religious mobilisation in his part of the world. Defenders of militant Islam draw upon religious vocabularies to justify their politics, without once mentioning God or faith. It is precisely the distinction between politics in the name of religion, and faith, that Shashi Tharoor in this rather charming book on Hinduism and Hindutva seeks to emphasise.

Many interpretations

In the first part of the work, Tharoor takes us for a leisurely walk through the thickets of Hinduism. He begins with the Vedas, guides us through myths and popular practices, elaborates the thoughts of prominent expounders, and tells us about his own devotion. In the second part, he chronicles the making of Hindutva. He concludes that Hindutva as politics simply does not cohere to the precepts of Hinduism.

The problem, as Tharoor himself accepts, is that Hinduism is composed of many and often incompatible strands. It is therefore difficult to find an authentic and authoritative tradition that can hold up a mirror to Hindutva. What is regarded as a dominant tradition, the Vedanta — highly metaphysical, Brahmanical and Sanskritised — was constructed by colonialists.

Even as Orientalists, colonial administrators and intellectuals in Western universities set about translating, codifying and reducing a complex philosophic system to manageable proportions, we witnessed the creation of a homogenised Hinduism. This was upheld by nationalists as the anchor of an Indian identity. Such is the power of intellectual colonialism!

In the process, a highly textualised Hinduism was abstracted from the social context as well as from contestations. Philosopher J.N. Mohanty suggests that the wisdom of the Vedas was constantly challenged both by supporters and opponents of the philosophy. The main division was between philosophical schools that believed in the Vedas, and those that did not: the Sramanic tradition. Within the Vedic tradition we discern considerable self-criticism. For instance, Samkhya philosophy, that belonged originally to the Vedic tradition, developed a strong strain of atheism and naturalism. This is paid scant attention. Also excluded from metaphysical conceptualisations of Hinduism is the heretical materialist school of Carvaka philosophy that nurtures a robust anti-Vedic materialism. Other sceptics refused to accept the claim that the Vedas code absolute knowledge. The construction of a hegemonic tradition has spectacularly marginalised critical philosophies within and outside Hinduism.

For instance, Tharoor reiterates Vivekananda’s thesis that Buddhism completed the work of the Vedantic tradition.

But Vivekananda’s thesis neatly flattened out the challenge that Buddhism had posed to Brahmanical power, the monarchical state, ritualism, and caste discrimination. It simply assimilated Buddhism into Hinduism.

The exclusion of critical and rational philosophies from Hinduism gives us cause for thought. If a rational, materialistic, empiricist and sceptical philosophical school such as Carvaka had been given prominence in the forging of a Hindu tradition, perhaps India would have escaped being slotted into the spiritual versus materialist dichotomy. India with all its material inequities, communalism and casteism has been stereotyped as exotic and other-worldly. This has not helped us forge an equitable future. Till today our society fails to accept the enormity of rampant inequities, fascinated as we are with the metaphysical spirit.

It is not surprising that the precise point at which Tharoor’s defence of Hinduism weakens, is when he tackles caste discrimination. He resolves the dilemma by suggesting that oppression is not sanctioned by sacred texts, and that educated Indians know better than to practise caste discrimination. Yet today, our tolerant and inclusive Hindu silently watches the public humiliation of vulnerable sections of our own people. The privileging of a highly metaphysical tradition as the public philosophy of India has led us away from acknowledgement of social oppressions and power. Will it be able to critique Hindutva?

Alternative politics

I make this point because the work at hand makes a spirited intervention in the politics of contemporary India. Whether Hindutva can be deactivated by a return to the texts and practices of Hinduism is debatable. Consider that politics and religion are fundamentally incompatible. Politics seeks power, religion gives us thick conceptions of the good. Politics searches for control over society and the way it thinks, religion shows us the road to personal salvation. The Hindutva brigade is hardly interested in the complexities of the religion that Tharoor elaborates for us. It is focussed on mobilising the Hindu community for unlimited power.

Scholars in other countries, shuddering under the impact of religious politics, have tried to appeal beyond politics to texts and syncretic practices. The strategy has simply not worked. We might have to counter and dare dominant formulations with alternative forms of politics. That is precisely what the leaders of the Indian National Congress did in the early 20th century. They introduced the language of minority rights in the 1928 Constitutional Draft and secularism after the major Kanpur communal riot in 1931, as a part of constitutional democracy. Shall we think of politics as a radical critique of an inequitable religion as well as religion as politics?

Why I Am A Hindu ; Shashi Tharoor, Aleph, ₹699.

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