Jayendrina Singha Ray reviews Being Hindu: Old Faith, New World and You by Hindol Sengupta (Penguin Books, 2015)
Being Hindu is a book with an interesting cover, quite like the book itself. Blue in colour, the cover displays the picture of a performer dressed as the Hindu god Shiva; a preview to what the book holds for the reader. Which is what? Is it that of a person impersonating God — not treating God as “a distant, mythical entity” (165) but being God and yet ignorantly being Hindu?
Author of books like Recasting India (2014) and The Liberals (2012), Editor-at-Large at Fortune India, and the youngest and first Indian writer to be nominated for the Hayek Prize, Hindol Sengupta sets out to understand and negotiate in this work of non-fiction what it means to be a Hindu/what Hinduism is. Through a thorough research of the poly-faceted texts of Hinduism, simplified for the modern reader, Sengupta reiterates the essence in the book’s cover:
“Hinduism … begins with the idea of the perfection of man… the assumption that actually there is no difference between man and God…that every human has the potential to understand their own divinity and how it unites them with the universe, but usually one never discovers it. (58)”
Yet, as the book clarifies later, this potential divinity that a person shares with God is not “arrogance” but an act of realisation; and an acceptance of the fact that God is manifested in everything there is. Therefore, as the book explains, in Hinduism you worship everything from Nature to Human — as everything is considered a manifestation of the divine power. Hinduism accepts atheists, as to question is also considered a path to realising the divine. On this note, Sengupta reminisces about the Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda’s words that suggest that God can be found even in football, if the player immerses himself in it.
The Prologue to the book however, questions the impact of the liberal approach of the religion on the modern Hindu. While in Hinduism, no teaching or message is final, the author observes how this liberal, “non-base text”, “polymath approach” (xxvi) only invites caricature and a lack of understanding. This, as the book surmises, may be the explanation behind the modern Hindu’s “growing ennui . . . about declaring themselves [him/herself] Hindu” (ibid), unlike the Muslims or Christians who have a definite book to guide them.
While Sengupta begins the text on a personal note underlying his experiences and the inception of the question of what it means to be a Hindu, he moves on to reason out, in a series of chapters, the meaning of being Hindu; and what makes a religion as ancient as Hinduism persist despite the 1000-year-history (800+ 200 years) of invasion, plunder and conversion. He opines and validates that it is the religion’s ability to assimilate other faiths; “mutual respect” and not “tolerance” (as with certain monotheistic faiths—tolerance bearing a negative connotation) towards other religions; and openness to reform that ensures it. This is also brought out through a comparative analysis of the violence attached to reform movements in Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.
Some chapters in this book discuss the political and scientific history of the nation. Interestingly, as Sengupta himself mentions, this is a book that argues how Gandhi and Godse were not essentially at loggerheads with their concepts of plurality. Here, the author also raises the debate on the idea of nationhood with regard to India. While the colonial perspective (inspired by James Mill) and the Left/Marxist point of view (inspired by Anderson) hold that there existed no concept of “India” until 1947; this book factually challenges these popular yet somewhat semi-informed narratives. The book thus demands the reader to rise above the singular understanding of borders, through the political frame, and encourages her/him to understand the concept of nation through the cultural frame — how rituals, culture, religion and geography already held the understanding of a shared identity and that of Bharat.
This book is a well-researched, well-argued and succinct piece on what it means to be Hindu. It simplifies the seemingly complex philosophy of Hinduism for the modern reader. You will therefore come across an argumentative streak in the book; a blend of the personal, the academic and the popular in terms of writing style; an attempt at comparative analysis of different monotheistic faiths with the polytheistic Hinduism; a critique of some practices; and most importantly, a constant to-and-fro movement to connect the past to the present or the ancient with the modern. In fact, there is a fascinating parallel that the author draws between the digital, the scientific, the linguistic and Hinduism in some of the chapters.
Hindol Sengupta, in this book, quite deftly challenges the “art of writing about Hindus” with a biased hand and a “colonial sneer” (10) by rising above the manufactured depiction of Hindus through the colour saffron, the Naga sadhus, nudity, ancient knowledge, and forms of worship. The narrative technique reads like a conversation with the reader. Quite like the cover, the book keeps moving from the private realm of experience to the public, and quite like the underlying theme — is more inward looking — more to do with the person.
With the rising political and religious tension in Europe, the Middle East, America, Russia, India, Bangladesh and Thailand, among others, it becomes very important to understand the concept of Hinduism and where Hindus fit in this greater picture of religious turmoil in this century. Being Hindu makes it pertinent to ask this question and create this realisation that in the Hindu understanding of the world and universe there is no single Truth, no monolithic Word, no “tolerance” — but an inward search for divinity, plurality and polytheistic liberty and mutual “respect” for the other.
Jayendrina Singha Ray is pursuing her PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.