Book review by Debraj Mookerjee
Title: The Hindu Way – An Introduction to Hinduism
Author: Shashi Tharoor
Publisher: Aleph; 2019
At sixty-four (though he does not look his age), the last thing you wish to remind readers about Shashi Tharoor, diplomat, litterateur and now politician, is that he was once a prodigy. But indeed, he was. An outstanding achiever in college, he graduated with history in 1975 from St Stephen’s College, Delhi, where he was elected president of the student union, and also helped found the Quiz Club. By 1976, he had an MA in International Relations from The Fletcher School at Tufts University in the US. In 1977, he earned a master’s in law and Diplomacy, and in 1978, at age 22, he was awarded a Ph.D. at Tufts. After a three-decade old career with the United Nations, Tharoor decided it was time he tried his hand in politics. At the UN he has played referee; it was time to actually start playing the game by taking to the field. Sought by all political parties, he decided to join the Indian National Congress. He has since won two consecutive terms to the Indian Parliament from his parent state of Kerala.
The Hindu Way, his twenty-first publication, embodies a bit of everything that represents him. It reveals the extent of his scholarship and knowledge, especially on a subject that is difficult and complex and diverse (Hindu philosophy presents deep challenges even to lifelong scholars). It marks out the territory he wishes to reach by way of an international readership that might be interested in discovering the tenets of Hindu thought. And most significantly, it foregrounds Tharoor the politician. More on the third and final assertion later, for that is almost the real story within this story. And nothing, please, on the numerous controversies that have underlined his journey through public affairs; this is a book review, not a vanity piece.
Among his numerous nonfictional works, perhaps the most interesting and widely regarded is the 2016 book that emerged from the 5 million YouTube views his Oxford debate participation of 2015 earned, wherein he tore into the colonial exploitation of India with panache, marshalling facts and subtle arguments to disrobe all pretence that British rule in India might have donned. An Era of Darkness (2016) published in the UK as Inglorious Empire (2017) solidified an opinion held by many – Tharoor’s years spent with the UN were not wasted; he brings great nuance and arguments into the public sphere with linguistic elegance that is matched by few. In 2018, he published Why I am a Hindu. The Wikipedia entry on the work is spot on, “Tharoor intended the book to be a repudiation of Hindu nationalism, and its rise in Indian society, which relied upon an interpretation of the religion which was markedly different from the one with which he had grown up, and was familiar with. In seeking to address this concern, he wanted to position the debate as one within the Hindu faith, and therefore wrote about his own personal identification with the religion.”
In 2019, Mr Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, regarded internationally as a Hindu right-wing party) to a second term. Apparently Why I am a Hindu was not enough of a statement to win for the Congress enough traction to stop the BJP, if ever it was intended to play such a role.
The Hindu Way is a more forceful, albeit more layered, effort to reclaim ownership of the Hindi way of life from the clutches of the BJP, which presently has appropriated the right to articulate what it at least considers the mainstream Hindu voice in India. For those who argue from within the faith against the authoritarian and quasi fascistic mode of political gamesmanship by the BJP, the present work is a welcome intervention.
Ever since India laid the template for its own brand of secularism (that all religions were equal in the eyes of the state) under Nehru’s watchful eye, the Hindu right has been uncomfortable with the idea. By the end of the 1980s, Hindu apologists had mustered enough support to become politically relevant, resulting in the demolition of the Babri Masjid (built in 1528-29) in 1992. Various BJP governments later (with meaningful breaks when the Congress party returned to power), we today are faced with an India where the idea of the nation has been collapsed into the idea of rule by the majority, straining at the very idea of a syncretic India.
The book opens with a section entitled ‘My Hinduism’. In it he claims to want to keep this book away from the politics of Hindutva (unlike Why I am a Hindu), and yet he writes, and what he writes cannot be separated from his identity as a mainstream politician, “As a Hindu, I write of my own faith, and confess that I am incapable of the detachment … mine is an engaged view of the religion, from within its confines.” The Congress is a cornucopia of beliefs, spanning from the left to the conservative. However, its basic orientation has always been left of centre. Under assault from the BJP, perhaps that balance is changing, as demonstrated by its young ex-President Rahul Gandhi’s eagerness to wear his Brahminical talismans on his sleeve (across his back to be precise, for that is how the sacramental sacred thread is worn by Brahmins). Tharoor’s book is perhaps the intellectual wellspring, the ready handbook, for a Congress party that is attempting to prove to the Indian middle classes that it is not in any manner ‘anti-Hindu’.
Tharoor’s book pulls no punches in asserting the virtues of the Hindu way of life, much like in the manner of Vivekananda, the saffron-robed spiritual guru who took America by storm in the late nineteenth century. Referring to the story of the French traveller François Bernier, who tried in 1671 to introduce Christianity to some Brahmins, Tharoor suggests Hindus are ‘henotheists’, or worshipers of one god who don’t deny the authenticity of other Gods. Quoting Bernier, Tharoor writes, “‘… they thought not our religion was therefore false, but that it might be good for us, and that God might have appointed several different ways to go to heaven’.”
The Hindu Way in a sense talks up Hinduism by explaining its eclectic worship form, its ability to accept and not merely tolerate other religions, and the sheer differences that mark the various forms of Hindu practice, thus hinting at its resilience and multifariousness. There is this criticism in contemporary India that the English speaking westernised intellectual is anti-Hindu. Tharoor’s book is clearly an attempt to repudiate such an insinuation. In fact, by providing a layman’s ready reckoner to the religion, Tharoor may have thrown the ball to the other court, telling his political opponents that while they merely talk the talk, he walks the talk, with his his pen where his mouth is.
If contemporary India’s disturbing political trends interest you, and you wish to counter the vicious Hindutva narrative from within as it were, Tharoor is ready to lend you his handbook, The Hindu Way! It is undeniably a compelling and timely book.
Debraj Mookerjee has taught literature at the University of Delhi for close to thirty years. He claims he never gets bored. Ever. And that is his highest skill in life. No moment for him is not worth the while. He embraces life and allows life to embrace him.
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