Why Shashi Tharoor is a Hindu

3 months ago Shaili Desai 1

Reading the book Why I am a Hindu by Shashi Tharoor, reminded me of a dinner table conversation of more than a year ago. It was an educated, white collared, Hindu, upper class dinner table in one of the many high rises of Gurugram. The table also seemed to have equal male and female representation. The conversation inevitably led to the discussion about the new party in power at the centre. One of the ladies asked, ‘Are you Hindu?’ I paused and couldn’t answer. The reasons for the lack of an answer are complex (or I like to think so). I am a girl born into a middle class family. It is important to mention that the family is Gujarati, Brahmin and Hindu. These uncontrollable circumstances of my birth, cry out unabashedly, when I refuse to acknowledge them as my identity. The lady mistaking the doubt, addressed everybody and asked, “Why do we not like to call ourselves Hindu anymore”? Although she didn’t say, I felt her ask in my head – What’s happened to our Hindu pride?

Hindu pride and the misappropriation of what it means – this is one of the topics discussed by Tharoor in his new book Why I am a Hindu. The book was released in January this year by the publishers Aleph Book Company, followed by a launch this month in Delhi.

why i am hindu shashi tharoor
Book Cover, Why I am a Hindu

Why he’s a Hindu

Shashi Tharoor starts the book with an author’s note. It details his reasons for writing 294 pages of this piece about the world’s oldest faith, Hinduism and why he calls himself a Hindu. He goes on to talk about what Hinduism means to him personally. It is followed by a succinct history of the faith and its basic tenets, a faith categorically democratic with multiple voices and philosophies. Hinduism in all its forms, is a result of the same expressed by many wise personages, carefully recorded over centuries. Various movements in the history of the faith are talked about, as well as contemporary leaders like Swami Vivekananda and S Radhakrishna who furthered the cause.

Shashi Tharoor then moves on to a contemporary history of Indian Independence, nation formation and Hindutva. Most of this is consistent with the narrative in Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi, at least till the first 192 pages that I have finished reading of this 912 paged tome. He lines out the origin of Hindutva, highlighting the agenda espoused by leaders like Savarkar and Golvalkar, as well as what is actually being followed by the BJP and RSS today.  Half of the book talks about ‘Hindu pride’, its misappropriation by the Hindutva brigade and how it can be taken back.

In Why Am I Hindu, Shashi Tharoor believes that Hinduism has always been a non-judgmental faith that should not be used to divide people on religious lines. He highlights the syncretism that has been an essential part of our society and history, as well as the all accepting nature of the faith. He extolls the virtues of Hinduism, especially the belief that God is everywhere and every person seeks their own path to God. To quote him, “Hinduism believes that there are various ways of reaching the ultimate truth”. What is a virtue of Hinduism should not be used to deride the faith and declare it as a weakness!

My thoughts on Why I am a Hindu

In my opinion, it is an assertive piece on what Hinduism stands for and a danger that Hindutva seeks to be. The danger is to the very basic of Hinduism. The book tackles difficult tenets of the religion like the caste system and questions certain Hindu customs. However, it is inherently not controversial as it glosses over some of the questionable pieces of Hindu literature, like the Manusmriti. It is understandable as the aim of the author is to highlight his pride on being Hindu. What you will find is an essay, already saying what many liberal intellectuals have already been saying since some time (minus the vitriolic attacks on Hinduism). However, Shashi Tharoor has told it well, in a way that may be acceptable to those who are more rational among the Hindu believers and to some, who may not be.

Being Hindu and since cleanliness is godliness

Coming back to the dinner table conversation with which I started writing this, I do have to say that the question has been asked repeatedly in different forms by different people, some of whom I count as family – What has happened to your Hindu pride?

What can I say? My Hindu pride went for a toss when I questioned the narrative in the epic Ramayana – where Rama cuts off Surpankha’s nose for hitting on him. I flinched when he casts a pregnant Sita away and for what? For the sin of living in another man’s home? I still smart at the practice of my mother to keep separate vessels for the maid. It drops further when I see the Hindu faith being used as a justification to attack and kill people for what they eat or drink. Does being Hindu mean that it is wrong to love or marry a person of another caste or religion? You can criticise other religions all you want, but look at your own backyard first. Is it really clean? (Swatch Bharat, anyone?)

I will end this by citing Swami Vivekananda’s words (Tharoor has quoted him in Why I am a Hindu) which I find most poignant.

We tend to reduce everyone else to the limits of our own mental universe and begin privileging our own ethics, morality, sense of duty and even our sense of utility. All religious conflicts arose from this propensity to judge others. If we indeed must judge at all, then it must be ‘according to his own ideal, and not by that of anyone else.’

Note: The book was provided for free, by the kind people at Aleph Book Company, in exchange for an honest review.

About the Book: Why I am A Hindu | Shashi Tharoor | Aleph Book Company | 294 pages