In his remarkable speech at the burial of Julius Caesar, Marc Antony starts by criticising Caesar and praising Brutus, but from the first word itself, it is loaded with political shrewdness. Shashi Tharoor is a brilliant writer. In a country where English proficiency is equated with brilliance, he often dazzles the middle-class Indians with his esoteric English wordplay. However, possession of a good thesaurus and nimble fingers for tweeting are of not much help in navigating the complex jungle of Indian politics, where ruthless beasts of greater shrewdness roam around. It seems Tharoor has decided to use his skills in writing to carve out a space for himself in this teeming wilderness and perhaps become the lion king one day.
To understand Tharoor’s ambition, one needs to read Why I am a Hindu along with his previous book, An Era of Darkness. Both the books, written with his admirable skill and cutting-edge logic, are clever political placements. Tharoor has sensed a void in Indian politics, which his own party leadership has failed to see or is incapable of filling in. He has understood that his party is identified by many Indians as a spent force which makes occasional minority appeasement noises and nothing more. He has also perceived that there is a discontented middle class which is uneasy about the fringe elements of the ruling party that keeps embarrassing the country in the name of Hindutva, with their mindless violence and regressive world view.
He knows this middle class suffers from a huge inferiority complex about themselves and their country and hides this with a jingoistic pride bordering on insanity. The stirring speech he gave in Oxford, where he laid all the reasons for India’s failure at Britain’s doorstep, and which became a sensational viral hit in the cyberworld, might have given him the idea of a potential vote bank waiting to be tapped. Britain is a strawman having no vote bank in our country, a punching bag everyone can take a swing at without stepping on each other’s toes. The middle class became ecstatic, hearing their most erudite MP declaring India would have become a super power had not Britain colonised us. This was pure speculation, but the thought gave many arm chair patriots a chest swelled with pride.
No doubt, Britain deserved most of the criticism which Tharoor levelled, but his astuteness was in obscuring the effects of 700 years of invasions and religious persecution that preceded the British rule. He was careful not to ruffle any feathers that could cost his party the minority votes and at the same time cater to the bruised ego of upper class Hindus. The book, Why I am a Hindu, is the next step in the game.
Tharoor begins the book by making the right noises about how great his Hinduism is.
He had remarked in one of his articles, ‘India, a Land of Belonging’, that anything you can say about India, the opposite is also true and every truism about the country can be contradicted by another truism. This is true about Hinduism too. Gandhi and Godse read the same Bhagvad Gita and got inspired differently. Tharoor picks up a truism convenient to him from Hindu scriptures and tries to shadow fight the other side that reads the same books and finds a different truism. Both are playing politics and catering to their respective constituencies.
When he speaks of the pre-classical Hinduism, he is careful to say Hinduism descended to Charvaka materialism and Sankhya dualism. Of the six main schools of Astika Hindu philosophy that accepts the provenance of Vedas, at least three are agnostic or atheistic, so the word choice of descending to Sankhya dualism is amusing. A major part of Gita is based on Sankhya. He is silent about the strong Nastika streams of Hindu philosophy and even Buddhism and Jainism just get a passing mention.
When he talks about the gurus of modern era, he says some gurus can perform mystical and magical feats beyond rational explanation without naming any. His sarcasm is directed against only convicted babas or babas that his middle-class constituency would be uncomfortable with, like the baba who gives blessing by asking his devotees to grasp his male member. He is careful to avoid any references to babas and godwomen who have millions of followers and sprawling business empires for fear of offending potential vote banks.
When it comes to instances like Ganesha idols drinking milk, he dances around, muttering ambiguous statements. One is not sure whether he really believes Ganesha idols drank milk, but is scared to admit it in public or taking a stand against the same for fear of alienating his potential voters.
Tharoor avoids mentioning Aryan migration theory that is once again in news now with the latest developments in genetics and DNA, but carefully speculates about the roots of Hinduism in Indus Valley Civilisation. He does not take a stand like the Hindu Right that places Rig Veda in Indus period or their detractors that vouch for Aryan invasion theory. He is equally abstruse when talking about casteism and mouths the usual homilies about how great the Varna system was and how ugly the caste system became as the time progressed. He puts forward the clichéd argument of the conservative apologists of any religion that all the demerits and evil of their religion are the faults of the wrong interpretation of their otherwise perfect holy books. He finds a bunch of evil people who are not true followers of religion to explain away uncomfortable things.
Tharoor mimics the conservative Right who have irrational pride in everything that is Hindu when he selectively quotes Manusmriti and Rig Veda to prove the exalted status of women of ancient India, forgetting that the Leftist critics who nurture an illogical hatred of anything related to Hindus also quote from the same books to prove how oppressed Indian women were. He should have referred to his own famous quote about the multiple truism.
Once he has sufficiently confirmed the beliefs of his target readers and filled their minds with a pride for which they have done nothing except being born into a belief system, he carefully moves to the second part of the book where he addresses the middle-class fear of being victims of a Talibanised Hindutva. He stokes the fears—some real, some exaggerated—about the lunatic groups that roam around lynching random people and spreading hatred.
He puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of his political opponents while remaining silent about the growing fanaticism in every religion and how his own party had exploited and encouraged such fringe elements in minority religions for many decades.
It would be naive to expect Hinduism to remain immune to the rising tide of fanaticism that is sweeping every country and every religion. Though there could be no doubt in anyone’s mind about how religion has been blatantly used by political parties to spread hatred and harvest votes, putting the responsibility of the same only on one political party is unusual in a book. That is what makes this brilliantly written book a purely political one with an agenda.
‘I Define Hinduism Inclusively’
Author and MP Shashi Tharoor talks to Medha Dutta of how Hinduism is so flexible and accommodative that literally every Hindu may have a palette of different beliefs and practices from the next. An excerpt:
Why this particular title?
We can’t avoid addressing the issue with the ruling powers-that-be, having brought the issue of the Hindu faith front and centre, into our public discourse. It is an argument between two sets of Hindus—one of whom has a Vivekananda view of Hinduism that it’s a religion of acceptance and the other that has the British football hooligan’s view of identity, which is what some have tried to reduce Hinduism to.
It’s more like Hindutva versus Hinduism now.
Hindutva is a political ideology. It isn’t really about religion. They’ve simply chosen to hang that political ideology on a hook that they have hammered into the wall of religion.
We are living in an era where history is getting re-written. How will it reflect on the new generation of scholars?
I think scholars will have to rely more and more on their integrity, on their ability into looking at facts. Changing history is not just bad history; it’s also a denial of the past. You can’t wish away your past.
Everyone suddenly needs to prove his or her nationalism these days.
Well, the point is, how you define that nationalism. Like Vivekananda, I define Hinduism inclusively. And I define my nationalism inclusively. The Constitution of India is a Constitution written for people of every conceivable faith, language, ethnicity, caste, creed, and at the same time gives them equality, guarantees them anti-discrimination laws, guarantees them the right to flourish and to pursue their own happiness within the country that is theirs. That to my mind is worth fighting for, preserving, protecting, defending. It can’t be reduced to a ‘rashtra’ for just Hindus.
But we do have certain people arguing that the Constitution needs to be changed.
And that is worrying. The very Prime Minister who says that the Constitution is his Holy Book, also hails in the same breath Deendayal Upadhyay as his great ideological hero, who has written and spoken extensively against the Constitution.
Isn’t it unfortunate that your party chose to remain silent throughout the Padmaavat controversy?
An election was going on at that time, when the BJP and the Karni Sena were busy firing at each other. The Congress had no desire to get in the middle and take the bullets from both sides. So, it stayed out and stayed silent. Which I would put, not to a lack of principle, but to a tactical decision.
You came to politics as an outsider. In your second term as an MP, do you still feel like an outsider?
No. I think, by now even those who would like to condemn me to that label have had to accept that I have paid my dues.
There are often these memes regarding your brilliant vocabulary. How does it feel?
I think it’s a bit silly. To begin with I wasn’t even conscious that my vocabulary was any particularly unusual. I had grown up in an India where there was no television, no Nintendo, no mobile phones, no computers, inevitably all I had were books and I read voraciously and widely with the result that I developed such a vocabulary.
Do you think we as Indians get offended too easily?
I think we do. I think this has been particularly a feature of recent years. We are looking at an India where the society has become thin-skinned in a very unattractive and unhealthy way.
It must have come as a relief when the courts ruled in your favour that you cannot be hounded by the media into making statements regarding your wife’s death.
I am always in favour of the media being allowed to do its job and even when there was a lot irresponsible and unpleasant speculation, I gritted my teeth and bore it out. I finally erupted and went to court only when a particular journalist was blatantly peddling lies. I felt that the time had come to really draw the line otherwise I was granting a free licence for someone to lie, abuse, and defame with impunity.
Of late there is this self-imposed censorship that the media seems to be practicing.
There seems to be a willingness on the part of the powers-that-be to twist arms a little bit. They have resources available to intimidate in ways which we as a society should not be condoning. This is something we really need to be alert for.
Is Hinduism really the perfect religion for the 21st century?
Yes, because I think it offers a tremendous response to a world of complexity—by being accepting of difference. There is a verse in the Rig Veda: Where does all this come from, who made all of this Universe, Only He in the heaven knows, Or maybe, He does not know. What a wonderful faith that is willing to cast doubt on the Creator! That kind of openness is perfect for the 21st century.