Politically timely book

Why I am a Hindu, Shashi Tharoor, Aleph Book Company; Rs.699, Pages 320

I must say I thoroughly enjoyed Shashi Tharoor’s timely book: Why I am a Hindu. Not scholarly work, but eminently readable. 

Tharoor demolishes the facile right-wing hindutva assumption that the only criterion for ‘hinduness’, is subscribing to their Talibanised ideology. He delves into the many centuries of Hinduism in India and talks about its tolerance, ‘healthy skepticism’, its welcoming inclusiveness and the profound metaphysics of Hindu traditions, all the way from the sublime non-dualism of Adi Shankara to the atheism of the Charvaka. 

He also writes about the many syncretistic Hindu fusions with Sufism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism. India was a land that welcomed religious and ethnic groups fleeing persecution in Europe, Iran and elsewhere, vestiges of which are seen in the Parsi, Bahai and Jewish communities which settled in this country.
Many of his sources come from Dr. S. Radhakrishnan (the former philosopher-President of India), as well as from Gandhi and Nehru. Yet, Tharoor does not shrink from citing more contemporary and controversial commentators like Wendy Doniger. But he also somewhat airbrushes the oppression of the caste system and the systematic marginalisation of women through centuries of Indian history. 

In this politically timely book, Tharoor particularly emphasises the very open attitudes of ancient Hinduism toward sex and sexuality, including same-sex love, polygyny, and polygamy, to highlight the depredations of the ‘Romeo squads’ of triumphalist hindutva of contemporary India, and the anti-‘love jihad’ opposition to Hindu-Muslim fraternisation and marriages. Why I am a Hindu also exposes the sex-phobia of hindutva advocates, all the way from the violent opposition to M.F. Hussain’s portrayal of Hindu goddesses in the nude to the attempted mob censorship of the movie Padmavat. 

Nor does he fail to highlight the bashing and often killing of innocent Dalits and Muslims on suspicion of eating beef. In fact, Rig Veda and several other ancient Hindu sources suggest that while the cow was respected, beef eating Hindus were not uncommon. Tharoor quotes the venerable Upanishadic sage Yajnavalkya as saying that he too eats beef, provided it’s tender (sic).

This book’s chapters on hindutva are worth a thorough reading. In the first place, these chapters enable Tharoor to define his version of Hinduism and draw clear lines in the sand between his liberal views and the extremism of hindutva and its brand of politicised fundamentalist Hinduism. 

I specially appreciate his nuanced reading of the gurus of hindutva — Savarkar, Golwalkar, and Deen Dayal Upadhyay. He points out, for instance, that Upadhyay’s thinking is the most humanistic and inclusive version of the three. He challenges the cheap hindutva co-option of Vivekananda, pointing out Swami Vivekananda’s expansive inclusiveness, comparing those who clung to a religious worldview to frogs in different wells that need to expand their perspective to include the perspectives of the other frogs. 

The bottom line for Tharoor is that hindutva rests on a real sense of inferiority and weakness. Thus, the hindutvavadi wants to become ‘strong’ (read ‘ruthless’), as in the hindutva typecasting of the Semitic faiths that they also claim to detest. In an earlier book, Tharoor describes this as the ‘me-too-ism’ stance of hindutva — e.g, ‘If Aurangzeb did it, why don’t we?’

Ambivalence towards Shashi Tharoor apart, this is a persuasive and intelligent book, well worth reading — a rational candle in the growing darkness of an India that is fast becoming violently majoritarian and sectarian.

Raj Ayyar (The Book Review, July)


Enlightened inter-faith discourse

Religion gone astray — What we found at the heart of interfaith, Don Mackenzie, Ted Falcon & Jamal Rahman
skylight paths; Rs.1,330; Pages 170

US-based Pastor Don Mackenzie, Rabbi Ted Falcon and Imam Jamal Rahman are a team engaged in an overdue initiative badly needed around the world — promoting dialogue, understanding and friendship between people who follow different religious faiths. This book is a result of the many questions that this trio of intimate friends have been asked during their numerous speaking engagements and lectures about what they believe are the core messages of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. 

Like individuals, religions too when they become institutions, can, as the title of this book says, go ‘astray’, deviating far from their original purpose. According to the authors, religions stray when they are interpreted to promote monopolistic claims to the truth, when they are marshaled to foment conflict and violence against adherents of other faiths, and when they are invoked to justify gender injustice. Therefore, they “need to be called back”. This is what this thoroughly engaging book does.

The clerics highlight the critical importance of interfaith dialogues to reclaim their spiritual traditions and co-religionists. In their own case, constant dialogue has enabled them to confront aspects of their traditions “that are usually hidden”. The consequences of this on-going discourse are deeply life-affirming. 

Through their warm friendship, through learning about the spiritual treasures in each other’s religions, sharing the troubling tenets of their faiths and learning how to cope with them, and by participating in each other’s spiritual practices, they demonstrate how inter-faith communication can enable people of all religions to overcome issues that divide them and grow spiritually. 

According to the authors, oneness is the core teaching of Judaism, while it is unconditional love in Christianity and compassion in Islam. These core beliefs provide them a standard of measurement to examine traditions that are inconsistent with them. Through this lens, the authors reflect on parts of their holy scriptures that are cited to justify religious intolerance, communal supremacism, hatred and gender injustice, which violate the core teachings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They point to the urgent need to promote alternative interpretations of their religious traditions so that spiritualism can heal a wounded world instead of adding to human misery.
Much of this book is about how the authors interpret their scriptures in positive, tolerant ways. In the process, they do a brilliant job of critiquing the arguments of their co-religionists whose interpretations violate the core teachings of their holy books. 

Together with critical restatements of their religious traditions, the authors urge us to re-examine some of the ways in which we understand God in order to overcome deep-rooted supremacist and patriarchal interpretations of religion, which draw on narrow and fear-filled depictions of God. Rabbi Falcon says that interpretations of God as “an angry and avenging heavenly person who punishes and controls” who inspires “insecurity and fear”, is an inaccurate representation of “an inclusive Divine Being in whom all else exists”. He urges us to think of God as “everything that exists and infinitely more” and to acknowledge that we are all expressions of God. 

Pastor Mackenzie says that God is within and without. Likewise, Imam Jamal envisions God as immanent and transcendent. Such interpretations (in contrast to the idea that God is totally separate from, and far beyond, human beings and the universe) induce acknowledgement of the ultimate oneness of all beings, beyond barriers of religion and gender, and is thus much more conducive to cross-religious and inter-gender harmony and compassion.

While the authors highlight the need for a critical rethinking of our interpretation of religious traditions so that they become the force for healing that they were meant to be, and not a cause of suffering, the book doesn’t adequately address some questions on the minds of many today: What need is there for individuals to identify with one particular religious tradition, even if interpreted in a truly inclusive and gender-just manner? 
Why not draw goodness wherever it is found? Does not the mere fact of identifying with and claiming to follow just one religion automatically set up walls between religions? In the new age of globalisation, shouldn’t we look beyond narrow religious boundaries towards a truly global spirituality that is not defined by a particular set of value premises, scriptures and histories?

These are some important questions that many people, tired of atrocities committed in the causes of religion, are asking today. But even if this book doesn’t deal with these issues in as much detail as necessary, it does not detract from its enormous value. It is a must-read for everyone concerned with promoting inter-religious and inter-community peace and harmony. The fact that it is written by three wise men of faith — and of three different faiths that are believed to be viscerally antagonistic to each other — adds to its great worth.

Roshan Shah