Speaking to Flipkart Stories about his new book, Why I Am A Hindu, Shashi Tharoor raises thought-provoking questions on what it is to be Hindu in an India where religious identity is a calling card for power politics
Shashi Tharoor thrives on debate, and he argues his stand on contentious issues with elegance and eloquence. The former diplomat and current Member of Parliament has for decades balanced his distinguished career in the United Nations with a life in letters — he is a prolific author with 17 published books of fiction and nonfiction. On social media, especially at his Twitter handle @ShashiTharoor where he has over 6.5 million followers, he is an outspoken apologist for a Nehruvian idea of India and a vociferous critic of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutva politics.
In his new book, Why I Am A Hindu (published in 2018 by Aleph Book Company), Shashi Tharoor asserts the opinion that Hindus must reclaim Hinduism and the idea of India from those who have a narrow and sectarian view of the faith. In this exclusive interview with Flipkart’s resident bibliophile Vivek Tejuja, the author shares thoughts on what led him to write his book.
Excerpts from an exclusive interview:
Why did you decide to write this book? What led to the idea?
I think 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%. 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. 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.
Given the current state of affairs, where Hinduism is more than just an ideology, did you think your book would be misconstrued?
Contrary to what some believe, there is no particular reason for the timing of this book, except for the fact that this had been an idea that had been gnawing at me for some time. So when I had finished An Era of Darkness and my publisher kept clamoring for another book, and with all the existing political discourse about Hinduism reducing what to me is a beautiful, open and accepting faith to one that is used to justify despicable acts such as mob lynchings, love jihad and beef bans, I thought the overall climate had reached a point where if I was ever going to write about my interpretation of the faith, this was as good a time as any. This isn’t by any means meant to be a political “gimmick”, but merely my take on a topic that is close to my heart, and is often misrepresented and exploited by those in power for their benefit — more often than not for things that I, as a proud practicing Hindu, am not comfortable with.
You have, in a lot of places, tried to draw parallels between Hindu mythology and the current scenario in the country. At the same time, it almost seems that you want the ‘Hindu’ nation to treat its so-called scriptures just as the West speaks of its epics — great stories. How far do you think it’s possible and how could it be?
The point that I am trying to make in my book is that by saying preposterous things, like our Prime Minister saying Ganesha’s head on a human body shows that we Indians conducted plastic surgery, we are discrediting the real achievements of our ancient scientists and that is concerning. I mean the fact is that you imagine the smallest imaginable elephant head and the largest imaginable human neck and you tell me is it even possible to think of that as an actual action, as an actual transplantable commodity?
Of course, at one point in time, India was the world’s leader in plastic surgery — based on records, we actually invented surgery, with Sushruta, the world’s first surgeon. Archeological excavations have unearthed various instruments proving as much. Even the world’s first recorded rhinoplasty operation, an operation on a human nose, was done by Sushruta, aided by ancient Vedic-era surgeons.
So one can actually look at concrete examples of genuine accomplishments, accomplishments that we should be celebrating and be proud of, but by making ignorant statements grounded in zero evidence, such as those claiming that Pushpak Viman were flying around the world (for which the only text that has so far been cited, by those who advance this preposterous theory, was debunked in 1920s as a forgery), the current government is counterproductively only serving to discredit India’s magnificent history of scientific and intellectual advancement. As for mythology, I feel the epics and Puranic stories can be taught even to non-Hindus as great stories of our civilization and part of our collective cultural memory.
The title of your book is on the lines of being clickbait-ish. Why?
One of the things that has really got my goat is being repeatedly trolled and abused as an “anti-Hindu”. Because so many have chosen to stereotype me as this ‘godless sick-ularist’, ‘anti-Hindu’ figure, I wanted to say “this is what I am, now read this and come back to me.” Of course, I expect a lot of the attacks on me will come from people who haven’t read a word I’ve written but if they do read this they will understand the kind of Hinduism I speak of and speak for.I expect a lot of the attacks on me will come from people who haven’t read a word I’ve written but if they do read this they will understand the kind of Hinduism I speak of and speak for.'Click To Tweet
Do you think we are a country that has no time to understand Hinduism and therefore the conflict between Hindutva and being a Hindu?
Well, even if that has been the case to date, 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.
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 to 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.'This misconception of Hinduism as not being accommodating of other faiths, 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...'Click To Tweet
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, which I believe can spur a new sort of conflict — 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.
Being a Hindu today is almost scary. How do you think we have come this far? What role does the BJP have to play in it?
I wouldn’t necessarily go as far as to say that being a Hindu today is almost scary, but I do understand that 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 (Vinayak Damodar) Savarkar and (Deen Dayal) Upadhyay, as Hinduism, and in that the BJP and its affiliate organizations 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 is much more than religion. So it’s a different argument. But, there is absolutely no question that the Hinduism of the lynch mob, the people who have actually gone and killed others because of what they are eating, or how they are worshiping, 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.We speak about ‘Hindu Fundamentalism’. Hinduism is arguably a religion without fundamentals because it has such a wide range of choices of way of worship and ways in which you can seek the divine, but having said that, there are some things that are simply not acceptable. Click To Tweet
We speak about ‘Hindu Fundamentalism’. Hinduism is arguably a religion without fundamentals because it has such a wide range of choices of way of worship and ways in which you can seek the divine, but having said that, there are some things that are simply not acceptable. Ahimsa is basic; Satya is basic. You cannot betray Satya and Ahimsa and call yourself a Hindu but that’s what these people are doing. So to my mind, there are some real questions to be asked, about their view of Hinduism which is really not Hinduism of the faith, it is the Hinduism in the way which a football hooligan celebrates his team — that my team is better than your team, and I will hit you over the head if you support another team. That kind of hooliganism is what these people have reduced our faith to.
Does today’s “Hinduism” make room for all religions and faiths?
That’s precisely the point; this misconception of Hinduism as not being accommodating of other faiths, 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. Most Indian Hindus have grown up with a Hinduism that is truly welcoming, and functions in a society in which acceptance of difference is key.
What did Swami Vivekananda say in Chicago? He said Hinduism teaches not just tolerance, but acceptance. You know, tolerance, after all, is a virtue, but it is a slightly patronizing virtue. It says, “I have the truth, I believe you are an error, but I will magnanimously indulge you in your right to be wrong.” Whereas acceptance says, “I believe I have the truth, you believe you have the truth. I will respect your truth, please respect my truth. And we will get along just fine.”
Most Hindus have never been brought up to believe, as unfortunately, members of the Sangh Parivar do, that Hinduism is the best faith and that everyone else should be hit on the head — that’s not our belief. On the contrary, Swami Vivekananda himself has explicitly pointed out that there are so many different aspects to the divine, so many different ways of seeking the truth. So, while I do not believe that the interpretation of Hinduism by the current regime is reflective of the true spirit of my faith, I do think that the faith in itself is open and accepting enough to embrace and accommodate those who practice different religions and faiths within the same society.
Buy Why I Am A Hindu by Shashi Tharoor on Flipkart
Also see other books by Shashi Tharoor
Nonfiction: An Era of Darkness – The British Empire in India | Pax Indica | The Elephant, The Tiger And The Cell Phone | Bookless in Baghdad | India – From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond | India Shastra – Reflections on the Nation in our Time